In 2004, Austrian motorcycle company KTM famously turned down a sponsorship deal for Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round. KTM had its reasons for turning McGregor down; it’s always been a grassroots company with a low-key approach to marketing and advertising. Perhaps that’s why when I flicked KTM an email asking if I could borrow their biggest and baddest to ride around Colombia’s Andes Mountains for a month, they wrote back saying, “Sure, no problem.” I ended up on a straight-out-of-the-showroom 1290 Super Adventure S with its over-the-top 1301cc V-twin engine.
“Knowing how tricky Colombian roads are in terms of traffic and quality, we went for the Super Adventure S for your trip. Having 160 horsepower will make it much easier for you to ride through the Andes,” David Vasquez of KTM Colombia told me when I picked up the motorcycle in the city of Medellin. “It’s one of the most versatile motorcycles that we have. It can handle anything you throw at it.”
I decided to put Vasquez’s claim to the test and ride the Super Adventure S along some of Colombia’s most challenging roads, including the single-lane, cliffhanging, heart-stopping El Trampoline de la Muerte (The Trampoline of Death) near the border with Ecuador—the most dangerous road in the country.
• Comfort, Ergonomics and Electronics
BMW GS Series are essentially couches on wheels. You can ride one all day and never feel sore. As a survivor of spinal trauma, it’s the reason I’ve made them my weapon-of-choice in challenging environments like the South Island of New Zealand and Alps of Spain.
But after a couple of hours on the Super Adventure S, my back got sore because the seat was too hard. It’s was also too high. I’m average height, but I often had to ask passersby to help me reverse out of awkward parking spots. Another problem I had was its weight—just over a quarter of ton with a loaded top box. On my first day in Colombia, I dropped it twice—once on each side for good measure—while trying to park. But, as I assured Vasquez at KTM Colombia, it was nothing that couldn’t be buffed out. And after taming this motorcycle, I grew to love it—and I wasn’t alone.
The Super Adventure S turns as many heads as a Lamborghini. Even GS riders I met riding across the continent on the Pan American Highway were fascinated by my bike’s LED daytime riding light shaped like an upside-down bulls horn, and also the 20cm wide anti-glare flat screen instrument panel and keyless operating system. Instead of a key slot, there’s a button that activates the motorcycle—so long as the pocket-size transponder is within a one-meter range.
KTM claims the Super Adventure S has the most advanced electronics in the world of motorcycling. While GS riders can choose between road, off-road, rain and sport mode, Super Adventure riders can mix and match between various elements of these four riding modes, fine-tuning things like suspension, Anti-Lock Braking (ABS) and Motorcycle Traction Control (MTC) using a Nintendo-style multi-button pod on the handlebar.
But the system has bugs. My motorcycle had problems communicating with its transponder and the KTM My Ride app I downloaded onto my smartphone. The ABS also went offline. These problems were ironed out at a KTM workshop in Cali, but I’m not the first reviewer to report ghosts in this machine.
• Power and Performance
So how does the Super Adventure S handle? Un-bloody-believably well!
Unlike BMW’s R1200GS, which feels like a lumbering bus when riding the twisties, the Super Adventure S is a lean machine. Designed by Bosch, both the ABS and MTC are lean sensitive, meaning this motorcycle actually knows when you’re in a corner—a world first—and reacts accordingly. Even at 40km/hour, the thing lunges to the side like Mohamed Ali. At 100km/hour it brings you within eye level of the asphalt before razor-sharp handling straightens the motorcycle before the next thrilling dip.
With a 1301cc engine, acceleration is obscene. Even in street mode, shifting up a gear and letting the Super Adventure S rip is like fast-forwarding a movie. Yet, accelerate in Sport Mode and it feels like that bit in Back to the Future where the DeLorean shoots through the space-time continuum; it literally takes your breath away. “KTM’s concern isn’t having a plush seat. It’s putting a smile on your face when you open the throttle,” says Vasquez.
Off-road, the Super Adventure S also takes a little time to get used to. At first, I felt like Santa Claus jingle-jangling on an oversize sled while navigating the rocky backroads of the Andes. But as I became more confident, I realized this monster actually handles like a light and nimble KTM dirt bike. Credit again goes to the almost comically oversized engine. Even when tuned down to an output of a mere 100 horsepower in off-road mode, the Super Adventure S is unstoppable on the trails. And its lumbering bulk is actually a plus. It’s so damn big it just sails over ruts—long deep grooves made by the repeated passage of cars on unsealed roads in which small motorcycles often get stuck. All I had to do was point the thing in the right direction and hang on for the ride. The computer-controlled suspension did the rest.
• The Verdict
KTM’s attempt to win over BMW diehards like me in the super-competitive adventure motorcycle market was never going to be easy—even if they came up with a faultless alternative. The bugs need to be eliminated and they may want to do something about that damn seat. Many who would buy a KTM Super Adventure S for $20,000 are middle-aged men like me who love getting down and dirty but no longer want to suffer for their sport.
But there’s no question the Austrians have made the Germans nervous with their Super Adventure S. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. A motorcycle that talks?
- Type: 75-degree V-twin
- Displacement: 1301cc
- Max power: 160 horsepower @ 8750 rpm
- Max torque: 103 ft/lbs @ 6750 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed
- Clutch: PASC slipper clutch, hydraulically operated
- Front suspension; travel: Electronically adjusted, semi-active inverted 48mm WP fork; 7.9 inches
- Rear suspension; travel: Electronically adjusted, semi-active WP shock; 7.9 inches
- Front wheel: 3.50 x 19″ / Rear wheel: 5.00 x 17″
- Front tire: 120/70 ZR 19 / Rear tire: 170/60 ZR 17
- Front brakes: 320mm discs w/ radially mounted 4-piston Brembo calipers
- Rear brake: 267mm disc w/ 2-piston Brembo caliper
- ABS: Bosch 9ME Combined-ABS w/ Cornering-ABS and off-road mode; disenengageable