Bike Review: 2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
If you have $18,000 hanging out of your pocket, and/or find yourself sitting at the dealership ready to sign for a new “adventure” motorcycle, you may wish you’d first read this review of KTM’s 2018 1290 Super Adventure S. Why? Because it could save you the trauma of buying the wrong motorcycle. You’ll have to wait a few months, but we’ve already done some heavy lifting to spare you such a plight.
To be clear, the 1290SA S is a completely new KTM model, not to be mistaken for some reincarnation of the 1190 Adventure or 1290 Super Adventure. It’s a street-centric sport/adventure touring machine that is surprisingly capable off road. With smaller, 19/17 cast aluminum mag wheels (a first for a KTM adventure bike) and Pirelli Scorpion Trail II tires, the new 1290 is a road rocket with intuitive semi-active suspension, cruise control, and optional Travel Pack that comes with Quickshifter+. The 160-horsepower motor is completely re-engineered to comply with Euro 4 emissions regs, but still remains thrilling to ride and packs an awesome punch.
We took the 1290SA S straight into Mexico and off Baja’s beaten path, testing it for 1,200 miles with a passenger and luggage. Let’s be blunt: The stock 1290SA S with our Fasstco Impact Adventure Pegs and Mosko Moto luggage not only survived in Baja California’s demanding environment, it flourished with dignity. It also fooled my biased mind and surprised the heck out of me. This was not the PG-13 version of Baja California you’d see on virtually any guided tour or group ADV ride down here. We’re talking about some of the harder stuff—plenty of deep sand, rocks, ruts, beach cobblestones and some silt. Add 80 miles of pocked-out tarmac, 40 mph gusts and torrential rains—all with a passenger and 70 lb. of gear—and you have a testing environment that proved this bike to be worth the money, and the wait.
Solo and UnpackedRiding solo on the pavement and in the twisties, you’ll love the powerband and speed shifting up through the gears. In particular, fourth gear shows the widest range of power from low to high rpm and doesn’t seem to bog out on the low side. The semi-active electronic suspension forks stiffen as the bike leans into sharper corners and under front braking. Upright and off the brakes, the suspension is plush.
Where it really shined was fully loaded with camping gear and riding two-up in sport mode. If you are heavier set, ride with a passenger or full luggage, the 1301cc unrestricted power plant will make the difference for you. When compared to any BMW GS model, this KTM contends on the pavement. Surprisingly however, off road and on graded dirt, I’ll choose this KTM over the GS Rallye for the KTM’s handling, and over Honda’s Africa Twin for the power. KTM has been nailing it for the past few years and this new 1290SA S reinforces that.
Electronic Preload: You can pre-set the shock spring tension with four options: Rider, Rider + Luggage, Rider + Passenger, and Rider + Passenger + Luggage. The bike needs to be on the center stand and running in neutral to set the load; from lightest to heaviest spring load there is about 10mm of preload available with the press of the thumb switch, and you can actually see the shock adding tension with its hydraulic motor.
Semi-Active Suspension: Unlike the 1090 and 1290R’s manual clickers (on top of the forks) and the 1190 thumb switch settings from “Comfort” to “Sport” to “Off Road,” the new 1290’s fork tubes are wired to a computer that solves lean and braking scenarios when stabbing into corners. Thus, you have noticeable relief from the forks “diving” under braking and heavy angle cornering.
Quickshifter +: Available with the Travel Pack, Quickshifter+ allows clutchless shifting up and down with an intuitive little zap of throttle on the downshift that prevents the normal jolt of engine braking when letting the clutch go. You will love this feature from the start as you speedshift up through the gears. Going down, it’s not as smart if you’re already at high rpm, but the computer does give a spurt of throttle to counteract the normal engine braking associated with downshifting while preventing subtle loss of traction. Quickshifter+ is not the same as Honda’s DCT thumb and finger shifting, but the Travel Pack is highly recommended when you buy this bike.
Cast aluminum mag wheels and tubeless tires: A first for a KTM adventure bike, the mags seem pretty tame and fragile at first glance. But after five days in Baja and running the gamut of rocky, rutted and clapped out trails along with pocked-out highway sections, the mags will likely outlast the stock spoked wheels you’ll find on other bike brands. The logic behind cast mag wheels is the true “balance” attainable over a spoked wheel. This helps give the bike noticeable stability at triple digit speeds on the highway.
Here’s what went through my mind in between the off-road sections:
- It’s more the rider’s skill set than the bike and tires. If you’re a more accomplished off-roader, you won’t notice the difference in wheel size and lack of knobbies on the S versus the R.
- This bike is less noisy off road and in the bumpy stuff than the Africa Twin, GS and other contenders, especially with “soft” luggage system in place of boxes.
- Don’t let the crappy app deter you from buying this bike. The “1290 iPad” (as we nicknamed it) comes with a 6.5" TFT dash, but the “KTM My Ride” app and its navigation linking to the smartphone failed our test on first try with botched directions to the supermarket. If having a TomTom or Siri onboard your bike is important to you, you’re probably a bad fit for any KTM.
- Similar to the KTM 1090 and the 1290 R being off-road centric, the 1290SA S is a touring road bike at heart, with smaller cast wheels and 80/20 mix favoring the street. But that 20% of dirt capability is all you will ever need if you’re not a dirt masochist or planning to race.
- I didn’t think I’d love this bike as much as I do.
- Don’t replace the mag wheels with spoked rims or try to convert this into a “dirt bike.” If you do that, you bought the wrong bike.
- Would I buy this motorcycle for myself and why not? No. I’d buy the 1290R for its bigger wheels and off-road prowess.
- Should you buy this motorcycle and why? Yes, if your adventures are pavement-based, you’re heavier set, carrying a load, or if you just like refined engineering and appreciate the latest in mechanical technology.
When KTM released this bike in Europe a year ago all of the reviews we studied appeared to be based on a chaperoned “press-launch” in a controlled setting. This gave a homogenized assessment of the various testers’ first impressions. This “first ride” appraisal is based on our no-strings-attached joy ride into Mexico, tested independently, similar to how you’ll ride this all-new adventure-inspiring machine.
|▲ Aluminum mag wheels are truly balanced and help keep the bike stable at max speeds||▼ The waterproof smartphone case with built-in USB port is a design failure that appears to be hastily added|
|▲ Quickshifter+ (clutchless shifting up and down) available with Travel Pack||▼ Valentino Rossi called. He wants his foot pegs back. Even if you are 100% pavement based, a larger footrest is an essential first add-on|
|▲ Pirelli Scorpion Trail II tires||▼ The KTM My Ride App is still under development and has quite a way to go before being an appealing selling point. The "Turn by Turn" navigation lacked the much-needed detail of cross streets and also failed the simple test of getting to the supermarket.|
Scotty Breauxman is a retired off-road racer and solo expeditioner specializing in the Mexican state of Baja California. As the chairman and stage builder of BAJA RALLY, Breauxman splits his time evenly between San Diego, CA and Ensenada, Baja.