Dirt Bike Magazine offers the only truly balanced mix of off-road and motocross information. That’s why we routinely present our 450 MX shootout in two different ways; how they perform on the track and how they work in an off-road environment, (where most are ridden, as it turns out). This year our off-road shootout appeared in the February 2012 issue. For pure motocross, here’s how they rate.
FIRST PLACE: KAWASAKI KX450F The 2012 Kawasaki KX450F has significant changes for the new upcoming season, but only half of them are in parts that you can touch. Others are in programming and technology that allows you to access the digital world. Old-school metal changes are still more expensive and time consuming than digital ones. In these times of corporate cutbacks, it’s a promising sign that retooling costs weren’t cut from the R&D budget. The biggest part, of course, is the frame. The Kawasaki KX450 has been criticized for being big and bulky--even clumsy. It’s hard to understand what makes it feel that way. If you walk around the bike with a tape measure, you won’t find much that’s different from any other Japanese 450.
One exception is the width of the bike, right in the area where your inner legs come in contact with the frame. So Kawasaki engineers shaved off 4mm in that area. It might not sound like much, but they felt it was important enough to justify a whole new frame. Along the way they altered the frame’s rigidity with different internal ribbing. The goal was to create more flex in the upper portion of the frame and strengthen the area around the swingarm pivot. The new frame got new body work. The tank is shorter from front to rear. That’s all about “mass centralization,” or keeping the heaviest parts closer to the center of the machine. The shock linkage has new slimmer pull rods, but the standard length or lever ratio hasn’t changed. Kawasaki has elbowed its way into the aftermarket’s business by offering optional pull rods that are 1mm shorter than stock. This lowers the seat height by about 6mm.
Along the same lines, you can alter the footpeg location. There are extra mounting holes that can move the brackets down 5mm for tall riders. The same idea goes for the handlebar location. There are two mount holes in the upper clamp that allow you to move the bar pedestals forward or back. On top of that, the bar mounts are offset, and can be reversed, giving you four different bar mount locations. Within the motor, Kawasaki’s goal was to give the bike a little more edge. The perfect powerband has been an elusive target for the KX. Two years ago, the bike was criticized for being a monster. It was fast, it hit hard and it wore its rider down. In 2011 the bike was much more tame. Kawasaki engineers say they are trying to split the difference this year. The bike got a new intake cam, a longer head pipe, a shorter exhaust canister, and a different piston. Kawasaki also beefed up the gearbox with a new first gear and different shift fork. The clutch springs are stiffer, too.
Kawasaki still offers its FI Calibration kit, which allows you to remap the EFI and spark advance. But it costs over $500 and you need to drag your laptop to the track. The system works well, but we never saw anyone in the real world use it. For 2012, Kawasaki came up with a system that lets you alter the mapping easily at the track and it doesn’t cost anything. There’s an electronic coupler on the right side of the steering head that can be unclicked easily. You get two extra couplers that snap into place, each making different electrical connection and giving you a total of three different settings. The couplers each have a different color; the black one is the most aggressive power band, the white is standard and the clear is the mildest. Actually, the three options can be anything you want if you use the calibration kit. Kawasaki gives you those three options as sort of a beginner’s introduction to the world of digital tuning. It won’t be long until some aftermarket company offers a handlebar switch to allow you to switch maps on the fly. Already mounted on the bars is Kawasaki’s Launch Control. This retards the ignition so that the bike theoretically comes off the line without massive wheelspin or a big wheelie. When you press and hold the button briefly, a little light next to it starts flashing. As long as it continues to flash, you are in launch mode. It can only be accessed when the bike is in first, second or neutral, and as soon as you shift into third, the ignition goes back to its regular setting. As far as the EFI system itself, there are a few changes. The most significant is a new aluminum fuel pump that’s smaller, lighter and occupies less room inside the tank. The throttle body itself is still a 12-hole Keihin with a fast idle switch. Supply doesn’t seem to be a issue despite the fact that Keihin’s factory was badly damaged in the earthquake and tsunami a few months ago.
We were already predisposed to like the KX; we liked it last year. It had good, smooth power, it was super stable and its reliability was improved over the earlier versions that smoked pistons and clutches on a weekly basis. We didn’t like that fact that it felt like a big, truck of a motorcycle and that it required you to be aggressive in the turns. The 2012 version has all the same strong points. It still has a great motor. With the default ignition mapping, its probably a little stronger and harder hitting that it was last year. The bike is fast. Frankly, it feels more powerful than any of the 2011 450s. We know that the KTM probably puts out more on the dyno, but the butt dyno says that the Kawasaki is such a rocket that you really can‘t (or shouldn‘t) ask for more. It makes great mid range and top, but what always endears us to the KX is the way it runs way down low. That hasn’t changed. The new KX, like the old one, has a smoothest transition from off to on. There’s none of the jerkiness that characterizes the Yamaha and the Honda. As far as the EFI mapping options, we got different results on different tracks. Red Bud didn’t have especially good traction, and on that track, the black coupler gave it too much hit. Ryan Orr preferred the softer power delivery of the standard map. The two are very similar in peak power, but the motor revs faster and barks a little harder down low with the more aggressive map. As the day wore on and wheelspin became more of an issue, we actually began to prefer the mildest power curve. That wasn’t the case at Glen Helen. The softer soil could absorb as much power as you could give it. In fact, it was very difficult to tell much difference between the standard and the most aggressive map. But the mild map was clearly more sedate. We know how it goes, riders will probably choose one of the maps then never change it again. But they should test all three every time they go to a new track. The system is a great tool that can work on your side. We were more skeptical about the launch control. Isn’t the start where you need the most power? We tried practice starts with and without the control on a concrete pad, and were on the fence. You could easily tell a difference. When you do everything right, it [felt] like the bike would get to the first turn more quickly without the launch control. But you could only do everything right about half the time. The other half, you would spin or wheelie. With the control activated, we almost never messed up. The bike would generally go very straight, but it just didn’t feel that fast. We raced the bike on Glen Helen’s tight REM track at the end of the week and used the launch control for both starts. The result was two holeshots. We know that’s not an especially scientific test, but it tells us that the perceived horsepower loss doesn’t amount to much. We were more concerned with getting back to the stock map. The first turn comes up so fast on the REM track that we never shifted to third. Then we did three more turns with the bike feeling oddly sluggish. Eventually the shift to third cured that, but it might be possible to go a long way without shifting; the bike revs like crazy and the powerband is super wide. Many Supercross riders ride whole races in second gear--Jeremy McGrath was one of them, even on his two-stroke. Can 4mm of frame width make a difference in how a bike feels? Absolutely. The KX feels smaller and lighter than it did last year. In motocross, perception is everything. By making the bike just slightly more trim, it feels lighter and somehow you seem able to manhandle the bike more. If you believe its lighter, that’s good enough. Having said that, we still consider the KX more of a brute than a Honda or a Suzuki. Both of those are easier to turn and maneuver. Part is because the Kawasaki is more powerful and part is because it still handles like a Kawasaki. That translates to a bike that’s very stable and secure feeling at speed, but requires a lot of throttle to turn. You steer the KX by bringing the rear wheel around, rather than point and shoot like the CRF or RMZ. For 2012, the KX’s suspension is better balanced than it has been in years. In the past, the rear seemed softer than the front, which made it want to stand up in turns. Now it settles more evenly. The suspension is cushy and plush for most riders, but faster guys found it can be very misleading. On hard pack tracks, it might feel too stiff, but that’s rarely the case. We got best results by making it stiffer yet and keeping it higher in its stroke. We’re big fans of the KX fork. It has a broad range of effective adjustability and the DLC coating isn’t just hype. It really is harder and results in longer seal life. We love the adjustability of the pegs and bars, but confess that we returned to stock positions for both. The lower footpeg position brings your feet closer to the ground, and most tracks have too many ruts that can grab your toes. Still, we’re sure that taller riders will love the roominess of the lower peg location. Other things we love: the bike starts very easily. It almost always lights up on the second kick when it’s cold. The clutch pull is still easy despite the stiffer springs. We don’t know if the plate life will be any longer, but it couldn’t be worse than it was last year. The muffler is quieter than last year, but again, that’s not saying much. The brakes, shifting, and layout all are excellent. What’s most impressive of all is that Kawasaki isn’t sitting still. Last year most riders loved the bike, and Kawasaki still pushed forward, addressing the criticisms and making big changes in a down economy. That’s commitment. And that’s what it takes to win.
SECOND PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z450 This year, Suzuki made a brilliant move with the RM-Z450. Nothing. It returns unchanged, but it got a host of good though subtle changes last year. They made the machine quieter with a new muffler (everyone has to meet the 94 dB level), and the engine got updates to the cam, compression and fuel injection—all of which improved starting power and performance. There was now the ability to modify the mapping (although we learned this late in the year!) via plug-in modules that could either lean or richen the map. The engine was their well-tested, 449cc, four-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, four-valve, fuel-injected design. The FI, using the new 12-hole fuel injector with a reverse throttle-valve movement, directs injected fuel/air away from the valve for a more uniform mixture, enhancing power and response.
On the chassis side, the twin-spar aluminum frame returned with further refinement at key flow points (for improved handling), as did the Showa suspension. The suspension settings were updated with the goal being increased cush mated to a more refined ability to stay up in the stroke and attack moto carnage. Wheels stayed the same, the brakes were modified slightly and the outboard controls and cockpit featured Renthal Big bars, an AOF clutch and an aluminum tank. Here’s a synopsis of the high and lows: Best-cornering 450 machine—by far. Strong and rideable power. Lacks top-end over-rev, but superb roll-on helps traction factor. Good gearbox. Five-speed makes it a good versatile off-road machine. Thin feel, excellent ergos, saddle has perfect foam, pegs are wide enough.
It’s a big girl and will not win the ballerina award. Track manners are nearly spot-on. It dances the dance between superb cornering habits, controlled jumping, while requiring less input from the pilot than the competition. Fuel-injection mapping is ideal. Starts easy and does not stumble and lurch like other big-block FI bikes. It has far more engine braking than any of the other 450s. Some like it, some hate it. Bridgestone 403/404 tires flat rage! The grips are weak (too hard), and the throttle side is molded onto the tube, making it hard to update. The 2012 RM-Z450 received a red stripe on the saddle, some graphic updates, black fork guards, a new breather hose on the fuel pump and a hose clamp on the throttle body. The good news is that this machine is still near the top of the food chain, though it lost ground during the last year. Handling is its forte, and every single test rider and staffer praised the Z’s ability to embrace any track and make it easy on the pilot. This is mainly due to the chassis and suspension dynamics, where control and feel are paramount and mate to an engine that is in many ways Old World in nature, though plays an important role in the terrain-eating tactics of the machine. It’s meatier, maybe a bit “vibraty” and has major amounts of decel’ when you chop the throttle, but all of these factors target traction, cornering traits and forward momentum. Suzuki’s RM-Z450 is a racer, and its success has been showcased from RC to Reed and Dungey. On the off-road side, Josh Strang has proven its worth in GNCC competitions with a number-one plate. It will win again this year, but you can take this to the bank—the green guys have made it a whole lot tougher on everybody.
THIRD PLACE: KTM 450SXF For years KTM was branded as an off-road bike. The Austrian company won shootout after shootout in the enduro world, but never accomplished much in the world of American motocross. Things changed with the introduction of this bike. The 450SXF arrived almost unexpectedly. It was completely different from the bike it replaced. It was double overhead cam, it had electric start (and no kick-starter!) and despite the expectation of all new bikes, it had a carburetor. That first year was a little rough, but once the bugs were exterminated, the SXF was widely hailed as the fastest production 450 ever built. And even the motocross world embraced it. The only hesitation that Joe Moto seemed to have about the bike regarded the rear suspension linkage. There wasn’t any. Motocross bikes have linkage, that’s all there is to it. Despite that, it won the 2010 Dirt Bike MX shootout.
In 2011 the linkage issue went away. KTM adopted a whole new frame that had more-or less conventional linkage. Oddly enough, it still had no EFI. The bike gained weight along the way, but it also lost something. It still was near the top of the heap, but we generally liked the old no-link bike a little better. The 2012 KTM 450SXF is a refinement of that 2011 edition. The linkage is back, and there’s still no fuel injection. It received upgrades in suspension valving and throughout the bike. The first thing you need to know is that it doesn’t need EFI. It runs flawlessly and it’s still the fastest bike in the bunch. It’s faster even than the much hyped KX450F, and that’s saying something. The power starts low and it never, ever flames out. In fact, the roll-on response is much smoother than that of any of the EFI bikes. Then it builds and builds to a shrieking peak that none of the others can match. Clearly, it’s the best engine in the bunch.
The addition of EFI might even hurt this bike. KTM did that to the 250F to the dismay of many. It resulted in more weight and less power. The KTM 450 already suffers because of its size and mass. It feels like a big heavy bike. The actual weight of the bike is no big deal. Even with the battery and starter it’s no heavier than the Kawasaki or Suzuki. But it feels large and can’t afford to give away the pounds that injection would add. As for the suspension, we consider the move to linkage a good one--in the long run. It gives the bike more potential. But it also puts the KTM at the beginning of a long development journey, one that had been completed with the older PDS system. Most riders complain that the bike is “stink-bugged” with too much travel in the rear, resulting in a wanderlust on the track.
Regardless, the KTM earned a solid third place in the polls. It has the truly unique feature of electric start, plus high-quality touches such as the hydraulic clutch and the Renthal oversize bars. Sadly, this is probably the end of the line for this motor. KTM has already announced a special “Dungey” edition that will feature the single overhead cam motor from the 450XCW off-road bike. The engine is said to be lighter despite the addition of fuel injection. If that machine is a hit, it will doubtlessly be the platform for the next generation SXF. Will we miss this version? Only time will tell.
FOURTH PLACE: YAMAHA YZ450F For 2012, the Yamaha received modest updates, since it is only in its junior year of service. Yamaha’s engineers targeted power improvements, mainly to tone down some of the instant hit and broaden the middle range. A new muffler that is 42mm longer and has a smaller 3mm opening quiets the bark. (It has to meet the 94 dB regulation.) New engine mapping smoothes out roll-on power and enhances pull through the mid-range. It comes with Sunstar sprockets and a gold chain, Pro Taper handlebars fit into a very adjustable top triple clamp, and new black rims (that came on last year’s Euro machines) are stock. This is return engagement for the excellent aluminum, double S-bend, bilateral-beam frame and KYB SSS suspension with new internals. The 48mm KYB Speed Sensitive System (SSS) front forks have been revalved to increase low-to-mid compression damping, and the KYB 50mm rear shock has revised rebound damping, a new rebound-adjuster oil passage and improved valving with less low-speed rebound and more high-speed compression. The bike sports Braking rotors, Dunlop MX51 tires, and the pegs are nice and wide.
The YZ450F requires a break-in period…for the rider. It’s very compact (not that good for tall guys), has great adjustability through the bar position (a plus for the six-foot crowd) and is tight through the seat-to-peg gap. As with most fuel-injected machines, the throttle seems to be attached to the rear wheel. There is little lag time between the two. This year’s mapping is an improvement. It’s subtle, a shade softer and not quite as abrupt. It mates nicely to the new muffler, and the combo seems to have smoothed, soothed and broadened the YZ’s bite. In the power department, the YZ450 is right in the hunt. It’s fast enough to scare any newbie to the 450 class. Starting isn’t a total cakewalk (like the KX450), requiring one to four kicks. Just getting to the track, you can feel a slow-speed lurch in the power, though it’s better than last year. Once you get up to speed, you never think about it again.
The YZ has a definite spot in the powerband where it works best. It’s not lugging (it will cough and flame) or revving (it will wear you out in two laps), but there’s a meaty “shift quick and use upper middle” where the bike is very torquey, has light-feeling power and makes traction. With this “shift-quick” plan, the suspension stays more relaxed, the rider has more energy and the bike hauls the bacon. Every tester felt that the suspension changes, although limited to valving, improved the machine considerably. The fork tends to ride higher, and since it doesn’t dive as much, it helps the machine in an area where it had a vague, loose feeling in choppy waters. It now feels more balanced, though still quite plush as far as motocrossers go. Some of the credit needs to go to the rear, which also keeps the rear wheel driving better, as it fights for traction (both in acceleration and braking). While it sounds like a cliché, the new YZ is more “planted.” It doesn’t hunt as much in the turns and holds a line better when the going gets ugly. Much like the powerband, which has its core hot spot, the YZ’s handling is very sweet-spot-oriented; it works hand in hand with the power. Rev hard and attack and your reward will be a bike that wanders and hunts. Use the meat of the power; stay in the middle of the bike and let it flow and the handling is calm, cornering is strong and track obstacles are a pleasure to navigate. Riders who have never ridden a “down-draft” engine (throttle body above the engine, airbox in your lap) will require a date night where they get to know their partner. The YZ is loud up top and feels like it’s going to suck your clothes off and spit them into the heavens. This is the only Japanese machine where you can see the shock, let alone get to it to make adjustments. Setting the sag is easy. Not so for Mr. Air Filter! The filter is hidden behind the seat. You have to loosen a half-dozen bolts and pop the tank out of the way to get at it, which is odd, because the air filter itself looks like a piece of toast. We don’t have a lot of good things to say about the grips. They’re hard and lack feel. The clutch action is nice, and the AOF adjuster works well. We like the black rims and give top marks to the Dunlop MX51 rear, but only a passing grade to the front—it’s too narrow. The $279 Yamaha GYTR Power Tuner is an excellent way to mold the powerband, though this year it doesn’t seem as important since the flow of power has improved. The gold chain is stronger than the old stuff, but we’d switch to an O-ring once it wears out. Out back, a 48-tooth sprocket is OK. Switching to a 49 tightens up the powerband and lets you shift earlier and make traction. This bike feels lighter than it is (239 pounds) thanks to Yamaha’s zest for mass centralization. It’s when you pick it up and toss it on a stand that the pork factor rears its ugly head. This bike is freakishly reliable. Last year, we pounded the tar out of our test unit, giving it very little love, and it rewarded us by always running strong. Top marks go here.
FIFTH PLACE: HONDA CRF450R To understand the 2012 CRF450R, you have to know the 2009 CRF450R. That was an all-new bike with fuel injection feeding a completely redesigned motor. Honda did a great job in many regards. The new bike didn’t gain significant weight despite the addition of injection, which requires a more massive charging system, a fuel pump and so forth. Where the Suzuki and Kawasaki 450s would weigh in around 240 pounds (no fuel), the Honda was under 230. It felt light too. The EFI system was and remains a Keihin setup, with a capacitor storing power to light up the ignition, fuel pump and CPU. The generator produced about 17 watts, which is the bare minimum to get the job done. The ignition, four-spring clutch and virtually everything else in the new motor was designed with weight savings as a very high priority.
But several faults handicapped the 2009 CRF. On the top of the list was a lack of stability. There were also issues with the clutch, starting, an abrupt power delivery on the bottom and mediocre power put on top. Over the next two years Honda addressed many of those points. The starting got better, the bottom-end power delivery was improved and there was minor suspension attention. The 2012 Honda has few big changes from the 2011 model. The two that make the biggest difference are stiffer fork springs and new shock linkage. The fork springs went from 0.46 N/mm to 0.48 N/mm, which is a big step. The fork also got new valving and stiffer construction, particularly in the area around the axle collars. The linkage is completely redesigned with new pull rods, as well as a different knuckle. The net change is a rear end that sits 5mm lower, then starts off stiffer as it progresses through its travel and ends up softer than before. When you add all that up, it’s clear that Honda engineers wanted the bike to stand taller in the front and lower in the rear, at least while in motion.
Other changes include new footpegs, which are angled upward slightly on the ends and are less likely to collect mud, a new chain roller and new tires. The departure of the old Dunlop 742FA front tire won’t cause too many tears. The new tires are Dunlop MX51s front and rear. Honda has a number of interesting features that appeared in previous years. One is the HPSD, which is a tiny steering damper located behind the front number plate. The stock muffler is a short, fat design that is located fairly far forward. The Nissin brakes haven’t changed in a number of years and neither has the 7/8th-inch Rental handlebar. Within the usually harmonious Dirt Bike office, the Honda creates some discord. In the past, we have fallen into two groups: those who are OK with it and those who truly dislike it. Unfortunately, the “OK” crowd isn’t that passionate—their affection doesn’t run that deep, whereas the other side is very opinionated. But, with the 2012 suspension changes, we now have a chance to rethink our positions. Mark Tilley, who was firmly on the “dislike” side of the fence, is especially pleased with the way the new bike handles. With the lower rear end, the bike no longer dances when entering turns. It goes more or less straight. It’s like the Honda switched to decaf. A few years ago, we would not have believed this much progress would be possible without frame-geometry changes, but since then, we have tried enough aftermarket suspension configurations to know it can be done. Pro Circuit has had its own linkage for several seasons that uses the same approach. Actually, the PC linkage goes a little farther down the same path with excellent results. The stiffer fork springs make it clear that Honda engineers have been paying attention to the aftermarket. This is exactly the approach that virtually every suspension tuner has taken since 2009. The suspension action itself is good. The stiffer springs don’t result in any drawbacks. That isn’t to say the front fork doesn’t need any attention at all. If you dial in enough compression damping to keep it from using too much travel on the big hits, it becomes very harsh on the little stuff. There’s a lot of clicker war that takes place between test riders. We never settled on one setting that made everyone happy. The rear end is another matter. Once you set the sag, it’s ready to ride. But, you absolutely have to set the sag to about 105mm. If the rear end is higher, you get a return to the instability of old. If it’s lower, then you lose some of the bike’s great turn manners. On that note, the Honda is excellent in turns. It’s the lightest bike in the class by a fair margin, and what’s more important is it feels light. To a man, test riders agree that this is the Honda’s strongest asset. Where most other 450s feel like big, heavy giants, the Honda can be pitched around more like a KTM 350. In the years after 2009, we stopped short of declaring the Honda a great turner because of its hyperactive manners when braking hard and setting up for corners. Now that most of that is gone, we can truly say that the bike is a turning fool. There are some conditions where you still have to be on your toes to keep the bike on course; it doesn’t like criss-crossing lines at the turn entry. Just stay on your toes and nothing gets ugly. The power characteristics of the CRF haven’t changed. In sheer muscle, the CRF is decent but not exceptional. At the very bottom, there remains some of that now-familiar on-or-off EFI characteristic that still plagues the Yamaha YZ450F. It’s not very pronounced on the track anymore, but is still noticeable if you ride off-road. As the motor winds up, there’s not much of a hit or surge anywhere. It reaches an acceptable peak and then tapers off without doing anything truly exceptional. That’s fine for the most part. Most 450s make way more power than the average rider can use, so the Honda isn’t at any disadvantage. But, it lacks the thrill factor that a new KX450F or KTM 450SX-F have in such heartbeat-altering quantity. Unfortunately, that power is still channeled through a weak clutch. Back in 2008, the Honda race team was using a Hinson-made four-spring clutch instead of the stock six-spring. The production department liked that so much that the ’09 came with a four-spring. But, there were three problems: One was that the race team replaced clutches every ride. Two was that the new production pressure plate wasn’t as rigid as the works one. And finally, there were some oil circulation problems with the new cases. All together, those problems made the 2009 clutch a nightmare. It had a stiff pull, poor feel and a short life. It hasn’t changed. If you want your stock Honda clutch to last longer than a few races, you have to use stiffer springs, which makes the clutch pull even harder. In overall manners, the Honda motor excels; it’s easy to start, and the EFI works well in most conditions. We did notice that in extreme heat the motor has a tendency to pop on deceleration, but it doesn’t affect performance. Flameouts are rare on the track. If you venture off-road, you will experience an occasional pop-and-die, but it’s much better that it was in the first generation of EFI bikes. Honda has its act together in detailing, but we should make a few notes. For two years running, our Honda 450s have returned from their first rides with front rims shaped like stop signs. The rear rims don’t last much longer. We suspect that the O.E. Takasago Excel rims aren’t the same quality as the aftermarket versions. The chain and rear sprocket aren’t especially durable either. The Honda’s 7/8-inch handlebar is fine with us as far as durability and feel, but it makes mounting a steering damper more difficult. Oversize bars come stock on KTM, Suzuki and Yamaha. Also, Honda hasn’t changed its brakes much in years (aside from the front lever in 2008). The brakes were the best in the world at one time, but now almost everyone has something stronger—especially Brembo. We’re not too thrilled about the new rubber either. Both ends lose their bite quickly, and the rear doesn’t like concrete start pads at all. Still, you won’t find many Honda owners who will complain about the way the bike holds up. The top end is the most durable in the business, and if it does fail, it costs less to repair than any other 450. The gearbox is strong, and the ratios are perfect if you have an aftermarket pipe to broaden the powerband slightly. The bike is easy to work on, especially its roomy airbox. The Honda will doubtlessly be a big hit at the tracks, just as it has been for years.
SIXTH PLACE: KTM 350SXF No bike could live up to so much hype and expectation. The KTM 350SXF arrived in a flurry of attention two years ago. There had been a political movement in motocross racing some years earlier. The pundits claimed that a 450 made too much power for mortal man. There was speculation about a 350cc limit being imposed on Supercross. KTM released the 350 to the world at the Milan show, saying it was the personal project of Stefan Everts. And then Tony Cairoli went on to dominate the MX1 world motocross championship on one. The facts seemed to speak for themselves. Maybe a 350 was the ultimate size. In the real world, the 350 fulfilled only part of its promise. Yes, it was smaller than a 450. But it was no lighter and it made just as much peak power. The only real difference between the 350 and a full-size 450 was where it made the power. It came at very high rpm.
Now we are two years into the 350, and the expected rush to the new class hasn’t arrived. In fact, KTM’s U.S. racing team has returned to the 450 as its main platform. Is the 350 really a cheater bike for the common man or an unsuccessful experiment? Both, as it turns out. The 350 isn’t really easier to ride. It makes its power at such high rpm that it requires commitment and concentration to make full use of its power. But it’s less physically demanding. No matter what the scale says, the 350 feels lighter than any of the 450s, even the Honda. To ride the 350, you have to wait just a fraction of a second longer before each shift. It has a whole new world above 10,000 rpm. In that brief period, it makes as much power as anything on the track. But you can’t be lazy and lug around the track like you can on a 450.
In handling, the KTM splits the difference between a 250F and a 450, as you might expect. It rewards the rider who can carry his speed through the turn, and you get more of that “I-can-do-anything” feeling that makes a 250F so much fun. But by the same token the bike is a little more nervous than the 450. As far as creature comforts, the 350 is awesome. We love electric start, even on motocross bikes. And the EFI system on the 350 works flawlessly. This year the wire to the throttle position sensor is sealed from water and grunge better, which was a sore spot on the original 350, so the reliability problems have been fixed. Plus it has all the other KTM cool tricks, like the hydraulic clutch, the Rental bars and the side-access air box. The bottom line is that the 350 is a great bike, but only for some. If you’re a 250F lover who wants to race with the 450s it’s perfect. If you’re a veteran or senior class rider who really doesn’t like 450s, it may be the answer. And as we have said many times, a 350 makes perfect sense for an off-road bike. But it turns out that there are more motocross riders out there who can handle a 450 than the pundits thought. And the 350 has, after all, a 100cc disadvantage.
WARNING: Much of the action depicted in this magazine is potentially dangerous. Virtually all of the riders seen in our photos are experienced experts or professionals. Do not attempt to duplicate any stunts that are beyond your own capabilities. Always wear the appropriate safety gear.
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