In Part I of the Arctic Challenge we looked at how the BMW F800GS, R1200GS Adventure and KTM 990 Adventure fared on the road. This week the bikes take to the dirt as we try to find the king of the adventure hill, in our survey of the three most asked about adventure bikes for 2009.
On the road, things were bleak for the F800GS, but soon as we’re off the pavement the cards get reshuffled. Hitting our first section of dirt outside of Williams Lake I’m initially smitten by the F800GS. For those new to Adventure riding or with moderate dirt skills, the F800GS is the most manageable, immediately accessible and easiest to get along with mount in our adventure armada. Primarily that is a function of mass, the F800GS is a light 185kg compared to the R1200GS Adventure’s 223kg or KTM’s 209kg… before we heaped luggage on the bikes anyways. Get into anything slow, tight and technical and the F800GS scoots away while the other bikes are being hefted about.
Then there’s the ergonomics; the F800GS is narrow, with the bars and pegs well positioned for comfortable standing, which means you don’t suffer the seat’s torments.
The 798cc parallel-twin rasps through the massive bazooka exhaust, with a note that we’ve decided is rough and fruity. The engine is smooth also, with our previous test of the F800GS we found the vibe irritating, but our F800GS’s plant lost its buzz as it finished breaking in. The engine is strong and torquey, with a range from easy going and tractable power through to “break the rear end loose throttle gooning”. The only glitch is that the throttle is abrupt from open to close, but much less so than the KTM 990 Adventure’s.
There are other issues for the F800GS. Unfortunately the same weave afflicting our F800GS on pavement extends to groomed gravel roads as you exceed 110kph, something that we didn’t find with our previous test of the bike. Part of this is due to the rearward bias of the load, but cost cutting suspension factors in as well. Indeed, the front forks are the least sophisticated of the 3 bikes, and despite being 45mm Marzocchi units are un-adjustable and feel cheaply-chattery on choppy surfaces, failing to soak up impacts over potholes. Also as the F800GS consumes the under-seat stored fuel, the rear lightens, transforming from composed at full to pogo-stick nearing empty. That makes the mud spraying over the mini-GS’s too-short beak and windscreen onto your visor seem minor in comparison.
We’re aware that the F800GS occupies a different adventure niche than the KTM or GSA, being more overgrown dirt-bike than the Goliath adventurer the BMW marketing machine works so hard to convince us we need. For all that the F800GS offers, an attractive size and weight and price point, it isn’t in the same class as the other two bikes.. to make it so requires aftermarket upgrades; primarily a seat, a windscreen, hand guards, drop-guards and suspension work. You can’t fault it for the dirt-bike mindset, but there are revealingly flimsy elements that tell a tale of weight savings and cost cutting; the already commented on radiator mounts, similarly broken mounts for the instrument cluster, and a chain which proves itself frail compared to the KTM’s “moor the QE” offering.
At 10,250kms a link gives out at the junction of Highways 37 and 16 on our return from the Arctic. Riding ever so gingerly, we limped the F800GS the 110kms to Smithers, with only the inner side of the link holding the chain together. Kudos to Smithers Harley Davidson, who jury-rigged a link from another brand onto the chain getting us on our way.
But, if the F800GS feels under-built then the R1200GS Adventure is its antithesis.
There is no sense of delicacy here, only substance, weight and inertia. Your chief weapons are momentum and surprise… constant surprise at just how capable this leviathan is at plowing, bashing and bruising its way through the worst of all possible conditions. BMW has been throwing the word “unstoppable” around and the BMW R1200GS Adventure is… once it’s moving.
Where the other bikes get flighty, the GSA barges through staid, solid and unflinching. Pea-gravel? Yes, bring it on. The others will be scatting around, but the 350kg panzer sinks in, digs in and churns through with disturbing calm. Gravel? No worries. Fine talc? The GSA drops Titanic-like, hits bottom, finds grip and keeps going. Mud? Same deal, it has to be axle deep, Dempster deep, before the R1200GS Adventure loses its bruiser cool.
Traveling from Telegraph Creek to Dease Lake on a road treacherous with mud and vertigo, the R1200GS Adventure chews and gouges its way up 20% inclines steadily, traction control system moderating the power and keeping momentum going rather than letting the rear wheel spin and slip… one technology that helped keep us away from the precipitous drops.
The other is ABS. The F800GS’s is aggressive, and KTM’s more so, letting you slide the rear and even the front a bit before kicking in. The R1200GS Adventure nannies you, activating with moderate provocation, but that lets you to use the 110/80 R 19 front tire’s stopping power indiscriminately – given it’s as large as most dirt bikes rear tires, there’s a lot of power there. Of all the bikes, the GSA I’m most likely to leave the ABS active, call it weight management.
In dry conditions, we’ve been more willing to dial back or turn the traction control system off completely. There is nothing as giddily exciting as breaking the rear of the R1200GS Adventure free and powering thru dirt road corners at 130kph (we’re looking at you Kevin).
It’s amazing what the R1200GS Adventure will let you get away with. At low speeds the bike is well balanced. Without a lot of practice the GSA’s sheer breadth will discourage you from single-track thoughts – the KTM and F800GS have that advantage. Then there is the moment your feet touch the ground and the GSA reveals itself as heavy, tall and cumbersome – which it is. The GSA though shows up the KTM in multiple ways; weather protection, tank range, comfort and parking-lot manoeuvrability, thanks to a “kiss your own taillight” turning circle (provided you’ve any momentum at all).
The price is weight (and the price $28,212.80 give or take), romping the big white elephant through the back-country or the twists is an active effort, as vastly rewarding as the bike is huge, but exhausting too. On an energizing romp between Dawson, YT and Chicken, Alaska, standing comfortably (the pegs are positioned just right compared to the width of the bike and the bars) and chucking the GSA through the corners I’m having a laugh.
Reaching Chicken though, I’m a ball of sweat, ready for a new fitness routine and a nap, meanwhile those on the lighter BMW F800GS and KTM 990 Adventure are still feeling fresh. I also need a sports drink, I’m parched from eating the KTM’s dust.
The KTM 990 Adventure is the wild child of this bunch. Madder, harder and brasher than the BMWs, the 990 is as subtle as an explosion in a pumpkin patch and 1000 times as entertaining. The bike is phenomenal…
Its lineage can’t be challenged, the 990 Adventure’s ancestor is the 2002-4 950 Factory Dakar racer, and you can feel the rally racer heritage compared to the softer BMWs. It’s shot through with KTM’s “bleed orange” mindset, and this is after the softening of its 950 Adventure precursor, and without the hardening of the meaner R model whose suspension travel height puts it out of reach of most sub 6-foot tall mortals.
Where the BMW R1200GS Adventure is augmented by Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) gee-wizardry, KTM just runs with the best in the class, making the BMWs also-rans. On the R1200GS Adventure you need to pull over and set the ESA at a when transitioning from the pavement to off-road modes. On the F800GS you’ll never quite feel at ease with the over-reactive front end on pavement or dirt. On the KTM fly on, fly on… Adjust? Tweak? Slow down? These are not your concern, gun it and go.
Not that you really have a choice. The KTM’s throttle control is still a jerky affair when you roll-off then roll-on, the fuelling is marginally better than the last generation’s, but nowhere near as linear as the GSA or usable as the F800GS. The throttle is also light, fine when you want a reactive bike, but demanding wearying attention when you just want to settle down and maintain speed.
This is not a settle down bike, the KTM’s hardcore ethos is its long adventure downfall, as the bike lacks BMW’s consumer comfort refinements. How much gas do you have left? Don’t know, there’s no gauge. What’s your remaining fuel range now that you’re in the middle of nowhere and have been burning fuel with abandon? Couldn’t tell you. Ambient temperature? Well, it’s not sleeting out, you can’t see ice, so it’s above freezing. Still, best turn on the heated grips? Oh, there are none – until Kevin snaps and installs a set at night during a downpour in Dease Lake. Plug in the heated vest or any other motorcycle-centric accessory? Oh, they’ve switched to a regular automotive cigarette lighter outlet for 2009… These are little things that wear away at the adventure riding experience, and after a month grate – though not near as much as the buffet from the windscreen.
The great equalizer is the grin. The 990 Adventure is an over-exuberant, intoxicating, orange addiction. While you can relax and “tour” on the other bikes, the KTM induces a different throttle response, leaving blown mind tatters strewn across the dirt. The KTM doesn’t want to be coddled, ridden slowly, or relaxed, it wants 180kph on a dirt road, slewing the rear end through corners and trying burn outs.
If your want is a safe, sane tour of a continent, look elsewhere my friends.
Yet, despite its hooliganism, the KTM is utterly planted, and when it isn’t it is utterly predictable. So is Hannibal Lecter, a shotgun or a barroom brawl. The KTM encourages you to more and more ludicrous speeds, feeling like nothing could go wrong, letting you write and cash bigger and bigger checks… but what happens when the account comes up empty?