2010 KTM 990 Supermoto T

Road Test Review

photography by Brian J. Nelson, Kevin Wing and Lanny Fielder
[This 2010 KTM 990 Supermoto T Road Test was originally published in the June 2010 issue of Rider magazine]

After spending a day caning a lithe, black KTM 950 Supermoto through the hills of Tuscany, Editor Tuttle was smitten (see Rider, December 2005). I can just imagine him sitting around the post-ride campfire, savoring the sweet taste of survival and swilling cheap Chianti with certifiable British moto-journalists: “That bike’s the business, innit?!”

KTM’s mighty ’moto slipped across the border in early 2006, carrying the orange and black flag as the Austrian company’s only U.S. street model. But like a special ops team, it was gone before you knew it, into the wind. Although big-bore Katoom Supermotos have been available in Europe all along, we Yanks had to wait until 2010 for a fresh batch. Rather than a one-size-fits-all model, KTM now offers Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde: the T model for fast-paced, lightweight touring and the R model for hard-edged street warfare.

What?! Supermoto and touring? In the same bike? Seems hopelessly oxymoronic, a cruel kindness perpetrated to fill a cross-tabulated niche that doesn’t exist. So said the voice in my head—that is until I threw a leg over the KTM 990 Supermoto T’s plush, 33.7-inch seat and settled in for a ride. The peppy V-twin teased me, with initial on-throttle vibrations giving way to a smooth, counterbalanced purr. Upright with a cool lookin’ smoky windscreen, tough-guy hand guards and stylish saddlebags, I was large and in charge, immediately feeling an Avatar-like affinity for the beast beneath me. Light soon filled the dim, hollow space between my ears. Supermoto (fun!) and touring (comfort!) really aren’t at odds with each other. They’re more like chocolate and peanut butter.

Although no one would race a Supermoto T, the bike nonetheless benefits from having been designed by Austrian engineers who spend their weekends wrenching and racing. At KTM’s street intro at California’s Laguna Seca (Rider, February 2010), these self-proclaimed petrolheads talked about “riding fun” in the same light-hearted-but-maniacal way that Rossi talks about going fast. They build bikes they want to own themselves and roll out of their garages on Saturday mornings with excited anticipation of laps at the track or day-long, adrenalin-rich rides. Light is right and components are top-shelf, tailored to the particular mission of each model.

Mattighofen’s motor works gets a lot of mileage out of the 990 LC8 engine, which actually displaces 999cc. (Apparently, another firm had already laid claim to “nine-nine-nine.” And besides, when exclaimed loudly it reminds folks of an infamous Austrian with a funny mustache.) It powers the Supermoto T and R, Adventure (Rider, December 2009), Adventure R and Super Duke R. Having ridden all but one of these bikes, I’ve developed a fondness for the LC8’s robust blend of torque and liveliness. The 75-degree V-twin is liquid-cooled, counterbalanced to subdue excess vibration and has dry sump lubrication with dual oil pumps. Oil and filter changes are recommended every 4,660 miles, and the process is much less involved than on the 990 Adventure.

Like Manny Pacquiao, the LC8’s small. Lightweight pistons, crankshaft and connecting rods help keep the engine to a super featherweight 128 pounds that packs serious punch: 106 horsepower and 67 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheel. For the kind of sport riding I like to do, these figures are close to ideal, snapping the 474-pounds-wet machine out of corners and lofting the front wheel with a quick flick of the wrist, yet remaining civilized on the long ride home. The engine felt very smooth at cruising speed—the well-placed mirrors stayed clear—and the stainless 2-into-2 exhaust system with underseat mufflers was pleasant in volume and tone. Whereas the 950 Supermoto’s downdraft CV carbs delivered smooth, linear throttle response, the EFI-equipped 990 SM T was a tad snatchy at times, despite new cams and fuel mapping aimed at improving on/off throttle transitions and power delivery. Not a serious black eye, but annoying at low speeds and puckering at midcorner. After adjusting the shift lever to a sensible height, the six-speed transmission and hydraulic clutch with adjustable lever facilitated gear changes with minimal effort by foot and hand.

Designed and built in-house, the chromoly steel trellis frame is stout yet weighs only 21.6 pounds (down 3.4 pounds from the 950 Supermoto). Fitted with a cast-aluminum subframe and swingarm, the chassis provides an ideal skeleton for bombing through the canyons, cruising the slab or exploring the occasional fire road. And the high-end WP suspension provides the perfect connective tissue. Both the 48mm male-slider fork and the solo shock with remote reservoir are fully adjustable. Clickers on top of each fork leg make it easy to adjust rebound, but adjusting preload or compression (low- and high-speed compression in the rear) requires you to dig into the SM T’s well-stocked, underseat toolkit. A generous amount of suspension travel—6.3 inches front and 7.1 inches rear—turns a long stretch of post-apocalyptic pavement into a playground. And standard settings are sport-touring nirvana: responsive but not harsh, compliant but not mushy.
The front four-piston calipers are fixed and radially mounted for less flex, squeezing dual full-floating 305mm discs. The rear two-piston caliper is also fixed and squeezes a 240mm disc. Calipers are connected to the lever and pedal by way of steel-braided lines, and the front master cylinder is of the radial pump variety. Whereas the R-spec Supermoto got Brembo Monobloc front calipers and brake pads with the sharp initial bite favored by late-braking track addicts, the SM T’s front brakes are much easier to modulate over the wide range of conditions it will be ridden in. Good feel, progressive, reassuring: traits that are much more important than the ability to do one-finger stoppies. Those black, five-spoke Marchesini wheels are cast aluminum (the SM R has forged wheels to save more weight), and they are shod with Continental Sport Attack tires. In the best supermoto tradition, long legs, wide handlebars, 17-inch wheels and sticky rubber make the Supermoto T very agile yet sure-footed. Switching from “cruise” to “attack” mode is seamless and cornering clearance is endless, whether you choose to ride it like a sportbike or a dirt bike. (If the latter, feel free to remove the vibe-damping rubber inserts from the cleated footpegs.)

Lanny Fielder agrees. He’s a former AFM racer, veteran of the infamous San Francisco Sunday Morning Rides and owner of a KTM Super Duke. We enlisted his help with this test, and he came away a believer. Wheelie-and-slide days behind him, Lanny now prefers performance in a more comfortable package. He says the hard-edged Super Duke works best on smoothroads, but the Supermoto T he’d gladly take anywhere. Plenty of power, lightweight, easy handling and an ideal seating position: everything he wants in a bike, and none of the new-fangled farkles he doesn’t.

Other than trading the dirt-bike beak for a small front fairing and windscreen, the most obvious nod toward touring is the SM T’s standard semi-soft saddlebags. They are incredibly easy to remove and remount, and the hangers are unobtrusive when the bags are left at home. Though small, they are practical and handy, each zipping open like a clamshell and having two compartments: mesh on one side for your lunch or dirty laundry and a crisscross elastic strap on the other side to hold your gear in place. But the zippers are frustratingly tricky. When trying to close an overloaded bag—c’mon, we’ve all done it—I broke one of the two zipper pulls, and I found that I had to be careful with them no matter what. And, unrelated, the head on one of the spring-loaded latches kept popping off. More durable hardware along with heavy-duty, waterproof zippers and lining would be a big improvement. Securing a seatbag is easy thanks to passenger grab handles and a standard rear rack. Not so with most tankbags due to the plastic, sharply peaked fuel tank, but KTM offers its own for $129.99.
Riding two-up, your passenger will appreciate the flat, well-padded seat and large grab handles. Managing Editor Donya Carlson, who is taller than the average female, had plenty of space to move around. Head buffeting wasn’t a problem, and when she ducked down a bit behind me, the small fairing and my body blocked the wind entirely. The only downside was reaching for the grab handles and inadvertently getting two gloves full of hot, underseat exhaust! The metal guards only help so much. Those pipes may be a blessing for passengers in cold weather, but they’ll be a bane on hot days.

Fuel economy, as usual, depends on use of the throttle. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time riding the SM T aggressively, what with it being so fun and all. At its worst, it got 25.2 mpg and the low-fuel light and fuel tripmeter kicked in at just 104 miles, telling me there was just under a gallon left in the 5.0-gallon tank. But droning along just above the speed limit on the freeway, it got 39.4 mpg. On such a comfortable, addictive motorcycle, expect to be crestfallen when the warning light illuminates after only 130 miles or so. The instrument panel, which has an analog tachometer paired with an LCD display, should include a fuel gauge, perhaps in place of the engine temperature bar graph (a warning light would suffice). LCD functions include speed, engine temp, time, odometer and A/B/low-fuel trip meters, and the ignition is immobilized without the specially coded key.

Alas, coming to the end of a road test article often means that, as I write this, I’m about to say good-bye to the subject of the story. The KTM 990 Supermoto T is one of those motorcycles that I want to keep, lock away in the garage and, when the PR rep asks for it back, just shrug and play dumb: “I dunno where it is.” Fielder didn’t want to hand the keys back (he’s contemplating trading in his Super Duke at the local KTM dealer), and Tuttle—even more enamored with this bike than the original 950 Supermoto—said the 990 SM T would be the ideal sporting machine to have in his stable. Occupying the light, nimble end of the sport-touring spectrum, this fun-to-flog bike has all the essential ingredients but no filler, just a few sensible concessions to comfort. And it possesses that elusive, hard-to-describe character found in few bikes. All of its parts work together organically, as if it were an agile creature—a highly evolved, top-of-the-food-chain species—rather than just a machine. If only KTM offered an accessory wiring harness that plugged the ECU directly into my cerebral cortex….