KTM 790 Adventure R vs KTM 990 Adventure R

The battle for off-road supremacy begins


KTM 990 Adventure R vs 790 Adventure R

Story: Donovan Fourie
Pics: Meghan McCabe and Andrew Buntain
KTM’s motto is their illustrious “Ready to Race”, words they have certainly lived by in everything they have ever built. Think about it – anything bearing those famous letters has clearly been designed by someone who is in touch with their inner 13-year-old, telling them to turn it up a notch when the marketing research team calls for calmness and sensibility. 

This is prevalent in their adventure range, a class where the words “rideability”, “comfort” and “economical” are ubiquitous in marketing blurbs, where manufacturers build motorcycles for sensible adults wanting a loyal companion for their journey into the unknown.

When KTM joined the adventure chase, it seemed that someone shunned everything the researchers put forward about sensibility, and simply took a motocross bike and shoved a big engine in it. The first was the 640 Adventure in 1998, and then the 950 Adventure in 2003, followed by the 990 Adventure in 2006. These were angry, hardy, brutish machines that growled down gravel roads throughout the world, popping wheelies and blasting along whatever harshness the terrain could throw at it.

They even developed a cult following, and the entire motorcycling community gave the rider of any of these machines a respectful nod every time they pulled into the scene. They were rally racers with headlights, and their pilots were perceived as riding gods. 

Then, in 2013, KTM released the 1190 Super Adventure, followed by the 1290 Super Adventure and the smaller 1050 and 1090 Adventures. These boasted massive performance, sophisticated technology and laudable attitude. They were praised, respected and revelled by everyone who gazed upon their glory. 

Well, nearly everyone.

KTM 990 Adventure R vs 790 Adventure R

A good chunk of the 990 brethren took a look at these new fire-breathing hulks and saw more soft-touring rather than jumped-up motocross bikes. For their power and technology, they had lost their core dirt spirit, and so you still see stalwart 990 owners lovingly caring for their ageing 990 Adventures, sending them to the top mechanics and sourcing specialist parts.

They have no intention of replacing these machines because, so far, nothing has shown the hardcore ruggedness of the 990. 

And then, earlier this year, the 790 Adventure arrived, and even the 990 stalwarts lifted an eyebrow. KTM dubbed it as “a dirt bike for the streets”, and a mad-capped launch ride through some of the old Dakar Rally hunting grounds in Morocco proved them to be correct.

So the 790 has the off-road gusto, but has it got the guts to take on the 990? Should the stoic 990 crew finally look at trading in? We took a 790 Adventure R from the demo fleet of KTM South Africa, snuck out a 990 Adventure R from the floor of Fire It Up and headed to Dirt Bronco to find out. We start with a quick head-to-toe.

KTM 790 vs 990 at a glance

The 990 does look the part – it is a Dakar rally bike with a giant V-twin engine shoved between its legs. This Fire It Up bike had a set of FMF aftermarket cans turning that already sonorous exhaust note into a spine-shaking, primordial growl. It has a presence, it has a soul and it gives you the feeling that it would devour your soul should you displease it.

The 790, on the other hand, looks like an emaciated praying mantis, sporting disjointed lines, a swelling belly and a bobblehead. Then it has a parallel-twin motor, adjusted slightly from that in the 790 Duke. Nowadays, parallel-twins are all the rage – engineers say they are more compact, more economical, cheaper to produce, offer better weight distribution and, with an irregular firing order, can replicate the feel of a V-twin. This all sounds promising, but much like a computer can never generate music with the soul of Led Zeppelin, a parallel-twin will never have the same beating heart of a V-twin. With the Euro restrictions, any tiger growl from the 790 has been severely muzzled, leaving a muffled reminder of when motorised transport was great. 

KTM 990 Adventure R vs 790 Adventure R

Beyond being dead inside, the 790 makes a noteworthy comeback. The seat is a wholesome mixture of off-road flatness with a touch of shaped comfort, while the 990 is all off-road. This looks cool, but 14 hours into the ride, you might start contemplating homicide. 

The TFT dash on the 790 is a triumph of both technology and style accompanying electronic wizardry that includes a Rally Mode for all your serious off-roading needs. The old-school dash on the 990, in comparison, looks like it came out of a 1980s Casio catalogue, and beyond some fuel-injection and the odd spark plug, it is utterly bereft of any electrickery. Some people remain adamant that this is better until they try some gadgetry and then wonder how they ever managed without it.

That’s the superficial out of the way, we now begin the proper duel for the off-road monarchy, and we start with the golden standard of adventure tests.

KTM 790 vs 990 at a lift

Whenever we post about any large adventure machine, we are immediately rebuked by old-school riders asking the tired, aged question – if that thing falls over in the middle of nowhere, how are you going to pick it up by yourself? The answer we give is always – we have friends.

Nonetheless, the question persists, and we would never attempt to discount other people’s feelings, so we dutifully crashed both bikes (on soft grass, slowly and with some help from a camera crew who gently lowered them) and attempted to pick them both up again.

KTM 990 Adventure R vs 790 Adventure R

The 790 was the first to take a lie-down, and I was tasked with putting it upright again on my lonesome. It has a dry weight of 189kg that, by modern adventure standards, means it is in danger of being blown away by a light breeze. More so, the 20 litres of fuel is kept in dual tanks that bulge out around the sides of the engine in much the same way as on the KTM Dakar Rally bikes. This means that not only is the bike light, but the meagre weight is kept very low.

More so, the bulging tanks mean the bike doesn’t entirely lie down, and even my squishy arm muscles made quite light work of getting it vertical.

My The Bike Show colleague, Harry Fisher, is an old-school 990-ist, and thus stood beside the horizontal body of the 990 Adventure R, tasked with the job of raising it from the dead. Even without the Euro5 nonsense (that is rumoured to add up to 40kg to a motorcycle), it weighs 20kg more than the 790. Also, with a seat towering at 895mm high, and dual tanks that sit above the motor means that the extra 20kg translates into something that feels more like 500kg.

In the end, the same camera crew that helped lower the 990 were recruited to help pick it back up again.

This puts the 990 one down on the 790, but next, we get on to a roll-on drag race. Surely it will win that.

KTM 790 vs 990 at a drag

This is how making a film for The Bike Show works – we get our bikes together, we figure out a theme, and then we write a script. Once this is done, filming can be planned and commenced. The idea behind this shoot was that the 990 would win the superficial argument, the 790 would win the “pick-up your bike because you don’t have friends” test and then the 990 would most certainly win a roll-on drag race. This mixes things up a bit.

We say “the 990 would most certainly win a roll-on drag race” because the 990 has pistons that are 200cc more than the 790, and even with the new kid’s modern tech and design, its 94hp and 88Nm of torque cannot hold a candle to the 990’s 116hp and 100Nm. To further assure the 990 wins, the crew decided that I should ride the 790 while stick-figure Harry would pilot the 990. 

It was easy – we pull off in first gear, ride slowly together up until the start line, then open the throttle and the 990 will–

–the 790 buggers off into the distance.

“Hey?” Said everyone, me included.

KTM 990 Adventure R vs 790 Adventure R

Obviously, I must’ve jumped the start slightly, and Harry was a bit lax at opening the throttle, so we did it again – pull off in first gear, ride together until the start line and–

–Bugger! The 790 is gone again. How can this be?

We raced a few more times, running until the road ended at which stage we were in fourth gear doing speeds the constabulary would rather we didn’t, and still the 790 cleared off every time. The problem here is that we paid attention to the maximum power and torque outputs, ignoring the fact that there are all sorts of outputs before then. The 990 power and torque curves follow the traditional, right-leaning hill look, while the 790 looks more like a straight line, pushing power throughout the rev range.

We are confident that, given a long enough stretch of road, the 990 would eventually catch up but, everywhere else, the 790 will clean up.

With our script and planning now in tatters, we moved on to the last test, one we were sure the 790 would win.

KTM 790 vs 990 at a jump

This is all about off-roading prowess, and we were at a motocross track, so instead of wasting time – and budget – trekking out to faraway lands to seek out different off-road terrain, we instead recruited a motocross rider and set both bikes off on a timed lap of the circuit.

The rider was MX veteran, stunt rider and rider coach, Dylan Smith, and he lined up first on the 990. On paper, things didn’t look so bad for the big boy. Suspension sits at a giddy 248mm through WP USD forks and a PDS rear shock. The front wheel in a motocrossy 21-inch with 18 inches at the rear and the sump gaps the ground by a massive 296mm.

Dylan set off and growled his way around the track, railing berms, wheelie-ing whoops and clearing tabletops, while Harry and I stood with our mouths open knowing full well that our attempts at such feats would most definitely end in an ambulance. Eventually, he barked his way back over the line in 1min 26.63sec.

KTM 990 Adventure R vs 790 Adventure R

Next, he climbed aboard the noticeably smaller 790. This machine didn’t boast the same ground clearance – 263mm apposed to the 990’s 296mm – but featured much the same travel at 245mm, although this is handled by WP’s Xplor suspension, the same model of suspension used by the enduro racers. Also, 20kg less weight, a much lower centre of gravity and better power on the pick-up should mean this is a walkover.

Dylan shot off from the line again with far less bark because the European Parliament is no fun, but also cleared all jumps, corners and whoops and crossed the line in…

…1min 27.71sec. More than a second slower! 

How can this be? It makes no sense. We were relieved, however, because at least our script now looked more appealing.

Dylan returned to the pits and did some explaining – yes, the 990 was quicker on that lap because its softer power delivery on the tight, hard-packed circuit meant better drive and a better lap. What he did also say, though, was that he was not prepared to do that lap on the 990 again: “The front on that 990 is so heavy that it keeps pushing through the corners. It was hard work. I don’t think I could keep it up. And the damping on the landings was not great.”

The 790 told a very different tale: “The suspension is so good, and it feels so light that I could ride it like that all day. The 990 was quicker over one lap, but in a ten-lap moto, the 790 would win by miles!”

KTM 990 Adventure R vs 790 Adventure R

Compelling stuff. So what can we conclude from all this?

KTM 790 vs 990 at the end of the day

We set off to find out whether 990 owners, who have not seen the benefit of moving to the newer, more soft-tourer adventure machines, can finally trade in on something that will outdo their old faithful. Our objective opinion is yes, the KTM 790 Adventure R is better than the 990 on an off-road adventure in every single way. If you want to go on a trip into the wilderness with only your wits and your machine, the 790 will undoubtedly be better. 

You will miss your 990, though. There is something, as we mentioned before, about the 990 that speaks to your soul, that makes your heart beat a little faster. The 790, for all its talents, doesn’t quite tick these emotional boxes. 

So should people stick to the 990 or move to the 790? It’s a tough one, but we have a solution – have both. The 790 Adventure R, in standard trim, will set you back R185,999 while this 990, on the Fire It Up showroom, is R99,000. Together, they are R284,999, roughly the same price as a BMW R1250GS.

Wouldn’t you rather have these two instead of one of those?

KTM Contacts:
Web: www.ktm.com

Fire It Up Contacts:
Tel: 011 467 0737
Web: www.fireitup.co.za

KTM 790 Adventure R vs KTM 990 Aventure R gallery – click to enlarge: