The trend these days is for narrower tanks and wider ‘hips’ (the area behind your knees) - the idea being that you can clamp the bike with your thighs in the standing position, but still ride ‘knees apart’ (trials style) for good manoeuvrability in the turns and on extreme going. And I’ve gotta’ say… it works! In addition to the new lightweight ‘look’ there are other benefits: better cooling, slim but large 9L tank (believe it or not), wider and longer rear mudguard to keep the slop off you, bigger number boards, and best of all… new incorporated lift handles in the rear fender. These work brilliantly well with ALL sizes of gloved hands, because they are positioned lower and are much larger than a conventional under-seat handle. Whoever it was at KTM who dreamed these up, deserves a medal. Lifting a wedged bike out of a rut or bog (or even just lifting it onto a stand) is now considerably easier.
The changes continue… Redesigned airbox boots are now ‘tuned’ to each of the different displacements; the wheels still feature KTM’s standard CNC machined hubs but now with zinc/nickel coated spokes and aluminium nipples offering a weight saving over the wheels of old. Oh, and the Excel rims are silver this year but with a thin black pin-stripe. Quieter silencers on both two- and four-stroke models are much more pleasing to the ears and match the latest FIM noise reduction levels. The two-strokes in particular are virtually silent on a trailing throttle!
There’s a simplified (and more efficient) cooling system thanks to redesigned pipework around the back of the rads, and the 450 and 500EXC both come fitted with cooling fans as standard. A small and efficient new fuel pump now allows you to remove a fuel line should you need to donate fuel to another rider, and all of the bikes now come with a high quality, more comprehensive toolkit.
Okay, without further ado I’ll get onto telling you about the one you’ve all been waiting for… the new 350EXC-F! I gotta’ admit although KTM were trumpeting the new 350’s arrival as something of a flagship model, it was the bike I least wanted to ride at the launch. Why? Because of my experience of the 350 so far, that’s why. This time last year I rode the 350SX-F and couldn’t see how it could possibly work in an enduro setting - too harsh, too powerful, too much. Then just a couple of months ago I rode the 350XC-F - a kind of cross-country, crossover model and once again found it too abrupt, too intense and too single-minded to work well in our environment. With its powerful MX engine overshadowing what was obviously a good chassis. Yes, you could trail ride it and race it (we did both), but our conclusions were that there were plenty of other machines that were better suited to the type of terrain we ride. In a nutshell I was worried that KTM’s uber-powerful 350 would fail to make the transformation from MX milestone to enduro excellence.
So having ridden it, what do I make of the new 350EXC-F?
Well let’s just say that there’s good and bad news. The good news is that the 350EXC-F has finally arrived. The bad news…..? Well I guess if you happen to be a rival manufacturer, I’d say that the bad news is exactly the same… that the KTM 350EXC-F has finally arrived!
It may well have marked the departure of the much-loved 400EXC, but within a minute of riding it, you will have forgotten all about the old clubman-favourite. Instead you’ll be laughing into your lid, howling into your helmet and, er… bawling into your bone-dome. This bike is not just good, it’s not just very good, it’s a deal-breaker.
Aspirational, inspirational and for all I know it may well be astro-physical, such is the way in which it seems to re-define the physics of riding a dirtbike. Once or twice in every decade, a machine comes along that resets our boundaries, redefining what we expect from a dirtbike. That bike is the 350EXC-F, and this is how it does it.
Inside that twin-cam engine - modelled on the 250EXC-F lump and weighing an almost identical 28.5kg - is a flat-topped piston that when combined with a slightly longer cylinder than the SX-F, drops the compression ratio down from a lively 13.5 to a more sensible 12.3:1. That my friends, is crucial to managing the 350’s rideability and when combined with enduro-specific cams, a heavier crankshaft and a slightly different counter-balancer, produces a bike which is not only incredibly fun to ride, but also amazingly potent, yet at the same time surprisingly docile for the average rider.
Let me be completely up-front about this - because this is key to the KTM’s acceptance in this market place - had KTM lost sight of what the EXC tag stands for (rideability, raceability, but above all… useable fun) then they may well have produced a title-winning racer but failed to shift barely any units to the general public. A bit like Aprilia did with their 450RXV when Merriman took it to E2 victory. Fortunately for them (and us) they didn’t. From the moment you park butt on the 350EXC-F’s saddle you realise that the experience is going to be revelatory.
The bike is slim - like the 250EXC-F - and it feels even slimmer this year thanks to the redesigned bodywork. So you feel like you’re riding a small/light/controllable bike. Confidence aboard a motorcycle is everything, because in my head it gives me the green light to explore and exploit a bike’s limits, safe in the knowledge that I’m gonna’ stay out of trouble.
The EXC350 feels like that - not so small that taller riders won’t like it (unless you happen to be over about six-foot-four), and not so small that it feels cramped (though it certainly feels well-packaged). Nope, KTM have pitched it just about right so it’s big enough to feel secure on the going, yet small enough to hustle easily through rocks and trees.