Cycle Torque Test - KTM 950SM - 2006

KTM’S 950SM supermoto beast isn’t the sort of bike you would expect to see on a race track trading blows with more competition orientated machinery, it’s not designed to do that – unless the chief designer was taking acid at the time – and it’s much better for it. In fact it would take a very talented and brave rider to seriously race this machine, on a regular SM track with dirt and jumps.

But in reality most buyers of road registered SMs do so because they like the manoeuvrability, ease of commuting, SM styling and the sheer lunacy of it all; they just bring out the MR. Hyde in you.

Motor

The carburettor-equipped 950 engine has been around for a while powering KTM’s Adventure and Duke range but when the Austrian manufacturer boosted the capacity and added fuel injection to its top-of-the-line models it decided to keep the old technology thumping along for the ride inside the SM’s chassis. When KTM introduced the V-twin engine a few years ago there were questions as to how long the engine would last between rebuilds, how reliable would it be and the like… this was despite the huge following the orange bikes had in the motocross, enduro and trail market. And sales for the big 950 Adventure suffered as a result. These concerns are still there for many people but as time ticks by these fears are finally being buried, where they should be. These engines are made to go hard and keep going hard for years to come.

Plenty has been said about the 950 donk in the past and nothing much has changed inside the engine for 2006. Punching close to 100hp (at 8000rpm) and 94Nm of torque (at 6,500) is a short stroke 942cc 75 degree V-twin. There are plenty of innovative ideas inside the engine, especially the cam drive countershaft which sits between the two cylinders, serving the electric starter, water pump, crankcase ventilation system, counterbalancer, and obviously the dual overhead camshafts. KTM also employed a dry sump set-up to enable the engine to sit low in the chassis, lowering the machine’s centre of gravity.

A pair of 43mm CV Keihin carbs get the fuel into the cylinders and getting the burnt gases out are a pair of good looking exhausts which exit the bike up high either side of the tail light. Interestingly in this age of green thoughts each silencer has its own catalyst to keep the emissions down to a tolerable level. The separate alloy oil tank has a vertical sight level for easy checking of how much oil you have on hand and while it is seemingly vulnerable right behind the front wheel there were never any issues with rocks or road debris puncturing the tank.

During the test the SM was a bit of a pig to start when cold but to be fair it was during the middle of winter; you get that with a high 11.5:1 compression ratio and two big pots, which is an interesting point in itself. On a couple of occasions we were forced to run regular unleaded fuel – KTM recommends premium – in the bike and never once did it complain; no pinging or apparent loss of power.

The gearbox is a wide-ratio six-speed unit with revised final-drive gearing to cope better with the smaller diameter tyres. Where the Adventure uses an 18inch rear wheel and a 42T rear sprocket the SM uses a 17inch 41T combination. The wide ratios make the bike feel too low geared in the bottom two gears and a little tall in sixth but having said that, the tall top gear makes it a pleasure on the open highways whereas a normal low-geared SM single would be a pain in the you-know-what. And the low first and second gear make it a wheelie hound. Maybe I was wrong, could it be that that’s what I really wanted all along – I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not real sure.

We actually found the bike to be pretty fuel efficient, with the fuel light coming on at around the 230 kilometre mark, and with a 17.5 litre tank on board you would expect to start pushing close to the 300km mark. This was a surprise to us because on a three-day 1000km trip the SM used less fuel than our Cycle Torque owned BMW R 1150 GS and the Ducati Multistrada 1000 we were testing. Obviously it’s not comparing apples to apples because the GS was loaded up while the SM was flying fancy free but it’s impressive nonetheless. Fuel economy was the last thing on our minds too.

Chassis

Holding the SM together is a tubular chrome-moly trellis-style frame which is very similar to the Adventure’s chassis. The seat-supporting subframe is made from square-section alloy and aluminium – light and strong. Chassis geometry is subtly altered from the Adventure. The fork rake is slightly steeper at 25.4 degree compared to 26.6 and the trail is reduced from 4.66 to 4.33 degree. The swingarm is also 20mm shorter. All in all this makes for a bike which is a bit more nervous, aggressive and manic. WP suspension is fitted front and rear in a set-up not all that different to the Adventure.

The forks are USD 48mm units with 200mm travel while the rear shock is a WP PDS job with 210mm of travel. It’s interesting to compare the SM’s suspension travel with the Adventure which is 210/210 while the Super Duke is 135/160. No wonder the SM did a pretty good job of soaking up the bumps. KTM felt it necessary to fit some serious stoppers to the 950SM and, as you would expect from a European machine, brakes from Brembo were the ones selected. Dual four-piston calipers grab 305mm floating discs at the pointy end while a single two-piston caliper does the same to a smaller 240mm floating disc at the rear. There were no problems getting the attention of the rider, in a good way though, when the brakes were squeezed hard.

The tyres fitted are the common 120/70-17 and 180/55-17 sizes and worked well enough, even on the dirt during one spirited strop. Ergonomics are a good mix between a naked road bike and a dirt squirter and the pegs, seat and bar arrangements make the bike feel just right. The digital instruments and controls fitted to the tapered Magura alloy ’bars are the usual KTM affair, giving you what you need and nothing else.

On the road

You seem to get into a different frame of mind when you hop on board the 950SM, and the next thing you know you’re embroiled in traffic light drags and competing in your own personal round of the local supermoto championship. In town this bike is an absolute hoot, it’s light and flickable, has power to burn, slips between the cars at traffic lights and screams ‘look at me’. I’m not sure if those are all good things but it was certainly plenty of fun.

What’s even better are the SM’s open road manners. It’s stable at high speed (200+), or so I’m told, and the little wind deflector in front of the instruments does a better-than-expected job of directing the wind over you. The verdict on how the front end handled choppy surfaces is still out with the jury though.

Two of us felt the bike under-steered a little and was too nervous on bumpy corners while the other felt it was fine. We feel the front tyre had a bit to do with this as another bike on test had the same tyre and displayed the same tendencies but some extra time playing with tyre pressures and front set-up should go a long way to eliminating this. It can also take time to get in tune with a bike’s idiosyncrasies. The seat was also surprisingly comfortable despite its ironing board look. On our 1000km jaunt it was the first bike to have your backside squirming but it was definitely better than it looked, the seat that is.

The verdict

The last KTM supermoto I tested was the 640 single. In a moment of excitement I stated in that test that I’d be prepared to jump on the bike and head off on a very long trip. On reflection it must have been the heat of the moment as to be honest there’s plenty of other bikes I’d rather do it on if the trip was road based. The 950SM is a different kettle of fish and really is a bike which can perform many roles. It’s simple, easy to look after and will put a smile on your dial – I’m still not sure I’d like to be jumping a flat-top on it though.

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