KTM is no longer showing any subtlety in the fact that the XC-F lines are motocrossers converted for off-road race use. In a nutshell, the new 250 XC-F is an MX bike with electric start and an 18-inch rear wheel. There are some other smaller differences, like the transmission and electric start, but that is about the extent of it.
This is clearly influenced by the fact that nearly every non-KTM rider who shows up at an off-road race is riding a modified motocross bike. The Austrians are pursuing a kind of “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach, or perhaps it might be better stated as a “give the people what they want” philosophy of selling cross country race bikes.
One thing that is pretty obvious: this newest generation of the XC-F line makes no pretense of being trail bikes. They are designed to win races, specifically the GNCC series. If they make good trail bikes, that is just an added benefit, but don’t expect lights, spark arrestors or any other trail gear.
With the introduction of KTM’s new 350cc line of bikes, the mission of the 250 becomes a little less clear. The quarter-liter bikes used to be able to lay claim to the light weight and easy to ride territory. Now, they have to go up against the new 300/350 class.
The XC-F model is taken straight from the SX-F line with only minor differences separating it from its motocross sibling.
Yet, for those riders who still need a true 250cc 4-stroke “lites” class cross country race bike, the KTM and Husqvarna are about the only choices for serious competitors. Plus, they do still have a slight advantage over everyone, including the 350, in the handling department. A few laps riding the 250 XC-F were enough to demonstrate that.
The 250 XC-F is lifted straight from the newest generation SX-F line. The 19” rear wheel gets replaced by a standard 18” version that runs a 100 series tire. The addition of a kickstand completes the list of external differences from the moto bike. This is the latest generation of the motocross frame which means it has the new linkage rear shock. Spring rates are slightly changed for cross country use and the fork and shock valving are all new for this model.
The 48mm WP closed cartridge fork carries the same .46 N/m rate while the shock actually gets a stiffer spring than the SX-F. It goes from a .51 N/m spring to a .54 N/m rate. This shows some of the differences in philosophy about valving. The most recent testing by the KTM R&D team has been using the combination of stiffer spring rates and lighter valving across the board.
The new clear tank is 9.5 liters (2.51 gal), carrying two liters more than the SX model. It also comes with KTM handguards. As a “red sticker” bike, it does not come with a spark arrestor.
The biggest change to the motor is the addition of the electric start system. The kick starter has also been retained on the XC-F models. This is specifically aimed at helping get better dead engine race starts.
Next is a new six-speed gear box. The ratios are designed specifically for the 250 to help keep the motor spinning happily. First gear is close to the SX version, but the rest of the ratios are quite a bit taller. The final drive is now 13:50, lowered from the 48-tooth sprocket on the MX version.
Gear 250 SX-F 250 XC-F
1 13:32 13:33
2 15:30 17:33
3 17:28 19:29
4 19:26 23:28
5 21:25 23:23
6 22:24 26:22
The Keihin fuel injection system uses a 42mm throttle body. There is a standard ignition map and two optional maps, but it does not come with the hardware needed to switch between them. The accessory part is identical to that used on the other KTM EFI bikes. It is a multi-position switch and requires the motor to be turned off to change maps.
Beyond the transmission and electric starter, the motor is identical to the 2011 250 SX-F model. The charging output is a meager 66 watts, enough to keep the EFI and e-start spinning, but not intended to run lights.
As you can imagine I had all kinds of questions about how all this would work. I really had no idea that we were going to be looking at a linkage bike until I actually saw it. In fact the Euro EXC version of this bike is a PDS frame and all of the American off-roaders were originally slated to have the PDS. KTM is kind of all over the board as to what bikes get the link and what keeps the PDS version.
Although rather small for our contributing editor, the 250 XC-F was feather-light and handled like a dream.
I was also surprised to see the traditional kickstarter on the bikes. I am glad for it, but it sort of goes against the grain of the KTM principle that the e-start is good enough not to need a backup. Again, this bike is built specifically to win a GNCC race, a dead engine start format, and the kick lever is generally quicker to light.
The first impression is just how small the frame feels. Part of that is simply the physical dimension, but much is also that the bike is light handling and gives the impression of being small. Yet, for a 6-foot guy like me, it is a little cramped. This hit me in two ways. First, the new version Renthal handlebar that has more sweep than the traditional KTM style is close to the rider. Secondly, the seat-to-peg distance is pretty short. I found myself with my toes pointing down consistently as I moved around the bike on the MX track. I had to make a conscious effort to move my feet back on the pegs to keep my feet away from the ground.
As for the rest of the handling impressions they are best described as feathery-light. This is the kind of bike that makes you feel like a hero. I could achieve ridiculous lean angles and both wheels consistently stay planted. I had to force myself not to brake for corners and just let the bike flow into them; it doesn’t matter if there’s a berm or not.
As much as I would like to whine about KTM’s lack of consistency on what shock system they use, the linkage just plain works. I really could find nothing to pick apart. Late in the day the jump faces started to get square-edged and these always make me want to back off the throttle. Wide open, good line or bad line, the shock treated them like they were not even there.
Suspension on the bike felt well-balanced and the linkage system performed excellently over difficult terrain.
The fork is just about the same. The overall compliance is very good and it’s easily the best closed chamber WP fork I have tested. It did blow through the stroke on occasion, but that’s mostly because I am quite a bit heavier than the target audience for this bike.
Overall, the suspension is very good. The balance was always just about right on during our test. In my limited riding time I did not get to put it through the rigors of rocks and roots, so I will reserve a little judgment until it can be put through the gauntlet. However, our first impressions are pretty positive.
I mentioned how I could ride the 250 XC-F wide open over some of the jump faces. If you are my size and ride a 250F, you had better learn to ride with the throttle turned clear to the stop. It is the only way you can ever make headway. This is the challenge of the little thumpers. They are never going to feel fast. They can go fast, but it takes commitment from the pilot. Lazy riders need not apply. That being said, the KTM is near the top of its class as an off-road bike, but it lacks a little of the punch of the MX bikes.
While riding the vet track around Cahuilla Creek it took me a few laps to get the KTM sorted out. Gear selection is critical and there is only one correct gear for each situation, so quick shifting and a little clutch work are necessary. After a few laps I was able to get everything figured out. There is one section of three uphill rollers that can be jumped as one. With a little work I was able to put together enough momentum and speed to clear these. By comparison, on my first attempt with the 350 XC-F I easily over-jumped the section.
The impression I came away with from the motor was that it could work well, but it never felt stellar in any one area. It is a little soft off the bottom and shuts off a bit early on top. In one roller whoop section I would have to shift in the middle because it wouldn’t pull any further. The wider ratios of the gearbox may compound this as you can feel the gaps at times. I did not get to try the optional EFI maps and they may well address some of these issues.
While riding around trails the tiny thumper felt much more at home. The power delivery is very smooth, aided by crisp fuel injection. It pulls steady from low revs and does not stall. In technical terrain it is easy to ride and needs very little help from the clutch. For as much as KTM wants to bill this as a purebred racer, it has all the earmarks of a great trail motor.
The result for me is that I loved the handling and suspension. I was a little cramped on the new generation chassis and lukewarm on the motor. At the same time, however, I’m a little heavy for the bike, and some of what I consider negatives will translate into positives for a different rider.
For someone looking for a great all-around bike, the 250 is going to get some stiff competition from the new 350 XC-F. Yet, for those who are heading to the starting line in the lites class next year, this is a pretty good package and deserves serious consideration.