—Karel KramerThe 300 WinsI’ll admit it: I’m a two-stroke–supremacy bigot. It’s a result of my upbringing, but I can’t blame anyone but myself. Every time I ride, I think I’m racing. I actually pay money and enter an event much less often than I used to, but that still means at least once a month. So I lean toward a bike that I can race. In the real world, I could race either of these KTMs, but I chose the lighter 300 because it makes me want to race.Technically speaking, the scale says the weight difference between the 300 EXC and 400 EXC is 22 pounds; but when you ride the bikes back-to-back, it feels as if the 300 is more than 22 pounds lighter. That is especially true in big bumps or quick turns. I feel the weight of the four-stroke’s battery bouncing and its overall weight in tight-turn sections. I don’t enjoy having to kickstart the 300, but I’ll take that because it fires right up, especially for a bigger-bore two-stroke.The 300′s power is about as four-stroke feeling as a two-stroke can get; we jokingly refer to it as a three-stroke. It has a clean and crisp pull down low, something older KTM 300 two-strokes could never dial in. And from there, it will bog its way into the midrange before the power valve starts to open and things begin to get serious. It’s actually a quick-accelerating motorcycle in this lower rev range, but this is deceiving because it isn’t roosting, it’s just hooking right along. Any time you touch the clutch, it zaps right to attention and works off the upper spread of zingy two-stroke rev, roosting, spinning and screaming. It has plenty of overrev, but for sure it loves the next gear.The handling and suspension could best be described as a “butter cutter,” meaning plush on stuff that would kick a motocross setup silly. The EXC tracks on the choppiest terrain and is smooth on the loose stuff, always keeping the chassis level while the wheels do all the work. On bigger hits, the progressiveness of the suspension is just about enough, but bottoming resistance is one area in which it could be stiffer for aggressive riders—just as long as WP doesn’t lose the initial plushness! And the real sweetness is its turning and flickability. As opposed to four-strokes, and even the 400 EXC, this 300 plants the front end, tells you what is going on and rewards with precise turning that we’ve never before had with KTMs. The new chassis really helps the two-stroke enduro bikes, maybe more than it did the orange MXers or even the four-strokes. And its light weight is evident as the turns become tighter or quicker, especially if the rpm are up, a common occurrence when racing. The riding position and especially the seated position of the 300 is a lot more comfortable for smaller riders than on the four-stroke EXCs, as the front end isn’t as tall and the rear of the bike feels a bit lower, yet you can still easily get forward in the turns. The 2.3-gallon gas tank tucks in tightly, even if it is a bit short on range for our tastes.Another reason the 300 appeals to me is it is pretty quiet; and, as most will attest, a two-stroke’s sound isn’t as offensive and doesn’t carry as far as a four-stroke’s. The brakes (strong and requiring a very light touch) are the same as on the four-stroke, but the bike slows much more quickly and harder. And there isn’t the “love it or hate it” compression braking to deal with either, though whether that is an advantage or a disadvantage depends on rider preference. And the one thing that really is a serious trade-off for me is the five-speed transmission of the two-stroke having to go up against the super-versatile six-speeder on the four-stroke. Although it feels as if the KTM received a bit more spacing without having serious gaps, I’m a big fan of the 400′s overdrivelike sixth speed. And you can’t ignore the price difference. The $700 left in my wallet will buy a lot of premix and race entries! When I line up at a race on this KTM 300, I know I’m not giving up anything in the power and performance equation to any bike out there. From converted motocrossers to huge horsepower four-strokes, there isn’t anything with quite the power and weight combination of the 300cc two-stroke. The 400 is close. But when racing’s the game and weight is an issue, I’m kicking it with the 300!
—Jimmy LewisWhere We TestedWe first headed for a new single-track trail-ride series in Nevada called Trac-On (702/641-6401, 702/232-6680; the dates are in the race calendar on www.dirtrider.com). Trac-On is organizing a series of five single-track trail rides a year. Each is laid out and marked like a race, so you don’t need maps, trail guides or route charts. Just head off and ride at your own pace. We attended the Nelson Hills event, just south of Las Vegas, and found it a good test of both bikes. With a variety of trails, elevation changes and terrain from soft sand to solid rock, it was like a race without the go-fast pressure. Next, we hit our favorite local trails to see where the bikes scaled compared with all the others we ride. Racing was needed, so we headed south to Mexico and entered both bikes in the Los Ancianos Tecate Hare Scrambles (www.losancianos.com). The San Diego–based club is renowned for putting on the tightest events on the western side of the continent, and this year was no exception. Finally, we flogged the bikes locally, because, well, wouldn’t you?Battle of the Middle Class
Who would have thought that in a few short years the four-stroke revolution would put such a damper on the two-stroke off-road bike’s development and sales? Well, there are those who still prefer the sweet smell of premix in the morning. So the question is, is there a best 300?KTM has an upper hand here based largely on the size and strength of its dealer network. Kind of a new position for the orange brand, huh? And for sure, we’ve grown extremely confident with the durability of the KTMs over the years, mostly due to exposure. Gas Gas, on the other hand, is a relatively new player, yet we haven’t had any issues with the two-stroke bikes we’ve tested. And its 300 has been going strong for six months now with little, if any, maintenance. But one thing is for sure: The KTM has a slightly higher level of finish.When riding these two bikes back-to-back, it is clear that both aim at accomplishing the same goal from a different path. The Gas Gas has a sharper edge. The suspension is a bit stiffer, giving the bike a more planted and solid feel. It is more stable and, surprisingly, still turns really well, better than the KTM. It has an MX-like poise without the continued MX stiffness as the bike gets into the stroke. The KTM is a little more vague in handling, which relates directly to suspension. Softer overall than the Gas Gas, the KTM has a slight wallow when being pushed hard at higher speeds and can use a steering damper in those situations. Here’s the trade-off: At a trail pace, the KTM is happier; and the Gas Gas prefers racing speeds. There is a slight midstroke harshness to the Gas Gas, whereas the KTM has to deal with bottoming. Neither issue is critical enough to cause much concern, but there is a difference nonetheless.Power characteristics also follow different lines. Both of these bikes are masters of the bog. They will run without opening the power valve and squirt along the trail just fine. Overall, the KTM has a stronger torque feel but doesn’t come on as hard when you finally unleash the ponies. The jetting on the 236-pound Gas Gas is more crucial, reminding us of older KTM 300s, as it will load up a bit more easily if run down low for a long time. When the Gas Gas comes on the pipe, it is a faster pull and revs out further than the KTM, with a louder exhaust bark, too. Bonus points to the Gas Gas for a perfectly light clutch pull controlling the six-speed tranny that adds even more versatility.So it comes down to picking your weapon. They’ll both cross the line well, as we won a race on the KTM and had plenty of fun trailing on the Gas Gas. For sure, the KTM is a safer bet in popularity and number of dealers, but Gas Gas seems to be coming on strongly. Neither 300 has a performance advantage or fault that ranks it as better or worse than the other. Read it how you like; we’re calling it a draw.