Adventure bikes offer many things to their owners, but most of all they provide possibilities. While a large majority may never see the other side of the horizon or hardcore trails, they are capable of bringing true adventure to those willing to get out there and push the limits. Big-bore adventure motorcycles are the top of the ADV food chain and the BMW R1200 GS and KTM 1190 Adventure are the two baddest gorillas in the jungle.
Yet there are even more extreme versions available from each marque – the R1200 GS Adventure and 1190 Adventure R – both of which are specially outfitted for serious travel off the beaten path. As soon as the GSA and Adventure R were announced debates raged online, and in the MotoUSA office, about which would be the ultimate mount for finding the end of the trail
BMW has offered an Adventure model of the GS for years, but fans had to wait a year for the water Boxer version. For 2014 BMW outfitted the R1200 GS Adventure with all of the updates on the new-for-2013 R1200 GS. The new water-cooled Boxer Twin, along with a host of electronic rider aids, ups the capability and usability of the GSA. On top of the new mill and tech updates, the GSA gets a massive 7.9-gallon fuel tank, more suspension travel and off-road friendly hardware such as handguards, crashbars and burly footpegs. Equipped with the premium package, olive green paint and aluminum panniers our test unit rings in at an MSRP of $23,463.
KTM took a huge leap forward in the big-bore ADV bike word when it introduced the 1190 Adventure. In our first ride review we said it was the best streetbike KTM has produced to date. But with the 1190 Adventure R the Austrian company is looking to dominate every area of the segment. Replacing the ever popular but sparsely appointed 990, the 1190 brings a massive power increase, sophisticated electronic rider aids and more comfort. Changes from the standard 1190 Adventure to the R model are crashbars, more suspension travel, increased ground clearance and a 21/18-inch wheel and tire set-up. The KTM 1190 Adventure R as equipped for our test with KTM Power Parts aluminum panniers and mounting hardware will cost you $18, 091.
As these are the most extreme examples of the biggest ADVmachines, we decided it would only be proper to scout out some legitimate off-road adventure, rather than just hitting the road from hotel to hotel and diner to diner. So instead we loaded up the bags with tents, sleeping bags, food, water and, of course, camera gear, and headed for the hills above Santa Barbara, California to find out what living with these two bikes on a real road trip would be like. Afterward, we spent two days in the mountains of Southern Utah for some additional seat time. Most of our miles were on dirt roads of varying quality, but we also hit the street and even pounded out a few hundred on the highway.
We also recorded some objective data with hard numbers such as curb weight, horsepower, torque and 0-60 acceleration. Subjective evaluations such as engine feel, suspension action and comfort carry equal weight on our scoresheet. We retained our standard comparison scoring, with a win in any category earning ten points and second-place getting eight. At the end we tally up the scores to declare a winner. And while the scoring helps suss out a ranking, this test was close almost too close to call. Both bikes excel in different ways, and depending on what is or isn’t important to you, readers may find removing a category will swing the results in either bikes favor. With that let’s get into the meat of this comparison.
2014 BMW R1200 GSA vs KTM 1190 Adventure R
2014 BMW R1200 GSA vs KTM 1190 Adventure R
2014 BMW R1200 GSA vs KTM 1190 Adventure R
The BMW R1200GS is the yardstick by which all other large ADV motorcycles have been measured. Several brands that have come close to toppling the GS giant, but BMW has always won out in the end. While various rivals have individually trumped the Beemer on power, handling and styling, none have been able put it all together in a comprehensive package. And that is were the GS Adventure’s strength lies. It’s the king of all-rounders and epitome of the large-displacement ADV segment. And judging by the sales figures, buyers would agree, as the GSA is second only to the standard GS in global sales for BMW (with Adventure sales even with or slightly exceeding the standard GS in the U.S. market).
One look at the GSA and it’s obvious this bike is built to travel to faraway lands, and take a beating doing it. Crash bars, a massive front windshield and spoked wheels beg for rough terrain. It’s not a particularly good-looking motorcycle in the traditional sense, but more handsome like a bulldog – tough and rugged. Our test rider crew ranked it just below the KTM in looks, but beauty contests are not what the GSA is about. It’s about function. And function is what the GSA does. Its Flat Twin engine is a one of the best powerplants ever put in an ADV bike. The low-end torque pulls nicely on the street out of corners and chugs along on technical dirt roads. Your right wrist feels connected right to the crankshaft and power is easy to meter out. Up top the power is less impressive when compared to the 1190 Adventure R. While the power has increased from its oil/air-cooled predecessor, the water Boxer gets left in the dust by the upstart orange machine. On the MotoUSA dyno the BMW produced 105.07 peak horsepower, significantly less than the KTM (14 to be exact). However, the GSA just edged out the KTM in torque production with 76.25 lb-ft (a 0.93 lb-ft difference).
Those 105 rear-wheel ponies are more than enough to spin up the rear tire with less than perfect traction, but BMW’s five riding modes (Road, Dynamic, Rain, Enduro and Enduro Pro) keep things in control in just about any situation you can get yourself into. Ride mode adjusts traction control as well as ABS settings. On the street Road and Dynamic are all you need and work even with the factory optional TKC Continentals. In the dirt your two options of Enduro and Enduro Pro are a must. Enduro, which is calibrated for non-knobby tires, mellows out the power delivery and adjusts traction control to allow more wheelspin. Our default mode when we hit the dirt was Enduro Pro, which is tuned for knobby tires. The Enduro Pro throttle response is snappier, with the rear tire spinning up nicely. The rear ABS is also disabled in Pro, giving a dirt-savvy rider the utmost control available from the rider modes. The ABS works well in both settings and slows the GSA with control and authority. The traction control has a harder cutoff when it kicks in compared the KTM, and this put it just behind when riding full-tilt. Brakes on the BMW are strong and the ABS is excellent. Every ABS setting fits the riding mode perfectly, and not once did we feel the need to disable it completely. We appreciate the Enduro Pro setting, which allows the rear tire to lock up and slide when needed. Lever feel is consistent no matter the surface and has a connected feel with both street or dirt. So the brakes are excellent, but so are those on the KTM, and we ranked them even in the scoring.
On the street the GSA is the king of the corners. Its smaller diameter 19-inch front wheel offers more road confidence. With a more road-friendly tire profile (even with knobbies) the front turns into the bends with a linear feel. Combined with a lower center of gravity and more comfortable riding position the BMW’s handling had us playing rock-paper-scissor for who would get the GSA key on the street. When the dirt started it was the same game, but for who would not be on the BMW. In the dirt the heavier GSA proved less nimble and could only hope to hold onto the KTM’s dust. Suspension action was less plush and settled when the bumps appeared in any setting. On the BMW you just couldn’t push as hard on the trails as the KTM. The GSA could still go anywhere we wanted in the dirt, but it was more work and took longer. The KTM is better suited for aggressive off-road riders. Spending a total of five days in the saddle brings rider comfort to the forefront and the GS Adventure excels in this regard. A wide, flat seat offers plenty of support for pounding out the miles while the larger, more easily-adjusted windscreen better shields the rider from the elements. The GSA’s large footpegs are a huge upgrade over the standard units and the seat-to-peg distance is relaxed, making transition from sitting to standing easy. In just comfort alone the BMW is unrivaled in this comparison, but adding on the creature comforts like heated grips and cruise control puts it over the top.
If you have aspirations of 500-plus mile days, the BMW is the clear choice. Another big ADV plus for the GSA is fuel capacity and range. Throughout out test we recorded an average of 37 mpg. That is a quite a bit less than BMW claims of 55 mpg at 56 mph, but we didn’t always go that slow… We were very aggressive with the throttle, both on- and off-road, but with a 7.9-gallon fuel tank, the BMW still sports a range of nearly 300 miles (435 miles by BMW’s conservative speed estimate). The KTM’s 200-mile range isn’t even close. After tabulating the scoresheet, the 2014 BMW R1200 GS Adventure came up two points short of the KTM in this comparison. While it’s an official second-place, this is far from total defeat for the BMW. The GSA is the most comfortable touring platform and king on the asphalt. Depending or your adventure-touring needs, the GSA might be the clear winner. This comparison is almost too close to call.
KTM’s “ready to race” credo might not fit the ADV segment or the KTM 1190 Adventure R in the literal sense, but there’s no doubt the 1190 is one of the more extreme examples of an adventure-touring motorcycle. While you won’t be hitting the race course, you can feel and see the racing DNA in this hardcore ADV mount. The R model builds on the standard 1190 Adventure with more suspension travel, increased ground clearance and dirt focused wheel/tire combination. The R also sources crashbars and a smaller windscreen. Aggression is Adventure R’s game; a very different take on the segment compared to the BMW GSA.
Throw a leg over the 1190 Adventure R and the cockpit feels sparse in comparison to the GS Adventure. Creature comforts such as heated grips and cruise control are absent, and the windshield is miniscule compared to the BMW. Additionally the seat is thinner, resembling a large dirt bike unit. As the miles rolled on during our interstate blasts the decreased wind protection and less comfortable seat made it the less desirable of the two. Granted its nearly $5000 lower sticker price leaves plenty of leftover cash for farkles and comfort additions. But stock for stock, the GSA trounces the Adventure R in the ergonomics and comfort game. While it may not be the bee’s knees while pounding out the miles, twist the throttle and all is forgiven. While the GSA’s Boxer is stout, the 1190’s V-Twin is a monster. On the dyno the KTM blasted out 119.07 rear-wheel horsepower, 14 more than the GS. Just a tick behind the GS in the torque department, the 1190 put forth 75.31 ft-lb of torque. Get on the gas and the Adventure R rockets away from the BMW, with more horsepower and less weight, especially on the roll on. In our 0-60 test the KTM reached the mark one tenth of a second ahead at 3.1 seconds.
And the 1190 Adventure R puts the power to the ground well, on- or off-road. KTM’s traction control (MTC) is one of the most seamless we’ve ever tested and is the absolute best here. Four modes (Sport. Street, Rain and Off-road) meter the ride-by-wire throttle butterflies to temper the power dependent on wheel slip and lean angle. Sport mode lets the rear wheel spin up on the street before cutting the power back without any perceptible cut. Street mode keeps things in line while still allowing full power. Rain reduces the horsepower to a maximum of 100 at the crank and intervenes early. In the dirt the Off-road mode also reduces the power to 100 hp, but allows for plenty of wheelspin. Once the rear wheel speed doubles the front the MTC controls the power, but even so the effect is much less abrupt and noticeable in comparison to the BMW. You can just whack the throttle to the stop, let the rear end step out and drift like a champ. While you don’t have to shift much on the BMW, the KTM works better rowing through the gears to find the optimum ratio. This isn’t a problem as the ratios are spot on and shifts are solid, just not as solid as the BMW. The KTM’s clutch feel and engagement is much better, however, and this proved the difference in the transmission, clutch and gearing category.
The KTM’s suspension and handling off-road allow you to capitalize on the 1190’s excellent Off-road MTC settings. While the front and rear travel is nearly identical to the BMW, the more conventional upside-down forks have more feel and control over the GSA’s telelever frontend. There is much less hucking and bucking from the 1190 when the going gets rough. For dirt usage, the KTM is the boss in this contest. On the street, things aren’t as rosy. With a 21-inch front wheel, the front-end feel is less surefooted and confident, more like a dirt bike. As lean angles increase on curvey roads, the further the BMW pulls ahead. If you are a dirt junky and road work is just to get from trailhead to trailhead, the 1190 Adventure R is the best choice. One area the KTM does miss the mark as an ADV bike is the fuel range. During our testing the 1190 averaged 33 mpg. We were usually hard on the gas when we were anywhere but on the superslab thanks to the KTM’s awesome motor. We just wanted to feel the rush all the time; in return the fuel economy was well below the Beemer. With a smaller 6.1-gallon tank, the range is limited to just 201 miles. That falls well short of the rival BMW.
Braking power from the ABS-equipped Brembos is excellent with exceptional feel. One up the KTM has on the BMW in the braking department is the lean sensitive ABS, which does work well; the system is magic. If the R was equipped with a 19-inch front wheel it would destroy its German competition, but the 21-inch wheel with knobs doesn’t stop as hard or with as much feel on the front as the BMW. A better ABS system but less power, has us calling a draw in this contest. At the end of the test the KTM 1190 Adventure R squeaked out a win against the BMW R1200 GS Adventure. And that is a huge accomplishment. The BMW has been the gold standard for so long and even being on the same level is a win for any ADV machine. As we said before, this contest is almost too close to call, but the pure performance of the 1190 puts it over the top. If the adventure begins when the road ends, the KTM is our clear-cut winner.