ADVgroupsun2+-650Some adventures are defined by goals. They’re about climbing a hill, crossing a desert or finishing a race. Then there are adventures that defy definition. You point to a spot on a map—or better yet a globe—and set aside a block of time. Then you go find out what’s there.
The 1200-class adventure bikes are all about that. In an age when 95 percent of the planet is explored, documented and accessible, big adventure bikes are dedicated to what’s left. They provide a means of discovery for the remaining 5 percent and are equipped to make that discovery as comfortable as possible. In the world of motorcycling, this is a group of machines that has only recently clumped together to form its own category. Large dual-sport bikes have been around for a long time, but only in the last decade have we seen big, multi-cylinder street bikes that had any real dirt capability. History is filled with DINOs (Dirt In Name Only) that had no business venturing beyond the “Road Ends Here” sign, but today’s adventure bikes are capable of making dreams become reality.
We’ve gathered the four most significant bikes in this new class. In truth, they are so different that it’s hard to call this a comparison test; they don’t have the same features, equipment or even displacement. That’s typical of a sport in its infancy—the motocross bikes of 1960 had very little in common too. But by riding these four machines together, we can get a good notion of the direction in which the future of the sport is heading.
Already we’re showing how different these four machines are. The Suzuki V-Strom has a displacement of only 1037cc. It is, however, Suzuki’s new flagship for the adventure segment, designed to go head to head with the 1200s but with a more affordable price. It was released earlier this year and has virtually nothing in common with an earlier bike by the same name, aside from its general description. It has a 90-degree V-twin motor with a chain drive in a twin-beam aluminum frame. The new bike draws attention to what has become the hallmark in this class: electronics. The bike comes with anti-lock brakes, cruise control and has Suzuki’s first attempt at traction control. The ABS stays active all the time, but you can choose between two different levels of traction control, or you can shut the system off for more self-determination in the dirt.
Suzuki has two different models: the standard version, which sells for $12,699, and the V-Strom 1000 Adventure, which is a premium version with a number of bolt-on accessories such as handguards, a taller windscreen, side bags and a crash bar. This package sells for $13,699.
One rung higher on the price ladder is the Yamaha Super Tenere, which has a base price of $15,090. This was a late arrival in 2014, as Yamaha refitted it with a number of upgrades, including more wind protection, more power and a different riding position. The name and the concept of the Super Tenere go back to the ’90s when Yamaha dominated the Paris Dakar rally and came out with a number of models to capitalize on that. Today’s version is a parallel twin with a drive shaft. As now seems mandatory, the bike has ABS and Yamaha’s own take on traction control. The ABS is full-time, but you can choose between two levels of traction control or just turn the whole feature off, as with the Suzuki. For 2014, those two settings have been altered to provide a more noticeable distinction.
The big news for Yamaha is the introduction of the Super Tenere ES version, which has push-button suspension control. You can alter preload and damping from the saddle. The feature costs an additional $1100.
KTM never lets you forget that it’s a dirt bike company first. The 1190 Adventure is all about true dirt capability, which is a challenge considering that the bike makes 150 horsepower. It has nearly the same motor as the RC8, although in that configuration the V-twin is said to produce 170 horsepower. Gasp. It has ABS, traction control and power settings, and gives the rider a lot of control over the machine’s behavior. You could write a book just listing all the menus, submenus and adjustments available from the cockpit. The off-road setting, for example, has limited traction control, limited ABS and limited power, whereas the road setting has all of those items at full strength. You can also change the features one by one. KTM has two versions of the 1190, but unlike the Suzuki and Yamaha, the premium version (the “R”) is a completely different machine, not the same thing with a few extras. The R, which we test here, has more suspension, more dirt-oriented accessories and is the only bike in the group with a 21-inch front wheel. You can opt to get the bike from the dealer with knobbies or full-street tires.
On the price ladder, the KTM sits another rung higher. The R version sells for just over $18,000 before you start adding bags.
BMW is still the high-status name in adventure bike riding. This model is the one that sits on top—and it’s priced accordingly. The version here sells for over $23,000 as equipped. A stripped-out base model can be had for around $16,000 if you’re very determined. Versions like that are not imported except by special order.
At the core is the liquid-cooled 1170cc motor that BMW released last year. It resembles the traditional boxer-opposed twin, but only superficially. Inside it’s a very modern, eight-valve, DOHC powerplant that produces a claimed 125 horsepower. The chassis is new, too, but retains iconic BMW designs like the Telelever front suspension, which has a single shock and linkage. The “Adventure” suffix, in BMW’s case, means it’s the premium version and has more of everything—more fuel capacity, more suspension, more flywheel and more off-road accessories. Most of the electronic revolution started at BMW, and this one has it all, including ABS, traction control, electronic suspension control and cruise control. You can adjust all these features simultaneously by selecting one of five “ride modes”—Road, Enduro, Dynamic, Rain or Enduro Pro—or you can tailor them one at a time. The BMW still has shaft final drive and can be ordered with Continental knobbies.
Before taking these four bikes on the same trip, it’s important to look them over and see just exactly how different they are. Fuel stops will have to be planned carefully. The BMW has the biggest tank at 7.9 gallons. The KTM and Yamaha carry 6.1 gallons each, and the Suzuki has a 5.3-gallon tank. We also got the best mileage from the BMW, if only by a slight margin. With the BMW, you can squeak out 48 or maybe even 50 mpg on the road (best-case scenario), whereas all three of the others get around 46 mpg. Likewise, the BMW is the heaviest at about 550 pounds without fuel, and the Suzuki is the lightest around 475 pounds. The Yamaha and KTM teeter around the 500-pound mark, depending on equipment, accessories and guards.
Protection is another big factor determining where these bikes can go and whether or not they can go together. The BMW and KTM are well-armored with skid plates and crash bars. The Yamaha has only minimal protection, but most parts are at least tucked in nicely. The Suzuki V-Strom 1000 Adventure has a crash bar and skid plate, but is still very vulnerable because of limited ground clearance and an unprotected exhaust pipe. The standard edition doesn’t even have a skid plate, and the oil filter sits alarmingly exposed.
Then there’s seat height, which tends to be very intimidating in the adventure bike world. The Suzuki and KTM are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Interestingly, they are the two that don’t have adjustable seats. The KTM R has a 21-inch front wheel, while the others have 19s. That makes it the tallest, although the standard version of the KTM has a 19-inch front and a correspondingly lower saddle. The Suzuki’s low saddle makes it feel like the minibike of the group, while the Yamaha, in its low position, is only a half inch or so taller. The BMW also has an adjustable saddle, but is tall even when dropped all the way down. Like KTM, BMW offers a standard version of the bike with a lower seat. All four bikes have six-speed gearboxes. The Yamaha and BMW have drive shafts, and all except the Suzuki have cruise control. The Yamaha, BMW and KTM have spoke wheels, while the Suzuki’s are cast aluminum, straight from the street bike line. Same goes for the V-Strom’s spaghetti-thin handlebar.
Let’s get something out of the way immediately. In virtually every quantifiable measure of performance, the KTM comes out on top. It has a much more powerful motor; it’s light, and it has the most advanced electronic features. That last point will no doubt raise the hackles of the BMW faithful, but KTM has raised the technology bar considerably. The ABS and traction control are significantly more effective than those features on the other bikes. In fact, until now, we considered anti-lock braking somewhat of a nuisance on a bike designed for dirt, particularly in the rear. The original systems all had a violent pulsing of the brake pedal, and the cure seemed worse than the disease. In the KTM’s case, the pulsing is barely noticeable, so you don’t feel the immediate need to override the system when you go off-road. The other three systems have improved over the years, but they still have a ways to go.
Traction control is another issue. We see how this could be a huge benefit for dirt riding, but the previous systems were works in progress, still in need of development. All four of these bikes have received attention in this department. The BMW and Yamaha systems are vastly improved. The Suzuki is brand new and shows promise. But, the KTM’s system was excellent from the start. Whereas previous systems worked like kill switches that were thrown when some electronic brain got stressed out about wheelspin, the KTM incrementally mutes the power output when the rear wheel gains speed too quickly. It really does result in more traction when you need it. You can also turn the feature off if you want Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with lots of wheelspin. The BMW’s traction control seems a little more advanced than the other two, but in all three cases, the preferred setting was “off.”
As we said, another win for the KTM is in the horsepower department. It’s crazy fast. We never hit top speed, but it’s safe to say you could double any speed limit in the country. For most riders, the KTM’s power is strictly a novelty. It might be fun to talk about at parties, but in the real world it didn’t actually help the bike do anything. Most riders actually preferred the BMW’s power. The GS is insanely fast in its own right, but most of the meat is way down low. It’s throbby, snappy and fun but without the mid-to-high rpm hyperdrive of the KTM. You can, of course, dumb down the KTM’s power output electronically, but there’s something a little cruel about that, like de-clawing a feral cat.
The Suzuki and Yamaha might not be as powerful as the two Euro bikes, but they still have great output with their own distinctive personalities. They are exact opposites; the Yamaha with massive low-rpm torque and no revs, and the Suzuki with a revvy top-end kick. In terms of outright power, it’s almost a toss-up. The Yamaha has its own electronic fun spoiler, which lets you choose between Tour and Sport output. Take it from us—“S” is more fun than “T.”
advbmwjump650DIRT AND ROAD
As you might expect, the KTM is very effective in the dirt. This is an adventure bike that was conceived, designed and built by a dirt bike company, and it shows its roots. In handling and suspension, it has a clear advantage over the others. The KTM feels like a big XC-W and is by far the most stable machine in rocks and ruts. But, the BMW is a sleeper. The uninitiated are always astounded; how can such a massive machine be so manageable? In truth, the BMW’s engine layout gives it a low center of gravity, which helps the bike seem lighter than it is. The BMW also has lighter steering and a tighter turning radius than any of the others. In suspension, the KTM still has an overall advantage, but the BMW is close behind.
The Suzuki also surprised most riders. It looks more like a street bike, so it exceeded rather low expectations. Its comparative light weight gives it an advantage in maneuverability. It also has the narrowest motor configuration, but gives away some of that around the exhaust canister. The Suzuki’s suspension isn’t half bad, either. But, in the end, the bike’s street heritage is the limiting factor. When you ride the V-Strom off-road, you get the feeling you’re being abusive. How much torture can those cast wheels and undersized bars take? We were afraid to find out.
The Yamaha, on the other hand, seems like a creature of the dirt. The riding position, footpegs and controls all lend themselves to off-road excursions. Overall handling is almost as stable as the KTM, but the Yamaha is still limited by street-think. The traction control is the most intrusive of all. It simply must be over-ridden in the dirt, but reinstates itself each time the bike is started. The others all remember their settings when stopped. The Super Tenere has heavy steering, and you feel every pound of its weight. Also, the rear suspension is oddly under-damped on the standard version; the ESA model will probably be a worthy upgrade.
All butts have different shapes. The riding public is comprised of tall, short, heavy and light riders, so it’s possible that four different people would have four different favorites when it comes to comfort. But, most agree that the BMW has the most wind protection and the most comfortable riding position. Plus, there’s an intangible element to the BMW’s motor—the boxer has a very relaxing rhythm. The KTM has some of the same magic; a sort of musical muscle relaxer. Even the Suzuki has it to a slight degree, although the Yamaha lacks any kind of mechanical heart beat and has the least pleasing exhaust sound.
Of all the seats, most riders preferred the KTM’s, while the Suzuki’s seemed to generate the most complaints. The Suzuki also puts its rider in the most awkward position when standing. The others seem to have been designed with that in mind. The BMW in particular even has a flip-down platform that makes the rear brake pedal more accessible in the standing position. The others all have to be adjusted for standing or sitting; choose one or the other before leaving home.
Can we choose a winner? This isn’t like a motocross comparison where the fastest lap time wins. This is all about image and priorities. Beyond that, this group of bikes breaks down into two subgroups: the European bikes and the Japanese bikes. They are divided by price, features and philosophy. They have common elements like size, horsepower and traction control, but all are executed differently and designed to appeal to different people. Most of the riders on our staff ended up fighting over the KTM because of its dirt orientation, but said they would be most likely to buy the Suzuki, simply because of its price. In the end, your choice says more about you than the bike—but we knew that going in.

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