KTM is the 600-pound gorilla of the dirt bike world right now. That’s not a statement about professional race wins, unit sales or even shootout results; it’s about leadership and commitment. The Austrian company offers more off-road models than all the Japanese brands combined. KTM’s parent company, Pierer Mobility AG, has three different brands selling 63 different models in the U.S. just in the off-road and MX segments.
Of all those bikes, the flagship is this one, the 2024 450SX-F. It’s the bike that has driven much of the technological advancements in its class over the last 10 years. For 2024, however, it’s unchanged. This comes after a major and somewhat controversial makeover last year. How will it stack up?
RISKS AND REWARDS
The new-for-2023 KTM 450SXF was received with a mixture of acclaim and apprehension. The frame was completely new with different flex characteristics. It relocated the motor with a lower output shaft in order to provide an anti-squat characteristic. On top of that, the motor, which didn’t look that different, had significant differences in the head and throttle body. A new map switch on the left side of the bar had dedicated buttons for the aggressive and mild maps, as well as traction control and Quickshift. The shock was completely new, while the fork was still a WP Xact air fork with new valving. Along the way, the bike gained weight—around 6 pounds.
There was trouble in the ranks. The previous version of the bike had developed such a fanatical following that any change would have been a hard sell. The most common report was that the new frame was stiffer. Riders interpreted that as being a concession to the Cooper Webbs of the world for Supercross. Then, when it came out that Cooper Webb was struggling with the new machine, the mattering and grumbling turned into outright complaining. We know; we were among the complainers.
Now, the 2023 version is said to be unchanged aside from graphics. To us, that’s a little hard to believe. The truth might be that we’ve changed a little. We’ve adjusted the way we ride the bike and what we expect from it.
Setting aside the history lesson, you should know up front that the KTM 450SX-F is a very powerful motorcycle. In our 2023 450 shootout, it was the king of the dyno with 59.94 horsepower at 9360 rpm. The next best was the Husqvarna FC450, which used the same motor, followed by the Yamaha YZ450F with 58.95 horsepower. That pecking order won’t change much for 2024 unless the new Kawasaki KX450 is a dyno crusher; all the other 450s have unchanged motors.
What really sets the KTM apart isn’t the peak output as much as the smooth, controllable nature of the power delivery. It’s a beast, but a beast that’s easy to keep on its leash. The buildup is linear, and the peak comes fairly early. You don’t have to rev it, but you do have to respect it. The 450SX-F has excellent low-end torque, so you can short-shift and keep it clear of the crazy zone if you like, but it isn’t stall-proof. If you brake hard or yank open the throttle at low rpm, you run the risk of stalling out. There’s a happy medium that’s easy to learn, but a smooth right wrist is an essential part of 450SX-F etiquette.
KTM gives you two maps that can be selected on the left side of the handlebar. The white map is smoother, and the green map revs a little more freely. There isn’t a big peak horsepower difference. The same control cluster gives you the option of traction control, which some riders find useful. Most are indifferent to it. And then there’s the Quickshift on/off button, which interrupts the ignition when you shift. This can be very useful, but you have to be on top of your game. If you have a clear run to the end of the straight, it allows clean upshifts at full throttle. In the real world, you don’t often find conditions where you want that. Most of the time, your front wheel is coming up or you’re struggling for traction. Full throttle, as it turns out, isn’t attained that often on a 60-horsepower motorcycle. Most riders are more likely to find launch assist helpful. This mutes the output for better traction on the start. Once you shift to third or chop the throttle, it deactivates itself. All the 450 motocross bikes offer some version of this, and all are useful. The biggest issue is learning to trust it.
ABOUT THAT CHASSIS…
When we first rode with the new chassis over a year ago, we were not big fans. We couldn’t get past the fact that it felt so much stiffer than the previous version. Fast-forward to our aforementioned 2023 450 shootout and we had a very different perspective. In that comparison, we had the 2023 GasGas MC450F, which had the old frame that we thought we loved so much. It was flexy and squatty compared to the new KTM. It turned out that we had to come to terms with the new rigidity and learn to use it. We also learned to give the bike some time. Both the frame and the fork needed break-in before feeling comfortable. Cooper Webb obviously came to terms with the new chassis as well, but at that level, his issues were more or less irrelevant to the rest of us. It was interesting that when Tony Cairoli came to America, he was forced to use the frame because of the AMA’s production rule. He was shocked at how flexy it was compared to his European works frame. To each his own.
As for the 2024 model, it holds no surprises. The KTM still ranks on top of the charts when it comes to cornering. It’s super easy to initiate a turn, and once established, it holds a level, even attitude throughout the corner. It’s still a very light motorcycle—229 pounds without fuel. That might be heavier than the old version, but it’s lighter than anything else in the 450 class. There is a slight amount of cheating involved in that weight, of course, because there are no fork springs. The KTM still uses the WP Xact air fork on its motocross models. It is an excellent fork in many regards, including adjustability and light weight. In terms of outright performance, however, there are more comfortable units on the market. The KTM delivers some feedback to riders’ hands on square-edge bumps that’s hard to eliminate through normal fork tuning. And, air continues to be controversial. Many riders still feel that old-fashioned steel springs are more stable and level through the chaos of especially rough motocross tracks. It’s interesting that KTM’s XC cross-country models now have a coil-spring version of the Xact fork. Our initial testing with those forks in an off-road environment has been encouraging. We can’t wait to try one set up for motocross. We understand it performs like the air fork equipped with the WP drop-in spring kit, which has become very popular.
The rear suspension gets better and better as the frame gets more time. The source of some of the initial dissatisfaction with the frame stiffness came from straight up-and-down compliance. As we learned, it takes about 10 hours before the frame settles in. Once that happens, the overall performance is better than that of the previous version. Most riders prefer around 105mm of sag, and the stock settings are perfect for those in the 170-pound range.
THE AUSTRIAN CONNECTION
KTM is well known for using topnotch suppliers, many of which are owned by KTM’s parent company. WP makes the suspension and radiators, Pankl makes many of the engine internals and so forth. Outside companies like Brembo, Neken, Dunlop, Twin Air and Galfer all contribute to a very high-quality overall product. They also contribute to the price, which is now $11,099. KTM is definitely a leader in that respect as well.
Even though the 450SX-F is unchanged for 2024, it’s clear that its role in the overall market is continuing to become more and more important each year. The motocross world, it turns out, is gradually coming to KTM. Overall, we think that’s a change for the better.