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Project KTM XC vs. XC-W

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This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Dirt Rider.

KTM has done an excellent job in offering an off-road bike for almost every application, and two of its popular off-road models are the 300cc two-stroke XC and the XC-W bikes—though one might be more popular than the other. The XC is designed more for off-road competition while the XC-W is more trail oriented. The more-popular XC sometimes has limited availability, or the ones that are available are commanding a higher price than the XC-W. Fortunately, project bike builder Jay Clark has demonstrated how you can buy either bike and pretty much cover both categories.

It was Jay’s goal to make the XC a little more trail friendly and the XC-W a little more competitive. He started by adding a rear taillight and front headlight from a Husky TE (to keep with the white plastic) onto the XC, allowing you to ride past dark. He also added a 51T Supersprox Stealth sprocket to match the final drive gearing of the XC-W.

On the XC-W he added a JD Jetting kit to the new Mikuni carb, V-Force reed cage, and had Metaltek machine 0.015–0.018-inch off the head to tighten the piston/head squish. This was enough to raise the compression a noticeable amount but still not too much to require race gas.

Some other notable upgrades included FMF Gnarly pipes with Powercore 2 silencers, Vertex piston kits, IMS oversize fuel tanks, IMS coolant overflow catch bottles, Trail Tech radiator fans, Cycra Racing Ultra Pro-Bend hand guards and plastic kits, DeCal Works graphics, Hinson clutch kits, and to keep us totally connected to the ground, some Dunlop tires (AT81 front, 756 EX rear ultra gummy EnduroCross race spec).

Jay also wanted to bump up the performance orientation of the XC-W’s suspension, so he got Factory Connection to revalve the WP 48 Xplor fork. The new settings offered more hold-up but still remained plush for nasty trails. Then they gave the PDS shock a plusher setting than stock to improve traction and small-bump absorption. To be fair to the XC, Jay asked Race Tech to go over the WP 48 AER air fork and WP shock. A full service to both fork and shock and an upgrade on the rear spring to a 4.6 (one rate higher than stock) were completed by Race Tech.

The testing location we chose for these bikes included areas with large rocks, trials-type terrain, some faster-flowing trails, and a very technical mountain trail with plenty of elevation and tight switchbacks.

Initially, one of the small drawbacks was a noticeable weight increase with all the added accessories, mainly the IMS 3.5-gallon fuel tank (not so much the tank but the fuel in it). However, after about 20 minutes of riding, it just seemed normal and was no longer an issue.

The one thing we couldn’t modify was the gearbox. The first difference between the machines that stood out was the XC-W’s wide ratio compared to the XC’s semi-close ratio. The XC-W had exceptionally low first and second gears compared to the XC, making it a little easier to spin the rear tire in the sandy, lower-speed sections.

Entering one of the trial rock sections the XC seemed to offer a little more torque, making it much easier to carry the front wheel up and over an obstacle. For the most part both bikes soaked up the rocks with ease. The XC-W with the Xplor fork had a small advantage, offering very little feedback to our testers’ hands—a comfortable feeling for the times when we did not get the front wheel high enough to clear a step up onto a rock. With offsetting benefits, we called it a draw between the bikes for the trial section.

Next, we headed out to some faster trails with a few hill climbs. The torque of the KTM 300cc two-stroke counterbalanced engines was fantastic. The company has certainly done its homework on how to make these engines lug at what seemingly is 1,000 rpm and never stall. Once up to third gear, the engines felt almost identical. Both bikes worked equally well in the wooded, single-track, tighter trails.

We moved on to riding in more open, flowing trails to see how the bikes felt above third gear. Tusk Racing provided some wheels for the testbikes and included oversize rotors. KTM offers some of the best brakes on the market, though, at times, they can be a little overpowering. In this application, the Tusk rotors seemed to offer a more progressive feel, which was a big help in the dry sand conditions. The suspension was somewhat comparable on both bikes. Each had a free, light feel at lower speeds, but the XC-W still lacked some control at higher speeds. Even with the complete revalve from Factory Connection the PDS shock still has a hard time offering the performance of the XC’s linkage system. At third gear speeds and above, the advantage goes to the XC.

We stopped several times to plan photos. Each time the Trail Tech radiator fans would cycle on and off for about five minutes. This was not a problem but more of a nuisance. To resolve this, we would just raise the temperature trigger point (a cool option the fans provide).

After lunch we rode across the valley and began a mountain trail loop. One of our test riders commented that the clutch action on the XC felt soft. He said this was mostly noticeable when releasing the clutch with the throttle on, where it would slip longer than usual. We were unable to determine if the issue was in the bike’s clutch or the rider’s head.

This fun but technical mountainside single-track trail featured several rock step-up sections that were perfect for the XC-W. This was the kind of trail you certainly don’t want to let your bike slide off the low side; the XC-W’s low first gear allowed us to crawl through the rocks and switchbacks with ease. The XC also performed very well, but the advantage went to the XC-W thanks to a lower pucker factor.

By the end of the day we had ridden in a wide range of conditions. Both bikes performed well and are much closer in function than how they sit on the showroom floor. While the XC-W’s performance was increased and it certainly can hold its own everywhere we took it, we would say if you are looking for a competition off-road bike you would be better off starting with the XC model. If you are looking for a serious trailbike that performs extremely well, with the conveniences of a headlight and a taillight, a lower-hassle Xplor fork, and less-maintenance PDS rear end, then the XC-W is for you. From either starting point you can tune toward exactly the type of riding you want to do.