Story and Photos by Kevin Novello
This year’s version of the KTM XCF-W 350 left me scratching my head. I remember last year’s version pretty well; it was torquey and a bit milder than the XC-F and SX-F line up. So imagine my surprise when I whacked the throttle on the ’15 and got an unprecedented blast of power that ripped the front wheel from the ground and caused me to skid through a corner. I eventually stopped and leaned the bike against a tree to confirm that gearing was the stock set up of 13/52, and later checked to see if there was any evidence that ignition box had been tampered with. Everything looked fine.
In the Benefits and Features section of the KTM web page you will read about how the changes to the 2015 model include an orange frame, a cooling fan, the addition of Dunlop 81 Geomax tires, Neken handle bars and a new speedometer. There is no mention of a “more aggressive ignition curve” or “improved throttle response” or a lighter flywheel. I rode the bike for a full day and my thoughts didn’t change, this bike ripped. My KTM rep (Brooks Hamilton) liked the bike so much that he rode it in a J Day Off Road GP – and if you know Brooks, you know he is an insufferable bike snob. Tommy Norton was also on hand for this test and happens to own a Husaberg 350 and he said that ’15 “W” felt more aggressive than his bike, which I thought was more aggressive than the 14 XC-W, so he somewhat validated what I was experiencing.
Later, when crawling through some slow-going rocks gardens and tight trees, I found myself working the clutch just a little more than I would have on the 2014 version. Last year’s motor was best characterized as smooth or tame – kinda boring, really, which is high praise for a woods-oriented bike. The ’14 would rumble along better in the slower terrain with less clutch work. The ‘15 motor is still torquey but revs faster and comes on harder in the mid-range, and by extension is more prone to break loose when revved. You can still effectively carry an extra gear and lug the thing around, just be prepared to work the clutch a little when crawling along (fortunately the clutch pull is easy). In fact, this 350 prefers to be revved.
The 350 remains firmly planted over the rocks and roots at speed courtesy of a well-balanced suspension system. Both ends progress smoothly through the travel and work well at a variety of speeds.
There’s a little mid-stroke deflection in the forks at slower speeds, but it’s less noticeable when riding a little more aggressively. You wouldn’t want to moto the W, but short of that the suspension works well out of the box and inspires confidence. As long as you are running the appropriate spring rates, a suspension revalve won’t be an immediate expense. We took about two turns out of the high speed compression damping and ran about 107mm of sag in the smoother single track and then dropped it to 110 for the rocky terrain. We ran a little extra rebound for the rocks but kept the compression settings within a few clicks of the stock settings.
You won’t confuse the agility for that of a 250f, or a 450 for that matter. It’s about what you would expect from a XCF-W 350 – somewhere between a 250f and 450 and not quite as agile as its XC-F 350 counterpart – but not cumbersome either. The W wouldn’t be a top choice of mine for a tight South Jersey stick farm, though its 20mm triple clamps take the sting out of tight woods sections. For most other terrain, especially a Pennsylvania or New England rock run, the 350 W is an excellent choice. As we mentioned above, the bike is stable at speed when the rocks and roots come in rapid succession. The bike responds well when turning on the pegs or laying into a corner. Overall, it’s pretty neutral when changing directions. Obviously the cornering was a little sharper when running less sag but the cornering still remained largely neutral at 110mm of sag. The more sag you run for soaking up the rocks, the more the bike will drift wide on the corners: there’s a tradeoff for everything.
The bike comes with Dunlop 81 Geomax tires that work well in a variety of settings. However, the more I ride them in the rocks, the more they fall out of favor. They’re decent in the rocks, but you won’t confuse them for the regional favorite Pirelli MT 16 rear or Bridgestone M59.
The fuel injection was about perfect. We experienced no flame-outs and hardly ever stalled – just be mindful of the necessary clutch action at extremely low revs. The starter motor fired up quickly when the bike was in gear, which hasn’t always been the case. In the past I would often put the bike in neutral to start it; that doesn’t seem to be a necessity now. The new handlebars have a nice bend to them, they feel similar to the Renthal 999’s and are an improvement over last year’s bend.
Overall the XCF-W is a pretty complete package and capable of handling a variety of terrain. Shy of the moto track, the 350 “W” will appeal to a wide range of off-road riders and racers. It handles the rocks better than the linkage on its XC-F counterpart, turns quicker, and also has a little more torque. You can easily carry an extra and lug the bike or rev it hard – either way, it won’t complain. There weren’t any pressing issues that got us thinking about aftermarket accessories or modifications, at least for our eastern woods setting. So what’s not to like? Very little. Oh yeah, the price: 9800. Ouch.
This bike had much more snap off the bottom that my ’13 Husaberg FE 350. We weren’t riding anything too technical but I kept wondering if it would be a handful if we did. It was no effort to lug up a big hill and I never had to touch the clutch to get it up to speed. The chassis felt close to 300 but the 350 has a little more weight and power. I had a ‘06 450 and they have really refined everything about the bike. The chassis felt better and the suspension was good enough that I didn’t think it needed a revalve. All you would really have to do is put some guards on it. You can be lazy with it or rev it, either way it will be fine. My next bike will be a tough call between the 350 and 300. Though the 300 isn’t so great for riding on roads…
The 350 Was very easy to ride with great traction and balanced suspension. You could ride it without needing to shift it much and wouldn’t need to touch the clutch to get it up to speed. The spread of power was broad. The front end didn’t want to stay planted in corners as much as the others, but I could work that out with some suspension and tire changes. The transmission shifted easily and the clutch pull was nice and easy.
Ability: Sand-Bagging Amateur/Head Case
The 350 was quicker than I expected. I rode Bossman Kevin’s XC-F 350 a couple of years ago and the motor on this reminded me of it, with just a little more low end “lugability” and less agility. It’s nice to have such a responsive motor that can lift the front wheel needed but I was expecting (hoping for) more bottom end. The bike did just about everything well; didn’t deflect and stayed straight over some fair sized rocks. Initially the bike’s front end would push in the corners, and then we tweaked the sag and that went away. Overall it’s fine machine with no glaring weaknesses.
I was very eager to get some time on this machine as I own its little brother, the 2014 250 XCF-W. Because the 350 exists in a void left between a two class racing structure (i.e., 250 and 450), it’s expected to split the difference in weight and power. But try as I might, I could not sense any difference in the weight of the 350 XCF-W over my 250. Even standing over the machine at a stop, I couldn’t sense any difference in the handlebars. The location of the test was slow, tight, and slippery – conditions that would certainly amplify any feeling of weight. The track layout put us through two handlebar-tight left handers with a tree at the apex of a near full-lock turn. When you get these things right, it’s like Christmas, but for the most of the day Christmas was cancelled for me, so I had to the opportunity to slow right down and plant a foot to bring the bike around several times. This degree of manual labor might bring you to your knees over a 6 hour enduro, but the 350 made it easy with its smooth engine and balanced weight.
The illusion is cancelled, however, when the machine stalls. This malfunction may be my own, but I stalled the 350 XCF-W many times over the course of the day. It’s an unwelcome experience. The motor does not sound stressed or like it’s bogging, then with a ‘CLICK’, it feels like hit a brick wall. This behavior is not unique to the 350’s – I struggled with it upon delivery of my own 250. The problem is easily solved by playing with the gearing, and turning the idle up a hair. When you do, the machine behaves wonderfully.
The power of the 350 is remarkable. Like the 250, the motor is very smooth; the power surges straight through the rev range with little vibration. There is no specific change in the profile of the power, there’s just more of it. This is very welcome, and changes the character of the bike. Though still predictable like the 250, the extra juice means you don’t have to work as hard to loft the front wheel or steer with the rear. Perhaps this explains why the machine doesn’t feel any heavier, you’re more apt to bring the rear end around a tight corner than ride through it.
People often call the 350 a ‘hybrid’ bike. I think I’ll call it the bike I should have purchased instead of my 250. Some folks want to race in the 250cc engine classes, and that’s understandable. For weekend warriors like myself, the extra power is worth starting in the back in the Open class.