Caught in the X-Fire

KTM’S ROAD-LEGAL RACER IS STUPIDLY LOUD, UTTERLY IMPRACTICAL, AND LEAVES ITS OCCUPANTS LUDICROUSLY EXPOSED. CAN STEPHEN CORBY CONVINCE A MOTORCYCLE DEVOTEE THIS IS THE GREATEST ‘CAR’ EVER?

IT’S HARD to be a man when your eyes are streaming and it feels like someone is firing onion buck shot at your face. And yet it’s absolutely vital to at least act like one – no wincing or whining – when you’re sitting bum cheek-to-cheek with a giant slab of human like Boris Mihailovic, who didn’t even flinch when he rode a motorbike into a kangaroo and it exploded all over him (there are pictures on his Facebook feed; please don’t look at them).

There are several things that I didn’t fully think through when I suggested that Boris – not so much a motorcycle fanatic as a biking viking whose Norse gods have handle bars – was the perfect man to help us review the KTM X-Bow R (pronounced crossbow); an Austrian bike company’s attempt to apply twowheeled minimalism to the four-wheeled world.

I didn’t think about the fact that the cabin feels like two carbonfibre sarcophagi glued together, nor that the handbrake sits in the passenger’s footwell, so any attempt to grab it could be construed as sexual assault, or that Boris has forearms twice the size of my thighs, and we would thus be spending a disturbing amount of time skin-to-sweaty-skin.

And even though I did, eventually, realise that And even though I did, eventually, realise that he would weigh about a quarter as much as the whole car, thus considerably blunting its performance every time he sausage-stuffed himself into it, I never once thought about mentioning that to him.

On the plus side, he did bring a wealth of knowledge about KTM – which is the bike world’s equivalent of Fiat (Fix It Again, Tony) – apparently the initials are said to stand for Keep Throwing Money. He also brought a level of anti-car cynicism that would be my deep pleasure to dismantle.

Because it turns out that this X-Bow really is everything I had hoped it would be; a machine that combines the visceral, vulgar thrill of motorcycling and the purity of its power-to-weight approach with the simply superior cornering speeds, and grip, of a four-wheeled machine.

There are people who argue that various convertibles already do this, but none of those established players skips so happily into Crazy Town as this KTM does, by jamming 220kW and 420Nm of 2.0-litre, turbocharged Audi S3 engine (via a six-speed manual gearbox and a Drexler limited-slip diff) into an entirely carbonfibre body, for a combined dry weight of just 790kg.

Nor do any other cars available in this country cleverly do away with the windscreen, or even a temporary roof, exposing you to the elements in a way that feels properly bike-like, and which I truly love.

On a motorcycle you ride in the world, with all its

WANT WON

Good things really do come to those who wait. Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM unveiled the X-Bow way back in 2008, when it went on to win various Sports Car of the Year awards in Europe.

Australian enthusiasts rolled their eyes and thought “if only”, knowing that something so wild and unconventional would never be allowed on our roads.

While the local KTM folks just got on with selling bikes, a company called Simply Sports Cars in Sydney invested three years, and a “significant” amount of money, in pushing the car through the government’s Special Enthusiast Vehicles Scheme, which included crash testing.

After solving some other problems, like where to put the mandatory windscreen sticker displaying its fuel economy (it’s in the passenger footwell), the company is now allowed to sell 25 vehicles a year, at $169,990 each.

Interest is reportedly very high and Simply Sports Cars is confident it will sell its allowed volume.

“We also have a driving tour planned in July where we will head to Europe to spend time on the Nordschleife, and at Spa Francorchamps, plus watch a X-Bow Battle round and get an exclusive KTM factory tour, followed by time on the Red Bull Ring in track-prepared X-Bows,” spokesman Paul D’Ambra said.

Sign us up, please.

smells, weather and sun on skin, whereas in a car you merely drive through it. The X-Bow is much more like the former.

There are some downsides, of course, like the fact that, above 80km/h, you can only converse by sign language or screaming in fear, that trucks not only stink when you’re behind them, but now pepper your face with pebbles, making you look like the leader of the Scorpions in Grease (aka Craterface) and there’s absolutely no storage. You can strap more gear on a motorcycle, so they’ve actually – as several bikers pointed out – made it less practical than a bike, because you can’t lane split, or even wear a backpack (speaking of which, the weather-proof seats make a MotoGP bike look generously padded).

Motorcyclists – particularly the well-hard ones who only wear open-face helmets – are used to having flies enter their nostrils at 100km/h, and pieces of gravel strike their foreheads, and are also fine with riding at night with no windscreen, nor even goggles in front of their eyes. (Men who never cry have permanently dry eyes, apparently.) Boris genuinely loved the lack of any wind protection, at least when he was at the wheel.

When he was in the passenger seat, he looked like a man who’s never been afraid of anything suddenly discovering fear; a look I was sneakily enjoying as we took the KTM on three of the best biking roads in NSW – the famous Putty, the Wollombi Road and the Old Pacific Highway. Our goal, to see if the bi-car could get a rise out of the semi-retired, bike-loving part of my brain, or from old “cars are boring” Mihailovic.

Our first blat on a winding section of the Putty Road was revelatory and very nearly rictus inducing. The initial impression is of simply absurd acceleration, magnified by the wind-rush and noise, which feels like you’re stuck inside a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

The experience is violent and vibrational, as everything buzzes and fizzes around you. Your sunglasses shake on your nose, which, combined with the race-like seating position, and harnesses, make it feel like you’re embedded in a shaky old Senna-era YouTube video.

The fact that you are so close to the road surface it feels like you could get your knee down around corners adds to the speed thrills (0–100km/h takes just 3.9 seconds, but it’s the in-gear acceleration that really inspires.) That, along with the race-car-spec downforce (200kg of it at 200km/h) and grip that are not just

NEXT TO ME, BORIS LOOKED LIKE A MAN WHO’S NEVER BEEN AFRAID OF ANYTHING SUDDENLY DISCOVERING FEAR

prodigious but profound. Never, ever, have I felt so instantly, intimately connected to the road … until I wasn’t.

Frankly, the whole experience was so immediately euphoric – and I was enjoying Boris’s bear-like grunts of fear so much – that I pushed too hard, too soon.

It takes a while to realise how short-geared the X-Bow’s six-speed, sharp-shifting manual is, and when I attempted to engage second for a hairpin we were approaching at some knots, I was instantly reminded that this is a car of the purest intent, meaning it has not only done away with fripperies like air conditioning, an audio system or doors, but modern driver-aids, like traction control and ABS.

The compression lock-up sent us sliding sideways towards the Armco, a disaster only averted by the combination of Brembo brake force and super-lightness.

Boris was unusually silent after that, ceasing his almost constant swearing for several seconds, but he quickly recovered and was soon declaring his love for this KTM above all others, booming that “this is not a car” before adding something profane about how it would serve his manly purposes and finally shouting: “You can shove your HSVs up your arse! This is the [expletive] shit.”

His time behind the wheel – which I spent mainly pondering what would happen to my body if we hit a kangaroo and whether the snake he’d just run over could possibly flip up into the cabin – only reinforced his reluctant love for something with four wheels.

Personally, I couldn’t get enough of it, as long as the roads were winding. The KTM’s incredible lightness of being and tiny dimensions (1.2m high, 1.9m wide and 3.7m long, on a 2430mm wheelbase), combined with steering so hugely heavy and supremely pointy make it, quite simply, one of the best things I’ve ever been around a corner in, or on.

You feel like you’ve always got more; more room in your lane, more speed you could have deployed, more grip than you can possibly use, more power up your sleeve. The reactions you get from the wheel are so instantaneous you feel like you can change lanes with the effortlessness of a motorbike, and overtake almost as easily.

The last time I was on the Putty Road was in a Ferrari 488 GTB, and I have to say that the X-Bow was possibly even more fun, not much slower and genuinely attracted more attention from strangers and camera phones.

It’s less aurally pleasuring, of course. The big cowl right behind your ear does hiss and spit turbo noises at you, yet you can barely hear anything above the wind and cruel clatter of flying gravel when you’re having a go. On a road as perfectly smooth and wondrously

THE LAST TIME I WAS ON THE PUTTY ROAD WAS IN A FERRARI 488 GTB; THE X-BOW WAS EVEN MORE FUN

BORIS: HE’S VERY ‘X’, IN A GOOD WAY

LET’S be clear: This is not a car.

Sure, the KTM X-Bow R has a steering wheel and a rubber tyre at each corner, but it’s just not a car.

It has no doors and there is no roof.

There is no storage space. There are no compartments. You can’t put anything in it and you cannot strap anything to it unless you use duct tape. You can’t even take your mobile phone.

There is nowhere to put it. If you slip a credit card into your back pocket, you’ll break it in half when you sit down.

Getting into it is a harsh procedure and getting out of it is like trying to escape a UFC bout you’re losing. The non-adjustable seats are thin planks of unforgiving hatred glued to the inside of a carbonfibre tub.

But most crucially, what makes the X-Bow R not a car, is there is nothing in front of your face. Nothing stands between you and…well, everything. Wind, rain, birds, beasts, bugs, rocks, and delaminated truck tyres will all find your face if fate wills it. In return, your face will leak. Tears will come out of your eyes and snot will run from your nose. Just as if you were on a motorcycle without a helmet.

So the X-Bow is what a motorcycle company thinks a car should be.

And so it fails utterly as a car.

But as an act of inspired motoring brutality, it succeeds spectacularly.

And it’s much closer at its philosophic core to a bike than I first thought.

Like a motorcycle, it is cruel and merciless.

It doesn’t care about your comfort, your favourite radio station. It is raw, loud and antisocial. At speed, it’s all wind and engine noise, interrupted only by the liquidy “Vlooshah” of the turbo spitting out its surplus anger.

On a motorcycle, your pillion is free to yell or punch you in the kidneys if you do something to upset them. That cannot happen in the X-Bow.

No verbal communication with your passenger is possible. The passenger can only sit hog-tied in the Well of Fear and scream. And they can scream all they want.

It’s not like you can hear them.

There’s just too much other noise going on.

Still, it is almost as intimate as taking a pillion on your bike. Corby certainly could

not wrap his thighs about my hips and put his skinny little arms around my waist like he could on a bike.

But each time I changed gears, my arm would brush against his. Or vice versa. It even stopped being awkward by the end of the first day.

And we really did have other things to consider.

For starters, there was my keening terror each time Corby drove the X-Bow in anger. I have never been more terrified of dying in a meat-rich fireball.

Trussed to the seat like a tattooed harvest pig, all I could do was shriek. And I shrieked very loudly when Corby compression-locked the X-Bow and almost put it into the Armco during a spirited descent into the Colo River valley.

And it is stupidly capable. It goes around corners like some physics-defying perversion; much faster than a motorcycle does (because four rubber contact patches are better than two) and much faster than I could ever drive it.

It’s tetchy, like a motorcycle. And it responds instantly to your slightest input on the steering wheel, just as a bike will respond to the gentlest movement on the handlebars. You sneeze on a bike and it will shake its head and move across your lane. You sneeze while piloting the X-Bow and you’ll veer off the road and into a semi.

But what surprised me the most was its acceleration. As a bike rider, I understand acceleration in ways car drivers just cannot grasp. The power-to-weight ratios I deal with on a bike are very different to the ones a car driver encounters.

And power-to-weight is what dictates how fast you’re fired at the horizon.

The X-Bow R understands power-to-weight ratios.

It’s like sitting in a kitchen chair and being rear-ended by a train. Neck-cracking acceleration is only a cliche in this case because it is true.

The X-Bow made me understand just how hard fourwheels can be made to accelerate, and just how much of the environment can subsequently be firehosed into my face.

You’re not ever really driving the XBow. You’re just pointing it at things you want it to destroy. It’s all roaring and howling. Wind and war. As the driver, your world is a brutal cocktail of feral speed and fiendish noise. If you’re a passenger, that cocktail is also laced with utter helplessness and abject terror. It is simply magnificent.

In just that way it’s more of a motorcycle and less of a car than I ever imagined. Like a motorcycle it demands you bring your A-game every time. And like a motorcycle, if you do that, it rewards you with a motoring experience like no other.

But it’s not a motorcycle. And it sure isn’t a car.

It’s a X-Bow R, and that’s all it ever has to be.

Boris Mihailovic is a former editor of Ozbike, author of My Mother Warned Me About Blokes Like Me, founder of bikeme.TV, and less fearsome than many people assume.

windy as the Old Pacific, the X-Bow is an entirely joyous thing, even on a 35-degree day, because some experiences are worth melting for.

But the fact that the KTM is so bike-like does have its detractions. On straight, slow roads, in anything other than perfect weather, motorcycles can be a painful bore, and this thing is very much the same.

When it rains, it’s an absolute nightmare, and gives new meaning to the term ‘carbonfibre tub’.

When birds and bats crap on your seat overnight, it sucks, as does the fear level you experience when you do, horribly, hit a roo, as we did (fortunately, carbonfibre is tougher than fur and muscle).

Where it’s even worse than a bike is that it’s hellishly difficult to get in and out of. The racy removable steering wheel should make it easier but doesn’t, although it does make a great conversation piece when you take it out on the town.

In the end, you have to wonder whether it would be worth the hassle to own such a fair-weather machine, and whether the discomfort of the drive out of town would be entirely paid for by the involuntary whoops of exultation you make when firing it up a mountain pass.

None of this will matter to the kind of person who will shell out $170K for an X-Bow R, of course, because they will purchase it, in the main, for track days rather than road use, and what a fantastic machine it will be for that.

Even Boris, won over entirely after two days of manly closeness with me, said he would buy one, if he had the cash, “just for shits and giggles”. Honestly, for a biker like Boris to even consider car ownership is as profound as Tony Abbott announcing he’d marry a man ... if he was allowed to.