First Ride: 2011 KTM 350 SX-F

KTM takes on the best of the Japanese motocross machines.

2011 KTM 350 SX-F - First Ride

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KTM’s all-new 350 SX-F was built with the goal being the ultimate motocross bike. That’s a bold objective, as the way racing classes are structured, this “ultimate” 350 has no choice but to compete against the 100cc-larger 450cc machines. With that disadvantage, one might think it an impossible feat. The SX-F has, however, already proved its merit with factory rider Mike Alessi grabbing the holeshot and winning the second 450cc moto of the year at the Hangtown AMA Motocross Championships opener. In the early rounds of the MX1 World Championship 350 SX-F rider Antonio Cairoli is leading the points. On such difficult proving grounds, this is exciting stuff, to say the least.

Cycle World had the opportunity to throw a leg over the all-new machine during KTM’s 2011 model launch held at Pala Raceway in Southern California. So how does the 350 stack up against the competition? Oddly enough, it doesn’t feel any more like a 250F than it does a 450F. Basic arithmetic tells us the 350cc machine lands smack dab in the middle without paying favor to either class size—it has its own character. Sure there are similarities that remind the rider of bikes from those other two well-established classes, like how it hooks into corners with the ease of a 250 or how it accelerates out like a 450. But don’t be fooled, the 350 SX-F clearly is in a class of its own.

The compact 349.7cc engine comes to life with the simple touch of a button, a feature that adds to the bike’s already luscious draw. There is no kick-starter but one can be ordered as an optional accessory. The exhaust note is meaty and screams power, without busting your eardrums. Acceleration is not arm-stretching like some of the 450s but the engine lays down tractable output, seemingly just as much as the rider needs. The rear tire doesn’t spin out of control but hooks up and drives proportionately to the rider’s wrist movement. The 42mm Keihin throttle body of the fuel-injection system delivers spot-on fueling all the time.

The KTM 350 SX-F’s light feel and agility compared to a 450 is immediately noticeable on the track; there is less rotating mass in the engine, which gives the rider more control in terms of handling and directional changes. It’s not quite as agile as a 250F, but the 350 SX-F feels light and maneuverable in turns, in the air or when ridden close to the limit. It’s in the ballpark of ideal balance but a little less weight would make perfection. Claimed no-fuel weight is 229 pounds.

Another factor in the 350 SX-F’s feel, are the excellent ergonomics. The riding position is super comfortable; the seat height and bar position make the bike feel totally natural under me. After just one photo pass I felt like I had been on it all day. As for the performance of the new suspension, including the linked rear shock, we’ll have wait and see how it performs on a rougher track, as the introduction took place on Pala’s relatively short and smooth “vet” track.

Is the 350 SX-F the wave of the future? This bike definitely fills a gap for all the in-betweeners out there who don’t really want a 450F but aren’t satisfied with a 250F. For me, the 350 SX-F is just right. For motocross the KTM offers the right balance between the other two mainstream displacement offerings. We should have a test unit in our hands shortly and will then attempt to answer all the questions. Hopefully the 350 SX-F doesn’t get lost in a displacement purgatory as Suzuki’s excellent GSX-R750 sportbike did. But judging by its performance and early race results on the national and world stage it’s not going to get lost anywhere.

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