There are still dedicated, highly competent sport tourers out there, but these days the job of traveling in fast-paced comfort is just as likely to be handled by adventure bikes. Despite their two-wheeled SUV appearance, most adventure tourers are more suited to street than trail, and with their spacious ergonomics, powerful engines, robust chassis and integrated electronics, what’s not to love?
Compared to traditional sport tourers, those of the adventurous persuasion typically offer less wind protection and taller seat heights, and some folks just can’t abide their utilitarian styling. If those qualities aren’t deal breakers for you, then a fully-featured, large-displacement sport adventure bike can provide all of the performance, sophistication and versatility you’ll ever need.
That’s particularly true of the Ducati Multistrada 1260 S Touring and KTM 1290 Super Adventure S, both of which are “new” for 2018 but are in fact evolutions of previous models. Their big V-twins make big numbers—on Jett Tuning’s dyno the Ducati’s 1,262cc 90-degree L-twin sent 140.2 horsepower and 85.5 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheel, and the KTM’s 1,301cc 75-degree V-twin made 132.2 horsepower and 81.4 lb-ft.
Electronically adjustable engine output, throttle response, traction control, cornering ABS and suspension damping/preload are common to both, as are cruise control, hill hold control, quickshifters, full-color TFT displays, keyless ignition and Bluetooth connectivity.
Riding modes tailor their behavior to different street conditions—Sport, Touring or Urban on the Ducati; Sport, Street or Rain on the KTM—and both have an Off-road mode. As tested, they’re ready to go the distance with cornering lights, adjustable windscreens, hand guards, heated grips, adjustable-height seats, saddlebags, luggage racks, centerstands, 12V outlets and 200-plus miles of range.
To suss out their relative strengths and weaknesses, we subjected them to daily commuting and local rides and then packed their panniers and flogged them on a two-day, 750-mile blast up the coast.
Since these are street-focused models—both are shod with grippy Pirelli Scorpion Trail II 90/10 adventure tires—we stayed off the dirt, and road conditions varied from poured-concrete freeways to poorly maintained back roads, with some of the tightest turns and steepest grades California has to offer.
In our recent test of the KTM (Rider, June 2018 and here), the 1290 impressed us with its ferocious power, well-sorted electronics, unflappability on technical roads and comprehensive features, including a standard tire-pressure monitoring system and a generous 6.1-gallon tank.
Its primary drawbacks are a seat made of stone and excessive engine heat. During this comparison, after less than an hour our backsides begged for mercy and, when riding through hot inland valleys, it felt like we had a furnace between our legs.
For EIC Tuttle and his 29-inch inseam, the KTM’s 33.9-inch seat height (in the low position) presented an additional challenge when mounting, dismounting and stopping on uneven surfaces. This is a common obstacle for some riders: unless you have long legs or years of experience on sky-high dirt bikes, many adventure bikes are literally out of reach.
But for someone like me—6 feet tall with a 34-inch inseam—the KTM’s ergonomics are nearly ideal, with ample legroom, upright seating and a reach to the bars that’s just right. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, comfort is in the body of the rider.
For 2018, Ducati gave the Multistrada 1260 S a new engine with more midrange power, improved aerodynamics, new chassis geometry for more stability and easier rider-aid setup.
In his first ride report from the Canary Islands, EIC Tuttle said the Multistrada combines “precise handling, fire-breathing engine performance and stellar suspension and brakes” with “all-day comfort from a mostly upright, relaxed seating position that still works well in attack mode” (read his full review in Rider, March 2018 or here).
The Ducati’s seat, perched at a more modest 32.5 inches in the low position, is more plush than the KTM’s. It also positions the rider closer to the handlebar and, due to the seat’s upward slope toward the back, locks the rider into place. Mark found the Ducati’s ergonomics more to his liking than the KTM’s, but I felt a bit cramped.
With similarly sized frontal areas and windscreens as well as standard hand guards, the Ducati and KTM offer comparable wind protection. Regardless of position, their manually adjustable windscreens are noisy, and the Ducati’s pinch-and-slide screen adjuster is easier to use on the fly than the KTM’s hand crank.
After descending the western face of the Santa Lucia Range to State Route 1 on the foggy Big Sur coast, the temperature dropped from 100 degrees to 55 degrees. Turning on the Ducati’s heated grips is simply a matter of pressing the button on the right handlebar.
Doing so on the KTM, however, requires an unnecessarily complicated two-step process. First, while the bike is stopped, you must go into the Preferences menu to activate the heated grips function, then—either while stopped or riding—you go into the Motorcycle menu, select Heated Grips and set the level (Maximum, Medium, Minimum or Off). If you don’t activate the heated grips in advance (a shadow icon will show up on the TFT display), then you can’t turn them on while riding.
Where these two bikes shine, what makes them so jaw-droppingly impressive, is the degree to which their engine performance, chassis dynamics and electronic riding aids work in harmony.
Ducati introduced its “four bikes in one” concept on the Multistrada 1200 back in 2010, and the riding modes have become more comprehensive over time with the incorporation of semi-active suspension, cornering ABS, wheelie control and an up/down quickshifter. On the new 1260, Ducati simplified rider-aid setup: just pick a riding mode and all of the parameters change accordingly (except for suspension preload).
But if a parameter is not to your liking, Ducati allows you to change it. For example, when riding aggressively in Sport mode, we found that the fork dove too much under hard braking and insufficient rebound damping contributed to bump steer on rough surfaces. We changed the front suspension damping setting from the default (Medium) to Harder and these problems went away.
Since it launched the 1190 Adventure for 2014, KTM has followed a similar development path, imitating Ducati’s “four bikes” approach and adding more features with each update. Unlike Ducati’s integrated riding modes, on the KTM you must separately select among four riding modes (which adjust throttle response, engine output and traction control), four suspension damping modes and three ABS modes.
You can choose different combinations of modes, but individual modes cannot be customized, and separate front/rear damping changes cannot be made. All the different modes and settings on these bikes may seem complex, but in practice they’re easy to use and unobtrusive; much of the time we’d pick a favorite, set it and forget it.
The Ducati and KTM cruise smoothly and quietly at highway speeds, and they’re docile around town. Where their distinct personalities emerge is on twisted and tangled back roads.
The Ducati has a modest horsepower and torque advantage over the KTM in the midrange and above 7,500 rpm, but from the saddle the KTM feels more potent, easily lofting its front wheel out of corners and over small rises. By no means does the Ducati feel weak or dull, but regardless of riding mode, its power delivery feels more restrained.
Likewise, in its standard settings the Ducati’s semi-active suspension feels softer than the KTM’s (though Ducati makes it easy to ramp up the stiffness), and the KTM has lighter, more precise steering. On the other hand, we preferred the Ducati’s brakes, which have more initial bite and better feel at the lever, over the KTM’s (both are made by Brembo).
We’ve put thousands of miles on different versions of the Ducati Multistrada and KTM Adventure over the years, and we’ve seen them improve steadily over time. Looking at the specs for the Multistrada 1260 S Touring and the 1290 Super Adventure S, there’s not much daylight between them—there are more similarities than differences.
What sets them apart is their underlying character, which EIC Tuttle summed up best by saying “the Ducati is a sport-touring bike and the KTM is a sportbike.” The Ducati is a very refined motorcycle, with more sculpted styling and qualities that appeal to a broader range of riders than the KTM, but at times it feels almost too polished.
The Multistrada does nothing wrong and does most things extremely well, but the fire in its belly doesn’t burn as intensely as the Super Adventure’s—an intensity that contributes to a visceral, total-focus riding experience, a man-and-machine synergy where steering feels telepathic and engine response feels just right.
But the KTM is definitely harder-edged, which isn’t for everyone. If we were going on a long tour, especially with a passenger, we’d pick the Ducati. But if we were going to slice-and-dice a set of canyon roads, we’d pick the KTM. Sometimes you need the right power tool for the job.
2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S Touring Specs
Base Price: $18,695
Price as Tested: $22,595 (S Touring model)
Warranty: 2 yrs., unltd. miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse 90-degree L-twin
Bore x Stroke: 106.0 x 71.5mm
Compression Ratio: 13.0:1
Valve Train: Desmodromic DVT, DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 18,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: Bosch EFI w/ 56mm elliptical throttle bodies x 2
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.1-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, hydraulically actuated assist-and-slipper wet clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Ignition: Dual spark
Charging Output: 500 watts max.
Battery: 12V 12AH
Frame: Tubular-steel trellis w/ cast aluminum single-sided swingarm
Wheelbase: 62.4 in.
Rake/Trail: 25.0 degrees/4.4 in.
Seat Height: 32.5/33.3 in.
Suspension, Front: 48mm USD, semi-active electronic w/ 6.7-in. travel (as tested)
Rear: Single shock, semi-active electronic w/ 6.7-in. travel (as tested)
Brakes, Front: Dual 330mm semi-floating discs w/ radial monoblock 4-piston calipers & cornering ABS (as tested)
Rear: Single 265mm disc w/ 2-piston semi-floating caliper & cornering ABS (as tested)
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 17 in.
Rear: Cast, 6.00 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-R17
Wet Weight: 570 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 422 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 992 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 5.3 gals., last 1.5 gals. warning light on
MPG: 91 PON min. (low/avg/high) 38.7/42.3/49.2
Estimated Range: 224 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 3,650
2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S Specs
Base Price: $17,999
Price as Tested: $19,724 (Travel Pack, Touring Cases)
Warranty: 2 yrs., 24,000 miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse 75-degree V-twin
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
Ignition: Digital electronic
Charging Output: 450 watts max.
Battery: 12V 11.2AH
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, semi-active electronic w/ 7.9-in. travel
Rear: Single shock, semi-active electronic w/ 7.9-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 320mm floating discs w/ opposed 4-piston radial calipers & cornering ABS
Rear: Single 267mm floating disc w/ 2-piston caliper & cornering ABS
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 19 in.
Rear: Cast, 5.00 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-ZR19
Wet Weight: 561 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 453 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 1,014 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 6.1 gals., last 0.9 gal. warning light on
MPG: 91 PON min. (low/avg/high) 32.6/40.3/44.8
Estimated Range: 245 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 3,500