These three bikes are very different, and so is the way we tested them. We asked for reader suggestions on how to test our 2010 off-road bikes a few issues back, and you responded with tons of letters and one resounding request; “Come test them at my place, and I’ll be glad to help!”Well, Dirt Rider responded to a few of the more interesting and well-put-together solicitations, and due to a large number of factors-including time, budget, variety of terrain and predictable weather-we ended up in Arizona. I know, I know. Anyone who lives in a climate where trees grow would have you think that Arizona is just as much wide-open desert as anything we have in California. Sure, the DR guys must be afraid of turning. Well I say, “Pricks!” Yes, I’m describing the spikes, spines, needles, thorns and daggers present on every bush fit to live in the harsh environment that the trails in Arizona wind through. The single-track there can be as tight as anything in Jersey, Michigan, Washington or Alabama, but you just can’t bounce off the stuff in AZ or it will stick to you, try to kill you and-at the very least-punish you for weeks afterward. So yes, despite the desert climate, we tested the bikes in a wide range of conditions. And by we, I mean our crew of real readers, too.Bob Theobald, Scott “Trumpy” Truempi and Doug Hoffer came in from Arizona, Minnesota and Nevada, respectively, to help us with the testing chores. Along with Smitty, a retired schoolteacher and vagabond rider from Oregon or Arizona (depending on the time of year), these four spanned the size scale of American off-roaders and brought tons of enthusiasm, loads of ideas and plenty of stories, plus just enough local trail knowledge to show us around and keep us lost the whole time. We had a home builder, a Wal-Mart store manager, a traveling salesman and a retiree all possessing the ability to describe what a bike was doing for them.In the end, our testing was similar to all the bike testing we do, just with some new friends made along the way. We switched around on bikes and compared and contrasted how each worked, good or bad. We spoke about it around the campfire and reevaluated what we thought we knew on a second day’s ride. Then, like all test riders, they sent me some solid opinions and we piled it all together for this comparison. We even dressed them up and made them do photo passes.Since this is a comparison, I tried to word the story in a similar way the bikes were collectively talked about in our campfire sessions. But in a much more organized platform since the late-night talk bounced all over the place and ran off track at every turn. You know how it goes.The Bikes And Equipment
All three of these bikes are excellent machines and pretty much do the same things, interestingly enough, through three completely different packages. They all have the entire complement of off-road features most riders deem mandatory. Eighteen-inch rear wheels, wider-ratio gearboxes, larger gas tanks good for an easy 50 trail miles, kickstands, electric starting and quiet mufflers are found on each. Then they really began to differ: A carbureted two-stroke, a carbureted four-stroke and a fuel-injected four-stroke. The four-strokes varied further in engine placement and even with similar bore and stroke configurations; the Berg acts like more of a short stroke, the KTM a little longer. All ride on similar WP suspension components and without a linkage in the rear, yet the ride of each, as will be explained later, is different too. Then we get to more specifics. Six-speed transmissions grace the thumpers, while the two-stroke has only five speeds. All have brilliant hydraulic clutches. Both the four-strokes are green sticker-legal in California, with the Husaberg being the sole contender to come with lights, though the KTMs are wired for them and even have the on/off switch already. Hand guards come standard on all the KTMs, and a trip/odo/timer/hourmeter is standard on all three.
As for making them each “Ready to Race” as KTM (which also makes the Husaberg, you know) likes to taunt, there is very little a rider must do, especially when compared to similarly marketed Japanese machines. On the two-stroke, you start it up, and you are ready for the start line if you’ve mixed your gas correctly (remember the Ratio-Rite?). If you were really picky, like we are, you’d lean out the pilot jet one size on the 300 and get a spark arrestor for the trails. Both the four-strokes have crankcase vent lines that, for emission issues, are routed back into the intake tract. Now the bikes will run “almost just fine” this way, but if you are looking for perfection, plug the line to the intake tract (in the airbox on the Berg and aside the carb on the KTM) and vent the breather to atmosphere down the back of the motor. The KTM 400 takes one step further if you are riding at lower elevations or colder temperatures and that is the raising of the needle three positions and opening the fuel screw up to two turns out to richen it up just a bit.The brakes on all three bikes are similar but perform differently, due largely to the weight of the bikes, which also has some spread. Adjustability on all three is excellent due to a four-position top clamp gracing each of them. And working on all of them is pretty simple for all the basics. Then as you get more into stuff the Husaberg is most difficult though not bad overall, with the KTM 300 being the easiest. And if we had to rank the bikes on durability-judging on our past experiences with all of their predecessors, which we have hundreds of hours on-they all rank in at five stars. The only issues worth bringing up would be some electric-starter issues with the 300 and it getting sticky after time. The Husaberg can rub its wires bare along the subframe/shock body, and we can’t think of anything on the KTM 400. Heck, that very same motor handles the power of the 530 so it is easily overbuilt.The Power
If you are all about power, then the 300 is the winner here and is likely out of class for this comparison. It makes more juice when it is making power and never drew any complaints. The two 400-ish four-bangers are really not that far off in any of the lower throttle openings where you ride most of the time. They make up for any outright power loss with a spread that seems to go on forever. The four-stroke power starts lower, especially on the fuel-injected Husaberg, and then pulls out a good 3000 more rpm with bonus power, just not as much in amplitude or excitement when compared to the 300, which, by the way, makes Open-class power.So what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Well, interestingly enough since the birth of the two-stroke versus four-stroke debate, each engine configuration has been getting tuned to make a better attack at what the other’s advantage has traditionally been. Yes, the two-stroke is more of a four-stroke and vice versa. For instance, riders often call the 300 a “three-stroke” (our testers included) referring to its buttery smooth bottom-end torque and smoothness when throttle control is applied. Likewise, the four-strokes and their ever-lightening flywheel weights and snappier power deliveries are getting more and more two-stroke-like when the throttle is hit hard. Especially on the FI Berg. Somehow the electronics and the short-stroke feel of the motor snap to life a lot faster than anyone would have thought a four-stroke could have just 15 short years ago.
So it comes down to what you want to do with your bike and what kind of power you like. If you like a more aggressive burst, the 300 or Husaberg top the list. The more thump and traditional you like your four-stroke sauce served, the better the KTM 400 tastes. All are smoother than we have a right to expect for so much performance and make any current motocross machine seem herky-jerky and out of place on the trail. When you factor in the transmission ratios with standard final gearing, the Husaberg seems to have the closest spacing, but that sixth gear really gives an overall spread-you are hard-pressed to find a gap in the transmission. On the 300 you can just barely feel the gaps if you don’t rev the bike. And on the 400, those accustomed to close-ratio transmissions will notice the first-second and third-fourth shifts, but those who hate to shift love the 400 for this. The clutches don’t need to be abused since the power is so well matched to the bikes’ use, but all will handle the torture when necessary.The Ride
Now that you’ve picked a power, here is how it’s served to the ground and to your body. The two-stroke has a couple of traits that really stand out: Light weight and vibration. They go hand-in-hand since the light weight of the machine lets it float a little lighter on its tires and tingle the bar and footpegs just that much more. However, with its 20-pound weight advantage (almost 30 as the tanks go dry) on the scale it feels 40 pounds lighter on the trail; the tighter and nastier the ride, the more this shows up. Suspension-wise, it has the stiffest feeling and acting setup of the bunch and wallows so much less it is the only one of these three bikes we’d recommend hitting the track on with strong confidence. That stiffer suspension is just hovering at the limit of remaining completely comfortable on the trail and not transmitting the bumps right to your wrists, but it will send them to your butt as the seat foam is minimal and breaks down quickly, like on most KTMs. The handling, by being so light, is the quickest of the group and feels light and airy in the handlebar. In side-to-side flicks neither of the four-strokes can compete, especially when riders get tired. The only real downside, in back-to-back comparisons, is that the 300 came up as the least stable and the first to get headshake, though most would not bring it up individually.On the other end of the scale, and not really that much different in overall performance, comes the Husaberg. It is the plushest of the bunch and literally makes trail bumps disappear, track chop vanish and provides an overall feel of riding on marshmallows without losing any of its precision. It somehow has that mushy feeling when you want it but still responds like a stiff-enough bike when you demand it to react in turns and technical situations. Big stroke-using bumps and whoops show the worst in the suspension and chassis and weight, but the magical centralized mass of the Husaberg lets a rider get away with a lot more than they should. The bike loves to be on one wheel, either front or rear, and therefore you can get wild in the big bumps and often tap your way through what would gobble up a heavier-feeling machine. Somehow it feels nearly as light as the KTM 300 in the turns; just don’t ever push it around without the motor running because the heavy feeling here will confuse you. And when the motor is spinning fast the Husaberg does not gain weight like most Gyroscopic-laden four-strokes. Stability is way better than it feels like it should be, especially on a bike on which the rear end seems high.
The longest feeling and most stable bike in the group is the KTM 400. And for that one reason most riders confirmed it as the easiest to ride, the one they felt the most comfortable on and the one they would race if the conditions were fast. Why such an easy choice? Because in doing so well going straight it also turns way better than it should. It isn’t the quickest, but it is quick enough. It isn’t the lightest bike here; in fact, it feels the heaviest. Yet in comparison to any other off-road 450cc bike it is light, flickable and agile, quite a bit so when compared to most 450s, especially when the rpm get higher. The power matches the way the chassis likes to play, and the suspension really shines on single-track and jeep roads. It gets away with heavier riders better than the Berg; bigger riders fit better as well.The Deal
First off, you can only go wrong here if you don’t need a great trailbike. It would be easier to tell you who these bikes are not for. In our testing, a die-hard two-stroke motocross guy who used to modify his 250s for off-road became a likely four-stroke trailbike convert. A big-four-stroke-only rider saw the appeal of a lightweight two-stroke with plenty of power. And another two-stroke guy realized his bike choice has been the right one for his intended purpose, mostly racing hare scrambles and occasional trail riding, but if he were doing more trail riding, he’d be looking hard at the four-strokes.Did anyone pick a winner? Sure, they all did for themselves, but from the minute they had all ridden each of the test bikes I got right into sarcastically asking, “So which one is the best, tell me the truth?” just like I’m asked so many times. That baffled and confused look I emit every time I’m asked was present each time I relentlessly proposed the question. I got more shoulder shrugs than definite answers-payback time for sure-but it wasn’t helping the cause of picking a winner. Because there isn’t one. They all win for a lot of different reasons.There were a few finalizing points.The Husaberg is the most polar bike in the bunch, mostly because it is a little different. It was praised for its FI crispness, light, precise handling and Formula One-like motor and sound. It was dinged for being cramped for our bigger riders and a little butt-high as well as the most sensitive to setup.The KTM 300 was loved by either our fastest or least experienced and slower riders. On either end it had traits that just plain outshined the four-strokes. The lightness in weight and feeling being number one, power right behind that. Smooth and potent, mellow and aggressive, it was a sort of Jekyll and Hyde that was whatever you wanted it to be and never the other. It’s also the low price leader by a few hundred bucks.The KTM 400 would be the first bike most would recommend without knowing much, or anything, about the rider since it is so versatile and comfortable. It does it all and really doesn’t stand out in any particular area. The 400 size, just like on the Berg, makes the most of plenty of power without the girth; the balance a lot of riders find themselves searching for when the trails are calling.So if we stacked the comparison with the best of the midsized maximum versatility machines, we’re guilty. You win.
6’2″/260 lb/Intermediate/KTM 300 XC
We spent two full days testing these three bikes in the desert with tight single-track, rocks, sand, hills, drops, cactus and other sharp plants, creeks and speed sections. Our riding was mainly focused on trails that covered the first through fourth gears and threw in a few fifth- and sixth-gear sections. I come from years of riding a KTM 300 EXC and I like two-strokes, but I was excited to ride these four-stroke bikes. I occasionally race a hare scramble, qualifier or GP. When I go riding with friends, I like to ride technical single-track.After spending some time on these three bikes, I can say that fuel injection is awesome. The Berg’s motor is very responsive, pulls hard and chugs up hills. The KTM 400 is super linear and smooth, but has good power to haul my big size up hills and accelerate out of turns. The KTM 300 has some great snap and loads of power. It accelerates strong and pulls hard, but can break the rear wheel loose when conditions are not optimal. It can chug when needed, but not like the fuel-injected Husaberg. KTM suspension was the most balanced and the lighter weight and feel of the 300 gave it a better feel on the trail. The Husaberg has a very light feeling front end that makes it turn well on tight trails, but my weight upset the suspension and caused the front end to push and get awkward at times, throwing my balance off. The KTM 400 is well balanced and stable. All three were undersprung for my weight, and I would need new springs to get the most out of any of them.In stock form, all of these bikes are good. For me and my riding style and preferences, I give the KTM 300 the top honors. However, I was extremely impressed by both of the four-strokes, and they provided excellent competition for the 300. The KTM 400 is an incredible bike and was right on the heels of the 300 as my favorite. For your average weekend rider or a new dirt bike rider, the KTM 400 is a great bike. Solid, reliable and easy to ride. The Husaberg has a lot of potential. It was really good except for its handling quirks. With some good suspension tuning, the Husaberg could possibly take top honors. Any of these bikes, once set up, will provide years of smiles and off-road fun.
Scott “Trumpy” Truempi
6’1″/185 lb/Adventurer/Suzuki RM250
At my house, we belong to the Church of Two-Stroke Smoke…soon to change! I was amazed at how quickly I felt comfortable on the thumpers. The magic button is a savior when stalling in those “worst spot for it to happen” situations. The 300/400cc bike is perfect for the extreme adventure rider, off-road racer or trail rider. I like the way these newer four-stroke motors rev out. The Husaberg was my favorite bike to ride in race mode; the sound of it makes you want to twist it harder. The KTM 400 is a confidence-inspiring bike, great for wheelies. They both have the snort to power up loose, steep hillclimbs and the prowess to handle the most technical, rooty, tight woods trail. They simply make life easier. I learned that a purpose-built off-road bike is a cut above the converted moto bikes that I’ve been riding off-road. It might be time to buy a new ride! This off-road shootout was a huge event in my life that will never be forgotten and a story I will tell many times over the years, especially to my club, Sons of the Dirt MC.Doug Hoffer
6’0″/235 lb/Novice/KTM 525 SX
The KTM 300 XC-W is the bike that does it for me. I have heard the engine described as “four- stroke-like” and one guy even called it a “three-stroke.” I call it electric. The nastier the trail, the more it works. The bottom-end power pulled me up hills I never should have attempted. It just keeps turning. I also became very fatigued riding the other bikes. This bike is easy to turn and handles very well. It was a bit unstable in deep sand, but that is very minor. The suspension felt a bit firm for me. I probably should have tried a click or two on the compression, but again, very minor. The rougher and more technical the terrain became, the more I liked this bike. Great powerband. I abused the clutch and it was ready for more. This will be my next ride. I can ride it on my local trails, run it in some grand prix races and, with a gearing change for more top-end, even run a desert race. The bike is the total package, a winner!Want to see and learn more about our test? Check out www.dirtrider.com. And it pays to write letters, just ask these guys.