In the space of a few short years KTM has risen from a motocross and supercross nonentity to a powerhouse with a major presence in the pits and in the point standings. Rather than being surprised when a European-made KTM wins at the national level, knowledgeable fans are baffled when it doesn't win—or at least podium regularly. There is no doubt KTM has a team of very talented riders, but the Austrian company also gives those riders the equipment they need to do battle at the highest levels of motocross. And that is just here in the United States. In other countries, the picture is even brighter. KTM fields the premier motocross and supercross team in Australia and is considered the elite team in every class in Europe.In addition to all the trophies and championships those talented riders bring to KTM, their combined knowledge is a mother lode that KTM has mined with excellent results. Even in '03 KTM's machinery boasted outstanding levels of standard equipment and the best clutch action in the business. Plus, with rare exceptions, KTMs have the most powerful motors in their classes. For '04, reacting to knowledge gleaned from their customers and riders, the Austrian firm concentrated on tweaking the ergonomics, stiffening the chassis and advancing the suspension potential of its machines. There were also detail changes for reliability, and even a few for added engine performance. Chassis and engine changes are aimed at improving ridability. The complete list of refinements for 2004 add up to a vastly improved motocross lineup, not to mention a jam-packed model line with a bike for every motocrosser you can think of, from 50cc to 525cc. A handful of 50s and a 65 are joined by an 85 and a 105, and the line is even fleshed out by a potent 200. Both the 85 and 200 were available in '03 in limited numbers, but they will be produced to meet demand for '04. No Japanese company has a lineup of motocross weapons that is close to KTM's in breadth.The suspension of the '03 models held them back in our comparisons with Japanese machinery, so the suspension upgrade makes this coming year in motocross look much more interesting.125 SXThis bike rated third in our '03 125cc shootout (Jan. '03), but it earned that rank on the strength of its mega motor. At any rpm a bit above idle, the 125 SX engine is fast and responsive, and its power comes through with a meaty, torquey feeling that pulls you out of turns and lofts you over jumps.On the other hand, any rider who was the right size for a 125 found the ergonomics a bit stretched out and the suspension almost firm enough to race with the girlfriend on the back. Brilliant standard-equipment levels and that superb engine, which is both powerful and easy to ride, kept the bike in the hunt. In addition to all the other detail improvements made to the 125 SX, KTM actually specified a suspension setup that works for light riders. For the first time heavier riders have to work at getting a stiff enough setting. But for a 125, that is definitely an improvement.Many of the suspension changes that KTM engineered into the '04s were aimed at keeping the rear shock from transferring too much load onto the front of the chassis. The changes worked for a more balanced suspension but also made the handling lighter, more consistent and more precise. Overall, the chassis is a much better match for the magic motor.200 SXWhy a 200cc motocrosser? That's a fair question, but there are good answers. The first is that KTM made its current fortune building bikes that have a pool of customers waiting who don't see the bike they want out in dealership land. There are many small and light riders in the 125cc class who would like to also ride the 250cc class but aren't comfortable with the weight or power of a full-blown 250cc two-stroke. And at the other end of the spectrum from those light young guns are vet and senior riders who used to love 125s but find them too much of a handicap for their run-what-ya'-brung age classes. A 125 has no hope of a decent start, but a 38-horsepower 200 has a shot.So if you fit any of these descriptions or are stricken with a sickness for light and powerful two-stroke motocrossers, the 200 SX is your prescription. The 200 engine is derived from the 200 M/XC off-road weapon, but don't confuse the 200 SX with a mild-motored trail engine in an MX chassis. The 200 hits hard and strong in the mid then revs like a 125. It isn't for the faint of heart or bashful of throttle, but it is big fun in a compact package.250 SXIf Dr. Jekyll was a motocrosser, the '03 250 SX would have been his mascot. There has never been a production two-stroke 250 with a motor as downright gnarly. It hit hard and pulled strong to the tune of nearly 50 ponies—yikes! Its chassis wasn't as well-mannered as the 125 SX's, either. So for 2004, KTM spent the most time and effort on the 250 SX. It got the same chassis upgrades as its siblings, but its engine was treated to a dose of manners. The power is still potent but broader, smoother and more likely to be put to the track and not your elbow. Life is tough for the 250 SX. Not only does it have a packed class of stellar machines to compete with but it has to keep an eye on little brother 200 and big brother 450.
450 SX RFSMotocross 450cc four-strokes are rapidly improving, and we love 'em, but they are gaining some of the traits of 500cc two-stroke motocrossers. The class leaders are running right at 50 horses and have serious bark in the midrange. That bark and power are big fun while you are fresh, but there are riders who like the smooth, tractable feel of a more traditional four-stroke. Compared with older KTM four-stroke weaponry, the 450 is more snappy and quicker revving but goes without the midrange bite of the Honda or Yamaha meat eaters. For serious powermongers that may be a handicap, but for most of us the KTM is an easier, less tiring ride than the barkmasters.The 450 SX is slim and light feeling, with a chassis that is both nimble yet fairly relaxed at speed. Smaller riders aren't dwarfed, but the four-position handlebar clamps allow a rider to fine-tune the riding position to suit a wide variety of body types. With the plusher suspension for '04, it is in the hunt. And if you absolutely, positively have to have massive boost ...525 SX RFSThere is the 525 SX. It is the undisputed powerhouse of four-stroke motocross, but even with massive boost available at virtually any rpm, the engine remains a willing and unpicky starter and, once rolling, has power so smooth as to seem docile. That is until you notice that berms are disappearing in your wake and you start to routinely overjump the biggest leaps at the track. You can work the more modest parts of the powerband to good effect and even keep the suspension more unloaded and free than you can with the 450 SX. The 450 also makes big power but asks more rpm in return. If you ever considered yourself an Open class fan, you'll find the 525 gives you all the meat of a 500cc two-stroke but in a slim and modern package that is much easier to handle.So what if you can't race it in a supercross or AMA 250cc National any longer? There are plenty of classes to choose from at local races. Go ahead, grab more than your share of holeshots and enjoy yourself.Opinions