In the titanic battle between German motorcycle giant BMW and its Austrian counterpart KTM, BMW has dominated the big-bike segment while KTM has eclipsed all rivals in the small-bore niches.
BMW's R 1250 GS and GSA remain the machines of choice for touring adventurers who think they may want to do some off-roading, while KTM's SX, EXC and XC bikes have eaten everyone's lunch in the 250, 350 and 450cc categories.
Now the fight has shifted to the middle, which is great news for consumers. Both companies are increasing their offerings of midsize motorcycles—BMW an 850 GS and KTM a 690 Enduro R.
They're completely different, and they are both stupendous.
BMW has had a midrange bike out for some time. But their 700cc and 800cc bikes have largely been treated as watered-down versions of the company's flagship R 1250 GS.
They felt underbuilt, offering almost the same weight as the big bike but not enough horsepower to make it move, and missing some of the company's fine technology. They were often purchased because they were more affordable or seemed tamer than their big brothers.
KTM could have been accused of something similar. Its earlier midrange efforts seemed either like clunky versions of the bikes that are so graceful off the road, or feeble echoes of KTM's 990 and 1290 adventure bikes. They were too heavy for the dirt, some complained, but not solid and strong enough for long-distance riding.
BMW's new F 850 GS is a revelation. Powered by a new parallel twin engine that pumps out 90 horsepower and 63 pound-feet of torque, the latest model doesn't feel underpowered in the slightest.
Over the two weeks that I rode it, over the course of several hundred miles of pavement and a few stretches of open desert, I kept asking myself why anyone would ever need the 1250 version.
The new engine is beautifully balanced and steady. It spins up quick, accelerates madly through the six-speed gearbox, and makes for very dynamic riding around town and on the highway. Because it's fitted with a 21-inch front wheel, it stands tall and has no difficulty getting over obstacles.
I found myself in the Tehachapi Mountains on a dirt road that featured all kinds of challenges, from dislodged rocks to small landslides of dirt to a few downed trees. I was able to navigate through almost all of it without concern. Though the bike looks and feels like a slightly svelte version of the 1250—in fact, it's only about 45 pounds lighter—it rode like a much nimbler machine. I did some stunts that I might not have done on the bigger bike, and felt quite confident.
When I got back on the street, I felt like I was back on a full-size adventure bike. The 850 features the same brilliant TFT dashboard BMW puts on its most expensive bikes, and it had the same responsive brakes and clutchless, quick-shift transmission. The long ride home after a long day's ride was a pleasure.
KTM has gone slightly the other way. As its 990 and 1290 adventure bikes are more determinedly designed for the dirt than BMW's big bikes, so its new 690 feels like a dirt bike with turn signals and a license plate.
Off-road, on desert trails, it skipped over deep sand and barely blinked at the big rocks and ditches we encountered. The magnificent LC4 engine, perfected over years of use in other KTMs, pulls hard and gets the front wheel up easily. The XPLOR suspension system did all the work for me. I felt like I was riding a 450cc trail bike as I put the 690 through its paces.
The bike also offers switchable traction control, unusual on a dirt bike. It's a little more complicated to engage and disengage than the drive mode choices, but it allows for handy fine-tuning. On the road, and hard surfaces, ABS and traction control are a good idea. Off-road, where you want the back end to slide and need the front end to pop up and over obstacles, it's better that they're turned off. Having a handy switch to choose is marvelous.
The surprise for me was the KTM's on-road behavior. Around town, the 690 Enduro R is a hooligan bike. Here I detuned the engine by using the lesser of the two riding modes, lest I grab too much of the 690's reported 74 horsepower and 73 pound-feet of torque, turn into Papa Wheelie and wind up with a moving violation.
That's lower than the BMW, but so is the KTM's weight—by quite a bit. The BMW, when fueled, tips the scales at 504 pounds. KTM says its 690 weighs 321 dry, so with a full tank of gas that's still only about 350 pounds. If your bike tips over off-road—and it will—that 154 pounds is a world of difference.
On the freeway, I missed the higher windshield I have on many of my bikes, and which come standard on the BMW GS machines. But the 690 felt strong and steady. It kept up freeway speeds without any urging, and even at 65 miles per hour didn't vibrate nearly as much as other single-cylinder bikes in this engine class.
Quibbles? Of course. There's always something, and though these points are minor they might give some consumers pause.
Though KTM boasts that the new chassis on the 690 sits lower than previous iterations, it's still 35.8 inches from the seat to the ground—a lot, and maybe too much, for many riders. (On the BMW 850, that height is available, but 33.9 inches is standard and 32.1 inches is optional with a different suspension setup.)
Both bikes were stingy with the tie-down spots. There was no easy way to secure a bag to the tail of the bike with the standard chassis setup—which more or less means you have to buy factory equipment to secure any kind of saddlebag, which you'll want for the longer trips.
And neither bike includes a helmet lock—an omission that baffles me. This used to be standard on many machines, even if it was just a hook under the locking seat, and seems especially missing on a bike that's meant for some traveling.
In the end, choosing between the two will only be a matter of personal preference and price. The KTM is better suited to difficult off-roading, the BMW to longer road rides. And neither comes cheap. The BMW F 850 GS starts at $13,195, the KTM 690 Enduro R at $11,699.