WHAT IS IT?
A revival of the good old-fashioned lightweight two-stroke off-roader.
Super sharp with a surprisingly tractable engine.
You'd have to have been stoned, drunk or living under a floozie not to know that two-strokes are on the radar again, which is good because for a while their future didn't took too bright. There was a time when we had 200, 250, 300, 360, 380 and 500cc street legal two-stroke dirt bikes but eventually they went the way of the Spotted Snod Gobbler. (I distinctly remember flipping a Yamaha 500 smoker in front of people unlikely to forget the sight, but that was long ago).
In the past five years or so the two biggies in the motorcycle business, Honda and Yamaha, have, like hot rocks, dropped street legal two-strokes from their ranges. The two-stroke engine has apparently become a liability from an environmental point of view, although some of the manufacturers who dropped the hot rocks now make two-stroke marine outboard engines which don't seem to have any trouble meeting tough emission standards while producing obscene amounts of horsepower.
And here's a little irony for you. The bike that put wheels on the whole dirt bike gorgonzola was a 250cc two-stroke Yamaha, the DT-1, and Yamaha went on to enhance its reputation with other two-strokes for average folks, like the unbreakable DT200R, the WR250, and the hit-and-run WR500.
But now they're all gone. How could something so cool cause global warming?
As for the KTM300EXC, it seems to have been here for ever. If you look into the history of the Australian Four-Day Enduro you will find records of this bike winning its class way back when. I remember Dave Cocking winning the Open two-stroke class in the 4-Day on a 300EXC, and that predated the invention of the telephone, or at least very small mobile phones. What all that means when you blow off the froth is that KTM has had for ever to perfect the 300. It, almost alone among the Open class two-strokes, has managed to avoid extinction by being a great race bike and a very good trail bike, not a claim you can make a great number of bikes.
The latest incarnation won't change anything. The 300 has simply got better with time. The bike has great ergos, electric-start now, very little annoying vibration for a two-stroke, it's well made and very quiet.
Like all KTMs, this one has chrom-moly steel rather than an aluminium chassis. If not exactly dismissive of aluminium as a chassis material, KTM is emphatic in its support for chrom-moly and considers it superior to aluminium for a number of reasons. That's why the factory stuck with a steel frame in its brand new 450 and 525cc race ATVs and why KTM never uses anything else on its dirt bikes.
We noticed while wheeling the 300 and 200EXC off our ute that the 300 felt bigger and heavier, if only slightly. The 200EXC tips the scales at a whisker under 100kg but the 300 weighs in at 102.6kg, not that such a small amount would make much difference when you're out in the dirt. The 200 is nimbler in the scrub, although we're not calling the 300 clumsy.
This bike really comes into its own on open terrain where all that power and glory can let fly. Power delivery is smooth and progressive, pretty much everything you want in a trail engine, although it has to be said that with the standard powervalve spring this engine doesn't have the instant throttle response of a cleanly jetted 450 four-stroke. On the other hand, what to some riders feels like 'soft' power down low actually produces solid hook-up and good traction through the lower gears. This is an engine you can short-shift effectively, in fact that's the best way to ride it. With any more thump off idle, the 300 just gets difficult to ride and hook-up turns to wheelspin.
The motor is exceptionally tractable so there's no real hit anywhere,
just a constant rush of power through the rev range. By the time you hit the midrange the KTM has you in a headlock. It's 'get on with it or get off' time. It doesn't have a huge top-end this is still what you'd call a very fast bike. The power is everywhere, not simply in the band between 3500 and 3501rpm, so anyone can ride this bike and enjoy it.
Getting up nasty hills on a large capacity two-stroke used to require plenty of subtle riding skills, or a crazed charge from the bottom, but this engine will lug at low revs if that's the way you want to ride it. You don't have to crack the throttle and hope for the best either, it pulls strongly in every gear so you can use the engine's natural born grunt, without peppering everyone with roost as you curse your way to the summit.
I guess what we like most about this motor is that as a trail engine it's forgiving. The 200EXC is feisty and fun, but get the wrong gear at the wrong time and you'll make a fool of yourself. Not with the 300 though. If you make a mistake, this engine will pull you out of it nine times out of 10, if you tickle it with the clutch, so you don't have to worry about stalling where your mates will see it and shower you with ridicule.
Two-strokes are lighter than their four-stroke counterpart, though not by much these days. Still, that makes them more sensitive to rough terrain. They bounce around a lot more than a heavier bike and after a while that can get physical, not to mention tiring if you're not used to it. Big bore two-strokes also react badly to being over-revved so the best way to ride these buggers is to use the highest gear you can, short-shift, and let the engine do all the work. Over-rev it and sooner or later you'll get date punched.
The EXC handles and rides well, although it does retain KTM's characteristic sensitivity in the front end. Headshake seems to be less of a problem than it was in the very loose 07 300EXC, in fact it's not what you'd call headshake any more, it's more of a 'shrug' as the fork deflects off an SLB (Snotty Little Bump). Most people who ride a KTM for the first time notice this and it takes them some time to get used to it. Maybe it's the price we pay for quick steering. One of our testers owns a 300EXC and has an opinion on the matter of front end jitters. He says the standard bar position is too far forward on the 300, which makes the front-end feel twitchy. His solution was to move the bars back a little - KTM provided variable bar clamps for that purpose - and doing so makes a noticeable difference to the bike's stability.
Other than that, this is a bike you could ride to Cape York and back and have no issues with long days in the saddle. No-one during our evaluation made any mention of the shock behaving badly and no-one was complaining about a 'rock-hard seat'. The brakes are hot too, in fact they're so hot you want to spend a bit of time getting a feel for them before you chuck out the anchors in a panic stop. Like the 200EXC, the 300 has a very powerful front disc.
All things considered, it's not difficult to see why this is such a popular bike for those who fancy two-strokes. The Katey looks good, it handles well, it's fun to ride, and it's still flat-knacker fast. It's the most enduring two-stroke of them all, and no wonder.