Even before the possibility of buying Husqvarna, KTMs domination of the enduro market was undeniable. From the highest echelons of world championship racing to the weekend warriors out on the trails, the world was orange. Turn up at any event, whether amateur or professional, and the field was around 75% KTM. This was market domination like never before.
So when BMW went cool on their idea of trying to match the orange giant in the off-road sector, why on earth did KTM want to take on Husqvarna?
The answer is evident in how the market has played out since that purchase. While the orange bikes have maintained much of their committed buyers, the new breed Husqvarnas have attracted buyers away from other brands, along with some orange converts. It’s a principle that works in every commercial sector from washing powder to automobiles, and has helped KTM to build on the success of their existing brand while heavily promoting their sister brand as a high-end alternative for the discerning buyer. It’s textbook marketing and it’s been incredibly successful, hoisting the once failing Husky brand to the top of every riders wish list.
THE BIG HITTERS
So against this backdrop of a new reality within the enduro market, the basics have however remained the same. For KTM, the best sellers within their impressively large enduro range for the past five or so years were always the 300 two-stroke and the 350 fours-stroke. And rightly so, as these two bikes could do just about everything in the world and more. Want to ride Romaniacs, take on Erzberg, compete in the WEC or just go trail riding at the weekend and these two bikes would do them all with ease.
Unlike the Japanese manufacturers who have all but dropped the strokers , KTMs decision to maintain faith in the two-stoke market has been rewarded big-time and their range offers both strokers and thumpers from 125cc to 500cc has allowed them to cover every possible market niche. And while Tokyo may be choosing to ignore the continued allegiance to pre-mix, the other European manufacturers are also riding the crest of the enduro wave with Beta, Gas Gas and Sherco also producing bikes that match the most popular models in the KTM range.
Following the same logic, the Husqvarna range mirrors the KTM models available for the most part from the massive donk of the FE501, right down to the pint-sized goodness of the TE125. But which bikes are the ones leaving the showrooms with the most regularity and speed? Yes it’s the 300 two-stroke and 350 four-stroke. Seems like what’s good for the goose is good for the gander …
So if these two bikes are the most popular in the range, it made sense to test the back to back. If we pitched an EXC 300 against a FE350, which one would we prefer?
But it’s not actually that simple. Because the boys in Austria are deliberately placing Husqvarna as the premium bike in the stable, then they’ve not given the two brands a level playing field. Pitch the standard KTM against the standard Husky and thanks to the higher spec of the white bike, the result of any test becomes slanted.
So to avoid this issue, we lined up a largely stock FE350 against a Six Day model of the EXC300. Husqvarna don’t have a Six Day version as their bikes already pre-pimped with all the good bits from the aftermarket catalogue, but in the case of the KTM, the Six Day model comes with over a grand’s worth of upgrades for about £600 over the price of the stocker. It’s a good deal and ensures that the 6D models sell our as soon as they hit the showrooms.
Doing a test now makes sense – with the 2018 bikes coming out in just a few months, the 2017 machines will be finding their way onto the second-hand market in their droves pretty soon. Wit the initial depreciation hit gone to the previous owner, buying a low-hour used bike is a smart move that can pay big rewards.
Our KTM’s only modification from OEM spec was a seriously sliced down seat. The owner had made this mod to reflect both his shorter legs and the fact that as a regular enduro rider, he’s on the pegs most of the time and preferred cutting the seat than altering the handling with dropped forks and shorter linkages. Low seats are available, but our man chose the home surgery route.
KTM EXC300 – The Racer’s Choice
As the biggest two-stroke in the range the 300 has always had legions of fans. It has always had buckets of torque, great handling and a grin factor that hit 11 the moment you started riding.
So you would think that KTM would leave well alone, if it ain’t broke style. But nothing could be further from the truth. For the 2017 model, they binned just about everything and started with as ground-up redesign. From plastics to frames, engine to suspension, everything went under the microscope before being incorporated in the 1’7 machine. This was no ‘bold new graphics’ redesign
The result is something of a triumph, If you like the 300 before, you’ll absolutely love it now, and if you’ve never tried one before, you’ll be amazed at just how good it is and want to own one straight away.
But before we go too far into the riding, let’s look at what’s changed on the bike.
Arguably the biggest change to the bike is the new frame, but it’s hard to split that aspect from the reason that it’s changed – that being the all-new and totally sublime engine. With these two major shifts in design KTM have got on board the ‘mass centralisation train’ that Yamaha and Honda have been riding for a fair few years now. The thinking is that if you can concentrate the weight of the machine as close to the middle of the machine, everything else drops into line. And the logic works – the off-road models from Honda and Yamaha are supremely well balanced, so KTM’s decision to follow suit makes sense.
So the frame and the engine development have been approached together, rather than leaving two separate teams to come up with designs and then making them compliment each other. They’ve focussed on making the stiffness of the frame work with the suspension and reduce lateral flex, but allowed more movement front to back that allows the bike to feel more agile and easier to ride. The forks are the new WP XPlor model that has springing in both sides, but separates the rebound and compression damping between the legs. The rear shock has been totally designed too, with a shorter body, floating piston, reduced weight and better feel – it’s also closer to the centre of the bike.
But all this would be wasted if it were mated to a poor engine. No worries here as the new two-stroke power plant is totally stunning in every respect. The KTM team have managed to make the lump slimmer, stronger, lighter and more compact, yet still incorporated an all-new electric and totally reliable electric start. It’s a hell of an achievement, especially when you realise that they managed all this without sacrificing the bottom-end grunt to top end hit that buyers love so much.
All about the balance
But there is one aspect that might have been overlooked in the above list is the addition of a counter-balance shaft to the engine. While the technology might be old-hat in the world of four strokes, the 2017 KTMs are the first time the counter balance engineering has been incorporated into a production two-stoke dirt bike for years. Honda tried the system on a Dakar machine back in 1994 and used in on their CRM range and around the same time KTM engineers were experimenting with the technology but were unable to make the system viable.
Some twenty years later, they’ve re-visited the technology but this time they’ve succeeded and the new counter balance shaft reduces vibration in the engine by a staggering 50%.
This is game changing stuff, but we’ll come to that in the test.
The 2017 bike uses a Mikuni carburettor rather than the Keihin they’ve relied on for many years. The official explanation may be that the new unit allows better flexibility to allow for altitude and temperature, but with fuel injection largely rumoured to be coming to the 2018 models, the switch in suppliers may be about long-term deals rather than benefits to the 2017 bikes.
The gearbox, though reworked to fit the new slimmer cases and design, thankfully retain the same six-speed box as before, allowing for everything from the technical climbs right up to the flat-out banzai trails. Oh and the new electric start – now it’s both inside the cases and orientated in the same plain as the crank, is both effortless and 100% reliable. There is a kickstart, but you’ll rarely need it.
OK so now onto the peripherals. The plastics are, if anything, the one area that’s similar to the ’16 model. Yes they’ve been reworked to fit with the new chassis, but there’s not drastic changes here. The headlight unit is all-new, the mudguards have been redesigned to give more strength at the front and to include a handle at the rear. The airbox has been redesigned for better efficiency and with a far simpler method of filter installation that makes it almost impossible to fit incorrectly. The tank is the usual opaque version allowing you to see what you’ve got left and the strokers get a 9.5l version compared to the 8.5l on the thumpers.
A nice addition is the ODI lock on grips that take the faff out of grip changes, but on the downside, kind of commit you to one brand!
Husqvarna FE350 – The Everyman Machine
When it comes to 350cc dirt bikes, KTM are the company that blazed the trail in this capacity. Starting way back when Stefan Everts was the guy driving the off-road effort, the ten-times champion’s conviction that a bike that handled like a 250 but had the power of a 450 would be a winning combination proved to unerringly accurate.
When then world MX champion followed Everts from Yamaha to KTM, he and the new SX350 were totally unbeatable.
Taking the MX1 championship a staggering five years on the bounce, Antonio Cairoli was undefeated on the 350 in every year he rode the bike for the entire season, despite competing against a field that, save for a few other KTM 350s, was exclusively populated with 450cc bikes.
In a bizarre irony, the year he lost the title was the year he appeared to lose confidence in the smaller machine, but his change to the 450 did not bring the rewards he and KTM hoped. The title returned to Yamaha with rookie MX1 rider Romain Febvre, and the following year to Honda with another rookie Tim Gasjer. KTM’s racing dominance has, for the moment, been suspended.
Yet despite the intricacies of the world motocross championship, the 350 remains a regular choice in the amateur MX market, consistently outselling the 450 in many countries. In terms of enduro, the same is true where in many of the Austrian firms major markets, the 350 shifts more units than it’s bigger brothers. OK so for the Australasian and US markets, the perhaps misplaced fondness for bigger bikes persists, but in reality, the 350 four-stroke is the do-it-all bike that has helped the brand to continued domination alongside it’s 300 two-stoke.
So against this backdrop, the Husqvarna 350 had a substantial leg up in the market to start with. It had the design and reliability of the all-conquering EXC350, but with better specced running gear, a smattering of aftermarket upgrades and that added cache of a new and exciting brand that showed you were a serious rider who wasn’t going to follow the herd. OK we all know you were following the herd, but it felt better on a white bike than another orange one …
Like the 300 smoker, Husky could have kept with the same formula with just a few tweaks, but they instead went for the ground up rethink approach at the same time as KTM. Yes, if you are critical you could say this was inevitable given the MX bikes had undergone the same change the previous year, but hell – who cares? This bike is so good, it doesn’t matter how it got there.
Same Formula, Same Result.
Just like the two stroke range for both sister brands, Husqvarna uses the redesigned frame on the FE350. So all the attributes and improvements that applied to the KTM EXC 300 apply here – the frame is stiffer side-to-side by around 30% and more flexible front to back by 20%.
Don’t worry that you didn’t realise you needed it – you did and it feels great! Paired with the same forks at the KTM and a DCC rear shock, the frame and springers compliment each other to give a stunningly stable ride.
Unlike the KTMs, the Husky uses a composite subframe rather than an aluminium unit, and this years version is an impressive 1kg lighter than the 2016 version.
The motor has received the same attention as the two-stroke, it’s leaner, narrower, shorter and altogether more refined than the previous version. Most of the components are shared with the FE250, but the 350 delivers significantly more power, and the shortened con-rod allows the bike to rev far more freely. The bike retain the six-speed box, but changes are made all the more slick thanks to a low friction coating on the components and a gear sensor that matches the engines’ power to the selected gear and track conditions – clever stuff.
The Husky dispenses with the kickstart entirely and relies on the electric foot. Despite all these changes, the motor is 0.7 kg lighter than the 2016 version, tipping the scales at an impressive 28.5 kg.
The fuel injection is through a new 42mm Keihin throttle body and Keihin engine management system that does its job faultlessly. One major addition that has found it’s way onto the 2017 FE350 is traction control and the mapping switch which allows riders a far easier time of things when the going gets slippy and sloppy. Not all riders will think it’s necessary, but for those that are not quite so Luddite, it’s a great upgrade to a great bike.
Aside from the engine and frame, the Husqvarna benefits from most of the changes that the orange bike has seen. Redesigned plastics, ODI grips, ‘No dirt’ footpegs – they are all there and contribute to a consistent and quality look. The tank is translucent too, but with no reserve on a fuel injected bike there’s a warning light to tell you its time to refuel. The bike gets radiator fan as standard on the left hand side, an addition that only makes it onto the four-stroke 6D KTMs.
THE TEST RIDE
So with two bikes to test, a bit of big landscape was called for. We headed down to South Devon and the South Hams area, which has a vast network of legal lanes to explore. Aside from the two test bikes, we had a selection of other machines including the much-loved EXC250 as a baseline comparison.
If the bikes could persuade us to consider jumping ship, that would be a huge endorsement.
So from the side, the Husky looks the business. The sharp panels, the sleek radiator shrouds, the graphics, they all contribute to one good-looking motorcycle – until you see the pug-ugly headlight and headlight surround. We’re not sure if the apprentice designed it, and it’s slightly better with a yellow number background but in our view it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the design.
But let’s park that, the bike looks killer and once you sit on it feels spot on. The rider wad a tad heavier than ourselves so the suspension was a little firmer, but not so much as to be a problem. The motor fires on the first push and are on the lively side of quiet – just right.
The bike we tested had a Rekluse clutch fitted. Fairly unnecessary on a bike that’s so easy to ride to start with, but certainly no bad thing. Given that the unit works the clutch in virtually the same way as you would, the difference in normal riding is minimal. The bikes’ engine is beautifully pliable moving from the slow stuff to the flat-out drifting with ease. The smart gearshift is cool meaning the bike seems to know what you are trying to do and complies every time with silent efficiency.
Suspension wise, the slightly stiffer set up worked well, with the forks tracking the front well in everything from rocky climbs to deep muddy trail. The back was so good as to be completely unnoticeable, exactly what you want – no surprises, no kickback, no skittering, just consistent suspension and traction whatever the surface.
Conditions were not bad enough at any time to warrant the full traction control trickery, but the system works by slackening off the revs if the bike’s ECU detects higher than expected revs. Because it’s an electronic-based system that does not use wheel sensors, it’s legal for competition. You can retro fit the controller to the four-stroke KTMs, but only the Husqvarnas get it on the standard bikes.
One of the consequence of the short con-rods and indeed all modern four-strokes is the fact that this bike actually likes being revved, and doesn’t necessarily perform to it’s best in the super-low rev range that a big, old-fashioned thumper would shine. That said, the motor is silky-smooth across all gears and allows you to just get on with riding without thinking too much. For racing, this is perfect, for trail riding it’s as easy as you could imagine. Swapping back to the EXC250 did highlight the amount of work the stroker needs in comparison!
Brembo brakes at both ends are effortlessly efficient, although we’d like to see a disc guard as standard on a high-end machine. Seat-wise, the Husky is a comfortable if firm ride. The bars to seat to footpeg ratio is good, although our test bike had risers in place. It also had aftermarket barkbusters, far better looking than the stock scoops that are as ugly as the headlight cowl.
But for all the Husqvarna’s good points, we couldn’t quite say we all-out loved the FE350. It’s agile, well-suspended, and effortless to ride thanks to its stupidly low weight – a full 3.2 kilos lighter than the 2016 version. From experienced rider to enthusiastic novice, this bike ticks almost every box. You can adjust the maps, adjust the preload, compression and rebound damping from the top of the forks – just about everything you’d need to out on the trail. The bike is put together immaculately with quality components, and thanks to the clever design has refreshingly long service intervals – all good.
But as to that secret ingredient – that X factor that converts a good bike into a must -have machine, we were not really feeling it. The Husqvarna is quite so accomplished that it almost feels like they may have engineered away the personality of the bike. And that may be it’s only downfall.
Ride Expeditions Rating – HUSQVARNA FE350
So how does the EXC match up? Well thanks to pitching a 6D model against the Husky, we had a worthy contender for the battle. The forks are the same as the FE350, as are the addition of CNC machined triple clamps compared to the cast versions on the standard machine. The bike also gets a different seat, mapping switch, carbon pipe-guard, different end-can, floating front disc and solid rear rotor, a front axle-puller and a Supersprox Stealth dual component rear sprocket. On the nice but fairly useless / no difference front, it also gets an orange frame, different graphics, white plastics, an orange chain guide and a generous smattering of 6D logos.
As a package it’s nicely put together, but strangely the Six Day model does not look quite as aggressive as the stocker. Not everybody likes the look of the EXCs but we are not in that camp at all, al the KTM gets our vote over the Husky in stock mode, though it’s more of a score-draw comparing the 6D model.
But all that is forgotten once you thumb the starter and the Katoosh burbles into life. If you are used to a usual two-stroke, the initial noise is much the same if a little smoother, but as soon as you open it up, then the effect of the counter-balance are immediately obvious. KTM claim a drop of 50% in the vibration and you’d have to agree – the motor is unbelievable. After this, everything else that has come before feels steam-powered, clunky and old-fashioned.
Once they add in the EFI for 2018, this bike will be truly phenomenal, but for the moment they will have to settle for unbelievable.
And the good times continue as you drop the clutch and gas it. The motor has an instantaneous and crisp pick up that see you heading towards the horizon with a massive grin. The power continues through the box, and even if you short-shift, the monster bottom-end will pull cleanly from seemingly zero revs.
And if the engine was impressing the hell out of us, the chassis was doing the same. With the dry weight now down to a smidge over 100 kg, the 300 now feels like a 125 as you take on the terrain. The compact engine’s weight seems to disappear, and the slim profile around the centre of the machine allows great control. The seriously cut-down seat meant that sat down corners were not as smooth as if we had had the OEM seat, but in fairness that made little difference – we tend to stand a lot too so the seat only became an issue on the tarmac sections – most of the time it made the handling easier or no different.
So what else is there to report? The ergos work well, the cockpit is nicely laid out and uncluttered (save for our additional GPS unit), and the bike feels supremely well-balanced. The bike corners well without ever losing it’s line, can crab it’s way up the steepest of climbs yet can still throw the roost on the flat out sections – its a true Ronseal bike – it does what it says on the tin.
People used to whinge about KTM brakes and headshake, but those things are long gone. The brakes are 100% effective and the steering bob on. The riding position feels remarkably similar to the Husky – not surprising given their parallel evolution in Austria!
But what shone out between the EXC and the FE is that we actively wanted to own the KTM. We wouldn’t mind the Husqvarna, but the KTM was straight away – ‘This is just great – how can I get one’. The engine is the thing that swung the deal, but paired with all the other upgrades, the KTM is a stand out machine in every respect.
Ride Expeditions Rating – KTM EXC300 Six Day
THE VEDICT – KTM EXC300 vs. Husqvarna FE350
The problem with pitching the leading stroker against the leading thumper is the danger that the final verdict can be just down to preference between two-stroke and four-stroke. Yet we are looking beyond just the engine configuration when we say that of the two, we liked the KTM more than the Husqvarna.
Both bikes are truly special, and if you’ve not upgraded since 2007, you will be amazed at how sophisticated modern enduro bikes have become. But if you’ve ridden the 2016 models, then the Husqvarna feels like the natural progression of the already excellent four-stoke motor. Yes it’s smaller, crisper and generally beautiful, but it’s just the next step on the ladder.
But the EXC is a different matter. The addition of the counter-balance shaft to new engine has made a quantum leap to two-stroke development in the same way that power-valves or water-cooling made back in the day. This is game changing technology available in your showrooms right now.
It has to be our winner.
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