KTM has garnered a reputation (deservedly) for building high-performance, hard-edged machines that cater to what we might call the “one percent” of adventure riders. Let’s just say, you don’t hear jokes about KTMs and Starbucks parking lots. Its highly anticipated, new-for-2019 790 Adventure exemplifies that philosophy (read our comprehensive on- and off-road review here): an eminently capable lightweight ADV tourer that was designed for excursions into some pretty gnarly territory, especially in the off-road oriented R variation.
But what if you aren’t necessarily a “one percenter?” You like the idea of an adventure bike that isn’t gargantuan (a seat height of less than 35 inches would be great, thanks), but is comfortable, with adequate power for touring and high-speed passing and ample luggage capacity. Yet it can still tackle whatever “shortcut” your GPS throws at you — or worse — without breaking a sweat.
That pretty much describes me, so when our KTM 790 Adventure test bike showed up I snagged the keys and have clung to them stubbornly ever since, logging more than 3,000 miles commuting, canyon carving and road tripping, including a weekend ride up the coast for Babes Ride Out and this weeklong road trip to New Mexico to visit my mom and stepdad. They live on 80 acres of desert about 10 miles southeast of Deming, and getting there involves considerable highway slabbing along with a home stretch of a few miles of sandy dirt road, plus a quarter-mile of washed-out dirt driveway. In between are numerous opportunities to scrub the edges of the tires on pavement as well as non-paved detours to mines and other points of interest. Adventure bike territory.
Escaping Southern California took the better part of a day, heavy Orange County traffic giving way to sweeping low mountain vistas and finally, in Borrego Springs, at the bottom of a long, winding descent, the low, sprawling Colorado Desert, part of the 100,000-square-mile Sonoran Desert that covers much of southwestern Arizona and spreads southward into Baja California Sur and Sonora, Mexico. It is home to several unique species, including the iconic symbol of the American Southwest, the saguaro (“sah-WAH-roh”) cactus.
I’d timed my trip well; a week later, heavy rain poured for days, part of the massive winter storm that would wreak havoc on Thanksgiving holiday travel for much of the U.S. But on this ride, the skies were sunny and dry, and with lightly insulated gloves I only needed my heated liners in the early morning (our test bike was not equipped with the optional heated grips). The 790 has a comprehensive electronics package that includes three ride modes, Street, Rain and Offroad, that alter throttle response and IMU-based MTC (traction control), plus separately switchable Bosch 9.1 MP cornering ABS.
With its firm, flat, adjustable two-piece seat in the lower (32.7-inch) position, the 790 Adventure put me, at 5 feet, 9 inches, into a comfortably compact riding position while nearly allowing me to get both feet flat on the ground. Footpegs, which have rubber inserts to muffle any vibration, are high enough to allow ample off-road ground clearance and the handlebar, which is adjustable in six positions over a 1.2-inch range, is not as wide as some other larger ADV bikes. I put the windscreen into the higher of its two positions and found it deflected air around my helmet with very little buffeting.
Therefore I was comfortable and smiling the next day as I rolled into the town of Ajo (“AH-ho”), Arizona, some 38 miles from the U.S./Mexico border. This old mining town is experiencing a revival of sorts, with its gleaming whitewashed Spanish-style buildings lining the central plaza, a beautiful old school that’s been renovated into apartments for artists-in-residence and a hotel and conference center, as well as new coffee shops, cafés and artisans’ markets. It’s the kind of place that gives you hope for the future, with residents representing what they call the Three Nations: Caucasian American, Mexican-American and native Tohono O’odham.
Part of the appeal of an adventure tourer is the ability to explore at will, so when a local told me about a gravel road that looped around the old pit mine I was keen to check it out. The 790 Adventure’s 21-inch spoked front wheel, shod with tubeless Avon Trailrider 90/10 tires, rolled easily over the low rocky shelves and washouts, its 7.9 inches of suspension travel front and rear (non-adjustable except for rear preload) taking everything in stride, if a bit stiffly at the lower speeds at which I was traveling. It’s not just on dirt and gravel that a bike like the 790 Adventure shines, however. Keen to avoid the traffic in Tucson, later that day I found myself on narrow, bumpy, twisty Arivaca Sasabe Road, connecting State Route 286 with Interstate 19 through a lonely landscape where the only other vehicles I saw were U.S. Customs & Border Patrol units.
Another highlight was Apache Trail, a.k.a. Arizona State Route 88, a perfect ribbon of sinuous asphalt rippling into the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. I’d intended to go all the way to Roosevelt, with the asphalt giving way to dirt less than halfway up, but the road was inexplicably closed at Tortilla Flat. Too bad. I just had to turn around and retrace my corner-carving steps — carefully, as this was clearly a popular road for local riders as well as sports car-driving racer wannabes and pickups trundling along with boats in tow, headed to and from Canyon Lake.
Not all roads on this trip were so fun, however, with several hours-long 75-to-80-mph slogs on Interstates 8 and 10. The 790 Adventure’s 799cc liquid-cooled LC8c parallel twin has dual counterbalancers for smoothness, with a 75-degree crankpin offset and 435-degree firing order for V-twin-like character, and with 88.4 peak horsepower and 59.4 lb-ft of torque on tap (per the Jett Tuning dyno), it’s got enough spunk to hang at those speeds with room to spare, though sometimes at the expense of fuel economy. In a stiff headwind and at freeway speeds my mileage dipped as low as 34 mpg, but favorable conditions brought a high of 63 on this trip, averaging somewhere in the 50s, which meant my 5.3-gallon tank was good for close to 300 miles between fill-ups. The one caveat is that the 790 requires premium, which can be tough to find in the loneliest desert areas.
Apart from that minor detail, though, the KTM 790 Adventure is the rare lightweight adventure tourer that, depending on whether you choose the R version and how you equip it, works for the “100 percent”: it’s supremely capable off-road yet a pleasure to ride on long highways, and it’s downright fun in the twisties. Perfecting it for me would mean adding the optional centerstand, heated grips and cruise control, and maybe even some hard luggage, but even without all that I enjoyed all 1,787 (give or take) miles of my trip—and will continue to enjoy more until it’s time to give it back. With the 790 Adventure, the only question becomes: where do you want to go?
2019 KTM 790 Adventure Specs
Base Price: $12,699
Price as Tested: $13,059 (Quickshifter+)
Warranty: 2 yrs., 24,000 miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin
Bore x Stroke: 88.0 x 65.7mm
Compression Ratio: 12.7:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 18,600 miles
Fuel Delivery: EFI w/ 42mm throttle bodies x 2
Lubrication System: Semi-dry sump, 3.1-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated assist-and-slipper clutch
Final Drive: X-ring chain
Ignition: Electronic w/ digital adjustment
Charging Output: 400 watts max.
Battery: 12V 10AH
Frame: Chromium-molybdenum tubular steel w/ engine as stressed member, cast aluminum subframe & swingarm
Wheelbase: 59.4 in.
Rake/Trail: 25.9 degrees/4.2 in.
Seat Height: 32.7/33.5 in.
Suspension, Front: 43mm USD fork, non-adj., 7.9-in. travel
Rear: Single PDS shock, adj. for spring preload, 7.9-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 320mm floating discs w/ radial opposed 4-piston calipers & ABS
Rear: Single 260mm disc w/ 2-piston floating pin-slide caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Spoked tubeless, 2.50 x 21 in.
Rear: Spoked tubeless, 4.50 x 18 in.
Tires, Front: 90/90-21
Wet Weight: 469 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 523 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 992 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 5.3 gals., last 0.75 gal. warning light on
MPG: 91 AKI min. (low/avg/high) 34.0/54.2/62.6
Estimated Range: 286 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 4,100