Jeff Allen

Midsize Adventure Off-Road Shootout

Testing the 2018 Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports DCT, 2018 KTM 1090 Adventure R, and 2019 Triumph Tiger 800 XCx in Utah

Everywhere is arguably a good place to ride a motorcycle. But for going on a big dirt adventure, Utah ranks as one of the finest places on Earth. World-class scenery that includes five stunning national parks is connected by dirt roads and trail systems that take riders from desert to alpine forest. The vast expanses available make adventure bikes the logical choice because they offer the power, comfort, and range that allow a well-equipped rider to take it all in. It also makes Utah a great place to put ­adventure bikes to the test.

We sought the off-road-leaning middle ground in adventure machines—the Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports DCT, KTM 1090 Adventure R, and Triumph Tiger 800 XCx—reasoning that 650cc singles don't have the legs we were after, and larger adventure bikes wouldn't be able to attack the technical terrain we wanted to experience. We'd hoped to include the new BMW F 850 GS, but it won't be available until later this year (we are also looking forward to the forthcoming KTM 790 Adventure R and Yamaha Ténéré 700). So it would be three machines with similar intent but using differing engine configuration, suspension specification, and transmission type.

One thing would be the same: tires. Only the KTM 1090 Adventure R is equipped stock with dirt-worthy, Continental TKC80 rubber. The Africa Twin is fitted with Bridgestone A41 tires, which are great street-­focused ­adventure tires but not meant for hardcore dirt duty. Same story with the Tiger 800 XCx—it rolls off the ­showroom floor with similarly road-biased Bridgestone Battle Wings. Both bikes were fitted with TKC80s in order to unlock the off-road potential within.

Rugged ride
Dixie National ForestJeff Allen

We headed for Dixie National Forest in southern Utah to launch our rugged trio. The testing area would vary in altitude from 4,500 to 7,500 feet, and we worked to avoid paved roads whenever possible. No luggage allowed. No bulky textile suits. Backpacks, Enduro jackets, and ­motocross boots only.

With ride modes, ABS, and traction-control settings dialed in for dirt, we set out. The Tiger took the first win here with an easy-to-navigate menu system on the only TFT dash in the group. Off-Road Pro mode turns off traction control and rear ABS, and is selected with a five-way thumb joystick. The Africa Twin is fairly easy to adjust as well, at least for the basics. Big dash buttons turn off rear-wheel ABS and switch the bike to Gravel mode. Navigating its LCD dash is not as easy as on the ­Triumph, but once you get used to the Honda system, rear­ ­wheelspin can be adjusted and the dual-clutch transmission settings can be customized. The KTM system is just as difficult to navigate as the Honda’s, requiring the user to shuffle through a couple of menu screens with multiple long and short presses on the four-button pad. It’s a system from 2014 and feels older than that.

Functionality of traction control and ABS on the trail is another story. Yes, adventure takes many forms, but it’s not usually had just staring at a dash poking buttons. Aiming our headlights up the first fast, flowing fire road, the Dual Clutch Transmission Africa Twin was far more entertaining than one might expect from an “­automatic.” After a few miles, it became second nature to time the downshift with your left thumb to back the rear end into a corner, and then power-slide on the way out. The front ABS works well in the dirt, but it does intervene a hair sooner than experienced riders might prefer. Less-­experienced riders might prefer this intervention over a potential concussion.

midsize adventure motorcycles

Blasting down two-track trails is what ­midsize adventure motorcycles are made for.

Jeff Allen

The Tiger 800 XCx was the least enjoyable playing on the edge of traction, both on the gas and on the brakes. On the lowest traction-control setting, the Tiger’s electronic power modulation was choppy as we tried to groove on these slippery, dry mountain roads, making the bike difficult to slide smoothly. With the TC disabled in Off-Road Pro mode, rider control ruled, and in second and third gear, all was OK if the throttle was used with precision. In the occasional first-gear corner, the rear snapped out too quickly in (its now lower-ratio) first gear. Braking hard on soft, loose dirt invokes ABS sooner than on the other two bikes. Back it down a notch or two, and the Triumph is a competent accomplice.

“No luggage allowed. No bulky textile suits. Backpacks, Enduro jackets, and motocross boots only."

Braking power
Braking power and feel are excellent from all three bikes. Performance differences come in the application of off-road ABS settings.Jeff Allen

The KTM is king when the speeds are high and the dirt is loose. Off-road mode knocks down the 1090 R’s output to a dirt-friendly 100 hp and modulates the ride-by-wire throttle bodies for the smoothest traction control of the trio. Crack the throttle, and the rear end steps out smoothly and just hangs there. It’s better than you are. Same with the Off-Road ABS; only when the front tire has completely lost traction will you feel the ABS kick in. Any of these bikes will get you there competently on a dirt road, especially with knobbies. But to really charge, the KTM is the one with the headroom. The 1090’s balance and feedback makes it feel like an extension of your body, and even if you’re riding with the wheels out of line all the time, there is always this magic feeling of control as you surf your intended arc on these imperfect surfaces.

Shooting off from the manicured fire roads are the best bits of riding one can experience in Utah. Two-track trails reach out in all directions connecting to epic lookouts above Utah’s famous orange and red hoodoos, to valleys fed by bubbling creeks, and to cold, dark volcanic lava-tube caves. The rocks, ruts, and tree roots littering these two-track trails put the long-travel suspension of the trio to the test. Controlled damping with solid bottoming resistance is key here—one wrong bounce will send you careening into a tree or off a cliff.

Both the Adventure and Tiger are fitted with fully adjustable WP Suspension, but that’s where the similarities end. The Africa Twin, meanwhile, is suspended with fully adjustable Showa units. This was a close battle between two, with a third struggling to perform at the same level and speed.

Continental TKC 80
Continental TKC 80 tires were fitted to the Honda and Triumph for traction parity.Jeff Allen

KTM’s 43mm WP fork and a PDS (Progressive ­Damping System) linkageless shock help the 1090 feel like a dual-­sport bike over small obstacles and jumps. But if you carry too much speed into a big G-out, the reality that this is still a liter-class, 535-pound adventure bike jolts you back to reality as you envision getting tossed over the bars. Thankfully, while the hit can be severe, it’s controlled and fairly drama-free. The best of the trio.

As exceptional as the KTM suspension is, the Showa system on the Africa Twin Adventure Sports is not far behind. This fork and shock are an upgrade over the standard Africa Twin, and give you 9.9 inches of travel at the front and 9.4 inches at the rear, approximately three-quarters of an inch more than the standard. The compression damping and spring rate feel a tad softer than the KTM’s. It is more supple and forgiving at slower speeds and in choppy bumps, gliding over small obstacles that can jolt the rider on the KTM. This allows the rider to sit down more often and conserve energy. On the other hand, the Africa Twin is less composed when pounding through whoops and G-outs. Overall, the Africa Twin is highly capable for a 556-pound adventure machine. If not for the KTM, it would be easy to think it’s perfect.

Triumph’s TFT dash
Clear and bright, Triumph’s TFT dash is stunning to look at and easy to use.Jeff Allen

It feels a bit like we are picking on the Tiger 800 XCx in this dirt-oriented comparison since it didn’t handle the same level of hustle through this technical terrain. The bike made it through everything Utah could throw at it, but it was at a less-aggressive pace. By no means were we simply sightseeing, but turning it up to 11 on the Triumph wasn’t an option. The 43mm WP fork offers 8.7 inches of travel, and damping control is nearly equal to the KTM’s, just with slightly less bottoming resistance. Rear-suspension action is the letdown in rough stuff. At higher speeds, the WP shock and rising-rate linkage are less compliant on sharp hits and caused the rear to deflect, reducing the forward drive and control as it skipped side to side.

KTM’s 1090 Adventure R menu system
KTM’s 1090 Adventure R menu system is the least user-friendly, but the large tachometer is easy to read. RIGHT ­BOTTOM: A vertically oriented LCD dash on the Africa Twin is not the most visuallyJeff Allen
Africa Twin dash
A vertically oriented LCD dash on the Africa Twin is not the most visually stunning, but it clearly communicates necessary information and settings.Jeff Allen

When an opportunity to break free of paths traveled by four-wheel conveyances presents itself in Utah, you had better have a bike capable of tackling some serious single track. Sometimes flowing and smooth, and other times choppy and tight, this epic Utah single track is the ultimate test of a bike’s dirt worthiness. Here, weight became a real consideration, but it was more about perceived weight on the trail that would be the true measure of these giant dirt bikes. Tossing them side to side while muscling through trees on a 2-foot-wide ribbon of earth illustrates just how amazing this class of adventure motorcycles really is. Ranging from 507 pounds for the Tiger to 556 pounds for the Honda (measured without fuel on the CW scale), the heft of these machines melts away as you stand on the pegs to attack the trail. The Triumph feels the lightest, mostly because of its smaller size, while the KTM is significantly lighter on its feet than the Africa Twin.

KTM PDS shock
Suspension performance is massively important on 500-plus-pound motorcycles capable of triple-digit speeds; the KTM PDS shock is a standout.Jeff Allen
KTM, Honda, and Triumph
KTM, Honda, and Triumph produce midsize adventure models with a heavy emphasis on off-road performance, making them the best machines to cover vast and varied distances even if they never touch pavement.Jeff Allen

Utah is vast—big spaces with big features. Mountaintops peek over the horizon and challenge you to summit them. Sun-soaked valleys and canyons stretch farther than your eye can see. You need fuel range out here, and you need the power to pull those mountains closer. This is where multicylinder adventure machines make the most sense. The Tiger is powered by an 800cc in-line triple, the Africa Twin by a 998cc parallel twin, and the KTM by a 1,050cc 75-degree V-twin. These configurations and varied tuning produce completely different characters in power delivery, sound, and overall fun.

The triple powering the Triumph is an amazing engine with a sonorous growl, but more important, its flat torque curve makes for an engine that is controllable and confidence inspiring in the dirt. Engine response is snappy, and with the TC off in first gear, the rear end can get squirrelly, but everywhere else the rear tire and your wrist are connected by some telepathic magic. There is a solid rush as the engine revs to redline, but it is never frantic or overwhelming at speed. It’s a marvelous engine, but sometimes we wish it had the brute strength of the KTM.

With a claimed 125 hp, the 1,050cc V-twin that propels the KTM is the standout in the group. While it might not have the same lovable sound and character of the Tiger, the extra power and a stonking delivery gives the rider a more raw, visceral experience. At the same time, output and response can be dialed back to a lower level in rain or off-road mode. It has no rival in this contest.

Africa Twin Adventure Sports
Although it is the heaviest in the group, Honda’s Africa Twin Adventure Sports is highly capable in the dirt.Jeff Allen
Tiger 800 XCx
Smaller riders will find the Tiger 800 XCx easier to throw around than the KTM or Honda.Jeff Allen

The Africa Twin engine gets the job done and is nearly as fast on the trail as the KTM, despite 25 percent less peak power. But it’s vanilla, which in a lot of ways is great—as long as rocky road isn’t available. The experts among our testing group expected the DCT transmission to be a detriment to the Africa Twin on hard trails, but in most instances, this wasn’t the case. DCT is now a viable and attractive option, even for more-serious off-road riding. Only in the tightest of situations did we miss a traditional clutch. Without a clutch lever, you lose the confidence that comes from modulating the clutch against the brakes or giving the lever a quick snap to lift the front wheel over obstacles. Working the throttle against the brakes is an alternative, but it is more difficult and not as smooth, and there’s no good option for lofting the wheel.

Honda
Honda’s dual-­clutch transmission worked well on fast, open terrain but made slow, technical riding more difficult.Jeff Allen

Ergonomics is a mixed bag with this group. The KTM has the most natural feel for those accustomed to dirt bikes, with a narrow(ish) tank and seat and a comfortable standing position. The Africa Twin also felt marvelous while standing and would rival the KTM if not for the new 6.7-gallon tank. Its width doesn’t allow the rider to move forward over the tank without standing bow-legged. Both the KTM and Honda have towering seat heights that top 35 inches. Placing two feet on the ground is easier for more riders on the Triumph, even in the “tall” 33.9-inch position (low is 33.1 inches). The cockpit is also more compact and works much better for smaller riders. We give the Tiger the win here for overall comfort and a ­confidence-inspiring seat height.

KTM
At speed on fast fire roads, the KTM’s off-road ­traction-control settings bested the Honda and Triumph with smooth, seamless management of the rear tire.Jeff Allen
KTM 1090 Adventure R
Raw yet controllable power, excellent suspension, and well-sorted rider aids earned the KTM 1090 Adventure R a unanimous decision as the best midsize adventure motorcycle.Jeff Allen

As the sun dipped behind red and orange cliffs, we had already sorted out the rankings. For the big ­dual-sport life that is midsize adventure motorcycles, the KTM 1090 ­Adventure R is the clear-cut winner. Excellent ­power, sharp handling, and well-sorted suspension check enough boxes to give it the nod. The Africa Twin is just a tick off the KTM. It’s a little heavier, a little slower, and a little taller. Its less-aggressive power delivery and compliant suspension make it a great choice for those who don’t want to win every special stage on the way to the next national park. It also offers something the others don’t: DCT. The Triumph is a little more refined than the competition with a fantastic TFT dash and cruise control. It has an engine with wonderful power output and is music to your ears—the bike also fits most body types better. But suspension performance is massively important when putting in big miles in the dirt, and the Tiger’s harsh rear shock was just off the mark.

The real winner here is the rider looking for a ­machine that is capable of devouring miles of a mixed terrain while also going nearly anywhere a full-on dirt bike can go. There are no other motorcycles that expand the meaning of riding “everywhere” than midsize adventure machines.

Bike comparison
Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports DCT, Triumph Tiger 800 XCx and KTM 1090 Adventure RJeff Allen

HONDA CRF1000L2 AFRICA TWIN ADVENTURE SPORTS

Engine: 998cc Parallel Twin
Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic DCT
Seat Height: 36.2 Inches (High); 35.4 Inches (Low)
Fuel Capacity: 6.4 Gallons
MSRP: $15,699

TRIUMPH TIGER 800 XCX

Engine: 800cc In-line Triple
Transmission: 6-Speed
Seat Height: 33.9 Inches (High); 33.1 (Low)
Fuel Capacity: 5 Gallons
MSRP: $14,450

KTM 1090 ADVENTURE R

Engine: 1050cc V-Twin
Transmission: 6-Speed
Seat Height: 35 Inches
Fuel Capacity: 6.1 Gallons
MSRP: $14,899