There are varying approaches to designing a motorcycle, and naturally, there are people that prefer each approach. Some prefer sport bikes, while others prefer cruisers, but regardless of the flavor, it’s becoming common to see motorcycles equipped with more and more technology. Many are equipped with a slew of electronics that manage just about every aspect of the machine while others still come with carburetors.
Rally-Inspired Adventure Bikes
ll these varying approaches to design have their advantages and disadvantages, but this piece is aimed at those that prefer a more analog motorcycling experience. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with tech on motorcycles. In fact, I’m a proponent in most cases. However, there are times that it behooves you to be riding a less advanced machine. One that can be mended with basic tools—when you’re miles away from the nearest cell phone signal, for example.
I would also argue that while the safety net of technology works to soak up a rider’s mistakes, it removes some of the challenge. Thus, these technological nannies, if not programmed correctly, can absolutely kill the character of a motorcycle. Worse still, these systems are not always perfect and with every additional system come additional points of failure. For an adventure motorcycle, I prefer to be on a simple machine that doesn’t require a computer science degree to repair. We own both a KTM 950 and 990 just for that reason, but the new Yamaha Ténéré 700 might just give them a run for their money.
The Yamaha Ténéré 700 and KTM 990 Adventure fall into the growing class of mid-size, multi-cylinder adventure bikes. This sub-category fills the gap between the hardcore single cylinder bikes that aren’t far from dirtbikes and the high-powered 1,200cc touring-biased super tankers. Motorcycles that fit in this mid-size multi-cylinder class tend to aim for the precious middle ground between the two. Some may argue that the 990 isn’t mid-sized, but I disagree. Other than engine size, the 990 fits this category perfectly.
Every so often, though, we are lucky enough to get a motorcycle that’s a direct descendant of rally racing champions. There are several motorcycles in this mid-sized category but none can be juxtaposed quite as neatly as the T7 and the 990. Both trace their ancestry directly back to the fearsome Dakar Rally and both have thoroughbred racing DNA coursing through their veins. These motorcycles have completely different personalities, but they have a similar approach to design. A simple, robust platform with long-travel suspension riding on a 21-inch front wheel and an 18-inch in the rear that’s capable enough to tackle challenging off-road sections, yet powerful and smooth enough to comfortably cruise at highway speeds.
The old dog in this pack is the KTM 990 Adventure. It’s the successor of the KTM 950 Adventure and was produced from 2006 to 2013 when KTM, catering to a market that thinks “bigger is better,” replaced the 990 with the heavier and more powerful 1190 Adventure. The 990 Adventure’s bloodline can be traced directly back to the mighty Rally 950 that won the Dakar Rally its first year competing in 2002, making it the last twin-cylinder motorcycle to win Dakar before multi-cylinder bikes were banned in 2005.
The later 990 Adventure model is equipped with a snarly 115 horsepower, 75-degree, liquid-cooled V-twin. The KTM’s power delivery is fierce and the lack of traction control means that the rear quickly steps out as if you’ve flipped a switch once you climb higher in the rev range. The 990 can certainly be an unforgiving beast that will happily bite you hard the first chance you give it. However, the 990 will teach you a lot about riding a powerful bike off-road once you learn to respect it.
The engine has gobs of torque, so you can easily ride a gear high and use a bit more clutch for good old-fashioned traction control. The 990 and 950 have managed to maintain their relevance for so many years and still do so today due in part to their deep racing heritage. The simple and robust nature of the design, combined with a heavy bias toward performance, ensures this platform’s relevance many years into the future as well. I suspect that if this bike dies off, it will be because KTM killed it off by discontinuing support, not because they are no longer competitive with modern machines.
The long awaited Ténéré 700 is finally here. Now that it’s stateside and already racking up miles across the continent, the T7 has become highly sought after, and for good reason. For someone looking for an off-road-biased mid-sized ADV bike, the T7 is an absolute home run. Then again, it should be, since it shares the same racing pedigree as the KTM. The Ténéré takes its name from the Ténéré desert in the south central Sahara, where a difficult stage of the original Dakar Rally was held. In fact, the Ténéré’s earliest direct ancestor, the XT500, won the first two Dakar Rallies in ‘79 and ‘80.
The T7 is equipped with the CP2 engine, the torquey 689cc parallel twin we already know from the MT-07. It produces 72 horsepower in a linear and predictable, yet exciting, way. The fueling is well sorted out of the box and high rotational inertia in the bottom end means the T7 is very difficult to stall. This absolute gem of an engine, combined with the adjustable 210mm suspension and excellent chassis design make the T7 an incredibly capable off-road machine.
The countershaft on the CP2 is higher than what is typically found on adventure bikes, allowing an increase in swingarm angle, which means the shock is able to do a great job of keeping the rear tire firmly planted. This geometry also serves to reduce squat under power while simultaneously driving the front wheel into the ground. The clever design work means the T7 can get power to the ground efficiently, while handling like a bike half its size. Its simple nature and the fact that it’s a Yamaha mean the bike is likely to be as reliable as a hammer for many years to come.
More importantly, though, the T7 has a ton of character! It’s rowdy when you ask, but docile enough to be easily managed in rough terrain or in tight low-speed riding. This is true of the entire package. The engine has a fantastic balance of power and practicality, but Yamaha has achieved this same balance with the chassis as well. Peg input provokes responsive but not twitchy steering, and the factory suspension will serve expert riders well once properly dialed in. The Ténéré certainly lives up to its namesake and I think it upholds the honor of its rally-winning ancestors, much like the 990 and 950 have over the years.
One area where the T7 completely crushes the 990, and many other large adventure bikes, is accessibility. It’s really a remarkable quality of the T7. It’s friendly and docile enough to be someone’s first step into adventure motorcycles, but it’s also got enough power and character to keep a seasoned rider entertained. The T7 is also capable of getting through some very difficult riding. On top of the capabilities of the machine, the T7 offers some of the best value for money the adventure motorcycle market has ever seen with an MSRP of just $ 9,999.
The KTM is faster and certainly more aggressive than the T7 but don’t be fooled. The Yamaha, while not quite as rowdy, is deceptively quick! The suspension and clever chassis design, paired with the smooth engine, mean it doesn’t feel as aggressive but you will find yourself sliding both tires into corners before you know it. Once the suspension is dialed in, the Yamaha is very likely to be faster than the 990 in most riders’ hands.
The 990, with its long wheelbase, is a desert rally racing machine that’s designed to be stable at high speed. As such, it doesn’t turn in as easily as the more nimble T7. The tighter turning radius and the readiness to turn is a welcome change when transitioning to the Yamaha.
To adapt an expression from the car world, I’d call both of these motorcycles “rider’s motorcycles.” These are machines for the rider that enjoys the experience of riding the bike above most other aspects of riding. Both are for the rider that lives by the old cliche of “being one with the machine.” They’re for the rider that prefers clutch control instead of traction control. They’re for the rider that prefers good old-fashioned mechanical engineering instead of electrical wizardry. There’s clearly a market for it, judging by how difficult it can be to find a T7 to purchase and by how popular the 990 and 950 still are today.
Despite the fact that one of these motorcycles was released in the U.S. just about a year ago and the other is nearly two decades old, these deliberately simple machines are remarkably similar. The most advanced technology you’ll find is an ABS system. Both have thoroughbred racing heritage that can be traced back to Dakar champions, and it shows. They ride like giant dirt bikes, and they can both tackle very serious terrain.
The thing about the T7 is that it’s a Yamaha. It’s likely that, with basic upkeep, it’ll run for a very, very long time before requiring any significant maintenance. As they do, KTM added a somewhat larger dash of “racing” when developing their brew, meaning the 990 is generally higher maintenance. It has significantly more punch, though, so pick your poison here.
Now, maintenance is one thing, but how a motorcycle holds together when it hits the ground is another matter entirely. The amount of abuse I’ve seen KTM 990s and 950s take is astounding. You’ll need to stuff it extremely hard to take one out of commission. Generally I think the same can be said of the T7, except for the shift linkage on the left of the engine, but I’m sure some aftermarket solutions will become available, if they’re not on the market already. Other than that, the T7 shouldn’t have any major problems becoming acquainted with the ground from time to time.
We’ll never get rid of our 990 or 950—they’re just too much fun. But when their time does come to an end, the T7 an obvious choice for replacement. This Yamaha is the closest iteration of a roadgoing rally bike I’ve seen since the 990, and that is something to get excited about! And now we’re on the cusp of experiencing the Husqvarna 901 Norden, which looks to be another contender in this exclusive class. This story isn’t over yet.
KTM 990 Adventure
Current Value 990 Adventure (2013 Baja) $ 14,899 (current used market value depends on year, mileage, and accessories)
Engine 4-stroke, 2-cyclinder, 75° V-twin, DOHC, 4-valve, liquid-cooled
Power 115hp @8,750 rpm;74lb-ft @6,750rpm
Transmission 6-speed, hydraulic multiplate wet clutch
Wet Weight 462lbs, claimed
Seat Height 33.86in
Fuel Capacity 5.3gal
Fuel Consumption 38mpg (as tested)
Fuel Grade premium
Yamaha Tenere 700
MSRP $ 9,999
Engine 4-stroke, 2-cyclinder, parallel, DOHC, 4 valve, liquid-cooled
Power 74hp @8,000 rpm; 50lb-ft @6,600rpm
Transmission 6-speed, cable-operated multiplate wet clutch
Wet Weight 452lbs, claimed
Seat Height 34.4in
Fuel Capacity 4.2gal
Fuel Consumption 50mpg (as tested)
Fuel Grade premium
Color blue-black, red-white, gray-black