KTM introduces its middleweight off-road contender, the 350 XC-F, with hopes of capturing speed and lightweight handling in a single build.
There really is no doubt that the KTM 350 XC-F and its sibling, the 350 SX-F, are the hottest news in the dirt bike world this year. I got my first look at the motocross bikes earlier this year at the USGP where Mike Alessi and Tony Cairoli made impressive debuts. Now, the XC-F off-road version quietly arrives just as the year comes to a close.
The concept of building the ultimate mid-size bike is not a new one. In fact it is almost a staple of the motorcycle industry to bring the concept back around every decade or so. The goal of course is to take the handling of a small bike and mate it to an engine that performs like an open-class bike. Perhaps the most successful example would be the Honda XR400 that went on to have a very successful career.
The real difference here is that current generation 350’s were designed from the ground up as new technology bikes. Nothing borrowed and everything new. It is probably more correct in this case to say that the 250 and 450 were designed around the 350. So will it really bring us the best of both worlds or will it be another victim of too many compromises?
The rumor mill had been talking about the XC-F versions for a while and everyone seemed convinced that they would feature a PDS shock. As it turns out this is only for the EXC versions which won’t come to the States. For the U.S. market these bikes are just lightly reworked versions of the motocross models. That means they get the latest KTM reinvention: linkage.
Essentially the chassis for all new KTM SX-F and XC-F models is the same. The engine cradle for the 450 is slightly different but everything else front to back is identical. Up front the 48mm WP closed chamber forks receive the same valving updates as the rest of the line and get specific off-road settings. The .48 N/m is the same as the SX-F model. The KTM linkage is quite an eyeful for the orange bike lovers. The shock is long and the linkage hangs quite low. The WP shock has the full range of clickers and uses a .54 N/m spring – again the same as the moto version.
The XC-F conversion to cross country race bike is minimal. The fuel tank capacity is up to 2.5 gallons (from 2.0). The 19” rear wheel is replaced by an 18” that runs a 110 series tire. A kickstand and moto style handguards finish off the list of off-road specific parts. The XC-F models are not intended to run lights and have no other amenities such as spark arrestor or odometer.
Like the chassis, the fuel injected engine is nearly identical to the SX-F model. The entire top end, including the cam and piston, are the same. Ignition mapping is unique to this bike and features a standard map plus two optional settings. These require the KTM hard equipment accessory switch to change maps. The 42mm Keihin EFI throttle body is the same for all the 250/350 line up.
The orange bike sources a fuel injected motor nearly identical to the SX-F model. However, additions like a backup kickstarter and new gear ratios give it more bite for the off-road.
Also new is the addition of a kickstarter to back up the electric starter. KTM claims the racers wanted this feature for dead engine start races. It is nice to have the security of the backup starting. Also new is the transmission with an added cog and all new ratios for the off-road model. As you can see in the graphic, the ratio changes are pretty significant and give the XC-F much longer legs.
Gear 350 SX-F 350 XC-F
1 14:30 15:31
2 15:24 16:25
3 18:24 20:25
4 21:24 22:23
5 22:21 25:22
During the official new bike presentation KTM made it pretty clear that this bike is designed to win the GNCC title. That is where much of the company’s off-road race resources will go this year. I have also talked to a number of the orange team riders and it seems that nearly every one of them wants to race the new 350 next year.
So it looks like it’s a hit with the pro level riders, but what about for the rest of us? KTM has almost gone out of their way to keep any enduro type amenities off of these models. Based on the spec sheet this looks to be pretty much just a motocrosser with a wide ratio transmission.
Everyone’s first question when seeing this bike is about the motor. What is it like? Well, the short answer is that it feels much closer to a 450 than a 250. Probably 50% of the time it feels like it does everything on par with the larger bikes. My first ride was on the vet motocross track and the engine was an absolute
The great thing about this bike on the track is it almost always seems “just right.” For coming out of a corner, just turn the throttle wide open. Gear selection is optional, for most situations it will let you run in a tall gear or a low gear. Carry a tall gear through the corner, feather the clutch just a little on exit and save two shifts in the process. It does not require the all-out commitment of riding a 250F. It may be just the perfect engine for the average track rider.
Once off-road it shows a little more of a split personality. At slow trail speeds it will plunk along perfectly happy. The EFI response is crisp and it’s happy to trail ride at any speed. I expected it to be too aggressive for this type of riding, but not so. It’s almost like riding a 300 two-stroke with a nice, gentle personality.
Gear selections proved optional under most conditions, making the XC-F an ideal bike for the average track rider.
This two-stroke analogy carries over to the top-end of the powerband also. As long as you use the gearbox enough to keep the revs up it sings right along. For this reason, the mid-size 350 is going to make a very potent cross country race motor. For riders coming from smaller bikes it should be a very easy transition.
The chink in the armor starts to show up when you spend more time in the mid range. When accelerating hard or riding on firm ground the bike feels strong just about everywhere, but there is a no man’s land in the middle of the rpm range which rears up any time you hit power-robbing situations. It is at this point that you quickly realize that this is no 450.
Where a stab at the clutch would bring the motor back to life on a smooth moto track, in the sand it’s going to take a quick downshift to keep momentum up. It took me a bit of time to get the process correct. The 350’s strong acceleration had lulled me into thinking this was really just like a 450, and I expected to have enough torque to pull myself out of trouble. As a result for riders coming off a big bike there will be a little learning required.
As for the chassis, it is like working with a sharp knife. It is really good as long as you treat it with some respect and keep the business end pointed in the right direction. On the track it is very precise. Like the 250 XC-F, it is a bike that makes you feel like a hero in many respects. I found myself using the front tire to carve a tighter line while I let the rear drift into the berm to grab some extra traction. I never really felt like I was getting close to understanding how much handling potential it has as my corner speeds just kept
The XC-F regularly struggled during mid-range in tricky situations, taking both practice and patience to overcome.
Once out in the desert the tables start to turn as those nimble handling traits become more of a liability. In open terrain the 350 wants your attention all the time. More than once I had the front end tuck unexpectedly. Things can happen fast and that is not always a good thing.
The frame has a very small feeling to me. It is difficult for me to keep a neutral position on the bike; I am always over-loading one end or the other. The new Renthal bar design doesn’t help either. Due to its bend it will not rotate very far forward.
I am also struggling with front end feel. It often feels skittish and I don’t have a very consistent feel for it. I have played with the sag and fork height, but have not come to a good balance yet. It will take a little more time for me to work on the settings to get the chassis dialed in.
Of course, everyone wants to know about the shock. Well, it just works. I can’t really say if it is better than the PDS, but in general I rate it on par with the 2010 450 SX-F that was very well received. KTM has worked to make the linkage feel like the PDS system. The shock returns to the top of the stroke quickly so it does not pack up. The rebound is consistent and the rear never kicks around. On a rough jump face it tracks very smooth and inspires confidence, rolling along like there is nothing there.
Off-road the shock seems to work equally as well. The action is good, but I would rate the ride quality as just a little harsh. It will absorb all kinds of obstacles without any bad reactions, but it does transmit some of the hit through the seat to the rider.
The closed chamber fork is by far the best WP version I have ridden so far. For slow speed hits it soaks up everything and is very smooth. In the rocks it is pretty good and this is an area where I have always been critical of the closed chamber design. Still, every once in a while there will be a high-speed hit that will cause the front to suddenly deflect. Backing off the compression two clicks helped this. But I have to say I don’t have the same confidence in the front end as I have with the old open chamber design. Although, it seems I must be about the only person left in the world who feels that way.
So where does that leave us? My initial impressions are that this is going to be a very good eastern-style race bike. Think of it as a Husaberg that went on a diet, of course it lost a little motor in the process also. For the same reasons it is also a pretty darn good trail bike. Open terrain is not going to be this bike’s strong point, however.
So what about for the goal of bringing together the best of all things big and small? Well, I say yes and maybe. Yes, because it is a pretty good mix of handling and motor characteristics. I have to also add “maybe” because it loses some of the all-out ultra-light handling of the 250 and doesn’t quite have the motor punch of the 450. Ultimately I think there is a large group of riders who will consider this a very good balance. If I were making plans to race the first AMA National Enduro of the 2011 season, this bike would be right at the top of my wish list to find under the Christmas tree.