KTM has the most significant changes to its 450 for 2011. Of course the biggest news is that last year’s shootout winner moved away from its long-time PDS platform and incorporated linkage in the WP suspension package. This major step not only went against KTM’s longtime mantra, but was handed out to all the SX-F models. The Chromoly steel frame is new for the entire SX-F line and it also gets a single-piece cast aluminum swingarm, new Excel A60 wheels, sleeker bodywork and a revised muffler.
KTM employs the only carbureted engine in the test, and as the motocross world has gotten a few years of EFI under its belt, there’s a realization that those carburetors aren’t all that bad. In fact, the jets make the broadest powerband in this shootout. Throw KTM’s lightweight electric start on top and there’s barely anything to complain about with the powerplant. All testers made note of the engine’s capacity for usable torque. The 450 SX-F has power from bottom to top, and it lays it on thick and smooth. The dyno revealed that the Austrian is toward the top in peak numbers, falling shy of the leader (Suzuki) by roughly a single horsepower and one-half of a lb-ft of torque. The graph shows that the big SX-F has the smoothest curve of any machine as it transfers from the bottom to the meat of its powerband. It also landed in the top-three during the roll-on acceleration test. However, the orange bike was overshadowed by the harder-hitting Kawasaki and Suzuki when it came time to impressing our testers. Our two fastest riders were able to make it bog when landing hard off jumps, something that just isn’t experienced anymore on EFI bikes.
The 450 SX-F caught the majority of its flak for the new suspension setup. For as much as it was supposed to help the handling, the rear shock and linkage received complaints that it refused to settle down, kicking and springing when it should have been putting all that wonderful horsepower or excellent braking from the Brembo units directly to the ground.
KTM had a lot of weight on its shoulders coming in, but ultimately the new linkage suspension isn’t able to support the pressure.
KTM missed out on some credit for its top-shelf components. All the bikes come with premium handlebars, but the KTM’s was knocked for its particular bend which affected ergonomics and handling. However, the only other bike to come with as many other premium features is its fellow Austrian. Both bikes get upgraded to the Excel A60 rims this year and it still has the no-tool airbox access, multi-adjustable brake pedal, resonance chamber, quarter-turn gas cap (not to mention two gallons of fuel), hydraulic clutch, billet hubs, easy-access shock preload collar, tool-less fork adjusters and quality hand grips.
Individual testers ranked the KTM first in certain areas, but once the scores were tallied it was the only bike that didn’t claim an overall category, leaving the big SX-F down in sixth. In some categories, like braking and handling, it fell shy of its smaller sibling, the 350, which uses uses its lighter weight to its advantage.
2011 KTM 450 SX-F Rider Impressions:
Chris See – 5’10” – 165 lbs – Pro
The KTM by far had the strongest engine all through the powerband, great bottom, strong mid, and revved to the moon. I did have a few moments on hard landings or when I grabbed a handful right out of a corner I experienced a bog and or a little hesitation, probably because it was the only bike not to come with fuel injection. The rear sprocket could use one more tooth as I found myself between gears a few times on the track. It shifted smoothly but under power I had to use the clutch to shift which was odd to me.
The rear shock was set at 100mm of sag, which felt right but I could never get the rear end to feel planted. I slowed down the high speed a full turn and went two slower on the rebound which made the back end settle the best it could. The front was just way too stiff and harsh even after a couple clicks softer all the way around. For the forks being as stiff as they were, the bike cornered well and held ruts great. In the rougher section of the track the bike tended to get headshake and never really felt stable. I’m an average-sized rider and never could feel at home on this machine, but I did like the overall height. What did work for me were the brakes. Both front and rear are nice and strong and work amazing.
Handling on the new 450 SX-F isn’t what is used to be. The rear end kicks around and the rider lacks feedback.
Kody Koger – 6’0” – 182 lbs – Pro
The KTM motor was strong from midrange to top-end but the low end definitely lacked power mainly from first to second gear. You definitely want to go up a tooth or two to give it some more low-end power. The throttle response lacked right at the initial twist and if you come up short on a jump or over-jump a little bit the motor cuts out. The hydraulic clutch works great; there is no slipping in it whatsoever.
The rear end kicked all over the place no matter what we did to the clickers. The fork was harsh about mid-stroke – it also isn’t balanced very well and feels like all the weight is on the front of the bike. On tight corners, as soon as you finish braking and start to make the initial turn it wants to tuck on you, and on sweeping corners the front end wants to push. This bike was not for me, honestly.
JC Hilderbrand – 5’11” – 190 lbs – Novice
I like to ride other stuff besides motocross like GPs and WORCS racing, and the KTM 450 engine would be perfect for those applications. As it is, it’s pretty perfect for the moto track too, but the whole bike just doesn’t work as a package like it used to. Last year the KTM finally spoke my language and I was looking forward to the changes for 2011. The PDS suspension has always been a hot topic and I wanted to see if the new linkage was really as superior as the anti-PDS folks claim. It’s not – at least not at my skill level. The bike feels heavier in the turns now and the front end doesn’t give the same level of feedback. I just never got really comfy on the big KTM where last year I took to it like a fish to water. The 2011 isn’t a bad bike, but it’s a little disappointing to feel like it’s a step backward. Hey, at least it has electric start. Come on, Japan, get with the program!
Bret Milan – 6’4” – 210 lbs – Intermediate
This is the most powerful motor in the test, and very easy to ride. The bike feels like it revs forever, but comes on soft and easy making it get out of corner smoothly and consistently. My biggest compliant regarding the KTM engine was the amount of vibration felt at the handlebars. It really gave the bike an old-fashioned feel and was definitely fatiguing.
All bikes should have a hydraulic clutch. It is such a smooth feel and doesn’t require adjustment. It takes a bit to get used to, though, since it is sensitive to rider input. With the lack of bottom-end punch, the gap between second and third gears is a bit much. A tooth or two on the rear sprocket would bring third gear into play earlier. As was the case with the clutch, it took me a bit of time to get used to the power of the KTM’s front brake! The brakes are incredible.
I was having problems with the rear shock “unloading” after hitting successive bumps. I tried to stiffen and speed up the rear of the bike to fix this problem, but the shock spring was a bit soft for my weight. Once you drop into a rut, it’s easy to stay there, but the lack of bottom end punch makes it difficult to steer with the rear of the bike. It almost felt like the bike had traction control. The stability of the KTM is good, but the issue with the shock lowered my confidence. The ergos of the KTM are very appealing for taller riders like me. Overall, I feel very comfortable with the KTM’s layout. The firm, flat seat makes it easy to get forward on the bike and stay there in the corners.