KTM is not sitting idly by or passively letting the economic slump and slow overall bike sales dampen its products. No, it is going full-steam ahead on development and bringing all-new bikes to the game, and the new 450 XC-W is a case in point. Last year’s off-roader had few if any flaws—it was honed and polished over its life since being a new design back in 2008. KTM didn’t really need to bring an all-new bike, it just wanted to.
The XC-W, like all the 2012 KTMs, is striking. It looks a lot better in person than photos are able to show. A lot of that has to do with its stature appearing so small, sleek and slim compared to a typical off-road machine. And with this being an off-road bike, it has a very MX-esque poise and leanness to it. Dropping a whopping eight pounds off the weight was a huge start (even in going to EFI), but the company also chopped at the size of things, like the motor and the frame. It carries a lot of cues from the 350 SX-F and XC-F, but holds on to a lot of stuff that was popular with the 450 and 530.
Inside the engine KTM basically took last year’s single-cam valvetrain and the old bore and stroke configuration then shrink-wrapped a new set of die-cast cases around it. The Austrians went back to a single oil compartment for the entire engine and transmission for simplicity and dropped weight in the crank, piston and in the balancing shafts, the latter of which is now just a set of gears. The clutch is a unique machined-billet steel basket that now uses a single diaphragm spring instead of coil springs. The ignition is beefed up to put out 196 watts, up from 140, to meet the demands of the FI.
The chassis is also heavily redesigned. The engineers kept the PDS (no link) for simplicity, but now it utilizes a 7mm-longer shock and the mounting position is more centrally located on the chassis. The fork is the same WP unit with new seals and bushings aimed at being more slippery with claimed improved seal life. A lot of attention was paid to the intake tract and the airbox boot. The easy no-tools access to the air filter remains, but everything around it gets slimmer and lighter.
But how does it ride? Did KTM spoil a great bike? Can a bike like this, in a class that is stacked with competition, really improve that much? Well, we will warn you. If you don’t plan on buying one, don’t even think about riding one—seriously. And if you are easily upset, get jealous of other bikes or can’t stand us praising KTMs, stop reading now.
To blow through the basics, FI and electric starting bring the engine instantly to life and everyone noticed the sound was quieter than before. Everything about the ’12 XC-W has a light feel to it. Moving it around, twisting the throttle, the way the motor picks up rpm and doesn’t have much vibration for a single-cylinder bike. Even the pull of the clutch is light and effortless. From the first few feet you travel the steering has a light feel. Can you see where this is going?
We’re not sure what KTM was comparing it to during development, but it wasn’t any other 450cc four-stroke, MX bikes included. All we can think is the orange engineers had a 300 two-stroke and said, “It must feel this light all the time.” Because in testing we had this 450 XC-W out with a 250 XC two-stroke and it feels the same, if not lighter, in every situation. And it isn’t just in the “weight” feel of the bike. The light feel comes through because of the complete character makeup of the bike.
Start with the power. It is super smooth, very crisp and faultless, in a completely legal setup. No Mickey Mousing with anything. It doesn’t need it. The engine, off the bottom and into the midrange, reminded all of our test riders of a 400cc machine. Plenty of torque to get it done, never too much to get you in trouble with a light flywheel feel to make the individual strokes of power less noticeable and more of a blur or blend of power flowing out. It is so smooth and pulls from such a low rpm, riders were stalling the bike until they quit trying to ride up things with the throttle closed off. Although the control and modulation of the clutch are as good as anything, the lever pull required on the Brembo setup takes a little longer throw to completely disengage. Don’t worry, you quickly get used to it.
The motor also has a minimal amount of compression braking, even when coming down from very high rpm, so the light feeling is further explained. But don’t think the 400cc power comparison lives on any further than the midrange, because once the throttle gets opened up it’s all 450cc and plenty of it. It revs fast up there, but not too fast as to waste power. It pulls as hard as any off-road 450 and will loft the front wheel with just a roll-on if you let the motor pull into the top. It is pretty much perfect power for trail riding and racing all rolled into a package that everything will be compared to going forward.
The chassis only complements this light feeling. It’s as if KTM shrunk the bike so it’s easier to move around under you, but even our six-foot-plus riders didn’t feel cramped. The triple clamp is adjustable, and we felt the bar bend was a little lower than usual for a KTM. The weight bias is onto the rear wheel, and that also makes the front end feel lighter; in turning, it is like KTM has super-special bearings and grease inside the headset. When you first ride it you fear the unstable gremlins will jump out and headshake you, but this never happens. Even in high-speed stuff, where a bike this light-feeling should become scary, this XC-W likes to get on the back wheel and roost, keeping the front light and stable.
Then there is the suspension. Although the pure racing KTMs have gone back to a linkage with plenty of success, PDS remains on the Ws for simplicity and because it plain works. If you’re within the 170- to 210-pound weight range, you won’t have any issues with anything in this suspension setup on single-track riding. It’s plush and has that “dead” feeling, one that doesn’t transfer the ground imperfections to the rider. But it is a good dead feeling because you can still tell what the bike and its tires are doing and it isn’t mushy or wallowy. Then as you use the stroke the suspension gets stiffer-as-needed without getting harsh. The hardest hits will bottom it, like they should, but it is controlled and it rebounds nicely. We left it alone for most of our testing but added a few clicks of rebound to the shock and just a bit of shock spring preload later on, and the turning only improved.
Gripes? Minimal. Some riders could feel the lower portion of the tank between the boots. And the seat feels great from the first ride on the bike, but we’ll bet it is mush in 20 hours. We know these are easy to work on, and about the only modification we would throw right on is a good skid plate to protect the cases.
Frankly, we weren’t expecting this much out of this 450 XC-W. It is a much larger step forward than we thought was possible, and none of the off-road traits we loved in the previous XC-Ws were lost in the progression forward. The rest of the four-strokes really have something to be scared of. Plus, as much as we at Dirt Rider love two-strokes, some of their sacred territory, light weight and light feel, is being stomped on by this thumper.
- MSRP: $9,199
- Actual weight (tank full): 261 lb
- Claimed weight: 245 lb
- Seat height: 38.0 in.
- Footpeg height: 17.1 in. Ground clearance: 12.9 in.