KTM Ultimate Race/Merzouga Rally 790R Review

Discussion in 'Crazy-Awesome almost Dakar racers (950/990cc)' started by gearheadE30, Apr 28, 2019.

  1. gearheadE30

    gearheadE30 @LC8Adventures Supporter

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    I've gotten a bunch of requests for my thoughts on the new 790 in PMs and in the 790 thread, so I'm going to put that together here.

    (this will be a few separate posts over the next few days)

    (Merzouga Rally/KTM Ultimate Race ride report link will show up here once I get that written and posted)

    Before I get too far into it, go check out Upshift, Cudby Photo, Marcin Kin Photography, MotoGeo, and FilmerForce photography. These guys are all great and post some truly inspired stuff.

    A little personal background to put my thoughts in perspective:

    I finished first overall in the 2018 KTM Ultimate race qualifier at the Adventure Rider Rally last year, and as a result KTM sent me over to Morocco to race a 790 Adventure R at the Merzouga Rally with 11 other top finishers from the other rider rallies. My thoughts come from a dirt focused perspective; I am willing to compromise a lot on pavement to have a better experience off road.

    [​IMG]

    My daily off road ride is a very modified 2005.5 950 Adventure; most of my performance comparisons are relative to this.

    [​IMG]

    While I have spent some time on pavement, the vast majority of my experience with the 790 is off road. I did not try to carry any luggage beyond tools and spares.

    Many motorcycle manufacturers profess to build a do-it-all, off-road capable adventure bike. Some of them are little more than gussied-up street bikes with marginally more travel, smaller tread blocks, and a more upright seating position. Others go a step or two further with a 21” front wheel, reasonably good travel, and good ground clearance numbers backed up with ergonomics conducive to standing. The BMW F800GS, KTM 1X90 series, and Africa Twin all fall into this category of bikes that can go some crazy places off road with the right rider. Only a few bikes have ever existed in the dirt-focused twin cylinder space, notably the BMW HP2, the KTM 950 Super Enduro, and the Aprilia RXV550. The progression of legislation means that we are unlikely to see the likes of these hero bikes from the factory in the near future.

    These are all great bikes for different purposes, but the experience on most dirt-oriented big bikes tends to fall apart when you really start pushing harder and trying to add some pace to the equation. With some work, especially in the springing and valving departments, it is typically possible to remedy that, but it is not cheap and you still have a bike that takes a lot of muscling around in some terrain. I put my beloved 950 Adventure in this category as well.

    KTM was pretty brave in giving 12 unknown riders brand new 790Rs to race in a major rally event. That speaks volumes to the confidence that they have in this bike, and their determination to set it apart from the other bikes on the market. Contrary to what a few places have reported, the 790R Ultimate Race bikes were largely stock machines. The suspension was stock (not cone valve as reported in a few places), as was the engine, mapping, air intake, and nearly everything else that I've been asked about.

    [​IMG]

    Key modifications were limited to what was needed for the competition. Michelin Desert Race tires with mousses were mounted to the narrower Power Parts wheel set. Tall Power Parts seats were installed on all of the bikes, as the stock seat with the bump is not as well suited to aggressive off road use. All of the bikes had the aftermarket Akrapovic muffler. The street grips were removed in favor of foam rally grips, and the stock steering damper was replaced with an aftermarket Scotts piece as required by the ASO. Longer KTM Rally pegs were installed as well, and of course the bikes had a powered roadbook holder mounted to the bars and a Stella rally computer mounted to the tower above the factory display. The sidestand switch, ABS, and traction control were also disabled for competition, though we did get a chance to test the rider aids before competition started.

    Point being, these weren’t custom race bikes made to look like 790s in the interest of marketing. They were largely stock.
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  2. gearheadE30

    gearheadE30 @LC8Adventures Supporter

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    On a cheap bathroom scale, the 790 weighed 224 lbs. on the front tire and 237 on the rear with no luggage and a full tank of fuel. Compare that with my 950, which has had quite a bit of light-weighting done to it: 241 lbs. front and 248 lbs. rear with only a gallon and a half or so of fuel in it. The 790 also carries its weight much lower than the 950 and doesn’t have that slightly top-heavy feel. It’s initially almost disconcerting because it feels light/low, but still has all the inertia that goes along with the weight. As with most bikes, it feels lighter as speeds go up, the weight only making itself known in really big hits or when traction is lost. It is the lightest bike in its class, and only 10-20 lbs heavier than a well-set-up 950 Super Enduro.
    #2
  3. gearheadE30

    gearheadE30 @LC8Adventures Supporter

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    The 790 twin impressed me. For those of you looking for comparisons to some of the other bikes on the market, the Africa Twin engine feels capable but is not exciting and has a much more pedestrian power band. The AT resists stalling better, and is smoother due to high inertia. The F800GS has a much weaker bottom end, an overall much less enthusiastic feel, and is only happy in very narrow rpm range. The F800GS also vibrates much more than the 790. I’ve always been of the opinion that the engine is the biggest letdown of the F800GS to the point where it would keep me from buying one. The LC8 (carbureted, at least) has a lot more go at the bottom end and tolerates laziness better, but the 790 revs out better at the top. The LC8 is also a much noisier engine than the 790.

    Fuel injection on the 790 works well, but you can tell KTM had to make concessions to keep it in the emissions box in a few areas. At low revs, it feels ‘sharp’ in the sense that it is on the lean side, which is probably the chugging feeling that a few others have commented on. As with many new bikes, this one is ride by wire, and you can feel the throttle smoothing at times. It almost feels like a slight delay in throttle response and it is only particularly noticeable when using the clutch in more trialsy-type technical terrain. Switching from the Rally throttle mode to Street makes it feel a bit more natural, making me think that the aggressive mapping in Rally mode might drive throttle plate speeds beyond what the throttle plate motors are capable of. Modern torque-request throttle mapping always feels a little unnatural to me compared with cable throttles though, so it’s quite possible that other riders will not notice this at all.

    Riding higher in the rev range and using more power, the engine feels fantastic. The 790 engine feels like a rally bike engine in the sense that it is low inertia and likes a bit more revs. It feels very happy being ridden hard, and pulls strong and smooth up to the limiter. It’s almost electric in its power delivery, a feeling reinforced by the nearly silent exhaust. One person riding with me likened it to an angry sewing machine. It’s got some slight rattliness to it, but you only notice it because the rest of the experience is so quiet. Even the PowerParts Akra exhaust is very quiet, though it does sound good. I would like a little more sound out of it so that, at higher speeds, I could hear the engine over the wind and terrain instead of looking down at the tach.

    [​IMG]

    Fuel consumption seems very good, with range close to 200 miles before reserve. I didn’t have much of a way to test this.

    Transmission ratios felt slightly tighter than the LC8 adventures, but also didn’t seem to matter quite as much because the 790 is happier at higher rpm on the road than the LC8 is. I love wide ratio transmissions, so of course I’d like to see a lower first and a higher 6th. Gear spacing is great; none of that silly short 5th-6th jump than the F800s have. Shifting action is precise and positive as you would expect. I missed one or two shifts right when I started riding, but that was just due to MX boots and an unfamiliar bike.

    The clutch took all the abuse I gave it in stride. Clutch pull is light and pretty predictable, but the engagement zone is very narrow. Combine this with the ride-by-wire throttle delay, and it got a little frustrating at times in really technical terrain – this was one of my biggest annoyances with the bike. One of the first things I would do would be to add a longer clutch pull arm, which would lengthen engagement and further reduce effort. I don’t really see any need to retrofit a hydraulic clutch at this point. While some people were more abusive, I never had issues with the clutch in the sand in Merzouga. It bit hard and consistently, and the adjustment never moved.
    #3
  4. gearheadE30

    gearheadE30 @LC8Adventures Supporter

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    Electronics and ride modes:

    I did not get any experience with cruise control or the factory heated grips.

    I’m not really big on electronic gadgetry on cars or bikes, and some of the 790’s features are more gimmicky than others. I’ll start with those first. The 790 does have KTM My Ride, which I did not mess with. Even if I owned the bike, I doubt I’d bother what with my general dislike of apps. Apparently it can do turn by turn navigation (but it doesn’t show the map, which is why I would just use a separate GPS instead) and can act as an intermediary to control Bluetooth music playback. The knob on my Sena works just fine for that, so adding another step of complexity doesn’t interest me. Fortunately, if you don’t use these features, they never get in the way or clutter the display unnecessarily.

    KTM’s quickshifter programming works well on the street if you like that kind of thing. After verifying that it does work, I turned it off. I can do the same thing with my throttle hand, and I was having some issues with slightly bumping the shift lever with my boot off road. This would cause the engine to cut power, but because I wasn’t actually trying to shift, I would either end up between gears or would accidentally end up in a different gear. I also never got comfortable using it between first and second crossing through neutral. Clutchless shifting without the quickshifter software is natural and easy both up and down.

    [​IMG]

    Ride modes are what we’ve come to expect from KTM, and they work well. I tried rain mode to make sure it works. It does. Throttle response is mushy, ABS and traction control are aggressive. Not much else to say about that.

    Normal (Street) mode lets you select between ABS on/off, throttle in rain/street/rally, and traction control on/off. It works well on the street, as the name implies.

    Rally is the mode I used the most, and is the mode I would use if I had a 790. This activated Rally ABS, which is on the front wheel only. I turned ABS off entirely and it works fine, but you will need a dongle to maintain this and traction control off after a key cycle. I left rally ABS on most of the time; it works very, very well. It’s pretty amusing diving into one loose sandy corner after another with the lever chattering away, but if the back wheel is locked up at the right time, it loses its reference speed and you can still lock the front. I only got it to do this when I was trying to trick it. It’s a really good system.

    Rally mode also activates the multi-level traction control. I left it down a 1 most of the time, where it only made itself known if I lost all my momentum in the sand and was trying to climb a big dune or got stuck. After riding an LC8 for so long, it's hard to turn the traction control in my right hand off enough to feel it doing anything at level 1. Up in the 5-6 range it gets too intrusive for me in sand and loose stuff, and could get you stuck by cutting too much power. On anything more solid than sand, it works well and really helps the bike hook up. I would only turn it up higher than this on slippery wet pavement or something as a safety net when I really don’t want any wheelspin at all. The highest traction control levels would also cut power and make some loud exhaust pops when jumping the bike, which isn’t great for attitude adjustments.

    Rally mode also uses the most aggressive throttle map, which is great off road most of the time. It was too aggressive for me on the street if I was just cruising around trying to be smooth…which is probably why there is a street mode. As mentioned before, I used street mode if the riding got very technical.

    [​IMG]

    The display worked well and was visible in most conditions. It’s not a matte finish so can be annoyingly reflective in direct sunlight. I like the built in voltmeter, and toggling through screens while riding was mostly intuitive. The tach and speed are easy to see, and the tach turns red when you get close to redline. Backlit button clusters were cool riding the dark, too.

    While this is a CAN bus bike, it looks pretty straightforward to add accessories. The fuse box is easy to get to under the seat, as are the battery connections. There is enough space in there to hide some wiring, USB charger, etc. It looked like there were accessory wiring connections at the front and rear of the bike under the seat as well – great thinking on KTM’s part.

    [​IMG]
    #4
  5. GodSilla

    GodSilla I did that.

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    Great write-up. :thumb
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  6. braaap!

    braaap! Long timer Supporter

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    ^ Seconded @gearheadE30 !

    Valuable insight from someone with first hand experience and strong technical / riding knowledge! Thanks :)
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  7. windblown101

    windblown101 Long timer

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    Nice write up. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the bike.
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  8. motoman250f

    motoman250f Been here awhile

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    Thanks! Thanks! Thanks! Interested if you see this bike displacing others? whats the real impact from a handling perspective? completely replace a 950 in all areas? what about the SE? I'm trying to remove the hype and figure out where this bike is going to fit.. My thought is it will take a dent out of the big bikes but maybe have the same impact the 800gs did.. (Everyone went to the 800 and then back to the 1200 because they just weren't interested in giving up the comfort and power,, it was still too heavy) In a sense the 800gs failed to draw the big bike riders away,, same thing with the 790?? (its a lot better of an example of middle weight than the 800gs was though) Time will tell but your perspective is sharp IMHO,, Thanks so much!
    #8
  9. charlie264

    charlie264 Long timer

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    Choice..if it came down to one bike. Well sorted 9*0 or 790? :dunno
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  10. gearheadE30

    gearheadE30 @LC8Adventures Supporter

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    Just remember that my perspective is just one random guy's thoughts, accompanied by some pretty pictures. :lol3 Lots of different ways to look at this.

    I have a whole bunch more written up that isn't posted yet; I didn't have quite enough time to proofread and upload more pictures last night. Handling is in that bit.

    For most people, the 790 would replace a 950 or 990 adventure and be quite a bit more capable. However, in really technical, muddy, nasty terrain, I think the clutch behavior and predictable engine response of the 950 still give it the edge. It remains to be seen what the aftermarket will come up with. To me, a Rekluse is not a solution, but for some people it might be sufficient.

    The 950 SE is a different kind of bike. It is a completely analog hooligan bike, and the 790 is a bit more quietly competent. For some people the 790 might be a good replacement and is definitely a more versatile bike, but I think most of the hard core SE fans would miss the character and simplicity of the older bike.

    The F800 had a lot more downsides that drove people away than just being less powerful and not much lighter. While the suspension was okay, the engine is not enthusiastic, is annoyingly vibey on the road, has a frustratingly heavy clutch, mileage isn't that great if you're riding faster, and the gearing is pretty bad for adventure use. They also have some niggling reliability issues from personal family experiences with them.

    The 790 has much more separation from the "big" adventure bikes, in my opinion. It's the most capable off road big bike you can buy. I do think it will steal some sales from the 1090R in particular, since that is the off road big bike overlap, but road-oriented riders will still probably lean towards the bigger bikes. I would guess most sales will be people otherwise considering (or past owners of) Africa Twins, F800s, and the like.
    #10
  11. DesertSurfer

    DesertSurfer Tail sprayin

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    Great insight Gearhead...

    If you have more please post it. This is good reading!
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  12. gearheadE30

    gearheadE30 @LC8Adventures Supporter

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    That's a hard question. I have limited funds, I am very mechanically inclined and prefer to fix cheap stuff rather than buy new stuff that actually works, and I mostly ride off road. Different answers for different people and all that.

    I'm not selling my 950, which is quite well sorted. I guess that's the truest answer to your question.

    I would love to have a chance to build a 790R if one day it financially makes sense. If I didn't have a bike at all right now, I would buy the 790 and start with that. I know how much money I have in my 950. By the time you buy a nice, low hour 950 or 990 and then spend the money to fix all the little quirks they have, the cost wouldn't be all that different relative to a lightly used 790 once they are available.

    More to come!
    #12
  13. windblown101

    windblown101 Long timer

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    I'd add the 690 Enduro and possibly some other smaller bikes to that list as well. Just sold my adventurized 690 in anticipation of a 790R hitting my dealer before too long. :)
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  14. Velociraptor

    Velociraptor TrackBum Super Supporter

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    Great new topic. Thanks for starting it!
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  15. anydavenow

    anydavenow Long timer

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    Thanks for this excellent write-up @gearheadE30, it's actually the best thing I've read on the 790R so far. Although my 990 is nowhere near as "sorted" as yours I'm in the same boat, I think. The costs have already been sunk into my bike and aren't recoverable if I sell it, so may as well put another 100,000 km on it before looking elsewhere. But I'm glad to see this new chapter open up in KTMs ADV story.
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  16. enduro16

    enduro16 Been here awhile

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    Totally amazing,write up.... Thank you very much for some of the best reading I've had for a long time!!! so tired of the 790 ADV page!
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  17. gearheadE30

    gearheadE30 @LC8Adventures Supporter

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    Chassis:

    Chassis-wise, the 790 doesn’t really break any ground. It’s still a trellis frame with the engine suspended beneath as a stressed member. (EDIT: the subframe is trellis-style, but the main frame is not! Thanks @troy safari carpente for the correction). The subframe is steel, which should resolve a lot of the problems people have had with toting luggage around in the past. It seems to be a very well done design, with integrated bosses for mounting luggage racks.

    Many have commented on the lack of frame under the engine, and at least one picture has been posted of a smashed oil pan. The 790 has a small steel subframe supporting the front of the skidplate, with the bottom supported by the oil pan and some small steel brackets. The catalyst backs up the skidplate in the back, so removing this with an aftermarket exhaust would require some additional brackets to provide support. The small tabs that link the sump guard up to the frame under the pegs are not beefy enough to do the job on their own. Remember that there isn’t a single stock bike out there that comes with a guard that you can slam the bike down onto without doing some damage. Only one of the Ultimate Race bikes had an issue with the pan, which had made very solid contact with a large rock and pushed it up into the tank at the front. Overall, they held up well for a factory design, but I would be looking to the aftermarket for a solution if you plan to be double blipping over logs and bouncing through rock gardens.

    [​IMG]

    The fuel tank is the most striking difference from other adventure bikes, and has been discussed to death by now. Yes it is one piece, yes is it slightly wider than the 950. You get used to it, and it does a reasonably good job of protecting your feet and legs from brush, wind, and rain. I only had one gap on a trail where it was a bit wide and did some scraping, but my 950 would have done the same thing before it was raised up. I did drop the 790 a few times due to inopportune stalls, and had numerous getoffs of varying severity in the sand and hardpack in the desert. The tank was unfazed by the hits, and showed no damage beyond some cosmetic scuffs. The only real risk here is a crash on pavement, where the ground acts like sandpaper and will wear through the tank in a long enough slide. However, I think the sacrificial plastic covers for the tank petcocks will largely make this a nonissue, similar to the plastic 990 tank protectors I use on my 950.

    A few people have mentioned this already, but the rear side covers have a nifty little toolbox area in them. There is also a lot more room under the seat to stash stuff than I was expecting, though it is still nothing like the pre-ABS 950s. The stock rear luggage rack could be a lot better. It only has two slots in it for straps, and the handholds are only connected on one side. Tying stuff down is impossible, and the handles seem a bit flimsy. All the current KTM ADV bikes use this setup, so it should not be hard to find an alternate solution.

    [​IMG]

    The tower is similar to the 1X90 design. It’s mainly made of plastic, with steel tubes adorned by small acrylic (read:brittle) wind deflectors wrapping around the outside of the forks to support the tower. The factory GPS mount area is above the screen and really amplifies the bending moment at the tower mounts. After the Merzouga experience, I would strongly suggest not mounting anything additional to the tower if you ride off road in high-vibration and impact situations. The aftermarket has come up with solutions for the 1X90 bikes – I would expect to see something from TripleClampMoto and others to beef this area up. There is a 12V cigarette outlet on the tower as well.

    The LED headlight works well and is a massive step up from other factory headlights I’ve used in the past. However, the adjuster allows the headlight to jiggle a little, creating a distracting strobe effect off road at night. I would imagine it will be relatively easy to fix this and mount it a little more positively. For a factory light, it works well.

    Not strictly chassis-related, but I wasn’t sure where else to put it: KTM did a great thing putting a high fender on the front of the 790R. However, I find it ironic that they installed the equivalent of a low rear fender, with the tire-hugger design. I really hope the aftermarket comes up with something better, because I fully expect the space between the outer fender and the shock/swing arm to get jammed full of debris. I don’t have any proof of this since there wasn’t any mud in Morocco, but I definitely heard a few rocks get sucked past it when idling through the bivouac. There's a pic in an earlier post that shows this.

    [​IMG]
    #17
  18. gearheadE30

    gearheadE30 @LC8Adventures Supporter

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    Also, for some video of what Morocco was like, MotoGeo, Filmerforce, and Marcin Kin photography teamed up to create this absolutely fantastic highlight reel of the event. It actually captures our feelings and enthusiasm pretty darn well. I'm the nerdy looking guy in the glasses on #412. :lol3

    #18
  19. braaap!

    braaap! Long timer Supporter

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  20. DesertSurfer

    DesertSurfer Tail sprayin

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    Really nice quality and well produced video ( I can be harsh since this is in my wheelhouse but have nothing but positive response here).

    I love the event KTM created. Very clever and effective marketing. Morrocco looks incredibly fun and exciting.

    Gearhead, you all look like you had a fantastic time... an experience of a lifetime.

    And writing a 790 R review is a great use of your experience, especially for all of us dying to know more about the 790 R.

    Your insight is very timely. And your experience on the 790 at the Merzouga Rally is very entertaining. So anything else you wanna add here is very welcomed.

    And for my sake, your own very personal opinions are appreciated. I accept and understand you're not trying to speak for everybody and I for one am not going to scrutinize your points of view but be amused by them. I certainly hope they're appreciated by all for what they are.

    So please carry on if at all possible!

    ( I'm also a die hard 950 Adventure Rally Replica owner that is curiously looking for what's the next best KTM Adventure?).

    From the videos, the 790 does look like it's a bit heavy and the back end wallows in it's weight especially in the sand.

    My personal opinion ( like anyone really cares) is... I was hoping KTM could have dropped more weight. How the 950 SE comes in lighter then the 790 R is a bit of a letdown. I understand that the electronics upgrades and solid rear subframe are a big part of that.

    But I had higher ( lighter) hopes. I don't think I'm ready to give up my 950 Adv RR for this quite yet. Maybe after the Orange Crushers get some time figuring it out like the 950/990 RR's.
    #20
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