Test Ride: 2004 KTM 525 E/XC RFS

You may recall that in the November 2002 issue Editor-in-Chief Ken Faught found the 2003 KTM 525 E/XC to be "one of the best off-road motorcycles ever built." He thought the combination of virtually unlimited torque, solid yet plush handling and comfortable ergonomics was just the ticket for the high-altitude trail riding of the Parts Unlimited Rocky Mountain 300 dealer ride. One of the main beauties of the 525 is, of course, torque. And at 10,000 feet, when most other mounts feel about as powerful as a skateboard, the big KTM still has boost to spare. In fact, it has so much reserve power that riders hardly noticed the almost 20 percent loss from lack of oxygen at that altitude.We already knew that the 2004 525 E/XC would be awesome in the mountains, but we just couldn't resist testing it at the inaugural CycleFest held in late August at Copper Mountain outside Breckenridge, Colorado. Multitime Champion Hillclimber and 24-Hour guest tester Travis Whitlock, who, besides being the king of hillclimbing, is also an excellent off-road rider, figured the KTM 525 would be the right choice for those trails. And as anticipated, the big bike didn't disappoint. The motor makes it the ultimate cheater bike at elevation. Talk about a technical advantage; whoever was riding the 525, whether a champion or not, was instantly granted superhero powers and could easily negotiate the gnarliest climb, navigate the worst rocky trail, wheelie on demand and powerslide like the best supermoto racer. How can you argue with that kind of mechanical wizardry? Well, in this Rocky Mountain state, you just can't.But, of course, not all riders live and ride in Colorado, and not all trails in the rest of the country are relatively fast and open. So to find out how the big bike would fare in the tighter conditions of eastern-style woods riding, we procured another sweet 525 E/XC to test at the Fourth Annual UP 300 in Marquette, Michigan. This is the third of the trilogy of Parts Unlimited-promoted events for its best off-road dealers, and it is laid out and organized by Dick Burleson, as it is in his backyard. Most of the trails were part of a National enduro put on by the Sandstormers ORV Club of Marquette. And to give you an idea of the tightness of this terrain, six-time National Enduro Champion Mike Lafferty dropped 55 points en route to the overall victory at the Sandstormers' event. Organizers laid out and arrowed more than 100 miles of the most awesome single-track trails for the dealers and, for added entertainment, built a mile-long grass-track special test on a hillside.On these compact trails, the big thumper is a little less of an advantage. The super-friendly power of the engine makes gobbling up the mileage quickly a low-effort deal, but in the tight, twisty trails, the bike requires noticeably more effort than its smaller 450cc sibling. The motor is more linear than the 450 but less agile at really low speeds. The fun factor is high on faster trails and the user-friendly power is great for trail riding, but Burleson felt the bike was a bit of a handful for racing in the eastern woods. Of course, he's only 150 pounds on a wet day. For a much-bigger and -stronger rider, the 525 comes into its own.But enough about the scenery; the bike is the main point here, and although the bike earned glowing reviews in '02, KTM didn't let any moss grow under these wheels. For '04, all the E/XC RFS models received major chassis updates, from the rear subframe to the suspension. Without a doubt, these changes make a great bike even better.How are the Changes?Surprisingly, the changes to the chassis offer more improvement to the package than we expected. The combination of the taller handlebar and the new rear subframe, which gives a lower seat height, brings the bike more into the mainstream, ergonomically speaking. Now you feel more "in" the bike than "on" it. And while the seat won't be characterized as plush, its firmness does give the rider better feel and input to control the bike. Additionally, the suspension on both ends has been much improved. Both the shock and fork have better compliance and a reduced tendency to glance off square edges while keeping the bike up in the travel. Rocky and rooty terrain highlight this gain especially well. One of the best advances of the '04 525 was the additional 10mm of wheelbase. Now it keeps the front end much more planted on the ground, making it way easier to climb hills and find traction.While the chassis of the 450 and 525 E/XCs are identical, the engines feature different crankshafts and pistons and as a result have distinctly dissimilar characters. Even though they are virtually the same weight, the 450 has a lighter feel overall as a result of the rotational dynamics of the engine. Since the 450 can be flicked around easier, it is more suited to tighter, snaking trails; the 525 is reluctant to change directions quickly and longs for the open trail, where its huge torque can be used. The power delivery is also quite different--the 450 provides more-explosive, quicker-revving power, while the 525 seems to have a bottomless well of torque and a smooth, linear power buildup.Who Should Buy this Bike?If you transport your motorcycle in a Dodge Cummins diesel pickup--with a "chip," of course--then this is the bike for you. If you love to ride open trails and want power to spare, this is the bike for you. It is powerful and easy to ride, has a comfortable cockpit and solid production quality and meets even the most-stringent sound requirements in the country. It doesn't need to be revved to go fast--as a result, fuel mileage is pretty good for trail exploring. Big guys will also love the 525, with its ample torque, friendly powerband to cart them around and a quiet exhaust note to boot. The bottom line is the '04 KTM 525 E/XC RFS can satisfy most any need for speed with style and grace. So if you can have only one bike to do everything on, this may be the one for you.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ride the new 525 and the 450 back-to-back. At 9000 to 13,000 feet, the 525 still had great power. Whenever you need to jump a gap over a stream or launch off a rock to clear a log, power is always available. The suspension is also really good. The front end seemed ragged through the big rocks and abrupt edges in stock form; we backed off a few clicks on compression and tinkered with rebound, and the performance was much better.The shock worked well on every type of terrain we encountered. Whether we were climbing hills, dropping down streams or hitting baseball-size rocks at speed, I knew I could trust the rear end. It stuck to the ground and soaked up most everything. I also love the clutch. It's awesome and has a short range of engagement, plus a great feel. It never faded when used hard, and the pull on the lever is really easy. I found myself using one finger most of the time. The brakes are also really good and have plenty of stopping power.I'm a big fan of KTM ergonomics. I really like the footpeg, seat and handlebar positions. The bar sits high, allowing you to maneuver it easily. Because the bike is very slender and doesn't feel like an Open-classer, you can throw it around more than you would expect. On this model, however, one of my few complaints was the seat. I liked the seat height, but the seat itself felt hard, and after 100 miles, your butt will definitely know you've ridden some good mileage.I was surprised the 525 overheated when other bikes such as the KTM 450 E/XC, Suzuki DR-Z400 and Yamaha WR450F did not. I understand that Dirt Rider's '03 model also overheated easily. This wasn't a big problem, because we were dishing out some abuse, but it's something we have to acknowledge. Overall, the bike is awesome, and I would have no problems recommending it to any serious off-road rider.
Travis Whitlock/5'10"/175 lb/ExpertFor 2004, the KTM four-stroke E/XC models all have a new rear subframe, seat, rear plastic fender and number plates. On paper, this doesn't seem like a big deal--BNG (Bold New Graphics), so what? But on dirt, it is a big deal. The combination of the new 12mm-taller handlebar, lowered rear subframe and seat has enhanced the cockpit. On earlier models I always felt "on top of" the bike and not "in" it. The new chassis gives me much more confidence and comfort in my riding position on the bike. But, of course, that is the same with all three of the E/XC RFS models--the 250, 450 and 525.The beauty of the 250 is that it has a much lighter feel than its two big brothers, but frankly, it doesn't have enough beans for my needs. The 450 E/XC has the boost to go fast, with a somewhat explosive delivery, but still feel reasonably light on the trail. The 525, on the other hand, reminds me of a car I had in college. My mother gave me a '64 Buick convertible with a V6, and I found a 389 GTO Tri-power motor and bolted it in to make a basic instant muscle car. It would smoke the tires and cruise at what seemed like a million miles per hour, but when it came time to turn or stop, it was "whoa Nelly." That's what the 525 is: tons of torque and loads of fun, but for the tight trails I usually ride and for my size, the dynamics of the engine are too much for me; I prefer my bikes (and cars, think WRX/STi) a little smaller. The power delivery is super-smooth and the longer swingarm allows the bike to find traction, but on tight trails, I guess I'm just not the man I thought I was in college.
Dick Burleson/5'7"/150 lb/AA riderI am impressed with this motorcycle. So far I have more than 300 Colorado high-altitude miles on it and enjoyed several outings through our local trails and even a few laps on the motocross track at Hungry Valley, and I have yet to change a part and have hardly turned a wrench. It has mounds of the most-likable and easy-to-use power and enough gearing to water your eyes and turn your hair white. The suspension is plush, the steering and chassis balance is vastly improved and I'm as happy as a pig in slop. You see, Ken Faught got the 450 E/XC first, and he likes it so much I get to keep the 525. Life is sooo good. Now if it would just rain in California!
Karel Kramer/6'1"/200 lb/Intermediate

The 2004 KTMs have much- improved suspension; a day of Colorado rocks may leave you smiling!
Power is up, and the clutch feels better and survives abuse better.
High-altitude wheelie? No problem with the big 525 mill; just twist the throttle!