Today was my first chance to actually put some miles on my new 2016 KTM 350 EXC-F (KTM) dual-sport and per several readers request; this post will give my first impressions of this high performance street legal dirt bike (high performance to me anyway). I rode 60 miles on mostly paved 2 lane back roads but did put some dirt and mud on the bike in Ott Park next to the Arkansas River. I’ll provide details in this post but anything I write here is not a criticism of the KTM but my impressions during the first ride.
I spent yesterday moving some items from my 2015 Honda CRF250L (CRF) over to the KTM such as the double-take mirrors, ram mounts, Garmin 64ST GPS (uses batteries only) and my Garmin 660LM GPS (uses bike power). I’m sure you’re asking; “why two GPS?” and the answer is the 64ST is for off road and following SAM’s TAT tracks and the 660LM is for finding gas and motels. Both are waterproof and compliment each other with the information they provide. The biggest problem was running the power cable from the 660LM to the battery. The KTM has only a 2.25 gal fuel tank but it sets low on the chassis and hangs down on both sides. I finally removed all the plastic from both sides and the seat to try and find a clear path for the cable. Only after Steve dropped by to look at the bike did we lift the gas tank up enough so I could run the line under the tank. This long paragraph brings me to my first KTM comment.
1 The KTM is the easiest bike I’ve ever had to remove the side panels to gain access to the guts of the bike. Everything comes off with only a few screws and doesn’t require taking more off than required to get to a certain location. This includes the seat removal with a single screw. The CRF was terrible in this area and I dreaded having to remove panels or the seat.
2 I tried to mount my GL tank bag but because the fuel cap has the vent hose, it interferes with the bag. Hate to give up the GL bag but will solve that problem later.
3 Shift lever – It was entirely to low and my heavy enduro boots had a hard time getting under the lever so I missed several shifts. I’ll raise the lever and solve that problem.
4 Rear foot brake lever – The lever is smaller than the CRF and is very close to the crankcase. As a result I missed it several times while stopping. I assume the design was to decrease the chance of damaging the lever in bike drops but it will take some getting use to.
5 Tires – My KTM came with Metzeler tires and is clearly made for off road use. While riding to Ott Park I came to a light changing to red so started to stop. Problem was that I made the rookie mistake of being in the center of the lane right where all the oil was at the stoplight. Both tires locked up and only quick action on my part prevented the bike going down; how embarrassing that would be. The tires are new so I expected they would be a little slick until they roughen up some but this caught me by surprise. During the rest of the ride I could tell these tires don’t work that well on pavement compared to the Dunlop D606s I had on the CRF. The little bit of mud and dirt I rode today did demonstrate good traction off road.
6 Seat – Hard as a rock! Within 5 minutes I could tell my butt was not going to like this seat. It may be that I’m spoiled after riding 5000 miles on a Seat Concepts saddle on my CRF. I had planned on upgrading the seat later on but that has now moved up in my priority list. I’ll probably go for a lowboy seat as well which brings me to the next item.
7 Seat height – The bike is tall for sure but I finally got comfortable at stop signs/lights but was very diligent on evaluating the slope of the stopping point. Only problem I had was while riding a narrow dirt road at Ott Park that had big mud puddles every 100 feet. I had gone through several spots when I came to a mud hole that looked too big to ride through without the potential for a drop. I decided to turn around and started by riding into the grass on the left planning to back up to head the opposite direction. Problem was my feet barely touched the ground and I couldn’t get enough purchase to push the bike backwards. Next I tried to put down the kickstand so I could dismount and walk the bike out of this mess. No good because the slope on the left was too high to get the kickstand down. I finally turned back to the right and rode through the mud as close as I could to the edge until I had turned around. If I had someone else with me I would have been a bit more aggressive but I was alone and didn’t want to have to drag my new bike out of a mud hole alone.
8 Gearshift – The KTM doesn’t sift gears as smooth as the CRF. On several occasions I thought I had shifted into the next gear to find that I had not. I started making a more pronounced movement with my foot to make sure the gear had changed. The low shift lever didn’t help so hope that was the main reason for this problem
9 Gear spacing – I’m confident the KTM designers picked the gear spacing to be optimum for off road riding but for my first ride I found them to be very close for the first 2 or 3 gears. I would be in 3rd before I had crossed an intersection. In addition, the engine revs to redline very quickly so I had to shift about every couple of seconds. I’m sure I’ll figure this out but it’s much different than the CRF. One thing I did find is that the bike is pretty forgiving about what gear is the right gear to be in at different speeds. This means I could lug the engine down and the bike still would accelerate when twisting the throttle.
10 Throttle – It has a very sensitive throttle. Just a fraction of an inch movement and the engine would be in high revs. Another thing to get used to. It did cause problems while standing on pegs on rough dirt road because the throttle would move just a bit and the engine would accelerate/decelerate more than I like.
11 Clutch – It doesn’t engage until almost completely out. This caught me off guard several times when pulling away at an intersection. I would let the clutch out and it didn’t seem like I was in gear then it would finally engage. Much different from the CRF.
12 Vibration – The KTM vibrates much more than the CRF. Not excessively but it is noticeable in the handgrips.
13 Standing on pegs – I felt like I was leaning too far forward and could go over the handlebars if I tried to slow down. I plan on adding risers as I did on the CRF.
14 Suspension – Definitely a rougher ride than the CRF. I know the KTM is a far superior system but the squishy CRF ride was pretty comfortable. I plan on reducing the rear shock pre-load and hope this also helps a little with the foot-on-ground clearance.
15 Acceleration – Eye opening to say the least. So glad I didn’t get the KTM 500. Only issue is that the engine winds out so fast that you have to keep changing gears so it isn’t a steady acceleration like I had with my Yamaha Super Tenere XT1200Z.
16 Neutral – No neutral light that I could find so it’s all by feel. Add the issue with the late clutch engagement and I had a hard time finding neutral.
Before I get hammered for all the items I listed above I want to say I’m no newbie to motorcycles. In the last 5 years I’ve owned several different bikes:
2012 Harley Davidson FLHTCU Ultra Classic – I rode this bike round trip from Arkansas to Yukon Canada 6000 miles.
2014 Yamaha Super Tenere XT1200Z – I rode this bike round trip from Arkansas to Alaska and up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle 8000 miles.
2015 Honda CRF250L – I rode this bike from Charleston, SC to Lake City, CO on the TAT 3000 miles
That being said, this KTM is a new experience for me. I felt like I was always a little behind what was going to happen next. I’m confident I will eventually catch up to the bike but it’s been a long time since I was actually a little scared while I rode a motorcycle. Compared to the CRF, which was easy to ride from the very start, the KTM needs your constant attention.
Final evaluation - It is a fantastic bike but it takes some time to learn how to ride it correctly and feel totally comfortable with the ride.