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2015 KTM Freeride 250R

The Freeride will make you want to ride some unusual stuff.

The Freeride will make you want to ride some unusual stuff.

The KTM 250R Freeride has been around for a couple of years now but this year marks its debut to the U.S market. Why has it taken so long for this intriguing new machine to land in the U.S.? Despite significant gaps in the off road market, KTM North America is still somewhat unsure of how successful the Freeride will be here. The earlier 250R models had some starting issues that have since been fixed, as have other areas of concern. The Haters claim the Freeride has a weak motor and brakes and is fitted with second tier components. To some extent the haters are right, so it’s understandable as to why KTM was leery of bringing it into the country. The rumor mill also had the Freeride priced close to 10k. The Haters and rumor mill were also wrong about a lot of things. Our pool of test riders did a good job breaking down the Freeride, so I’ll leave most of it to them, but here are my (Kevin Novello) thoughts:
A quick walk around reveals a shorter wheel base, shorter seat height, 43mm fork tubes and slightly less ground clearance. The Freeride includes trick Maxxis trials tires front and rear and a fuel tank cradled inside the frame. A funky little air filter sits in a clear plastic protective at the base of the fuel tank. There is no external power valve and the triple clamps are 20 mm.
The Freeride will take you  places your other bike will not.

The Freeride will take you places your other bike will not.

The 25hp motor is snappier than I had anticipated. Carburetion was clean and a quick blip of the throttle will loft the front end. The gear box is unique, taller than a trials-specific gearbox but tighter than something like the XC. Unsurprisingly, the engine chugs down low and does well when crawling in the rev basement. We ran the Freeride up a fast moving stream that cut through bedrock and over slimy loose rocks, but the torquey motor (in concert with the trials tires) kept the bike moving forward. To get out of the river we had to climb a very steep root-laced hill, which the Freeride chugged up without incident. When running through the 6 speed gear box, acceleration is smooth and purposeful and much quicker than I expected. The Freeride really comes in to its own in the technical terrain at a brisk trail riding clip. Any more speed leaves you wondering just how stout those 43mm forks are. Still, I never over-rode the suspension and could ride the Freeride at a faster clip than I originally thought.

Clutch pull was typical of KTMs, easy and consistent – but unnecessary 99 percent of the time. The suspension was plush and works best at slow to medium speeds. The bike is also incredibly light feeling and super agile. The brakes worked well but they are not meant for racing or heavy use. On-the-pegs turning through tight trail is where the bike really shines.
So what is our opinion on how to best employ the Freeride? It’s obviously a fantastic beginner bike, perfect for my wife right out of the box. The motor is extremely forgiving, doesn’t require excess shifting, will chug down low and pull hard through the mid-range. It’s also an extraordinary play bike with the capability to take an experienced rider to places that his regular bike could only dream of. It’s also the ultimate reconnaissance bike. It is an exceptional cross trainer, but can it be raced effectively? In the hands of a capable pilot, yes – but best suited for slow technical terrain after some suspension work and an upgrade in brakes. The Freeride would be pretty good in New England or in the Pennsylvania rock runs. Anywhere else, it really has no advantage as a race machine and whoops aren’t something that I’d like to tackle on it. Would I consider swapping my XC or XC-W for it? Nope. But if I had an extra $7,800 laying around, I’d spring for one. Here’s what the other test riders thought. We’ll start with Anna Svagzdys.

Anna Svagzdys (Newb/Novice)
God works in Mattinghofen and He made this bike for me.
For purposes of self-expression, I could drop the mic and end my review there, but that probably wouldn’t be very helpful to the consumer, so I’ll go on. Actually, let me backtrack a little: I need to explain what the Freeride IS. It is a 249 cc two-stroke with no power valve, a skinny pipe header tucked up inside the frame, one huge fan-equipped radiator, a light kit, an e-start, and trials-inspired tires on its 18 and 21 inch wheels. The seat flips up on a hinge located near the steering stem, revealing a weirdly shaped, 1.8-gallon gas tank crammed inside the frame, an air filter living in a plastic pod that looks like it came from a vacuum cleaner, and no battery to be seen (it’s hiding down by the swingarm mount). This weird layout has resulted in an extremely compact, well-balanced machine. The seat height is a couple inches lower than on a standard enduro bike and the frame is so narrow that I can stand over it comfortably on tip-toes.
At this point, I know what you’re thinking: “Ugh. Girlfriend bike. No thanks.” You may have read my reviews of the Sherco X-Ride and AJP PR4—the former basically a trials bike with a seat and the latter a mellow, old-school four-stroke in a compact modern package—and you’re probably assuming that the Freeride belongs in the same newb-friendly camp. So did I. Anyway, I started the Freeride with the press of a button and almost wheelied it by incautiously popping the clutch. It has wonderful, un-two-stroke-like torque in the bottom end, without the engine braking and weight of a four-stroke. It also lacks a four-stroke’s determination to go in a straight line. Our test track was twisty, narrow, and strewn with roots and rocks: the Freeride felt less planted at speed than a full-sized bike, but on the other hand, it was so nimble that when it did get offline, the error was easy to correct. In the tight rock gardens, the engine lugged down low and resisted stalling with minimal (hydraulic, one-finger) clutch work. In the faster sections, it provided a satisfying rush of power as I opened the throttle wider: peaky it ain’t, but a two-stroke it is. My overall first impression? Zippy, nimble, torquey, two-stroke heaven. I was the last one out of the woods at the end of the day, and had thoughts of packing the bike into the back of our Honda Element (it would have fit, too).

But let’s get down to specifics. How were the brakes? As good as any other KTM’s—and I could reach the rear brake pedal without lifting my foot off the footpeg. DSC_6455
How were the tires? Surprisingly good. The Freeride sports Maxxis trials-like things with slightly wider-spaced blocks than actual trials tires, as if my Pirelli MT43s and the popular MT16s had had soft-compound rubber babies. The lack of front side knobs made hard cornering a little squirrely, but not as bad as you’d expect, and the rear hooked up great, even in the wet. How were the ergonomics? The seat is three inches lower and the wheelbase is about three inches shorter than a 2014 250 XC’s. The steering head angle is steep at 67 degrees, trading quicker handling for less stability at speed. If I had tested this bike at a motocross track or someplace with fourth-gear whoops, I might have been less delighted with its geometry, but in tight, gnarly woods, it was perfect. The ground clearance is about half an inch less than on a standard enduro bike, but I guarantee you’ll never notice it. The weight without gas is quoted at about 204 pounds and it feels even lighter: the few times I tipped it over, I was able to catch before it hit the ground, and I could even do a passable track stand on it, something that I’ve long dismissed as impossible for me on a full-sized bike. Its WP suspension provides 9.4 inches of travel in the front and 11 inches from the PDS in the rear. Yes, the forks look a little skinny, but I never felt I was in danger of pushing the limits of their performance—at a slow 145 pounds, I’d actually want to soften it up a little more.

The freeride is so nimble and agile that you can ride it all day.

The freeride is so nimble and agile that you can ride it all day.

Do I have any misgivings or doubts about this bike? Given my penchant for crashing, I’d be concerned about destroying specialty components and having to spend a fortune to replace them. However, the bike does an uncannily good job of hiding its dent-able components inside the frame (it’s definitely bigger on the inside than it is on the outside), and the simple two-stroke motor should be as low-maintenance as they come. I might be concerned about the suspension and borderline-twitchy handling if you plan on riding a lot of whooped-out, high-speed stuff—but if that’s the case, this isn’t the bike for you anyway. For novice racing in New England gnarl, for trail riding, and for extreme no-trail exploring, this bike is amazing; just don’t bring it to Red Bull Straight Rhythm and you’ll be fine.

I mentioned earlier that this bike has some similarities to the Sherco X-Ride and AJP PR4. Well, for a novice rider (as distinct from a total newb), I’ll say the Freeride is the best of the bunch (and for $7899, almost $3000 more than the AJP, it had better be). All of these machines delighted me with their petite frames, tractable motors and nimble handling. However, the Sherco and the AJP both felt like specialty bikes—not “special” in the short bus way, but it might start to feel like that if you expected enduro race bike normalcy from them and weren’t getting it. The Freeride, to me, did not feel any more boutique-y or less competitive than my 250 XC: it just felt RIGHT. I cannot hope to explain this to you, unless you too are living in a world of 39-inch seat heights and 29-inch inseam pants, and like me, you love the engine characteristics of a two-stroke but have trouble putting that peaky power to use in nasty terrain. I raced the Black and Blue Enduro in October (see my YardSale column), and I swear, if I’d been racing it on the Freeride instead of my 250 XC, I would have finished it. The Freeride’s versatile motor makes it capable on the logging roads and phenomenal in the single track, and its small, light frame is infinitely more efficient for a small person to handle when the going gets really, really rough. When I win the lottery, this might just be the first thing I buy.

Tommy Norton (Pro)
The Freeride is a strange bike, not quite a trials bike and not quite a trail bike – pretty much what KTM was shooting for. I think the trials tires were throwing me off a little; the front pushed in the corners and the rear affected the braking. The brakes seemed to work fine – the bike is light but the tires hindered things a bit. I would have liked to try it with knobbies. The motor was a little muffled but you could still go fast with it. I never felt like I was over-riding the suspension either. Still, I kept wondering how it would hold up when jumping a rock and landing on roots at race pace.

Kevin Hubbard (Expert)
WOW. I don’t know what it is, but I’m in love. So much fun to ride. This bike had monster torque from the bottom all the way up to who knows. You could put this in any gear you wanted and never touch the clutch. But if you did use the clutch you would be greeted to a snappy motor that could be used to jump over anything you wanted. It is very slim and has a low seat height, which made it super fun to corner. It also had the best suspension that I tried all day as it soaked up everything from slow rocks to fast roots. It seems to be the perfect bike. Huge torque but snappy. Low seat height but great ground clearance. Maneuverable but long enough wheelbase. It’s not a trials bike, but you could do that. It’s not a race bike, but you could do that too. All I know is I want one.

Sean Lawson (Amateur)
What a fun bike! Lots of torque, adequate speed and acceleration and decent suspension. The Freeride is super agile and so much fun to play around on. A great bike for the wife or girlfriend yet capable enough to rip around on at a good pace. The Freeride was more versatile than I figured it would be. My expectations were low, but the Freeride was better and more capable than I thought.

Greg Hewitt (Novice)
On the surface, the Freeride looks to be another trail/trials cross machine reminiscent of the trials bikes of the 70’s – designed to get you out in the woods in comfort, but still allow you to play trials. Unlike other manufacturers in this niche, KTM has never built a trials bike—but you’d be wrong to write off their unique entrant into the market. The KTM has a low seat height, short wheel base, and a torquey trials motor similar to the Sherco X-Ride or the Beta Alp before it, but the devil is in the details, and the details set the Freeride apart. The first hint of something different is in the tires—trials tires, yes, but the spacing between blocks on the rear tire is very wide, a concession made for trail riding in mud. The seat is fitted like a normal offroad bike, not greatly dipped in the middle like other trials cross entrants. The suspension is much more substantial. Bikes of similar stature tend to have noodly front forks made for trials maneuvering. KTM has instead chosen to fit much larger tubes, similar to those on a standard dirt bike.
So, unlike Sherco or Beta who built trail bikes from a trials base, KTM has instead built a trail bike from scratch. This is to the benefit of the Freeride, because as well as being extremely agile in the slow stuff, it is great fun to sling through the woods at speed. The smaller proportions amplify the input of the rider, and making tight turns requires minimal effort. The flywheel of the motor allows low-rpm lugging that a 300 would be jealous of, and though it takes a while to get there, it does have top end pull. If you’re a rider of my quality (permanent C class), you’ll have to be careful if you choose to steer with the throttle, as the short wheelbase allows the back to spin around to the front more readily than on your standard bike. Similarly, the suspension will need some tweaking to deal with high speed chop, but these foibles are forgivable. Overwhelmingly, the first impression of riding this bike is a sense of ease. And although I wouldn’t want to take the Freeride on a sand track, it’s almost ideal for tight New England woods. Now where did I stash my spare $8 grand…

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