KTM 300XC vs. Gas-Gas 300 vs. Husqvarna WR300
Something strange has happened here. Technology was supposed to be getting better and better. New thinking was supposed to be better than old thinking and fresh was supposed to be better than dated. But in the world of hard-core off-road riding and racing, it just isn't so. Some of the best riders in the country still prefer technology from the '90s and still mix their oil in their gas. There's an underground cult of tough guys that, frankly, isn't that far underground and their weapon of choice is still the 300cc two-stroke. Here’s the Dirt Bike 300 shootout, which pits the KTM 300 against the Gas Gas and Husky WR300.
KTM has kept the two-stroke banner flying when other manufacturers have given up. The result is the 2009 300XC, one of the best sellers in the KTM line.
The KTM 300XC isn't really a cult bike. It's KTM's hottest seller, defying the industry analysts with their charts and pointy sticks who have been announcing the end of the two-stroke era for so long. The KTM 300 still serves a cult, but the cult is so large that it confuses the definition.
A big part of the XC's strength is the fact that it has moved forward when most other two-stroke stopped in their developmental tracks. It became lighter when all the four-strokes became lighter. It became smoother, faster and better as all the four-strokes became smoother, faster, better. And more than anything else, it got an electric starter when the four-strokes got an electric starter.
Riding the 300 XC is easy. It continues to run down to zero rpm, long after most four-strokes have flamed out. Granted, it doesn't make much power down there compared to a 450 stroker, but it won't stop and that's something few bikes can promise. Picture an ugly, uphill rut that pulls your feet off the pegs and leaves you defenselessly draped over the rear of the seat. The KTM just keeps on going as long as you don't just fall of the back. And unlike the KTM 300s of the past, it runs clean on the bottom. Face it; one of the reasons that two-strokes declined was because of the missing, the smoking, the detonation and loading up. They could be a mess to jet, and the KTM 300 was the worst. But not now. The bike might need to clear its throat briefly after sustained low-rpm riding, but it's never in danger of fouling a plug like the bikes of old. In terms of sheer power, the XC is a little milder than the other two 300s. It has more low-rpm pulling power but less of a hit moving into the mid-range.
The fact that the XC doesn't ask you to pay a weight penalty for the starter and battery is amazing. It weighs 220, which is less than the other 300s. The truth is that they all feel pretty light, but we'll still give a handling edge to the KTM because of its suspension. The XC has slightly stiffer WP components than the Gas Gas and Husky (and, for that matter, its nearly-identical stable mate, the XCW). So it's able to deal with a little more speed and aggressive riding. At the same time, it handles rocks, stumps, holes and roots pretty well. It might be the most well-rounded suspension package in the KTM line.
The bike’s hitches are few. The biggest is that it's a steamer. If you abuse the clutch, the motor gets hot and coolant starts squirting. We hear that this can be mitigated slightly by removing the thermostat, but it really could use a coolant recovery tank. After that, complaints are few and far between. We have to resort to complaints about the dumb push-button gas cap and things of that scale. Make no mistake about it, for hard-core enduro riding, talking trash about the KTM 300 is almost sacrilegious. And frankly, we're not in the business of taking down any cult icons.
GAS GAS 300
The Gas Gas 300 is a compact, agile bike with more sheer ability than anyone might expect.
You have to be a pretty serious off-road fanatic to even know about Gas Gas. In America, the company has never made substantial inroads. In fact, the company’s [big] business is trials bikes, and that’s saying something.
But in Europe, you cant go to an off-road race without seeing Gas Gas enduro bikes. Lots of them, ridden by guys with names like Piero Sembenini and so forth--not the top factory guys, but perhaps the near-top privateer guys. The Spanish company has carved out an identity for being super reliable and capable in tough conditions. It makes sense; Gas Gas is a trials company so when a race is so tough that it resemble trials, the Gas Gas is at home.
But don’t look for groundbreaking innovation here. The 2009 Gas Gas EC300 looks a lot like the first one we tested over 10 years ago. It has a six-speed gearbox and a 72mm bore with a 72mm stroke. It comes with a number of American-generated parts like an FMF silencer/spark arrester and a Moto Tassinari reed cage. The most interesting part is the Sachs fork, which is something we’ve never seen nor heard of. It looks so much like a Marzocchi we initially assumed that’s what it was. It has adjustable preload, although we heard from the local Gas Gas experts that it works better with about 9mm less preload yet, extracted the old fashion way with a hacksaw. We never went that far because the fork’s action was okay and we didn’t want the bike to settle lower in the front. The Gas Gas is a light-feeling, agile bike and with a lower front-end, we were worried that it would become nervous.
In fact, that’s one thing that really stands out about the bike. It feels much lighter than it is. At 237 pounds, it’s a little porky for a two-stroke, but it actually feels more nimble than the KTM. The EC is a very compact machine. The rider’s compartment is tighter than that of the other bikes and small riders just love it. Then there’s the motor, which everyone loves. The Gas Gas is livelier than either the Husky or the KTM, with a little snap way down low and a ton of mid-range. It doesn’t pull from quite as low as the KTM (nothing does), but it’s close. And it has a determination to keep going no matter what. Four-stroke riders just don’t understand, but the Gas Gas is virtually unstoppable on tough, extreme trails.
In ugly sections even the best riders have to resort to clutch abuse, which the Gas Gas tolerates to a point. The hydraulic system adjusts itself as the plates heat up, but eventually it starts squawking and grabbing. But on the other hand, the motor has a great tolerance for heat. It rarely steams or detonates.
The only real complaints noted by test riders were the grabby front brake and the hyperactive handling. Frankly, it’s much better than it should be despite having been somewhat frozen in time for so long. It makes us wonder, what has everyone else been doing all this time?
Husqvarna is back on the map in a big way. The WR300 is fast, affordable and effective.
Husqvarna is having its best year since On Any Sunday came out. In a period where everyone else is scaling back, when there’s gloom around every turn, the guys at Husky are actually using the F word. They’re talking about the future and they say it looks good. The reason stems back to BMW's purchase of the company and the resulting financial backing. Now the engineers have the resources to put all those plans into motion that have been on the drawing board for so long. One of those plans is the Husky WR300. This is a bike based on the WR250 two-stroke that has been around for years. The 250 was a solid if unspectacular bike long ago, it just needed some more guts. And now the bike has a lot more, with an increase in the bore from 66.4mm to 72mm.
In most other ways, the WR is even more of a throwback than the other 300s, dating back to the time when most European bikes had the driveshaft on the right side. But frankly, we’ve forgotten why everyone switched; the only drawback seems to be awkward kickstarter placement. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the way the motor runs. It’s probably the fastest of the three bikes, and has a substantial hit in the lower mid range. When it’s on the pipe, it pulls hard and might even keep a 450 motocross bike in sight--for a little while. But where it’s most impressive is below that power surge where there’s kind of a secondary powerband. The bike keeps moving forward at crazy low rpm, even when you expect it to come to a stop. That makes the Husky a real survivor when forward motion is the primary objective and where clawing upward a few more feet can make the different between success and failure.
The Husky also has an unusual ability to keep its line in ugliness, particularly when going up hill. The bike’s rear end sits a little high on level ground so perhaps that gives it the ability to keep on steering on hills where other machines are impossible to point. Conversely, the WR has some really strange cornering manners on level ground. Despite the hiked-up rear end, the WR requires a lot of effort to initiate a turn. It’s an odd feeling, but nothing you can’t get used to.
The only other complaints are that it’s needlessly tall with a lot of pointless room under the tank--there aren’t many bikes where you can get to the spark plug with a pipe wrench. The kickstarter is hard to even move and the cable-type clutch seems oddly out of place on a Euro bike. But then the clutch withstands abuse even better than the hydraulic clutches on the other bikes.
So the Husky is the most offbeat bike in a field of off-beat bikes. But there are good reasons to own one if you love tough, ugly riding. When you throw in BMW financing, Husky contingency and a newly revitalized dealer network, there are good reasons if you love [any] kind of riding.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In a battle between 300 two-strokes, there’s a larger war that rages in the background. You first have to win over the four-stroke buyers who have dominated the market recently. But that’s getting easier. First there’s the fact that two-strokes are so darn good despite getting less than their share of development money in recent years. Yes, four-stroke are better on a motocross track right now. No contest. But in any comparison that is decided at lower speed, meaning tight, ugly off-road races and rides, the 300 two-stroke still rules. And cost of ownership tips the scale even farther.
Once you’ve made the easy case for the 300 two-stroke, it’s tough to argue with the KTM electric start. That alone makes it the most desirable off-road bike in America and is the reason that it will outsell the other two bikes in this group by thousands of units. But still, we were amazed at how close these three bikes are in sheer ability. We haven’t seen many Gas Gases or Husky’s in recent years, so we just assumed they would be like vintage bikes compared to the KTM. But either the bikes have advanced more than we know or vintage bikes were better than we thought.
Another factor is price. The KTM is $7998, the Gas Gas is $8049 and the Husky is $6999. That alone lifts the Husky up in the standings where it’s almost eye-to-eye with the KTM. Almost. But we’ll admit, there are times and places where you would gladly pay a grand for that button.
And there are times when you’d pay a lot more.