Jeff Allen

2018 SuperADVbike Showdown In The Desert

The heat is on: 2018 Ducati 1260 Multistrada S vs. BMW R1200GS vs. KTM 1290 Super Adventure S


hen my plane out of Syracuse left the runway, it was 20 degrees and spitting snow. Two days later, I was descending into the Mojave Desert in 100-degree heat, practically cooking sous vide inside my gear. When Zack and Ari asked me to fly out to Southern California to test the 2018 Ducati Multistrada S, BMW R1200GS, and KTM 1290 Super Adventure S, I imagined riding through gently waving palm trees in cool coastal breezes. Instead, we set a course for the San Jacinto Mountains and the brutal sun of the desert. Additionally, it was immediately clear that, like a Canada goose trying to keep up with a pair of condors, I have nowhere near the pace to keep up with Zack and Ari. But on this batch of highly capable ADV bikes, even though I was out of my element and out of my depth, I couldn’t have felt more in control. Let’s Talk Bikes

ADV comparison bikes
All three bikes have preload presets, enabling the rider to select the appropriate setting for a single rider, a rider with luggage, a rider with a passenger, or a rider and a passenger with luggage. They’re pretty streamlined systems for selecting preload, but not as advanced as the system on the 2018 Triumph Tiger 1200, which automatically calculates preload by sensing the actual load of the rider (down to his/her most recent meal).Jeff Allen

While BMW, Ducati, and KTM each have more off-road-oriented ADVs—the R1200GS Adventure, the Multistrada Enduro, and the 1290 Super Adventure R (not to mention, the 1090 Adventure R), respectively—the models we chose for this comparison skew toward the sport-tour side of the spectrum: that's 370 combined horsepower intended (mostly) for the middle of the road.

On paper, our Euro contenders appear to be quite similar. They each have two cylinders, trellis frames, a dizzying array of electronics, and top-spec components. Yes, they cost a lot, but you get a lot for the money: lean-angle-sensitive traction control, electronically adjustable semi-active suspension, hill-hold control, up/down quickshifter, cornering-optimized ABS, keyless ignition, heated grips, cruise control, tire pressure monitoring, and the kitchen sink. While they’re functionally very comparable, the way they go about doing it all is very different.

The Benchmark: The 2018 BMW R1200GS

2018 BMW r1200gs
Iconic, visionary, and engineered to the brink of reason.Jeff Allen

The BMW R1200GS is the progenitor of the category and remains the benchmark. The base-model GS comes in at $16,695, but our test unit (in attractive Lupine Blue Metallic, for all the horticulturalists out there) came equipped with several options, including the Premium Package, the Style Package 1, GPS, Passenger Kit, and Sport Suspension. All told, our test unit cost $22,415. Actually, $23,854 including side cases.

Since I'm still fairly new to this motojournalism gig, I'll sheepishly admit, the venerable GS is the first BMW I've ever ridden. Yes, that's like a restaurant critic who's never had pizza. Make that bratwurst.

2018 BMW r1200gs riding
When I landed in SoCal’s Orange County, Zack picked me up and took me to the office straight away, tossing me the keys to the GS. One of the common complaints about ADV bikes is their tall seat heights, and like many people, until I grow accustomed to a bike, I can find this a bit intimidating. Removing the seat to reposition two bits of hardware, we lowered the seat to a pretty reasonable 33.5 inches. Not bad.Jeff Allen

As I told Zack as soon as I got off it for the first time: "I totally get it." If BMW cars are generally regarded as thoroughly engineered luxury/performance vehicles, BMW motorcycles add a distinctive quirkiness to the formula. Opposed-twin engines and asymmetrical styling, I once thought, maybe aren't for everyone. Well, now that I've supped at the BMW beer hall, I retract my previous statement.

As soon as you rev the big wasserboxer, feel the lilt of the torque pulses, and revel in its Wagnerian exhaust note, the quirkiness translates to genuine affection. A measured 101 hp is the lowest of the batch (the last GS we had on the dyno produced 113 hp), but it never feels underpowered—unless you’ve just gotten off the KTM. Cruising at 75 mph on the freeway, the BMW starts to get a bit buzzy in the pegs and grips, and the engine feels like it’s straining, even though it’s spinning at about 4,500 rpm.

At 573 pounds (wet), the GS is the heaviest bike here, but once aboard, the way it carries its weight low in the chassis makes low-speed maneuvering incredibly predictable. I’d go so far as to say that swinging the bars from stop to stop in first gear on the GS made me more comfortable at low speeds on any bike. Can a motorcycle be altruistic?

2018 BMW r1200gs windscreen
The LED headlight is part of the Premium Package. When the GS showed up at the offices, we were surprised to see that, like the KTM and Ducati, it had a beautiful full-color TFT dash—as standard. Maybe we missed the press release, but we had no idea BMW had bestowed this tech on the GS. Underway, the rider can switch the click wheel from controlling the dash to controlling the GPS. It’s a good feature that enables riders to, say, zoom in/out on the route while keeping their hands on the bars.Jeff Allen

Riding through the sweeping corners of the Idyllwild National Forest Highway gave me another insight into why the GS breeds such allegiance. The telelever front suspension isolates throttle and brake inputs from the front end, which means getting off the throttle midcorner or applying the front brake doesn’t affect handling—only speed. Plus, because telelever front ends don’t dive when you touch the brakes (which would steepen rake), the rake is set quite steep, so the bike turns quickly and with a light touch. In the corners, it made me more aware of my steering inputs at the bar. I’m accustomed to using the throttle to stand the bike up on corner exits, but on the GS, I had the sensation of having to countersteer out of corners. It doesn’t take long to get used to, and it’s incredibly reassuring, especially on unfamiliar and potentially gravelly roads. Plus, it soaks up bumps like it’s its job—which I guess it is.

2018 BMW r1200gs front end
The user interface, controlled by a two-way button and click wheel, could be more intuitive. Considering the BMW has fewer options for adjustability, the menu layout is a little befuddling. I can easily picture in my mind how to get from main screen to “info” to “trip 1” on the KTM, but I can’t do that with the BMW. To reset trip 1 after filling up the 5.3-gallon tank, I had to pause to figure it out. The system isn’t as linear and the combination of the up/down menu button and the click wheel (which moves up and down and presses to the side) makes it less intuitive to navigate.Jeff Allen

The GS automatically selects damping based on the preset riding mode. Unfortunately, other than spring preload, it doesn’t allow the rider to tailor individual suspension—or engine mapping, ABS, or traction control settings—within each mode. So if you’re in touring mode for the sake of comfy damping rates, you also get a more intrusive traction control setting. BMW does a good job with the presets, but not allowing the rider ultimate adjustability makes the system seem a generation behind.

The up/down quickshifter also seems behind the curve. It simply isn't as smooth and unobtrusive as the KTM's and Ducati's.

Whereas the BMW lags a bit behind in the electronics department, it compensates in the ergonomic and luggage departments. I found the seating position the most comfortable of all three bikes. It rotated my body to rest more on the meat of my tuchus (what little there is, candidly) rather than on…um…parts that aren’t meant for sitting. The combination of windscreen and airfoils offered the best wind protection of the lot, though the screen-adjuster knob is situated on the throttle side, which is annoying.

seat and luggage comparison
It’s clear that BMW has had time to master its luggage system. The BMW Vario cases ($1,439)—which, by flipping an internal bar in each case adjusts capacity from 20 to 29 liters on the right, and 30 to 39 liters on the left—are awesome. They don’t require a key to open or remove. Lifting off the cases was straightforward, and didn’t depend on well-chosen expletives as a means of coercion as did the cases on the KTM and Ducati. The Ducati and KTM cases also require the key to open and remove. We found the KTM system to be the most finicky.Jeff Allen

The Multistrada and Super Adventure probably only exist because of the GS, and it's easy to see why it created a new genre of motorcycling three decades ago. The GS is a bike clearly designed by logic, but it's logic applied in a way that enhances the inherent charm of the layout. It makes it a supremely capable, endearing machine, if a little too composed compared to the competition.

The Challenger: The 2018 Ducati 1260 Multistrada S

2018 ducati multistrada 1260 s
A genre-bending technical marvel.Jeff Allen

Continuing our ride on California State Route 74, the road becomes Pines to Palms Highway as it traverses the lunar-like landscape of the San Jacinto Mountains. On one side of the range, it’s green with pine and scrubby plants; on the other side it’s arid and 20 degrees hotter, planted with palm trees and irrigated turf. Like the twisty mountain road that links the two landscapes, the Multistrada represents a link between the sport-touring and traditional ADV worlds, coalescing in one tidy, tech-laden package.

2018 ducati multistrada 1260 s riding
One of my least favorite aspects of ADVs is their sheer size. One of my favorite aspects of Ducatis is how small they feel. With the Multi, you get a damn small-feeling ADV. In its lowest seat height (33.9 inches), it’s actually the same height as the KTM and 0.4 inch taller than the GS. But, thanks to its narrow waist I could easily flat-foot it, whereas I was still on my tiptoes on the other bikes (though just barely on the GS). The fuel tank is the same capacity as the GS’s, but it feels even slimmer. In the lowest seat height, legroom is more cramped than it is on the other bikes.Jeff Allen

Considering the Multistrada is such a big motorcycle, it feels surprisingly small. So small, in fact, that I think it broadens the appeal of the ADV category. It feels more like a normal motorcycle, not like some Mad Max tank killer like the KTM. It still has long-travel suspension (though 1.2 inches less than the BMW and KTM), good wind protection, and all the other great features we love about ADVs.

Consistent with its relatively lithe stature, the Ducati handles with the lightest touch. At 553 pounds (wet), it’s just heavier than the KTM, but its handling is the most nimble and athletic. To me, it handles like a tall Panigale, responding telepathically to initial steering input from upright. Ducati likes to play up its superbike roots when talking about its non-superbike motorcycles, and by disguising the bike’s larger stature with quick handling, it’s clear that’s what Borgo Panigale is going for with the Multi.

2018 ducati multistrada 1260 s
As Zack reported in his review of the new Multi, in addition to endowing it with the 1,262cc lump from the XDiavel, Ducati changed the geometry to make the bike more stable. It may have minimized some of the wild child, take-me-to-a-track flair of the previous generation, but it still has its own unique take on ADV-ing.Jeff Allen

However, Ducati’s Skyhook semi-active suspension didn’t provide the same on-rails feel of a superbike—or of KTM’s WP system. It felt, well, more suspended from the sky than glued to the pavement. Ari commented that even in the hardest damping setting he thought the suspension was too soft and rebounded too quickly, resulting in a vague, almost sloppy feeling in fast corners. The front end also felt a bit nervous under Ari-level (read: hard) trail-braking. Front end weight bias or geometry may be to blame here.

With a 1.9-inch-longer wheelbase and one degree less rake compared to the previous model, it was surprising that it felt less stable. None of these gripes, however, made me feel less confident in the corners, but I do wonder if Ducati’s chassis updates came off quite as intended.

With 1,262cc, variable valve-timing, a measured 138 hp, and 86 pound-feet of torque, the Ducati is the most powerful bike of the group, beating out the KTM by 9 hp. Of the three bikes, it spins up the quickest and the power delivery feels the most raw. Ducati-like, in other words. While the numbers don’t lie, our butt dynos certainly were deceived. In spite of putting up big numbers, it doesn’t deliver the oh-s–t levels of performance I’d hoped for.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s exciting-fast—just not superlative-fast, which is what I want out of a $22,595 Ducati. That price, by the way, is for the S model, and includes an extra $200 for the Iceberg White paint and $1,300 for the Touring Pack (touring cases, heated grips, and a centerstand).

2018 ducati multistrada 1260 s engine
Note: trellis frame has been altered to accommodate the 1,262cc Testastretta. The Ducati’s user interface is incredibly comprehensive and intuitive, especially considering the vast array of tech. Ducati uses a three-way button that works logically to navigate through menus. In the lower left-hand corner of the dash, there’s a readout for tripmeters, air/engine temp, average speed, etc., each of which can be reset by holding down the button—no need to go deep within the menu to find them. To me, it’s the best system of the three bikes.Jeff Allen

The Ducati’s ride modes each have default suspension, engine, traction control, and ABS settings, but unlike the BMW, it allows the rider to change every parameter. Each ride mode is thus a custom mode the rider can tailor to his/her specific tastes. To help the rider determine changes, it has cheat sheet-like notes and graphics that shows what altering a certain preset achieves.

If the Multi’s multitudinous acronyms—ECU, IMU, ABS, DTC, DQS, DWC, DSS, DCL, and VHS—confuse you, just think how the bike feels. At times, it seems like it gets its wires crossed. It’s 2018; gunning the throttle doesn’t just pull a cable. Twisting the grip filters info from the ride-by-wire throttle through the IMU to the ECU before finally getting those 106mm pistons moving faster. It wasn’t a consistent problem, but occasionally the bike would hesitate or accelerate more slowly than at other times. Again, it conveys the feeling that it’s just not as sorted as the other bikes, especially the BMW, which seems like it’s had three decades of refinement by humorless German engineers in white lab coats and bifocals.

2018 ducati multistrada 1260 s windscreen
The Multistrada windscreen offers the skimpiest protection of the group but is still plenty adequate. Its manual height adjuster was a literal pinch. Pinch the handle in the middle of the screen to move it up and down. It’s the best system by far.Jeff Allen

The rev-matching up/down quickshifter (DQS, if you’re keeping track) is a gem. The Multi’s hydraulic clutch, though, has a characteristically small friction zone, which caused all of us to stall several times at stoplights. It has a nice, light feel, but with a distracted suburbanite in a Suburban breathing down your neck, you’ll want to give it some gas before releasing the lever.

Although it has some rough edges, if you're a Ducati fan, that won't negate your overall enjoyment of the motorcycle. As an owner of a '15 899 Panigale, the Multi feels very familiar to me. It makes similar noises, handles with the same light touch, and has that modern Ducati way about it. So, if you love desmo twins as much as I do, (spoiler alert) it'll be easy to ignore the fact that the KTM exists.

The Champion: The 2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S

2018 ktm 1290 super adventure s wheelie
A wolf in sheep’s clothing.Jeff Allen

But the KTM does exist. If I owned either the BMW or Ducati, I would justifiably adore them; they both inspire huge pride of ownership and are incredibly competent. But the KTM is the proverbial gun in a knife fight.

It comes down to the engine.

The LC8 motor is a force of nature. Like Louis XIV claiming his absolute power was divinely given, the Katoom flaunts its big stonking engine around with orange-gilded, look-at-me fourth-gear power wheelies. Even though its 129 hp and 85 pound-feet of torque are fewer than the Ducati’s, it feels a heck of a lot stronger. I guess that means its claim to the throne is probably more God-given than Louis’, the little ponce. There’s no other way to explain it (okay, looking at the dyno chart gives a clue).

And it’s more than just the engine. Our test model had the optional Travel Pack (only $525), which adds Hill Hold Control; the excellent up/down quickshifter; and Motor Slip Regulation, which works in conjunction with the IMU-controlled stability control to prevent the rear from sliding when there’s too much torque drag after downshifts. With the $1,200 touring cases, the bike comes to under $20,000. That’s $4,000 less than the BMW.

2018 ktm 1290 super adventure s windscreen
The windscreen has two knobs for adjustment and offers protection about halfway between the Beemer and the Duck. LED headlights are lean-angle sensitive. The broad saddle is also on par with the Ducati’s.Jeff Allen

With big power comes a big machine (unless it’s a Ducati…). While the KTM is the lightest of the group, it’s physically the largest, in part because of its 6.1-gallon fuel tank. And boy does it feel like a large motorcycle. In its lowest seating position, I was very much on my tiptoes; in its tallest position, my feet sort of hovered just above the pavement, which kind of gave that unnerving feeling of walking down a flight of stairs and finding the floor a step before you expect it. “Oh, son of a…uh, never mind, we’re cool…”

It also has the heaviest steering, making the Ducati feel like a welterweight. Through the twisties, though, it's utterly composed and dead stable. It may take more effort to manhandle the thing around, but its chassis and suspension are so dialed in it hardly matters. Chuck the thing in with abandon, feel the semi-active WP suspension compress, hit the apex, crack open the throttle. The front goes light, the horizon sinks, the exhaust crackles like a Moto3 bike. The pavement parts. All hail the Super Adventure S.

Odin has Sleipnir, an eight-legged flying horse; mankind has the 1290 Super Adventure.

2018 ktm 1290 super adventure s
One cool feature of the KTM’s user interface is that the rider can choose two Quick Select menus (accessible by hitting the up button or down button). Allocating, for instance, damping settings and ride mode as Quick Select items means they can be easily accessed and changed on the go.Jeff Allen

Once I stopped shaking with adrenaline (“compose yourself, Richards; you’re on a touring bike for goodness sake”), I familiarized myself with the KTM’s user interface. Navigating through the menus is easy with up/down/left/right buttons. For those who grew up playing the Sega Genesis, it feels just right. The left button is the back button, so regardless of where you are in the menu, you can always go back without selecting any setting. However, changing settings requires entering the menu and remembering where each setting lives. So if I wanted to turn on the heated grips, I had to ask myself if it was in the “motorcycle” submenu or in the “preferences” submenu. Hmm… Can’t heated grips have their own button on the bars?

The whole system is logical, and like the Ducati, each ride mode’s parameters can be tailored however the rider wishes.

The gearbox is the cream of the crop. It has the slickest box I’ve ever used. Does that shift lever actually connect to anything internal? Like the Ducati, its quickshifter completely obviates the need for the clutch, except when stopping/starting, obviously.

brakes comparison
There’s nothing to choose between when it comes to brakes. These are flagship motorcycles with top-shelf radially mounted Brembos and lean-angle-sensitive ABS. They do the trick.Jeff Allen

After 13 hours in the saddle on Tuesday, a poor night’s sleep, and a full day at the racetrack in 100-degree heat on Wednesday, we made our way back to the office in Irvine. Riding in gale-force winds leaving the desert, wind turbines in slow relief against the emerald and black night sky, the KTM gave me renewed energy. On top of doing all the things an ADV is supposed to, it’s simply an exciting motorcycle.

At The End Of The Day

ADV bike comparison finishing order
For a none-too-precise golden age racing analogy, the KTM is Kevin Schwantz, the Ducati is Randy Mamola, and the BMW is Steady Eddie Lawson. It’s pretty easy to be a fan of all three.Jeff Allen

For well-heeled riders who’ve had enough with torture-rack sportbikes but who still want all the excitement and some added practicality, this group of bikes makes ditching clip-ons an enticing proposition.

The KTM is our unanimous winner, thanks to its price, its engine, and the way every element is so thoroughly vetted. It’s like a VFR on steroids.

The BMW and Ducati are harder to choose between because they have such different personalities. The BMW is all refinement and subtlety, while the Ducati is more raw and in your face. I’ll give the BMW the nod for second because of its superior level of refinement. It’s funny, we all agree the KTM is the winner, yet we all have this gut feeling that the Beemer by rights should be on top. Berlin’s flagship is utterly, unfailingly, remarkably good.

To some, the Multistrada’s rough edges will make it feel like a work in progress. But as a dyed-in-the-wool sportbike fan, its size and personality make the whole ADV thing feel less like a sacrifice to me. Objectively, it’s more flawed than the others, but it would still likely be the one I’d buy with my own money. Ducatis live under the skin. Taken as a whole package, the Multistrada is almost everything you want out of an Italian sportbike—and it’s not even a sportbike.

The ranking highlights how on paper these bikes seem really similar, but on the road, they each have distinct personalities—and are all exceptional in their own ways. You basically can't go wrong. Calling them ADV bikes is almost misleading in its categorization. These are SuperADVbikes. Middle of the road never looked so good.

2018 ducati multistrada 1260 s wheelie
No troubles with wheelies. We did encounter problems with seats, however. We left the BMW parked in the sun in front of a chrome-paneled trailer and the sun reflected on it, melting the seat cover. To adjust the Ducati seat requires some sort of removable pieces—we’re not entirely sure, actually, since they inexplicably didn’t come with the bike. We were never able to position it in the tall setting. A certain testing manager (ahem) struggled to remove the KTM seat and resorted to brute force, breaking the locking mechanism. The KTM was then stuck in the high position for the remainder of our test.Jeff Allen
ADV comparison bikes
Each bike features cruise control. BMW’s button system feels a little flimsy and it isn’t immediately obvious how to change speed with the weird button thing. The Ducati system is intuitive, but because it’s right next to the menu button, it’s easy to inadvertently reset a menu item instead of adjust the cruise. Also, the cruise control was always 4 mph off. If set at 65 mph, it would actually go 69 mph. Ducati says this has something to do with a federal mandate regarding speedometer error and actual road speed. The KTM system was the most intuitive and I liked the shape of the buttons. Motojournalism, as it turns out, requires one to become a connoisseur of buttons.Jeff Allen
2018 ktm 1290 super adventure s
For such a beastly engine, the KTM’s exhaust note is thoroughly subdued. Of the three, the KTM’s soundtrack was the most muffled.Jeff Allen
HP chart
While the KTM and Ducati are pretty close numbers-wise, the BMW clearly lags behind.Cycle World

The last GS we had on our dyno made 11 hp more than this test unit. BMW reassured us that Euro 4 regulations were not to blame for the deficiency, though they had no definitive answer to explain the disparity between the two bikes. Peak power is reached at a rational 8,420 rpm. Part of the KTM’s phenomenal power delivery is due to that uber-linear power curve. The Ducati puts up the biggest numbers and has the highest rev ceiling of any bike here, but has a bit less down low compared to the KTM and BMW. It also has the most raw power delivery, though that impression may be partially attributed to fueling.

TQ chart
Love that V-twin midrange torque!Cycle World

The BMW appears to have the most peaks and troughs in its torque curve, but on the road it’s the consummate refined package you’d expect. The KTM is a torque monster from low in the rev range. Max torque is delivered nearly 1,000 rpm lower than on the Ducati, and just a couple of electronically indicated hash marks above the BMW. It pulls all day. The DVT-equipped Multistrada 1200 had a glaring dip in midrange torque that the 1260 lump improves upon. Ducati claims an 18-percent increase in midrange torque and that flatter curve says as much.

Comparison Data

BMW R1200GS Ducati 1260 Multistrada S KTM 1290 Super Adventure S
PRICE $23,854 (as tested) $22,595 (as tested) $19,724 (as tested)
ENGINE 1,170cc liquid-cooled opposed-twin 1,262cc liquid-cooled 90-degree V-twin 1,301cc liquid-cooled 75-degree V-twin
BORE X STROKE 101.0 x 73.0mm 106.0 x 71.5mm 108.0 x 71.0mm
COMPRESSION 12.5:1 13:1 13.1:1
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/shaft 6-speed/chain 6-speed/chain
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 101.0 hp @ 8,400 rpm 137.8 hp @ 9,800 rpm 128.7 hp @ 9,400 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 72.9 lb.-ft. @ 6,700 rpm 86.3 lb.-ft. @ 7,800 rpm 85.4 lb.-ft. @ 6,800 rpm
FRAME Tubular-steel trellis Tubular-steel trellis Tubular-steel trellis
FRONT SUSPENSION BMW shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 7.5-in. travel Sachs fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 6.7-in. travel WP fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 7.9-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION BMW shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 7.9-in. travel Sachs shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 6.7-in. travel WP shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 7.9-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo 4-piston calipers, 305mm discs w/ ABS Brembo 4-piston calipers, 330mm discs w/ ABS Brembo 4-piston calipers, 320mm discs w/ ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo 2-piston caliper, 276mm disc w/ ABS Brembo 2-piston caliper, 265mm disc w/ ABS Brembo 2-piston caliper, 267mm disc w/ ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 25.5°/3.9 in. 25.0°/4.4 in. 26.0°/4.7 in.
WHEELBASE 59.3 in. 62.4 in. 61.4 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 33.5/34.3 in. 33.9/34.4 in. 33.9/34.4 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 5.3 gal. 5.3 gal. 6.1 gal.
WET WEIGHT 573 lb. w/ bags 553 lb. w/ bags 546 lb. w/ bags
FUEL ECONOMY (HI/LOW/AVG.) 45/34/40 mpg 47/41/44 mpg 42/37/39 mpg
RANGE 210 mi. 232 mi. 238 mi.