Rhymes with Orange: 2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S

By Fish, with Surj Gish
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba
Rider: Fish

Fish: Orange You Glad It Has Cornering ABS?

Biases are a funny thing. We all have them, even if we don’t want to admit it. While it’s tempting to get very deep into the effect they have on society, I’ll just cop to one of my own: KTM fans. The pumpkin-colored machines themselves are some of the most advanced, highly-tuned motorcycles available to regular people today. The rabid, orange-only brand zealots loyalists, however, are another story.

Growing up in a Harley household, extreme brand loyalty is nothing new to me. But just as Editor Surj bristles and sneers at the overly-fashionable posturing of the Ducatisti, the more fanatical of the oranger-than-thou faithful have tinged my take on the brand.

With that out in the open, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the company has to have done something right to cultivate such a devoted following. A bunch of things, actually. Establishing themselves as a dominant force in motocross and pushing the envelope of what’s possible with cross-country enduro motorcycles definitely put them on the map, but the original 950 Adventure was the motorcycle that gave them a firm foothold in my favorite market segment: adventure touring bikes. The 950 was groundbreaking, but the 2018 1290 Super Adventure S forced me to set aside my biases and accept the Super Adventure S for what it is: magic.

Super Technology

KTM’s LC8 ADV bikes trace their roots to the 950 Adventure, which made its debut in 2003. I’ve always thought of the Adventure series motorcycles as essentially race-bred GSes, but 15 years later the world of adventure bikes has grown and diversified. The 75-degree, DOHC LC8 V-Twin engine has grown to 1301 cc, and the 2018 pumps out a claimed 160 horsepower and 100 ft/lbs of torque. It’s a serious mill, offering broad power delivery while still being exciting at the top end. Coupled to a six-speed gearbox equipped with a slipper clutch, the package is nestled tightly in a chromoly steel trellis frame, surprisingly painted black instead of orange.

The Super Adventure S gets you a 19”/17” wheelset while the R model rolls on more dirt-oriented 21”/18” rims. The 61.4” wheelbase is up at the long end of the big adventure bike range with Ducati’s Multistrada 1260 at 62.4”, compared to Yamaha’s Super Ténéré at 61” and BMW’s R1200GS at 59.3” and the GSA at 58.9”. The length makes for a stable ride, but it’s still very sporting.

The fact that I rarely adventure on an adventure touring bike makes me one of those posers who just likes to ride street on big dirt-ish bikes. I am, I think, the exact market the 1290 S is geared towards. But the Super S has some serious competition for my money—its MSRP of $17,999 is about $1,300 more than BMW’s S1000XR, but almost $700 less than Ducati’s Multistrada 1260.

That level of coin does get you serious machinery: the S sports WP-built semi-active electronic suspension, Bosch’s 9ME combined ABS, KTM’s MTC (motorcycle traction control), cruise control, a TPMS, keyless operation (Surj has some stories about that), a TFT display dash, heated grips, and self-cancelling turn signals.

KTM has also developed an active cornering headlight that works with the IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit). The LED beam is very effective on its own, but there are stepped, focused beams that illuminate as the bike leans over, illuminating the road ahead rather than the apex of the turn, which makes sense for a street bike. I might have wished for more apex lighting while testing the system in my favorite canyons, but overall, the lighting is killer.

What a world we live in, where I can gripe about active cornering headlights on a motorcycle…

The S we rode was equipped with KTM’s optional travel pack (a $524 plus installation option), which adds KTM’s HHC (Hill Hold Control); MSR (Motor Slip Regulation), and Quickshifter +.

I never noticed—or noticed a need for—Hill Hold Control during my testing, but it makes a lot of sense for heavily loaded bikes and busy hands, detecting inclines and holding the brake for five seconds after you release the lever or pedal, allowing you to have two feet and two hands to negotiate a heavily-loaded, oddly-angled takeoff.

Motor Slip Regulation is there when you get a bit anxious with downshifts. There are times when the road surface offers less grip than expected, or you may have miscounted clicks downward—the slipper clutch effectively negates wheel hop when you dump a couple gears and back the bike into a turn. MSR actually opens the throttle bodies enough to diminish engine braking just enough to keep the bike settled and manageable. It’s a rider aid that was clearly thought of by someone who does more than cover miles on an interstate.

Quickshifter + is self-explanatory, other than perhaps the “plus.” Quick-shifting tech is trendy as hell, but the execution has been somewhat hit or miss by the OEMs. KTM got it just right and has set a new standard.

Gentle toe pressure results in smooth and easy upshifts. Downshifts happen instantaneously with the slightest of pressure. The computer-managed throttle blips bring out a rewarding burble from the factory exhaust. One might think they were riding a sport bike if it weren’t for the comfortable ergonomics and pothole-swallowing suspension.

That suspension is one of the most noteworthy advancements in modern motorcycling. There’s some debate among my group of riding buddies as to how these things should work, but for me, the Super S’s semi-active suspension is perfect—although I’m unsure what differentiates semi- from fully-active. KTM says the system “adapts the damping rates in real time according to Sport, Street, Comfort or Offroad settings for the optimal ride on any surface,” which sounds fully-active to me, what with the real-time-ness, but whatever—it works, and damn well.

Much like many modern electronic suspension systems, semi- or fully- or inactive, you simply choose your preload setting based on your load (just you, you and your junk, you and someone else, you and someone else and double the junk) and your desired level of mode of travel (Sport, Street, Offroad, Comfort).

I found myself using Street most often, as Sport firmed the bike up just a bit more than I liked. The rider-only preload setting worked well with my 200 pound body, and for that I give KTM a lot of credit—many bikes’ factory settings still seem to place average rider weight around 120 pounds.

Super Powers

With all the techno-gadgetry, you could easily lose sight of the elemental greatness of this bike. The Super Adventure is at its core, an extremely competent, eminently capable machine. KTM has taken the essential adventure bike and morphed into a road-going rocketship: real world fast, capable of handling long boring stretches of highway, relentless mountain switchbacks, forgotten patches of dilapidated pavement, and even a gravel road or two.

Where the package proved itself for me was my local haunt, Mines Road: 28 miles of chip-sealed switchbacks with traction ranging from maybe to probably not; blind exits and crests; and rare but unpredictable oncoming traffic. The road’s bumps and irregularities overwhelm most sportbikes and standards, but the big KTM makes a delightful afternoon ride of Mines Road, its semi-active suspension making easy work of even the worst sections.

Every low-speed, decreasing radius turn is a chance to exercise the V-Twin’s torque and exit with a hint of front wheel lift. The wide-open upshifts facilitated by the quickshifter enable scenery-blurring speeds, and there are few times when motorcycling instills more joy in me than a clean, fast “hoon session” on Mines. The Super Adventure exemplifies the proper Mines machine, offering intuitive turn-in, stellar brakes that never fade, wheel sizes and suspension that are unfazed by public road conditions, and an engine that delivers warp speeds with even modest application of throttle.

Going fast on Mines, or anywhere, is only half the battle. The other side of that equation involves stopping. With dual 320 mm discs up front squeezed by Brembo four-piston calipers and a matching Brembo four-piston rear caliper mated to a 267 mm rotor, the Super Adventure is in no danger of running low on whoa.

The bike utilizes Bosch’s ninth generation ABS, allowing the rider to extract every last bit of available traction when it comes time to slow down. I considered this to be so much pie in the sky advertising until I was faced with too much speed entering a corner—commonly referred to as overcooking the shit out of a turn.

Worst case scenario had me going straight into a barbed wire fence, but a firm squeeze of the lever, some pressure on the pedal and the 1290’s advanced ABS transformed oh shit into a small, undramatic oops. The system works so transparently that a casual onlooker would have never guessed how close to ugly that situation got.

Not-so-Super

I do have complaints—no bike is perfect, after all. I’ll start with the obligatory windshield whining, which is almost as common as “the seat sucks.”

Few bikes’ windshields fit me perfectly, but the 1290’s screen manages to be awful in a variety of ways, almost like they actively worked at creating a sphere of buffeting for me personally. “That Fish guy is always complaining about KTM fans. We’ll show him!”

The adjustment mechanism itself is simple and easy to use—it just doesn’t matter where you put the screen. There’s significant, hard-to-ignore buffeting in every position, and the noise is bad enough at speed that I found standing the most comfortable option at 80 MPH.

Admittedly, windscreens are very personal things, and the problem is presumably easily solved by the aftermarket. But at this price, it seems like an adjustable windscreen ought to be able to accommodate a typical range of heights, at minimum.

I’d also like to announce my distaste for all things surrounding the dash, the app, and the overall direction motorcycle instrumentation is headed. The TFT screen isn’t a new idea, and I’ve seen reasonable implementations of it. The Super Adventure’s display does the basics in an acceptable manner, save for its daylight detection and frequently mis-timed switches between day and night mode, resulting in the occasional erratic imitation of a lightswitch rave.

The app, however… I did manage to achieve connectivity. I never did find a use for that connection. There’s a sound argument for utilizing your smartphone for navigation, but the user interface definitely needs some serious streamlining and the overall system seems more like an alpha release. I’d like to rant about this, but I’ll let Editor Surj fill you in on the electronics and KTM’s My Ride app.

The app and dash combo aren’t bad enough to detract from the overall greatness of the bike, or rather, the bike is so good that I’ll let it slide. But this is a sign of things to come, and though I want to go on a long tirade professing my love of analog gauges and good old-fashioned buttons, I also want the option to disable the electronic overlords occasionally in order to reinforce my appreciation for them. I realize that doing so the old-fashioned way would result in a cockpit resembling some Sixties sci-fi spaceship. With that in mind, I’ll accept the frustrating moments of counting button clicks and pulling over to read menus in exchange for the otherwise extremely good finished product, because that’s what the 1290 Super Adventure S is—extremely good.

Fish is founder and president of the CityBike Foundation for the Preservation of Front Tires, and his sweet spot is aboard a vigorous V-Twin. He’s slowly coming around to the idea that engines can be enjoyable without blowing up every 2,000 miles.

Surj: Digerati or Diger-naughty

Fish is right. The Super Adventure S is an incredibly proficient motorcycle for hauling ass, whether out of the public eye on some undulating, remote strip of asphalt awesome; in front of God and everyone, including Johnny and Jenny Law, on the not-so-expressways; or turning that series of speed bumps around the corner from home into a section of whoops, hoping no one will recognize my helmet and knock on my door that evening to ask me to tone it down. 

“Uh… hi. I live down the street. Was that you I saw earlier today, jumping your motorcycle off the speedbumps? There are kids in this neighborhood!”

“Look man, the kids love that shit. I’m doing it for the kids.”

Glad we cleared that up.

All it really lacks is some kind of Blackbird-esque anti-radar technology to keep the aforementioned law enforcement characters unaware of 1290-mounted bogies. But despite the Super-duper’s extreme excellence, it took me a bit to get into a functional relationship with the bike.

It’s not a typical tall-rounder, but in many ways, it’s just another, typical tall-rounder (huh?) and I expected to be able to climb up my little portable stepstool, perch myself atop the 33.9” (in the “low” position. Seriously? Seriously.) seat, finger the menus a bit, and head for whatever mundane meeting was starting in one hour, that I was hypothetically a 55-minute ride from. That sort of utility ought to be a given and is part of what makes these tall, comfortable, sporty-toury bikes so killer for all-round motoring, even if bitching about how they’re not real adventure bikes because no one rides them on the dirt is a favorite topic of internet windbags who probably also don’t ride on the dirt, judging by the amount of time they spend blowholing about such urgent, vital topics.

But it wasn’t so easy. First, the keyless ignition doohickey kept disappearing. I don’t mean physically—the goddamn thing was literally inches from the conveniently-marked pickup point on the left side of the iPad, or I guess it’d be a kPad. But the brain couldn’t see it, and the bike wouldn’t start. 

After some frustrated off-and-on-and-off-and-on-again switching, the Super decided it was go time. I then fired up KTM’s My Ride app on my phone, which I’d previously paired with the bike—not to mention paid $7.99 for.

Yep. Give KTM eighteen grand, and they say, “Another $7.99 for our app, please.” 

Eventually, the app and dash made friends again, I entered an address, and we were on our way. 

Until about 20 miles later, where the kPad informed me that the key had again disappeared. I was traveling at about 90 MPH at the time, which seems to be the minimum speed the bike can go on the freeway—sorry officer, I mean 65—and since I hadn’t consulted the owner’s manual about what would happen in this scenario, I pulled over to 1) make sure I still had the key in my pocket, and 2) figure out what the fuck.

The key “showed up” again, and since I had somewhere to be, I booked it again. Fortunately the “super” in the name means, among other things, super-fast, and I made it to my meeting on time, barely. But I was now super-doubtful of the display / brain / Bluetooth business, and put some pretty hateful stuff into our shared notes document for the bike, to which Fish added, “I love you, Surj.”

I then spent some time on the phone with one of our contacts at KTM, and we walked through the app and display, re-paired my phone and the bike, and so on.

I never really got to liking the app for navigation. It’s harder to use than both Google Maps and Apple Maps, although not as straight-up weird and pain in the ass-y as some other navigation apps. It looks nice, in a KTM-branded way, as does the display, which is downright gorgeous.

The problems with the keyless ignition persisted—it happened to all of us, which rules out “Surj quirks,” thankfully.

But once I stopped caring about the various glitches in the matrix, I basically enjoyed an updated version of my experience with the then-new 2014 1190 Adventure, which is to say I was tearing ass around my favorite twisties, grinning in my helmet and marveling at how compelling a case the rest of the bike’s technology makes for this augmented version of motorcycling.

Sure, if some key electronic component shits itself 100 miles past the devil’s backside, you won’t be able to half-ass it back together with some chewing gum and random debris that you luck upon at just the right moment because you and the universe agree that you’re not gonna die out here, dammit, like the grimy granddads love to rap about in their rocking chairs. What Oscar and his retrogrouch friends miss, though, is how that scenario is such an extreme edge case for almost all riders. Why should we trade unbelievably awesome rideability and enhanced safety for the hypothetical ability to fix any component by the side of the road or trail in the middle of some forgotten hinterland?

The answer is we shouldn’t, at least not most of us. Almost all of us, actually, no matter how much some riders love to surround themselves in the narrative of yesteryear thanks to misguided perceptions of what makes a “real” motorcyclist.

Yes, I’m advocating for all this tech, at least the drivetrain stuff. Even the hill assist, which unlike Fish, I did find use for—although when I first experienced it, I’d forgotten the bike was so equipped and was confused by the “how the fuck are the brakes on right now” feeling.

What I’m not on board with is KTM rolling their own solution for the Bluetooth / infotainment stuff, and yes, it pains me to use that word. I’m sorry.

Just as KTM uses Bosch’s well-developed technology for ABS and whatnot, there’s no need to reinvent this particular wheel: Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto already provide high-quality infotainment integration solutions, allowing use of familiar apps and their interfaces. I’m oversimplifying, obviously, but use that shit instead of fucking around with homebrewed nonsense.

The Super S is so good that all of us would live with its foibles and hope for firmware updates to eventually save the day. That’s saying something, as is the fact that Fish, long a critic of these technologies, is willing to admit that the bike saved his bacon.

Editor Surj’s bikesistential crisis continues, and he now lies awake at night wondering if a Super Adventure S would put all these questions to rest, once and for all, or at least for the next couple years.

This story originally appeared in our July 2018 issue, which you can read in all its glory here.

Join the Independent-Moto-Journalism-Revolution!

Sign up for the CityBike Dispatch and we’ll tell you about cool stuff.

We promise not to spam you!