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RUST heads to Romania for the launch of the 2015 KTM EXCs…

Romania is a fascinating country, from historic myths of vampire rulers to more recent recounts of revolution. And the countryside can present a real culture shock; not only the way of life within the rural communities but the wildlife too – in the UK no-one questions the likelihood of seeing wolves, or what to do if you come across a bear. But, despite the chances of even glimpsing one being incredibly slim, ursine encounters were covered in the briefing at the 2015 KTM EXC launch. Just in case…

But why choose Romania’s Carpathian mountains to reveal the latest range, rather than the more-or-less guaranteed sunshine of Spain or Italy? Because, quite simply, it’s enduro Mecca – one look at any Red Bull Romaniacs footage should tell you that (the four-day extreme event runs through the Carpathians).  You can ride almost anywhere on this stunning terrain, and unless you’re being really stupid, dirt bikes seem to be welcomed by all.

Not only was the venue a departure from the norm but the launch format also differed from what we’re used to. Normally there’s a venue, out of which an enduro loop radiates, and often a taped special test too, and you book a time-slot on whichever model you fancy. This time we’d be spending an entire day out on the ‘trails’,  swapping bikes with each other whenever the opportunity allowed.

Most of the 2015 mods are detail changes and refinements – some across the entire range, others model specific. To my eyes the ’15 EXCs are one of the best looking of recent years – the latest slimline bodywork wears some new graphics, balancing just the right amount of orange, white and black, and the grey frame of last year’s bikes is now bright orange.

The wheel rims come from the cycle brand Giant, and are black (careful with those tyre levers, Eugene..!)  rather than silver, and similarly there’s a new set of black Neken handlebars in place of the silver versions used for 2014. The clocks have also been updated, and whilst the new unit looks similar to the outgoing part, it is more modern, far easier to read on the move, and features a set of idiot lights offset to the right.

What you won’t notice just by looking is the new, thinner-walled (and therefore lighter)  swingarm, nor the softer grips, or the handguards using new materials for improved strength. Any further changes are model, or engine-type specific, so let’s get rolling to find out what’s new…

Good Woods

From the off I’m aboard the 250EXC-F. Really, there isn’t a better bike with which to cosset the travel-weary, warm-up on, and get a feel for the day ahead. Indeed, the first trail of the day sets the tone beautifully. A sharp right off a mountain road not 400 yards from our hotel and we’re ascending through the beech and conifer trees on a tight singletrack.

Grip abounds, so the loose rocks and occasional root-step present little problem, despite the steep gradient. It’s when someone ahead stops or gets caught-out by a fallen tree that things become tricky. Invariably halted on the steepest section, or right on the edge of a rock-step, inching forward on the merest whiff of throttle is the only way to get going again without the rear Maxxis tearing fruitlessly at the hillside.

Although the 250’s recent switch to the 350EXCF-architecture has filled-in the 250’s bottom-end, it’s still JUST a 250 and therefore it’s easy to balance the low-end power to find that grip. And, of course, when you simply can’t get going again and are forced to change line on such a slope, the bike’s light weight and easy manners make it simple to choose another path between the trees.

Having got-on-up we then get-on-down, dropping through the woods apace before emerging in a grassy clearing where a course has been taped-out. Again the little four-stroke is the epitome of light handling, and is incredibly easy to navigate through the acute turns. However, far more fun than the tight corners and short straights is the rest of the 2km course, which heads back up the hill and then turns to drop down the ridgeline.

High up, the narrow track demands caution, with roots and boulders forming steps, and channels washed out by the mountain rain dictating the line you take. As momentum and confidence builds, so the lower section smoothes out and flows between the trees like a slalom run, before turning back towards the start.

Wider than before, the trail weaves along and is open enough to roll back the throttle and pull taller gears. For 2015 the Austrian engineers have altered the ratio of sixth gear, making it taller and ultimately allowing the motor an easier time on the very fastest sections of track or road work, whilst providing a higher top speed when conditions allow.

KTM use the word ‘overdrive’  to describe it, and it certainly takes the edge off the revs – like flicking that little gear lever-mounted switch on an old MGB. The gap between fifth and sixth isn’t the yawning chasm that you’d experience on, say, a trials bike, though you’ll sometimes find it quicker to hang onto fifth and let the twin-cam motor work, rather than short-shifting and falling out of the power. It’ll take a long straight to exploit the increase in top speed.

Nonetheless, the change will certainly be welcomed by trail riders, who’ll find it more relaxing on the blacktop, and easier on the nerves.


You’re rarely short of speed on the 350 – its reserves are deeper, even if the power curve is (not surprisingly)  rather similar to that of the 250. Now we’re dropping down through the woods and traversing small ravines on a barely established track, and that bit more oomph comes in handy when floating the bike over channels cut by fast-flowing streams or maintaining momentum onto short-sharp climbs.

It’s welcome on the flowing trails which traverse the hills too, where you roll the power on and off, and can do so without the bike leaping away from you with every tug of the cables. Just as well given the slippery mud, occasional root-step and the precipitous drop off the side…

Climbing higher, the mud subsides and the track turns to loose stone and slab. Again the user-friendly nature and light feel of the 350 make easy work of the unpredictable surface – maintaining momentum is a cinch and picking a path through the frequent rock steps demands nothing more than a dash of body English and the occasional off-the-throttle wheelie to avoid pinching the front tube on a sharp-edged stone.

It’s not quite as nimble-feeling as its little brother but it’s not far off, and when the track opens out the ride is less frantic, especially on the climbs where it simply surges upwards, the fast-building revs allowing you to modulate the drive without falling out of the power and having to drop a gear.

This extra torque affords you the opportunity to worry less about the ride and more about the view. Looking out across the forests and valleys I spot the tiny wooden shelters where the shepherds spend their nights. And, when one of the shepherds’ dogs – sizeable beasts trained to chase away anything which may threaten the herd (usually bears and wolves rather than dirtbikes…)  – gets into its stride, a little extra throttle pulls your clear of its jaws.

Changes to the 350 are largely inline with the rest of the four-strokes – namely a quieter pipe (more on which later),  a lighter clutch basket (welcome but you’ll do well to notice the difference),  and improved o-rings on the oil pump suction screen. Nothing major, just little details to improve the ownership experience…

Quarter Master

Above the treeline the terrain has changed again, the broad swathes of hilltop are a patchwork of sheep-manicured grass and soft dense heather, dotted with jagged rock formations. We wend our way through the shrubbery, picking our lines to hopefully avoid boulders hidden within and skip off the ramp-like rocks. Taking a turn aboard the 250 2T, the bike pops off the jumps and glides over unseen dips like it’s filled with helium. Incredibly light, it reacts immediately yet predictably to every tiny input.

The 250 we had for our 2T shootout (click here for that feature )  was jetted leaner than this one, reacting even more abruptly to every throttle input. Fabulous for XC-style racing but not so great on the trail. Fortunately, the richer settings in this bike lend it a friendlier disposition, though that isn’t the only difference.

For 2015 KTM have tweaked the powervalve set-up so that it opens 200rpm later than before. This, along with the matching carb and ignition settings, make the 250EXC wonderfully smooth.

A car-wide trail swoops across the hill – all dips and crests, sweeping corners and constant radius turns – and the 250 flows along it on its mid-range torque. The transition into the top-end comes with less of a bang, so it’s easier to toy with, and drift the back-end over each mid-corner rise.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the track narrows, until we’re on little more than a goat-track through the bushes. The pace slows right down to pootling along in third gear, careful not to catch the bars on the thicker branches or misplace the front wheel, as the foliage masks quite a drop.

Suddenly the trail points skywards, a short technical clamber up onto a fire road presents the kind of climb which you need to commit to, especially with a group of riders in your wheel tracks. With a gentle twist of the throttle the 250 responds with a deep ‘Bwooar’  and drives effortlessly forward. The back wheel hops off rocks but the drive forward is relentless – there’s not even the need to slip the clutch – and we pop out into the open using just the midrange drive of the quarter-litre stroker.

The fireroad presents a chance to open up the motor and, having dipped into the top-end rush and hauled it back down for the hairpins, it drifts wonderfully through the turns thanks to the smooth transition in power. Then it’s yet another long rocky climb – easily dispensed with – before we find ourselves back at the special test loop. We’re only passing through, nipping down the very fastest section, and the lightweight 250 skips over the stones and rails the rocky kinks without issue. Muddy holes demand a light front-end and, with a little extra gas, the 250’s got those covered too. In this set-up, the 250EXC seems to be an incredibly easy to manage all-rounder – fast when you want it to be, with great slow speed manners and almost always easy to control.

Transylvanian Families

The 300 offers a similar feeling – but more so. Ceaseless drive, super-strong yet smooth too. Of course, the bike feels slightly heavier than the 250 (even if there’s nothing between their respective physical weights)  though it is SLIGHTLY lighter than last year’s bike. Along with the across-the-board swingarm lightening, the 200/250/300EXCs have been given a smaller, lighter 3Ah battery in place of last year’s 4Ah cell for starting purposes.

Less Amp-hours may concern some people, and ultimately it’ll take long term ownership to discover if this has any detrimental effect, though it never proved an issue on the launch, and we stopped and started repeatedly. No doubt revised gearing on the starter motor helps spark the bikes into life quicker. ‘Shorter gearing for higher initial torque and better starting’  is how the Austrians describe it, and that certainly makes a lot of sense. But given KTM’s recent issues with the Freeride starter-motor, they’ll need to hope this system works reliably now.

Having given the locals something to laugh at by manhandling ten EXCs UNDER an unlocked gate (don’t ask..!)  our route winds up and down the hillside. The verdant grass is short, fresh and full of sugars, meaning its dry yet almost as slippery as some of the damp woodland we’ve already ridden. The EXCs have all been set-up wonderfully plush to get the most traction possible on the varied terrain, and there’s nothing to trouble the 300 here. Off-camber turns, downhill braking, long fast climbs: at every point there’s a wealth of feedback from both ends. For this riding, at this pace, the settings feel bang-on.

The brakes are also some of the most consistently good (swapping between different bikes)  I’ve experienced on a KTM launch. In the past I’ve found the lever-pressure and feel can vary greatly between individual machines, so it’s nice to be able to gel with a bike as soon as you jump aboard. Whilst I’d still prefer a slightly firmer lever, there’s no doubting the Brembos’ solid performance.

The view in the distance is a flat plain, though thanks to the gradient we’re on, it appears to be stretching upwards rather than out and away. Then things get even steeper. We descend down a gulley and straight into a dried streambed that is more like the Cresta Run than a trail. Hemmed-in tightly on both sides, there’s very little line-choice down the numerous steps and sharp drops, round the slippery dusty turns and over the rocks which litter our path. Almost the entire run – it’s gotta be at least a mile – is conducted on the brakes, and I’m glad the Brembos prove powerful, with great feel. The same plays out on a steep descent down a flowing stream, where the mix of mud and rock demands a steady approach. Locking the front wheel would be messy, so getting a feel for what the tyre is doing is crucial. The EXC doesn’t disappoint.

However, it’s a long, dusty, loose rock climb winding steeply up the mountain that illustrates perfectly what the 300EXC is all about. When it’s technical; where you need to take a second to scan ahead and choose your line or pick your way through the steps and boulders, the bottom-end grunt and almost ‘unstallabilty’  keeps you rolling. With a clearer path, you can wind-on the throttle and exploit the deep midrange drive and top-end buzz, but really it’s low down that the 300 impresses most.

The trail leads us to a series of grassy hillsides dotted with haystacks and wooden huts, with ‘rustic’  fencing and sheep grazing on the higher slopes. The bikes are lined up and we walk up to where a table has been placed, laid-out with plates of fresh sheep’s cheese and a mound of polenta, dishes of radishes and spring onions, and the most incredible doughnuts filled with cheese! This fine, freshly-made snack is accompanied by an explanation of the life of the farmers who’ve provided it.

In wintertime they live in a house in the village further down the mountain while the sheep are brought down to fields at a lower altitude. Once the snow and bad weather starts to subside they make their way back up to the higher ground and live in the wooden hut, cooking food over the open fire and drawing fresh water from further up the slope. There’s no utilities whatsoever, and the sheep farmers are a hardy breed. It takes a strength of character to overcome the harshness of the conditions up here and that thought could likewise be extended to the machinery that can operate favourably in these conditions…

Going Down

From one extreme to the other, I swap the 300EXC for the little 125 smoker. On an easy H&H I don’t mind a 125, but I’ll admit that I don’t have the skills to hold one flat-out on tough going and that’s the only way to get the best out of ‘em. And on the trail? Well I’ve never found it versatile enough – too buzzy and lacking in grunt for my tastes. I’m wondering what lays ahead…

‘Tch, no electric start’,  is my first thought and it takes a couple of kicks to light the fire within the littlest EXC. KTM are still keen to keep the bike as absolutely light as possible, suggesting that it’s considered an out ’n’ out racer. Once the wheels are turning it’ll bump start virtually anywhere, but if you end up stopped in an awkward position it’s still easier to press a button than it is get yourself into the right spot, and find neutral, to prod the kicker.

For the first few hundred metres I’m having to give the bike some stick to keep pace with the rest of the group far ahead, banging down three gears into turns on the sweeping track. But when our route heads straight down the mountain, first across grassland then into a shallow rocky gorge, the 125 allows me to catch up.

Whilst it may not have the unerring stability of some other machines that allow you to really fly downhill (Aprilia’s RXV was one such bike)  the 125 scores by being incredibly light and easy to dominate. So if you want to change line you can, without having to muscle it around. And getting it stopped certainly doesn’t present much of an issue either. I’m warming to the little orange bike…

A faster, flat trail follows but before my indifference for the bike begins to seep back we turn off into a climb up a stream. The water’s flowing fast, and all of the rocks – a jumble of square-edged blighters – are soaked and slippery. Yet the 125EXC makes short work of ‘em, floating over each step and ledge almost as if they weren’t there. And it does so on a whiff of throttle. This year KTM haven’t done that much to the 125 (or 200)  aside from altered the design of the shock to include a new ‘mono-seal joint ring’, though the latest carb settings make the most of the eighth-litre’s bottom-end, so the power delivery is incredibly smooth for a small two-stroke. This, along with the light weight and the nimble handling get me through the stream with little worry.

Things come unstuck when we scramble up onto a bank-side track however. Here the rock comes in slabs, slathered with mud, and promises slow progress upwards. Indeed, it’s not far before the group is halted by an awkward climb around an impassable slab. ‘Take my bike, you’ll find it easier’,  shouts KTM’s Jochi Sauer, swapping his 450 for the 125. I’m not so sure I welcome the extra 20kg but at least I can start the thing on the steep slope and its more linear grunt is likely to work in my favour.

After a good deal of paddling I eventually get going, as the rear tyre digs in and drives us upwards. The strong linear power’s easy to modulate and I burble quietly upwards with the throttle barely open. KTM have reworked the 450’s silencer (plus those of the 350 and 500)  with a new perforated tube inside rather than the old style of baffled chamber. This, they claim, gives the same level of performance along with a reduction in noise equivalent to 2dB at FIM testing levels. That’s very welcome, especially as there’s certainly no noticeable drop in power!

Understandably, the SOHC 450 feels very different to the twin cam 350. Not only does the greater displacement make it feel slightly weightier, but the way in which it build revs slower does so too. Of course, the 450’s bottom-end is far stronger and it delivers its power in those wonderfully thudding pulses that can only come from a single cam engine, so it sniffs-out traction like a herder’s dog detecting the scent of a bear.

The last climb of the day takes us off a forest road and across the hillside before heading straight for the summit. It’s made harder by the start of the trail having fallen away, leaving a sandy ledge that tests the best riders, not to mention the rain that’s threatened all day, and is now finally falling. The rest of us backtrack 100m and find a slightly easier step off the firetrail, climbing straight up to join further along the track. The 450 makes light work of the step, and wafts up the bank onto the trail. From there it’s every man for himself, as there’s no clear line to take – just point and squirt. Halfway up a fallen tree blocks my path so I zig left around its crown then zag right to get back on line. With each turn the revs drop almost to idle but the fuel injection provides a seamless delivery and the power builds as I dial-in more throttle. We surge to the top using that prodigious mid-range…

The 450EXC has always been a fantastic machine, especially impressive when you point it at a climb. When the going opens out you can also make use of its potent top-end – not really something you’ll want to toy with in confined spaces – which is fantastic for a single cam motor. It may have changed an awful lot since it was launched in 2003, it may not be as fashionable as the 350, but it’s still the great ride it’s always been.

Missing in Action

You may have spotted that I haven’t mentioned the 200 nor 500 yet, and that’s simply because I didn’t get chance to ride them [though JB did… see second opinion at the end]. Although I can appreciate an E3 four-stroke on easier going, the 450 was more than enough for the technical Carpathian trails, so for much of the time I’d likely have been fighting the big thumper rather than assessing it.

Given the limited number of changes it’s received for 2015 – the same as those made to the 450 – probably the biggest difference you’ll notice is that it’s quieter than the 2014. So it remains a fast and smooth machine, ideally suited to wide open spaces and more flowing going. For once I was actually a little disappointed not to have grabbed a go on the 200 as, although it’s traditionally been my least favourite of all the EXCs, it seems to have improved year-on-year and, if the 125 was anything to go by, the smoother power would’ve made it the best yet. Better than the 250 though…? Not sure about that.

Bike of the launch for me was the 350EXC-F. Blending stability on fast rocky trails, with the kind of nimble handling you need on technical trails, it also represents the perfect balance of power and light weight – making it a great race all rounder too. The 300 two-stroke stood out, largely for its ability to scale just about anything you point it at, yet remaining easy to ride slowly.

For this kind of ring it was spot-on, though I’d add that if I was spending half my time racing I’d probably pick the slightly less pokey 250. Then again, with such variation in terrain, there were times when you could make a case for picking just about any of the EXCs. Sadly, in the UK, we’re not blessed with quite the same riding as Romania. Though I guess this might make choosing between the bikes a little easier…

Thanks to: Jochi, Eva and all at KTM Austria, Simon Belton at KTM UK, and Martin Freinademetz for all of their help on another excellent launch.

Six It Up

This year’s ISDE takes place in Argentina, so it follows that the 6Days KTMs feature the South American country’s flag plastered down their flanks in the national colours of baby blue and white. Given the Falklands conflict not everyone in the UK will appreciate this feature, though from a purely aesthetic standpoint the bikes do look great. And, of course, they’re not just a flash set of graphics, there’s a plethora of added extras and upspecced components. For an extra £600 over the price of the equivalent EXC (any model except the 200)  you get:

4CS closed cartridge WP forks

A ridged, gripper ‘Camel’  seat cover


Machined triple clamps

Supersprox Stealth sprocket

Solid rear disc

Floating front disc

Front disc guard

Metzeler tyres

Radiator braces

Six Days bars

Six Days silencer

Front axle puller

The four-strokes also gain a radiator fan and a fuel filter on the filler, whilst the two-strokes feature a carbon pipe guard. Finally, one feature that’s not glitzy but certainly worthy is the new switchgear. Gone is the dated, and often hard to use switchblock from the stock bikes, in favour of a far neater, more compact, and easier to operate item. Hopefully it’ll trickle-down onto the regular EXCs next year…

Second Opinion

Days in the office don’t come much harder. This year’s KTM enduro model launch was definitely a ride on the wild side. Heading to the Transylvanian mountains, knowing that the Red Bull Romaniacs course directors were to be our guides, we expected the worst – and we pretty much got that.

The pain in my shoulder, the sensitive elbow, the aching back, they’ve got just days to recover before the next launch. The bikes I broke, well… KTM had less than 24 hours to sort those out before the next group arrived for their torture test.

The riding was suitably epic and so often you only went where you did because the rider in front did first. That plan didn’t always work. On one huge rock step we wasted the plastics, an engine case, an exhaust and a radiator over six bikes. A few hundred yards later another big smash saw a man down and KTM’s ever-resourceful R&D guru ‘Barni’  Plazotta bandaging both rider and bikes. It didn’t stop there, in fact it didn’t stop until we reached the hotel at the end of the ride shortly before 7pm – nearly ten hours after we set off. An authentic extreme experience? Certainly.

And the stars? Easily the 350EXC. It had the measure of the terrain even given the most unskilful of rider inputs. The extra punch it has over the 250EXC-F was very telling in this environment, not necessarily where you’d expect (on the climbs)  but batting its way through some of the treacherous slimy rocky stream beds.

The 200EXC also impressed. I’m getting to think this model is very sensitive to its jetting. Sorted by KTM for the 1500-3000m altitude, it was running on the rich end of the spectrum so was nicely torquey and easy to ride. Much better than previous years when we’ve ridden the 200 with probably a lean set-up that seems to just snap your arms out of their sockets. Lean, the 200EXC is like a hyped-up rabid 125.

I liked the 250EXC too, the power valve changes did seem to make a difference, it felt easier to control – even more like a 300 – and its super-light footwork was much needed in the tricky conditions. The others? Well, bike rotations were a problem on this launch as there were obvious favourites for this kind of terrain and getting a fellow journo to give-up a hot ride was damn near impossible.

Consequently I got lumbered with the 500EXC for longer than I cared for. It’s an awesome bike and is pretty good even in this going – but only up to a point. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve damaged a KTM in a decade of their launches but I did it good, as KTM will attest. And that liquid metal, why that’s great stuff, eh?

When we finished I ached, and even my aches ached. The small gash across my nose will heal, the tightness in my shoulder should wear off soon. But I appreciated the ride, I was tested. And the revised graphics for the 2015 bikes – I like them much better than the graphics on last years bikes!

I like the look of the Six Days model even more, and looking at the spec on those, and given the small price premium they ask, I’d be seriously considering one of those – and it’d be the 350 for me.

Yeah, the 2015 testing season is now officially open, pass the Ibuprofen… Jon Bentman

Roman(ia) Holiday

Fancy riding in Romania? Trail companies such as Xventure or Leppink Adventure allow you to explore this fantastic country and experience some stunning riding without getting lost or running into trouble. Whilst you can ride almost anywhere, having a Romanian-speaking guide can prove invaluable and large swathes of the Carpathians are incredibly remote – you really don’t want to run out of fuel there! Or, of course, you could enter the Red Bull Romaniacs


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