Test Ride: KTM 250 & 450 E/XC RFS

How can two off-road bikes look so alike and yet be so different? That's the question that came to mind while testing both the 250cc and 450cc versions of the '04 KTM enduro four-strokes. We were in Ontario, Canada, filming the first episode of "Dirt Rider Adventures" for the Outdoor Life Network, and we had the two brand-new, zero-miles E/XCs to use in the show. The 450 was designated for Editor-in-Chief Ken Faught, and the 250 was for show host Molly Culver. We were able to ride both bikes and explore some awesome trails and terrain in our first test of these new mounts.The 250 and 450 share virtually identical chassis specifications and many of the same basic engine castings. In fact, the displacement stickers on the sides of the bike are the only quick way to determine which is which! But the reality is that these two offerings are as different in their performance characteristics as they are similar in appearance.Faught, Adventure Travel Editor Lee Klancher, actress/host Culver (a former tough-girl star from the "V.I.P." series with Pamela Anderson) and eight-time National Enduro Champion Dick Burleson, along with domestiques Jeff San George and Mark Frederick, all met in Elliot Lake, Ontario, for the first episode of our new television show. The show's focus is exploring real off-road adventures that are accessible to everyone, not just elite riders, and for the debut our base camp was the beautiful Laurentian Lodge.The site was originally a fishing and hunting lodge on Flack Lake about three hours from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan--basically in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it's so far out there that Culver flew in on an ancient Beaver floatplane with her KTM strapped onto a pontoon. The lodge--which offers camping, new rooms on the beach, a grand banquet room and a beautiful restaurant built from indigenous logs--was home for three days of extensive riding and filming and some lake trout fishing, with which we had some success. Virtually unlimited snowmobile and ATV trails surround the lodge, providing an excellent location for the outdoor powersport-oriented enthusiast. While most of the trails are built and used by quads, the rocky, hilly and woody terrain offers scenic and challenging trails for all off-roaders.What we confirmed immediately was that the 450 E/XC is a serious race bike right out of the crate. It comes complete with lights, a USFS-approved spark arrestor, a 96-decibel muffler, an electronic speedometer/odometer/clock and a fuel tank large enough for some serious exploring, not to mention the powerful yet controllable engine. Unchanged from 2003 except for the clutch, the engine is a powerhouse, with strong bottom power, a big burst in the middle and a top-end approaching 90 mph with stock gearing. The new exhaust system helps the engine to provide a stronger torque curve than the '03 model. The wide-ratio gearbox has a low first gear for rock crawling which, when combined with the perfected hydraulic clutch, lets the rider explore any and all terrain.In contrast, the 250cc version has to be revved to make any real power. The carburetion was a little lean out of the crate, but after we richened the needle one clip position, the engine carbureted perfectly. No one would call the bottom power strong; nonetheless, the motor will pull along smoothly and then rev out on top with good power. Where the 450 barks--and wheelies--the 250 accelerates in a friendly way, perfect for less skilled or less aggressive riders. The 250 gearbox is also a hybrid, exclusive to this engine, and has very close spacing, helping to keep the engine working at its best. The downside of the gearbox is a limited top speed of slightly more than 60 mph, but that's enough for the intended customer. In a further effort to help the motor's performance, the 250 comes with a non-O-ring chain, which has less drag. While an O-ring is de rigueur for off-road racing, KTM has specified a high-quality chain that needed only one adjustment during the three days.Because we were able to switch back and forth between the bikes, we discovered just how large an effect engine characteristics have on the handling of the machine. Even though the frame, suspension and engine placement is the same, the 250 has a much lighter overall feel. It's more flickable on tight trails and stops and turns with less effort. On the other side of the coin, though, the 450's front end actually feels a little lighter due to much more available torque from the bigger motor.What was surprising was that even though the 250 doesn't have a big hit, after getting used to almost constantly revving the engine, we could actually go pretty fast on the bike. Riding it like a 125 is the key. Fortunately, the hydraulic clutch makes this style of riding manageable, with easy pull and consistent engagement. And if you don't want to go at a race pace, the 250 will move along in a very comfortable way, since the state-of-the-art, race-ready chassis can handle virtually any terrain with ease. While the 250 isn't for the serious racer, it offers a major step up from the 250cc four-stroke trailbikes in both chassis performance and overall quality of components. The combination of the new exhaust and a compression ratio that has been upped to 12:1 has improved the overall performance of the motor from the '03 model. The electric start is the icing on the cake, making the package the best choice for a less experienced rider.For pure adrenaline-packed performance in an off-road setup, the 450 E/XC is the way to go. The stiffer frame helps keep the bike in line, and the new suspension settings and straight-rate shock spring hold the bike up in the travel better than previous models, noticeably reducing squat on acceleration. The only drawback is the high seat height, caused by the SX style seat. While it looks as if there are 4 inches of foam padding, the seat base is undercut to increase the volume of the airbox, reducing the effective foam to less than 2 inches. Tall riders such as Mike Lafferty love the new seat, but short guys such as Burleson struggle to maintain balance in dicey situations. Since the power of the motor is so strong, it would seem that a flatter seat base wouldn't noticeably reduce the power yet would vastly improve the seat comfort and height.So while these machines basically look the same, the 250 offers high-end chassis performance with a comfortable and manageable powerplant, perfect for the less experienced or less aggressive rider. The 450 is much better able to satisfy the racer in us. With the improved chassis to handle the strong motor, it can be ridden comfortably at speeds anywhere between neophyte rock crawling and National enduro champion check zeroing. And with electric start just a thumb push away, overall fatigue and time delay from starting is eliminated. It's just going to be hard to beat this combination of solid chassis performance and 450cc of right-now power that is assembled with all the necessary off-road accessories. If you have that need for real speed off-road, then the choice is clear--go orange, and go big!

The first bike I rode was the 250 E/XC. I was expecting a perfectly balanced off-road bike, and I was a little disappointed. The motorcycle does feel balanced and tight, but it wasn't as powerful or as light as I had hoped. DB was wheelying it fine, but my mortal skill level made it difficult to get the front end elevated. I also thought the power came on too late and too high in the rev range to be useful and overall power output was inadequate. The bike would be perfect for a lighter rider in super-technical terrain, but it's not light enough for me to be willing to put up with the power compromise. DB had an '03 model punched out to 300cc, and even that felt underpowered.The 450 E/XC felt just as light and tight as the 250, but it had the perfect amount of power. It pulled like a tractor down low and hit with authority in the midrange. Compared with the YZ250F and CRF450R we also had on the trip, the KTM had more bottom and midrange and top similar to the Yamaha without the vicious hit of the Honda. The front end was precise, and the bike felt flickable and friendly. I didn't even mind the hard seat that everyone complains about, at least for hard-core trail or off-road race conditions. The gearing was perfect for off-road use and the bike comes out of the box ready to go. The handlebar, controls and rims are quality items, and I wouldn't hesitate to uncrate a new bike and take it directly to the track. And though KTM doesn't recommend it, I'd love to slap on a dual-sport kit so I could transfer between riding areas. For me, this is the perfect off-road bike.
Lee Klancher/5'10"/190 lb/IntermediateI found the '04 250 four-stroke to be a very well-balanced bike. This tangerine machine exudes craftsmanship. I love the new airbox cover and the electronic speedo. Let's not forget the magic little red button. You could lose the starter and save 12 pounds; you really don't need it when a bike starts as easily as this one. The downsides are the motor and the seat. Wood is for furniture, not bike seats. The motor needs more low-end grunt. It worked really well in the tight woods, but when you needed extra boost, it required a lot of clutch and throttle. This is a great intermediate bike or small-bore project bike.I rode the 450 after getting off the 250, and all I can say is "Wow." For the East Coast, this is all the bike you'll ever need. Quality components, exceptional build and all the goodies you need to ride or race. Again, the magic red button is a dream, but it's not always needed. The 450 starts very easily. The motor is smooth and powerful with a gear for every situation. The ergonomics are spot-on. I felt at home on it; I liked the seat-tank junction along with the bend of the bar and the location of the pegs. The only drawback is the rock-hard seat. Well, the aftermarket guys will need something to do on this bike since it's so ready to ride right out of the box.
Jeff San George/5'10"/180 lb/IntermediateFirst, I must fess up that for trail riding I have a personal 2003 KTM 250 E/XC RFS, but it's a 300cc version that Thumper Racing modified with a big-bore kit. What I liked about this 250 is its lighter feel. Even though the 250 is only marginally lighter than the 450, it feels a lot lighter because of the flywheel effect, the short stroke and a slightly lower center of gravity. The 250 version has soft power, particularly bottom and mid, which forces me to rev the bike constantly, basically canceling the advantages. What I dislike about both bikes is the tall seat height. For '04, KTM stiffened up the frame and improved other chassis details, but it didn't noticeably improve the power, so I prefer my personal 300 version to this machine.The 450 motor transforms the bike into a real race machine. The motor pulls strong and hits hard. If you want to go now, and go fast, this is the bike to have. The downside is that you'd better be fit, as this bike demands your attention all the time, and 50 miles down the trail it gets to be more of a bear to wrestle. National Enduro Champion Mike Lafferty is fit, tall and strong, and he is unbelievably fast on one of these, so there you go! Not surprisingly, I'm not as fit, tall or strong as Lafferty, so for racing I like a 125 or 200. For trail riding, though, nothing else comes close to the 450. Combining an awesome motor, a refined and stable chassis and a complete enduro-ready package, the 450 does it best. Does anybody want to buy a slightly used 300?
Dick Burleson/5'8"/150 lb/Legend