KTM takes a bow

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The bike company’s first ever car is an impressive if somewhat pricey track tool. It’s just a shame the Audi motor isn’t firing on all cylinders
By Andrew Frankel

There can scarcely be an enthusiast who hasn’t dreamt of designing their own race track, and the only difference between us and Klaus Zwaart is that he actually has. Ten years ago he bought a valley near Ronda in southern Spain. Then he mapped out the track of his dreams. Here he’d put a flavour of Silverstone’s Copse corner, there a taste of Spa’s Eau Rouge. A homage to Laguna Seca’s infamous corkscrew would be included and the banking from Daytona too. When he’d built it, the result was longer than Silverstone in full GP configuration and, with 26 corners, more sinuous than any circuit used in F1 today. But no-one would ever race there – the Ascari Resort was and remains a private playground for club members and favoured corporate guests.

Today, something that wouldn’t look out of place in the next Alien film is buzzing its way around its length. Its name is spelt X-Bow, pronounced ‘crossbow’, and it is the first car ever produced by KTM, Europe’s second-largest motorcycle constructor after BMW. It exists because bike sales are falling across Europe and KTM needed another string to its, ahem, bow. So it built ‘a bike with four wheels’.

Doesn’t sound promising, does it? It’s a feeling that grows when you learn that this astonishingly ugly car will cost £43,329 in basic form and £45,218 when you add the essential performance equipment (such as adjustable shock absorbers and a limited slip differential), without which the car can’t realise its full potential.

To understand its point and place, you need to look closer. Then you will see the tell-tale weave in its exposed structure and realise that every last bit of it is made from carbon fibre, light and strong but so expensive to produce that carbon road cars are phenomenally rare – Ferrari, for instance, doesn’t build one. KTM does.

Look a little closer and what strikes you next is how extraordinarily well built the X-Bow is. The chassis was designed by Dallara and is built to a standard that would not shame the badge of the only other current car firm I can think of to start life in Austria: Porsche.

But it is Audi, not Porsche, which provides the X-Bow with its considerable urge, thanks to a 240bhp turbo 2-litre motor mounted transversely and amidships behind the driver, and powering the rear wheels through a six-speed gearbox.

The detailing is interesting: there’s no windscreen, let alone a roof, revealing its natural habitat to be more race track than open road. The seat is fixed, doesn’t move an inch in any direction, but the steering wheel and pedals do – allowing the car to fit itself around you rather than the other way around.

Ascari takes a lot of learning. Like all the best tracks, corners come in tricky combinations where the exit from one doubles as the entry to another, forcing you to compromise your lines and brake in something other than a straight line. Herr Zwaart is also clearly confident of his abilities to keep on the asphalt because in some places he has taken a frighteningly minimalistic approach to run-off areas.

But the X-Bow is the perfect trainer for such a track. Weighing just 790kg (an impressive 50kg less than the lightest Lotus Elise), it gathers speed relentlessly in the lower gears but its responses are entirely benign. When designing his track Zwaart clearly felt that time spent anywhere other than on the limit was time wasted, so even the one apparent straight has a couple of marginal flat kinks taken at around 125mph; but in this most testing of environments, the X-Bow offers the constant reassurance that the only scary thing about it is the way it looks.

Yet there are problems here. However impressive the numbers look on paper (62mph in just 3.8sec, 100mph in 8.5sec), the Audi engine is so characterless it manages to suck a sizeable chunk of the sense of occasion from the experience. It offers a featureless, atonal noise that merely gets a little less quiet as the revs rise. You’ll never fear a noise test at a track day again, but once you’re out of the pitlane you’ll crave some aural drama to accompany your progress, and the X-Bow will fail to deliver. Also, although its throttle response is impressive for a turbo motor, when you compare it to the normally aspirated and supercharged options offered by rivals such as the Lotus Exige and 211 and Ariel Atom, it’s nowhere. And in a car like this, you don’t want to be waiting even a fraction of a second for it to answer your call.

More positively, the bits that KTM was responsible for are uniformly impressive. If you only ever used your X-Bow on the track you’d want to change the springs, dampers and bars to suit (all provided by KTM to those with the requisite readies) because it’s quite rightly set up softly as a road and track hybrid. You’d be aiming for more bite from the nose to get it into slower corners but without compromising its reassuring composure in fast curves, nor the deliciously neutral stance it adopts readily when you start squeezing the throttle at the exit.

Perhaps most impressive of all is that the X-Bow is an entirely analogue car: there’s no power steering, traction or stability control and no anti-lock brakes. The car gained its name because, in the middle ages, the crossbow was the most highly evolved mechanical weapon of all. As a result, and critically, it feels wonderfully alive.

How effective is it? KTM says the X-Bow is substantially quicker around Ascari than a Lotus 211, which surprises me for the Lotus is more powerful, lighter and, well, a Lotus. But even if it’s no more than broadly comparable with a 211, that makes it a mightily rapid machine.

Even so, its greatest appeal is a largely practical one, which is an odd thing to say about a car that doesn’t have doors. Unlike many others of its genre, it is a car that suggests there is no challenge it won’t be able to cope with ably. You could drive it from home to the Nürburgring, do a couple of days on the Nordschleife, pop in at Spa on your way back and know it would feel just as good on the last lap as the first. And if you threw it into the scenery my guess is that the carbon-fibre body would offer a degree of protection several streets beyond that of, say, a steel spaceframe or even an extruded aluminium tub. What it might cost to repair is another matter.

In short, the X-Bow is an engine away from brilliance. Its present means of propulsion is too uninterested and uninteresting to match the promise created by its looks and the thrill of its handling. But even as it is, I’d rate it as a welcome addition to the small but swelling ranks of purpose-built road and track racers: yes it’s expensive and, no, it’s not got a name to conjure with like Lotus, but if you’re lucky enough to see it in detail and then drive it on a facility that can do justice to its abilities you, like me, would struggle to say it’s not worth it.

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