2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S | Road Test Review

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
Roads come in all shapes, sizes and conditions, and the KTM 1290 Super Adventure S is designed to handle them all. It combines serious horsepower with a capable chassis, state-of-the-art electronics and useful touring features. (Photos by Kevin Wing)

With aggressive, chiseled design by Kiska and modular architecture, KTM’s range of liter-class motorcycles share common elements (engine, trellis frame, instrumentation) but are tailored to individual missions. The beating heart of the lineup is the liquid-cooled, 75-degree LC8 V-twin that’s been bulked up and sharpened over the past 15 years, from the original 942cc, 98-horsepower, carbureted version that powered the 2003 950 Adventure to the 1,301cc, 177-horsepower, fuel-injected version in the latest 1290 Super Duke R. True to KTM’s “ready to race” philosophy, the LC8 has proven itself time and again, from winning the Dakar Rally in 2002 to smashing the two-wheel record in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 2017.

Read our 2017 KTM 1090 Adventure R vs. Honda Africa Twin showdown here!

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S engine
Compact and powerful, the LC8 V-twin is the workhorse of KTM’s street bike lineup.

We’ve tested—and been impressed by—nearly all LC8-powered models over the years, but KTM made a quantum leap forward in 2014. That’s the year it shifted from the raw-and-rowdy era of the 950/990 Adventure to the state-of-the-art era of the 1190 Adventure, striking a more even balance between on- and off-road performance and showcasing emerging technology (it was the first production motorcycle to offer cornering ABS).

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
Packaging is tight in and around the chrome-moly steel trellis frame.

And just as the 950/990 Adventure was the genesis for spin-off models like the Super Duke, Super Enduro and Supermoto, the 1190 Adventure gave life to the 1290 Super Duke R naked sportbike, the 1290 Super Duke GT sport tourer (read our long-term review here) and the latest crop of adventure tourers—the off-road-ready 1090 Adventure R and 1290 Super Adventure R and the new street-focused 1290 Super Adventure S.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
Although it has the same basic shape as the 1190 Adventure from which it’s derived, the 1290 Super Adventure S is higher up on the evolutionary scale. Its larger engine makes more power, its semi-active suspension is more versatile and its electronics are more advanced. Windscreen height can be manually adjusted on the fly, and the handlebar, levers and seat are adjustable.

A distinctive design element now shared among several KTM models is a vertically split headlight array outlined by a pair of bright-white LED daytime running lights that resemble downturned horns, like a bull ready to charge. On the 1290 Super Adventure S, the array houses parallel sets of vertically stacked LEDs with low beam, high beam and cornering lights that illuminate sequentially as lean angle increases.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
With a distinctive vertical split, LED daytime running lights surround stacked LED headlights and cornering lights.

Replacing the analog tachometer and dual monochrome digital displays used for the past several years is a 6.5-inch, full-color TFT display that automatically switches from a white background in bright light to a black background in low light.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
New full-color TFT display has sharp graphics, but some of the text is too small to read at a glance.

Also new are auto-cancelling turn signals, the Race On remote keyless system for the ignition and fuel cap (inside the fob is a spring-loaded key for removing the seat and locking/removing the accessory panniers), a waterproof smartphone compartment with a USB charging port in the cockpit and the KTM My Ride Bluetooth system. And our test bike is equipped with the optional Travel Pack ($524.99), which adds Hill Hold Control, Motor Slip Regulation and Quickshifter + (up and down clutchless shifting).

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
The 1290 Super Adventure S is tall with a spacious cockpit and an upright seating position. Mounts for the accessory Touring Cases are integrated into the tail section. The cases are stylish and easy to use, but the high exhaust pipe limits volume on the right side (right: 30 liters, left: 36 liters).

Greg’s Apparel
Helmet: Scorpion EXO-AT950
Jacket & Pants: Scorpion Yukon
Boots: Sidi Gavia Gore-Tex

When the 1290 Super Adventure S arrived, we immediately pressed it into service, using it as our photo mule for a 850-mile comparison test ride to Joshua Tree National Park. In addition to a fast shutter finger, photographer Kevin Wing also has a quick wrist, and he was hard to keep up with on the KTM even though it was laden with fully loaded factory accessory Touring Cases ($1,199.99) and his heavy backpack was stuffed with camera gear.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
The 1290 Super Adventure S is ready to take on any road, paved or unpaved, the twistier the better.

That was a cold, blustery couple of days, and in terms of comfort and wind protection the 1290 passes muster. Its height-adjustable seat (33.9/34.4 inches) is hard and its windscreen, which is manually adjustable on the fly over a 2-inch range, provides only moderate coverage though it deflects airflow smoothly. But wind-blocking hand guards and heated grips keep hands warm, and, as with most adventure bikes, rider ergonomics are spacious and the seating position is upright and comfortable.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
Although height-adjustable at 33.9/34.4 inches, the rider’s seat is too hard for a bike so well-equipped for long-haul miles. Standard luggage rack accommodates KTM’s accessory top trunk.

Pack mule, thoroughbred, trail horse, spirited bronco—pick the equine metaphor for the experience you desire and the 1290 Super Adventure S will deliver thanks to its four riding modes (Sport, Street, Offroad and Rain), Motorcycle Stability Control (multi-mode, lean angle-sensitive ABS and traction control) and WP semi-active suspension with four damping settings (Sport, Street, Comfort and Offroad), pushbutton-adjustable rear preload and nearly 8 inches of front/rear travel.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
The KTM’s agile handling, semi-active, long-travel suspension, Brembo brakes and cornering ABS and traction control make short, confident work of tight corners.

Cast aluminum wheels in 19-inch front and 17-inch rear sizes carry Pirelli Scorpion Trail II 90/10 adventure tires that favor on-road performance but have moderate off-road capability (we stayed on the pavement for this review, but we’ve off-road tested other KTM Adventure models and they’ve been more than up to the task). Add in standard features like cruise control, a tire-pressure monitoring system, a centerstand, a luggage rack and integrated mounts for accessory panniers, as well as a 6.1-gallon tank that’s good for more than 200 miles, and what you get is a well-rounded motorcycle for sport and adventure touring.

That’s what I love about today’s do-it-all adventure bikes: the only thing holding me back is my imagination. Well, that and the usual obligations of employment, family and a mortgage. But seriously, as a Rider staffer I get more opportunities to ride than most, and when it comes to types of bikes and styles of riding, I’m omnivorous and voracious.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
The 1,301cc V-twin is strong and seductive, but it radiates a lot of heat.

Capable, versatile, exciting bikes like the 1290 Super Adventure S feed all my appetites. For weeks I’ve been commuting on the 1290, and those 50 round-trip miles are a nerve-jangling journey of clogged freeways, lane sharing and traffic lights. With the panniers and luggage rack I can easily transport whatever I need, and with damping set to Comfort the bike floats over U.S. Route 101’s ubiquitous concrete seams. And the KTM My Ride system and smartphone app, with my Sena headset and iPhone paired to the bike, allows me to display and control incoming calls (I decline those while riding), music and turn-by-turn navigation.

On a rare rainy day, I switched over to the Rain riding mode, reducing power, softening throttle response and increasing traction control sensitivity to better deal with the slick conditions. And on a recent morning’s commute, a big, red banner saying “rear tire pressure low” flashed on the TFT display to get my attention. I monitored the front and rear tire pressure readings on the dash to determine whether to pull over immediately or keep going, and with tire pressure holding steady, I was able to make it to work to do the necessary repair, appreciative that the bike was looking out for me.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
The only thing holding you back on the Super Adventure S is your imagination.

Turn down a desolate winding road, switch over to Sport mode and hold onto the reins—as soon as you give it the spurs, the 1290 launches eagerly into a full-on gallop, lightening the front wheel and mashing the rear contact patch into the pavement. This is riding at its thrilling, adrenaline-fueled best, with a lively, powerful V-twin wrapped in a high-caliber chassis with cutting-edge electronics.

In Sport mode, this version of the 1,301cc LC8 makes 132 horsepower at 9,300 rpm and 81 lb-ft of torque at 7,400 rpm at the chain-driven rear wheel, in a bike that weighs 535 pounds soaking wet. Street mode softens throttle response a bit and ratchets up traction control sensitivity, but it still delivers full power. Rain and Offroad mode, on the other hand, dial down engine output to 86 horsepower and 63 lb-ft of torque, taming the 1290’s red-blooded temper for tricky conditions.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
Whatever your destination, this motorcycle will get you there—and it will be one heckuva ride!

Regardless of the condition of the pavement or the radius of the curve, the KTM is unflappable. There’s no hesitation in the electronic throttle’s response, there’s never any doubt that the semi-active suspension will keep the chassis calm and the tires in contact with the road and there’s nothing but confidence coming from the strong, communicative Brembo brakes.

And I never gave a second thought to shifting the slipper clutch-equipped 6-speed transmission, especially when clicking through multiple clutchless upshifts while hard on the gas (for downshifts I prefer using the clutch for a bit more finesse). The 1290 Super Adventure S feels solid and well integrated, with no glaring deficiencies or compromises.

My two complaints about the 1290 are the same ones we’ve had about KTM Adventures in the past, and they perhaps stem from its performance-oriented nature: the seat is too hard and the engine radiates too much heat. Installing KTM’s accessory Ergo seat may solve the seat issue, but it costs $199.99 and increases seat height by 0.8 inch (a heated version is also available). Engine heat, on the other hand, is less amenable to a quick fix.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S dyne
2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S Dyno run on the Jett Tuning Dyno.

After nearly 2,000 miles of testing, we’re not ready to give the 1290 back and I’m looking forward to our next multi-day adventure. While writing this, I wandered down memory lane and recalled past trips I’ve taken on its predecessor, the 1190 Adventure—a challenging press launch ride around Mount Teide, a volcano in the middle of the island of Tenerife; a multi-day comparison ride and staff campout in Central California, with a few dirt roads thrown in; and an 11-hour superslab ride out to Moab, Utah, for a couple days of trail riding, followed by a scenic return trip through Bryce and Zion National Parks.

Exactly the sort of adventure touring the 1190 was designed for, a mix of conditions and surfaces and speeds. And the 1290 Super Adventure S is more powerful, more sophisticated and better equipped in every way to handle whatever adventure you have in mind. Just remember to drop your mortgage payment in the mailbox on your way out of town.

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S with optional Travel Pack ($524.99) and accessory Touring Cases ($1,199.99).

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S Specs
Base Price: $17,999
Price as Tested: $18,524 (Travel Pack)
Warranty:2 yrs., 24,000 miles
Website: ktm.com

Engine
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse 75-degree V-twin
Displacement:1,301cc
Bore x Stroke: 108.0 x 71.0mm
Compression Ratio: 13.1:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 18,600 miles
Fuel Delivery: Keihin EFI w/ 52mm throttle bodies x 2
Lubrication System: Dry sump, 3.8-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, hydraulically actuated wet slipper clutch
Final Drive: X-ring chain

Electrical
Ignition: Digital electronic
Charging Output: 450 watts max.
Battery: 12V 11.2AH

Chassis
Frame: Chrome-moly steel trellis w/ engine as stressed member & aluminum subframe; cast aluminum swingarm
Wheelbase: 61.4 in.
Rake/Trail: 26 degrees/4.7 in.
Seat Height: 33.9/34.4 in.
Suspension, Front: 48mm USD fork, semi-active w/ 7.9-in. travel
Rear: Single shock, semi-active w/ 7.9-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 320mm floating discs w/ opposed 4-piston radial calipers & ABS (linked to rear)
Rear: Single 267mm floating disc w/ 2-piston caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 19 in.
Rear:Cast, 5.00 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-ZR19
Rear:170/60-ZR17
Wet Weight: 535 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity:479 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 1,014 lbs.

Performance
Fuel Capacity: 6.1 gals., last 0.9 gal. warning light on
MPG: 91 PON min. (low/avg/high) 35.3/38.7/48.6
Estimated Range: 235 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 3,500

4 COMMENTS

  1. The heat is a real propblem and that’s a shame for such an otherwise great bike.

    On my 1290S I’ve put a ceramic coating on the pipes, lagged the rear pipe and fitted the optional side panels which fill in a small amount of the frame’s trellis work.

    It has given a definite improvement, but it’s still pretty toasty. Ironically I think the bike can dissipate the heat as needed when in slow moving traffic, it’s when the bike is on the move and you’re giving it a bit of the “rice & beans” that I find it’s ŵorst. I think the bike just throws off epic amounts of heat.

    On a cold day I pulled off a glove while riding and used it as a temperature probe to find the sources of the heat. You’ve got heat coming from the radiator and lowing Dow the side o the bike, coming up from underneath and coming directly up from the under the seat. I honestly think the issue is that they all add together and the natural vortex behind a riders knees pulls all the heat behind the knee/thigh.

    What it needs is a way of fresh air to be vented along/under the tank and coming out under the seat/behind the knees. This would increase air flow and air pressure at that point which should stop the heat being drawn inwards in the first place.

    Anyway It is a fantastic bike to ride which makes it at least a balanced argument about the heat!

    • Thanks for the comment! I was wondering about the heat because I test rode the original 1290 SA and that sucker released some serious heat on a hot/humid summer day here in KY. I was hoping it was reduced with this new 1290 SA-S. I typically don’t complain about engine heat much but man that thing was roasting me, even in mesh gear.

  2. I’m about to retire my 2013 1190 Adv (not the R) in favour of this, its more refined and sprightlier descendant, though mine will be the one dressed in black.

    The 1190 has served me well, and is the best bike I’ve ridden of more than a dozen over a span of some 30+ years: nimble, sure-footed, well-behaved (mostly), and a delight to ride. Equally impressive is how the KTM dealer attended to the OEM recall/upgrades (air box, heat shield) with impressive alacrity. Brand loyalty is definitely warranted here.

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