Monday, January 31, 2011

Piste-bashing in the new KTM X-Bow R

They say that time slows down when you�re having a crash. I can tell you right now that this is a lie. Time doesn�t slow, adrenaline just sadistically ups the refresh rate on memory so that you can recall the screw-up in excruciating detail when you�ve finished being in pain, or thinking of plausible excuses. This one went something like this: see the bright-red spike of the change-up light from the dial set in third gear, turn the wheel to the right, and immediately feel the back end start to break left. Apply the requisite amount of opposite lock, thinking that it probably looks quite heroic, all this expansive counter-steering. Yup. I�m, like, some sort of driving god...

This feature was originally published in the January issue of Car Evolution magazine

I realise - as the cleats in the tyres start to chew into the carbon-fibre cycle wings with a sound like gravel being thrown into a large plastic bucket - in the same amount of time it takes to squeal like a frightened child, that I've run out of lock. And the car is inevitably still rotating, with the back wheels redlined with third-gear big-turbo momentum, spinning at something like 100mph. I try to turn my head in the vague direction of travel, but find my helmet clasped tight by the head restraint, so I can't see what I'm about to hit. I do see the edge of a cliff pan blurrily past, a bit of sky framed by peaks, a photographer making a small �O' shape with his mouth, camera hanging forgotten by his side. Chance of glorious recovery nil, I start working on the excuses.

It is at this point I hit - at something sub-walking pace - a very fluffy snow bank, with the consistency of a freshly whipped cloud, and decide that I may have been having a quite feeble histrionic outburst. The rear wheels may have been spinning at a rate that would have seen me greased across the scenery like some sort of expressionist wintry Banksy, but seeing as I'm on a glacier and that even with spiked tyres wheelspin is more a constant state than an event, I was probably only travelling at about 40mph.

After a full 360, I was basically nerfing the d�cor with all the pent-up aggression of a kitten suffering from acute blood loss. I engage second gear and slowly ease the car out of the fluff, mildly impressed that I haven't stalled and that there's a passable negative mould of the new 300+bhp KTM X-Bow R now stamped onto the S�lden glacier in Austria. Ah, yes. Did I not mention I'm in a dedicated, track-spec KTM? On a 3,000-metre-high glacier? No?

It's amazing what you forget when the air temperature is reading minus 18 on the digital dash of a track car with the ground clearance of a stumpy tortoise, no ABS and no traction control, and you're halfway up a ski-slope trying not to lob yourself into the path of a snow plough. Mind you, getting here was hairy enough to give me temporary amnesia, so hard have I been concentrating on staying even in a vaguely straight line and pointing in a relevant direction. Mainly because - apart from being spectacularly unsuited to mountaineering in the first place - this is the newest iteration of the X-Bow, the �R', still sporting an Audi 2.0-litre four, but this time from the S3, and punting out something over 300bhp. Driving it up a glacier is the equivalent of asking Usain Bolt to do his sprinting thing up a hill on an ice rink. In six-inch Lucite stripper heels.

Obviously, there's no windscreen (which, interestingly, will be an option in 2012), or doors, or heater. Actually, there is a heater, it just hasn't been connected on this car, the reasoning being that if I'm in thin enough clothes to feel it, I'll be dead within the hour anyway. But the new X-Bow R comes with a raft of changes that aren't necessarily that easy to spot.

Obviously, the tub and most of the ancillary parts are still mostly carbon, which is geekily impressive, but the new engine has been dropped within the chassis and mounted direct to the frame, meaning that this R has an even greater sense of urgency than before. More feel from the wheel, a greater sense of what's going on through your bottom. The slight �safe' understeery tendency of the standard car has been dialled further back, though on winter tyres on very icy tarmac, it's hard to define the warm-weather limit. Still, throttle response has been improved, as have the general characteristics of the engine's progression through boost, so although you still get mighty torque and shove, it's a tad easier to control than before. Especially handy on ice.

Externally, there's been a proliferation of winglets and spoilers - the front end has sprouted some very DTM-ish flaps and �teeth', and the high rear has gained a double-deck tea-tray. All of which allows the X-Bow to provide proper downforce at relatively modest speeds. Stare too long - especially in this stripy colour scheme - and the X-Bow actually looks like an angry futuristic Chinese dragon. Though that could well just be me. It was very cold.

On the road, we trotted through the Austrian Tyrol and into the �tztal Alps very agreeably, the X-Bow more than supple enough to cope with potholes and pimply roads without making you feel as if it had the suspension compliance of a pure racer. It also feels as tight as a drum, no timpani of squeaks or rattles that you tend to get from the superlight class of cars, the whole thing feeling much more mature than something like a Caterham - though you do pay for the privilege, prices for the R aren't official yet, but, seeing as a carbonified Clubsport can easily cost �85k, don't expect much change from a hundred.
Then again, properly togged up and settled into the bottom of the seat, you can nevertheless enjoy the KTM without significant effort. There's elbow room and width, and yet a huge sense of security about the relatively bulky and angular bodywork; you get the feeling that if you were to crash this, you might well survive.

I'm doing my best. First gear on the uphill road out of Obergurgl brings inevitable wheelspin, second gear more unconsummated rear tyre effort and a light fishtail. The shift light flashes an angry and insistent red, and third gear simply ups the amplitude of sway and possibility of terminal crashiness. Fourth is in a similar vein, until my brain overpowers my ego and forces me to back off. Christ, this is quick and easy now - imagine what it might be like on a track. In the warm. With something resembling grip.
Winter tyres can only do so much, but the car already feels stable and precise. This bodes well,I think, looking for another strip of relatively dry tarmac, right up until I see the road terminate in a great swathe of white. As we cross from tarmacadam to pure snow - albeit graded by a snow plough - I realise that power might be all but useless where I'm going.

The KTM has no ground clearance, so every ridge and crest simply lifts the nose (and front wheels) off the floor, making the X-Bow a cripplingly expensive and bizarrely overkilling sledge. The winter tyres clog pretty much instantly, and I end up steering in that light-fingered, lazy-but-constant side-to-side movement you see in late Fifties road movies.

The steering wheel is literally never still, just to keep in a straight line. Even light brake use needs plenty of forethought (thinking like an HGV driver with head up and brain radar fully engaged), and it's here that you realise the relevance of light throttle-opening and the black art of heel and toe. Essentially, everything is exaggerated, doubly so in a car like the KTM. Stamp on the brakes, and you'll just lock, and slide in the direction you were pointing. Slap down through the gearbox without caution, and you'll induce transmission lock and unintended sidewaysness, as the rear wheels fail to slow as fast as the gearbox. You learn to heel and toe and match the engine revs to the downshift, or you end up facing the wrong way. A lot.

Heel and toe does, however, prove to be a bit of an issue when you're wearing huge boots and three pairs of socks with heat pads gently distorting your metatarsals, and, more worryingly, you can't feel your feet anyway. Up towards the glacier, and my extremities appear to have died. This would normally be worrying, yet I'm more concerned by the fact I can't feel part of my face. And I really like my face, it's really handy. Losing it would be... inconvenient. Time to get down off the slopes - we're running out of daylight

Before we have time to retreat, night falls with the kind of clear alpine crispness that cracks glass, and we retire from the hill. Handily, I have brought only a severely tinted mirrored visor - perfect for pictures, slightly worse than useless when trying to stop super-cooled windblast from eating your face at night and you can't see where you're going. Opening said visor for navigation purposes freezes the tears in your eyes and frost-bites your cheekbones so badly that they bubble and blister later in the evening, leaving you looking like a seared tuna steak.
Take note here: it is advisable not to put Germolene on raw skin just under your eyes. One, it stings like buggery, and two, you will inevitably smear some into your eye and stumble stark naked from the bathroom, put your foot into your discarded helmet and fall through the doors of a wardrobe screaming like a girl. But that's another story.

Next morning, and we attack the glacier proper, squirming up to the closed roads and then fitting our secret weapon: spikes. Cajoled from a friendly rally team, these �Monte Carlo' spiked tyres (shorter than �Swedish' spikes, longer than - ahem - �legal' spikes), are quickly slotted onto the X-Bow. Single hub-bolts rock in sub-zero climates. Suitably dressed, we storm up the icy roads to the lift station, through a tunnel hewn under the mountain - where the spikes spark on the dry tarmac like the ghosts of dying fireflies - and out onto the glacier just as dawn is rising. If I had any spare breath, it would be duly kidnapped.

The sun is painting the view in livid shades of orange as it claws its way over the cusp of the valley. The snow around us looks gently blue, the KTM utterly, totally alien. We stop for bit and cast about for signs of life. Nothing. The whole place is profoundly still. Quiet to the point that you imagine you can hear the sunshine splashing over the glacier in a fiery tide. In front is a wide expanse of piste that heads up into the ski area, with snowbanks protecting the edges of the cliff. It would be rude not to try, at least.

Which is how I find myself straining quietly at the harnesses of a 300bhp KTM X-Bow R on spiked tyres, trying to urge it up a ski slope at 6am in the morning. As I slither ever upward underneath the chair-lift, it all gets harder. The X-Bow is still blaring merrily away, thanks to the turbo, even at this altitude, but with nothing underneath the snow except more snow, spiked tyres or not, eventually we sigh to a stop and admit defeat. Turning round and facing down the slope, it's hard not to grin. Who'd have thought it? A 300bhp KTM X-Bow up a ski slope? Nah, it'd never happen...
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