If you approach the 2017 KTM X-Bow R thinking it’s going to be a motorcycle-like riding experience, your experience will be a lot further from that assumption than you might think.
It was my privilege to take a closer look at why this incredible engineering work of art is both so distinct from any other four-wheeled experience, but also so approachable, so much fun, and so addictive.
The X-Bow has been around for some time now, but it’s taken Simply Sports Cars (our regional Lotus importers) most of a decade to get to the point where it has - almost miraculously - been passed for ADR approval. That means it is road legal for registration in Australia.
You don’t need to wear a helmet, either - although you might want to if you’re firing down the motorway in the rain. More on that in a few minutes.
On the subject of firing… We’ve all seen footage of X-Bows hammering around European tracks at warp speed, so we know how fast and capable they are in the right hands. With the announcement that the X-Bow is road legal for Australia, though, we decided to spend time with it on the street. After all, that’s where we spend nearly all our time with our vehicles, even when we have one that is focused toward track work.
From any angle, the X-Bow is a purposeful, but attractive realisation of a hard-nosed engineering principle. It's where that motorcycle thinking is most visible. Not hampered by safety structures, airbags, infotainment and cabin ergonomics, motorcycle manufacturers can focus on a single objective - going as fast as possible.
There’s raw carbon-fibre, scant conventional bodywork to speak of, visible engine and suspension components, and little else. The X-Bow could have looked ugly such is it’s prioritisation of form over function, but it isn’t. Not even remotely. Whenever we stopped, we were swamped with camera-phone wielding fans.
The punters loved it for its points of difference, but most commented on how good it looked from any angle.
My favourite design element is the exposed front suspension, which you can see working while you're driving, but it also makes it much easier to adjust when you do head to the track. For the record, the guys at Simply Sports Cars set the X-Bow up at its softest setting for our road drive.
There’s only one specification available, but as Rob Margeit covered at launch, there’s a huge list of extras that can be added to make the X-Bow even more capable. At Eastern Creek, where we experienced the track drive, there was a fettled X-Bow with more than double the amount of downforce. Yes please…
The numbers alone make for impressive reading, so a quick recap first. The 2.0-litre turbocharged Audi engine is mated to a conventional six-speed manual transmission. There’s no power assistance for anything - brakes, clutch or steering, but weighing in at only 790kg before I slow it down, there’s not a pressing need for artificial assistance. Drive goes to the rear wheels, and there’s no ABS or traction control either.
The four-cylinder punches out 220kW at 6300rpm and 400Nm at 3300rpm and will propel the X-Bow from 0-100km/h in 3.9 seconds. What that means in reality, is a power-to-weight ratio better than anything on the road, and more akin to a motorcycle or race car than a conventional vehicle as we know it.
Beyond the numbers, the way KTM - a motorcycle manufacturer - has executed a four-wheeled vehicle is quite sensational. The workmanship is stunning wherever you look, and every visible element of the X-Bow has a hand-finished, bespoke race car feel to it.
Visible is the operative word, too, because without the benefit of the usual panels and exterior skin to hide everything, much of the KTM’s underpinnings are on show at all times - a lot like a motorcycle.
The first thing you need to learn, of course, is how to get in.
Remove the steering wheel with the two-step detachable hub and place it ahead of the driving position to make you feel like an F1 driver. Then you climb in, and get settled into the sculpted driver’s bucket, which is fixed and only some Recaro padding hints at anything remotely resembling a seat.
Don’t lock yourself in with the four-point harness before you attach the wheel, either - you won’t be able to reach it once you’re strapped in if you make that mistake.
Press the start button, wait for the instruments (which are waterproof, of course) to go through their little welcome warm-up, and then respond to the X-Bow’s ‘Ready to Race?’ question by pressing the ‘Mode’ button on the steering wheel. Then you can hit the start button again and wait for the engine to crank to life. The most obvious and perhaps surprising aspect of the X-Bow waking from its slumber is how quiet and, well, normal it all sounds.
Aside from the fact you feel like you’re sitting right up against the engine - such is the rigidity of the carbon-fibre chassis designed by race gurus Dallara - it's quiet and refined at idle.
There’s more race car smarts in the way the X-Bow positions the driver too. Keen to keep the driver right where it wanted him/her, KTM developed and patented an amazingly clever, but incredibly simple pedal mount system that moves the whole floor towards or away from the driver, to get the pedals right where you want them. It works via a manual lever and is so effective, you wonder why more brands don't do it this way.
Once I was ready to get cracking, I was surprised by how decent the visibility is, aside from the lump right behind you where the engine is. The large mirrors work well - you can obviously see everything out front thanks to the lack of a screen or roof, and you’re not driving blind as you might have thought.
Reverse-parking the X-Bow is easier than I imagined, too, and its diminutive size makes positioning it on the road especially easy.
It’s only once you start to move off, that the deceptive veil of serenity is torn into a million pieces and the X-Bow starts to resemble a rabid dog ripping into a raw steak…
The clutch action feels perfect, the meaty Brembo brakes require the firm footwork of a performance car of old, and the throttle pedal feels like it is plugged directly into the fuel injectors, such is the razor sharp response to every input.
The brakes will certainly pull the X-Bow up with neck-snapping speed, but you need to work them and it’s only once you’ve properly driven it that you realise how important the lack of assistance really is to the overall experience.
Acceleration is savage and immediate in first gear. The X-Bow rockets forward, hurtling toward redline, and the shift light is glaring red before you even realise you’ve overstayed your welcome on the throttle. Slash the gearbox into second, get back on the throttle and things really start to speed up. KTM's four-wheeler accelerates relentlessly, well beyond legal speeds on the road, with ridiculous ease.
That march to top speed continues in every gear, with the engine roaring and the turbo singing a whooshing, hissing sonata behind you. There is absolutely no doubt the connected, direct, raw sensation of the drive experience makes the KTM genuinely easy to drive fast.
It’s like a performance car of old. If you’re bold enough, and you want to rip in, the X-Bow will reward every time. The exhaust note is raspy as you approach redline, seemingly waking from its slumber and suddenly indicating what the engine is capable of. There’s a complete lack of insulation to everything about the way the engine works, and you’ll never get sick of how close you are to the action.
Wind and rain? Up to 80km/h or so, sunglasses will suffice, but if you’re belting along the motorway at 110km/h for long periods, you’ll want a full-faced helmet. Remember that if it rains, you get wet, and given there’s nowhere to store anything, you might as well wear your wet weather gear if it even looks like raining.
Aside from the buffeting, even on the highway, the X-Bow is incredibly comfortable. I drove through plenty of rain during our test drive, and my motorcycle wet-weather gear obviously worked a treat. I can also attest that the drain holes that are hidden somewhere in the floor of the cockpit work well too. If you’re accustomed to riding a motorcycle in the wet, you’ll find the X-Bow quite comfortable. If you’re accustomed to driving a normal car in the wet, maybe not…
I spent a good few-hundred kilometres behind the wheel, and there were no aches, pains or strange cramps generated by what, on the surface at least, look like very firm seats. They are in fact compliant enough, and the seating position is excellent. At six foot one, I didn’t find it difficult to get comfortable in the cockpit. I even managed to make getting in and out look (reasonably) graceful.
The connection between driver and chassis is never more apparent than when you find a twisty section of road and you get the chance to really hook in. The steering is so sharp and direct, and the rear tyres feel as if they’re strapped on to each of your shoulder blades. It means the second one of the rear Michelins starts to lose grip, you’ve automatically started modulating the throttle and started steering into the slide without even realising.
I’ve never driven anything that feels so sharp and connected, and if you're aggressive with the throttle, the X-Bow's rear boots will lose grip - of that you can be certain.
You rocket between corners, quick shifting, working the tacho hard, conjuring the fastest line through every corner. The short shift action reminds me of how beautiful a conventional H-pattern manual ‘box can be when it’s well executed. The more your confidence builds, the harder you push and the faster you go.
You'll only want to explore the outer limits of the X-Bow's prowess on a track, but then that's true of any performance missile. The way it slices through winding back roads is utterly addictive. Then, you do a U-turn at the end of the twisty section and do it all again. And repeat. It’s a little twee to say it’s addictive, I grant you - you’d expect that, but it’s incredibly so.
The softer suspension setting is so forgiving, it makes the X-Bow even more so. Owners will fiddle with the suspension settings to suit their driving preference, but for me, on the road, the softer setting was near perfect. The X-Bow never bottomed out, scraped or made any strange noises over rough B-roads. The suspension just soaked up whatever it was faced with and settled back into the task at hand.
Oh, and if you care about fuel consumption, it’s actually decent. Against an ADR-claimed 8.7L/100km on the combined cycle, we used 10.1L/100km. And if you think I was trying to be efficient, you’re out of your mind.
As my video shoot and drive day draws to a close, I’m forced to accept that the X-Bow isn’t actually anything like riding a motorcycle. In fact, you’ll be lulled into a false sense of security and forget that you are actually as exposed as you are. I forgot I had my helmet on, a few times, and forgot too that if I moved my arm up out of the cockpit at 110km/h, the danger of a displaced shoulder is real.
That’s how much it differs from a motorcycle, because you never forget you're on two wheels.
At 170 grand, the X-Bow isn’t cheap, and in normal review terms, the list of what you don’t get is longer than the list of what you do.
Incongruously, you do get USB and 12V inputs - the heated riding gear will work for winter then! There’s no doors to lock, but when you can take the steering wheel with you, it’s not going to be easy for anyone to make off with it, is it? So in real terms, it isn’t cheap.
What price do you put on this raw ability, though? For mine, it's a ten out of ten overall, but keep in mind our review scoring is based on conventional passenger cars, which explains the score we've given it here.
The KTM X-Bow isn’t a motorcycle with a couple of extra wheels. But, likewise, it isn’t a car in the traditional sense. It is, however, and without doubt, an engineering masterpiece that is savagely fast on a race track - way easier to drive on the street than it has any right to be, and built to an incredibly high standard.
The fact it’s been designed and built by a motorcycle manufacturer makes the execution even more impressive.
Unlike some of the CarAdvice team, I’ve never driven an open wheeler in anger, but the KTM X-Bow has to be the closest way to sample that sensation - and it wears rego plates. I couldn’t stop shaking my head in disbelief that something so focussed and capable, is so easy to access.
If track-day bragging rights and open-wheel-style driving dynamics are what you lust for, there is no alternative. Sure it’s expensive, but so is a GT3 RS or anything else this capable on a racetrack.
If your pockets are deep enough, you’d better hurry though. There are only 25 X-Bows headed down under.