WHAT IS IT?
A motorcycle with four wheels, basically, built by an Austrian bike manufacturer using lots of carbonfibre, four huge sticky tyres, adjustable A-arm suspension and a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and six-speed manual gearbox from an Audi S3 (making 220kW and 420Nm). So you get no doors, no windscreen, no stereo, nowhere to put anything and very wet if it rains. But you also get, thanks to a 790kg kerb figure, the kind of power-to weight ratio that makes grown bikers weep tears of joy.
WHY ARE WE TESTING IT?
Because it is finally legal to drive on Australian roads, and available to buy - through importer Simply Sports Cars, for $169,990. The X-Bow was first launched in more daring countries back in 2008, and it has taken many years, and many dollars of testing under our strict ADRs to gain approval for this track weapon to drive to your local circuit without the use of a trailer. It is allowed to do so under the Special Enthusiast Vehicles Scheme, which means that only 25 of these unique machines can be sold in Australia each year.
A motorbike? You could suggest other convertibles - like a Porsche Boxster - or other track-ready tearaways from people like Lotus, but the fact is the KTM has no genuine rivals. It is one of a kind (unless you can find an Ariel Atom).
Plus: Staggering acceleration, grip, handling and feedback, beautiful, non-assisted steering, power-to-weight ratio, stiff all-carbon chassis, unfiltered, raw motoring joy.
Minus: Painful to sit in, excruciating to get in and out of, getting wet when it rains, copping gravel in the face, no ABS or traction control can lead to disaster.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Completely impractical, hugely uncomfortable and arguably not a car at all, but a Frankenbike, and yet absolutely wonderful, hugely addictive and almost telepathic to drive. You’d never buy one as your only car, but if you wanted, and could afford, a track machine, this would be close to the ultimate weapon.
THE WHEELS REVIEW
As far as your brain is concerned, the primal joy of speed has nothing to do with numbers. When you’re a kid, just running down a hill is a thrill. What matters more is the sensation of speed, and no four-wheeled machine I’ve ever driven pummels your senses with pure, petrifying speed like the KTM X-Bow.
The numbers are impressive, too, of course, with a 0 to 100km/h time of 3.9 seconds (spend an extra $40,000 on a performance kit, on top of the $169,990 base price, and you can drop that to just 3.2 seconds), a top speed of 230km/h and 200kg of downforce shoving you into the road you’re sitting just millimetres above at 200km/h.
But the fact is that the X-Bow feels involuntary-swearing fast at 80km/h, because the lack of a windscreen means you are assailed by the wind you’re creating, just as you are on a motorcycle, only in the KTM you don’t have to wear a helmet (they recommend that you do, but it’s not a legal requirement, and it’s far more fearsome without one).
Thanks to its mildly absurd power-to-weight ratio (220kW and 420Nm vs 790kg), the way it goes from 80km/h to 180km/h would be enough to contort your face into a carnival-clown expression, even if the wind-rush wasn’t doing so already.
Driving the X-Bow in straight lines can, however, get a bit wearing, particularly if you’re stuck behind a stinky truck, copping a dust and gravel exfoliating facial. Where this car really sings is on windy bits of road, where its light weight and road-hugging stance (it’s just 1.2 metres high, but your butt is a lot closer to the road than that) combine with pure, unadulterated and unassisted steering to create an experience that’s simply motoring magic.
Stupidly heavy at low speeds, and with the turning circle of a cruise ship, the steering - which has less than 1.5 turns lock to lock - becomes supremely quick and effortless as your pace rises.
The ride quality is firm, a feeling exacerbated by your seats being about as well padded as a flamingo’s knees, and you will occasionally bottom out over craters and lumps, but it feels race-car like when attacking a good, smooth road.
The chassis, as you would expect from a carbon-fibre tub and not much else, is more solid than rock, and further encourages you to throw the X-Bow at corners.
Its levels of grip and precision are such that you find yourself pushing well beyond what you’d imagined possible, in terms of corner-entry speeds, and still feeling like you’re within its limits.
Those limits can be found quite suddenly, of course, because as well as doing away with little luxuries like a roof, doors, a boot, a stereo and storage space of any kind, the KTM also eschews traction control and anti-lock brakes.
On the one hand, this makes you feel even more intensely involved, and keenly aware of your inputs, and on the other hand it’s mildly terrifying. Driving it in the wet can feel genuinely dangerous, but if it’s raining you’ll be so miserable anyway that you’ll probably welcome death.
As someone who grew up loving bikes then switched to cars and for years missed the ferocious fear factor they provide, this strange marriage between a motorcycle company and a track car that’s somehow allowed to be taken on public roads feels like someone has built it purely for my pleasure.
All I want for Xmas is an X-Bow. And practicality be damned