Backtrack Tuesday: BMW R1100GS vs KTM LC8 950 Adventure Review and Comparison
Pack'em up, hop on and take off. No pavement? No problem. Both these bikes have "Adventure" in their souls.
Can you imagine camping in some killer back country spot along the way in your next long distance motorcycling adventure? Can you imagine cutting the corner off your next highway trip on a brief adventure through the forest to avoid twice as many super slab miles? Do you enjoy an occasional sporting jaunt through your favorite twisty bits? Perhaps a tiny but exciting wheelie every now and again? Oh yeah! Sign me up for a few more decades of that baby. Want to know how? Read on.
Not that many years ago there were motorcycles we now label as "standards". These were machines we owned that we did everything on. You could press them into service on a canyon blast on Sunday morning and they'd do OK. You could load them up with your bags and take off cross country and they'd do OK. You could throw your significant other on the back and go for a ride and they'd do OK. Back then, once in a while you might even get a wild hair to make your way down a gravel or dirt road and you could get it done. About the only thing they did exceptionally well though was to do about anything OK.
Well it is twenty years later and things are different now. Motorcycle technology has risen to such a high level, thanks in great part to racing, that now you can get a bike that does about anything at or above the eighty percent level when compared to a more single-focus bike in each category. In fact, these two machines do it all so well they've expanded the envelope to the point where a new word was needed to describe their breed. That word is "Adventure" and both these bikes dish it up huge!
We won't be comparing dyno charts, wheel bases and tech specs. This piece is directed to the serious buyer of either of these machines who has a certain amount of adventure in their motorcycling soul and who expects to be wandering into places that aren't totally paved. If it's a crotch rocket or couch-on-two-wheels you want, then you shouldn't be shopping for either of these two bikes. We will be comparing these machines to each other for their intended purpose, which we all now know simply as "Adventure".
Owning a BMW R1100GS is a unique experience. Its look is unique from the strange fender that never moves and the high bulbous gas tank to the dirt bike style bars, single-sided swing arm/shaft drive unit and, oh yeah, those two big aluminum foot warmers sticking out down there. Then there's the Tele-Lever front suspension and anti-lock brakes. Lift the rear seat off and poof, there's a tool kit you could use to start your own roadside assistance business. The odd-at-first but comfortable upright riding position, wide bars, and a large forward seat section allows plenty of front to rear movement. The 'sewing machine" sound of its mill... it's all uniquely GS.
The KTM 950 is a whole other kind of unique. It's equally challenged, er, I mean unique in the looks department. Solidly in the love-hate category in my opinion. But just swing a leg over it and take it for a spin and if that whole looks thing once bothered you, suddenly it won't any more. The harder you push this bike the more fun it gets. Wearing riding apparel that dirt and mud won't bother, passing squids on 150 horsepower machines in the canyons, buzzing around town for groceries, filling up two fuel tanks, knowing that no dirt road is a match for this beast... it's all uniquely KTM 950 Adventure.
Both of these bikes have loads of character. They're also extremely utilitarian. For one-up on the street, both of these machines prove incredibly worthy steeds. My experience has been that both of these bikes require relatively low maintenance and both are very reliable. Additionally, they can be found on the used market for a reasonable sum of about $5,000-8,000. Now, if you need more reasons than this to read on, by all means read on.
Once you become accustomed to the unique experience of riding a GS and you begin to push the machine a bit looking for the edges of its performance envelope some interesting things happen. The first thing you notice is FUN factor! You'll get this smile from ear to ear and you'll begin to realize how operator friendly this big bike really is. Next you'll find yourself scooted all the way forward to the tank, using those big wide dirt bike style handle bars to flop the bike from rail to rail. When riding it between five and eight thousand rpm's you will notice the bikes uncanny stability and smoothness. This is an interplay of many factors some of which include: smooth to accelerate fuel injection, formidable torque, shaft final drive, and a very effective TeleLever. When rolling this big opposing twin on and off, just let that weird suspension do its thing, and before long you'll be flying along scraping "foot warmers" and grinning like Jimmy Carter, not wanting to go any faster.
It is usually surprising to would-be GS purchasers that the oil-head GS is actually a pretty quick bike. I don't mean quick by the standards of today's breed of race replica crotch rockets. I did not expect to be getting lectured by CHP's finest from the PA system on their squad car when I purchased the refined BMW R1100GS, but it happened. Had I been on a racier looking bike I'm sure I would have received a small, yellow piece of paper from officer friendly with the words "reckless and imprudent" scralled in his best chicken scratch.
One up on the street the GS delivers, and without a lot of muss and fuss. For the most part, whatever you're in the mood for the GS will be also. The brakes are excellent with plenty of feel and power and I've never experienced any kind of fade, even scooting right along two-up. Then again, I wouldn't expect to because I'm not one to go into corners hard on the brakes on the street. I save all that rear-wheel-in-the-air stuff for the race track. On the few occasions when I've tried the ABS on the BMW on purpose just to learn what to expect in the "unlikely event" I've been impressed. Once you know what to expect it really doesn't upset your riding and it may save you from a spill some day when the bulk of a loaded GS may have gotten away from you otherwise.
Notwithstanding all its other capabilities the big Beemer really shines when one-up turns into two-up. My wife and I have traveled all over the place on the GS in all kinds of conditions and performance basically mimicked my one-up handling experience. We weigh about 325 fully laden with riding gear and our luggage usually doesn't exceed 25-30 pounds. We've been up and down Highway 1 and on most of the canyon roads in the 805 area, read Southern California, and if your wife is the kind who enjoys a "twoup with Reg Pridmore" type of ride the GS will dish it up all day long.
The GS will also suck up super slab all day. With a good saddle under your collective buns you can log many miles two-up on a GS in comfort. I think the GS has the roomiest seating for two of any motorcycle I've ever owned. For the last year or so we also had a set of the large aluminum panniers. Even without them you can pack lots on the GS. The machine carries the luggage well too. I don't know if it somehow offsets the high, heavy fuel tank with some weight down low but you don't seem to feel the weight of luggage and passenger as much as you would expect on the GS. With the big wide bars and excellent suspension anyone with a well-calibrated right wrist and forefinger can haul booty on the BMW, even two-up on twisty roads, and have a very fun ride.
Once you leave the pavement though the performance equation changes quite significantly for the big BMW. While the package works so well on the street certain things can't be ignored in the dirt, the biggest of which is the weight. Another is the lack of a well-done six speed transmission. As long as you are on a solid base like a road bed, well maintained gravel or dirt roads are well within the comfort zone for the GS. However, when the going gets a bit rougher like on miles of wash board, or on loose slippery stuff like deep gravel, sand, or any kind of mud, unless you are Jimmy Lewis, you will quickly be way out of your comfort zone on the BMW. Let's face it. This is a 550 lb. motorcycle dry and unpacked. It also presents a somewhat high center-of-gravity package, especially when filled with 6.6 gallons of fuel. All in all, the somewhat taller heavy package of the Beemer is considerably less suited, and for some downright undesirable in "dirt biking" terms.
The KTM is quite different in this area. With nine and three quarter inches of suspension travel front and back, tall is just another plus of KTMs more off-road oriented package. The big KTM carries its 5.8 gallons of fuel much lower and far more leading edge off-road oriented race design has been incorporated in this machine. With its in-line V-Twin it is narrow like a dirt bike, perhaps to resemble a dirt bike's larger cousin. Power to weight ratio and highly intergrated handling and performance qualities come forth with the KTM offroad and can you feel it. Logistically, fueled and ready to ride, the KTM is more than a hundred pounds lighter than the BMW's dry weight. In large, it is a whole different package.
The first time I swung a leg over a KTM 950 Adventure my first impression was a dirt bike on steroids. Like "Dirt-bikezilla" as my good friend CJ would say. In many ways that first impression was accurate, but there is much more to the story. Like the GS BMW the KTM is proof that all-around motorcycle performance sometimes can come in a funny-looking package.
KTM's dirt bike heritage is clear and present when you take this bike off the pavement. You start off on gravel roads and find yourself just flying along at speeds your dirt bike simply can't attain. You're comfortable as long as you still haven't bothered to glance at the speedo. When you do you're instantly scared. Yikes! Well maintained gravel or dirt roads become Paris-Dakar segments with the countryside flashing by in streaks. How can you be comfortable going that fast on gravel? Easy, you're riding on the rocket ship 'Adventure.' This is the kind of bike that can make you a better rider, in terms of having to utilize proper ride technique. Its either that or, well... forget about it.
The power when riding off-road with this bike seems limitless. KTM has the LC8 tuned for an excellent balance between torque and dependable peek power. The hydraulic clutch and six-speed transmission are equally well done. It's a highly developed package and few riders will likely ever discover its limits off the pavement. That's because you have to be good enough. You catch yourself riding the KTM like you would your dirt bike, power-sliding around the sweepers, surfing the washboard and having to reel yourself in, back down to a more sane speed. This high tech ride allows you to begin daydreaming, but all that dreaming ends when you try to stop in a hurry. It's then you realize the 436 pound motorcycle with dual sport tires really can't stop as fast as your CR250 shod with full on knobbies. (So, part of the equation with any "adventure-type" motorcycle when in the dirt is to recalibrate your stopping distances.)
Say, hasn't this bike placed in the top three every year since its inception in the Paris-Dakar Rally? No surprise. Back on the street with the big KTM things just keep getting more fun. Only an absolute speed junkie would yearn for more, or friendlier power than you can wring out of this LC8 on the street. I'll take this ninety-some horsepower motor with all its torque and smoothness over a hundred and twenty (or more) peaky ponies any day. And if you think the suspension on this machine shines in the dirt, which it does, then you're in for a really pleasant surprise once you hit the tarmac. It works even better!
One-up riding on pavement with this bike is impressive! The quality of the fully adjustable (some on-the-fly) suspension components at both ends of this machine make it capable of doing anything on the street, and doing it well. Freshly off the dirt from a mighty blast through the forest, with a couple quick tweaks you can turn this thing into a canyon carving monster. The harder you push it the better it feels and pretty soon you figure out that it's just not smart to go any faster, even if you are Reg Pridmore, unless you're on the track. Speaking of the track, if you did tape off your lights, safety-wire a few things and attend a track day with the 950 I'm sure you'd have a ball. I wouldn't expect to be the fastest guy out there, but I'm also sure you'd be passing lots of lesser riders on bikes much more well designed for the purpose.
One thing I noticed that took some getting used to for me as a long-time road racer was the rear brake. KTM uses a more aggressive dirt bike ratio than the bikes you're used to riding this fast in the twisties. I almost learned this the hard way on my first day as I had the rear end lock up on Lockwood Valley Road high up in the Los Padres. Go easy until your right toe is recalibrated.
Overall cockpit configuration and rider comfort on the KTM is good. As with many machines, owners will likely modify their machines to suit individual preferences. One area where the KTM has shown limitation in the past is in seat comfort. Though this bike can eat pavement all day one-up, it's only comfortable saddle-wise for generally about three hundred miles per day. Reports say now that the new 2005 stock seats actually break in after about 12,000 miles.
As far as luggage goes the KTM can support some variety, especially during solo flight. Unless you're one of those riders who likes to take the kitchen sink, a duffel bungeed to the small rear rack and a well placed moderately sized set of over-the-seat saddle bags should get you by for all but the most lengthy of sojourns. Tank bags are also an option but the tank is plastic and rather oddly shaped so it is a bit more of a challenge, though certainly not impossible. When two up traveling, cargo hauling requires more innovation of course.
You won't need many two-up trips on the 950 Adventure to realize the comfort to luggage relationship needs working. With soft luggage the high pipes of the KTM protrude enough so that packing massive compartments become awkward if not unfeasible. If rear saddlebags ride back far enough for the passenger to use their foot pegs they likely will be burnt on the exhaust. Also, the size of the trunk-bag attached to the rear rack must now be smaller to accommodate the passenger while avoiding the high exhaust. There are OEM and other hard luggage options that fit the KTM which some prefer. The seat that was okay for one really isn't okay for two for trips of any length.
The pre-2005 stock seats do okay for occasional two-up, one day bopping around here and there. But start to string days together, rack up some miles, and a tour package more like the GS is what you'll yearn for. One reason for this is that the rear portion of the KTM seat tilts upward tending to make the passenger slide down into the operator. Of course this is not very comfortable for tour situations. On mountain roads going steeply downhill it can be almost a burden. Many have remedied two up seat discomfort by turning to aftermarket custom seat-makers. With adjustments made the KTM can very adequately carry two people in reasonable comfort for long periods. It can be much better than when delivered in stock amenities but a Wing it will never be, nor a GS BMW for that matter.
In summary, here we have two extremely refined motorcycles. The BMW GS series, which has garnered legendary status from decades of devoted service, and the KTM Adventure, which is now being viewed as the 'would-be king'. Both motorcycles are a joy to ride. The older heavier GS is still slightly more comfortable for longer touring. Yet, the KTM seems to be capable of that with refinements. For two up long distance the BMW again slightly gets the nod. For one up riding which bike you might prefer probably depends on where, and how you like your riding.
The BMW will travel long steady miles, and in windy conditions be more planted. Yet, if ever stuck, the bike will likely require more than one person to get unstuck. This is not so with the KTM. Though maybe more fatiguing for long straight highway miles, it is an absolute blast and a wonder nearly everywhere else. In heavy traffic and while commuting both bikes do fine, though the KTM is probably a little bit easier to maneuver. In the rough is where the KTM really shines. Because of its lighter weight, six speed transmission, wide powerband, and long suspension the KTM does very well offroad, and those same factors make twisting and mountain riding exhilarating.
For would be owners, choosing one or the other of these bikes will likely depend on a number of factors. I have devised a brief question outline that might help you clarify which one of these bikes might you might prefer.
-The more one prefers asphalt with some graded roads, or travels two-up the more one should consider a BMW.
-The more one grins at a filthy, dusty, muddy bike after a ride the more one should consider the KTM.
-The more interested you are in heated grips, electric vest plug-in ports or a larger windscreen the more you should consider the BMW.
-The more interested you are in the factory crash bars to protect the fuel tanks and aluminum brush guards for the controls the more you should consider the KTM.
-If you're the type of rider who admires minimalism, who wants to stably feel every root, rut and gravel bog, who isn't afraid of getting lost and having to track yourself back out of the forest then I'd lean more toward the KTM.
Originally published April 2005.