2012 KTM 350 XCF-W First Ride

JC Hilderbrand | February 22, 2012
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See how the Austrian bike wins over our testers in the 2012 KTM 350 XCF-W First Ride video.

KTM is the leader of the burgeoning 350cc market after becoming the first major OEM to offer the midlevel displacement dirt bike. It all started with the 350 SX-F motocrosser, but the Austrian brand is known for its wide range of niche bikes. KTM immediately started converting the 350 platform into off-road versions for racing, trail riding and even dual sport. The 2012 KTM 350 XCF-W is intended for trail use and we rode it down dirt paths of all variety in Southern California and Southern Oregon.

The single-cylinder DOHC engine feels exactly like we expect from a 250/450 blend. The water-cooled mill retains the high-rpm performance of the smaller bikes but churns out far more torque than a quarter-liter, specifically tuned for enduro riders. KTM gave the XCF-W a longer cylinder and a new piston which creates a 12.3:1 compression ratio. It also gets different camshafts and a heavier crank which aid the smooth low-end power.

2012 KTM 350 XCF-W First Ride
Our EnduroCross pro wished he could have raced the 350 instead of his 250F.

We let Kyle Redmond turn laps on his private EnduroCross course and it was obvious that he immediately fell in love with the KTM’s output. Conditioned to riding a modified Honda CRF250R, Redmond claims he is able to attack obstacles more aggressively and the additional torque allows him to clear obstacles he could only dream of on the 250 machine. He was especially happy with the way it could carry the front end without having to downshift. Also, the quick- and free-revving engine and consistent hydraulic clutch allow him to rev the bike and then launch from very slow speeds, a technique commonly used in trials riding. Doing this on a 450 is gnarly and 250s rarely have the necessary punch.

Most of us aren’t professionals looking for the quickest way around an EX course. In the regular world, the XCF-W is equally impressive. It has enough muscle to rail down sand washes, though it’s not going to out-pull a 450 in deep conditions. On the varying trails around our Medford, Oregon headquarters, the KTM could almost be ridden in second gear for the entire day. The bike has enough torque to claw up the steepest hills but it revs long enough to avoid an extra shift.

Once the gear changes start happening, the wide-ratio transmission has plenty of legs for all but the fastest desert terrain. First gear is extremely low which is great for super-technical riding, but we usually toed up to second to avoid wheelspin. Our testers are divided, some preferring a close-ratio tranny and others content with the wide-ratio. All agree that the XCF-W offers plenty of versatility with a 13:52 final drive, and the drivetrain operation is flawless. The clutch is buttery, due in part to a new single diaphragm design. The clutch never fades, and the gearbox doesn’t miss either.

Handling is supremely light, feeling much more like a 250 machine than an open-class machine. The 350 weighs less than some 250F enduro bikes, even with a full 2.5 gallons of fuel. The light front end is standard KTM and the bike carves through single track with precision. A new chassis optimizes flex and rigidity along with a new single-piece aluminum swingarm. Sliding through flat corners is predictable and the XCF-W always finds plenty of traction using a 58.3-inch wheelbase. Brembo brakes and braided-steel lines make for a killer set of binders. It has one-finger power up front and the rear can be controlled easily while sitting or standing. Some riders won’t like how sensitive they are, but the feedback and power are undeniable. We love the brakes.

2012 KTM 350 XCF-W First Ride
2012 KTM 350 XCF-W First Ride
The PDS shock is amazing. The design works especially well off-road and the longer WP shock handles the usual trail junk.

It was a big deal when KTM finally broke away from its tradition of WP PDS suspension and swapped part of its lineup to a traditional linkage setup. Fortunately, the XCF-W still uses the linkage-less system, but it’s an updated version. The shock is 7mm longer which offers 13.2 inches of travel, and it uses a new preload adjuster. From professional EnduroCross racer who needs the extra clearance to the weekend B-rider who is hell on wheels with a pressure washer, the inherent traits of KTM’s signature suspension arrangement are considered an advantage over the linkage design. Fewer moving parts, lighter weight, increased ground clearance and simple maintenance are especially fitting for a bike that makes its living doing long days in nasty conditions. Winter testing has us noting a lack of mud buildup and easier wet-weather upkeep.

These alone would mean squat if the suspension didn’t perform, but rider comments were unanimously positive. The fork is a WP 48mm unit with new SKF dust seals and oil, new bushings and a Teflon coating. Our fastest riders consider the front and rear slightly soft at top pace, but the B-rider and vet both had no issues. The damping circuits are perfect for trail use, easily sucking up roots, rocks and holes while smoothly tracking the contour of terrain. Sharp bumps on deceleration regularly buck other test bikes but the KTM floats over them with ease. Overall balance front to rear is very good.

All of our testers range from 5’10” to 6’0” and the ergonomics are comfortable for taller riders. The bike feels narrow between the ankles and the reach from seat to footpegs is comfortable. KTM has received a lot of negative feedback about the handlebars this year and the XCF-W model is not immune. It has a strange bend which rides low, feeling better in the sitting position than it does while standing. As is typical for KTM equipment, stock controls are of a high standard. Even though the bars aren’t our favorite shape, they are oversized aluminum and the hand grips are quality.
 

2012 KTM 350 XCF-W First Ride
KTM knows how to finish out its bikes. We’d like to see a different bar bend and a skidplate. Otherwise it’s about perfect for riders of all levels.

The computer system is advanced enough to handle more than the basic needs of most trail riders. A kickstand offers convenience and it springs up high where it tucks out of the way and can be secured with a rubber loop. Footpegs are wide and provide ample grip and the bike rolls on new Excel AL7 rims and CNC machined hubs. It also comes with handguards. Electric and kick-start provide options and give riders peace of mind out on the trail. We never had any issues with the battery dying even with heavy use during photo and video shoots. The opaque fuel tank is awesome and it holds a decent amount of gasoline. One glaring omission is the lack of a skidplate. The XCF-W’s chromoly frame rails and engine cases are painfully unprotected.

Even though KTM offers the stripped down XC-F for competition and the XCF-W is supposed to be a trail bike, all of our testers felt the wide-ratio version is entirely capable of acting as a race machine. A slippery seat, funky bar bend and missing skidplate are the only items we could find to complain about. The XCF-W handles like a 250, runs clean and strong, never wears out the rider, shifts smoothly, stops on a dime and has fit, finish and features that make others look cheap by comparison. KTM has created a complete package that has all of our testers rethinking their bike of choice.

JC Hilderbrand

Off-Road Editor| Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn’t matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

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