The two-stroke revolution isn’t really a revolution at all. Revolutions imply new ways of thinking, new ideas and the discarding of old institutions. The two-stroke movement doesn’t really have any of those elements; it’s more of a reaction to the four-stroke revolution, and it is based on some very old-school ideas that revolve around bikes like the Gas Gas XC300.
To be fair, this isn’t an old bike. The Gas Gas is one of the newest and most ground-breaking motorcycles of 2012. It has an entirely new chassis that defies current trends and represents the most decisive direction that this company has taken in 20 years. But the underlying philosophy isn’t anything new. It’s a rechristening of some established and proven formulas. So right up front, you should know that there’s nothing risky about this strikingly new-looking machine from Europe. It was proven a long time ago.
WHAT WORKED STILL WORKS
|THE BIG PICTURE
Right now the dirt bike market is in the doldrums. Even though the latest achievements are stunning from a technological point of view, they aren’t generating enough excitement to bring people back to the dealers. Instead, people are riding their old bikes, and that means two-strokes are alive and well. You can call it a movement or just the resistance, but interest in two-strokes is higher than it’s been in years—and that creates opportunities for a company like Gas Gas.
A short history lesson: Gas Gas is a small Spanish company that has specialized in trials bikes for years. In the 1990s, the firm expanded into two-stroke off-road bikes and instantly made a name for itself. The bikes were great for the worst conditions: mud, rocks and ugliness. They were reliable, smooth and user-friendly—not fast, glamorous or sophisticated. In the years that followed, here’s what has changed about Gas Gas: nothing. The company switched U.S. importers a number of times, had spotty availability and even made some semi-disastrous attempts at developing a four-stroke, but the news ticker tape rarely mentioned Gas Gas.
Now, three things have happened that change the big picture. First, the off-road world is clearly returning to its two-stroke roots. Second, the latest U.S. importer is driven by off-road enthusiasts and is making a bigger commitment than ever to the American market. And third, the Spanish company finally paid attention to its product line, thus the new chassis and new interest.
The Gas Gas 300 has the type of power that most riders need. They just might not know it.
The new bike is basically the old motor in a new, perimeter steel frame. It looks massive and rigid, like a steel version of the original Honda twin-spar aluminum frames. But Gas Gas engineers claim that it actually weighs less than the frame it replaced. Part of that has to be due to the new subframe, which is almost all plastic and incorporates the airbox in one piece. The engineers originally designed this airbox to use a cartridge-style air-filter element for quick filter changes. As it turned out, this particular feature wasn’t ready for inclusion on the 2012 model but will probably show up later. For now the filter is changed the old-fashioned way—by removing the seat and unscrewing the cage.
The motor is a complete blast from the past. It has a mechanical power valve with a large chamber on the side of the cylinder, similar to the Honda ATAC and Kawasaki KIPS designs from the 1980s. The carb is a 38mm Keihin that feeds a case reed (A V-Force 3). This year, Gas Gas redesigned the clutch for more oil flow, and this allows them to get away with lighter springs, making for a super-easy clutch pull. It has a six-speed gearbox.
Our test bike was the kick-start-only XC300. It came with some very cool add-on features, like an FMF Q silencer (with spark arrestor), hand guards, a plastic skid plate and even an extra set of graphics. The graphics that came on our test bike, by the way, had the EC logo, which actually refers to a different configuration. The extra set had the proper nomenclature. The suspension that comes on the bike is very expensive stuff. The front has a 48mm Marzocchi closed-cartridge fork, and the rear has an Ohlins 888. Both brakes are Nissin, and the tires are Metzelers (the short-knob enduro model in the rear). Gas Gas has an electric-start version of the 300 as well, but it’s currently in very short supply.THAT FEELS GOOD
You can’t help but love the Gas Gas motor. It’s not especially fast, exciting or thrilling; it’s simply a sweetheart. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most fanatical, horsepower-craving four-stroke loon; if you ride the 300 one mile on the trail, you’ll come back happy. It’s clear that it was designed by trials-bike guys. The motor can operate cleanly at rpm levels lower than a fast idle, then the power rolls on with crazy smoothness and controllability. For tight trails, you couldn’t order anything better. It’s the kind of power that made the KTM 300 so good. But the Gas Gas is even more KTM 300-like than the KTM 300. It’s milder, revs slower and isn’t quite as fast when it gets on the pipe. The bike’s peak power is nothing thrilling in these days of 50-horsepower 450s; it’s simply enough to get the job done. If you get it out in open space, it can be so user-friendly that it’s dull, and steep hills don’t especially call the bike’s name. The factory gives you a switch to change from one ignition curve to another, but it’s mounted in kind of an odd place on a radiator hose. The choices are very conservative, so you can barely tell the difference. The milder curve is marked with a little rain cloud. Cute.
One of the great things about the Gas Gas is that it doesn’t require a learning period. Anyone can get on it and appreciate its manners. That isn’t true of all two-strokes. Many riders who grew up in the four-stroke era simply can’t come to terms with the pipey nature of a motocross two-stroke. But the 300 is inviting to anyone. It’s almost like a four-stroke/two-stroke hybrid with a wide, smooth powerband mixed with a quick engine response. Initially, our bike was a little rich for our conditions—nearly sea level and 90 degrees. We dropped the needle one position and it was perfect, even up to 5000 feet. Like we said, the motor is a sweetheart. We knew it would be.
The new chassis was more of a mystery at the outset. We made the mistake of putting the bike on the fabulous NASA-certified Dirt Bike scale before we rode it for the first time. Without fuel, it was 245 pounds. To put that in perspective, it’s 5 pounds heavier than a Kawasaki KX450 and even a few pounds more than a KTM 450SXF with electric start. And to be clear, our Gas Gas was not the model with electric start. We were worried. But in the end, the weight was just a number with no relevance to the real world. The Gas Gas doesn’t feel heavy. In fact, it feels like a real lightweight compared to four-strokes that might even be lighter on the scale. It makes you realize that the sensation that we call “weight” has several different components. The response of the motor, the lack of a massive crankshaft, gyroscopic effect and steering geometry all play a role. You would never think the Gas Gas is a porker. The steering is very light, maybe too light. At first you tend to overcorrect, and you might even struggle to go straight on a narrow trail. You adjust to that quickly, and then the magic starts. The bike is pure fun in its primary habitat: slow, tight trails. You can wiggle it through narrow gaps, climb over rocks and work your way through obstacles with ease. The controls make this even better. The pull of the hydraulic clutch lever is so light that it feels like it’s connected to the spring on a ballpoint pen. It still has excellent engagement and feel. The gear ratios are good. First gear is medium low, and there are no big gaps through the lower ratios. The only complaint in this type of riding is the steering lock. There ain’t much. You sometimes need to point the front end more than the stops allow.
At higher speeds, the Gas Gas magic fades. The weight reveals itself if you have to stop in a hurry, and the steering seems nervous in fast, rough terrain. We never came to terms with the suspension, especially in whoops. The rear was predictably too soft for really big hits, but stiffer compression settings didn’t help. Slowing down the rebound was a definite improvement, but the rebound adjuster on the Ohlins affects other circuits as well, so we never really found a setting that made everyone happy in every type of terrain. The fork generated more favorable remarks in really rough terrain, but wasn’t especially happy on sharp edges and in rocks. We’re still working both ends, but unfortunately there’s no well-established path to happiness here. The bike is new, and even older Gas Gas models are rare enough to make information-gathering a challenge.BUTTERY GOODNESS
Gas Gas know-how is hard to find in the U.S., but in Europe, these bikes have been used at the highest level in competition for years. A lot of that experience filters back to the factory in the development of the bike. For example, the chainguide doesn’t have a hard aluminum shell that can get bent. The radiators are huge, so the bike is very reluctant to boil. The engine is easy to work on, and the parts are all good. The O-ring chain, Talon sprocket and Renthal bars are of excellent quality. On the other hand, some details aren’t so wonderful. The kickstand is one of those infernal self-folding jobs that can make the motorcycle fall over with the slightest bump. (It’s some kind of European requirement.) The 2.9-gallon fuel tank is clear, but almost entirely obscured by the shrouds, so you can’t really see how much gas you have. The tank is bigger this year, though, and the range is over 40 miles.
Despite being dramatically new this year, the Gas Gas 300 really isn’t that different. That’s very good news. The off-road motorcycle world is heading straight for Gas Gas right now, so the company shouldn’t move. As long as the XC300 doesn’t deviate from its established course, riders will rediscover it. And almost certainly some young guns will find it’s what they’ve been waiting for all along. They just didn’t know it. o
GAS GAS XC300
Engine type Liquid-cooled, power valve
Bore x stroke 72.5mm x 72.5mm
Carburetion 38mm Keihin PWK
Fuel tank capacity 2.9 gal (7.0L)
Lighting coil Yes
Spark arrester Yes
EPA legal No
Running weight, no fuel 245 lb.
Wheelbase 58.1" (1476mm)
Ground clearance 13.6" (345mm)
Seat height 37.8" (960mm)
Tire size & type:
Front 80/100-21 Metzeler Enduro
Rear 120/80-18 Metzeler Enduro
Front Marzocchi inverted cartridge, adj.
reb./comp., 12.4" (315mm) travel
Rear Ohlins aluminum piggyback,
adj. prld, hi & lo comp., reb.,
12.6" (320mm) travel
Country of origin Spain