2016 KTM 450 SX-F - First Impression

So You Wanna Be A Champion?

2016 KTM 450 SX-F
The bottom end of the 450 SX-F’s power spread is now more usable but still very strong, while the mid-to-top peak power is very lively, exciting, and racy.

As it does every year, KTM used 2016 as an opportunity to throw a number of updates on these main model ranges with the shared goal of increasing power, improving handling, and lowering the overall weight of each machine. Much like the 2015.5 450 SX-F Factory Edition—which proved to be a good marker of what we would eventually see in 2016—KTM’s flagship motocross model features substantial engine and chassis changes that basically amount to more power and less weight. The redesigned powerplant boasts reduced overall length and width, new engine cases for more centralized rotating mass, a lighter DDS clutch and 5-speed transmission, updated WP radiators, and a reworked 44mm throttle body. The cylinder/head/piston/connecting rod/crankshaft have all been changed to produce more power within a lighter, more compact configuration, and a lithium-ion battery now comes stock on the motorcycle. Most noticeable from the outside is the updated Flow Design Header (FDH) with its oddly two-stroke-like integrated sound resonator (the U.S.-spec silencer is now 40mm shorter). KTM also equipped this motorcycle with its own version of electronic Launch Control.

As expected, the SX-F lineup received the Factory Edition’s changed frame, which is reduced in weight compared to the 2015’s and also features higher torsional rigidity with less longitudinal stiffness. The footpegs, swingarm and subframe are all lighter; the airbox and filter have also been updated, but are still tool-less and actually much easier to pop into place. Thankfully, the new Neken handlebar is now rubber-mounted within the CNC machined top triple clamp. Lock-on ODI grips are a stock component in 2016. Finally, the WP 4CS fork has updated damping settings, while the new generation WP shock has been developed to work with the updated frame and includes a new linkage/pullrod system.

2016 KTM 450 SX-F
KTM is moving in the right direction as far as suspension goes. The revised WP 4CS fork features plusher mid-stroke action than before but retains plenty of hold up.

KTM claims that there is a 7.9-pound weight reduction on the 2016 450 SX-F when compared to the 2015 model. As you may remember, KTM claimed that the 2015 KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition was 10.3 pounds lighter than the 2015 450 SX-F Standard Edition, but the Dirt Rider scales (which, like George Washington, cannot lie) indicated that the difference between our two testbikes was actually 12 pounds. We have yet to weigh the 2016 for ourselves, but let's hope that KTM is once again being conservative in its measurements, because that could mean a nearly 10-pound actual weight reduction over last year's model!

As you may recall, we felt that the 2015.5 Factory Edition had less exciting power than the 2015 Standard Edition, but it was also broader and more usable with outstanding straight-line acceleration. The new 2016 mirrors these traits, with smoother, strong roll-on power that can pull any gear. The bottom end of the spread is now more usable but still very strong, while it’s the mid-to-top peak power where this 450 earns the “SX-F” part of its model designation. The bike takes on a faster, more aggressive personality at higher RPM, with that same twist-it-and-hang-on acceleration that caused us to compare prior versions of this bike to a fighter jet (those who want fighter jet feel will have a blast playing with the adjustable mapping). The revised DDS clutch seems to be good fit for the 450 SX-F; with a light and precise feel, it greatly helps modulate the power and promote connectivity between the throttle hand and the rear tire. This KTM resists breaking loose (that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen), but there is certainly no delay when you get on the gas and traction is not hard to find.

2016 KTM 450 SX-F
A much lighter overall weight allows the 450 SX-F to initiate corners quickly and effortlessly, even if a direction change is required where there is no berm or rut to bank off.

The Launch Control mode is interesting, mainly because it is one of the first that we’ve tried that actually makes a measurable difference off the line. Starting the motor and immediately toggling the map select switch activate this feature; the FI light in front of the top clamp will subsequently blink repeatedly to let the rider know that the system is activated. When engaged, KTM’s Launch Control limits the engine to an 8,000-9,000 RPM rev ceiling (depending on the bike and what map it is in) before the clutch is dropped. As the bike accelerates over and beyond the starting gate, the rev limit gradually increases until the bike reaches maximum RPM after approximately two seconds, at which point the mapping returns to normal. Unlike other Launch Control modes that are disengaged when the bike clicks third gear, KTM’s is based on RPM/duration and thus can’t be used for trail riding. In repeated starts with and without Launch Control, we noticed an audible, measurable difference when not using it. With Launch Control activated, we found that traction was increased and that we had to work the clutch way less to keep the front end of the bike down.

The balance of the 450 SX-F’s rear suspension was spot on for our biggest, fastest tester (185 pounds, pro) and overly stiff for our smaller, slower guys (165 pounds, intermediates). Interestingly enough, the shock spring is actually lighter (48 N/m, versus 57 N/m in 2015) due to the revised linkage system that gives the bike 10mm of additional travel in the rear. The stock rebound settings are quick but have a light feel at the end of the stroke, causing the shock to regain its composure quickly on minor hits but blow through when really pushed deep into the stroke. Given that we had a limited amount of time to test this bike, we did not get to play with the shock’s settings as much as we wanted, but our testers found better action both in high-speed compression changes and in increasing the race sag 2-4mm. The revised WP 4CS fork features plusher mid-stroke action than in year’s past but retain plenty of hold up. Tracking was good over braking bumps and the front end did not dive too hard, even under heavy braking.

The chassis is much better this year on all the KTM models, but the most noticeable difference is on the 450 SX-F—the effects of a good diet are hard to ignore! We had some issues last year with the 450 being unstable and less than predictable in turns that didn't have a rut or berm to hold the rider in. If the turn was flat, you almost always expected the front to push away or the rear to step out, and even in a rut there were some additional cornering issues. Well, this 2016 is completely opposite; the lighter handling causes the bike to initiate corners quickly and effortlessly, even if a direction change is required where there is no berm or rut to bank off. Our confidence in the flex characteristics of the new frame is high, as we were able to charge around the track with more faith in the overall balance of the big KTM. Bear in mind that while the test track had some decent ruts and bumps, it never got too sickeningly rough, so we are still looking forward to taking the bike to a track that features some mega-sized chop.

2016 KTM 450 SX-F side view
KTM’s new bodywork styling is clean and simple. The bike now feels slimmer and more like a Japanese model than in year’s past.

As you can see, KTM went with a clean and simple style theme for the updated bodywork. Although the shrouds don’t provide the best gripping contour (as opposed to a bike where an average-size rider can lock his or her knees in against the shape of the plastic), the mating surface allows you to get a good hold on the bike. Overall, the bike feels slimmer and less foreign in comparison to the Japanese models, and the rubber-mounted handlebar clamp is a welcome reprieve from some of the vibration issues that plagued this bike in the past (interesting note: the ‘new generation’ Neken handlebar feels stiffer than last year’s. We’re not sure if this is a function of the rubber mounted clamps, or if the updated bar flexes differently, but it’s something we noticed.) True to KTM’s claims, the all-new shift tip doesn’t pack with dirt, but it does get slippery when wet. We had no major complaints about the ODI grips, but we will gripe about the bike’s frame color—orange would look so much sharper!

As is the case every year, we’re going to continue evaluating the new KTM models right up until the 2016 shootout season, where all of the orange machines will go head-to-head with the rest of the class. Stay tuned to dirtrider.com for more information, and feel free to email or message us with any questions you have about these motorcycles.