2018 MXA 350 SHOOTOUT: HUSQVARNA FC350 VERSUS KTM 350SXF

THE MXA GANG USED TO MAKE JOKES ABOUT DOING A 350cc FOUR-STROKE SHOOTOUT. It seems funny to do a 350cc four-stroke shootout when there are only two readily available models on American showroom floors—and both of them roll down the exact same assembly line. Every time a KTM mechanic would ask us if they were going to win the 2018 MXA 450 shootout, we’d say, “We can’t tell you that, but we promise you that an Austrian bike will win the 350 shootout.” They didn’t find that as funny as we did.

SO, WHY ARE WE DOING A 2018 MXA 350 SHOOTOUT IF THE HUSQVARNA FC350 AND KTM 350SXF ARE IDENTICAL TO EACH OTHER? Two reasons. (1) Racers, who are interested in switching to a 350cc four-stroke, keep coming up to us at the races and asking us which one they should buy. The obvious answer is, “It doesn’t really matter, because they are virtually the same.” But, that obvious answer misses the fact that the Husky FC350 and KTM 350SXF are quite a bit different on the track. This leads us into a long explanation of how the “three-point-fives” work for specific riding styles. (2) The two Austrian-made bikes are not identical. Oh, don’t get us wrong; they share the same engines, chromoly frames, triple clamps, transmissions, forks, shocks, throttle bodies, radiators, tires, spokes, hubs and Austrian assembly line. However, they are different in many more ways than you’ve ever heard about. We will expound on this for you.While the KTM 350SXF is two pounds lighter than the FC350, it is surprisingly only one pound lighter than the 450SXF.

WHAT ARE THE ACTUAL  MECHANICAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE 2018 HUSQVARNA FC350 AND KTM 350SXF?

Here is the complete list of differences.

Age. While the KTM 350SXF has been around since 2011, the Husqvarna FC350 didn’t make its appearance in America until 2015. Since in the first couple years the KTM 350SXF suffered power and electrical problems, Husky didn’t miss much. Plus, KTM’s CEO Stefan Pierer didn’t buy Husqvarna from BMW until late 2013, so the 2014 Husqvarnas were the first to use platform-sharing with KTM.

Plastic. While the running gear (engine, suspension and geometry) are all shared parts, the gas tank, fenders, side panels, seat and subframe are Husky-only parts. It is Husqvarna’s all-white plastic that makes people call them “white KTMs.”

Subframe. The most obvious difference between the Husqvarna FC350 and the KTM 350SXF is the FC350’s polyamide plastic subframe. It is unique to Husqvarna and even requires a frame change in order to be mounted on the frame. But, the change is limited to the subframe mounting bolts.

A Husqvarna FC350 rider can make his Husky run the same as a KTM 350SXF with a drill and a muffler.

Airbox. When Husqvarna decided to go with an updated version of Husaberg’s plastic subframe, it committed to a new airbox shape. Perhaps if the engineers had to do it over again, they would rethink the effect that the thick structural shape of the molded subframe would have on the engine’s ability to breathe. KTM’s thin aluminum subframe tubes leave more room for air to come in from the battery box. Plus, KTM has vents in its airbox covers. Not so with the Husky FC350. It is buttoned up tight. A loaf of bread would stay fresh in Husky’s airbox for a week.

Seat. Although the Husqvarna saddle looks identical to the KTM seat, it is not. Not only does it mount via a single bolt behind the left side panel, but it changes the seating position and seat height compared to the KTM setup. It is also 1 1/2 inches longer and a lot thinner than the KTM seat.

Clutch. The Husqvarna FC350 has a Magura clutch master cylinder, lever and slave unit (instead of KTM’s Brembo components).

Handlebars. The 2016 Husky FC450 is outfitted with Pro Taper bars in a Husqvarna bend. KTM uses Neken bars. Neken makes all of KTM’s and Husqvarna’s triple clamps. The Husqvarnas are supposed to come with handguards, but we don’t always see them on the showroom floor.

Rims. The Husqvarna line comes standard with black-anodized D.I.D DirtStar rims, while KTMs come equipped with black-anodized (although unlabeled) Takasago Excel rims.

Brakes. Both use Brembo brakes, but the Husqvarna is outfitted with GSK brake rotors while the KTM uses Braking rotors. Both use 260mm fronts and 220mm rears. There is a possibility that a 2018 Husqvarna buyer could get a bike with Magura brakes front and rear and, most likely, all 2019 Huskys will have Magura components.

Swingarm. Husqvarna’s swingarm has considerably different dimensions from the KTM swingarm. It is stiffer than the KTM swingarm, but the two swingarms are interchangeable because we have seen KTM race bikes with Husky swingarms.

Muffler. Although the FC350 and 350SXF mufflers look similar, the Husqvarna version is restrictive with ice-cream-cone-shaped baffles inside it. KTMs used to come with ice-cream-cone mufflers back in 2013, but they dropped them for straight-through mufflers in 2014.

From the saddle to the bars, the Husqvarna feels different than the KTM. The seat is longer, the bars are lower and the bodywork is wider.

NOW THAT WE KNOW THE DIFFERENT PARTS, WHAT ABOUT THE DIFFERENT BUYERS? When a buyer is deciding between a KTM and a Husky, there is a strange little dance going on at the showroom. We don’t believe that any potential 2018 Husqvarna FC350 buyer doesn’t know that it is based on the 2018 KTM 450SXF. Which begs the question, “Why would knowledgeable buyers go for a Husqvarna instead of a KTM?” There are several possible reasons: (1) Lots of riders hold a grudge against KTM for the bikes they built in the past. Consumers got used to KTMs being the butt of jokes for decades, and now they can’t put that out of their minds, so it’s safer for their psyche to buy a Husqvarna. (2) Not everyone likes orange. White is a safe color choice. (3) There is always a splinter group that wants to be different. They want to wear offbeat gear, own funky Euro helmets, run curlicue numbers and ride a bike that not everyone has (but aren’t brave enough to buy a Gas Gas, Sherco, TM or SWM). (4) They are loyal Husqvarna guys, which means that they must be at least 50 years old, because no one was loyal to the Italian-, Malaysian- or German-owned Huskys. (5) And finally, they like the look of the Husky, have a really good dealer and think it is a safe purchase based on KTM’s credibility.

THE FIRST THING THAT ANYONE NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT THE HUSQVARNA FC350 ENGINE IS THAT YOU CAN MAKE IT RUN EXACTLY LIKE THE KTM 350SXF ENGINE. In stock trim, the white and orange bikes deliver their respective power uniquely. The Husqvarna has muted low-end throttle response, which makes the KTM 350SXF feel barky. In truth, these are both engines that make their peak horsepower as close to peak rpm as possible. Thus, low-end power isn’t really a factor in going fast. But, if you start slow, it takes longer to get going—and that defines the big difference between the FC350 and the 350SXF. The KTM jumps up into the meat of its power quicker, while the Husky delivers a steady vibrato of power. They both make big horsepower numbers—54 horses at 13,400 rpm. And, they are both flat-out powerbands. If you aren’t revving the KTM 350SXF or the Husqvarna FC350, you aren’t getting all it has to give.

Most MXA test riders prefer the KTM’s snappier throttle response and quicker rev, but “most” is not all. On the other side of the coin, there are Vet riders who find the metered delivery of the Husqvarna FC350 to be more usable in off-cambers, ruts, concrete starts and tricky switchbacks. But, if push comes to shove, we think the KTM powerband is racier—and these are race bikes.

Both the KTM 350SXF and Husqvarna FC350 make 54 horses, but they get to that number at different rates.

It is important to note that there are no cam, valve, piston, throttle body, fuel pump, ignition or crank differences between the 2018 FC350 and the 2018 350SXF. Which begs the question, “Where did the throttle response go on the Husky?” The answer: the plastic airbox and choked-up ice-cream-cone muffler are muting the power. The simple fix is to cut out a section on the right side of the airbox (behind the side panel) and replace the ice-cream-cone muffler with an unrestricted FC250 muffler or any aftermarket slip-on. When the FC350 gets to take big, deep breaths and exhale giant gulps of exhaust, it runs just like the KTM 350SXF.

WITH SHOWA TAC AND KAYABA PSF AIR FORKS IN FULL RETREAT AS THE OEM FORKS OF CHOICE, TWO MOTOCROSS BRANDS COME OUT OF THE AIR-FORK DEBACLE LOOKING LIKE GENIUSES. Yamaha and KTM were brave. When air forks started to sweep the marketplace, they both stood pat with what they had. Yamaha never wavered from its trusty Kayaba SSS coil-spring forks—and we can promise you that the Yamaha test department was under tremendous pressure from the Yamaha sales department to spec air forks. The testers wouldn’t budge. Although it’s not that big a compliment, they proved to be smarter than the salesmen.

On the other hand, KTM was either braver or stupider, but they stuck with bad WP coil-spring forks. The WP-built 4CS fork was just a place-saver at KTM. KTM was willing to suffer the slings and arrows of critics while waiting for the AER air fork to come online. It took a year longer than they hoped, but when it came out, it reinvigorated the air fork’s reputation. The AER fork proved that an air fork could be 3 pounds lighter, uncomplicated to live with and excellent for a wide range of riders.

But, if you’re looking for a winner in the Husky FC350-versus-KTM 350SXF shootout, you aren’t going to find it. The forks are identical on both bikes. The same holds true for the rear shocks.

THERE IS NO COMPARISON BETWEEN THE BREMBO BRAKES ON THE KTM 350SXF AND HUSKY FC350 TO ANYTHING THAT COMES STOCK ON A JAPANESE-BUILT BIKE. Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki seem to have taken a trip in the Hot Tub Time Machine to get the brakes for their bikes. How could they not compare what they have to what Brembo has and not have alarms go off at Nissin. Brembo’s brakes are incredible. Nissin brakes are something Barney Rubble would use. But, when analyzing the Brembos on a Husky and the Brembos on a KTM, the differences come down to the brake rotors. The rotors on the KTM 350SXF are from Braking. They are light and thin. The Husky’s GSK rotors are more durable. They are thicker and heavier. We guess Husqvarna felt that the sturdier GSK rotors were better for Husky’s offroad bikes.

If forced to make a choice, most MXA test riders give a slight nod on stopping power to the Braking rotors on the KTM, but we aren’t really willing to quibble over braking power this good.

Getting the Husky airbox to breathe means cutting the right-side of the airbox away…and drilling holes in the left-side airbox cover.

REMEMBER HOW WE BLAMED THE HUSKY AIRBOX FOR THE REDUCED THROTTLE RESPONSE ON THE HUSQVARNA ENGINE? WELL, WE ARE GOING TO GIVE IT CREDIT FOR IMPROVING THE FEEL OF THE HUSKY ON THE TRACK. When it comes to overall comfort, absorption, tracking and handling, every MXA test rider said that the Husky handled better. From a numbers point of view, the 2017 Husqvarna FC350 should handle identically to the 2017 KTM 350SXF, but it doesn’t for three reasons. (1) Husqvarna’s three-piece plastic airbox is more resilient than KTM’s standard-issue aluminum tube structure. The flexier feel of the plastic makes the Husqvarna feel plusher and softer when landing from jumps or under heavy torsional loads in corners. The give is even noticeable in sideloads. (2) The Husky’s slightly mellower power delivery, which develops over a longer time, has the effect of slowing reaction times for more overall control. (3) Although much harder to discern, the only actual metal frame component that is even remotely different on the two bikes is the mysterious Husqvarna swingarm. When it first came out, the Husky engineers said it was identical to the KTM swingarm, although it looked slightly different. Then, they told us that it was softer, which they later reversed to stiffer. We will take the last word they told us as the truth until they tell us something else, but since it is the only Husqvarna frame component that is different, it might well be a contributing factor to the test riders’ high opinion of the Husky’s handling.

The seal on the Husqvarna’s Magura clutch slave unit is suspect. Not so on the Brembo unit. Luckily, the Brembo parts fit in the Magura clutch.

ALL OF THIS “IDENTICAL BUT DIFFERENT” STUFF CAN GET A LITTLE CONFUSING. ISN’T THERE A PART THAT IS SERIOUSLY FLAWED ON ONE OF THE BIKES? You bet. KTM uses a Brembo hydraulic clutch while Husqvarna uses a Magura hydraulic clutch. Hydraulic clutches are wonderful. They self-adjust. The fiber plates last forever, and there are no cables to adjust (or more likely mis-adjust). As a plus, hydraulic clutches are incredibly simple devices. They have a lever, master cylinder and slave unit. They work like this: (1) You pull the clutch lever in. (2) The lever pushes a piston that pressurizes the brake fluid in the hydraulic line. (3) The pressurized fluid expands and pushes against the slave unit piston, which moves the clutch push rod.

In performance, the KTM’s Brembo unit has that “pop” feel reminiscent of the old-school Honda CR250 cable clutches. You can feel the engagement point as the lever pulses over its arc. The Husqvarna’s Magura unit is silky smooth, easier to pull and doesn’t have any pop. MXA test riders are split on which one they like better. Older riders like the classic feel of the Brembo, while young riders like the easy pull of the Magura.

You could say that the difference between KTM and Husky when it comes to clutch actuation is six of one and half a dozen of the other, but it isn’t. The Brembo clutch is twice as reliable as the Magura unit. The component that fails on the Magura slave unit is a simple lip seal. When the slave unit’s piston pushes against the clutch push rod, the Magura seal can—and does—tear, roll over or get displaced from its groove. This causes a loss of hydraulic pressure. KTM’s Brembo slave cylinder does not use a lip seal. It uses an O-ring, which cannot tear, roll over or get displaced. After having several Magura slave piston failures, we started putting Brembo slave unit pistons (with O-rings) in the Magura slave units. They fit right in and solve the problem.

The KTM’s Brembo clutch isn’t as silky as the Husky’s Magura, but it lasts longer.

LOCTITE SHOULD HAVE A WANTED POSTER OF A KTM WHEEL ON THE WALL OF ITS HEADQUARTERS. WE NEVER PASS A SPROCKET BOLT ON A KTM OR HUSKY WITHOUT TIGHTENING IT. We must say that we’ve had fewer problems with the spokes on KTM and Husky wheels than we did a couple years ago, but we still have issues. We Loctite the rear sprocket bolts, but we still find loose ones after a couple of races. And, we always check the spokes next to the rim lock on the rear wheel before each moto. If it’s tight, then all the spokes are tight. If it’s loose, then the rest of the spokes will be loose in short order. Overall, we have better luck with Husqvarna’s D.I.D DirtStar rims than we do with KTM’s unlabeled Takasago Excel rims.

NOT TO TORTURE THE WORD “IDENTICAL,” BUT THESE TWO BIKES ARE SO CLOSELY RELATED THAT YOU WOULD NATURALLY ASSUME THAT THEY WEIGH THE SAME. They don’t. The Husky FC250 weighs 2 pounds more than the comparable KTM 250SXF. The extra baggage (221 pounds versus 223 pounds) is a function of the heavier subframe, swingarm, GSK brake rotors, ice-cream-cone mufflers and bodywork. Some of that weight will be saved when you drill out the airbox and swap mufflers, but even if you don’t take these steps, your Husky will still be lighter than every motocross bike not from Austria—and we are talking a lot lighter.

HAVE YOU BEEN KEEPING A SCORECARD, BECAUSE WE HAVEN’T. HOWEVER, WE WILL GET RIGHT ON THAT. Here is a quick synopsis, with a few added factors yet to be discussed. KTM wins the power, brake and clutch category, while Husqvarna takes the handling and wheel crowns. Every other category is a tie, as you would expect from bikes that are identical. But, perhaps there are tiebreakers yet to be discussed. Here are a few added features.

Handlebars. Husqvarna’s Pro Taper bars are a proprietary bend made just for Husqvarna. Most MXA test riders prefer the flex and give of the Pro Tapers over the stiff feel of KTM’s Neken handlebars. The two bends are different, but it’s not uncommon to see KTM race bikes with Husqvarna Pro Tapers on them.

Ergonomics. This is more of a push than a tie, but many test riders like the feel of the Husqvarna’s bulging bodywork because it is easy to grab with their knees; however, on the flip side, they feel like they are sitting lower on the Husqvarna seat than on the KTM seat. That is probably because the FC350 seat is 1-1/2 inches longer and 5mm lower than the KTM seat and has about half as much foam where the rider sits.

Airbox. Both the KTM and the Husqvarna have incredibly intelligent airbox designs—the air-filter cage plugs into the airbox with no mess. Neither the Husky nor KTM require tools to get to the air filter, but they both require fairly healthy tugs to get the airbox covers off.

Torx. We can live with the Torx bolts that hold the KTM and Husky together, but we don’t have to like them. The worst of the Torx bolts is the tiny #15 that holds the clutch-side grip onto the handlebars. It strips out, which then makes removing the grip an interesting proposition.

Frame guards. Some test riders think the plastic frame guards on both the Husky and KTM are too far outboard over their feet. They replace them with grip tape. KTM uses orange frame guards to protect its orange frames, but Husqvarna uses black frame guards, which negate a large portion of the white motif. White frame guards are available.

Gearing. Virtually every  KTM 350SXF racer gears his bike down by one tooth in the rear to help it get to third gear sooner. However, many Husky FC350 riders go down two teeth on the rear.

The plastic airbox may not help the power, but it makes the FC350 feel plusher on the track.

YOU CAN CHOOSE WHICHEVER 350 FLOATS YOUR BOAT, BUT FOR MXA, THERE IS A WINNER. If you think we are going to say, “No matter which one you buy, you will be the big winner with either of these bikes,” we’re not. Every MXA test rider prefers the 2018 KTM 350SXF over the Husqvarna FC350. Why? (1) The KTM is 2 pounds lighter (not a big deal unless you are paying for titanium parts to save 2 pounds). (2) We hate racing with a part that is going to fail sooner or later—and Magura’s slave seal could go in one hour or it could go in 100 hours. Either way, we don’t want to be on the bike when it happens. (3) KTM’s snappy, more responsive and livelier powerband is racier. Yes, we could fix that with a drill and a slip-on muffler, but then we’d be supporting Husqvarna’s questionable decision to choke up the FC350 for reasons only they can fathom.

 

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