2013 Adventure Bike Comparison Test
Photographer : Fran Kuhn, Illustrations: Tim Barker
The Mayans seriously screwed up. Either that, or we are not very good at reading their hieroglyphs. Most of us woke up last December 22nd and realized that the predicted doomsday hadn’t materialized. But it got the Cycle World staff thinking…
Even though we dodged that one, shouldn’t we be prepared in case archeologists got the date on the Mesoamerican calendar wrong? And what about the popular Hollywood notion of a coming zombie acopalypse? Many people believe zombies actually exist. When was the last time you saw Keith Richards?
This much we agree upon: If you need to escape the chaos that a complete global catastrophe could produce, a motorcycle is your ally. And big, adventure-touring bikes are clearly the best choice for the “end-is-near” scenario. They offer on- and off-road capability, significant carrying capacity and great long-distance comfort. Plus, they can be fitted with armor to protect them from the inevitable hard knocks of the unknown world. A GSX-R is only going to get you so far when all hell breaks loose.
Our group of testbikes—all fitted with DOT-approved knobbies, saddlebags and various other protective parts—spans a broad spectrum, beginning with relatively lightweight 650cc Singles from Husqvarna (TR650 Terra) and Kawasaki (KLR650). Moving up in displacement and weight, we have the Triumph Tiger 800XC Triple, the KTM 990 Adventure Baja V-Twin and the behemoth Yamaha Super Ténéré, powered by a 1200cc parallel-Twin.
Travel just a few hours outside of the Los Angeles basin and the environment starts looking post-apocalyptic—desolate and barren, yet strikingly beautiful. During our three-day trip, we blasted through sand dunes, dodged abandoned mines and even hurtled past ghost towns left to rot in the harsh desert sun.
Our adventure began at the Hotel Maya (sorry, we had to!) in Long Beach. We headed north through the dense urban congestion of L.A., a task made far easier on a bike than in a car. Our ultimate destination? Salvation Mountain, the religious pop-art installation near the Salton Sea. But first, we had to visit some of Southern California’s famous natural landmarks along the way.
Outfitted For Armageddon
Accessory skidplate ($186.55), wide footpegs ($148.25), high windscreen ($129.15), handguards ($104.76), rear luggage rack ($222.43); Giant Loop Siskiyou Panniers ($649.00), Hot Springs Heat Shields ($50.00); Kenda Big Block tires ($175.98)
- A lightweight among mammoths
- Best fuel economy
- Great on tight, technical trails
- Needs more fuel capacity
- Better wind protection would make it a contender
- Exhaust pipes’ insatiable appetite for nylon and plastic saddlebags
Some things to consider when choosing a motorcycle to escape Armageddon: How much power is enough? How much weight is too much? Is technology a help or hindrance? And what about ease of maintenance? Can the bike be repaired with a Leatherman tool in the dark on the side of the road with mushroom clouds popping up on the horizon?
Moments after our departure, the 710 Freeway, one of the busiest trucking corridors in the country, began taxing our bikes with its rippled, stepped and potholed concrete. In this confining labyrinth of traffic and construction, all five bikes darted and bounded like cockroaches on the way to a buffet. Thankfully, long-travel suspension softened the ride, and upright riding positions helped us see over the cagers. As we filtered past downtown L.A. and beyond the San Fernando Valley, we were reminded how motorcyclists have the upper hand when it comes to leaving the city in a hurry. Adiós, amigos.
If simply getting to the edge of our megalopolis was the mission, we must give the nod to the largest-displacement machines, each of which produces more than 80 horsepower and considerable torque. But as we soon discovered, there were many equalizers up ahead.
Just hours outside of the city, after flicking through great twisty mountain roads near Lake Hughes, we left the asphalt slab and plowed into the first of many miles of unmaintained desert paths, roads and trails. Part sand, part hardpack and a whole lot unpredictable, the first trail turned the tides on the big bikes in a hurry, especially the Tiger 800XC and, to a lesser degree, the Super Ténéré.
“The 800XC defines a streetbike on knobbies,” said Off-Road Editor Ryan Dudek. “It’s most definitely not a dirtbike.” To which former staffer Jimmy Lewis added, “It’s held back by two significant points: a top-heavy feel and a cramped riding position.”
As for the Yamaha, Dudek said, “Even with its huge mass, the Super T works really well in the dirt. It’s a little too big to swerve around zombies, but it is stable enough to mow them down.”
Outfitted For Armageddon
Touratech skidplate ($130.80), Zega Pro panniers ($1247.20), headlight guard ($81.70); Continental TKC 80 tires ($248.98)
- Simple, effective and dead reliable
- Superior fuel range leaves buddies high and dry
- Never the quickest on the street or in the dirt but never far behind
- Basic suspension easily overwhelmed
- Rubber footpegs slippery when wet
- Not much faster than a VW microbus
The riders on the 404-lb. Husky and 436-lb. Kawasaki Singles looked relaxed by comparison, and when we finally hit tarmac again, the KLR continued to shine, as it is predictable and manageable regardless of the condition of the road. “The Kawi is really easy to ride off-road,” commented guest-tester Jesse Ziegler. “Despite the rubber footpegs, it’s really a dirtbike chassis and feels like one.”
Not far behind, but much less confidence-inspiring, was the Husky. “The TR’s handling is a bit awkward,” said Lewis. “The bike has a lot of weight on the front wheel and feels unstableat high speed.”
Transcending it all is the amazing KTM. Despite its size and not-insignificant heft, the 990’s chassis, steering geometry and ergonomics are impressive. “The KTM reminds me of a dirtbike and acts like one as long as I keep her under control,” said Lewis. “The biggest plus is the suspension, which works well in every situation.”
Later that afternoon, reality struck when another guest tester, John Volk-man, crashed the Triumph. Crossing two-track desert sand whoops, he got a little too comfortable with the bike’s capabilities and surpassed the limits of traction and balance.
When the dust settled (literally), parts were strewn across the desert. Functionally, the bike was fine. We lost a handguard (but not the lever it was protecting) and had to reattach the windscreen with Zip-ties, but the XC had nothing twisted or critically damaged apart from a broken bag mount. Plus, it looked way more Road Warrior. At least that’s what Volkman said. Day 1 finished with late-afternoon photos at the Trona Pinnacles, a surreal desert landscape used in Planet of the Apes.
Outfitted For Armageddon
Standard crash bars, handguards, skidplate, waterproof tankbag, tailpack, and DOT-approved Dunlop 908RR knobby tires.
- Comes standard with all the necessities
- A robust pile of manhood
- Dances through dunes like a camel on crack
- Two freaking fuel fillers
- Dunlop knobbies are squirmy on asphalt
- Poor maneuverability in tight quarters
Day 2 began early in below-freezing temperatures at Goat Breker’s Sky Ranch in Randsburg (randsburgcottagehotel.com). After exploring several old mines, we decided to skirt Death Valley and head to Dumont Dunes, a couple of long, cold hours away on the highway. Rotating through the bikes on a regular basis made us really appreciate each machine’s strengths and weaknesses. We also learned that there are certain bikes we dreaded riding when the wind was howling and the numbers on the world’s tallest thermometer in Baker weren’t even registering (okay, the thermometer was broken, but the weather was still freaking cold). Not to pick on any one bike in particular, but the poor Husky, with its stubby windscreen, proved quite unpopular when we hit long stretches of highway.
“It seemed like the other guys timed it so I would be on the highway, on this non-highway bike, far more than was fair,” said Ziegler. “It has little wind protection, and I could hear those guys laughing every time we snuck up to 90 mph. I’ve seen Mad Max enough to know that you have to ride a lot of highways after the s&*% hits the fan, and, for that, this bike sucks.”
At the opposite end of the adventure-bike plushometer is the Super Ténéré. “On the road, this bike kicks butt,” said Dudek. “It has a comfortable and open riding position, great wind protection, an awesome seat and power to the moon.”
Between those two extremes, the other bikes deliver varying degrees of comfort and wind protection. Every tester felt the KLR offered good (but not the best) shelter from the breeze, along with a decent seat. The KTM has spot-on ergonomics and a nice saddle, although the windscreen at freeway speeds caused some helmet buffeting. As for the Triumph, the single biggest complaint was the riding position. The footpegs are too high (on- or off-road), the bars too far forward and the seat/tank relationship makes the bike feel more like a streetfighter than an ADV bike. Oddly enough, no one bitched about the heated grips.
Outfitted For Armageddon
Accessory Arrow exhaust pipe ($799.99), billet footpegs ($149.99), black handlebars ($124.99), crash bars ($199.99), radiator guard ($79.99), skidplate ($209.99), headlight protector ($79.99), heated grips ($249.99), adjustable tall windscreen ($59.99), saddlebags ($799.99), centerstand ($219.99), top case sliding carriage kit ($149.99); Kenda Big Block tires, $217.98
- Awesome engine: smooth, powerful and fun
- Sounds like an angry warbird strafing the desert
- All the bells and whistles
- All the bells and whistles cost serious bank
- Funky ergos make no friends
- Top-heavy feel fights you off-road
Just as polarizing as the bikes were on the street, the unique riding techniques required in the sand dunes turned it up another notch. Suddenly, the 600-pound Yamaha became a liability, although watching Dudek blow out dunes on the Super T was a thing of beauty. Lightish weight and decent power suddenly turned the Husky into a wanted commodity. As it had been on every surface up to this point, the KLR was also a sound choice, not capable of performing many pet tricks but totally solid. In terms of pure fun, the Tiger, with the right rider, was exhilarating and an auditory orgasm.
“The XC’s motor, with the accessory Arrow exhaust, sounds like you’re putting zombies in a wood chipper that’s running on race gas,” said Ziegler. “It would do a fine job of improving your mood if you were, in fact, trying to outrun the undead.”
To no one’s surprise, the KTM proved to be king of the sand hill. Its engine wasn’t the favorite, but as the lightest of the big bikes and having the most off-road-oriented riding position and chassis feel, it was right at home, feeling like a much smaller enduro machine. Magic.
After a short freeway blast leaving Barstow on the morning of Day 3, we once again headed off-road. We jumped onto Camp Rock Road, a rock-strewn gravel route through Lucerne Valley. All five bikes were essentially on even footing here. Sure, the Super Ténéré, Triumph and KTM could all easily blast up to well over 100 mph, but there comes a time when you have to think about stopping. And you need time and space to reel in 600 pounds of mass on a loose, sandy surface, knobbies or not. Saner speeds soon prevailed, although the bikes would have been capable of sustaining those speeds all day if necessary.
After our high-speed hijinks, we slowed down in a hurry. Whoops as far as the eye could see. Not just any whoops, but seemingly endless ripples strung out across the desert and covered in three to six inches of sand and gravel. Not such a big deal for the KTM, KLR and TR, but the Triumph had to slow to a jog and the Ténéré to a shuffle. Nevertheless, in this environment, all five bikes had to be ridden with special care, as enduros they are not. We had to ride the Yamaha like a rock-crawling rig; otherwise, the poor bike would have joined the Triumph as a member of the walking dead.
Outfitted For Armageddon
Touratech skidplate ($327.20), crash guards ($419.99), headlight guard ($130.80), handguards ($121.50), large sidestand foot ($39.20); Wunderlich Vario brake/clutch levers ($398.00), GPS mount ($139.00); Continental TKC 80 tires, ($347.98)
- Best cockpit for the long haul
- Really can do it all
- Can be loaded like a yak
- Weight pays few dividends
- With no on/off switch, ABS must be “tricked” off
- Ponderous through technical terrain
The survival of our bikes—not to mention our general comfort and ability to carry supplies—was greatly enhanced by the factory and aftermarket accessories installed. We’ll never know for sure if the protective guards saved us from serious headaches, but judging by the loud metallic clanks we heard as rocks ricocheted off the skidplates, we would say they did. Ditto our mix of DOT-approved Kenda Big Block, Continental TKC 80 and Dunlop 908 knobby tires.
Late on Day 3, we rolled along the stinky shores of the Salton Sea and finally arrived at Salvation Mountain. Hallelujah! Think what you may about the quirky site’s religious iconography, but we became true believers when we spied a school bus full of German fashion models finishing up a video shoot, undoubtedly waiting for us.
Before we totally lost our focus, we discussed the merits of each bike, reminding ourselves that the best bike needn’t necessarily be the fastest, the best handling or the most technologically advanced. The real question is this: If you were picking one of these five as a survival tool, one that you could depend on in a wide and unknown variety of circumstances, which bike would you choose?
Don’t think that we have unfairly judged the Triumph after we rearranged its face; its last-place ranking has nothing to do with its crash damage. The Tiger got very high marks for its engine, suspension and attitude. What held the XC back is that it’s clearly the most street-oriented in the test. Off-road, the odd ergonomics and top-heavy feel never provided complete confidence. But we have to give the Triumph credit for surviving a pretty good tussle with desert, despite the fact that its left saddlebag now looks like it was used for AR-15 target practice.
Just a few more modifications would have vaulted the TR650 into the mix. “It’s a dirtbike with blinkers and luggage—sort of,” said Ziegler. “It was like cheating in the sand and rocks. It’s maneuverable and fun and makes a really good dual-sport bike, but in this comparison, its on-road shortcomings stood out too much. It’s not a survival bike.” A bigger fuel tank (combined with its best-of-test mpg) would have earned big bonus points, while a KLR-like fairing would have forced us to seriously reshuffle our final order. Aftermarket, take note.
Despite it gargantuan size and weight, the Super Ténéré does a commendable job of being a do-it-all machine. “This bike hauls ass and has the most long-distance comfort in the test,” said Ziegler. “It has good fuel range, is reliable and fun to ride. The wind protection is great, and it feels likes it goes about 150 mph. If the zombies are in Maseratis, the Yamaha is going to win.” Fact of the matter is this: The Super T, for its size, does remarkably well in the dirt, but for an unknown post-apocalyptic world, its weight and complexity keep it from being our first choice.
Our runner-up is going to ruffle some feathers, as two out of our five testers picked the KTM first. There is no question that the 990 Adventure Baja dominated almost all of the performance categories. “Overall, the KTM’s comfort is high, the engine gets the job done with power to spare, and the brakes are excellent,” said Lewis. “Downsides include a limited turning radius and soft engagement of the clutch. I’d prefer a little better fuel economy and, for sure, more range, but in Baja trim, the 990 offers a lot of value.”
Which brings us to the winner. Here, Volkman spoke for all of us: “No Internet support and no trained motorcycle technicians will be available after Armageddon. So, I want the AK-47 of adventure bikes. Beauty, plastic doodads and sophisticated electronics won’t matter. I don’t need a bike that will shed plastic in a fall like a Labrador Retriever loses fur in the summer. I need absolute reliability, ease of access to mechanical internals and no-manual fixability. This bike isn’t the best in all areas, but, like the AK, it will be simple, reliable and effective. The bike I’m riding through the dust with the sunset at my back is the Kawasaki KLR650. When I pull the trigger, I want it to fire. Dust, sand or mud won’t stop this bullet.”
|SPECIFICATIONS||Husqvarna TR650 Terra||Kawasaki KLR650||KTM 990 Adventure Baja||Triumph Tiger 800XC||Yamaha Super Tenere|
|List Price||$6999 ($8665 as tested)||$6499 ($8208 as tested)||$14,999||$11,999 ($15,342 as tested)||$14,790 ($16,714 as tested)|
|Warranty||12 mo./unlimited mileage||12 mo./unlimited mileage||24 mo./24,000 miles||24 mo./unlimited mileage||12 mo./unlimited mileage|
|ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN|
|Engine||liquid-cooled, four-stroke Single||liquid-cooled, four-stroke Single||liquid-cooled, four-stroke V-Twin||liquid-cooled, four-stroke inline-Triple||liquid-cooled, four-stroke parallel-Twin|
|Bore & stroke||100.0 x 83.0mm||100.0 x 83.0mm||101.0 x 62.4mm||74.0 x 61.9mm||98.0 x 79.5mm|
|Valve train||dohc, four valves per cylinder, shim adjustment||dohc, four valves per cylinder, shim adjustment||dohc, four valves per cylinder, shim adjustment||dohc, four valves per cylinder, shim adjustment||dohc, four valves per cylinder, shim adjustment|
|Valve adjust intervals||6000 mi.||26,250 mi.||9300 mi.||12,000 mi.||26,600 mi.|
|Induction||45mm throttle body||Keihin 40mm||(2) 48mm throttle bodies||(3) 44mm throttle bodies||(2) 46mm throttle bodies|
|Tank empty||404 lb.||436 lb.||505 lb.||522 lb.||598 lb.|
|Tank full||427 lb.||474 lb.||538 lb.||554 lb.||636 lb.|
|Fuel capacity||3.6 gal.||6.1 gal.||5.3 gal.||5.0 gal.||6.0 gal.|
|Wheelbase||59.6 in.||58.6 in.||61.7 in.||59.9 in.||60.7 in.|
|Rake/trail||27.0°/4.4 in.||28.0°/4.4 in.||26.6°/na in.||28.0°/5.0 in.||28.0°/5.0 in.|
|Seat height||34.3 in.||34.5 in.||34.5 in.||33.5 in.||33.0 in.|
|GVWR||840 lb.||788 lb.||948 lb.||966 lb.||1036 lb.|
|Load capacity (tank full)||413 lb.||314 lb.||410 lb.||412 lb.||427 lb.|
|SUSPENSION & TIRES|
|Front suspension:||46mm Sachs||41mm KYB||48mm WP||45mm Showa||43mm Kayaba|
|Claimed wheel travel||7.5 in.||7.9 in.||8.3 in.||8.7 in.||7.5 in.|
|Adjustments||none||none||compression and rebound damping, spring preload||none||compression and rebound damping, spring preload|
|Claimed wheel travel||7.5 in.||7.3 in.||8.3 in.||8.5 in.||7.5 in.|
|Adjustments||rebound damping, spring preload||rebound damping, spring preload||high- and low-speed compression and rebound damping, spring preload||rebound damping, spring preload||rebound damping, spring preload|
|Front||90/90-21 Kenda Big Block (as tested)||90/90-21 Continental TKC 80 (as tested)||90/90-21 Dunlop 908F RR Z (as tested)||90/90-21 Kenda Big Block (as tested)||110/80-19 Continental TKC 80 (as tested)|
|Rear||140/80-18 Kenda Big Block (as tested)||130/80/17 Continental TKC 80 (as tested)||140/80-18 Dunlop 908RR Z (as tested)||150/70-17 Kenda Big Block (as tested)||150/70-17 Continental TKC 80 (as tested)|
|1/4-mile||13.37 sec. @ 95.24 mph||14.50 sec. @ 86.44 mph||11.48 sec. @ 115.47 mph||12.19 sec. @ 109.15 mph||11.99 sec. @ 107.38 mph|
|0-30 mph||1.4 sec.||1.6 sec.||1.3 sec.||1.5 sec.||1.3 sec.|
|0-60 mph||4.3 sec.||5.4 sec.||3.1 sec.||3.6 sec.||3.3 sec.|
|0-90 mph||10.7 sec.||17.1 sec.||6.2 sec.||7.2 sec.||7.2 sec.|
|0-100 mph||15.9 sec.||na sec.||7.6 sec.||9.3 sec.||9.2 sec.|
|Top gear time to speed:|
|40-60 mph||5.3 sec.||6.0 sec.||4.7 sec.||3.5 sec.||4.3 sec.|
|60-80 mph||7.2 sec.||8.5 sec.||4.8 sec.||4.2 sec.||4.9 sec.|
|Measured top speed||105 mph||93 mph||129 mph||124 mph||118 mph|
|Horsepower||48.6 @ 7100 rpm||35.8 @ 6190 rpm||89.7 @ 8740 rpm||82.7 @ 9940 rpm||90.8 @ 7230 rpm|
|Torque||39.3 ft.-lb. @ 5710 rpm||33.1 ft.-lb. @ 4910 rpm||56.7 ft.-lb. @ 8120 rpm||51.9 ft.-lb. @ 7650 rpm||73.8 ft.-lb. @ 5660 rpm|
|High/low/average||48/42/45 mpg||45/34/41 mpg||41/21/36 mpg||43/33/40 mpg||40/29/35 mpg|
|Avg. range inc. reserve||167 mi.||250 mi.||191 mi.||200 mi.||210 mi.|
|From 30 mph||40 ft.||40 ft.||42 ft.||35 ft.||37 ft.|
|From 60 mph||164 ft.||161 ft.||170 ft.||144 ft.||152 ft.|