KTM 790 Adventure & Adventure R in Morocco
Story: Donovan Fourie
Pics: Zoon Cronje
“You spoke. We listened.”
As far as marketing tags go, that one is about as condescendingly patronising as “consumer orientated” and “working harder for you.” It is dripping with about as much sincerity as the friendly tone on a telemarketer’s voice.
When that line appeared in large letters projected onto the presentation screen, I was affronted – I was used to being bombarded with PR-onslaughts, but did KTM take us for such gullible fools?
Come on KTM. Put in some effort!
Two days later, I shook the presentation giver’s hand, the ever-smiling Riaan Neveling who heads the KTM marketing department. “Good job on everything,” I said wholeheartedly, feeling somewhat the fool for having doubted him.
Over the years, we’ve heard many people speak, and none more animatedly than the adventure crowd. Or the dual-purpose crowd. Or the traveller crowd. Or whatever the hell they like to be called.
The speakers can be broadly summarised into categories – you have those who hold stoic off-road aptitude above all else, and meticulously scan the used listings for the likes of a clean KLR650, DR650 or something of that ilk. They will then set off on their journey confident that no obstacle will hold them back, except that the day’s destination happens to be 1000km away. And it’s all pretty broad, open road.
After 500km of droning along at a soul-destroying 100km/h on what could charitably be called a motorised church pew, you genuinely lose the will to live and search for a convenient rock with which you can smash your skull in, if not to end it all, then for entertainment.
The other group pops into their local showroom and splashes out on the latest, shiny R1250GS or 1290 Super Adventure, and 1000kms disappear in the blink of a horsepower-strained eye. Then you get into the mountains, and the road gets narrower, it gets steeper, and it gets rockier. Then the heavens open and turns the entire affair into a rock-strewn mudslide, and after the 327th time trying to pick up, what is now, just an achingly heavy lump of metal, you begin thinking happy thoughts about stabbing yourself in the liver.
With the gap in this quandary seemingly an ever-growing canyon, step forth KTM and their 790 Adventure. One glance at this machine tells the whole story – it looks like the 690 Enduro and the 1290 Super Adventure went to a party, got wildly drunk and ended up having wild, rampant hate-sex back at the hotel.
This love-child has the hallmark features of the enduro-derived 690 with the luxury touches of the 1290 traveller. And that sums up this bike entirely.
We could end it there, but I get paid per word, so let’s continue.
The venue for our meeting was Morocco, a country famous for the film Casablanca and being a near-permanent destination in the African Dakar Rally. It’s mostly a desert landscape with occasional dunes blotting the otherwise serrated rocks. The traffic was a mixture of bounding buses, multidirectional scooters and cars with more craters than the moon.
The South Africans were the last group to attend the 790 Adventure launch, and so far each group had left with an average of two broken bones. This was not a happy playground.
With that positive thought circulating through our minds, we clicked into gear and started our ride.
KTM 790 Adventure Non-R
As we sat down aboard this long-awaited potential icon in the world of adventure riding, our initial thoughts of impending doom were temporarily put aside and replaced with: “damn this seat is hard.”
The non-R 790 features the more road-friendly double-seat, with a pad for the rider and another for passenger, with the rider’s feeling worryingly plank-ish. And this was going to be a long day in it.
Still, let’s be off.
Hollywood makes regular trips to Morocco to shoot everything from James Bond films, war movies and, of course, distant planets. In the less habited bits, you could probably take a photo, claim it is from the Mars Rover, and people would nod approvingly.
This alien landscape drifted past as we purred along the smooth tar roads. The 790 Adventure uses the same parallel-twin mill as the 790 Duke with the crank pin off-set by 75º to create an irregular firing order. This motor layout seems to feature nothing but benefits – it’s more compact, it’s smooth from as low as 2,300 rpm, it has grunt throughout, and it creates less heat right near the rider’s special bits.
KTM went to great lengths to ensure both that the motor stays cool as does the rider. They did extensive testing with Cody Quin in the sweltering heat of the Baja Desert and kept redesigning ducts until both the motor and rider remain wholly uncooked.
It’s broadly the same motor as the 790 Duke, apart from a few small modifications to the mapping and the top end. The ever-smiling KTM technical guru, Stephan Marais, mentioned that it even requires different tooling, compared to the Duke, to remove the cam-shaft.
The standard 790 motor is brilliant in the Duke, but it is too revvy for the torque-filled needs of the adventure rider, so KTM has upped the torque to 89Nm and moved it further down the rev range, meaning the motor is happy to purr at lower revs instead of just shouting at redline.
The TFT dash showed the group cruising at a leisurely 120km/h with the throttle at around 10% in sixth gear, and everything seemed peachy. The screens on both models are strangely non-adjustable (but they are interchangeable), but the standard unit on the Non-R is happy enough as is and, apart from a pressing seat, all felt well.
Until we reached a conveniently long, downhill straight where mischief ensued – gearboxes were clicked down to about third, throttles were opened, and helmeted heads disappeared under screens. The motors buzzed their way through the gears, running down the road like a Moto3 slipstream line. Riaan Neveling saw 205km/h with his passenger, I saw 206km/h on my own, and Shaun Portman saw 210km/h after holding it open long after sanity suggested it should be closed. That’s not bad at all for a mid-range adventure machine. Designed for off-road.
The road ascended into the mountains where we were treated to the majesty of Riaan Neveling attacking hairpin passes with cameraman Zoon Cronje clinging on tightly behind him. Zoon earns the award for bravest man ever, beating mountaineers, deep sea divers and astronauts.
Apart from the terrified passenger, the bike was exceptional. It has a wet weight of 209kg, a noticeable chunk less than anything else of this size. The suspension on the non-R is from the WP Apex range, the middle of the range units of the Austrian suspension brand, offering a reasonable 200mm of travel. There is no adjustment on the front and pre-load on the rear, saving some confusion but also limiting fine tuning.
Nonetheless, through the corners, it was sublime with Riaan nearly scraping the knee of his adventure trousers while Zoon seemed to be trying to stay as still as possible.
The day was 400km long, with 100km of that dirt, and at the end of it, we had completely forgotten that there was an R model to come. Like the R, the non-R has a 21-inch spoked front wheel and an 18-inch rear meaning it can take on nearly all in its way. We wouldn’t be hesitant to say that this was the best midrange off-road adventure bike we had ever ridden. Then we rode the R.
KTM 790 Adventure R
As is the way with KTM, the R is the more off-road focused machine. They even defined the two by saying that the non-R is the most off-road capable travel bike, whereas the R is the most travel capable off-road bike.
Both models have long-distance travel in mind, especially exploration into the deepest, darkest unknown. For this reason, they have made maintenance simple – a cable clutch replaces the more traditional hydraulic unit, and advanced travellers can pre-fit an extra cable in place for simple, quick fixes should it break in the middle of nowhere. There is a tool kit kept in a side cover under the seat that clicks off, and the air filter is found under the seat and is removed by undoing two screws. The standard unit is a paper filter, but a sponge variation is available from the PowerParts catalogue.
The sub-frames have been bolted on instead of being part of the main-frame, so should you have an oopsie and bend it, you don’t have to bury the motorcycle on the spot. Instead, unbolt and replace the subframe.
Both models had the optional Quickshifter+ with seamless clutchless up/down changes that have spoiled us so much now that we have begun asking the question – what did we do before quick shifter? They work so well, both up and down, making life in the soft sand of Morocco that much easier.
I come from an old-school world that cut its teeth in sand on the earlier Namib Desert Runs riding Yamaha WR250 two-strokes where the key to sand riding was to drop the clutch in first, wait for the bike to lift above the sand and then keep it in the power band to maintain speed. Of course, those two-strokes had the bottom-end of a damp cardboard box, so it was revs it or nothing.
A 790 Adventure R in first gear, with most of the torque already available as low as 3,000rpm, letting the clutch go in first means it just spins, spins and spins resulting in a parallel-twin cacophony and a lot of flying sand. The trick here is to keep the bike one gear higher than what would be optimal on a tar road – pull off in second, quickly shift to third, and we spent the whole day of soft sand riding switching between third and fourth, all made so much easier by not losing momentum when pulling in the clutch to change down. The whole off-road riding experience is vastly improved with a quick-shifter, possibly more so than in the road market.
Seriously, what did we do before quick shifter?
The significant difference between the non-R and the R is the suspension. Where the non-R’s Apex suspension is taken from WP’s middle shelf, the Xplor set found on the R is of proper racing pedigree, the same model suspension found on their enduro racers. It doesn’t get better.
The travel is lifted to 240mm from the 200mm on the non-R, and served the group well, especially Riaan Neveling and Dakar hero Ross Branch, who took every opportunity to jump something and landed without the traditional, adventure-bike CLOCK sound.
Much of the off-road route was along long desert plains where the road headed straight for kilometres on end. This sounds like an opportunity for some flat-tapped dirt riding, except every kilometre or so the trail crossed an ancient river that has long given up the flow, but its ruts remain, offering riders a surprise whoops section they never knew they needed.
This caught out a good deal of the international journalists, a good few of which were lifted into an ambulance, but this is no fault of the bike – any bike would have got out of shape if hit by those sections fast enough. I’d even go as far as saying that we would have seen even more riders lining Moroccan hospital wards were not for the R’s suspension.
Ross Branch rode the bike for the first with us, and climbed off its a big grin: “it feels just like my rally bike.”
At points, it ended up going rallying as we turned off the beaten track and headed for the dunes. It was tough going – 209 kg is a handful in the soft dune sands. The trick still is to keep the revs lower, keep the throttle open and don’t let the front sink. Everyone had the joy of picking their bike up out of the sand at least once, and it was damn tricky, but everyone eventually got the hang of it.
While the 790 Adventures were a handful in the dunes, the fact that they were there at all is remarkable. Any other motorcycle with the travel capabilities of the 790 Adventure would have simply sunk, You can take a big GS or 1290 up a dune, but it requires a clear path and a run-up. The 790 Adventures were navigating and playing in them, and while it wasn’t the easiest, it was doable. Satisfying, even.
What was more interesting is that we rode with the electronics still on. This sounds inconceivable, but KTM has introduced the 790 Adventure R (with it optional on the non-R) with a new mode called Rally that offers a variety of throttle responses plus something they borrowed from the superbike tech department called Slip Control. Using the IMU, it not only measures how much the back wheel is spinning but also how far out the back wheel is drifting and can control it accordingly.
Slip Mode One, the least obtrusive out of nine, was explicitly designed for sand and offered a token amount of resistance to help stop the back wheel from sinking but not nearly enough to make it bog. This is the first time I, a veteran of twenty Desert Runs, have ever ridden a bike in the sand with any form of traction control switched on.
The ABS, like most modern systems these days, works superbly in the dirt, stopping the bike better than any mortal can without it. We spent most of the ride with the ABS in Offroad Mode meaning the rear ABS was switched off, but mostly this is because we were acting like juveniles. Rear ABS probably also stops the bike better than letting the rear wheel skid.
Tanking a KTM 790 Adventure
And now we move on to the elephant in the room, the question I’ve been asked most about the 790 Adventure – won’t those tanks break?
KTM has taken a leaf out of their rally efforts – the rally bikes need to be agile and capable in a wide variety of terrain, but they also have to cover vast distances, so they get loaded with 36 litres of fuel. Trying to crest sand dunes with 36 litres of sloshing weight in the traditional position between your legs is going to be like walking a tight rope while balancing an elephant on your nose, so they cleverly move that weight lower, with the tanks flowing down the sides of the engine instead of staying on top of it.
Because of this, the rider hardly feels it, but it does beg the question of what happens when the bike goes horizontal, and the first thing to deck are those tanks?
Well, this valid concern was answered by the various international journalists that were not paying attention during riders briefing when the route leader said “be careful of the long open sections because the bumpy parts that will catch you out”, and so went too fast, hit the bumps and went down at speed. The were numerous incidences of bikes going horizontal during the various groups of journalists – I even managed it once, but I did the respectable thing and went through a corner too fast – and the covers protecting the tanks bore those scars, and yet not a single drop of fuel was spilt. I’m sure that should you hit it hard enough on precisely the right rock the tank will eventually give in, although it will be difficult.
KTM 790 Adventure Conclusion
KTM set out to answer questions, to bridge the gap between hardy, dual-purpose off-roader and long distance traveller. We rode the 790 Adventure non-R on the first day and the 790 Adventure R on the second, a total travel time of twenty hours. We did long tar roads, mountain passes, gravel freeways, sandy passes, riverbeds, rocky climbs and even dunes. At no point throughout any of these did we think we were not coping.
The dunes were tricky, and a KTM 500cc enduro bike would have made mincemeat of the 790 Adventure on them, but the 790 Adventure was still there and still doing it, when other adventure bikes would have just turned around and left (that did happen, actually – two GS’s appeared at the edge of the dunes, took a photo and left). The other dirt sections were almost a joke to the 790, as were the tar mountain passes.
The only matter of contention was the seat on the 790 Adventure non-R; it was a touch on the hard side. We did get used to it by the end of the day but, ironically, the more off-roady-styled R seat felt more comfortable.
This brings us on to a comparison between the 790 Adventure R and non-R. Frankly, the only reason I can assume for buying the non-R is if you’re particularly vertically challenged and could seriously use the 50mm lower seat height. Apart from that, go for the R.
KTM 790 Adventure Prices:
KTM 790 Adventure – R175,999
KTM 790 Adventure R – R185,999