by John Basher
It was a long time coming. KTM, the manufacturer that American motocross racers made fun of a decade ago, has grown to epic proportions thanks to a brilliant strategy executed in the midst of a crippling global recession. KTM was the only “Big Five” manufacturer to make bold moves when the economy sank eight years ago. KTM reinvested at a time when others were treading water, expanding its product line to appeal to a broader audience. To quote baseball great Willie Keeler, “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” That’s exactly what the Austrians did. Since 2007, KTM has added four motocross-specific models, including the immensely popular 350SXF four-stroke. Consumers realized that if their go-to brand didn’t offer the bike they wanted, KTM would. Adding converts and attracting two-stroke diehards while retaining KTM’s longtime customers equated to incredible growth and increased market share. How bewildered the head honchos at Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki must feel at the sudden rise of a brand they always considered to be cottage industry.
KTM’s renewed interest in professional racing has attracted a younger generation of riders, but, ironically, it took the signing of now 70-year-old Roger DeCoster to launch a new era. Since 2012, when KTM landed Ryan Dungey—mainly because of the close relationship between DeCoster and Dungey who worked at Suzuki together—KTM has won, and won often. In three years the orange crew garnered two 450 National titles, two 250 Supercross crowns and multiple 450 Supercross race wins. A KTM contract used to be considered a last-ditch effort for a struggling racer or a farewell ride before moving to a retirement community in Boca Raton. DeCoster, Dungey, Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin quashed that stigma. As a result, KTM is a player. Perception is reality.
Landing the goose that laid the golden egg wasn’t easy. After all, KTM had a long history of losing. Success under the orange tent came at a premium, though misfortune played a meddling role. Jeremy McGrath signed on the dotted line with KTM for 2003, only to dislocate his hip soon after and quit the sport. Freak accidents aside, though, KTM was really to blame for its own shortcomings in Supercross and motocross. KTM habitually signed questionable riders who were incapable of winning or made headlines for all the wrong reasons (exhibit A: Ryan Mills). The fact that DeCoster lured multi-time champion Ryan Dungey over to KTM was one of the greatest racing coups in recent memory.
In 2012, the KTM 450SXF Factory Edition (FE) was born. Coined the “Ryan Dungey Replica” and designed to skirt the AMA production rule, the new bike was built for Ryan Dungey before the Supercross series even started. It was sheer brilliance. The race team competed with an all-new bike while helping KTM’s bottom line. Bound by the poorly written AMA production rule, KTM had to sell 400 units by the end of the Supercross series. Even at $9595 each, the 2012 450SXF Factory Editions sold faster than tickets to a Bob Dylan concert. Since then, KTM has released a Factory Edition every year, and it has always been a success. It’s the quintessential bike for an early adopter, one who demands the latest and greatest technology regardless of the cost. Think of Factory Edition owners in the same way you think of people who stand in line all night to be the first to buy the latest iPhone. They gotta have it and they gotta have it now. The 450SXF-FE always delivers. Note that the Factory Editions have heralded monumental firsts in KTM’s motocross line—electronic fuel injection and WP 4CS forks. The latest 450SXF-FE is a glimpse at what is coming down the KTM pipeline for 2016.
All well and good for the 450 four-stroke crowd, but in my eyes the KTM 250SXF had long been overlooked. It seemed that KTM’s engineers put so much effort into the 450SXF Factory Edition that they ignored 250 four-stroke development. KTM’s malaise about the 250SXF did them no favors. That realization should have hit home with the KTM brass this year when MXA ranked the 250SXF in next-to-last place in our “250 Four-Stroke Shootout.” The writing was on the wall—KTM had work to do in order to climb back up the ladder.
I need to clarify that the MXA test crew works as a cohesive unit. Everyone on the staff tests all of the bikes, from 125cc two-stroke tiddlers to fire-breathing 450cc four-strokes. We give input and work through every conceivable setup. It is only then that we learn all there is to know. At that point we sit down at the computer and regurgitate all of the information we gained through hours of tiresome testing. So, even though Jody Weisel, Daryl Ecklund and I are responsible for writing the bike-test reviews, getting to that point is a collaborative effort. That’s why you’ll never find a byline attached to a production bike test…until now.
I should let the stench out of the gear bag. Since 2007 I have been MXA’s resident 250 four-stroke aficionado. Every year, typically from June through November, I live on a 250F. Sure, I help test other bikes when summoned by Jody, but most of my time is spent on the smaller four-bangers. Staying away from other bikes is a self-imposed ban. Just as Jimi Hendrix never dabbled with a glockenspiel, I find that keeping my eyes on the 250 four-stroke prize is the best way to achieve expertise.
I’ve spent more hours than I can remember on KTM 250SXFs, and they’ve all been similar. As the years have passed, my patience with KTM’s R&D department has waned. Historically, the 250SXF has been a confused machine. The highest placement the 250SXF has ever received in a shootout is third, and that was years ago. Harsh forks, an unpredictable rear end and a top-end-only powerband spoiled an otherwise sterling package. The 250SXF, a perennial winner in select areas like brakes, clutch, peak horsepower and starting, was often relegated to a lower overall ranking because it lacked in the categories that mattered most. KTM’s brain trust has never been pleased with MXA’s unflattering reviews of the 250SXF, but it took a long time for our message to make it to Mattighofen, Austria. Finally, KTM has unveiled a 250SXF Factory Edition for 2015-1/2. Hallelujah!
The list of changes made to the 250SXF reads like an MXA wish list. Fortunately, KTM didn’t merely gild the lily.
By now the updates are well-documented, but it’s important to note the key areas of change.
(1) Engine. The engine has been redesigned for more horsepower and a more compact design.
(2) Frame. The totally new chromoly steel frame is 20 percent stiffer in torsion and 30 percent more flexible longitudinally for sharper handling and more energy absorption.
(3) Suspension. The WP 4CS fork features revised damping settings, and the shock and linkage have been redesigned.
(4) Footpegs. We didn’t mind the old footpegs; what we did mind was the footpeg location in relation to the seat, shifter and handlebars. The new footpegs are moved back 5mm and down 4mm for better ergonomics.
(5) Weight. KTM knocked around 8 pounds off the 250SXF while keeping the electric starting system.
What’s it like to ride the 2015-1/2 KTM 250SXF Factory Edition? If exuberant adjectives and alliterative nouns are your thing, then the bike is best described as having a potent powerband capable of moving mountains; it’s fantastic fun wrapped up in an alluring amalgamation of pleasing parts. Below is a breakdown of the KTM 250SXF-FE.
Engine. Gone is the top-end-only powerband that has plagued the 250SXF—well, not completely gone, but joined by a new dimension. Yes, the new engine revs to an ear-bleeding 14,000 rpm and produces 42.80 horsepower at an equally amazing 13,700 rpm. The 250SXF Factory Edition lays down 20.99 foot-pounds of torque (a 1/2-pound more than last year). It is a monster on the dyno, but far more important is the fact that the Factory Edition is much easier to keep on the pipe. The power is stronger virtually everywhere on the curve, but the biggest gains are made from 5000 rpm to 9500 rpm and then again (after a dip between 9500 and 11,000 rpm) from 11,000 rpm to its screaming peak power at 13,700 rpm. The powerband is still very linear, albeit with significantly more punch in the midrange. The bottom end lacks noticeable surge and does its best work after 8000 rpm. For comparison, the 250SXF-FE loses the low-end battle to the Yamaha YZ250F and Kawasaki KX250F; however, the KTM is very competitive with the blue and green machines everywhere else and virtually untouchable at full tilt. This engine is a noticeable improvement over the older engine, but if you shift before you hit 14,000 rpm, you aren’t getting its full horsepower.
Gearing. Don’t be shocked to learn that KTM missed the gearing mark once again. In stock trim, the 13/50 setup was middle of the road. The gear ratios were tall enough to pull second gear through most corners and make the shift to third with ease; however, the gearing caused odd shift points and muted bottom-end hit. MXA ran a gamut of sprocket configurations in order to liven up the powerband. We geared it up, thinking that dropping a tooth off the rear sprocket would lessen shifting and still allow us to pull second gear through corners. We were half right. Odd shift points were eradicated at the expense of low-end power. This was preferred only by Intermediates and Experts.
Not satisfied, we decided to gear the 250SXF down. Going to a 51-tooth rear sprocket resulted in better performance from low- to midrange with the drawback that we needed to shift constantly. We also discovered that putting too much load on the engine at low rpm put excessive stress on the shock, resulting in wheel hop and inconsistent traction out of corners. It appears that finding the perfect 250SXF gear combination is as realistic as saddling up a unicorn. I can only imagine how good the 250SXF-FE engine would be if mated to a close-ratio, six-speed transmission.
Suspension. Last year I hoped that KTM’s switch to WP’s Four Chamber System (4CS) fork on the 2015 250SXF would pay huge dividends in the suspension and handling departments. Wrong. Sure, the forks were considerably better than the old WP cartridge design, but that’s not saying much. The 250SXF still suffered from mid-stroke harshness caused by poor valving. Oil could not flow efficiently. We dropped the oil height to improve the feel through the first half of the stroke with the trade-off of losing comfort at full travel. For years I’ve forgiven KTM for producing a dragster engine because there were fixes; however, the fact that the Austrians ignored the idiosyncratic forks didn’t sit well with me, and the inferior suspension did my wrists no favors. If you’re a masochist, looking for a thrill ride, then shift to fifth on any older KTM 250SXF and hold the throttle wide open around a rough track. Suffice it to say that I never truly felt comfortable with WP forks…until now.
The Factory Edition is the first 250SXF to have decent forks—not great forks, just forks that are raceable in stock trim. They have attributes that no previous WP fork had—plushness through the initial part of the stroke, less mid-stroke harshness and better bottoming control. Are they the best forks in the class? No, not by a long shot. That honor belongs to the Yamaha YZ250F. However, I didn’t expect WP to topple the Kayaba SSS stranglehold in the 250 class; I just prayed that they would build forks that the average buyer could race with. On this front, I am pleasantly surprised that WP made progress, because progress has not been its strong suit. It appears that WP is finally listening to the complaints of its U.S. customers.
Ergonomics. Long live the chromoly steel chassis! MXA uncovered KTM’s quiet little secret back in the Fall when we visited the factory; the Austrians had dabbled with twin-spar aluminum frames. It’s exciting to see that while KTM is exhausting all options, it is still investing in steel. The 250SXF-FE has a new frame, lower footpegs and improved ergonomics. Gone is the cramped feeling, especially for taller riders. The ultimate compliment I can pay the 250SXF-FE cockpit is that it no longer feels European, but instead has more in common with a Japanese cockpit. The interaction between the frame, suspension, swingarm and shortened wheelbase results in a better-handling machine. Unlike the 450SXF-FE, which has a stinkbug stance and shock that doesn’t respond well to rebound adjustments, the 250SXF is balanced fore to aft and ready for action off the showroom floor.
Map switch. Mounted on the handlebars is a map switch that allows the rider to toggle between two preprogrammed settings. Map 1 is standard and recommended for those looking for less power or for use on hardpack tracks. Map 2 is the aggressive setting. It was vastly preferred by the MXA wrecking crew.
Accessories. Buying the 2015-1/2 KTM 250SXF Factory Edition comes with a myriad of perks. I can’t forget to mention the ODI lock-on grips, orange frame, anodized triple clamps, Red Bull KTM team graphics and Dunlop MX32 tires. I don’t dig the Marvin Musquin preprinted numbers (they are too superfan for me), but I’m sure that anyone forking over $9299 for a Factory Edition will want the factory look.
It’s hard not to be enamored with the 250SXF. KTM granted many of my personal wishes, going so far as to redesign the engine, tweak the frame, improve the ergonomics and finally deliver workmanlike forks. There’s a night-and-day difference between the 2015 KTM 250SXF and the 2015-1/2 Factory Edition. The FE makes the standard-issue 250SXF feel like an archaic warhorse from decades past. Yes, the new bike is that good. There’s no question that the 250SXF Factory Edition would have landed inside the top three in MXA’s “250 Four-Stroke Shootout” this year; however, that’s like picking a winning horse after the race is over. Still, the first-ever 250SXF Factory Edition provides a glimpse into the future. I’m pleased to say that KTM has taken the right steps with a bike that had long been neglected. This is a bike I can finally enjoy riding.