OK so as titles go, calling any machine the best ever is a bold claim. When there are hundreds of enduro machines to choose from, can we really justify selecting one as the ultimate bike? We think so.
The KTM EXC has been in production for an impressive 23 years. And if you go back to the very first models that came out of the restructured Austrian firm back in 1992, they are not a world away from the machines that are being churned out to an eager buying public today. To have got a bike so right to start off with shows a clarity of design and manufacture that all motorcycle companies would love to copy.
Although ’92 was the first edition of the EXC, the model it replaced was not vastly different. Take a look at a 250 GS from the late 80’s and you can see the genetic line that follows through to the 2017 models that you can buy today. And transfer your gaze to a 1993 model 250 and save for the fact that the early bikes used a linkage (much like the crossers and Husqvarnas in the orange stable) – the basics of this years bikes is largely unchanged – a compact water-cooled two-stroke motor in a steel frame and with everything else pared back to the essentials. It’s a formula that brought KTM titles back in 93, just as it continues to to do in 2016.
Of course that is the secret that KTM hit on to start off with. The premise of ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ must be carved on Stefan Pierer’s desk at the vast Mattighofen HQ of the orange manufacturer. Once the bike proved itself in the initial design, the company just carried out gentle refinement to the bike each model year – nothing earth-shattering, evolution not revolution. And using that plan, the bike has grown with the market, matured with age and yet always been at the top of the pack. In fact this years move to the new engine marks the most fundamental change to the machine in nearly two decades, yet even then the new power plant is close enough to the early bikes to not move too far away from a winning formula.
Aside from the new engine in 2016, the last major change was back in ’96 when they dropped the linkage in favour of the PDS linkless system that is still used to great effect. OK it took a while to perfect and the American buyers never really got on board with a linkless bike, but aside from that, the simplicity of design is ideal for enduro, keeping the underside of the bike clutter free for those punishing rock sections. The same people that didn’t like PDS twenty years ago probably still swear it’s no good, but KTMs sales stats prove that the market does not agree. With WP suspension coming under the orange umbrella and dropping it’s easily misunderstood ‘White Power’ moniker, KTM suspension is right up there as some of the most advanced in the business.
In terms of design and plastics, the bike has slowly evolved over time too, with major leaps kept to a minimum. KTM moved from the incredibly useful transparent tank to an orange version in the mid 2000s for all models save the Six-day version, a move that mystified and irritated most buyers. They made it even worse a few years later when they went for a black tank which now meant there was no way of knowing how much fuel you had. It wasn’t until 2011 when the much-loved translucent tank returned, and was accompanied by a six-speed gearbox and electric start. Good calls all round.
But for all these slight changes over the years, the bike at it’s core remained a machine that could suit everyman – from trail rider to clubman enduro, Erzberg to World Enduro Championship. Genius.
OWNING A KTM EXC 250
For a bike that will do everything you want. The EXC250 is unsurprisingly easy to live with. So here’s the lowdown.
The two-stroke 249 cc engine is a peach. Work it hard and the top end is simply phenomenal, powering across the landscape like an orange missile. Short-shift it and keeps the revs low and the bike has surprising levels of torque, allowing it to pull tall gears without having to tap dance through the ‘box.
This flexibility is very much the work of the power-valve, which faultlessly varies the exhaust port height to deliver the right power at the right revs. But it’s not an inflexible device – the bike comes with three different springs – red, yellow and green, which deliver in turn hard, intermediate and soft power characteristics by changing the time taken for the valve to go to fully open. All the springs start opening the valve at 5700 rpm, but the red spring gets it fully open at 7300, the yellow 8000 and the green 8500. The bike revs out at around 9000 rpm.
For most riders, the yellow spring covers all bases, but for the expert level riders the snap on the red spring is almost instantaneous, whereas at the other end of the scale, the green spring softens things for newbies or trail riders. Further adjustments can also be made by altering the tension on the springs to fine-tune the bike to your own sweet spot. And if that were not enough, you can fit a mapping switch that takes the motor in and out of two pre-set maps.
The stock unit on the KTM EXC250s has changed over the years, moving from a conventional spring unit to a diaphragm arrangement on the later bikes. They all work well and in reality need little attention, save for reasonably regular oil changes and new plates as and when. Like piston changes, it depends on whether you cane it or not.
As with all performance strokers, setting up the carb is key. No matter how god the engine might be, you wont feel the benefit if the Keihin carb is out of whack.
And it takes a good mechanic to set it up properly. As stock, all KTM two-strokes come with a ridiculously strangling exhaust to meet EU regulations. As soon as you buy, the dealer takes this off – and more often than not sends it straight for recycling – and then has to set the bike up correctly. But not all dealers are as good at this as you might wish, so variations can occur – if in doubt take it to a proper race mechanic that knows about strokers and get it properly set up.
And while we are on the carb, the bike will suck water through it’s four breather pipes if you leave then pointing downwards. Detach them from the carb, drill four holes into the top of the air box and reposition all four so that they are out of harms way, leaving only the overflow pointing down.
As with all performance two strokes, the pipe is integral to the power, but sadly it’s size and location make it vulnerable to damage. If it takes too many dinks, your power will drop – fact.
The OEM pipe is the same as the model on the SX and the same as the 300 EXC. But on earlier models there was a longer, fatter enduro pipe that gave a wider spread of power.
If you do need to replace, FMF and Pro Circuit are popular upgrades, but more often than not are chosen for being marginally cheaper than the stock system at around £170 compared to £200 plus. It’s not worth swapping the end can – stock is fine so just repack as necessary.
The KTM EXC250 runs fairly cool in most situations. As stock it comes with a thermostat valve that only diverts through the rads when up to temperature. If you are frantic about weight saving, swapping all the hoses to silicone versions like Samco and ditching the thermostat helps it to run cooler and more efficiently. You could also move away from the standard water based mix to Evans Waterless coolant for race levels of cooling – we do and the bike never even approaches hot.
While some magazines bang on about the KTM brakes, we’ve got no complaints. The discs front and back are grabbed by reliable calipers than haul the bike to a halt when you need. The Six-day models have the solid discs, but the stock ventilated versions are just fine for mortals.
Although early bikes had Ohlins, WP components have been standard kit for the best part of 20 years, and by now are pretty much spot on. GP level riders might be able to spot the differences between linkage and non-linkage but most normal level riders are being less than honest if they really can identify the difference. Park any attempts and just get on with riding – the suspension is good OK?
Both ends do need setting up correctly and at the very least you should look in the manual to get the recommended sag and spring rates for your weight – it is not a ‘fits all’ system. The same book gives rebound and compression settings for Comfort, Standard and Sport settings much like the power-valve springs so that you can set it up at the right level. Standard settings are good to go if you are the correct weight.
As with the carbs, taking your bike to a proper suspension guy for setting up will reap rewards more than pretty much anything else. Tell him how fast you ride, where you ride and the style of riding you do and let him loose for an hour or so. You will not regret this.
KTM saddles are not the most comfortable on the market, but they are not the worst. A day on the bike can leave you tender if you sit down all the time, but if that’s the case you might not be the rider you think you are!
An easy way to change the dimensions of the KTM EXC 250 is through the Powerparts catalogue as there are taller and shorter seats available and even stepped seats if that’s your preference, though these tend to be more applicable to the bigger thumpers in the range. And if by any miracle you need it harder, an Acerbis X seat will do the job.
KTM bodywork is now built to be fairly universal across the range so that most parts fit all from 250s to 500s. The graphics on the tank shrouds are now sublimated into the plastic so will never wear, but on earlier models this was not the case. Pattern plastics are cheap and easy to replace but the standard ones are not much more cash. As an example, the complete OEM air box and number boards comes in at around £40 – now that’s great value.
OEM wheels are now Excel and are pretty damn bombproof. Each year KTM tend to swap things round so there might be black rims with silver spokes one year then silver rims the next – yadda, yadda – it makes not one jot of difference to how they ride, but with the black rims you do have to be more careful on tyre changes to keep them looking nice. Either way they are strong and fit for purpose.
EXC250 GEARS / GEARING
Up until 2011, the 250 EXC was five geared and hence a bit short in the leg for roadwork. The addition of the sixth gear was a masterstroke and opened up the box for trail users and enduro bunnies alike.
As stock, most of the bikes come with a 50-tooth rear and a 13 front. That’s a good race setting but a tad high for trail riding. Going for a 13/48 gives a better spread to cover events and trail, 14/48 for mostly trail and road work. The stock chain is not made of chocolate like some Japanese manufacturers fit so will last well. After that point replace with a good quality O-ring versions.
THE KTM EXC250 ON THE TRAIL
Riding the KTM EXC250 is a life affirming experience. It does everything you want to almost without you asking. From powering it’s way up seemingly impossible rock steps, to ploughing through axle deep forest ruts, this bike is like the Terminator – it simply will not be stopped.
The lightweight – around 102kg dry – and low centre of gravity means that if you do get somewhere you didn’t intend to be, it’s easy to pull it out. The flexibility of the engine to go from low down grunt mean that if you do get bogged on a trick hill and simply can’t change gear, the motor will pull like a small diesel until you are out of trouble. As soon as you are up and back on the fire roads, it will swap to top end ‘scream like a banshee flat-track mode‘ that has you going far faster than you know you should.
Maintenance wise, the bike wants for very little more than regular checks, changes of fluids and good quality two-stoke oil – we run Motul at 50:1 as that keeps the motor sweet without clogging the plug. If the exhaust dribbles a tad of unburnt oil by end of the day, that’s just about right.
For tyres the combination of a hybrid enduro trial at the back with an enduro front works well in most circumstances and is phenomenally good on rocks. Running mousses protects from punctures and rim damage.
Other upgrades that work are a swap to Renthal bars, a set of bark busters to protect the levers, front disc guard, alloy bash plate and maybe a clutch saver. The usual suspects really.
If you are buying an enduro bike for comfort you are missing the point. But the EXC250 does have an OK seat, great suspension and sensible ergos. It just fits.
Maximum points in this category. The EXC is bulletproof, proven technology. It rides well, crashes well and is easy to revive when drowned.
Maximum again. While the new bikes are now getting towards 8 grand in the UK, that bike could last you over ten years, We know, we’ve got a 2001 model that is still a great ride.
OK if you hate the colour orange this might be a stumbling block, but in that case buy some white pattern plastics, The KTM looks killer.
SO, IS THE KTM 250 EXC REALLY THE BEST ENDURO BIKE EVER MADE?
Pound for pound, we defy anyone to find a better enduro bike out there. OK so the Husky now comes with a linkage but so what – it’s just an EXC in another guise. Yes the Sherco looks sexy, but come resale time will you think the same? And the Beta – well that’s good too, but what are the chances it will go largely unchanged for nearly a quarter of a century?
As for the bigger brother in the range, the 300 EXC – while it sells marginally better than the 250, it is not a better bike, it’s just slightly different, doing everything the 250 does just at 500 rpm less. But the engine is less spritely for that, and the additional weight in that bigger piston is noticeable. Should you want to check – for a mere £700 you can fit a 300cc conversion kit to your 250 and see.
For our money, the KTM EXC250 remains the best enduro bike ever made. And that’s why we love it.
RIDE EXPEDITIONS RATING: KTM 250 EXC
Answered ‘NO’? Please let us know in the comments below the bike that would get your vote for the ‘best enduro bike ever made‘.