KTM 790 Adventure R (2020) – Road Test

Adventure riders in general and KTM riders in particular have been longing for a highly capable, light adventure bike for many years. Willem van der Berg rode the much-hyped KTM 790 Adventure R, to find out if this is the magic bullet. Pictures by KTM.

A studio photo of the KTM 790 Adventure R
The elevated front mudguard is a tell-tale sign of the 790 AR’s purpose and prowess.

What is it?

It’s the dirt-loving, rock-hopping brother of the standard KTM 790 Adventure. The solitary “R” makes a big difference – in ability more than in price. Where the standard Adventure is priced at R182 000, the ticket swinging from the far superior Adventure R, reads R195 000. This is a dual-purpose bike that brings the polar opposites of comfortable touring and enduro riding together like never before. It also fills in for the 1090, that was sent on early retirement, as well as for the 990 and 640 from days of old.

A studio image of the KTM 790 Adventure R, shot from the left
The hard-wearing, dark-grey plastic, where the rider’s knees would be, forms the outer shell of the fuel tank.

Design, instruments and equipment

The design of the 790 AR was no slap-dash weekend job, and there are many examples of form following function.

The fuel tank, almost shaped like an inverted letter U, is draped over the engine, instead of sitting against your belly or in the frame. This helps to give the bike a low centre of gravity. It also keeps the top of the tank narrow. Together with the fairly narrow and not-so-high seat (880 mm) the rider gains much freedom to move his body on the bike, especially on technical terrain.

Another welcome result of this tank placement is that the battery and electronics are now where the top of a normal tank would be, for quick and easy access.

The plastics on the sides are highly scratch-resistant. Unless you want your 790 AR to always look fresh-from-the-showroom, you won’t need crash bars to protect its flanks.

Speed and rpm are shown big and bright on the fancy digital screen. Other info about your trip and the selected rider mode are hard to read. But do you really care about that when flying past goats in the Lesotho mountains?

The 790 AR, shown from the left
The off-road ABS on the 790 AR allows the rear brake to lock up for drift-steering around corners.

Engine and gearbox

The engine, from the naked KTM 790 Duke, is a liquid-cooled, four-stroke parallel twin, with a displacement of 799 cc. KTM wanted the engine’s moving and stationary components to be light, with plenty of torque. A light crankshaft makes for a fast-revving engine, while the cam profile was developed to create an especially torquey engine, KTM says. Two balancer shafts keep engine vibrations to a minimum, but there’s enough to remind the rider he’s on something that’s alive, and the engine has a lovely purr to it.

A dry-sump set-up ensures the engine is well lubed at all times and the oil cooler is similar to that of the larger LC8 V-twin engines, which means there’s little chance of overheating. KTM says the open-deck cylinder construction allows for optimal cooling. We don’t know what this means, but cool = good.

Speaking of Vs, the 435-degree firing order of the pistons make it sound similar to the LC8. This also makes the Adventure R feel like one of its V-twin Adventure siblings, in the way it puts the power down.

The 6-speed gearbox changes smoothly and the chain sings beautifully. The assisted slipper-clutch requires little force from the rider’s left hand.

The KTM 790 AR and rider, with Katse dam in the background
The 790 AR looks fairly compact, but it suits even tall riders, like this 1.96m ou. Katse dam forms the back-drop.


The 790’s maximum output of 70 kW at 8 000 rpm and 88 Nm at 6 600 rpm might sound a little feeble in a world where a BMW 1250 makes a giddy 143 Nm of torque. The recent history of the adventure bike was dominated by ever larger numbers in the engine department. This meant some ou-topppies, who bought their first-ever bikes, could not control the beasts.

That’s why smaller and mid-range adventure bikes, like the Yamaha T7 and this 790, deserve attention. It’s better to start on a smaller, lighter bike, and often a lot more fun.

That said, the 790 is no tortoise. It pulls with might, right from the bottom revs, and starts to fly from the 3 000 rpm mark. There is more than enough power, but it’s easy to control. The various electronic riding modes and aids also do a stellar job.

Even when riding hard, we got more than 400 km from a tank of fuel.

The KTM 790 AR perched above Sani Pass.
A dusty adventure dirt-bike above Sani pass. It doesn’t get prettier than this.

Ride and handling

The bike immediately felt well balanced, light and nimble. Standing and sitting positions were perfect for my 1.78 m height. At first the saddle feels unforgiving – as if it lacks padding. Later I would be surprised at the glute stamina it gives the rider.

KTM says the 790 Adventure R’s fully adjustable WP XPLOR set-up “is the result of an incredibly intensive testing program to help it be the most offroad capable Travel Enduro bike with true street comfort.” A statement like this, especially when it contains “incredible”, can usually be dismissed as marketing speak from a company rep, high on Kool-Aid and two-stroke. But the word is apt. The AR’s springs and dampers absorb impact from rocks, ruts and bumps so efficiently, you think your senses deceive you.

Comparing the 790 AR’s suspension to that of other adventure bikes, is like comparing the suspension of a Dakar Hilux with that of a Pretoria Hilux.

The KTM 790 Adventure R and rider on Sani pass
The 790 AR’s suspension makes this Sani surface as comfortable as a memory foam mattress.

There’s almost no shock transfer to wrists, arms or upper body, as the front suspension takes care of torturous surface conditions. This reduces fatigue and enables the rider to keep going for longer. The rear damper feels stiff, but not unforgiving.

The suspension makes riding so easy, you find yourself going progressively faster over dodgy terrain, until you reach the kind of speed that’s way outside your comfort zone – if you have one. The bike feels ultra light and nimble, and the front wheel, wearing tubeless Metzeler Karoo 3 (on the rear wheel too, of course) stays true, refusing to ever lose traction. On tar it sticks to the road just as well.

A KTM 790 AR riding up Sani pass.
Going up Sani pass, then down again, then up again.

Verdict and rating

The suspension of the 790 Adventure R places it in a league of its own. It might feel a little stiff on corrugation and smaller obstacles, but when riding hard over rough terrain and hitting bigger bumps, it is absolutely amazing. It always feels planted. And good ground clearance (263 mm) helps you over big obstacles.

Is there anything about the KTM 790 Adventure R not to like? Well, the LED headlight is disappointingly weak and some of the switches (like the kill-switch and indicator switch) don’t have the premium feel of switchgear on the KTM 1290 Adventure or BMW F 850 GS. It seems the money KTM saved there, was spent on the suspension and chassis, so we don’t mind.

The 790 AR elevates the rider’s ability beyond what he deems possible. This is truly the new benchmark for real adventure bikes.

Likes  Suspension, fuel economy, handling and low mass.

Dislikes  Weak LED headlight.

Rating  9.5/10

Also consider  BMW F 850 GS, Yamaha Ténéré 700, Triumph Tiger 900 Rally.

The KTM 790 AR crossing a river, splashing water up into the air.
After all that dust and mud, a decent bath is compulsory – no standing required.

Specifications of the KTM 790 Adventure R (2019)

Engine  799 cc, liquid cooled, 2-cylinder, 4-stroke, parallel twin
Transmission  6-speed, chain drive, anti-hopping clutch
Power  70 kW at 8 000 rpm
Torque  88 Nm at 6 600 rpm
Weight  189 kg dry and 210 kg wet
Seat height  880 mm
Wheels  21” front and 17” rear with steel spokes, tubeless
Fuel tank  20 litres
Consumption  4.2 litres/100km (claimed)
Range  450 km (claimed)
Warranty and service intervals  2 years and 15 000 km
Price  R195 000

Bike Routes crew members Willem van der Berg and Justus Visagie
Bike Routes’ crew members Willem van der Berg and Justus Visagie.