The KTM X-Bow Is a Delightful Freak

This wild-looking track-only beast packs 300 horses and no roof or doors.

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KTM

Week With a Car is a recurring look at the garage and multiple outdoor parking spots of Sam Smith, R&T’s globetrotting editor at large—magazine test cars, race cars, whatever he's driving that week. These dispatches usually take the form of a Frequently Asked Questions interview, with the author interviewing himself. They don’t always make sense, but then, that’s Smith. —The Editors

THE CAR:

2019 KTM K-Bow Comp R

300 hp @ 6400 rpm

310 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm

Six-speed manual transmission / Six-speed twin-clutch automatic

Rear-wheel drive

0–62 mph: 3.9 seconds (MFR testing)

Top Speed: 144 mph (MFR testing)

MSRP: $104,500 (Plus destination charge, which varies by dealer)

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KTM

You spent a week with this weird-looking bug-face thing?

Well, not technically a week. KTM held a press drive for U.S. journalists at Sears Point Raceway. I got two 20-minute track sessions in an X-Bow, some time sliding around a short paddock autocross. But the X-Bow has no roof, no doors, no real seats. Five minutes in one is roughly as abusive as five days in any other car. (See what I did there?)

I do. It was obvious and unpleasant. I remember these posts! That weird thing where you pretend to ask yourself questions about a car. I don’t know why they let you do this.

I don’t, either. I drink a lot of coffee at work. Maybe too much coffee. My friend Matt Farah once called these posts “one of the weirdest things about you, and there are a lot of weird things about you.”

KTM. Small Austrian company. A friend has one of their dirtbikes. Big motocross-lookin’ thing that he likes to bounce off trees while trying to lacerate his spleen. Why are those people building a car?

Because they can. Because Audi let them use the 2.0-liter TFSI turbo four-cylinder from the TTS coupe. (288 hp in the TTS. 300 hp here.) And KTM isn’t exactly small. Last year, the company sold 238,334 vehicles worldwide. The X-Bow, KTM’s only car, accounts for a small fraction of that. More than 1200 examples built since the model was launched a decade ago.

That’s a lot of bikes.

Right? The company has been Europe’s largest motorcycle manufacturer for several years. (The firm dethroned BMW, which held the title for ages.) They mostly sell nutball dirtbikes and equally bonkers road bikes. I owned a KTM 990 Adventure for a bit. Great for travel, but also happy ripping jumps at 80 mph. It made 115 hp with a dyno tune and was faster on a bumpy mountain road than most sportbikes. I used it to dick around on trails far from home while trying to not wrap my spleen around a tree.

Hark! A theme!

I also rode it through the desert once and pretended to be .

No way you’re as boss as that picture.

I ride a dirt bike about as well as most people fall down stairs. But a KTM bike is like a good Porsche—you start it up and think, I AM THE BEST DUDE WHO HAS EVER LIVED, LET’S GO BREAK SOME BOOOOOONES. It’s so well-engineered, it makes you feel smarter, stronger, better than you are.

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KTM

So this is some dual-purpose Austro fancy?

No. The X-Bow weighs 1759 pounds. It was engineered in concert with Dallara, the firm behind the current IndyCar, and Austria’s Magna Steyr. The latter is one of the largest contract manufacturers in the world. They’ve assembled vehicles for the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. The X-Bow’s carbon-fiber tub is essentially Dallara’s Formula 3 monocoque with room for an extra seat. Suspension is by double A-arm front and rear, with remote-reservoir dampers actuated by pushrods and rocker arms. You get two driven wheels, an undertray, Brembo calipers—the rotors look suspiciously like borrowed Volkswagen bits, small and centrally vented—an 18.5-gallon FIA fuel cell, and a fire system. And not much else.

That sounds like hyperbole.

Well, fine, sure. American-market cars also come with adjustable brake balance, a six-point harness, adjustable pushrods, a loud exhaust, race-ish brake pads, a carbon “halo” headrest, and a deleted second seat. But the key bit: The car is simple. No windshield, no power steering, no traction or stability control, no anti-lock brakes, not even a heater. No computerized windshield washers that talk to the taillights. A six-speed manual is the standard transmission, but you can opt for a six-speed, twin-clutch Volkswagen/Audi automatic.

Both transaxles are essentially front-drive, limited-slip Volkswagen Group pieces turned around and shoved between the rear wheels. (The DSG seems to defeat the point of a car meant to make you work for speed, but hey, whatever floats your boat.)

Modern technology, but simple. Imagine that.

For the cost of a base-model Porsche 911. The whole shebang laps a road course with extreme prejudice. You leave your doofus pants at home, because this is a serious piece. Or, if you are wired a certain way, you bring the doofus pants, and you maybe put on an extra pair, because an X-Bow looks like robot dirtbike rodent. Or that unlabeled machine in the weight room at the gym—the one with all the extraneous springs and levers, safe only for large-nippled weight-room professionals.

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KTM

It looks like one of those “nature’s mistake” dinosaurs that everyone forgets about. The one with a horn on its ass and feathers on its eyes or whatever.

Right? One of those evolutionary jokes, where nature got bored for a minute and started screwing around. A pile of razor blades glued together. Dirtbike plastic glued to a hockey puck. Pick your analogy.

We like weird. Does it look right in person?

Of course it does. This is a track car. Subtle can go whiz up a rope. Who goes to a track day, free of speed limits, and says, “I wish this car were more Ned Flanders?”

Neat! Like a Caterham Seven from the future. I am built entirely of testicle/ovary, so I want to drive it on the street.

No dice. You cannot buy a street-legal X-Bow in America.

Boo. Why?

Blame the EPA and DOT. And the cost of certifying a car for sale in the American market. It’s road-legal almost everywhere else. In Europe, KTM will even . But America has long been picky about its imports. Certifying a new road car for sale here costs lottery money. Lot of hoops to jump through. KTM didn’t have the resources.

Right, right, 1200 cars sold in ten years.

There are five dealers for this thing in the United States. Five. And because our government is our government, the X-Bow is only allowed into the country if KTM bolts on a set of racing tires. Actual Michelin race tires—a purebred slick called the S8L. Not the frou-frou “cup” tires or DOT-R “R-compound” track rubber you see on most supercars in this country.

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KTM

Oy. These people make Lotus look like General Motors.

That said, someone will probably figure out a way to make the X-Bow work here, quietly and quasi-legally. Maybe in one of those wonderfully quiet parts of the country where DOT rules are just a suggestion and the state “Safety Inspection” basically amounts to checking for working turn signals. Like Kentucky.

You grew up in Kentucky. Is that a suggestion?

Of course not! Although my parents still have a garage in Louisville. But I can’t afford an X-Bow. Also, really, if you’re going to buy a track car, my taste is more rippy-yappy engine. Peaky, so you have to work for it. The Audi motor is a bit huffy-whooshy. All midrange. Bit of turbo lag.

So if somebody develops a Honda K20 swap for these things . . . and they get a bit cheaper on the used market . . .

Look out.

I mean, um, officially: Road & Track does not endorse the public-road operation of an unlicensed vehicle.

But unofficially, it would be nice to see. In the same way that it’s nice to see 10-year-old farm kids in the south who know how to drive a three-pedal F-150 and fire a shotgun at the same time.

That combination sounds significantly safer than a 1700-pound car made of plastic.

Nah. There’s a real crash structure up front: aluminum-sandwich honeycomb and carbon. And the thing is so good! A little carbon bathtub. You put it on like underwear. The seats are basically just foam pads velcroed into place over the carbon; the pedals and wheel adjust fore-aft, so just about anyone can fit. There’s a single-color LCD dash in the middle of the cockpit, like a dirt bike, with a shift light. Its alphanumerics are hard to read when your helmet is dorking around in a 100-mph wind.

This thing looks like a handful.

It’s not a handful. It’s a lot of work, and goofball fun, but not a handful. The wheelbase is 95.6 inches long—almost five inches longer than that of a Mazda Miata—but it feels about half that. Turn-in is blistering and immediate. You need quick hands in a slide. It feels like work, but good work.

Some of this may have been due to our particular testing circumstance. Our test cars wore Michelin Pilot Sport road tires, not slicks, and a lot of spring rate. Possibly too much spring for the tire and the average person, but then, most people won’t track an X-Bow on Pilot Sports. (Related trivia: Road tires develop less grip than racing tires, which means lower forces generated under cornering and braking, which means the car needs less anti-roll bar and spring, and typically less damper, to work properly.)

So for the average person, it’s a handful.

More like a demanding piece that wants you to learn its quirks. Logistics at Sonoma were handled by Sonoma’s Simraceway Performance Driving Center—a small racing school whose student fleet currently includes a stack of X-Bows.

“This is a lot of car,” an instructor told me. “It’s great for the school because it’s approachable, but it also takes significant skill to operate at speed.”

Short version: When I was little, I went to the zoo on a class trip. Part of the day involved viewing the small-mammal habitat. Each kid in class was allowed to hold a porcupine. We were told to hold the animal one way, and one way only. The other way involved pointy bits and blood.

So that, mostly. But also somehow way friendlier and manic frenzy all the time. Pile of giggles.

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KTM

Let’s pretend we’re doing some science, instead of . . . whatever this is. Stop talking about the zoo and give me the dull road-test answer.

The engine revs to 6400 rpm but is so midrange-heavy that some corners are best taken a gear higher than you think, to maximize drive off the apex. Peak torque is 3200 rpm, square in the middle of the tach. That four sounds guttural and glottal and raspy, with a smack of midrange turbo lag from closed throttle and expansive, boosty delivery. The car loves trailed brake, smooth hands, and a long apex. The WP-brand dampers are high-grade stuff, quick to react and relatively high-resolution; they are also extensively adjustable for both bump and rebound. They have a happy bypass in high-piston-speed moments, like mid-corner bumps or high-speed curb jolts, so the car moves off them but never seems abrupt. (WP stuff is also used on KTM’s bikes, which makes sense. Dirtbikes are almost nothing but high shock speeds.)

A car this adjustable is going to vary greatly with tune and setup, but on the day of our test, the KTM was grippy and friendly. You muscle the car around with your wrists and forearms. If you upset it, washing the nose or skipping the tail on too much entry speed or throttle, it recovers quickly, so long as your hands follow the nose and you stay in the throttle. The steering is quick but heavy; the wheel says just enough about how the tires are working without being nervous or wearing.

That read like stereo instructions. I feel like the act of writing it exhausted you.

Oh God, yes.

Fine. Go back to whatever the hell you were saying before you started aping Car Pedant Monthly.

The best part is how the car couples abusive immersion with modern everything. The structure is far more rigid than that of a Caterham or an Ariel Atom, the suspension geometry more evolved. Your inputs are more direct and immediate, and the results they produce are more linear. The car loads the tire like that, the same way, every time you crank the wheel. Every reaction is free of frame flex or secondary vibration—a Caterham or Ariel feels ancient by comparison. You get the “thunk” of a composite tub, that single, all-a-piece vibration common to McLarens and Bugattis, as the X-Bow sucks thumps over pavement lumps or curbs.

The whole thing is just a gem. Like a vintage car, it forces you to get up on the wheel and do all the work, all the time, but somehow manages to feel not the slightest bit anachronistic. Except when it comes to the outdoors, which is in your face, always. If it is cold out, you will be cold. If it is hot, you will be hot. If it’s raining badgers and locusts because the apocalypse looms, well, you’re going to have badgers/locusts/world-end in your lap a lot sooner than you would in, say, a 911.

I thought German people were sensible.

This is sensible, from a certain angle. Also, Austria is not Germany. Austria is basically a Germany that gives less of a rat’s ass about everything. Like, “Are you in mood to give fooks? Perhaps we stay home and make opera instead.” Then they do math for fun while singing songs of empire.

Imagine these people making dirt bikes. Then imagine these people making a car that feels like a dirt bike looks.

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KTM

It can’t be perfect.

Well, I would have liked to test the car on the actual tire it will be sold with; no X-Bow will be shipped with the Michelins fitted to our test car. The manual shift linkage, a cable setup, tended to balk and go high-effort at odd times. And KTM doesn’t offer varying gearsets for that gearbox, or different optional final drives; this seems odd, given the car’s track-only purpose.

The brake pedal was also surprisingly long in travel for a car like this. Likely due to a relatively small master cylinder. And braking seemed a smidge inconsistent, the pedal longer once the system warmed up. (For what it’s worth, every Caterham and Ariel Atom I’ve tested has offered better brake feel and a pedal with virtually zero travel. Race cars work like this: modulation achieved mostly through pressure, not physical motion, because human foot muscles are more consistent with the former.)

But that seems like nitpicking. As long as we’re asking for the barely necessary, I would also like a seat heater. And snow tire fitments, and a high-ride kit for off-roading, and a guarantee from KTM that you could hose out the interior without damaging sensitive electrical bits. (There are drain holes in the underfloor, for when it rains.) And I would like a pony.

A pony?!?

Good, you’re still paying attention! No one has an attention span any more. This is a long post.

For the record, I would name the pony McLaren. Her saddle would be orange.

Who would buy this thing, anyway?

Are you telling me you don’t want a pony? What kind of monster are you?

FOCUS, SMITH.

I don’t know who’s going to buy it. KTM took an X-Bow show car to the Texas MotoGP race last year and sold almost 30 examples in one weekend. But $100,000 is an odd price point. If you want bare-bones abusive, Ariels and Caterhams are generally cheaper, and you can drive most of them on the street. If you really want a purpose-built track toy, X-Bow money will also get you a decommissioned pro-grade racing car. Or any number of track-ready road cars. The X-Bow doesn’t look like what it costs, and might not seem worth it, unless you know from race-car parts. In which case you look at the carbon and hard bits and the whole thing feels like a bargain.

Feel matters, though. What else on the market is like this? Simultaneously engaging and abusive and made of newish science. Feel is kind of the whole point.

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KTM

Describe this car in three words.

dance-party rebel batshit.

That is four.

Enough! X-Bow wants nothing of your rules. X-Bow listens only to itself. And opera.

One more thing: How do you pronounce that name?

Say “crossbow.”

I feel like people are just going to call it “Ex-Bow.” Because “crossbow” is confusing.

Yeah, yeah, whatever. Remember what I said about rules?

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