Driving the Enigma

Driving the Enigma image

Text: Chuck "Dr. Clunky" Montecillo / Photos: Lucky Besa, KTM Press | posted September 21, 2009 19:17

KTM X-Bow Superlight

Chances are, you have already heard about this 785 kilo F-1 inspired roadster before. You probably even know about its Audi 240 hp 2-liter turbo 4-cylinder power plant borrowed from the Audi TT. I am sure you also know that this car is suspended with WP fully adjustable coil-over shocks with double A-arms, front and rear. Most sports car enthusiasts do since pretty much all major automotive publications world-wide have featured it.

Reading the specifications of the KTM X-BOW or reviews about its performance capabilities are just the tips of the iceberg. Its unique and awe inspiring looks are undeniable, its extremely high yet reachable performance envelope and easy to drive nature make this car more special than anything else available. The X-BOW may not be the lightest, the most powerful nor even the fastest, but it is certainly the most exotic car that can actually be driven on public roads as well as on the track.

Still, despite knowing all the specs and having read about this amazing piece of automotive engineering, the KTM X-BOW is as mysterious as ever.

First Sight

I still remember the very first time I laid eyes on the KTM X-BOW. It was at the 2007 Middle East Motorshow held at the Dubai World Trade Center. At the time, I was working for a motorsports equipment distributor and our display was just beside the KTM booth. And I tell you, the first sight of that car is something that is difficult to describe. It's an ocular and cerebral overload of automotive proportions! And to think, it's from a motorcycle manufacturer.

Almost instantly, my mind was asking so many questions at the same time. Is this thing real? Concept car? Street legal? How, what, when and really? The car was on a rotating pedestal and at every angle, my mind was trying its best to comprehend this vehicle which looks like its more akin to an F1 car than a vehicle destined for public roads. What went through my head was "I so want to drive this car!"

Fast forward to the present- I am currently employed by KTM Middle East and work in the X-BOW division, looking over every facet of the business concerning the car. From sales, parts inventory, marketing and of course, test drives, both on the street and track, I was in the middle of it all. It's still hard for me to believe that from that moment I first saw the car, 2 years ago, I've been able to drive and experience this wonder of engineering.

The KTM X-BOW is addiction on wheels. No other car has ever captured by full attention like this has and each time I have behind the wheel is a cherished memory. I am lucky to be the first Filipino to enjoy this car. And I feel even luckier to have access to the keys and have scheduled track days to drive it.

To be honest, this isn't the first time I've hit the keyboard to write about this car. I've driven it in pretty much all situations that you would face, like highway driving, parking at the local mall and blasting through the banked turns at the Dubai Autodrome. And with all that time behind the wheel of the X-BOW, I have wanted to share this excitement with you all. But, just like the first time I saw the car, my experiences have been such a sensory overload that it has been tough getting these thoughts organized enough to present. My fingers can't keep up with all the thoughts I have!

On the Road

One of the most surprising things about this car is that it's actually very easy to drive. At normal speeds in the city, it's very much like driving a top-down Audi TT. The racecar-spaced, floor-mounted pedals (perfect for heel-and-toe downshifting) are light and precise. Though the brakes are not assisted by any means, the additional effort is not so far off a normal car's. The "fly by wire" throttle responds like it should without any hint of delay or abruptness-- extremely precise. The same goes for the unassisted rack and pinion steering (with removable wheel). It's light enough to make parking lot maneuvers simple and easy but retains a very direct feel of what the tires are doing.

Most people would expect a coil-over suspended, racecar inspired sports car to have a harsh ride. And that's the next surprise when driving the X-BOW. It's actually comfortable! The firm Recaro inserts don't punish your bum or back even on unpaved roads. The spring rates chosen by KTM are firm enough for spirited driving through the twisties, but soft enough to keep things civilized when just trotting around town. The fully adjustable "Race" dampers absorb every road imperfection with perfection, keeping the gumballs firmly on the tarmac.

Steering lock is limited, as you would expect on a performance car, giving it a larger than normal turning circle. Thankfully, the X-BOW is dimensionally svelte so getting in and out of tight parking spots is not really a chore.

Backing up is another story. Since the view to the rear is hindered by the large carbon fiber air-intake scoop and the rear bulkhead, you have to rely on the side mirrors and possibly the help of an individual standing outside of the car. But, with practice, backing up the X-BOW becomes a simpler task than say, the old Lamborghini Countach.

The lack of a roof and for that matter, a windscreen, is not too much of a concern as it might first seem. There is a small wind deflector that "guides" air-flow above the occupants' heads. This keeps buffeting to a minimum at speeds all the way to 250 km/h! For street driving, there isn't a need for a helmet since you wouldn't be driving more than 150 to 160 kph, right? At around 120 to 140 kph, you can get away with just wearing wrap around sunglasses. Beyond those speeds, there is enough turbulence to actually blow off those shades! So beware. Wear a helmet since you are more likely to be unable to help yourself from exploring higher speeds in this car.

Believe it or not, ground clearance is not a problem with this car. It's not as low as it may first seem. The KTM X-BOW rides higher than a Porsche GT3 or a Ferrari 599 or Scuderia F430. And with its short front and rear overhang, those lowered Honda Civics are more restricted than the X-BOW when you come to a speed bump. That's a good thing considering the X-BOW has a flat bottom, all carbon fiber underbelly.

Driving the Track Star

Driving the X-BOW on a racetrack is like coming home. It's a place where everything feels as it should be... where you are most comfortable and at peace.

This car is very nimble. Left to right transitions are attacked with fervor. It's much like driving a kart, albeit softer and more pliable, but the car still reacts almost as quickly. Its steering is well weighted and provides excellent feedback. You always know what the tires are doing which allow you to make the right decisions at the right moment.

The ground effects on the X-BOW are not there for visual enhancement; they actually work and add 200kg worth of down force at 200 km/h. Those Brembo brakes with race compound brake pads slow down the car up to 50 meters AFTER other cars have hit their binders. And because you don't even have to slow down as much, you can carry much higher corner speeds throughout any given corner. With much higher exit speeds, the engine doesn't need to work too hard to propel the measly 785 kg car to the next corner.

The handling limits of the X-BOW are very, very high, but unlike other performance cars with similar limits, in the X-BOW, they are attainable by most proficient drivers. It's that friendly to drive. You do have to pay attention since things do happen very quickly. When pushed to the very limit of adhesion, the G-force piles up quickly and you feel true to life formula car performance. Ok, it's no F1 or even F3 car, but it's definitely in the territory of the Formula Mazda or even Formula Fords... and can hold a passenger, be registered and driven on the street.

The spring rates supplied with the car are perfect for the street but relatively soft for the track. When pushed hard, the car rolls to and fro and left to right. But the "Race" WP coil-overs control these movements very well and keep the tires biting... hard! There is so much traction available that even mediocre driving will see you passing Porsche Carreras without batting an eyelash. It's hard to believe that a 240 hp sports car can literally leave behind a Ferrari F430 Scuderia or 599. It can even put to shame 300 hp full-on race cars and does so with ease.

From a driver's point of view, the 240 hp TFSI engine is just right for this car. I personally look at and evaluate a car as a package rather than its individual components. The X-BOW is so well balanced that I don't believe it needs any more power. Of course, if you wanted more, there are so many aftermarket power enhancers available for this engine. From cams, injectors, throttle bodies, turbos and more, getting upwards of 300 hp is a simple bolt-on away. With more power, the need for more control follows. KTM supplies stiffer, "track only" springs along with aerodynamic components from the GT4 variant. Semi slicks from Toyo and slicks from Michelin round out the track ready parts needed to harness additional horses.

The Perfect Girl

One facet of the X-BOW which isn't immediately apparent is the fact that this car is extremely low maintenance. Just like the idea of the perfect girlfriend who does all that you like and requires very little in return, the X-BOW delivers super car performance and only requires an oil change and fuel when needed.

The race compound brake pads on our demo car have been on there for well over 3000 kms with many track days under its belt, yet the pads have yet to be replaced. For me, that's amazing considering I could out brake Porsches and Ferraris all day long without a hint of fade. And unlike those cars, the X-BOW doesn't have to come in to the pits before the session is over due to a hot engine or overheated brakes. While these cars have their bonnets open to cool off charring metal, I just park, add fuel and relax.

Life with the Rock Star

Living with a KTM X-BOW is an experience I would wish more people can have. Surely, it's not a car for everyone. But for a true blooded car nut, this is a car that will bring a smile to his or her face every single day.

Everyone (and I cannot even emphasize that enough) that sees the car can't help but stare. And with the prevalence of camera phones, you will know exactly what it feels like to have paparazzi hounding you! Cars on the road slow down to get a better look. They take their time so they can snap a photo of this unique looking vehicle. At traffic lights, sometimes, cars don't move right away. I've even seen traffic happen on the opposite side of the road as cars slow down and even stop so the passengers and drivers can look at the X-BOW!

Over here in Dubai, VIP and VVIP parking is available at malls, hotels, clubs and other hot spots. These are regular venues for seeing Porsche Carrera GTs, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Even the odd Bugatti Veyron sometimes makes an appearance next to a Merc SLR or two. When you arrive in a KTM X-BOW, everyone takes notice and you are instantly guided to the best spot available, without even asking. And once stopped, the once scattered onlookers gathers around the orange phenomenon, completely ignoring all others.

When parking, as soon as you stop the car and get out, a crowd instantly gathers around the car. And once more, the camera phones come out and pictures are taken. Requests (from some of the more outgoing onlookers) to get in the car so they can have their photo taken follow before you can even leave the car. I even experienced someone that followed me for about 2 kilometers. Once I parked, this person came out of his pickup truck and asked if he could have his photo taken next to the car. This is what Paris Hilton must feel like.

Once you get over all the attention the car attracts, you will find the need to be imaginative in finding space to stow anything you have to carry with you. There is no trunk or any kind of storage space. So, you will have to stow things in the passenger footwell or seat which is fine if you have no passenger, but this is mostly not the case as people will always want to ride with you in this car.

Because there is no roof, weather plays a big factor on how or even if you will drive this car. Needless to say, this is a sunny day car only. And in the summer, like here in the Middle East where temperatures soar to over 45 degrees Centigrade, clear skies are not a guarantee you'll take the car out. Chances are that if you can afford to own this car, you will have other premium cars better suited to the current weather conditions.

But, despite the lack of practicality in X-BOW, you will surely find yourself strapping in and taking it out on the town. Driving this car is like being addicted to drugs, though you know you shouldn't, you will do it anyway. And I don't think its just because of the performance of the car. It has more to do with how the car makes you feel. The X-BOW makes you into an instant Rock Star. And as they say, fame is addicting.

More than Skin Deep

This car is chockfull of contradictions. It's extreme in design yet it's pleasant to look at. It's extreme in performance but it's easy to attain. It's modern in terms of technology yet it's a very basic car (no doors, no roof or windscreen, no radio, no glove box or trunk). It looks like its ride will jar your teeth to bits but its suspension coddles you through every road imperfection. It seems it can't be driven anywhere... it can.