KTM 350 XC-F - Road Test

An off-road racebike that doesn’t play by the usual rules.

KTM 350 XC-F - Road Test

KTM 350 XC-F - Road Test

If you didn’t see this one coming, you haven’t been paying attention. After winning the 2010 MX1 World Motocross Championship against 450cc machines with its 350 SX-F, KTM was sure to announce an off-road version of the same bike. This is, after all, what KTM does so well: get as many specialized models as possible out of one basic design. So, the next in what is likely to be a line of several 350cc models is the 350 XC-F.

In KTM-speak, “XC” stands for Cross Country; and just as the 350 SX-F is a pure supercross (“SX”) and motocross racebike, so too is the 350 XC-F designed as a dedicated cross-country racer suitable for Grand Prix, GNCC and WORCS competition, and it even would serve as a fine enduro machine.

KTM has an admirable philosophy when it comes to its competition models. As the company’s North American president, Jon-Erik Burleson, put it, “If we see a KTM on the starting line that someone had to modify for performance, we’re not doing our job.”

As a result, the four-stroke, electric-start 350 XC-F boasts the equipment that KTM believes gives riders a legitimate chance to make the best of their talents. The frame is tubular chrome-moly steel, which KTM prefers over the aluminum spar-type designs used by most of its competition. The company claims the frame is stronger than those others and that its tubular design allows for easier placement of certain key components. These include a larger gas tank, which holds 2.5 gallons instead of the SX-F’s 2.0. The tank is translucent, allowing you to see the fuel level with just a glance, and there’s even a low-fuel warning light up near the handlebar pad. The suspension comprises high-quality WP pieces—a 48mm closed-cartridge fork and a piggyback-reservoir shock working on KTM’s new linkage system. The rear wheel is an 18-incher more suitable for general off-road work (most 18-inch tires have taller sidewalls that help prevent pinched tubes when riding over rocks and other trail obstacles) than the 19 on the motocrosser, and protective handguards are standard equipment.

2011 KTM 350 XC-F - Road Test

Though labeled as a cross-country racebike, the XC-F is versatile enough to perform exceptionally well in practically any form of off-road competition. It also is a great general-purpose dirtbike for serious playriders who may even occasionally want to cut a few laps on a motocross track.

Then there’s the XC-F’s 350cc, dohc, four-valve engine, which is identical in almost every way to the one that beat the 450cc bikes in the world championship. It has the same 88.0 x 57.5mm bore and stroke, 13.5:1 compression ratio and 42mm Keihin EFI throttle body. The XC-F, however, has electric starting but also keeps the kickstarter as a backup, and its transmission has six speeds instead of five.

Overall, the engine’s performance and characteristics are impressive. The fuel injection is flawless, giving the rider perfectly linear control over the power delivery. And in most situations, the 350’s power feels comparable to a 450’s. I never found a hill that the XC-F couldn’t make, and I never wanted more top-end speed; in fact, the 350 will go fast enough in sixth to scare you.

Really, the only time the 350cc engine doesn’t feel like a 450 is when you want to lug it a gear high on tacky dirt. It doesn’t have as much bottom-end grunt, which is no surprise, considering that it’s 100cc smaller; it just requires a little more shifting to keep it spinning at slightly higher revs.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The 350’s power is more controllable exiting slick corners, and first-gear tractability in slow, technical terrain is excellent. The rear tire hooks up and the engine delivers just the right amount of torquey, non-stall lugging power that only occasionally requires some mild clutch work.

Chassis-wise, the 350 XC-F also is up to the task. It feels noticeably lighter and is more flickable than a 450, especially when dodging through closely spaced trees and on tight trails. The suspension is a little on the soft side, which eliminates the hard-edged race behavior of the SX-F and soaks up most bumps, rocks and tree roots pretty effectively. But a lot of off-road and cross-country races these days have motocross sections, and bigger obstacles and some jump landings can use up all the wheel travel and cause bottoming. Turning up the compression damping at both ends helps, but a stiffer rear spring is the better solution for anyone who finds the suspension, especially the rear, too soft. Switching to the SX-F’s 4-percent-stiffer spring should remedy the matter for most riders.

2011 KTM 350 XC-F - Road Test

Like its 100cc-larger competition, the 350 XC-F is capable of roosting through and out of corners with real authority. But rather than doing so with brute bottom-end torque, it requires a lower gear and slightly higher rpm.

My test riding, of course, was all done on the West Coast, where the speeds are usually higher and the conditions more wide-open. For the slower, tight-woods riding that is prevalent in the eastern part of the U.S., the suspension settings may be just fine.

No one at either end of the country should have any issues with the KTM’s ergonomics, though. The bike feels just right whether sitting or standing, and the bigger gas tank doesn’t make the bike any wider or taller than the SX-F. The sizable handguards not only do a good job of keeping the brush away from the rider’s hands, they also help block the wind on cold rides.

Contrary to KTM’s claims of providing full off-road equipment, however, the 350 XC-F lacks two items for aggressive off-road work: a skidplate and a spark arrestor. Some closed-course races and most off-road riding areas make spark arrestors mandatory, and many events also include rock-pile or log-infested sections that a rider must bash through. Although the 350’s ground clearance is generous, the steel frame dents easily, as I found the first time I had to negotiate one of these sections. Skidplates and spark arrestors are readily available, but they should be included on a bike like this one.

Still, that shouldn’t be a major turn-off for anyone considering a 350 XC-F. This is a very competent motorcycle that is just as effective as an off-road racebike as the SX-F is as a motocross racer. The XC-F is less tiring to ride—a true advantage in longer races—easier to flick through the trees and generally maintains better traction than most 450s, all while sacrificing only a small amount of power compared to those bigger bikes.

So, this looks like yet another winning dirtbike combination from KTM. The starting line at most off-road events already is a sea of orange. The 350 XC-F will probably make them look even more like KTM club races.

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