Why a '96, you might ask. Aren't the '97s coming out soon? Yes and no. KTM has established the R/XC line for a late spring introduction, so you won't see the '97 machines until June of next year. What we have here in the '96 will be current until then, and they've made a number of good little changes on the bike.
Well, you might not call some of the changes "little." The most striking change is the inclusion of the E/XC-style racing suspension; the Marzocchi Magnum 45 forks on the front, and a rear Ohlins shock. These Magnums are the latest design, not leftovers from 1995. With them you will find the same sliders with 20mm less underhang, which really helps out when the going gets rutty or rocky. The forks also have a different compression damping configuration from the original '95 forks. This is also a plus, in our eyes, since we never really thought very much of the '95 Marzocchi forks anyhow.
So how do they work? Good; really pretty good. Stock for stock they give a more plush ride than any of the WP forks of late. They shine best in little choppy bumps, things that drive WP forks to distraction. The Marzocchis are damped very loosely for the first four inches of travel or so, and soak every little stutter bump right up. The rest of the travel is a lot more "racy" than the old WP forks. The Magnums stiffen up quickly in mid stroke and deliver a confidence-inspiring ride when the holes in the trail get bigger. If we hadn't had the bike for only three days we would have changed fork oil and levels to get them more closely dialed in for the kind of riding we like to do, but we had no time, so we left them alone.
The rear shock is an Ohlins, and really not much more needs to be said. This is the shock absorber that nearly every factory shock is compared to, and on this bike it works extremely well. We noticed no bad traits from the rear end of this bike, so it does the job. The best we can suggest is to take care of it; it's a fine piece of equipment, so plan on having the shock oil changed regularly to keep it in good shape. The forks, just like last year's E/XC, tend to dirty up the oil fairly quickly, so you're going to have to plan on changing fork oil often as well.
The other major change on the R/XC is actually a variety of changes, all adding up to a slimmer profile. The fuel cell has been redesigned to be narrower, and unfortunately it holds less fuel--down to 2.3 gallons. The seat is narrower as well, and all the plastic is tucked in tight. The bike actually feels narrower to ride, and it's a lot more comfortable to move around on because of this.
The only change we're not entirely thrilled about is the new carburetor, and we'll admit it's probably through a lack of familiarity. To be honest, when the R/XC is warmed up and running, it runs really, really well. The carburetion seems perfect, and the engine feels more responsive, maybe even more powerful, than the '95 engine (even though everything else is the same). The trouble with the new carb, made by Qwiksilver, is when you try to start the bike cold. The Qwiksilver doesn't have a traditional choke circuit in it. Instead, it has an enrichment lever, which is not much more sophisticated than the "tickle button" on an old Bing carb.
"The new R/XC is a narrower, better-suspended, different carbureted version of what we've been riding here at home for the past two seasons, and we enjoyed the time we spent with it."
When you turn the enrichment lever 45 degrees from horizontal it apparently dumps fuel right into the intake, and our problem came with not understanding how to make it work right. It always seemed that one kick with the enrichment lever up wasn't enough, and two kicks was enough to flood the engine. We've never seen a manual or instruction sheet for this carb, and the chances are that with a little bit of knowledge we'd be much happier. The Qwiksilver is used to ensure the R/XC passes emission requirements in all 50 states, and is therefore necessary, but we'll admit we're partial to the old Dell'Orto carb.
Our test grounds for this R/XC were fairly tight mountain trails in Washington state. A lot of the terrain we covered wasn't what most people consider dual sport. It would have been more suited to an enduro bike. But the R/XC--although a little big in some of the tighter spots--was overall a joy to ride. The new slimmer profile makes the bike feel lighter and much more flickable, even thought the overall weight hasn't changed significantly. Rarely did the bike stall, but when it did it was a one-kick starter (when hot), and nothing came loose or fell off.
The stock Michelin DOT dual sport tires are a real compromise in slippery conditions, and we changed to a real knobby tire in the front just to make the trail more enjoyable. For a mix of road and casual trail the Michelins will be fine until you wear them out.
In short, the new R/XC is a narrower, better-suspended, different carbureted version of what we've been riding here at home for the past two seasons, and we enjoyed the time we spent with it. Certainly owning one and learning about the carburetor would help with our only complaint with the bike, and the R/XC is still the most serious dual sport bike available...if you don't count the electric-start Husaberg, which isn't really a DOT-approved dual sport anyhow.
We've heard two rumors about the '97 R/XC. One was that it was going to be slimmed way down and lightened up and made into even more of an enduro bike, and the other was that the bike was going to get electric start and become more of a street/trail bike. It's too early to tell which is true, but in the mean time the existing R/XC is a good compromise between the two.