Aussies buy more than twice as many KTM 500EXC-Fs as 250EXC-Fs while the mile-munching Yamaha WR450F tops them all and is Australia’s best selling enduro bike. Why don't we like them smaller?
Words and Pics: Olly Malone
Do Australian’s have low self-esteem? Official sales figures say we do. Or is our desire for brute horsepower more down to geography? Aussies buy more than twice as many KTM 500EXC-Fs as 250EXC-Fs while the mile-munching Yamaha WR450F tops them all and is Australia’s best selling enduro bike.
European’s laugh at our obsession with cubes and it’s only once they make the journey to this massive country that they begin to understand. Australia is big. It holds the record for the longest straight section of road in the world, the longest straight section of railway track in the world and largest working cattle station so we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, which makes the 500EXC-F the logical choice.
But whose weekend rides involve taking their enduro bike for a top-speed run across the Nullarbor? Not mine, I can’t imagine many people who do. Enduro bikes have small tanks, limited range and are bloody uncomfortable for long fireroad sessions sitting down.
So why the obsession with the KTM 5-hunge and why is the 250F savagely neglected? We got both bikes in the same room and rode them back-to-back to find out why.
On most trailrides I stick to singletrack, mainly because I’m too pussy to hold the throttle wide open down a whooped-out fireroad, but also because that’s all we have to ride within two hours drive of Sydney. State forest fireroads are full of blind corners and oncoming three-tonne 4WDs so we dirtbike riders find safety among the trees.
For this type of riding, the 250EXC-F makes more sense. It’s lighter, 103kg vs 106.5kg, and that three kilos, combined with the 500’s added inertia, makes the half-litre machine feel much heavier when the going gets tough.
The 250EXC-F feels faster in the tight stuff, it’s more fun and far less taxing. The issue with the 500 in the pine forest singletrack is the gearing.
Its tall first gear was too high for tight corners and this only got worse the more gnarly the terrain got. First gear log hops and rock ledges require precise throttle and clutch control to keep the engine ticking over and avoid the dreaded flame-out.
The gearing on the 250 is much lower and better suited to slower going. First gear is crawling speed, so for rock hopping and trials-type terrain, the 250 is far better, although it needs more clutch work to loft the front wheel.
Also playing to the 250F’s advantage in the technical stuff is that the inertia of the big piston in the 500 naturally makes the thing want to stand up. You can’t fight physics. When straights between turns are only a couple of bike lengths, the brute power of the 500 can’t make up for the time it loses in corners.
I’m not saying the 500 is no good in the tight, if the singletrack is flowing the 500 will be lightning fast. It’s when the trail is first gear, snotty shit with log hops, switchbacks and lots of stop-start work that the 500 is hard work – think Romanics. It’s the same reason a VW Golf GTi will towel your pushrod V8 through a tight section of National Park but you’ll reel in the buzz box on the open road.
There’s a reason the Euros don’t ride the 500EXC-F in the Enduro World Championship but our Aussies love it for the Australian Off-Road Championship.
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Leave the confines of the technical singey and the 500 starts to make sense. Like city driving a V8 versus barrelling along the highway, flowing terrain is the 500’s domain and leaves a 250 struggling for breath.
The 500 will carry third all day if the terrain allows it and the torque renders the clutch almost irrelevant. It’s effortlessly fast and pulls harder than a 15-year-old boy on the “explore” tab of Instagram, in any gear. The thumping mass of that piston that made the 500 tiring through first-gear singletrack is a non-issue when the trail opens up.
The 250F needs to be whipped harder than Big Red on deadline. It doesn’t have the horsepower or torque to carry tall gears through fast, sweeping corners and you’ll be looking for another cog as the speedo climbs to triple digits. You have to work for your speed when you’re riding the 250, you can’t be lazy with your gears.
Situations where the torque of the 500 can be a life saver on fast trails is when you need to loft the front wheel over rough terrain, like rain grooves or washouts. On the 500 it’s as simple as twisting the throttle, on the 250 it’s a combination of preloading the suspension, punching the clutch, blipping the throttle and hoping for the best. And that can be the difference between sailing smoothly over a washout or lying in the dirt sucking on the green whistle.
Line these two up at the bottom of a hill and most of the time I’ll take the 500. Its brute power and torque make it the obvious choice for climbing hills but there are a few situations where the 250 makes a more suitable mountain goat.
Hills that don’t need horsepower but finesse and careful throttle control are easier on the 250. It comes down to rider ability, if you’re capable of carrying lots of speed up snotty hills littered with rock ledges and loose boulders the 500 will be fine, you just have to keep it singing fast enough to avoid stalling. However, one slip of the wrist and you can launch off a rock in the wrong direction and end up off the side of the trail. This problem is only compounded by fatigue.
The 250 is a little more user friendly. You can carry second at a slower pace than the 500 in first and still have enough power to get the front wheel over things. Then, when you get kicked off line and lose your momentum, you can knock it down to first and crawl up the hill.
Loose your momentum and get knocked off line on the 500 and you’ll need to slip the clutch to keep the engine ticking otherwise it might flame-out.
Horsepower hills favour the 500 for obvious reasons and, at the bottom of an Erzberg-style climb it’s a sure winner. Long, power-zapping hills are a no-brainer on the 500. It will carry the same gear all the way up and has torque in the bank if you need to lift the front wheel over ruts and roots.
One of these bikes isn’t better than the other. They are different bikes built for different uses. The 250F is popular in Europe because it suits the terrain and the 500F is popular in Australia for the same reason. Australia is home to some of the best singletrack on the planet but, our singey is still a bit like the Hume Highway compared to what they ride in the EWC.
The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industry’s motorcycle sales figures are an insight into the type of riding Aussies do. Our hidden nuggets of secret singey are mere specks in Australia as a whole. The fact of the matter is Australia is a big, flat country and Australian’s also like horsepower, the 500 ticks both boxes.