KTM 990 SM T – Next year?

Touring supermoto: it’s hard to think of any two motorcycle categories that conflict more than these. A racing Gold Wing maybe, or a motocross scooter? Well that’s pretty much what KTM has done with its new 990 SM T, although it’s held back slightly and says the T stands for Travel rather than Touring. Even so, the intent is clear: this is a supermoto (hard edged, uncomfortable, hyper agile, barking mad) meant for covering good distances on everyday roads. So, which is the more compromised then, the supermoto or the travel?

Incredibly, neither. In fact, the SM T is one of the most accomplished motorcycles I’ve ridden in the last year (and that includes Ducati’s seminal 1198 S) it’s also one of the most exciting. Well, we scoffed when BMW said you could have a big capacity, twin-cylinder trail bike back in 1980 with the R80G/S, and the Germans have done alright with the concept since. And KTM is going to do very well indeed with the SM T.

The bike is based on the wild, fun-focussed 990 SM, using the same basic chassis and 75 degree, liquid-cooled V-twin engine. Indeed, the only difference between SM and SM T engines is the T has a new oil level sight glass, otherwise it makes the same 114bhp at 9000rpm and 97Nm of torque 2000rpm lower. The suspension is altered on the SM T, with reduced travel, although there’s a still-generous 160mm at the front and 200mm at the rear, compared with the SM’s 200/210mm. Brakes are state-of-the-art, radially-mounted, four-piston Brembo Monobloc callipers up front, while forks and shock come from KTM-owned WP. Wheels are by Marchesini, so the spec is high throughout.

What you also get with the SM T is a frame-mounted nose fairing incorporating the single headlight and a small screen, and a plush seat some 20mm lower than the SM’s, as well as a big 19 litre fuel tank. And perhaps the oddest of all, there are attachment points on each of the high rise twin exhausts’ heat shields for quickly detachable panniers.

It’s easy to get caught up in the focus on the bike itself, what it does and what it’s meant to be, but it’s also significant to KTM for another reason: as motorcycle markets have been changing, so KTM is trying a new way of thinking, branching out into making bikes which don’t instantly demand you have to have a national level race licence for the privilege of riding one. As spokesman Tomas Knuffelt says: ’We have built an aura around our products that’s all about winning and speed which puts pressure on KTM riders to always go fast. But the SM T is a first for us, it’s not intimidating in the same way as other KTMs and you don’t have to go fast on it.’

Hmm, I can see what he means… but boy, when you sling a leg over the SM T, you just try and not go fast!

First impression is of a weildy, compact bike which is very comfortable. The seat is soft and well shaped, the bars are fairly high and quite close to you and it’s not a great stretch to the ground like many KTMs (although it’s still not so low that shorter riders will be flocking to KTM showrooms…). Fire up the motor and you’re greeted by the familiar KTM hard-edged clatter of eager pistons, so snick it into gear and let them do their thing… The motor is a gem, so immensely strong in the 4,000-7,000rpm you really don’t need to rev it out to get the most from it, though it happily will spin harder if you feel the urge. On the kinds of twisting country roads we rode around Portugal’s new and fabulous Portimao circuit this bike was breathtaking, pure KTM-shaped excitement and probably as quick as any other bike you could name on this type of terrain. But it’s not being quickest that matters, it’s the pleasure of using the bike’s thrust which is the real joy: the throttle response at these speeds is absolutely precise and crisp, and the motor drives you out of corners so eagerly it has you giggling into your helmet.

You just don’t want to stop, especially when the engine is aided and abetted with such perfect balance by the supreme chassis. You do indeed get supermoto agility but thanks to that reduction in wheel travel, it’s much more manageable. Still there’s a fair amount of dive when you brake, but it isn’t the ear-popping emergency descent of the SM, while the sheer quality of the suspension is sublime, one of the best of any recent road bike I’ve ridden in fact. The control at high speed over very bumpy roads is astonishing, while the ride quality and consequent comfort levels are better than most full-on touring bikes.

KTM says its chassis engineers spent a very long time getting the suspension settings just right, and it really does show. The surprise in fact is just how soft the standard settings are: for a while you’re thinking you’ll soon need to switch to the firmer sport settings recommended by KTM, but with time on board you realise that it works so well as it is, you really can have it set up soft at the same time as riding the bike like a demon, and it just refuses to get out of shape. Okay, the sport set-up does give it an extra edge and even better feedback, so use that for your wild local outings, otherwise leave it on standard and you can cope with anything and everything. You can tweak it the other way if you really want, although I didn’t have time to try this too, but I can’t imagine wanting an even plusher ride than the one I had.

Another surprise is how well the 48mm forks cope with more extreme braking, and with those epic Brembos ripping off your tyre tread that really should raise some eyebrows. The stopping power is immense, yet even diving hard into downhill hairpins there seems to enough suspension movement left to deal with ripples and roughness, while the stoppers themselves add to the whole tactility of the SM T with their own fabulous feedback. Fortunately they’re not set up like some superbikes, notably the Ducati 1198, with such ferocious power you feel like more than a finger on the lever would be too much. Instead they’re more progressive and easier to manage, though don’t just grab a big handful because these are still a mighty powerful pair of brakes.

Could you tour on it? The fuel range I managed was just 110 miles before the low level warning lit up, but this was hard riding at high speeds, including a long, flat out motorway section where the speedo topped out at 224kph (139mph). That’s probably a low 130’s mph with speedo optimism removed, but a committed rider in the right conditions could squeeze a true 140mph from the bike. Oh yes, touring, I forgot… but I blame the SM T for egging me on this way. In more normal, less licence-threatening riding I’d expect 130 miles to reserve (although I’ll be trying one in the UK soon to test this and other aspects), which is okay if unremarkable, but comfort is just fine. That small screen takes the muscle out of the windblast so you can cruise at up to three figure speeds (mph ones…) without having to duck down or strain, and in fact because the screen is not very tall, the inevitable buffeting hits you just below neck level so your head and helmet aren’t beaten up by the slipstream.

You won’t get much luggage in the small panniers (which aren’t waterproof) although there is a rack and you could also fit a tankbag, so one person would manage, although two would struggle – a shame as the rear accommodation is comfortable, if not as spacious as on pure touring bikes. And I suspect it won’t be long before aftermarket luggage makers start creating bigger panniers which clip onto KTM’s very effective mounting system.

So yes, you could tour, and while the range might be a little small the bike hits back with its amazing ride quality. Then there’s the riding pleasure, something no touring bike comes remotely close to – one tug of the handlebars and the SM T is transformed from stable, comfy tourer into highly flickable sinuous road weapon, beautifully balanced from high speeds down to full lock U-turns, which are trial bike tight and so easy on this machine, you can come to a complete stop without putting a foot down.

I thought bike of the year had been sewn up by the 1198 S, and that’s still the ultimate track tool, but as far as real world road bikes go, the KTM dark horse has just reared its head: it has everything from cosseting comfort to supreme agility with an overdose of excitement and saturated satisfaction. It ain’t cheap at almost £10,000, but think of it as so many, so good bikes in the one package and suddenly it looks like a serious bargain.