It is a busy month for the big duallies. I get to test both the new Husqvarna TR650 and the KTM 690. It has been two years since I spent much time with the big KTM, so it is nice to be reacquainted with it again, particularly after experiencing the new Husky. Yes, don’t worry, I will talk about how the two match up in a forthcoming feature. It is the most common question I have received all month.
When I last set out on a trip with the 690 Enduro, it was for a feature on MotorcycleUSA. We were comparing it to the BMW 800GS. Over the course of some thousand odd miles of wandering through the back roads of Idaho, the 690 proved to be the master of the dirt. Next to the BMW twin it felt like a refugee from the motocross track.
However, that was an adventure bike trek and we did not see much rough terrain. So this time around, I was determined to find out what the true limits of the 690 are in real dirt. For testing, I headed out on a two day dual sport ride where it would have to follow a KTM 530exc around and go where ever it went.
What is New?
On the surface, it looks like a year of bold new graphics, but there are some significant changes underneath. For 2012, the KTM 690 Enduro gets a mild make over. The motor now features a longer stroke (84mm) to bump the displacement from 654cc to a full 690cc. Claimed power output is up to 66hp and 49 foot pounds of torque.
The seat is mildly revamped to give a flatter and wider perch, a nice improvement. The headlight is now something worthy of a street bike with a much larger reflector and H4 style bulb. New shrouds and graphics keep the look up to date with the newest KTM off road bikes.
Suspension travel is slightly reduced to 250mm at both ends to combat the traditional tall seat height of the 690. New spring rates soften the ride and for a compliant street attitude. The Pirelli MT21 tires provide a nice balance of dirt and road performance.
As a KTM, the 690 Enduro features many top of the line components including; six speed transmission, slipper clutch, hydraulic clutch actuation, 48mm WP fork, linkage rear suspension, 300mm floating front disc brake,3.2 gallon fuel tank, Renthal Fat bars, plastic skid plate and wrap around handguards.
In one sense, my job is just to sit around and classify motorcycles all day. It makes life easy and we always seem to feel better about the world when we can put things in their proper place. Give me some criteria and then ask me “what is the best bike”, I can come up with a couple of good suggestions to match the criteria.
However, once we get into adventure bikes, it all gets very fuzzy. Heck, the whole category is full of buyers who do not want to fit in anywhere! The 690 is a bike that is perfect at not fitting in anywhere too. By one definition it may be the absolute best, but try to stuff it into another category and it might be the worst.
When I last rode the 690 I gave it high marks for the dirt and low marks for the street. But I never got the chance to really test the limits in the dirt, so that is where I focused this time around. We were headed off on a true dual sport ride and wanted to see as little of society and pavement as possible.
I was a little concerned at first. The trip was already planned and I had intended to take my 450. At the last minute, I realized I needed to do it with the 690, to find some real dirt and give it a proper workout.
The first few miles were a little disconcerting. A few casual potholes on the dirt road caused the rear shock to bottom soundly. I quickly added a few clicks of low speed compression to the shock. That brought improvement, but more clicks were eventually needed to get me through the whoops at a moderate pace.
The first hour or so of the ride I spent at a very sedate pace as I got the feel for the bike and the tires. The Pirelli MT21 is a nice tire choice for the bike. They handle a wide variety of terrain, yet with a distinct emphasis towards off road. They have a decent life span. Their only real shortcoming might be muddy conditions.
As I started testing the limits of traction, I gained more confidence. One aspect of the 690 that really stood out was the way the front tire tracked in the sand and soft conditions. Sand is certainly the nemesis of most adventure bikes. With the weight of the fuel back on the rear wheel instead of up high in front, the 690 sails right through the softest of terrain. We rode down a couple of long sand washes where I could treat it like a regular dirt bike, pushing the front hard into the corners without issue, very nice.
However, the weight cannot just disappear, it is hanging out over the rear tire. Most of the time there is nothing particularly noticeable about this arrangement. Yet every once in a while the rear will start moving sideways for no apparent reason. For example on side hills, the extra weight works to push the tire down the hill. Typically, it is of little consequence, but combine that with too much throttle and the rear will really start to step out.
Overall, the weight distribution works out well on the 690. The claimed dry weight is about 310lbs, but I believe a true curb weight is closer to 350lbs. All things considered, it acts like a much lighter bike. With confidence in the front tire, it can make some serious speed in the correct hands.
The biggest hindrance to going fast is the very soft suspension. The shock is particularly soft and demands a gentle pace in rough terrain. By comparison, the fork seems stiffer. Where I had to add compression adjustments to the shock, I never touched the fork. It was soft, but would handle more than the shock could, there was not real reason to mess with it.
The large motor works pretty well off road. It has lots of torque, but comes on smooth. The control of the fuel injection is very precise. For most fire roads it needs little shifting and blasts along very smoothly. It fits in nicely as part of the package, riding the 690 on any moderately smooth fire road feels like absolute luxury. Even the 530exc could not match that sensation.
Any time the speeds are down to below 5mph, the motor takes a little more work and attention. Once we hit the real single track trail, I found it better to keep the bike in second gear as much as possible. Any time you shift into first and start to use the clutch, it takes a delicate hand to keep both the throttle and clutch working well together. The motor starts to heat up quickly. The fan comes on regularly, but the bike does not boil.
Fortunately, the motor is almost impossible to stall. It will lug down to almost a stop without hesitation or bucking. It never suffers from flame outs. Once I got the hang of it, I could make good time down the trail. Again, the confidence in the front tire is a huge boost.
In two days of exploring various roads and trails, the only places I chose not to go were the hardest of the single tracks, mostly for fear of scratching up KTM’s nice bike too much. Admittedly, the underside of the 690 is a bit vulnerable. It has a plastic skid plate, but with the trellis style frame, it is only a minimal amount of protection for the engine cases against big hits. The rear brake master cylinder is also very exposed.
As for overall impressions from riding alongside a real dirt bike for a couple of hundred miles; the big single KTM is very capable off road. It will go far beyond the needs of most riders looking for this class of bike. While riding I find it easy to forget that I am aboard a small adventure bike, it is just a dirt bike.
On the street
As I said, anytime the road opens up, be it dirt or pavement, the 690 feels like the Cadillac of dirtbikes. Even next to the 500exc or XR650, this is a level above. The additional weight now starts to work in the 690’s favor, contributing to stability and smooth ride. It would be a great choice for a trip down the Peninsula of Baja.
That brings us up to talking about the 690 as a pure street bike. The biggest hindrance to real street use is the vibration. For most off road riding, any vibration is minimal and never seems to intrude on the ride. Once on the highway, particularly at speeds near 65mph and above, a distinct vibration comes through the bars.
At the steady cruise, the vibes are not too bad, but once the motor is under a load it increases significantly. The motor is turning 4500rpms at 65mph and it is already well into the power band. Taller gearing would help the street feel some.
Other than vibration, the 690 is good on the street. Yet it will never be the kind of bike that beckons to chew up those long highway miles. For shorter rides, there is an aspect of the 690 that can only come out on a twisty stretch of tarmac.
The KTM is a fantastic partner for a romp down your favorite canyon or mountain road. The power comes on around 3500rpms and builds steadily from there. The six speed transmission shifts smoothly and always has the perfect gear ratio. The real high note is the slipper clutch. The 690 refuses to be upset by aggressive downshifts, no throttle blip needed.
The chassis is equally impressive. While the suspension can feel harsh at times, it really comes alive once pushed. It still has a couple of rough spots, but is stiff enough for hard braking. The 300mm floating front rotor and Brembo caliper are very strong and have good feel.
The dirt bike seating position offers plenty of room to move around for cornering. The wide bars give good control and feel. The flip side is that this makes the rider a big sail in the wind for longer distances. The footpegs are far enough forward that they don’t allow you to lean forward to help offset the blast.
While I often bemoan the fact that we still can’t buy an awesome rally replica ADV bike, the reality is that such a bike would be heavier and more cumbersome. It would also be more expensive and I would be less inclined to tackle challenging terrain on it.
As it is, the KTM 690 Enduro R is the king of the dirt for large bore dual sport bikes. It will also out hustle any of them down a twisty backroad. It is the most expensive of the lot, by a fair margin. It does not take much effort to see where the money went, top notch equipment everywhere you look. It is expensive, but the value is there also.
I really cannot find too much to fault. My biggest criticisms from the previous test, the seat and headlight, have been addressed. Someone in Austria must have taken my comments to heart and fixed them for me.
Perhaps the one thing that struck me the most about my time on the 690, was that it made me forget about trying to figure out its place in the food chain. It is simply a motorcycle that I had lots of fun riding. Off road I was not thinking about it weight or size, just about what might lie beyond the next turn. With some attention to the suspension, it would be ready for some real off road adventure.