We’re streaking across the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, following a meandering two-track road that’s a mix of sand, gravel and hardpack. The riders ahead are within sight, but I hang back to let the dust clear and keep an eye out for sudden drop-offs or sharp turns. The herd of camels we pass couldn’t care less about our noisy caravan of bright-orange KTMs. Again and again, as the road dips to cross sand washes, nearly 10 inches of well-calibrated suspension take the gravity drops in stride and a light tug on the handlebar lofts the front wheel over rises on the far side. By the end of the day, our route will have taken us more than a hundred miles across wide-open flats, over and around ancient limestone formations and into the golden sands of the Erg Chebbi dunes.
With 18 consecutive Dakar victories, KTM has been stoking desert rally fantasies for years. So where better to showcase its new 790 Adventure and 790 Adventure R, which were developed alongside its 450cc rally racer, than Erfoud, Morocco, home of the Merzouga Rally and training grounds for KTM’s race team. For those who don’t want or need the size, weight and triple-digit horsepower of an open-class ADV bike, KTM’s 790 Adventures provide a smaller, lighter alternative, with both models designed to be highly capable off-road yet comfortable and versatile enough for long-distance touring. Built on a common platform, the 790 Adventure is aimed at general adventure-touring enthusiasts while the taller, higher-spec 790 Adventure R is geared towards more demanding off-road riders.
Weighing just 417 pounds dry (claimed, probably 450 pounds wet), the 790s are much lighter than their 800cc counterparts from BMW and Triumph. Contributing to their low weight is the 799cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC LC8c parallel twin that also powers the 790 Duke sportbike. Its compact dimensions and vertically stacked gearbox allow for a short wheelbase, a traction-enhancing long swingarm and a moderate seat height. Dual counterbalancers keep vibration at bay while a 75-degree crankpin offset and 435-degree firing order produce the sound and feel of a V-twin. As a stressed member of the tubular chrome-moly steel frame, the LC8c saves weight and contributes to chassis stiffness. Further weight savings come from the engine’s high-pressure cast aluminum cases, lightweight camshaft, Nikasil-coated aluminum cylinders, forged pistons with DLC-coated pins and low-mass crankshaft.
A distinctive feature of the 790s is their horseshoe-shaped fuel tank, which runs from the central filler down both sides of the bike and expands into two large pods that protrude from either side of the engine. Adapted from the tank on KTM’s 450 Rally Replica, the design’s advantages include a lower center of gravity, protection for the engine, less bulk between the knees for stand-up riding, the largest in-class fuel capacity at 5.3 gallons and easier maintenance since the air filter, battery and fuses are accessible under the seat. An exhaust pre-chamber beneath the bike also keeps mass low and centralized, while a short, high-mount silencer allows plenty of ground clearance.
Given the off-road and touring missions of the 790 Adventures, the LC8c has been tuned accordingly. Compared to the 790 Duke, the Adventures make less peak horsepower (95 vs. 105) but slightly more torque (65.6 vs. 64.2 lb-ft) that’s delivered at 6,500 rpm instead of the Duke’s 8,000, with the entire torque curve shifted down in the rev range for stronger low to midrange grunt. Multiple riding modes (Street, Offroad and Rain) adjust throttle response and lean-angle sensitive Motorcycle Traction Control (MTC) settings, and power reaches the rear wheel by way of an assist-and-slipper clutch, a 6-speed transmission and chain final drive.
With spoked tubeless wheels in 21-inch front/18-inch rear sizes, both models are ready for any type of terrain, but the standard model gets more street-biased Avon Trailrider 90/10 tires while the R model gets Metzeler Karoo 3 70/30 tires. As the more touring-oriented of the two, the 790 Adventure has less suspension travel (7.9 inches front/rear), separate rider/passenger seats with a lower, adjustable rider seat height (32.7/33.5 inches), a tall windscreen (height adjustable over a 1.6-inch range using a hex key in the toolkit) and a low front fender. The only adjustability on the 790 Adventure’s WP Apex suspension, which includes a 43mm upside-down fork and a PDS (Progressive Damping System) shock, is rear preload.
Since the 790 Adventure R is likely to spend more time in a wider variety of off-road conditions, it’s equipped with a Rally mode that allows on-the-fly changes to traction control over nine levels as well as a separate, more aggressive Rally throttle map. The 790-R’s WP Xplor suspension, with a 48mm upside-down fork and a PDS remote-reservoir shock, is fully adjustable (including high and low speed compression on the shock) and provides 9.4 inches of travel. It also has more ground clearance, a 34.6-inch rally-style seat, a short adjustable windscreen and a high front fender.
A half-day of street and light off-road riding on the 790 Adventure gave me an appreciation for how much more accessible it is than other models in KTM’s lineup, such as the 690 Enduro R (35.8-inch seat) and the 1090 Adventure R (35-inch seat). Not only is the 790 Adventure’s seat much lower, it’s flat, spacious and comfortable. On both 790 models, arms reach out to a wide handlebar that’s six-position adjustable over a 1.2-inch range and fitted with wind- and brush-blocking hand guards, and feet rest on large cleated pegs with removable, vibration-absorbing rubber inserts.
Our street route was on flat, mostly straight roads sandblasted by crosswinds, so conditions were not ideal for testing cornering performance. Nonetheless, the LC8c engine felt lively and responsive and the 790 Adventure’s long-travel suspension has the stroke and tuning to absorb bumps and dips gracefully at high and low speeds. Even riding across tire ruts and down a rough dirt road, the 790 Adventure maintained its composure, aided by a steering damper that’s standard on both models. Hard braking–such as when a stray dog ran across the road in front of me–was made easy with dual 4-piston radial-mount front calipers squeezing 320mm discs and a 2-piston rear caliper squeezing a 260mm disc, backed up by Bosch 9.1 MP cornering ABS. A full-color, 5-inch TFT display and intuitive buttons on the left bar make it easy to select among the various modes and settings, though a larger font would make the information easier to read at a glance.
The 790 Adventure R was clearly the main focus of the launch, with KTM devoting a full day of testing to the bike, spooning on Continental TKC80 50/50 on/off-road tires for better traction and installing the optional Akrapovič titanium slip-on exhaust for more bark and bite. KTM even enlisted some of its former Dakar racers as ride leaders; fortunately, I was assigned to the group led by Jordi Viladoms, a 10-time Dakar competitor and KTM’s Rally Sport Manager, who set a spirited but reasonable pace. Going from the 790 to the 790-R isn’t a transition from soft to hard. The R is taller, but it’s seat is still comfortable and the rest of the ergonomics are just as agreeable. The big step up with the 790-R is it’s Xplor suspension, which offers an incredible degree of damping control and consistency over everything we encountered—rough pavement, soft sand, loose gravel, hardpack dirt and embedded rock. With ABS in Offroad mode (which disables the cornering function and ABS at the rear wheel) and MTC in Rally mode, I was able to back the rear wheel into and out of corners with control. Standing up or sitting down, the 790-R delivered the engine response, maneuverability, well-balanced weight and electronic assistance to help an intermediate rider like me push my limits with confidence.
At $12,499 for the 790 Adventure and $13,499 for the 790 Adventure R, these bikes deliver serious performance and wide-ranging capability for the money. Many useful features are standard (such as an aluminum engine guard, LED lighting, a luggage rack, a 12V dash socket, an underseat USB port and water-resistant smartphone pocket, storage compartments behind side panels and Bluetooth connectivity using the KTM My Ride app), while others cost extra (such as a centerstand, a quickshifter, cruise control, heated grips and TPMS). Accessories for both models include a low seat (35.2 inches), various types of luggage, additional crash protection and more.
If most of your time will be spent on the road or if seat height is a concern, then the standard 790 Adventure is the obvious choice. But if you enjoy exploring backcountry roads and trails, the extra $1,000 for the fully adjustable Xplor suspension and standard Rally mode is money well spent. Since seats, windscreens and accessories are interchangeable between the two and Rally mode is available as an option on the standard model, there’s plenty of room to tailor either 790 to your liking. Either way, you’ll be a lot closer to turning your adventure fantasies into reality.
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2019 KTM 790 Adventure / 790 Adventure R Specs
Base Price: $12,499 / $13,499
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin, DOHC w/ 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 88.0 x 65.7mm
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated assist-slipper clutch
Final Drive: X-ring chain
Wheelbase: 59.4 in. / 60.2 in.
Rake/Trail: 25.9 degrees/4.2 in. / 26.3 degrees/4.3 in.
Seat Height: 32.7/33.5 in. / 34.6 in.
Claimed Dry Weight: 417 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 5.3 gals.