A race bike for the (off) road

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The KTM 350 EXC-F is a bike a lot of people will buy to go racing. It weighs 250 pounds and its fuel-injected, four-stroke 350cc motor produces an honest 45bhp. There is nothing second rate or cheap anywhere on the bike. And, if you can afford a service every 15 hours, it’s theoretically possible to to ride this honest-to-god race bike from your home to the trails.

Photos: Grant Ray

Why a 350?
As it turns out, bigger isn’t always better. Motorcycle technology has advanced to the point that a manufacturer can build a bike that has excessive power. KTM proved this to the world in 2010 when Tony Cairoli won the MX1 world championship against riders on 450s using a 350 SX-F. He won aboard a 350 again in 2011. Think of this 350EXC-F as a street-legal race-replica of that supercross racer and you won’t be far off. While the frame and geometry are wholly and necessarily different, the motor only differs from the MX bike in several subtle ways. The 350 EXC-F motor is built with the same cases, cylinder, head and architecture as the other 350s. Where it differs is its six-speed transmission, heavier crankshaft, cams and 12.3:1 piston. All EXC models get an updated PDS rear suspension, longer shock and one-piece cast aluminum swingarm. KTM says its PDS rear suspension is better than a linkage system for off-road riding because it’s a simpler design.

Off and riding.
My experience on dirt bikes is somewhat limited, but after just a few minutes I felt comfortable enough to enter and finish corners sideways. Backing into corners is accomplished with rear brake, downshifting and careful use of the clutch or a combination of the two. In any case, you’re using Brembo’s amazingly intuitive controls to accomplish the task. Corner exits are easier. Just dial in throttle until the appropriate amount of wheel-spin is achieved.

It’s not all about the mechanicals though. Ergonomics are a large part of any bike’s performance and the 350 EXC-F is remarkable here too. A long flat seat covers the top of the bike and makes it easy to move around and the slim-line plastics make the bike feel, uh, slim between your legs. The bike feels neither large or small while you’re riding, it just sort of disappears underneath you.

When you inevitably enter an unfamiliar decreasing radius corner too fast, it’s no big deal. Just apply some front brake and steer your way out of it. Ditto for when you need to avoid giant forest service trucks or riders of less capable dual-sports. It’s shocking how fast you can change your line or stop completely. The chassis absorbs smaller rocks completely, is easy to control over large bumps and retains it’s composure even if you’re unexpectedly sent airborne.

The motor is even better than the chassis. You’d think dropping 100ccs from the class-defining 450s would equal less outright speed and more gear shifts, but it really doesn’t. Thanks to the light weight, the top end rush is still liter-bike fast and it makes enough torque low down that whacking the throttle wide open just off idle in the first three gears will bring the front wheel up. But despite wild performance, it’s easy to use too. This is possibly the best execution of fuel-injection we’ve yet come across, the throttle is linear and intuitive from tiny openings to big handfuls. When it comes to dirt riding, the HFL staff varies wildly in skill level. Grant’s pretty fast since he’s been off road forever, I’m proving a fast learner, while Crashy McCrasherson still trickles along in 1st and 2nd gears. All of us found the 350 easy to use and more than fast enough. Wes didn’t even crap his pants.

The only situation where you’ll be unhappy with the 350EXC-F’s performance is on pavement. Bikes like the WR-250, XR-650 and DR-Z are called dual-sports for a reason. They actually work well on the road. Tires that limit their performance in the dirt provide real grip on pavement. Laid-back motors that make less power for their size don’t need much maintenance. They’re all heavier than real dirt bikes; even the WR250R is 50lbs heavier than this KTM..

Ride a 350 EXC-F down the freeway and your ass will go numb after 15 minutes. So will your left hand. Wes swears the flighty front end nearly killed him on the freeway. Try using this bike as a daily rider, and you’ll spend a fortune keeping the motor alive while you fear for your life. Tires will round off quickly and deliver terrible grip while they do it. You won’t be able to stop very fast and any hard acceleration will result in a wheelie. It’s also incredibly loud, possibly more so than the RSV4. Riding this KTM on pavement isn’t as sketchy as riding a sportsbike on the dirt, but it comes close.

Singles, weight and why you can’t have a 250lbs street bike.
Everyone like to say that the perfect motorcycle would be a super lightweight single-cylinder that produced 50bhp+ and weighed less than 250lbs. But there’s a reason that bike doesn’t exist. Getting 45bhp out of a 350 requires a state of tune not typically seen this side of MotoGP. Buy one of these EXC-Fs and your engine is getting opened up literally every 15 hours. You’ll regularly see things like pistons on your garage invoice. That light weight also comes at high cost. 600 price with half the capacity. Feather light singles have a place, that place isn’t commuting to and from work or sitting at wide open throttle for long periods on a race track. That place is off-road. You need to own a pickup if you own one of these.

If it’s terrible on the road, what’s the point of having a license plate?
My 450EXC-F owning neighbor told me an off-road race bike with a plate is special because it allows you to legally use dirt and back roads to connect riding areas. He still uses a truck to get the bike to the riding area, but there are a lot more options for riding when you can use fire roads and similar to connect riding areas. You can’t do that without a plate.

Ready to Race.
At $9499 and with 15 hour service intervals, the 350 EXC-F is far from cheap. Then again, neither are race bikes. But, as an incredibly light, incredibly capable enduro and one fitted with an engine that defies its limited capacity, the KTM doesn’t have a hard job justifying its cost, it’s simply stunning. That a real race bike is also accessible across all skill levels also makes this a unique motorcycle. Put a n00b on an SBK-spec liter bike and he’ll be dead by the time he gets out of the driveway. But, thanks to an exceptionally light weight and intuitive engine control, this race bike with lights would be a good choice for virtually any dirt rider. One dirt bike to rule them all? Pretty much.

  • Trevor

    Service every 15 hours? WTF?

    • Sean Smith

      How did you think they get 45hp out of a 350? Racing engines demand racing mechanics.

  • Johndo

    15 hours…wow in my case that would mean the bike would visit the mechanics ever 2 weeks at most…who can affort this kind of maintenance? We can send men to the moon, why can’t they make low maintenance bikes in this category…

    • pplassm

      They do. They’re called DR-Z400s, WR250Rs, and KLX250s.

    • Rydre

      That’d be the Freeride 350….

    • Restless Lip Syndrome

      It isn’t completely outrageous considering how high-strung that bike would be. My Husqvarna 450smr is street-legal, but with service intervals of 20hrs there is no question what the bike was really built for.

    • David

      Desirable race bike attributes:

      1. Powerful
      2. Light weight
      3. Reliable

      Pick any two.

  • pplassm

    “Afford” the service? Do it your own damn self. :-)

    FWIW, I own a 520EXC and a two-stroke YZ250, both with license plates. They are definitely NOT for commuting, though. I have a DRZ400 for that.

    520 is down for 250+ hour service. Crank, piston, valves, etc. Not difficult, just tedious.

    • Sean Smith

      If you replace the intake valves with Kibblewhite stainless ones, you can cut your valve adjustment intervals in half.

      • Kurt

        Why would one wish to have 7.5 hour valve adjustment intervals instead of 15 hrs?

        • tbowdre

          as in you would have to adjust them 1/2 as many times

      • Your_Mom

        Actually, I think you mean you can *double* the intervals. That would mean half the maintenance.

  • george_fla

    What exactly would a 15hour service entail on one of these?

  • mathew

    09 klx250 with 13k miles.
    Purchased new.
    Great bike around town.
    65mpg.
    Redlines at 10.5K RPM.
    65mph = 6.5k RPM.
    I’ve gotten it to 90 MPH (GPS Verified) flat land, on Dunlop 606 tires. Doing 80 MPH today on the 5 north, on the way to work in Burbank.

    Just wish I could carry more than a lunch box.

    • http://sugamari.wordpress.com/ sugamari

      i got exactly these two bikes. my 250 goes 150 kmh downhill and down wind but my ktm goes 160+ on the highway – and I don’t get what you ppl are saying about squirelly? what’s squirrelly is getting back on the 250 and trying to ride the same way i ride the ktm – aint gonna happen. i commute on the 250 and i still dont have a truck! as for maintenance I’m the testbed for low.

  • Janak

    Is SM version? Or would make sense to covert it?

    • http://rider49er.blogspot.com Mark D

      Who cares if it makes sense, it’d be fun as all hell.

  • Kit

    Considering I’d be crackin’ the motor open literally every weekend I think I’ll stick to my CR500R. Cool bike though, I’d take a de-tuned version with a long service interval if they produce it.

    • http://www.tripleclamp.net Sasha Pave

      If they import the freeride 350 then you might be in luck!

  • http://www.twitter.com/wessilerfanclub Sean (the other one)

    wes wasn’t lying about it being bad on the highway. i was behind him on the wr250 and was SO happy not be in his shoes. it wobbled at 60 the way the wr did at 90.

    • http://www.faster-faster.com fasterfaster

      function of the tires, or the lightweight and geometry?

      • http://www.twitter.com/wessilerfanclub Sean (the other one)

        well, the other sean left the tires at 12 psi so we can call the way there his fault. you’d have to ask wes about why he thinks it was bad the way back.

  • Peter Ha

    How about an update once you’ve gotten into some single track and fire cuts, Sean?

    My ’09 250 XCF-W feels like shit on the street but it spends 95% of its time in the dirt/sand/gravel/etc. You’re not going to spend much time on pavement with an enduro.

  • Core

    “I’m proving a fast learner, while Crashy McCrasherson still trickles along in 1st and 2nd gears.”

    I laughed… Anyways, pretty bike. >_>’

    • http://www.twitter.com/wessilerfanclub Sean (the other one)

      It was my second time ever off road and I had to keep stopping to wait for him.

  • Peter88

    Merry Christmas Wes, Grant, Sean, Ashlee and the rest of the HFL crew! Thanks for what you do. And Merry Christmas to all the HFL subscribers!

  • David Dawson

    As long as its not raced, you can probably push the service intervals on the ktm to a more manageable range, but its still gonna need attention making the power it does. The only time my WR250R really shows its weight is on tight tight trails, where I usually end up wishing I was on my friend’s 200XC-w. Then again, i’ve put over 30k miles on my WRR since Jan ’10 and have never seen the inside of the motor except for the first valve adjustment at 26k…

  • Frosty_spl

    My dad has an 04 KTM exc 350 2 stroke, and has never cracked the cases open. Do the new 4 strokes all need that much maintenance?

    • pplassm

      Yes. The four strokes need their top ends off just about as often as a two stroke does. The two stroke just needs rings and possibly a piston. The four stroke will need that, plus valves, and an examination of the cam lobes, etc. In between, there are valve adjustments and multiple oil changes.

      I just went through a catastophic failure on my 520EXC. It dropped a valve after many years of operation. The damage: Replace head, valves, piston, cylinder (valve punctured cylinder wall). Luckily, I found decent used head and cylinder, or else the bike would have been parted out. Even with that, the repairs cost almost $1000, with me doing the work.

      Similar two stroke demolitions usually are much cheaper.

  • http://www.tripleclamp.net Sasha Pave

    It’s a pure race bike w blinkers. Using it on the street is like commuting in a wrx rally race car. It can be done but it’s completely impractical.

    Wes is right about how squirrely the front end is. Strangely the same speed offload is much more docile.

    I love that the euros have seized on the opportunity. Plated competition bikes are a ton of fun on BLM land and many state parks where dirt roads are legal but ohv is not.

    Great review Sean! Happy new year hfl!

  • John

    I put Pirelli Scorpion MT90/AT’s on mine since I spend too much time on the street. With those tires the bike isn’t that bad on the highway. Wouldn’t want to cross the country on it, but it was fairly well settled at 70-80mph. Yes it’s impractical, but it’s a ton of fun.