BACK ON THE PIPE
For KTM, two-strokes never went out of fashion, so development of its pre-mix range continued well through the four-stroke evolution. The outcome? The second coming of the two-stroke era is upon us and the 2013 EXCs are ready and waiting
STORY BY ADAM RIEMANN
PHOTOS BY DAMIEN ASHENHURST
There’s no better dirtbike sound than a crisp two-stroke on the pipe. If you don’t like this sound, then clearly you haven’t been swinging off a set of handlebars while the engine beneath you is screaming out this wicked tone.
Unlike many other manufacturers who have ceased production of their two-strokes, KTM has continued to build what is arguably the best two-stroke enduro range available to date. Its EXC range has been a careful work in progress, with upgrades that are based purely on function and performance — not marketing potential.
With one day to ride these fine machines in a filthy environment, DIRT ACTION revisits the never-ending conundrum: are two-strokes better than four? Well, you know what I think? If a global scrapping of either two-strokes or four were to take place so that we could only ever ride one breed of engine for the rest of eternity, I think the two-stroke will be the engine that remains in production.
At least that’s how I felt after riding the 2013 KTM EXC two-stroke range.
200EXC: ANGRY LITTLE VEGEMITE
Now in its 15th year of production, the 200EXC continues to be in strong demand for Aussie trail riders. In 1997, the first 2-hunge was born by increasing the bore and stroke dimensions of the engine in KTM’s original 125. Same frame, same gearbox, just a different rod, piston and cylinder — that’s it. The 2-hunge offered more usable torque for those who struggled to control the narrower power-band of the 125cc.
From there, the 200EXC was one of the first-known small-bore two-strokes that delivered power more like a user-friendly four-stroke. Manageable, tractable two-stroke torque in a featherweight chassis made the new 200 a popular choice for the average trail rider, or those reluctant to step up to a 250 two-stroke.
However, over time, the original 200cc has evolved into an aggressive little screamer! The last few 200s released have also been hard-chargers, and the new-model 200EXC is still all that, but it’s now fitted with an electric start system. There was a time when this bike felt as strong as the 250EXC, but it seems upgrades to the 250’s power now separate the two. However, the steering accuracy and agility of the 200 is typical of the 125EXC.
And like a 125, this bike is all about the engine — aggressive power delivery that does require 100 per cent attention and rider input to get the most out of it. In terms of putting power to the ground, it commands more throttle accuracy than the 250EXC, mainly when you’re launching it over obstacles. Given its size, the 200 demands the most gearbox abuse of the three EXC engines, especially if you’re trying to match the bigger bikes’ speed on open trails.
This is mainly due to the power being concentrated from the mid to top-end. You can’t short shift it like the 250/300, or just gas it over surprise obstacles — you need to be in the right gear with some baited clutch action. The fact it still runs a 45-tooth rear sprocket shows the minor upgrades to the head and cylinder are generating enough torque to pull this gearing without the need for immediate downshifts at the first sign of an incline.
As it is, sandy or loamy conditions are where the 200 puts a smile on your face if you’re the type of rider who can keep it on the boil and surf your way through the turns. In the more technical conditions of a greasy forest trail, you need to be on your game to put the meat of its power to the ground.
Engine aside, frame dimensions remain unchanged so its turning prowess and ability to smash square edges are every bit as good as the 2012’s. KTMs were always recognised for their razor-sharp steering but lacked high-speed stability. KTM ironed out this issue with the release of its SX-inspired frames in 2007, which arguably cost some of the EXCs their trademark cornering.
It’s been a work in progress to get that signature feel back in them, but the new frame from 2012, coupled with minor suspension upgrades, gives the 200 its best overall handling characteristics to date. Out of the crate, the front to rear balance of this bike is exceptional, making it a very predictable bike to ride fast, straight away — especially if you’re smashing nasty terrain. Not everybody will be fast on the 200, though.
A fit, experienced rider will get the most out of this bike, a lazy rider who doesn’t shift gears accurately would be better off on the 250 or 300EXC.
250EXC: E2 WEAPON
This bike has paved a reputation as one of the most steadfast enduro two-strokes ever built. Like its 300cc big brother, the 250 is also fitted with the electric start system — which for 2013 finally works like a push-button should. Gone is the quirky solenoid engagement games the older units would play when trying to start up.
At a glance, the 250EXC is identical to the 300EXC in terms of ergonomics, yet its ride dynamic is a perfect compromise between the smaller, angrier 200EXC and the gutsy 3-hunge. In racing terms, the 250EXC can be pitched into corners similar to the razor-sharp 200, then accelerate out of corners with the wheel-standing power of the 3-hunge. The most noticeable difference to the 250’s power over the 2012 model is the significant boost from the mid to top-end.
This can only be the result of the new V-Force 4 reed block fitted standard to the 2013’s.
I’d go as far as to say that its delivery is pretty agro for an enduro bike, especially in greasy terrain. If anything, the nature of the 250’s power is more suited to faster-flowing tracks, or even a motocross track, which we also had access to on this test day. In standard trim, with the power-valve spring settings as they are, I’d say the 300 is a better engine for more technical, extreme endure, whereas the 250 just loves to be revved gear for gear.
That said, out of the crate the 250EXC is a serious contender for Off-Road E2 competition, given it hauls as hard as most of the 450cc four-strokes on the market. While the power is just shy of being intimidating, it’s definitely stronger in delivery than last year’s bike. The gearing is well calibrated to extract the best drive from the 250’s power curve, which some manufacturers do struggle to balance out with their gearbox ratios.
I guess in a sense, KTM has perfected the 250EXC’s power transmission over time … much like aging a fine wine.
With the help of the new WP PDS shock refinements, the 250 puts power down early in the rev range and lets you feed it into aggressive slides. It’s a fine line as to where and when it will break traction, but a capable rider will use its power to steer round corners — flat or rugged. For an intermediate rider, all this jargon translates into a heap of fun on the trails that only a raw two-stroke can deliver.
Yes, it will bite you on the arse if you’re throttle-happy at the wrong moment, but the minimal weight of this bike will let you get away with some loose moves. The beauty of this engine is that it doesn’t require aggressive throttle to make it work. You can wind on a small amount of gas and it will clamber up hills or tricky rock sections better than the 200EXC.
However, unlike the 300EXC, it will run out of torque and beg to be down-shifted if you’re expecting it to idle over logs or drag you up steep ascents in high gears.
In all honesty, it’s not as user-friendly as the 300EXC, but Kato’s 250cc two-banger is an absolute race package, with extremely good trail manners. With some power-valve spring and pipe combo testing, I reckon you’d customise a pretty awesome race bike for the E2 class in off-road.
300EXC: EXTREMELY GOOD
A unique blend of bulk torque, excessive horsepower and lean dimensions, the 300EXC is a bike that has the off-road spectrum covered, or if you like, is at home in opposite extremes. And “extreme” is a fitting term, given it’s the preferred weapon of choice for events like the Erzberg Rodeo, Romaniacs or Hell’s Gate. From top-gear power-slides to impossibly tough, low-speed rock climbs, the 300EXC is a one-bike-does-all.
As with the 250EXC, the 3-hunge has a new diaphragm spring clutch and dampened inner clutch hub, so the fact it’s also hydraulically activated gives it the lightest, smoothest action you’ll ever feel on a dirtbike. On top of that, the bottom-end delivery from idle is as four-stroke as a two-stroke gets. You can climb gnarly obstacles from a standstill and find traction where other engines struggle.
As for the rest of the power curve, it’s not the ligament-stretching boost like 300EXCs of the past, but you still need to be on your game if you’re hoping to thread this animal between the trees at full song. Let’s not beat around the bush here; in a 100m sprint it’ll still out-accelerate most two-wheeled devices on the planet! Having said that, the low rpm tractability of this engine, combined with its minimal weight, makes it a deceptively suitable package for the intermediate rider.
As for the rest of the power range, your skill level will determine how practical it is for you on the more challenging trails.
Universally speaking, though, where a pro rider will use its raw grunt to launch up a steep rock ledge, a beginner will harness the same power characteristics to nonchalantly resume chugging up a hill after a goofy stall — or trundle around their mate who’s goofed it up before them. All of which is made easier by the luxury of the electric start.
Aside from the V-Force 4 Reed Block, the 300EXC’s proven bullet-proof engine and chassis remain relatively unchanged for 2013, which is good news considering the 2012 chassis was a real breakthrough for the entire EXC range. As it is, the 300’s chassis is capable of channelling its acceleration in the right direction — it’s just up to you to steer it!
There are no real changes to the suspension but like its 250EXC sibling, the WP PDS shock works in harmony with the new-generation 2012 frame to give this powerful beast a stable ride at speed. It’s most noticeable when you’re tracking down fast, rutted downhills or charging a corner that’s littered with braking bumps.
If anything, the budget WP fork is the only real weak point of the 2013 EXCs in a racing environment, but the lightweight and superb front-to-rear balance of the chassis compensates for the action of the fork. The average rider need not concern themself with that level of performance, because out of the crate these bikes are equipped to take anything a punter can throw at them.
If you like strong power in a capable chassis, the 300EXC is it.
SECOND OPINION: NICK LEAN
KTM200 EXC AND 250EXC
Looks: The KTM EXC range would have to be the best-looking bunch of enduro bikes on the market from my point of view. The sharp finish on all the plastics gives them an aggressive look, which I think is good. It makes them look like a race bike straight out of the box.
Ergos and initial feel: The ergos felt comfortable as soon as I hopped on the bike — a little different to what I was used to, but I could quickly adapt to it. The seat was firm and super grippy, which is always good to have on any bike.
Starting: You definitely can’t beat an electric start on a two-stroke. Especially when it fires straight away and in gear, which is handy on those techo trails.
Throttle and other controls: KTM controls always feel nice and light. The hydraulic clutch is a luxury for sure, having the same constant feel, the brakes were strong and had a nice smooth action.
Engine: 200: The 200 was a bit soft off the bottom, but coming through the mid to top end, the power was stronger and a lot more usable.
Engine: 250: The 250 had a sweet bottom end, which made it more fun and easier to ride over obstacles when you need that initial crack off the bottom.
Suspension: On both bikes, the suspension felt nervous in the front end as soon as a bit of weight was taken off the wheel. I understand with the right weight springs the bikes would work better for me. The shock had a nice plush feel, which makes for a smoother, more comfy ride for a long duration and it hooked up and drove well.
The last thing you want is the back end bouncing all over the shop and making it hard work.
Overall impression: I was looking forward to riding the two-strokes. I’ve always been a two-stroke fan so it was great to have the opportunity to ride them. I think the 200 is a good option for the junior lites rider or a smaller-built person; that was proven this year when the AORC junior outright title was won on a KTM 200.
The 250 was a bit more fun for me with the extra power off the bottom; overall they’re both great bikes. They look sweet, go hard, and with a bit of work to the suspension they would handle sweet as well.
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