Having spent most of 2008 to 2010 riding more than 60,000 miles through much of North and South America on the BMW R1200GS and KTM’s 990 Adventure bikes, we certainly learned about each motorcycle and developed opinions on various aspects of each. Hoping this review will shed some light for the motorcycle shoppers out there looking for answers, we start with the question “Which is better: The BMW or the KTM?”
Broken down by category, here we go...
Overall Feel & Character
The BMW – As accommodating as we could ever ask a motorcycle of this girth to be, the R1200GS is perfect for those who like a feeling of tranquility and smoothness when riding a motorcycle. From the silky gyrations of the powerful 1200cc engine to the way the bike itself turns, everything about the BMW says “easy to ride.” It’ll follow your commands with ease on pavement and glide down unforgiving dirt roads with authority on multi-day adventure rides. With great looks, and solid construction, it’s also typically the preferred of the two bikes by passengers.
The KTM – Whereas the BMW sure grabs the title of “smooth & easy,” the KTM will feel more like you’re riding a 470-pound lion with a case of blue balls and some serious anger management issues. Hang on tight! Although these motorcycles boast a similar power output, KTM’s LC8 V-Twin engine thrives within the more dirt-bike-like chassis of the two and stands out as the bike of choice for adrenaline junkies. The way the engine pulls & roars combines with this bike’s athletic shape and cannot be confused with anything called “relaxing.” If the KTM isn’t the favorite by passengers, it sure does gain points by making you feel younger.
WE RIDE BMW R1200GS's On The "Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego & Ushuaia!" Guided Motorcycle Tour
The BMW – The famous BMW boxer engine is still being made for good reasons. As reliable as one could expect a motorcycle engine to be and packed with power steadily through its range, maybe the only drawback to this engine is the position of the cylinders. Unless protected with quality crash bars, setting this motorcycle down at any kind of speed can cause significant damage to the cylinder heads, and if your ride involves any kind of legwork and foot planting, you’ll bang your shins frequently on the protruding cylinders left and right.
The KTM – While we’re not seeing as many reports of 100,000+ miles on the LC8 as we do with the boxer engine, if properly maintained, there’s nothing saying you won’t get enough miles out of your KTM to have bug-splattered goggles and permanent grin for years to come. The LC8 definitely struggles a bit in that sub-3000 rpm range where the boxer engine is still quite playful; however, everything above 3000 rpm’s is pure joy as “the lion” is unleashed, including the engine’s roar which is best enhanced by Akrapovic aftermarket pipes.
In the Twisties and Turns
The BMW – High or low-speed curves are a pleasure on this motorcycle. With the advantage of the smaller 19” front wheel leading the way, especially on the pavement, the R1200GS follows every curving command with grace.
The KTM – Especially in low-speed turning situations, you’ll quickly realize that this bike was designed to be barreling through the desert at 100+mph. Hopefully you’re buying a motorcycle with long-distance touring thoughts in mind, and low-speed turns aren’t of concern. Just thought we’d point out though, that the KTM is a bit awkward on those hairpin turns you’re destined to come across.
The BMW – The BMW is definitely the more expensive bike of the two, but do your own research here and figure the pricing differences in your market. One bonus with the BMW is that they retain their value extremely well.
The KTM – So much muscle, adventuring capability, and fun packed into one bike: One incredible value. Considerably less expensive than the BMW but still such a great motorcycle, the 990 Adventure’s credibility in the marketplace is well earned.
The BMW – An absolute highlight of the R1200GS is its ability to stop, and the motorcycle excels in this category for two main reasons: 1) The BMW automatically distributes 70% braking power to the front wheel, and 30% to the rear just by using the right hand brake lever. While this feature sure can make a rider lazy as he forgets how to use the rear pedal brake, there are times when it’s absolutely fantastic. 2) With the R1200GS’s Telelever front suspension system, the motorcycle doesn’t sink forward during braking the way motorcycles with traditional telescopic forks tend to. By maintaining its stance and not tucking forward, you can grab more brake without doing a somersault with the motorcycle.
The KTM – There’s nothing wrong with the KTM’s brakes, but in comparison to the BMW, they’re just okay. Both bikes come equipped with ABS these days, which statistically is improving motorcycle safety everywhere. Both motorcycles are also fitted with twin front-discs and a single rear disc plenty sufficient for stopping these heavy bikes.
Transmission & Shifting
The BMW – Oops, the R1200GS still doesn’t have this quite right. From the little struggles and wiggles that are necessary to get into 1st gear to the high percentage of “misses” going into 2nd, this fairly clunky gearbox just doesn’t match such an otherwise great machine. Some blame the shaft drive, but it is what it is. Add to this situation the smell of the dry clutch reminding you just how long you’ve been looking for a hotel in some steeply graded town and further disappointment of this transmission is inevitable.
The KTM – In contrast to the R1200GS, the KTM’s transmission is a masterpiece. A joy to shift. Flawless from our point of view. Maybe our comments about the BMW appear so negative because we’re comparing it to the fantastic gearbox that KTM has attached to the LC8 engine; but with all the reliability we could ask for it seems as though just thinking about shifting is what it takes to do exactly that. Even in the full motocross boots, sitting or standing, KTM’s wet-clutch transmission is as easy to ride as any we’ve ever tested.
WHAT ABOUT THE KTM vs. F800GS? See our blog post that compares the 2 more similar bikes
The BMW – Again giving credit for the performance of the Telelever front suspension, keeping your front end from sinking while braking sure is great. On the open road and through the curves, the R1200GS soaks up imperfections in the road and maintains itself gracefully after having adjusted it correctly for your weight. By the very nature of having smallish wheels (19/17 inch) the bumps are definitely still there though. Also worth mentioning here is the downside to the Telelever suspension, in that the front wheel will often feel “lost” a bit in off-road situations. Navigating ruts and rocks in off-road situations requires great sensibility as to where your front wheel is, and the Telelever design just doesn’t transmit the same sensations back to the rider as traditional forks do.
The KTM - One might expect the KTM suspension to pale in comparison to the elaborate Telelever system on the BMW, but it’s actually a fantastic setup. The 990 Adventure’s WP suspension sits atop 21/18-inch wheels that help the KTM roll over bumps and potholes just as smoothly as the BMW. Then take the KTM in the dirt, and you’ll start to notice where greater suspension travel and ground clearance comes in handy (almost 3 inches greater clearance.) With compression, preload and rebound adjustment options built in, you can tune this bike to your liking and really make an off-road warrior out of it.
The BMW – The R1200GS comes with extremely durable and tubeless rims. Saving you time in the event of a flat tire and saving space from having to carry spare tubes and tools with you, these are the ultimate convenience. The tubeless wheels add to the original cost of the motorcycle of course, which helps explain the difference in the two.
The KTM – The 990 Adventure comes with extremely durable rims as well, but also the inconvenience of having to carry spare tubes, tire irons, and all the little goodies that go into an hour-long flat fix on the side of the road. You can easily save some space by hiding your extra tubes behind the plastic fairings up front, but there’s no disputing that tubeless wheels would be more convenient.
WE ALSO RIDE BMW R1200GS's On The "Patagonia Experience" Tour in Chile & Argentina
Clubs & Community
The BMW – An important part of motorcycle ownership is the connections you make with other people and experiences that stem from riding with them. BMW is the reigning king here with a wide range of clubs, group rides, and rallies worldwide. Bring along the BMW’s Owner’s Anonymous Book that helps us contact other owners in countries around the world, and you’ll never feel alone in the case of a breakdown.
The KTM – While KTM ownership doesn’t include as many club & networking opportunities, riders will still find themselves automatically connected to the wide world of racing. The undisputed king of Enduro and Rally racing across the globe, other KTM riders will instantly lend a hand to their non-racing friends donning orange.
The BMW – This is a tough topic to tackle, as we should really have some hard, factual statistics to refer to before awarding comments. Until such a database exists though, let’s just say the BMW appears to be doing very well in terms of dependability. From its ultra-reliable boxer engine at the center and working your way outward, only a few electrical problems (antenna key-ring and fuel pump module) seem to be talked about in recent years. In general though this motorcycle will take whatever terrain, temperature, or fuel you subject it to, and year after year keep on running.
The KTM – Another top quality bike overall, but hindered by a few routine issues that don’t seem to be getting any better with time. Be it on the carbureted 950 models, or the fuel-injected 990’s, owners seem to be burning through OEM fuel pumps on these bikes with regularity (especially in fuel situations of lower quality, like in Latin America.) The frequent need to change the water pump seal can lead to enormous problems if unattended to, and the clutch pump seems to be an issue year after year for riders. Set aside those few glitches however, and again, this is an extremely reliable motorcycle.
The BMW - If you enjoy the challenges of keeping your motorcycle running alone, the BMW will definitely take less of your time. In the case of valve adjustments, laterally-positioned cylinder heads are practically there in your lap, and extremely easy to get to. The smaller tasks like air filters and oil changes are quick and easy as well, and shouldn’t require more than a few beers to get through.
The KTM – If motorcycle maintenance is one of your excuses to drink beer, buy a KTM and grab another case of Meister Brau, as the KTM definitely takes more time. Plan on 4-5 hours (how many beers is that?) to complete a valve-adjustment, and about half that to change the air filter and oil together. The KTM isn’t more complicated, it’s just more time-consuming……giving you the excuse to be more beer-consuming?
So which is the better motorcycle: The KTM 990 Adventure or BMW R1200GS?
Painful as it is to leave you hanging, the decision is going to be made by each individual and what they value in a motorcycle. For the wilder, more adrenaline-seeking rider, the KTM is probably the choice. Looking for smooth, steady, and quiet? The BMW. Looking back through the categories above, think about which factors mean the most to you and of course, test ride these motorcycles if possible.
After you’ve ridden either bike, please add your comments to this blog post!