MXA RACE TEST: 2019 KTM 250XCF CROSS-COUNTRY

THE GEAR: Jersey: Fly Evolution DST, Pants: Fly Evolution DST. Helmet: Fly F2 Carbon. Goggles: Fly Zone. Boots: Gaerne SG12.

Q: FIRST & FOREMOST, WHAT IS A 2019 KTM 250XCF? WHAT WAS IT BUILT FOR?

A: The average person can easily break off-road bikes into six simple categories: (1) Motocross. (2) Enduro. (3) Play/Trail. (4) Trials. (5) Dual Sport. (6) Adventure/Rally. But, when you try to pigeonhole the 2019 KTM 250XCF, it really doesn’t fit in any one of those categories. It isn’t a pure-bred motocross bike, even though it is based on a KTM 250SXF. It isn’t an enduro bike, because it is a little too high strung to be used for time keeping. It isn’t a trail/play bike, because its $9500 price tag pushes it into the upper stratosphere of 250cc dirt bikes. And, it sure as shootin’ is not a trials bike, dual-purpose street-legal bike or a Paris-Dakar replica.

So, what is it? The 250XCF is a hybrid machine that is best suited to high-speed cross-country events. Think of the 250XCF as a KTM 250SXF motocross bike with a six-speed transmission and larger fuel tank. As conceived, it is designed to be all things to all people. Wanna race in the desert? Wanna do laps at your local motocross track? Wanna try to get to checkpoints early at the monthly enduro? Wanna have one bike in your garage that is ready for anything? 

For years, KTM was the only motorcycle manufacturer to address this high-performance, cross-country, off-road, multi-purpose market. But now, Yamaha and Honda have entered the fray with the YZ250FX and CRF250RX. Yamaha even dared to go head-to-head against KTM’s omnipotent 250XC two-stroke with its YZ250X.

Q: WHAT PARTS ARE UNIQUE TO THE 2019 KTM 250XCF?

A: The 2019 KTM 250XCF’s chassis, bodywork, brakes, hubs, engine, triple clamps, wiring harness, clutch and suspension all come from the 2019 KTM 250SXF motocross bike. That means that it gets the same 25CrMo4 steel frame, 40mm-longer subframe, three-piece exhaust system, 12mm-lower radiators, Keihin 44mm throttle body and 48mm WP XACT air forks. In fact, it is much easier to list what parts are unique to the 2019 KTM 250XCF. Here is a quick list of the 250XCF’s proprietary parts.

Six-speed transmission. Unlike the 250 SXF’s five-speeder, the 250XCF gets a wide-ratio, Pankl-built, six-speed tranny. First gear is identical to the 250SXF’s first gear ratio. Second gear is a smidgen taller. Third gear is taller yet. Fourth is a lot taller. Fifth is significantly taller, and sixth gear is way, way, way up there.

Dunlop AT-81 off-road tires.

Fuel tank. The 2019 250XCF tank holds 2.25 gallons of gas compared to the 1.8 gallons of the 250SXF fuel tank. Plus, the 250XCF gets the push-button-activated, quarter-turn, bayonet-style fuel cap (which we hate). There is a fuel level idiot light behind the front number plate that is activated by a sensor on the fuel pump. It leaves a quart and a half of gas to allow you to get back to your truck.

Wheels. Most significant, the XCF has an 18-inch rear wheel instead of the SXF’s 19-inch. Giant supplies the rims on the XCF, while Takasago rims  are on the SXF. The rims are shod with Dunlop Geomax AT-81 tires on XCF, not the Dunlop MX3S tires of the SXF.

Suspension. The forks, shock, shock linkage and triple clamps are identical on both the XCF and SXF. The shock spring rate (42 N/m) is the same on both machines, but the recommended air pressure in the WP air forks is 139 psi for the 250XCF and 149 psi for the 250SXF. The valving on both the forks and shocks is considerably lighter. 

In the trees and cactus, these stock handguards were finger-savers.

Q: HOW DIFFERENT ARE THE 250XCF ENGINE CHARACTERISTICS FROM THE 250SXF?

A: There are no differences between the two powerbands—save for the influence of the different gear ratios as you go through the gears. This is a 14,000 rpm engine that pumps out 42.6 horsepower. It is important to note that peak horsepower is at 14 grand—that means if you don’t bleed this engine dry, you won’t get all that it has to offer. It would be a convenient plot line to think that the KTM 250XCF (and its SXF brother in arms) give up bottom and midrange to reach the lofty peak at 14,000 rpm. Not true. At 8000 rpm, the 250XCF engine makes the third most horsepower of the six most popular 250cc engines. At 9000 rpm, it makes the most horsepower of all the 2019 250cc engines. At 12,000 rpm, it is in second place in the horsepower wars, and at 14,000 rpm it is king of the hill. So, regardless of what pit pundits may believe, the KTM 250SXF/XCF can hold its head up high from low to mid. This is a top-of-the-line 250cc engine—and we are talking about an off-road bike making the same power as the KTM motocross model.

The MXA test riders do have issues with KTM’s power delivery—not with its breadth, depth or output, but with its throttle response. Off the bottom and into the middle, the 250XCF feels choked up. We are confident in saying that the throttle response is hampered by KTM’s airbox design. We tested airbox covers with holes in them and the engine revved out much faster from gear to gear, which made the sweet spot easier to get to. Opening up the airbox was a game changer for the MXA test riders, so much so that KTM’s engineers began testing vented airbox covers also and, as a result, the 2020 models will reportedly have airbox covers with slotted holes in them.

Until then, KTM racers can leave the airbox cover alone and live with the slightly reduced throttle response or do these two things: (1) Drill holes in the airbox cover. MXA uses a 1-1/4-inch spade drill bit and drills five holes (all in the area behind where the air filter is located). Never drill holes next to or in front of the air filter. (2) On the inside of the airbox cover, there is a lip that keeps dirt from entering the airbox from behind. We cut this lip off with a box cutter.

We were glad to see the push-button gas cap go away on the SXF models, we aren’t happy to find it on the 250XCF.

Q: WHAT DID WE DO WITH THE 250XCF GEARING?

A: For off-road riding, we would leave the stock 50-tooth rear sprocket in place; but for motocross we would add one tooth to the rear sprocket. Adding a tooth will lower first gear, but this is not an issue on the motocross track, where first gear is never used. The biggest effects are felt in second, third and fourth gears, where the extra tooth brings each of those gears closer to the ratios of the KTM 250SXF’s five-speed tranny. This gives the 250XCF more drive on the exit of corners. 

Q: WHAT MAP WAS THE BEST? 

A: The standard map is Map 1, and the aggressive map is Map 2. Most MXA test riders preferred Map 1 over Map 2. Map 1 had better bottom and mid, which allowed the power to move through the rpm range faster. Map 2 was all top. It revved slower off the bottom and didn’t exhibit snappy throttle response; however, on fast tracks, Map 2 worked best because it was stronger on top. Since you can change maps with the press of a button, you can choose the best map for your local condition in less than a lap of testing. 

You might think it’s uncool, but we loved the kickstand. We took it off for motocross.

Q: DID THE 2019 KTM 250XCF HANDLE BETTER THAN THE 250SXF? 

A: This is kind of a “he said, she said” argument. Slower riders and Vets felt that the XCF tracked better than the SXF in corners, ruts and uneven ground, while Pros favored the SXF. Why? The suspension setup on the 250XCF had much lighter damping, even though the forks and shock shared the same spring rates. The plusher feel tacked the front wheel to the ground with the kind of security that a Vet rider likes. As for the Pros, the XCF front forks dove under their faster and more aggressive cornering style (even when they upped the WP XACT Air fork’s air pressure).

Amazingly, enough of MXA’s Vet test riders and Pro test riders agreed that the 250XCF suspension was plusher, more resilient and better suited to most track conditions; however, for fast riders, especially ones on a jumpy track, the XCF fork and shock setup was too soft.

Q: WHAT DOES THE 2019 KTM 250XCF WEIGH?

A: Going into this test, we expected the 250XCF to be heavy. It had a large-capacity 2.25-gallon fuel tank, six-speed transmission and 18-inch AT-81 rear tire. How much heavier was the pertinent question. On the scales, without gas in the tank, the 2019 KTM 250XCF weighed 220 pounds—2 pounds more than the 250SXF. 

With the exception of the big gas tank, 18-inch rear wheel and six-speed transmission, the 250XCF is built on the framework of the 250SXF.

Q: WHAT DID WE HATE?

A: The hate list:

(1) Airbox. Ask your local dealer to add a drill bit to your bill before you leave the showroom.  

(2) Front brake hose. Be very careful when hooking tie-downs onto your handlebars so that they don’t crimp the L-bend tube coming out of the front brake’s master cylinder. Always use safety straps under the brake and clutch hoses.

(3) Gas cap. We’ve seen this push-button gas cap before. We celebrated when KTM replaced it with a thread-on cap in 2013. How did it get back on the bike?

(4) Sprocket. Watch the sprocket bolts closely. They come loose. 

(5) Spokes. KTM engineers said that they upgraded the spoke nipples to stop the spokes from coming loose. Sadly, the spokes still come loose, and the one by the rim lock should be on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.  

(6) Lock-on grips. Lock-on grips make quick grip changes a simple task; however, lock-on grips have half the rubber thickness of glue-on grips. If you have tender hands, switch to regular glue-on grips; they are twice as thick.

(7) Gas tank. We love the added fuel, but the tank is ugly.

(8) Seat height. All modern off-road bikes are too tall. Hey, KTM, let’s lose at least an inch on every bike in your model line.

(9) Skid plate. It doesn’t come with one, but we added a KTM Power Parts plastic composite one for safety.  

The big gas tank wasn’t pretty, but you never had to worry about running out of gas.

Q: WHAT DID WE LIKE?

A: The like list:

(1) Brakes. The KTM’s Brembo brakes are fantastic. 

(2) Air filter. This no-tools airbox and sweet air filter mounting system make the KTM the king of air filter maintenance.

(3) Hydraulic clutch. The self-adjusting, bulletproof, diaphragm clutch is a clutch abuser’s dream.

(4) Skid-plate tabs. KTM welded skid-plate tabs under the frame. We added a KTM Power Parts skid plate after the fact.

(5) Power. We never expected that an off-road bike would come with the exact same powerband as the motocross model. The 250XCF engine makes more power than the 2019 YZ250F, CRF250, KX250 or RM-Z250. 

(6) Ergonomics. You feel comfortable the minute you swing a leg over the bike.

(7) Radiators. The radiators are 12mm lower, which makes the feel at your knees much more comfortable.

(8) Hand guards. A nice addition.  

The exhaust system, muffler and all, are straight off the KTM 250SXF motocross bike.

Q: WHAT DO WE REALLY THINK?

A: There is no way around the obvious fact that the KTM 250XCF is the lightest and fastest bike in its class. It offers an engine that makes 43 plus horsepower at 14,000 rpm. All you have to do to utilize all the power is to resist shifting. It offers great brakes, electric starting, superb handling, a hydraulic self-adjusting clutch and workable WP suspension components. It is true that we had some teething problems with the airbox, gearing and suspension setup, but once we found solutions we knew that this was a bike that could win races at any skill level. Amazingly, we felt that for most Vet, Novice and play riders, the overall suspension setup of the 2019 KTM 250XCF was better focused on their actual needs.

 

MXA’S 2019 KTM 250XCF SETUP SPECS

This is how we set up our 2019 KTM 250XCF for racing. We offer it as a guide to help you find your own sweet spot.

 WP AER FORK SETTINGS
The stock KTM 250XCF air fork is set at 139 psi. That is a good place for the average rider to start. It should be noted that the recommended XCF air pressure is 10 psi lower than the stock 250SXF pressure. The feel of the XCF’s forks impressed every test rider, with the caveat that they aren’t designed for Supercross, James Stewart or a devil-may-care attitude. These forks have a feel that isn’t easily found in the hyper-stiff world of modern motocross. They aren’t for everybody, but they are perfect for fast off-road riding and Vet class motocross.

For hardcore racing, we recommend this fork setup for an average rider on the 2019 KTM 250XCF (the 250SFX specs are in parentheses):

Spring rate: 139 psi (SXF-149 psi)
Compression: 12 clicks out (SXF-15 clicks out)
Rebound: 12 clicks out (SXF-15 clicks out)
Fork leg height: Third line
Notes: If the forks show a tendency to bottom, add 10cc of oil to the non-air side. Please understand that the air pressure you have in your forks at the start of the day, when the ambient temperature is cooler, will go up as the sun warms and especially immediately after you come in from riding. The change will be in the 4 to 5 pound range. Once the forks settle on a new air pressure number, reset the air pressure to where it was when the day started. Bleed the outer chambers constantly.

WP SHOCK SETTINGS
Not every shock spring can satisfy every rider. The 2019 250XCF comes stock with a 42 N/m shock spring. It was chosen as the best spring rate for riders who weigh 165 pounds to 187 pounds. If you weigh more than 187 pounds (with your gear on), you should switch to a 45 N/m spring. If you are under 165 pounds, you might need a 39 N/m spring. Make sure that the free sag is between 30mm and 40mm to ensure that the spring is correct (more than 40mm means you need a softer spring; less than 30mm and you need a stiffer spring). Overall, this is a very good shock. We do make clicker adjustments, but we rarely stray far from the stock 15 clicks out on compression. As a rule of thumb, most MXA test riders leave the low-speed compression on the stock setting and focus on the high-speed dial to make the changes. We do run additional rebound damping.

For hardcore racing, we recommend this shock setup for the 2019 KTM 250XCF (the 250SFX specs are in parentheses):

Spring rate: 42 N/m (riders from 165 to 187 lbs)
Race sag: 105mm
Hi-compression: 2-3/4 turns out (SXF—2 turns out)
Lo-compression: 17 clicks out (SXF—15 clicks)
Rebound: 12 clicks out (SXF—15 clicks out)
Notes: The spring rate is printed on the spring (along with its length). If your shock has 42-260 printed on it, the spring rate is 42 N/m and the length is 260mm. We turned the high-speed compression damping out 3/4 of a turn to soak up chop when seated and ran more rebound than the recommended setting.

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