It’s three years since bike manufacturer KTM branched out into cars, launching the X-Bow at the 2008 Geneva motor show. More than 500 brave drivers have been found to buy the X-Bow, ensuring the project has survived the recession and brought further evolution. Which brings us to this: the 2011 X-Bow R, an even faster version of the sports car.
It’s a similar, pared-back two-seater, only this time the X-Bow R brings an uprated version of the Audi 2.0-litre four-cylinder. It’s the turbocharged TFSI engine, boosted to 296bhp and 295lb ft of torque.
That’s more than in the donor Audi S3 and TT-S, which produce no more than 268bhp. Thank a larger turbocharger, reprogrammed Bosch engine management and new fuel injectors. And the engine changes are just scratching the surface of a series of upgrades to build this fastest ever KTM with four wheels.
So the KTM X-Bow R is quicker than most Ferraris?
Yes. Prod the throttle and the R simply flies towards the horizon. There’s so little weight on board – the skeletal X-Bow R weighs just 790kg dry – that it slingshots towards the horizon in short order. Turbo lag isn’t an issue, although the most rabid acceleration doesn’t arrive until nearer the 3000rpm torque peak.
The basic 236bhp KTM X-Bow is no slouch, but to put the R’s greater performance in perspective, it has a quarter more power. Nought to sixty takes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 3.9sec. Frankly, it feels faster.
To cope with the extra grunt, KTM has strengthened the engine mounts and lowered the engine’s position in the aluminium rear subframe by 19mm. The Austrian manufacturers say this has boosted the peak 1.5g cornering forces that can be generated by the bravest pilots.
KTM: a posh Caterham
There are many similarities between KTM’s road car and Caterhams. There’s no windscreen, in fact no fripperies at all that we can think of. No radio. No windows. There are barely proper seats, and certainly no doors. You clamber over the sills to slide into the squidgy race seats. One nice Audi touch – keyless ignition – means you drop the key into a secure holder and just prod the waterproof start button, and the four-pot whirrs into life, first time, every time.
You get the same wiggling front wheel observation post as a Caterham, every turn and jiggle of the 205/40 front tyres becoming a spectator sport. And the action of the front wishbones and inboard pushrod dampers becomes mesmeric. It’s like those Tamiya r/c cars I lusted over at school all over again.
But the KTM has a notably different character to a Caterham. For starters, the X-Bow is built around an impeccably constructed carbonfibre monocoque, and the aesthetic is wantonly modern to the Caterhams’s retro mindset. The KTM looks like an angry insect designed by a Judge Dredd cartoonist, its shape designed for maximum thrills and to generate 48kg of downforce at 62mph and 193kg at twice that speed.
So is the KTM X-Bow R at all practical?
It’s hard to give the X-Bow anything over than one star for practicality. It’s awkward to get into – you remove the steering wheel, clamber over the sills and then go into contortionist mode to secure the four-point race harness. Once ensconced, it’s actually quite comfy even for tall drivers but there’s no boot whatsoever, no roof if it rains and worst of all is the terrible rear visibility. Two wing mirrors are your lot, there’s no rear-view mirror (for obvious reasons) and because of the head guard, the side-to-side view is atrocious. Come to some T-junctions and unless you pull up at right angles for a 90deg view, you can’t see what’s coming.
But let’s not get bogged down in that. This is in essence a track-day car that’s homologated for the road; you can spec it up with no end of aero kits, oil coolers and race-spec tyres from the track-day kit options list. The KTM X-Bow is an occasional car for thrill seekers.
The road test review bit: the KTM X-Bow R
Drive the X-Bow on a motorway and non-bikers may feel threatened. I steered onto the A1 near CAR’s office to get home and immediately felt exposed, every passing lorry a worry, the lack of windscreen taking a while to get used to. Needless to say, you’d be mad to drive a KTM without a helmet, every passing pebble and insect flying into your visage.
Maybe I’m just a cautious pansy. But steer off the M-ways and the X-Bow R comes to life. This is a small car that’s easy to thread down country lanes. That 790kg (dry) kerbweight makes it a similar mass to an Elise, the X-Bow R darting this way and that to every nudge of the unassisted steering. The ride is firmer than the Lotus’s, the 17in front/18in rear wheels fussing over road bumps and lumps. Accelerate and you have to keep a firm grip on the wheel, so fast do things happen in the X-Bow.
But what a cockpit! On country roads, you’re at one with nature, a motorcycling thrill mixed with a few car-like comforts. The gearlever is perfectly positioned for BTCC style knockshifts, snicking through cogs with a Honda S2000’s precision, keeping that Audi four-pot on the boil.
Get in the groove, and the X-Bow comes together beautifully. There’s an extra urgency that makes the R noticeably faster than the regular Crossbow, and as a point-to-point device cross-country, few vehicles will touch it. Traction is excellent, and the R adds a limited slip diff to tame all that torque at the rear axle. It could do with a blindspot concave mirror (rear visibility dented my trust) but otherwise, this is a thrilling toy.
The X-Bow R is a brilliant, idiosyncratic vehicle. The engineering is sublime, that carbonfibre tub a work of art. Clearly it’s a preposterously impractical car, and one only suited to the most committed of drivers but we applaud its individuality.
But those who can afford it – at €58,795 plus local taxes we’re in the realms of three Caterhams here – will find a thrilling sports car that’s great fun and feels as robust as you’d expect of something with an Audi engine over your shoulder. And you’re guaranteed to turn heads left, right and centre. We loved it.