Road Tests - First Drive: 2008 KTM X-Bow
A four-point harness clamps your body tight into a specially designed Recaro seat. Except it isn't really a seat; it's more a slice of orthopedic padding glued to a carbon-fiber shell that's fixed to the carbon-fiber monocoque. There are no doors, no windows and only a slender polycarbonate excuse for a windscreen.
Yet the 2008 KTM X-Bow (say "Crossbow") is practically an objet d'art compared to the crude specialty cars that usually pass for track cars. It's a surprising effort from a company known only for its motocross bikes.
Like a racecar, it has a detachable, adjustable multifunction steering wheel, and its entire pedal box slides backward and forward to suit your size. An LCD display in a rectangular pod sort of hovers in the middle of the cabin, letting you scroll between speed, engine rpm, water and oil temperatures and lap time. And there's no ABS, no ESP, no EBD, no electronic interference of any kind.
We're expecting a shock to the system from this elemental device; yet at first, the X-Bow delivers a jolt no bigger than you'd get from an industrial-strength Starbucks espresso. Despite the Judge Dredd appearance, the 2008 KTM X-Bow's clutch take-up and gearchange are more refined than those of the Audi models that share this car's 237-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4.
Where's the drama? What gives?
Looks Like a Motorcycle, Drives Like a Car
Introduced at the 2007 Geneva Auto Show, the KTM X-Bow has created huge interest. At first, a batch of just 100 cars was planned, but 600 orders poured in within a few weeks. Instead of building the car in a small facility, KTM finally arranged an assembly line at Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria. KTM chief designer Gerald Kiska says, "We didn't have to compromise our early design proposals very much at all. We had the freedom that a motorcycle designer enjoys. The technical details and the structural elements that are normally hidden are all visible on this car."
The X-Bow's creation could be a case study in 21st century automotive production, as the only thing KTM designed and developed itself was the exhaust system and everything else is from blue-chip suppliers. Chief among KTM's partners has been Dallara, the Italian racecar manufacturer, which is an expert in carbon-fiber construction. Four different computer models of the X-Bow were tested on 100 different racetrack simulations during the car's development, while the full battery of Formula-1-style aerodynamic and CFD (computational fluid dynamics) analyses were carried out.
The car's carbon-fiber tub weighs 198 pounds and is made by German specialist Wethje. It's exquisite, and it sets a new precedent, not just for low-volume track weaponry but also for the automotive industry as a whole. The X-Bow's body generates 425 pounds of downforce at 124 mph, and KTM claims the car can pull 1.5g on road tires and 1.8g on race rubber.
With X-Bow prices starting at $86,000, you've got to wonder how KTM plans to make money out of this thing. But project boss Stefan Riedler is confident: "The break-even point is 4,000 cars, and we plan to make 1,000 per year. With the race program in the FIA's [Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile] new GT4 category, we might break even sooner than that. This combination of styling, performance and especially technology is just not currently available."
We're driving the 2008 KTM X-Bow at the Ascari Race Resort, a private track near Malaga, Spain, that knits together some of the most famous corners from racing circuits around the world into a 26-turn playground for track cars. The X-Bow is fast and fluid, but even as the laps start to come together, the KTM feels a bit squishy, as if all its sharp edges have been meticulously smoothed off. It's easy to drive it fast and fluently, but that's the problem — it's too easy. It doesn't sound particularly thrilling either, as the turbocharged Audi 2.0-liter engine emits nothing more than a faintly waspish buzz.
To the best of our knowledge, the weight of this engine has never before been quoted to anyone by Audi, but now the 378 pounds estimated by KTM seem very relevant. The six-speed manual transmission is another 132 pounds. When you consider that the KTM X-Bow itself weighs 1,742 pounds, it's easy to become obsessed with such details.
The turbocharged inline-4 makes 237 hp at 5,500 rpm, while the 229 pound-feet of torque are spread evenly between 2,000 rpm and 5,500 rpm. The suspension layout features double wishbones front and rear, and the dampers from WP Suspension (a motorcycle specialist) are adjustable for bump and rebound. The brakes come from Brembo, with 12-inch discs in front and 10.3-inch discs in the rear.
After a couple of hot laps around the Ascari circuit with Dallara test-driver Loris Bicocchi, we realize that all this adds up to something devastatingly good after all.
For a start, he's driving at a gear higher pretty much everywhere, using the engine's broad torque band to carry the speed instead of running at peak rpm, like we were doing. A red shift-light blinks on the KTM's dash when you hit the redline, and Bicocchi doesn't trouble it once during two fearsome laps. Meanwhile, he exploits the compliant suspension by using the brakes and turning in aggressively, expertly managing the weight transfer.
Well-Bred but Fast
It's about confidence. The chassis is amazing, and its character builds more the harder you go. Once you've twigged that it's not racecar twitchy, and that there's a limit to what those Michelin tires can do for ultimate grip on asphalt that's been baking in the Spanish sun, the 2008 KTM X-Bow shows itself to be a well-sorted device.
It'll slide under power, or if you throttle off abruptly, but it's deliriously easy to stay on top of things. The steering in high-speed corners is superb and even allows for tiny adjustments without dishing out any punishment. And once you've sussed the brakes, they're simply awesome.
Is the X-Bow ready to race? With a stiffer suspension setup and the right rubber, there's no question that the chassis is up to the job. As to the mechanical purity that a track car is expected to deliver, the KTM could definitely use more power, and there should certainly be some extra aural drama. Sharper throttle response would help, too.
For such a wild-looking thing, KTM admits it has erred on the side of caution to begin with. So right now, the 2008 KTM X-Bow is a track car that's looking for a great road.