Europe is back in the game.
Ten years ago, no one would have believed it. Here in the year 2001 (almost), every teenager carries a telephone in his pocket, underwear is fashionably worn on the outside, scooters are back in style and the KTM 125 motocrosser is considered cool. At one point, no style-conscious motocrosser would have been caught dead on a KTM. They were enduro bikes, one step away from coming standard with blinkers and saddlebags. But horsepower is a powerful motive for change. When KTM?s new 125 SX came out, it quickly developed a reputation for being the fastest bike in the 125 class. Sure, it was still a little funky, but funky in a cool way.
Now the 125 SX has undergone its first major change since being inducted into the land of the socially accepted. The 2001 model looks kind of the same at a glace, but almost everything is changed in some way or another. KTM?s makers weren?t happy to have a fast bike that didn?t do much else. They wanted it all.
HERE WE GO
You have to be a KTM guy to realize how different the 2001 motor is. It looks almost identical to the earlier version, but virtually no parts will interchange. First of all, the bore and stroke are different?slightly. The dimensions were 54.25 by 54.0mm; now they are 54.0 by 54.5mm. No one really has the guts to step too far away from those universal 54 by 54mm dimensions. Come on, stop looking at your neighbor?s homework! There can?t be anything that magic about that exact piston size and that exact stroke. The crank was made larger in diameter to increase crankcase pressure. And then a new cylinder was dropped on top of everything. The whole goal was rideability. KTM had power, but only top-end power. Novices, beginners and fat old men ride too. Most of them couldn?t keep the old 125 singing. It would bog unless you were in the right gear all the time. KTM resisted the urge to switch to a Mikuni carb like Honda and Kawasaki. The Keihin is back, and it?s still big (39mm). There are no electrical wires coming out of the carb; no Power Jets or TPS leads. At this point, the KTM is fairly gadget-free.
Probably the most expensive change is the plastic. It?s unbelievably expensive to make a new fuel tank mold. Same for the radiator shrouds. But KTM was tired of the enduro bike rap. The plastic was new in 1998, but the factory decided that the riding position was the main culprit. So with a lower tank, less obtrusive shrouds and a flatter seat, the KTM has a more modern compartment for the rider. Add that to the new oversize Magura bars, which are very high and very far forward, and you have ergos that are a little more than just up-to-date. KTM is on the leading edge now, setting up the bike in ways that younger riders will love.
What about the frame itself? No change. The suspension just got some fairly tame revalving. The WP fork still has 0.38 kg/mm springs and the shock still has a progressive spring and no linkage, although the rebound circuit is completely different.
IS IT STILL FAST?
Yes. But it?s not as fast. The KTM guys accomplished exactly what they set out to do. They traded away a little bit of top-end power and gained a whole bunch down low. In the past, the KTM was the only 125 that would rev to 13,000 rpm. Now we have to ask, do you need that kind of rpm? Okay, if your left foot were suddenly paralyzed then maybe you could leave the bike in first gear all the way to the first turn (and still pull the holeshot), but the rest of us can shift. Now the KTM pulls from low rpm?lower than you need on the average track. It?s kind of like mistake insurance, in case you didn?t downshift when you should have, or maybe there wasn?t much traction. The KTM will pull itself back into the power zone without much work.
As for the power left on top, it?s plenty. We?ve ridden almost all the 125s now, and they are all in the hunt. Only the Yamaha makes decisively more on top, but it no longer has that forgiving low end like last year?s YZ. It?s almost as if the two bikes exchanged motor personalities for 2001.
But still, you can always tell a KTM. The motor has a lot of flywheel effect. If you grab a handful with the engine in neutral, it takes a second to build up revs. On the track, you only notice the flywheel when the wheel bounces off the ground or when you fan the clutch.
WHERE DO I SIT?
You can?t, however, tell it?s a KTM just by sitting on it. The enduro ergos are gone. In fact, you would think it was set up for some free-rider. The bars are so tall that most national supercross guys would feel right at home. And the pocket in the seat where you used to be trapped? It?s gone. The seat-to-tank junction is so flat you can easily sit too far forward. The bike is fairly narrow, too. It was never really fat, but now it?s the slimmest bike out there.
Another improvement is the fit of the radiator shrouds. They are recessed into the tank so that you don?t catch edges in your boots. All of this adds up to a bike that lets you move around. You can slide forward without running into the tank. You can slide back without catching your boots. You can toss the bike from side to side without much effort. That?s half the battle in making a bike that handles?the KTM lets you do your thing.
But you can still detect traces of euro bike weirdness in the handling department. It?s still a bike that doesn?t quite drop into turns as easily as a Honda or a Suzuki, and it still has just a touch of headshake. You can?t really blame the suspension, either. The front, in particular, is as good as anything that Japan has come up with. It?s good on little stuff?not just acceptable, but truly good. With a few clicks in either direction, virtually all riders found a happy spot without crying out for different springs. That?s rare.
In the rear, the suspension is good in 90 percent of the conditions, and only a little strange in the remainder. It does well in rough stuff, but doesn?t seem to move much in response to rider postion. Whether you slide forward or back, you always get the same riding attitude. If there?s a big square edge coming your way, it?s difficult to unweight or alter the impact in any of the usual ways. You just hit it. And, for the most part, the rear end takes it without bottoming or deflecting. Maybe we are so used to linkage suspensions that we just need a certain adjustment time to get used to something like the KTM. Maybe.
STUFF DONE RIGHT
? We love the hydraulic clutch. It has a light pull and always works. The shorty lever is kind of annoying, though.
? The jetting is easy to change. You don?t even have to tilt the carb to change the needle. We had to drop the main one size and the needle two positions to make it run right in the middle of a California heat wave. One position on the needle will probably be mandatory no matter when and where you ride.
? KTM has fantastic quality in the detail department. The handlebar is super strong, the chain is great, the sprockets are good, the rims are top shelf. KTM even tried to make the graphics more permanent by screen-printing the logo directly on the plastic. It didn?t really work, though, because your knees wear through the image in just a few rides.
? The side access air filter is a good idea, but still kind of difficult to reassemble. It has those same Dzus fasters that are difficult to position. Regular screws would be faster.
? The funny looking disc brakes are back. They don?t really have any effect that we can detect, but they look kind of interesting. The brakes are good, by the way.
? This year KTM lenthened the shifter and that made a big difference. Now you can manage full-power, no-cltuch shifts (they were iffy before). It still doesn?t shift quite as well as a Honda or Suzuki, but it?s close.
WILL IT WIN?
Yes. The KTM has won a lot of races in the last year and it will win more this year. There are already quite a few of them creeping up from the back of the pack in the Nationals.
The new KTM is a better, more rounded package than it was last year. But it did lose the one identity that set it apart. It?s no longer the fastest 125 on the track. Now at least it has a shot at being the best 125 on the track. Stay tuned.