I woke up at 3 am thinking about my new KTM 350 EXC-f and what I wanted to talk about in Post 2 of my latest blog. So I got up, made a cup of decaf coffee (doctors orders but terrible) and here I am writing. BTW, if anyone can explain the KTM naming convention please tell me because I have no idea what EXC-f even means.
This is a long post so I apologize up front.
It’s been several months since we completed our TAT 2016 SC to CO ride which added up to ~3,000 miles of dirt, mud, dust, slick rocks, gravel, water-crossings, dogs, crashes, dropped bikes, mountain passes, blah, blah, blah. It was exciting to say the least and anyone wanting to do the TAT but just can’t get up the steam to start you are missing an adventure of a life time. Don’t think of all the problems you will encounter because that makes it an adventure, just do it before you are too old like me. Sorry, I digress. I’ll talk about the bikes first for those interested and give my interpretation of life’s meaning in a future post.
Why I switched bikes:
When I started planning for TAT 2016 late in 2015 I knew I wanted a lite dual-sport compared to the big adventure bikes, which seemed to be the most popular. I plan on writing another blog soon about all the different modes of transportation I’ve owned in my 69 years but for this blog I’ll keep it simple. The Yamaha Super Tenere XT1200Z (S10) I rode to Alaska and the Arctic Circle (AC) in 2014 (AK2) is a fantastic bike but it weighs loaded over 600 maybe 700 lbs. I made it the 8,000 miles on AK2 and only dropped the bike once while getting fuel. No way I could pick that bike up loaded and barely able unloaded using a shoulder strap I carried. AK2 had thousands of miles on super highways with some mud and gravel on the Dalton Highway to the AC. Still for AK2 the S10 was a perfect choice.
I determined by much research prior to TAT 2016 that most of the route would be dirt/gravel roads with some sand out west and rocky mountain passes. The S10 or similar type adventure bikes could certainly do the TAT but the rider had to be able to handle that weight. I explained in detail in my TAT 2016 why we selected 250cc bikes so I won’t repeat it here but I selected the 2015 Honda CRF250L as my second choice. I wanted a Yamaha WR250R but none were available so I decided to take the cheaper CRF and use the savings to outfit the bike. Interesting thing is the several thousands of dollars of add-ons I put on the CRF would have been necessary on the WR250R also.
The CRF250L is a fantastic bike and extremely fun to ride. Mechanically it is reliable and to date I’ve had only a single failure, the headlight. During our CO to AR ride last August my headlight would go out occasionally but them be on at other times. I suspected a bad connection somewhere and started working the problem after arriving back home. As a side note, I love the Internet. I did a Google search on the problem and after reading several blogs got a bit of information that seemed the likely cause; the starter switch. I have lots of electrical experience on airplanes so studied the schematic for the CRF and determined that was the only possible answer. The starter switch has two functions, apply power to the starter motor but it also disconnects the headlight to save battery juice for the starter. The portion of the switch for the headlight was intermittent but the starter portion seemed to be ok. I cut the 2 headlight wires to the switch and crimped them together, problem solved without buying the $70 switch. Only downside is headlight stays on during starting.
If the CRF is such a great bike, why am I replacing it with the KTM? Glad you asked. The only real problem I had with the CRF was in the mountain passes, which got up as high as 12,800 feet. We were light with only extra fuel and tools but I noticed that to make the steep climbs I had to keep the CRF in the power band or it would bog down at the worse possible time. Even though it is fuel injected, the thin air still took its toll on the CRF’s power. Please don’t misunderstand; the CRF can handle the high altitudes, especially if you have the FMF muffler, header and electronic fuel mod. You need the right tires (I used Dunlop D606s) and always power up in time to hit the climb with RPMs in first and sometimes second gear. I would actually use the CRF for the remainder of the TAT to OR with no hesitation but for the following.
1 – Weight: Terry was the only KTM of 7 riders on TAT 2016 and he had a new and powerful KTM 690 that weighted about the same as my CRF250L; around 320 lbs. unloaded. My new KTM 350 EXC-f weighs ~250 lbs. That’s 60 to 70 lbs. lighter than my CRF and the weight is down low on the KTM which helps significantly. BTW a few weeks ago several of us were riding on some steep and rocky ATV trails at Mack’s Pines in AR and I dropped my CRF on a steep climb when I hit a patch of sand in a rut. I’m the last bike and I hit hard on my left side with my left foot pinned under the bike. I have excellent riding gear including enduro boots, body armor and Aire helmet so I wasn’t injured but I could not push or lift the bike off my foot. Although we all had intercoms, mine disconnected for some reason when I went down. I lay there for several minutes until the others walked down the hill because I hadn’t joined them at the top. They lifted the CRF off my foot; I remounted and made the rest of the climb starting on a steep incline to the top. The CRF handled the climb easily except for the dropped portion. That made me start to think about the KTM.
2 – Power: As we on the 250’s were powering up for each switchback on the CO passes, Terry would putt on by with his engine barely out of idle. Irritating to say the least. In addition, on the occasional paved runs between dirt, Terry would cruise at 65-70 mph where the CRF was very comfortable at 55 mph but was working to get to 65 for any long durations.
3 – Suspension: On the rocky climbs and descents, especially on Stony Pass, Terry’s KTM with its much more robust suspension seemed to handle it with ease. The CRFs and the WRs all did OK but had to work harder than the KTM.
1 Reliability: The Honda CRF250L is a very reliable bike as I described in previous paragraphs. The KTM is still questionable in my mind on how reliable it is. Terry had several parts “fall off or become loose” on his KTM. After further investigation we found that all the issues in this area were on the parts he installed. That may mean the bike is OK but he needs close supervision during any maintenance activities. More on this as I put miles on my KTM. CRF wins only because I don’t have enough experience with the KTM at this time.
2 Displays: The CRF has a pretty good and big display including a fuel gage, which is nice. The KTM has this small display that I’m still trying to figure out how to use. It appears to only have two data items on at a time such as MPH and Odometer. The KTM doesn’t have a fuel gage but the fuel tank is opaque white plastic and you can visually see the fuel remaining. Neither bike has a tachometer, which I really miss. CRF wins but I may learn to love the minimalist KTM display in time.
3 Fuel capacity: Both bikes have a little over 2 gal tanks. The stock CRF was getting close to 70 mpg, which is unbelievable. After the FMF mod it dropped drastically to 57 mpg but the power increase made it worthwhile. Not sure yet what mpg the KTM will provide. As a side note, fuel range is a big deal on the TAT, even on the east side where SAM tries his best to keep you away from civilization. CRF wins until I see how the KTM performs.
4 Starter: The CRF uses electric start only while the 2016 KTM has both electric and kick-start. KTM eliminated the kick-start on the 2017 models and this was a big reason I wanted the 2016 model. A big win for the KTM.
5 Ease of maintenance: The CRFs plastic is a pain in the a__ to get on/off to gain access to all the guts of the bike. The seat is also a pain to get on/off on the CRF. Still unfamiliar with the KTM so this is unknown but I’m going to say it looks like the KTM may have this one. KTM win unless proven wrong with time.
6 $$$$$: This is a big one. The KTM is twice the price of the CRF: roughly $5K compared to $10K. I had to add numerous add-ons to the CRF to make it TAT ready including the very expensive FMF mod. The KTM won’t need any power or suspension enhancements but it still needs a rear rack, skid plate and maybe some more robust hand guards. Maybe even a better Seat Concepts seat (low boy version). If cost is your only consideration then the CRF wins. The KTM better prove its worth in some other areas that I have yet to experience. If I have to spend $$ to lower the KTM due to other issues described here, that will be a very expensive mod. CRF wins for now.
7 Mount-ability: This means getting on/off the bike and touching the ground while stopped. The CRF was perfect. I could swing a leg over and stand almost flat-footed at stoplights. The KTM is TALL!! This almost cancelled the deal for me. I’m 5’10” with 32” inseam but the KTM seat height is around 38” from what the brochure says. I figured I needed 6 more inches (sorry ladies) from what I could tell. After being on the bike and a short ride I think I can handle it. I have to mount by standing on the left foot peg then swing my leg over. With the sag in the suspension I can touch the ball of both feet on the ground. This doesn’t give me any margin for error if the ground is slopped but I dropped the CRF several times due to this issue. I will have to be very vigilant where I stop and park. CRF wins if you have a short inseam.
8 Kickstand: Item 7 made me think about this item. The CRF has an up/down kickstand like I’ve had on every other bike. It stays where you left it last; up or down. The KTM’s kickstand is unusual for me; it is spring loaded up! In addition, before riding the bike the manual says to attach a rubber strap that ensures the kickstand stays up. Plus the KTM’s kickstand retracts to a sharp angle upwards while the CRF’s is parallel to the ground. Downside is that on several occasions while riding the CRF on steep switchbacks in CO the engine bogged down and I realized after a while that I was pushing the kickstand down with my boot while standing on the pegs thus killing the engine until I sat back down. What concerns me about the KTM is that if you lean the bike over even a little bit, the kickstand goes up. I’m unsure if this will be a problem while mounting/dismounting the bike. In addition, once on the bike I found it difficult to reach up with my foot to get the KTM kickstand back down. I haven’t tried the rubber strap thing yet. Ease of use goes to the CRF win for sure. KTM is probably safer but time will tell.
9 Weight: No question, KTM wins.
10 Power: No question KTM wins significantly. During my first ride of my new KTM yesterday, I applied the same amount of throttle I would use for the CRF and the front wheel almost came off the ground. Really dramatic difference in power. I’m glad I decided on the 350 rather than the equally priced 500 I had first thought about buying.
11 Suspension: No question, KTM wins.
After doing the Pros/Cons I’m wondering why did I buy the KTM since the CRF seems to be the clear winner except in some very important areas: Weight and Power. For you serious dirt riders you know that the KTM is the clear choice and you just have to accept it’s deficiencies in the other areas. I know every KTM rider I talked to says the same thing: “you’ll love the KTM”. I’ll report on this after I put some miles on the bike. I hope to get to put some dirt on the tries this weekend but for sure I’m joining my son Jeff on a 150-mile dual sport ride on 30 Oct in Oklahoma. That should give me an idea if I made the right choice or not.
P.S. I caught a lot of grief in my TAT 2016 blog from several readers on my selection of the CRF over other more capable dual-sports including the KTM. I still think the CRF250L is an excellent choice for a lot of folks if you consider all the things I listed above. I’m lucky that I can afford the expensive KTM but someone with less financial abilities should not miss the TAT adventure when several less expensive dual-sports are available, especially the CRF250L.