The majority of sportsbikes have to be focused and uncompromising to perform at their best. Cramped riding positions and stiff suspension are just two issues that can reduce their everyday practicality. But KTM’s 990SMT (T for Travel and not Touring) has all the best bits of a sportsbike, without many of the drawbacks. It’s not a perfect machine, but it’s a hell of a lot more real world and easier to live with than any 600 or 1000cc sportsbike.
The KTM is one of my all-time favourite motorcycles. I just love the way it can inspire and stimulate, and now with its small screen and pannier option I can also enjoy even more comfort and convenience.
I ended up doing over 500 miles on the big V-twin during my short test period, and perhaps one particular day on it highlighted its virtues best of all. The ride in question involved a 125-mile run along my preferred test route through the Shires of Oxford and Gloucester, a journey encompassing virtually every type of road. Bumpy and twisting B roads, challenging speedy and swooping major roads, mind-numbingly boring dual-carriageways, and congested town traffic were all encountered during the journey. But the KTM made light work of them all, had me grinning for the best part of the trip, and let me finish off the day with a treat thanks to its handiness. It’s very much my sort of bike, and one that I would be very happy to own.
Not being a morning person, the start of most of my days ideally needs not to be rushed or too stressful. If it’s a biking day I definitely appreciate an easier-going mount to despatch the first hour or so. The SMT fits that bill very nicely.
Bar getting onto the slightly lofty and supportive, yet not too firm seat, the KTM is an extremely accessible and manageable machine. Its ready-to-ride wet weight is probably in the region of 215 kilos, but the combination of the wide bars which offer plenty of leverage, and the riding position which allows more of the same, gives the impression of it being a lot less. Any move, in any direction, is light and simple work on this bike.
Riding the 990 out of the village where I live did expose one little flaw straightaway mind you, with the abruptness of power delivery from a closed throttle perhaps being an unwelcome feature for some. I myself have noticed this often enough on various test bikes for it not to be an issue as such. And even when it became more of a regular occurrence later in the day when riding (otherwise very easily) in slow moving traffic, it never really concerned me. That’s simply because there’s too much else to love the KTM for.
The chassis is one of those numerous plus points, and perhaps the most impressive feature of the bike overall. Quite simple in construction with its steel-tubed trellis frame and the relatively conventional components attached to it, the 990’s exquisite handling underlines a total that’s more than the sum of its parts. Though it has to be said some of those parts do work extremely well.
The WP suspension is the best example of this. One, if not the key reason why you can fully ‘activate’ the KTM, is because of the superb action of the forks and shock. Softly sprung and with longer travel than most road bikes, the fine control provided by the damping means lots of feel, feedback and control. It anyone ever wants to learn about the benefits of high quality suspension then they only need to ride this bike to find out. The compliance means rougher roads like the one I used in the early part of the journey are smoothed out considerably, and offer no challenge at all to the SMT – even when you’re riding quickly.
Much more of the bike can be used effectively because the tyres remain mated to the road so well. And on routes that usually have had me being repeatedly kicked out of the seat and the wheels pattering over the road on certain machines (firmly sprung sportsbikes mainly), the KTM just gets on with the job completely unflustered. The Continental ContiSport Attack tyres aren’t normally the best when it comes to outright grip, but the WP equipment’s quality of wheel control effectively gives them more adhesion. With the way the softness leads to pitching under braking and acceleration, both ends of the bike are weighted more to increase the grip when it counts too.
The Brembo monobloc radial calipers give the KTM some very serious braking power, and just like the deft touch with which you learn to use the throttle at slower speeds, you soon realise it’s wise to apply just a light squeeze on the lever to avoid any surprises. It doesn’t take long to discover how to get the best from the brakes though, and it’s apparent that the supple fork action only adds to their remarkable effect.
It’s the same story at the rear end of the bike, and just how much the superb rear shock helps you to use more of the strong drive of the impressive 999cc V-twin engine. Twisting the throttle at a standstill, as you do when warming the motor for example, instantly gives a clue to its health and efficiency. It responds so quickly to any wrist movement, suggesting a very free-breathing power unit. But though that also translates to a fit and keen throttle response out on the road, which helps tractability and often makes the light and precise gearbox redundant, there’s always a reassuringly linear and usable feel to things. The engine may well be powerful and able to generate some pulse-quickening pace very promptly, but just like the manners of the chassis it’s easy to moderate. As a very potent, but rarely intimidating motor, its character sums up the whole bike really. The KTM may well have lots of performance to offer, but it’s very predictable and undemanding to access.
Longer runs are easily possible on the 990SMT too. The screen is large enough to hide behind and endure sustained periods at higher pace, and the afore-mentioned seat and riding position add to the capability. It will get thirsty enough to need to stop sooner than the comfort allows if you use more of the engine power, but stops every 140 miles or so can be extended by 40 or 50 more if you’re a bit more prudent with throttle use.
The rack, grabrails, decent steering lock and excellent mirrors show designers have also considered the whole bike and the duties it needs to perform. Those features helped me to enjoy a safe and spirited day on the 990SMT. And with the added convenience of the panniers (available for an extra ?300, along with other numerous accessories) allowing me to nip into Waitrose to cart off some goodies to savour at home at the end of it, reflecting on the KTM over dinner was just as enjoyable as riding it.
It’s a bike that purists will enjoy. Its strong performance and deep character see to that. But because of the neat finishing touches it’s also an all-rounder that can also appeal to those who need a bit extra to complete their motorcycling experiences. The SMT is not cheap at a fraction under ?10,000, but it does offer much in the way of stimulus. And bearing in mind the quality of its components, added to the superb way they work, ten grand doesn’t actually seem bad value at all.
Type: 999cc, liquid-cooled, 8-valve, dohc, 75? V-twin
Maximum power: 115bhp @ 9,000rpm
Maximum torque: 72lb/ft @ 7,000rpm
Final Drive: Chain
Frame: Tubular steel trellis
Suspension: Front: 48mm inverted telescopic forks, fully adjustable
Rear: cantilever monoshock, fully adjustable
Brakes: Front: twin 305mm discs with four-piston radial calipers
Rear: single 240mm disc with twin-piston caliper
Wheels/Tyres: Front: 120/70-17
Seat height: 855mm
Dry weight: 196kg (without fuel)
Fuel capacity: 19 litres
Contact: Contact: 01280 709500, www.ktm.co.uk
Performance: 4 – lots of it that’s easy to access
Handling: 5 – superbly intuitive and communicative
Practicality: 4 – very easy to live with
Value for money: 4 – you get more than you pay for
OVERALL: 5 – gives a very rewarding and appealing motorcycling experience