Comparison: 2013 BMW R 1200 GS vs 2013 KTM 1190 Adventure R: Battle of the Giants

Text: Florian Neuhauser • Photography: Uwe Krauss, KTM, BMW North America, Jonathan Beck

With the allure of traveling around the world on two wheels ever increasing, the adventure-type motorcycles seem to be at their limits. “How much better can they get?” one might ask. Well, since they can already get to almost any place on earth, now they can do it fast, too. Over the last several months, we got the chance to put the water-cooled R 1200 GS through the ringer during an intense off-road tour in Arizona and tested the 1190 
Adventure R on different types of terrain across the pond.

Flat vs. V

Both models utilize a 2-cylinder, 4-stroke engine, but they couldn’t be more different. The BMW’s most notable improvement over its predecessor is built on the premise of precision cooling, similar to what’s being used in Formula 1. With this enhancement, the elements especially subjected to thermal stress (like the cylinder heads and parts of the cylinders), are cooled by a glycol-water mix. In addition, engineers counted on air to cool the engine. This mix allowed them to keep the appearance of the boxer and hide both radiators behind the tank spoilers. The engine is rev friendly and produces enough power across the rpm range so that even switchbacks in third gear (!) are no problem. Although we couldn’t think of a GS without its protruding engine, it’s also somewhat of a negative. If dropped, the engine is vulnerable, and those cylinder head covers aren’t cheap. (Like anything on a BMW is!) As we’re not all Dakar racers; we have moments of waddling through technical sections, which is exactly when shins become bruised. The design simply allows for less movement of the legs. Service intervals remain at 6,000 miles after the initial one, which is quite low for a travel enduro.

The KTM’s mill is based on the LC8 from the 1190 RC8 R. During its adaptation, every component was improved upon to fit the Adventure’s needs. The result is lots of low-end torque and plenty of mid-range, basically covering the complete bandwidth. It makes it really easy to choose between leisurely cruising and all-out racing. The good thing about the engine design is that it doesn’t subject itself to injury. Nothing is sticking out, so in case of a drop it’s less likely something will break. Service intervals have been extended to 15,000km (9,320 miles).

On-Road Touring

On the streets, both machines devour curves, and they click off the miles on straight sections with ease and comfort. The KTM is a lot sportier and has 150 horses, 25 more than the BMW. Visually, the Austrian steed is slimmer, whereas the Bavarian, well, looks Bavarian. The water-cooled GS has a few changes over its predecessor but still looks quite similar. The 1190 R looks nothing like the 990 Adventure.

Both motorcycles can be loaded with approximately 260 pounds, assuming the rider weighs 200 pounds including safety gear. Add a passenger, and the permitted total weight is quickly approached, especially if heavily loaded down with luggage. The unfortunate byproduct of having a myriad of storage solutions is that we tend to bring more than what we actually need. All this weight affects the suspension, but more about that in the off-road comparison.

Wind management is slightly better on the BMW, but both have adjustable windscreens. The GS fits more riders as its seat height can be adjusted from 33.5 inches to 34.3 inches. The KTM is set at a firm 35 inches. BMW has the two-piece seat, whereas the KTM opted for a dirt-bike-like bench seat. The wheelbase is slightly shorter on the BMW, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more nimbleness in the curves. The KTM’s light weight and tire design make it feel like a 690 through switchbacks. The chain-driven KTM also gives a lot more feedback than the BMW’s shaft drive. There’s always something to be said about the easy maintenance of a shaft drive, but taking care of a chain is really not that difficult or time consuming considering the advantages of feel and ride quality. Both motorcycles feature a ride-by-wire throttle with different mappings.

Off-Road Exploring

Although the KTM beats the BMW on the spec sheet in off-road capability, the German has no problems navigating through even the toughest of terrains. The KTM does have more suspension travel, but the Beemer’s setup seems to defy gravity. What impressed us the most was how it floated over the rockiest trail sections of the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route (AZBDR). The rider can fine-tune the suspension settings on both when heavily loaded down with passenger, gear, and equipment. On both motorcycles, ABS comes standard, but it’s a hassle having to turn it off every time the key is switched on. Instead, we opted to use the kill switch during the day to avoid pushing buttons so often.

The KTM has a more off-road suitable 21-inch front and 18-inch rear tire, whereas the BMW has a 19 inch and 17 inch respectively.

The KTM comes with standard crash bars that are well made. If you plan to take the BMW off-road, we highly recommend the strongest crash bars available. Function over looks is key.

On goat paths with steep inclines and rocky obstacles, the BMW is quite intimidating. The weight, sound, and looks all play an important psychological role. It took me four days during the AZBDR to feel completely at ease with the massive Beemer charging up steep hills, down spirals, and through sand. The KTM looks and feels much smaller, and the sound isn’t as deep and aggressive. It takes less time to feel comfortable on it and ultimately is more fun off-road.

Flo’s Lowdown

Both machines are capable of exploring the most remote corners of our planet. The BMW is a well-mannered motorcycle that can haul a rider (with or without passenger) and lots of “survival” gear down almost any path. The only obstacle we found is its own weight and size. Although the bike itself can tackle technical trails, the question becomes whether the pilot has enough training. The KTM, on the other hand, makes it easier (not easy in general) to navigate over big rocks, logs, and trenches. For around-the-world travel, it seems like BMW parts are becoming easier to locate; although they are still rather exotic if you’re in a hut village in Zimbabwe. Both machines recommend premium fuel, which isn’t always readily available in third-world countries. The high compression engines are designed to propel you with warp-like acceleration, but having access to high-octane gas is key in reaching full potential. Both the German and the Austrian are made to circle the world, are fun in the curves, and offer comfortable long-distance touring. It all depends on which power ranger you want to be. Blue or orange?