2011 KTM 350 SX-F | First Ride

Believe the hype

By Brian Catterson, Photography by Mark Kariya

Remember back in 2004, when Mike Alessi made his AMA professional debut at Spring Creek Motocross Park in Millville, Minnesota? Neither do we. But those who were there that day recall the entire Alessi clan and various hangers-on wearing T-shirts that read, "Believe the Hype." Mike's 30th place finish that day didn't exactly back up those boasts, but three weeks later at Steel City in Delmont, Pennsylvania, he put it on the podium to silence the critics.

A similar thing happened this year in the opening round of the AMA Motocross Nationals at Hangtown near Sacramento, California. In the first moto Alessi got fourth. But in the second he holeshot and led flag to flag, winding up second overall behind some guy with the number-one plate named Chad Reed.

Thing is, where the other 39 riders in the race were riding 450s, Alessi was on the new KTM 350 SX-F.

Given the fact that the bike was developed by none other than 10-time world champion Stefan Everts, this should come as little surprise. But we just can't get over the fact that a bike that gives away 100cc to the competition can not only win races, but also snag holeshots.

The 350 SX-F was four years in the making, the engineers trying a few different engine configurations before settling on this one. Like most modern motocrossers it features DOHC, but all four of its valves are titanium and it's the only one with Formula 1-style finger followers like those employed on the KTM RC8 superbike. These let the valves open quicker and farther for higher rev capability, and sure enough the 350 revs to a stratospheric 13,000 rpm.

It's also fuel-injected, with a 42mm Keihin throttle body that features an automated cold-start system. (An optional KTM PowerPart map select switch lets you toggle between three modes: aggressive, standard and soft.)

The chassis is likewise all-new. The most significant difference is the shock linkage, which is more progressive than the PDS linkless rear suspension it replaces. The frame is steel, while the one-piece swingarm is cast aluminum. Suspension is by WP, a 48mm closed-cartridge inverted fork up front and a piggyback-reservoir shock with a softer spring in the rear. The triple clamps are CNC-machined from billet aluminum and tuned for optimal flex. This prevents the fork tubes bending, which can cause stiction. The plastic is also all-new, thin where the rider needs to grip it and with a 2-inch-longer rear fender to keep roost off his back.

KTM invited the U.S. moto-press to the new Pala Raceway south of Temecula, California, not far from where the company's West Coast operation is based. Strangely, given that the venue just landed an AMA national (at Glen Helen's expense), we were limited to the Vet track. But it turned out this track suited the 350 perfectly, as it had plenty of short straights and tight turns that played up the bike's rapid acceleration and stellar handling.

In a word, the 350 SX-F is easy to ride. Okay, that's three words. Make it four: easy to ride fast. Unlike most 450s, the 350 doesn't have a big torque spike off the bottom that breaks traction while showering the riders behind with huge chunks of terra firma. Instead, it hooks up like a 250, then revs so quickly, you think you got on a streetbike by mistake! The top-end rush definitely gets your attention, but more impressive is the spread of power. This baby pulls smoothly from bottom to top.

The chassis is no less impressive. First of all, this bike feels incredibly lightweight, thanks in large part to the reduction in inertia caused by the lighter-weight internals whirring up and down and around. Handling is light, steering is quick yet stable, and the suspension is fabulous, even under my 200-plus pounds. The only time I felt it bottom was when I wheelied into a whoop section and set the fork down with a clank. Otherwise, it soaked up even the biggest jumps (which admittedly weren't that big) and braking bumps as though they weren't there.

In streetbike terms, this 350 is like a 750-the perfect compromise between a 600's handling and a 1000's power. Except we wouldn't call it a compromise. Yes, it splits the difference between a 250 and 450, but it combines the best features of both to create a bike that will very likely revolutionize motocross. Expect a whole flurry of mid-sized open-classers in the years to come.

By Brian Catterson
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