By Gary Franks pics by Zoon Cronje and H. Mitterbauer
Back in May 2011 KTM launched their now outgoing EXC/ XC-W model range which sported major changes – new frames throughout the range, some new engines and a host of other improvements which made the bikes significantly better than previous models. I was fortunate enough to be at that international launch and knew the bikes would be a big success. Indeed the 2012 – 2016 model series has proved to be very impressive, contributing in no small part to KTM’s impressive 110 Enduro World Championships and stretched out for a year longer than KTM normally keep a series out there.
Finally though, the Austrians have released their new enduro model range and South Africa will again be getting EXC’s rather than XC-W’s (which means they are homologated for road use and can be roadworthied); 2-strokes remain XC-W’s. The good news is the extended wait was worth it.
For the first time in about 30 years every model in the 8-model line-up features 90% new components –including new frames, engines, forks, shocks, swingarms, sub-frames, exhausts, gear levers, brakes … even the footpegs. We have listed most of the changes in a previous article (http://www.enduroworld.co.za/2016/05/18/ktms-2017-models-unveiled/) so we won’t go through every detail here again; suffice it to say that nothing has been withheld in an all-out quest to achieve lighter weight, better handling/ performance and improved rideability.
Apologies but I can’t hold back from giving an early conclusion – in 13 years of going to literally every new dirt bike model launch, this is by far the most comprehensive and impressive improvement across an entire model range I have ever experienced. Let me explain why –
Thanks to better materials, designs and manufacturing processes, literally every component has been made lighter resulting in an average weight reduction of around 3%. That figure may not sound like much but considering that is compared with bikes that were already lighter than most of the competition. More importantly though is that the weight has been shaved off where it counts most in the chassis (frame, forks, shock, swingarm) and engine parts to improve handling and performance. Consider for example how high up the battery sits – the new lithium-ion battery is a full 1 kg lighter. The starter motor on the new 2 stroke motors is now located underneath the engine and no longer requires an additional gear, further reducing weight.
Handling/ Chassis Performance
This was the first launch I have been on where the suspension on every one of the bikes available for testing (24 on this occasion) felt very impressive at low and high speeds. That is testament to an exceptional chassis.
The outgoing chassis was already very good because the engineers had designed it to work with the suspension in damping and absorbing energy – torsionally rigid but allowing longitudinal flex – a combination which gives comfort and controllability over rough terrain, but also stability at high speeds.
The 2017 frame is a further refined and much improved version of that design. The tubing is 6mm wider, giving it 20% more torsional rigidity (for high speed stability) but has a 2mm lower profile, allowing 30% more longitudinal flex. That’s a fair amount of technical speak but the effect is clearly felt on every model in that they all provide that really plush comfortable feeling you only experienced previously on the heavier 4-strokes. It’s a feeling that sets off alarm bells that your suspension must be too soft. But it isn’t. It’s the frame acting with the suspension and it really works to give you comfort and control with no deflection, brilliant tracking and traction.
The new WP Xplor 48mm open cartridge forks are 200 grams lighter and feature a new design that splits the damping and rebound functions between the left and right fork. All clicker adjustments are now made at the top – compression on the left and rebound on the right fork. A Powerparts part is available to make preload adjustment possible without tools – this is standard on the 6-Days models. The Xplor forks have improved valving, lighter springs and a new longer and sealed hydro-stop for better resistance to bottoming out.
The new WP PDS (Progressive Damping System) rear shock is also all new and over 60 grams lighter. It boasts more progressive damping and features a smaller piston and a larger reservoir. The piston diameter was reduced from 50 to 46mm for less weight, the total length is reduced by 2.5mm and the shock stroke shrank by 4mm. The new design slows piston speed down which generates less heat. In addition, it is now mounted 5mm closer to the centreline, which means nearly symmetrical loads for the swingarm and frame and more space for the exhaust. A second piston works together with a closed cup (instead of a needle) towards the end of the stroke and is now supported by a progressive shock spring.
There’s even a new swingarm – 220 grams lighter, with improved flex characteristics, improved shock mounting point and easier to see chain tensioning markings. Cast as a single aluminium component, any possible weak points are eliminated.
A lot of thought has gone into improving ergonomics for improved rideability and rider comfort and it shows in how quickly you feel completely at one with the bike. The new saddle is more comfortable, has a nice grippy new cover, is flatter so you can move around more easily and on 4-stroke models is 10mm lower. The newly designed “No-Dirt” footpegs prevent mud clogging up and they have 6mm higher base for improved ground clearance – this is more of an advantage than it may sound, especially for those who enjoy technical riding.
Gone are the days of gluing and wiring your grips on with the new ODI lock-on grips – secured by a lock-on system like mountain bikes use. The attractive feature of Brembo brakes is rear brake now features a 10mm longer brake pedal with larger foot combined with a smaller calliper piston for better modulation. The braided front brake hose now sits in a better protection tube with an integrated channel for the speedo cable so they live together better. This is routed through the stylish new headlight mask with a figure-8 system that no longer requires a bolt – and the headlight can be replaced by a new Powerparts LED light – a good thing for riders getting adventurous in places like Lesotho.
This little 91 kg (without fuel) powerhouse is a rocket ship and not to be looked down upon. The miniscule new engine pumps out plenty of power and improved torque which can now be tuned by changing power-valve preload springs just like its bigger brothers. Being a 125 you do have to keep the revs up but from upper mid to top end this bike outruns the 250F. With no starter motor or battery the 125 is so light you can flick or bounce it around like a BMX bike, yet the ride is as stable and sure-footed as all the other models.
Based on the 125 but with electric start as standard and a 4mm larger piston/ bore, the 150 is a new model which replaces the discontinued 200. It doesn’t have the torque of a 200 but it does have more horsepower and is definitely faster. There is torque available but it is deceptive and requires a bit of clutch feathering to get you over the last bit of the hill. When you watch someone riding the 150 you will assume it is a 125 for 4 reasons – i) it sounds like a 125; ii) in the powerband it goes like a stabbed rat and that’s a lot of fun; iii) because it is very un-intimidating and confidence-inspiring you tend to ride it hard; iv) it requires keeping the motor spinning.
So before riding the 150 I had discounted it thinking it was too flat at the bottom … but then I saw SA’s Golden-girl, Kirsten Landman, flying up a really scary steep and gnarly hill climb that until then only her pro Brother Leader Tread KTM Team mates had been able to get up, and since I had not come close to conquering said hill on the 450, I had to try it out. Before I knew it that little 150 had me at the top … in 2nd gear! After that it took me a long time to give the 150 up – it is so much fun and really inspires more confidence than any other model. In a drag the 250F will get away a little in the beginning but the 150 reels it in and then eases away from the bigger thumper – a real eye-opener. The scary thing is we don’t think the jetting had been 100% optimised yet and Alfie Cox and I believe this new motor has even more to offer yet. So 200 fans should certainly consider the 150.
At the end of the launch day this was probably the bike most of the 18 riders (journalists, KTM Team and test riders) were most impressed by. The new 2-stroke engine is very crisp and responsive, providing lots of smooth torque and a very linear power curve and revving out strongly. It even managed to get away from the mighty 150. At a claimed weight of just 100 kg’s (without fuel) the new 250 is noticeably lighter, offering superbly quick and agile handling combined with usable and controllable power. It’s not at all peaky and with the new power-valve design there is excellent low-rpm torque available. This is a real enduro weapon which I anticipate will become a lot more popular than any of its predecessors were.
More than ever the 300 is a serious power-house and not for the faint-hearted. The old familiar engine vibration has been replaced by an immediately noticeable smoothness thanks to a new counter-balance shaft in the engine and improved new engine head stays. The engine feels a lot stronger and faster, probably owed in some part to the lighter weight. Until you get used to that you will want to treat this beast with a healthy dose of respect – those little bumps you are used to giving a little blip to jump over will now surprise you with a good few feet of extra air. The new engine and chassis design brings rotating masses closer to the centre of gravity which complements the reduced weight, resulting in the new 300 being almost as agile as a 250 was. We have a lot of big guys here in South Africa and we love technical riding so there is no doubt that the 300 will continue to be hugely popular here, but Alfie Cox, Travis Teasdale, Scott Bouverie and Dwayne Kleynhans all prefer the 250 and agree with me that more riders under 90 kg’s would do better on the 250.
The 250F proved to be another firm favourite and for very good reasons. At 103 kg’s (no fuel) an impressive 2,5 kg’s has been shaved off last year’s model but with vastly improved mass centralisation it feels even lighter. The all new engine is 1,5 kg’s lighter and offers slight gains in torque at low rpms, but then increased torque and hp from 5500 all the way up to 12500 rpm where it maxes out at 40 hp.
The gearing, torque, smooth power delivery and sure footedness of this model make it a hill/ pass climbing machine. I was impressed with the 2016 model so was anticipating the 2017 being really good, but it impressed me more than I thought it would.
I picked a steep, rocky and difficult climb which demands that you choose the right lines and commit confidently or it punishes you by costing you lots of energy and sweat. I was convinced the 250 or 300 two-stroke would be the weapon here, but no matter how many times I tried the 250F turned out to make this challenge easier. Perhaps because it is a bit less intimidating, I found I hit the rocky steps with more pace and was able to hold my line better, keeping enough throttle to cruise up almost without even dabbing.
Fitting the optional bar-mounted switch enables you to make use of the Traction Control and two engine mapping modes available. Traction control would make these climbs even easier.
With the stock pipe that has to conform to E4 regulations and the bike being in the standard (tamer) mode the 250F is a bit throttled and no doubt with a less restrictive pipe or silencer you will get more performance out of it, but for most of us there is more than enough on tap as it is. With its very smooth power delivery the 250 EXC-F really gets the drive down well and is hard to beat when there are lots of turns and loose or slippery surfaces.
With the popularity of the 350 in the USA and Australia and the size of those markets, the 350 is now KTM’s most popular model. For the last few years the 350 has been the bike that, if tested in any barring pretty technical terrain, will probably impress you most. Based on the same engine as the 250F, the 350 offers a significant increase in performance for just a 1kg gain in physical weight. The 2017 model is just all the more impressive with significant gains in its punchy power and torque curves. It isn’t quite a 450 but with 48 hp on tap it will get you to the next corner a lot quicker than the 250F will, even if you happen to be in a gear too high.
You feel the 350’s greater engine inertia much more than the physical weight difference, but again thanks to the improved mass centralisation, the new bike still feels quite playful and ready to take on any enduro. The 350 was also fitted with the optional traction control switch and it was interesting to play around with it to feel the difference. The tracks had mostly dried up by the time I got to try it so the difference it made was not hugely noticeable, but I would say it made it easier to not make mistakes on the previously mentioned gnarly hill climb and I feel it gave me more confidence to try off-camber lines that I wouldn’t try without it. I definitely want to experiment more with the traction control which I think is a brilliant feature for enduro.
This bike wasn’t mentioned as much on the launch but for no good reason other than that the other bikes were so well liked and the 450 was probably somewhat feared. I enjoyed it because of how it launches you to the next corner … on the back wheel all the way. For 2017 the new 450 has shed a massive 5 kg’s so it comes as no surprise that it is actually surprisingly easy to ride and I felt that I would sooner race this bike in an enduro than most 250F’s from two or three years ago.
The new shorter, lower and more compact engine is 2,4 kg’s lighter and pumps out significantly more power and torque than the previous motor all the way through the rpm range. With 56 hp and 50 Nm of torque available it’s a wheelie machine and made for the fearless who want to race off road or desert races. Some felt that the power was a bit too aggressive … which is maybe why KTM provides 3 different throttle cams (with all 4-strokes) which are quite simple to change in the new throttle housing. So you can choose from the longer-turning, milder cam profile to the shorter-twist aggressive cam, depending on the terrain and your riding style.
An interesting statistic – the 2017 KTM 500 EXC engine weighs 5 kg’s less and produces 12 hp more than the 2000 model KTM 525 EXC engine.
You get on this 62 hp “monster” expecting it to murder you or at least terrify you but in fact everyone really enjoyed the big daddy. I loved it and would definitely have one in my garage if funds allowed for an extra bike or two. It weighs 106,5 kg’s (without fuel) and never feels like you’re taking a tank to a gunfight. Common sense tells me that it wouldn’t be sensible to take it to the Roof of Africa, but its agility and the confidence it gives you really tempts you to give it a try.
On the other bikes you keep track of what gear you’re in, especially if you’re approaching a hill climb or big dune. Not at all necessary on the 500 – it simply doesn’t matter because it will blast up any hill in almost any gear. KTM feel that the 500 will become one of their most popular models because of this bike and I can see why, especially with the growing popularity of rallye raid events and lightweight adventure biking.
The combined effect of the new frame and suspension components, engines designed not just for improved performance but also to move rotating masses closer to the C of G, and major diets all round has resulted in a range of bikes that all offer noticeably improved comfort with very quick/ easy handling and mind blowing performance. All of that leads to increased confidence and better riding.
You cannot ride any of these bikes and not be impressed by the light weight, great suspension performance/ ride and agile handling. If I had to really force myself to find something to crit I would say the frames looked better in orange.
Well done KTM, you have certainly shifted the goal posts a long way out there.