On the same day I rode KTM’s new four-stroke enduro bikes in Pennsylvania, I got to spend some quality seat time on KTM’s latest two-strokers—the 250 XC-W and the 300 XC-W.
Put simply, the new KTM 250 XC-W ($8299) and 300 XC-W ($8499) are the two-stroke power brokers in the racing trailbike world, and they’ve become so refined it’s insane how much performance they pack. These two bikes are the first choice for any extreme enduro rider, although a certain blue cousin with an identical powerplant (Husaberg) makes a decent choice as well. No matter, these KTMs are a big reason why large contingents of off-road racers are converting back to two-strokes. Some, however, never left.
The advantages of a four-stoke—i.e., length of power spread—have forced engineers to clean up jetting and induction, as well as utilize better powervalve control, to make the two-strokes more competitive. And every year, KTM does a little something to the engine to keep that trend going forward. This year, a tighter but thinner squish area helps combustion. Boyesen reeds are now used on the intake side, and each bike has a slightly different expansion chamber to work with the different power deliveries. Both bikes have the diaphragm spring clutch and an externally adjustable powervalve. As in all XC-Ws for 2014, the electric starter is stronger and powered by a stronger battery. Additionally, the master cylinder now has a 9mm piston (down from a 10mm) for improved front brake control.
Riding these two nearly identical bikes is like having to choose between identical twins in a dating scenario. They may look the same and act alike, but once you get to know them they are very different. The simple explanation, albeit obvious, is that that 250 feels lighter, revs quicker and has a little less power. If you were racing, it would be a better bike. But it depends on how you like to race, or how you prefer to have your motor perform. Though both bikes have a very linear power build, starting and ending at about the same rpm range, the character and how each bike uses its power is significantly different.
For instance, both will lug down and resist stalling about the same, yet when you roll on the 300 it picks up with enough authority that most riders would never want to touch the clutch. On the 250, most riders would slip the clutch a little if they wanted to get going faster, which works. And here is where tuning the powervalve, especially on the 300, can change the pick-up character from very mild to pretty wild. Getting into the mid-range, the 250 feels peppier and far more responsive. It tries to give you the exact reaction your right wrist is asking for, right now, and with a very free-feeling response. On the 300, there is more of a delay and the motor offers more of a laid-back response. This trait continues up to the top end, where the 250 feels faster and more powerful, even though it isn’t.
On the 300, rpm builds a bit slower and peaks a little less abruptly, but that is the character a 300 rider expects. It comes down to a rider’s preference for horsepower or torque. If you like to shift gears and be “on the pipe,” the 250 is the obvious choice. Like to leave it in a gear and stay in that gear? Get the 300. I rode 300 XC-W with the included leaner needle-valve installed in the bike, and the jetting felt spot-on with just some fine-tuning of the air screw. The 250, in standard tune, ran perfectly as well.
Although the scale claims only a half-pound difference between the bikes, riding them makes it feel like the 300 is about 10 pounds heavier. Maybe the power of the 300 makes it feel a little bit more bulky. Even with identical suspension settings, the 250 seems to get away with a little bit more. It has a more agile feel, and does not seem to catch bumps as often or as hard as the 300. Getting it to feel supple is easier. On the bigger XC-W, a few clicks of compression or rebound can go a long way toward that ideal feel, but I found the stock settings to be a great baseline for the 180- to 210-lb. rider. Lastly, bottoming resistance of the fork was excellent compared to the other XC-Ws.
In sum, these are not play bikes, and their prices reflect that. However, you could play all day on either of them and be ready for a race the next weekend. They are easy to ride, yet can handle a rider of the highest ability in standard trim. No part of these bikes whimpers when abused. Well, maybe the seat foam, but that’s only if you’re more of a sit-down rider.
View full-size images in photo gallery: