KTM 250 EXC – Best Enduro Bike Ever Made?
KTM 250 EXC – Best Enduro Bike Ever Made? 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 year’s 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 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 year’s 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 its core remained a machine that could suit everyman – from trail rider to clubman enduro, Erzberg to World Enduro Championship. Genius.
OWNING A KTM 250 EXC
For a bike that will do everything you want. The 250 EXC 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.
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The stock unit on the KTM 250 EXCs 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 won’t 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 its 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 harm’s 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 250 EXC 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 that haul the bike to a halt when you need it. 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 250 EXC 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 come 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.
Up until 2011, the 250 EXC was five geared and hence a bit short in the leg for road work. 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 version.
KTM 250 EXC - ON THE TRAIL
Riding the KTM 250 EXC 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 means 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-stroke 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 the 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.
SO, IS THE KTM 250 EXC REALLY THE BEST ENDURO BIKE EVER MADE?
If you are buying an enduro bike for comfort you are missing the point. But the 250 EXC 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.
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 250 EXC remains the best enduro bike ever made. And that’s why we love it.
RIDE EXPEDITIONS RATING: KTM 250 EXC
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Don’t agree with our assessment? Please let us know the bike that would get your vote for the ‘best enduro bike ever made‘ in the comments section below…
23 comments on “KTM 250 EXC – Best Enduro Bike Ever Made?”
KTM is really a good bike. But they are the very best in Marketing. I would like to see more information of other bikes like TM Racing, Serco, Yamaha, and Beta. I think these bikes are great too.
Thanks for the input – in an article about the best enduro bike, there is only going to be one we write about otherwise it doesn’t justify the title! We have reviewed both Beta and Yamaha models on the blog pages, but as yet not either Sherco or TM. Of the two, Sherco is more likely but as for TM, we have not seen one out on the trails for around five years. They may be beautifully designed, but they don’t sell well!
I recently sold my ’98 KDX 220 and got an 02 KTM 380 exc. Went through it this winter replacing what seemed like just about everything. Anyway, the handling is very neutral compared to the KDX. The KDX is great in tight woods, but the rake and trail are different than most bikes and I definitely wouldn’t call it neutral handling.
Anyway, the 250exc probably is the best enduro bike ever made by current day standards.
Thanks for the input Ryan – I’ve got a 2013 and a restored 2001 version of the 250 and cannot fault either of them. How do you find the 380 power on the tight stuff?
I’ve had Yamaha, KTM and TM smokers. All these bikes can be competitive in any terrain and for any rider. However, I’m not big fanboy of KTMs suspension – as it is from the factory. Yamaha and TM suspension (KYB forks and KYB or TM factory rear) haven’t needed any re-valving or even new springs. WP setup seems not to work at least for trails riding for my self, about 85 kg naked.
for staters and weekend warriors I’d recommend testing also other available brands. Some of them may work for you better and does not need e.g. expensive suspension tuning.
Thanks for commenting – we have no complaints about the KTM suspension, but these things are quite personal. There are very few bad bikes out there, we just think the EXC250 is one of the best.
Yet the YZ250X has never lost a shootout?
Hi Chris – so we take it you are a fan of the Yamaha! That’s great but it cannot be considered in the same league as the EXC. The Yamaha uses an engine that has remained largely unchanged for over a decade in what is essentially a motocross based chassis. The bike is not available across the world, does not come homoologated for the road in most countries and in terms of championships won, cannot hold a candle to the achievements of the KTM. The Yamaha remains a popular buy for a tiny sector of the enduro market compared to those that have chosen the orange option. Husky may be on the rise at the moment but that’s only because they are for the most part KTMs with raised specification.
As regards not losing a shootout, we’d question that comment. The Yamaha does not make most shootouts in Europe as it’s unavailable in the majority of countries. The YZX still has an allegiance and that’s why Yamaha still produce it, but performance wise, their own WRF250F is a far superior machine on just about every level. We like strokers, but the YZ250X success and dominance has never been on a par with the KTM.
Thanks for your input Chris, sorry we don’t agree with your point of view!
Friend of mine’s a suspension-tuner: It’s always funny to visit him, but especially whenever a buyer of a brand new EXC approaches. He starts “let me guess, your bike acts this, this and that way”. The customer: “How do you know”? His answer: It’s a KTM…
You might be right in your article about all points. But suspension-wise those babies are not everybodys darling from the start.
Cheers for the always interesting articles.
The PDS system works really well, but some people start with the premise that it doesn’t. We’ve had KTMs for eighteen years and love them, but we accept that there are those that are not as keen!
I want 1 I’ve got 2017 sx150 want to part x
Erm – we are nor a selling site Dave …
Hi Julian, I’ve enjoyed reading through your website and am an experienced sports bike road rider, looking to build some off road capability in the UK before booking to come on Tour with you.
My interest was piqued by your entertaining article declaring the KTM exc 250 as a valid ‘best enduro’ and I would appreciate understanding why your company defaults to the CRF250L/KMX250/WR450F for your Tours and therefore, what bike I should buy secondhand for myself. In addition to the above named, I also have the Honda CRF250X on my shortlist and my age and riding style are likely to have me keep progress modest, but try to maintain momentum. I can’t imagine I’m going to be ringing the neck out of any bike off-road and jumping it into the void, that’s what my road bikes are for 🙂
So can you shed a little light on what might be the right direction for me to take an I look forward to arranging a tour once I enjoy a winter in the English mud!
What makes the best enduro bike does not necessarily make the best tour bike or indeed trail bike, so we tend to use four stroke bikes with relatively long service intervals for the tours, and of course they don’t need a supply of two stoke oil in the middle of the jungle …
I think the Honda CRF250X will make a good choice for you – I was out for two days riding at the weekend and two of the guys were on the 250X – it’s a great bike that goes on forever. If you want to try one – book a day at the Dave Thorpe Off- Road Centre in Devon – it’s a worthwhile investment. I’d also suggest you join the local TRF where you are – riding on your own isn’t safe or as much fun!
Being a 64-year old seasoned enduro rider, having owned maaany enduro bikes – from KTM 250GS of 1982, HUSQVARNAS 390WR’81/500WR’84/400WR’86 et al, and now riding a Husky 250WR’06 – allow me my proverbial “two-cents”: EXC is a GOOD bike, but for the more professional and “hard” modern rider. Engine IS peaky and revvy, although one can “detune” it via springs, carb needs TEDIOUS and absolutely localized jetting, ditto for the stiff front suspension, rear brake is VERY touchy and tank is small. But the real problem is the PDS: it’s so immediate into “reacting” towards obstacles and stones – because of the no-linkage – that spring-like sends the bike’s tail – and the unsuspected rider – to the…moon! Linkage-less rear suspension “reads” the terrain ABSOLUTELY and TO THE TEEE, a quality and ability more sought by MXers and not so in Enduros, let alone the old-school ones and/or trail weekend warriors. Being ready to buy an 300EXC’04, I’m ready to live with it, “bend” and adapt my riding technique and style to its own “de-vices” and enjoy/honor this bike from a european Company that has kept its faith in Two-Strokes, in Times clogged with valves! (By the way: 1/ I professionally tested bikes for 18 years and 2/ your site IS great n’ true!)
Thanks for you input – we’ll have to agree to disagree with your observations on the EXC250. The model has dominated enduro and hobby sales for nearly two decades and continues to do so and it would not have done so if had multiple shortcomings. Similarly, bikes with PDS suspension have won every level of off-road competition all over the world, so although they handle differently to a linkage, this does not appear to have diminished their success! The company introduced linkages in order to crack the US market, but it still took that change and a US MX / SX champion to really convince the buyers! Enjoy the 300 – the orange tank was a mistake as it’s impossible to know what you have left, but otherwise it’s a bombproof bike!
Teddy,Walker,Gomez,Bolton,Garcia,Watson,Cody Webb,lettenbichler,bolt all been or still and rode 250’s in there careers
It’s a good list for a great bike!
Can anyone tell me what is the horsepower of a KTM 250 EXC 2stroke 2003 model ???
Most 250 two strokes put out mid to high forties horsepower, but KTM never quote on the spec. The question is – does it matter?
I believe the actual horsepower is 41.9 to 42.3 depending on the dino on the 250 And the Husquvarna was 44.3 average dino. However the writer failed to mention on the dino output power curve that the Yamaha and Kawasaki are higher in the HP in Midrange by as much as 13 % where the KTM and Husquvarna are more peak in the higher 1/3 of the power range. And those midrange powers are best for racing and for trail and enduros in most test rides and by most test riders by overall polls after shoot outs. Its why one writer above spoke of Yamaha never losing a shootout ( I disagree with that as Kawasaki beat them several times) but his point is valid and the lesser power of the YZ at 36.8 and the Kawasaki at 38.9 actually had quicker lap times in MX shootouts and better trail times with camera timers in enduro racing. I am very much looking at a KTM as a bike for me on my next purchase. And am a mid 50s age rider who has raced and rode since before I could actually ride a bicycle I rode a Honda minitrail 50. And have had both dirt bikes, road bikes, cafe racers to cruisers and enduro bikes and ride both annually. I feel KTM is a super great bike. But my history riding them is small. But stats and Pro Riders are great sources to back up what the data shows on them. I think a more objective look is needed than this article. But its I’m sure written with a lot of great data. and Experience.
I’m unsure how you are including Yamaha and Kawasaki into a comparison with a KTM EXC 250. Yamaha’s enduro bikes are four stroke only so are vastly different in power characteristics and power output / delivery and cost of ownership. You mention the YZ which is a motocross bike that effectively stopped development over fifteen years ago – yes it can be made into a woods bike and it’s still very popular but it is a country mile away from modern two stokes.
As for Kawasaki, the brand does not make any enduro bikes and has not done so for many years and has not made a two stroke 250 motocross bike this century. Again you could can convert a KXF into a woods bike and do the same to an old KX250 but it’s still not an enduro bike.
You mention looking at stats and pro riders for evidence – KTM have dominated all enduro / hard enduro competition for the last twenty years across the world and with their acquisition of Husqvarna and now Gas Gas, they will continue to do so for many years. Beta and Sherco are coming up fast but will find it hard to beat the market reach and dominance of KTM and their sister brands. While not at quite the same level in US motocross and supercross, the brand continues to grow in these sectors too with more and more titles stacking up for the kTM stable, then riders will continue to follow the adage ‘ What wins on Sunday sells on Monday’.
You may not share out opinion and that’s your prerogative, but as a lifelong motorcyclist you really should get yourself a KTM !
Hi guys, as a regional cub rider i can say the KTM 250 blows my socks off. It ticks all the enduro bike tick boxes. Why bother about comparing it to an old technology YZ for example? Just the hydraulic KTM clutch is a no brainier argument. Why would your want to ride a modern day bike with a wire clutch, when another brand has got a hydraulic clutch? Why ride an eastern MX bike in the woods for any reason, when there is a purpose built Austrian bike that goes the job 100 x better? This love affair with the wrong tool for the job has got me confused. For technical trail riding you need a bike with a fan, plush suspension, easy hand agronomics, biggish tank, happy button, weighted crank, soft squishy mousse tyres, under 110 kilograms, and fitted with crash friendly accessories.
the Euro brands understand what trail riders want. You cannot go wrong with purchase of a modern day KTM ,Beta, Husky, Gas Gas, TM,