On and Off the Road
So the question now is just how would these two bikes stand up together? Sitting in the driveway they look a little bit like the odd couple. My greatest concern was that they might be so different from each other as to make the coming trip a tedious affair. We had a lot of ground to cover and were determined to make as much of it on dirt as possible.
Our first day of riding starts late and ends well after dark. Heading out of the city I opt for the familiar KTM to negotiate the traffic. I am consistently struck by the fact that the agile 690 feels like such a dirt bike that it should be illegal on the street. It makes a great weapon for traffic duty. The 800 is not far off either, but it takes some discipline to remember that there are two very wide saddle bags trailing behind.
When we hit the first dirt section, a long graded logging road, I take the opportunity to jump on the GS. My first impression is that the front end is very skidish. It seems to wander along with a mind of its own, not at all confidence inspiring. As we stop to shoot some photos I contemplate the problem and decide that perhaps the addition of the saddlebags and gear (over 100lbs total) has taken some of the weight bias off of the front wheel.
I decide the solution might be to raise the forks in the clamps to help move some weight back over the front. Fortunately I have the correct Torx bit in my KTM tools to do the job. Sure enough, that small change transforms the handling. Later I add just a tad more preload to the shock. Now the GS is feeling more like a proper mount. It glides down the fire roads with ease, small pot holes and wash board conditions are hardly noticed.
By comparison the stout suspension of the 690 suffers here. Every small road imperfection is transmitted directly to the rider. Big hits are fine, it is just the small ones that cause the discomfort. Playing with the fork clickers helps only a little. Ultimately towards the end of our trip the fork starts to soften up noticeably. I suspect this is the typical pattern of WP suspension components, they take a long time to break in.
As we near the first day’s end, we are turned back on a narrow mountain pass were the road has washed out. There is a second possible route and it is our only chance for making forward progress, otherwise we must double back. Near the top of this pass we encounter snow. At first we work to skirt our way around the edges. Then finally we are faced with a 50’ long drift that is nearly 1 1/2 feet deep. We decide to make a go at it.
The 690 with its Bridgestone MT21 tires is the first across. It takes some pushing and dog paddling, but gets through. Having been introduced over a decade ago, the MT21 is the standard by which nearly all other dual sport tires are judged. Our experience with them has been very positive. At around 1,000 miles the front starts to show some cupping, but it never seems to affect the performance on street or dirt.
Now what about the 800? The time has come for a real world off road test. Just prior to the trip JC had ditched the stock Michelin Anakee threads for the more dirt oriented Continental TKC80 Twinduros. The deep snow quickly captures the low slung GS and then it is an all out tug fest to keep it moving. But with a little effort we are through and have a good laugh about it. First test passed.
These conditions do bring out the weakness of the Twinduros, they lack any true side grip. So as long as the traction is good they do well. But if the conditions get slick, proceeding with caution is the rule. Having said this, the only time the Beemer touched the ground in our travels was from being blown off the sidestand in a severe wind.
We would see much more snow and mud during the trip and in each case the 690 would easily outpace the 800. Still, the 800 held itself up quite well. On one occasion I was leading JC down a road near Sandpoint and he missed a turn. I thought for sure he would soon realize that the road ends and becomes a single track trail with some significant side hill sections and one short but steep downhill. When I caught up with him he had already negotiated the entire section on the GS, proving that, given a moderate pace, it can go nearly anywhere.
The majority of our time was spent on fire roads. The KTM loves these, ready to attack, jump or roost at any opportunity. One advantage it has is the standing position. The large cockpit provides great control whether sitting or standing. The GS is not quite as suited to standing. The bars are lower and the foot controls become difficult to find when upright. Removing the rubber footpeg inserts helps some, but any time you really need control it is best to sit down.
With some practice the GS is a willing dance partner for drifting in and out of dirt corners. Yet when real life riding means blind corners and oncoming traffic, it is again best to keep the 800 reigned in as it is much more sluggish to make emergency reactions.
Much of this is due simply to the tires, given the same Bridgestones as the KTM, the GS could probably be pushed a little harder. Considering there is around a hundred pounds difference in the curb weight of these two, plus another hundred for the baggage, the 800 handles it all very well.
The motors of each are best described as smooth and powerful. For fire roading they are about on par with each other in terms of practical power. Once on the tarmac the 800 can really stretch its legs. The 690 is quite willing to cruise up to seventy, but that is about the top of its happy place.
The fuel injection works great on both. We hit altitudes of 8,500 feet and never heard a cough from either. Both of the bikes start to show a little hesitation and stumble at slow trail speeds, particularly the Beemer. This is about the only place a little clutch action is needed. Both hydraulic clutches work smoothly and without fuss.
Six speed transmissions are standard on both. In keeping with the general feel of the bike, the KTM is a little better suited to slow speed work. First gear is a tad tall on the GS, considering how tall the upper end of the box is. For all its’ new look and design the 800 still feels like the BMW’s from generations past. The transmission is a little stiff and hesitant to downshift in a hurry. By comparison the 690 is butter, another of the subtle attributes of the slipper clutch. Stomping down on the shifter always brings the same smooth and controlled reaction.
No matter how much dirt there is in the world, at some point we are all faced with having to hit the highway. We all have to get from point A to B and trying to do so in the dirt sure is fun. Yet each day of our trip we found ourselves spending the bulk of our daylight getting nowhere fast on the dirt and had to pound the pavement to make our next destination.
Off road the KTM was proving itself to be a sure thing in the fun department. Oh but how quickly the tables would turn. Lesser friends pressed into this situation would probably turn to ruthless methods to secure the BMW for highway duty. Now you might think that I am taking a pretty big swing at the 690 here, but I am not, only at one little part of it, that damn seat! Surely no one has done more to fuel the aftermarket seat business in the past few years than KTM.
Actually the 800 seat has some issues of its own, but not even in the same universe as the 690. The GS seat is too low in front and I consistently found myself trying to sit on the sloping section and having to sort of prop myself there to not slide forward. This is probably the result of trying to accommodate shorter riders.
That reminds me, trying to swing a leg over the Beemer, particularly with panniers, is quite an event. Both bikes are pretty tall feeling when it comes to getting on and off them.
Riding each bike back to back down the road gives a great opportunity to really feel the differences. The smallish wind screen on the GS provides some nice protection and was a welcome feeling in the cool weather. It does give some buffeting at the helmet. The 690 with no screen was actually slightly quieter at speed, but the lack of any screen and the upright riding position mean there is a constant need to hold yourself to the bike against the wind.
The cold mornings are made much more bearable by the heated handgrips of the 800. Interestingly, the stock handguards on the KTM also provide significant wind and rain protection. The ideal solution would be to have both.
Aside from the seat I have one other bone to pick with KTM. The lighting on the 690 might have been acceptable ten years ago, but is way behind the curve now. Seriously, it is enough so that on the last evening I was calculating my arrival time in earnest just to be sure that I would not get caught out after dark on the highway. We actually stopped two different times to make sure the tail light was working because it cannot be seen in the daylight. The headlight I have on my 450 dirt bike is better than that on the 690.
By contrast the GS lights are stellar. The LED rear is super bright, enough to make you think the brake light is stuck on. The first evening we were fire roading after dark, with the 800 trailing the 690 and the Beemer light completely eclipsed the KTM.
Fuel range and mileage are similar between the bikes and ranged significantly depending on conditions. The GS will hold 4.2 gallons compared to the 3.2 of the KTM. Our mpg ran pretty close to each other, but a heavy hand would bring down the mileage on the 800 quicker.
Traveling a little over 1,200 miles side by side, the KTM averaged 52mpg with a range of 42-62mpg. The BMW averaged 50mpg with a range of 39-62mpg. That equates to an average distance between fill ups of 160 miles for the 690 and 210 miles for the 800. At other times under more aggressive riding, we have had both bikes run low at around 120 miles.
As for overall aesthetics and appeal, the BMW is the crowd stopper. I am always intrigued by the fact that a Beemer is about the only other brand that has some appeal to Harley aficionados. Personally I think the GS in the black and yellow color scheme is a little more macho looking. As for the 690, it just doesn’t seem to grab people’s attention in the same way.
We had one evening of spectacular riding down the Salmon River, an open road with long smooth corners. This is the type of riding where you can see why so many people buy adventure bikes with no intention of taking them off road. They make great sport touring bikes. The upright riding position and wide bar give great feel and control. While the suspension settings on each felt very different in the dirt, on the street both work well. The 800 always plush and the 690 feeling more like a stout hooligan bike. Both felt right at home carving down the canyon.
That kind of brings me round to the apex of our story here. Can we take two bikes that come from very different design platforms and find something in common between them; can we start at each end and meet in the middle? Here we have two different approaches to the adventure bike equation. One is more of a true middle weight with its strengths pointing towards comfort and distance, while the other is a strict minimalist.
It should be pretty clear by now, and come as no great surprise, that the KTM is the choice for the dirt and the BMW the preferred street mount. While that is certainly true, it also really overlooks the versatility of each bike. Neither was completely out of its element on any of the situations we encountered, well except for the one crossing when the water was starting to come over the top of the front fender on the 800, which was somewhere just past the comfort zone.
For me the KTM is sort of a work in progress. It is just shy of being the great single cylinder rally/adventure bike. KTM has enough bikes in its line up to cover most of the bases already, so this one really needs to create a niche where it can shine. I want more fuel capacity, better lighting and that Dakar style fairing. That is the bike that would suit my personal vision of ADV greatness.
The BMW on the other hand is more of a completed concept. It is a very capable all a rounder that excels on the pavement. It has all the amenities that we have come to expect from the brand. I think anyone considering a 1200GS should take this for a spin before making a decision. It might be all the bike you could ever want, in a lighter, more agile package. It is not a full on dirt bike, but it is probably easier to manage off road than nearly every liter class adventure bike. Respect its limits and it can take you to amazing places.
Dont’ miss the – Adventure bike Comparison video