As I have mentioned before, I am sort of low on the food chain when it comes to finding test bikes. Fortunately, KTM always does what it can for us. Sometimes I just have to take what I can get when it comes to bikes. Sometimes that can be a happy accident too. That is what I am thinking about the 2014 KTM 450 xc-f right now.
Last year we tested two of the XC-F models, the 450 and 350. Both were substantially new for 2013 and looked very attractive on paper. But somehow, neither hit the high notes for me. The 450 was fast, light and aggressive, but it was also harsh and demanding. The 350 was even further off base for me. I disliked the fork and missed the sweet motor of the XC-W model.
As the year has passed I have met a number of riders who had praises for both bikes, particularly the 450. I am not second guessing my testing conclusions, I was pretty set on both bikes. Yet I always try to keep the line clear between those things that are simply my personal preferences and those that are truly representative of the test bike. So perhaps I was letting my personal preferences get the best of me.
In general my preference is always towards bikes that are easy to ride, even if it means they are down on outright performance. Easy to ride means I ride faster because I can focus more on my effort and less on the bike. With that in mind, my personal opinion is that the 450 and 350xc-w models are two of the very best enduro bikes ever. The XC-F versions will have to bring something special to the table to top that.
2014 – What’s New Baby?
Last season my primary complaints with the 450xc-f were the aggressive motor and harsh suspension. These things are not necessarily bad for a race bike, but I felt were a little too much for the average off road rider.
The one thing that had me excited before throwing a leg over the XC-F was the move to the WP 4CS fork. Based on my testing of the same fork on the Husaberg models, I expected that alone to change much of my outlook.
As for the motor, I made two changes before even leaving the garage. I installed the optional map switch and set the 450 in the mild position. I also installed an FMF Powercore muffler with the quiet core insert. This would add a spark arrestor to make it off road legal and reduces the sound with its smaller outlet diameter.
I added a 15t front sprocket and a set of mousses to handle the trails and roads of Baja. I lined up a riding partner with a 2012 450xc-w for some comparison and set off for some of the most technical trails of Tecate.
My partner had suggested one of the worst rock strewn sand washes around. It is a couple of miles of nothing but boulder fields and deep sand and all slightly up hill. It is enough to make most trail riders cry uncle.
I quickly got a feel for both the best and worst of the 450xc-f. The XC-F tracks through the rocks better than any bike I have ever ridden in this section. No matter how big or ugly the rocks, just keep a little speed going and ride right over the top. Don’t try to avoid them, just point it straight and it keeps the line. The front never deflected and always felt light. For as much as I have resisted the newer stiffer frame designs, there are times when they absolutely shine.
As for the downside, the motor would stall constantly and in a variety of ways. But, before we get too far on the topic, I have to say that by the end of the first full day of riding, it almost completely quit this annoying habit. Apparently, it just needed more break in time. Still, compared to the XC-W, the 450xc-f always needs more careful clutch work. It does not have nearly as much mass on the flywheel and crank, so the revs fall off pretty quick.
Once we were out of the bad wash we hit some flowing trail, 2nd and 3rd gear stuff. Here the light feel and revvy motor really start to shine. Once the motor starts into the lower part of the midrange, it becomes much smoother and fun.
Fun would be the key word here. Switching between the two models, each of us consistently commented on just what a kick the XC-F was to ride. It always whispers “harder, faster”. Granted, the XC-W is smoother, easier to ride and just about as fast in practical terms, but the XC-F is exhilarating. If you like your bikes to feel aggressive, this is going to be a good choice.
So have I had a change of heart from last year’s test? Not really, there are two primary reasons for me to like this year’s test bike better: the suspension and the addition of the map switch.
The new WP 4CS fork is a big step in the right direction. On the Husaberg it has shown some glimpses of brilliance, it is especially good in the really nasty stuff. Graham Jarvis ditched his WP factory forks in 2013 for the stock Berg components. In the case of a fly away race like Ukupacha, he rides them with no modifications at all. The only problem with the Berg is that the overall set up is too soft for my weight and aggressive riding. At Romaniacs I had to deal with the forks bottoming on steep downhills, touch the brake and the front end would try to send me over the bars.
The spec for the ’14 KTM XC models is quite different. In the case of our 450, it is almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. The 4CS is set up for full race battle. In a desert race or GP, it would be almost perfect. But for the trails, the ride is a bit harsh.
While harsh in feel, the action is still quite good. The front tire stays planted to the ground, no deflection and the feedback is always good. For me this is a big improvement over the Closed Cartridge fork that I felt suffered from deflection and poor feedback. It still is not perfect, but I think there is a very good fork in there just waiting to come out.
I have played with the clicker adjustments quite a bit. It is interesting to see just how much the fork changes with a few clicks. Opening the compression up causes the ride height to change noticeably. It adds obvious sag and causes the front end to twitch. But it did not soften the ride, it actually became worse riding so low in the stroke.
The shock is almost invisible. That is to say that it never crossed my mind. I made no adjustments, just rode and had no reason to think about what it was doing. It is pretty darn good. Climbing on the PDS equipped XC-W model made me consider that there are times that I have to remember to move my body weight around to accommodate certain types of hits. Otherwise the rear will kick in the air.
I have more work to do on the suspension settings. I want to add more preload in the rear to see if that has any positive effect on the fork, a common fix. But in general I think it is all on the right track, particularly for the aggressive riding that a XC model is designed for.
There is another element of harshness that comes with the XC-F. The entire bike is stiffer than the sibling XC-W. The frame is stronger, as is the swingarm. It also has the larger rear axle. Overall these contribute to a buzzy feel. The vibration is particularly bad through the bars. It comes through the pegs and seat a little also. It is not so obvious on its own, but compared to the 450xc-w it is a huge difference in feel. The XC-W seems like it is floating on air by comparison.
Using the map switch made a very significant difference in the motor characteristics. KTM tells me that the switch simply retards or advances the timing one degree. In the mild mode, position 1 on the OEM switch, the motor is a bit slower in responding and easier to manage. Wheel spin is far less too. It still does not have the sweet flywheel effect of the XC-W, but is much closer to an enduro bike feel than stock.
In roll on comparisons, the XC-F (in the mild position) would out pull the XC-W by about two bike lengths off the start. From there, the two would keep pace with each other. It is hard to say that it would actually be much faster in the standard position, as much would just be lost to wheel spin. So a big thumbs up to the map switch. I would probably leave it in the mild position forever.
For those reasons, I think the 450xc-f is showing a glimmer of hope as an enduro bike. It will never be the king of single track for the average rider. Yet for open terrain west coast conditions it might be right at home with a little more set up time.
I wish it had the six speed transmission. That will hold it back from ever being perfect in my book. The stock 13/50 gearing seems too low except for track use or tight single track. I went to 15/50 on for our Baja trip. In the first gear conditions it required lots of extra clutch work, but I got by okay. With this gearing it will cruise very smoothly at 55mph. I saw a top speed of 85mph, but that was nowhere near max. For general use, last year’s stock combo of 14/50 should be just right.
My plan from here is to give the 450xc-f a minimalist enduro make over and see what we end up with. The fuel range needs to be extended. It needs some basic lights. There will be the standard protection parts and guards too. It might be a good candidate for an auto clutch also. I don’t want to go overboard and pile on a bunch of weight, just make it practical for track and trail. If we get it just right, it will be nearly the ideal bike to desert race, do track days and tackle single track, without making any changes in between.
|Design||1-cylinder 4-stroke engine, water-cooled|
|Displacement||449.3 cm³ (27.418 cu in)|
|Bore||95 mm (3.74 in)|
|Stroke||63.4 mm (2.496 in)|
|Starting aid||Electric starter|
|Gearbox||5-gear, claw shifted|
|Engine lubrication||Pressure circulation lubrication with two Eaton pumps|
|Secondary gear ratio||13:50|
|Cooling||Water cooling, permanent circulation of coolant by water pump|
|Clutch||DDS Multidisc clutch in oil bath/hydraulically activated|
|Ignition||Contactless controlled fully electronic ignition with digital ignition adjustment|
|Frame||Central tube frame made of chrome molybdenum steel tubing|
|Fork||WP Suspension Up Side Down 4860 MXMA CC|
|Shock absorber||WP Suspension 5018 BAVP DCC|
|Suspension travel Front||300 mm (11.81 in)|
|Suspension travel Rear||317 mm (12.48 in)|
|Brake system||Disc brakes, brake calipers on floating bearings|
|Brake discs – diameter Front||260 mm (10.24 in)|
|Brake discs – diameter Rear||220 mm (8.66 in)|
|Chain||5/8 x 1/4″|
|Steering head angle||63.5°|
|Wheelbase||1,495±10 mm (58.86±0.39 in)|
|Ground clearance, unloaded||371 mm (14.61 in)|
|Seat height, unloaded||992 mm (39.06 in)|
|Total fuel tank capacity, approx.||9 l (2.4 US gal)
Super unleaded (ROZ 95/RON 95/PON 91)
|Weight without fuel, approx.||109.5 kg (241.4 lb.)|