OUR RACE-HONED test driver thrusts the KTM’s key fob into my heaving chest. ‘Okay, now it’s your turn,’ he says, and reluctantly hauls out of the driver’s seat. I hesitate for longer than necessary before prising myself from the passenger pew. Thing is, I’ve just gone shotgun alongside him for three blitzing laps of Killarney, all the while straining to hear his commentary above the buffeting wind. A relentless stream of information issued from his lips important stuff like the machine’s levels of grip, the nuances of its chassis, the bite of the Brembo brakes and all the other important things you really need to listen to. Sadly all lost to the atmosphere save for ten tiny words which got my attention: ‘To be honest, it even scares the crap out of me.’ Gulp. No ABS, no traction or stability control, not even power steering here to nanny me through this experience. I’m fervently hoping if I show it some respect it’s not going to bite me in the ass.
Look at it. Have you ever seen something so wickedly cast? It’s like a still-frame render of a fractal explosion. Call it the kind of car Batman skims over and says, ‘no, that’s a bit much’. A dagger-like carbonfibre monocoque forms the car’s spine, an aluminium sub frame locates the engine and transmission, a composite undertray smoothes airflow and up front a carbon crash-box is there to absorb the knocks. It all promises max rigidity. Like the driver, suspension components are in full view, if you can find him among the bolt-on carbon body paraphernalia. Blackened centre-lug 17-inch wheels do duty up ahead, with 18s at the rear. White plastic fairings spreadeagle across the front and even more wrap around the tail, harking back to the Austrian marque’s two-wheeled machines. They also sheath the business bits of the X-Bow, rising and falling along the contours of the tub housing the mid-mounted engine. Even the seats are recessed into the carbon belly immobile, but thanks to an adjustable pedal box still capable of swallowing small, medium and large drivers. I clamber behind the detachable steering wheel, a particularly racy looking (rake and reach) adjustable number complete with buttons for working everything from hooter and turn signals to the lap timer, driving modes (race or road) and even the headlamps. It’s super-snug in here. A Schroth six-point harness hugs me, a sea of carbon surrounds.
This particular ‘Street’ spec Clubsport model comes complete with a clear protective lens over its android-eye headlamps and carbon wheel covers, a token of protection against the gravel and sand that encroaches on the track. Ahead of me I can see the exposed push-rod suspension and dampers, which allow ride height adjustment via the pre-load settings and the anti-roll bars. There’s no windscreen here, just a deflector, so I’m very grateful for my helmet’s visor. To the left of the helm, the onboard computer display echoes a traditional dash readout. Dock the key in its home on the centre console and you’re greeted with a question: ‘Ready to Race?’ The answer of course is ‘Hell, yes!’ I thumb the beast into life, and after an enquiring glance at its steward I am nodded onto the track.
Don’t stall, don’t stall, don’t stall I don’t stall. The pedal feel is so intuitive I’d call it child’s play, with an easy interface to the turbocharged 2.0 TFSI Audi engine rasping behind my head. The clutch is progressive. I feed it some throttle and at this point the KTM feels like nothing more than a mere road car. A road car, I remind myself, that’s capable of launching to 100kph in 3.9 seconds. My out lap commences as I exit the pit straight and immediately the task is one of exploring the limits of both car and driver. A liberal throttle prod instantly causes the semi-slicks to lose grip. Climb off the throttle mid-corner and the same happens. Easy there. A fraction too much steering input and it lets go too. Ditto the brakes. Overcook it into a corner and the fronts scrub wide, and when they eventually bite the rears relinquish their grip again. Solid rain overnight is not helping the X-Bow’s slide factor on the track this morning, and I can feel I’m pulling the punches.
Fact is the bulletproof Audi motor is good for 177kW at 5 500rpm and 310Nm from 2000-5 500 rpm in KTM format, all of it eager to be summonsed by my right foot. A six-speed VW/Audi transmission has been mated to this powertrain, swapping cogs using a stubby short shifter atop the deep centre tunnel. The entire package weighs in at a sprightly 805kg, with the combination of rigid monocoque, sports suspension and limited-slip differential translating to the most direct go-kart-like experience you could possibly spend a million bucks on albeit one with an almighty shove in your back whenever you climb on the loud pedal.
It’s clear that precise, deft motions reward, and I’m soon through each of the five turns with a handle on technique. Or perhaps I’ve just been lulled into a false sense of security. Regardless, I dive into the bowl of turn five, keep wide, scythe through the chicane on exit and begin barreling along the main straight, tucked close to the wall in anticipation of a quick lap.
Turn one looms, and I’m already in fifth gear. Phew, this is quick. The world melts into a frenetic blur around my peripherals as I climb on the (unassisted) brakes and bang into third gear ready for the weight transfer. Mere fractions of turn get the wheels aimed for the clipping point, and my feet stay poised, ready to time throttle feed on exit. Now! I nail it and immediately feel the rear breaking out in protest. A subtle back-off and the X-Bow tucks back into line as the rubber moulds about the tar again. Precision? This thing makes a Lotus Elise feel like a lumbering ox. Grip begets propulsion and I’m rocketed towards turn two. Fourth gear. Fifth gear. Firm on the brakes, not too hard. Into third and a little wide on turn two. I snick the clipping point and pull through the chicane on exit purely on throttle modulation. Even my fine steering inputs are more than adequate here, the car almost telepathically capable of turning a kink into a straight. Gung-ho wrestling at the helm will see you merge with the scenery, so I feed in instructions with the delicate, measured efforts you’d save for dissecting an atom. Perhaps even type Ariel. It’s almost schizophrenic at the upper limit too, mutating to a wildness that’s a real test of driving finesse. That’s the appeal: the experience is wonderfully analogue, the handling better than anything I’ve ever driven, bar none. All that’s missing is the sound, tragically muted by the wind and my helmet.
Strange musings as I slot back into fourth gear, dab the middle pedal to scrub off enough velocity, and coast through the entry of turn three. On exit I’m back on the throttle and the revs rise to a muted crescendo (the wind is whipping impressively through the open cockpit by now) before turn four’s double-hander requires another dance of clutch and brakes to see me through. We rocket onto the back straight and then I pin the throttle into the foot well. Little black lines fill up the rev counter and a red upshift light blinks an alert as my hand hovers over the shifter for the slot into fifth. What’s this? Fatigue? At speeds close to 200kph my helmet begins to feel like it weighs a ton and my chest is being pummelled by the wind. It’s not unbearable, just Mother Nature reminding me that I’m in her house now. All part of the visceral nature of open top, open wheel racing. A stiff neck reminds me that I’ve been carrying at least 1g of gravitational force on most of these corners.
With a manic grin I tear past the blue gums that line the Killarney back straight, eclipse 180kph then tear my eyes from control panel back to the circuit ahead, in preparation for turn five, aka Cape Town corner. We won’t get anywhere near the X-Bow’s claimed top speed of 217kph today, but the downforce generated at pace means I’m glued to the ground with a conviction unmatched by anything else I’ve ever taken around this set of bends. At the 100m board I begin braking, rolling back the ratios till I’m in third. Dip the clutch, roll onto the loud pedal and the revs are primed for a hasty exit. I keep wide and ride the outermost ring of the bowl, then carve through the clipping point and burst onto the main straight once more for a repeat performance.
Pulling into the pits and powering down the X-Bow is no less of an alien experience than piloting it around a racing circuit. There is no tick, tick, tick resonance of a metal heart cooling down in a metal engine bay, just deafening silence and the smell of cooked 98 octane. It’s an infectious silence and I just sit, dumbstruck by the last ten minutes or so. I have no doubt that it excels as a track car. Arrive at a track day and, if you can keep your cool, you will surely decimate all-comers. You might be able to argue that for the same money, you could buy the massively capable Nissan GT-R, and you’d be right. Add another R700k and you’d be in line for a Porsche 911 GT3RS. But these are tin tops at the head of their game, and if touring car-style racing tickles your fancy then these are the default weapons. But if you aspire to the open wheel antics of IndyCar or Formula One racing, then just two road-legal players step up: KTM’s X-Bow, and the Ariel Atom. You’ll need a helmet for both, but it’s the quicker KTM that makes the stronger argument.
Despite having spent a day with it, on winding mountain passes, navigating busy shopping centres and even bringing the house down at a drive-thru eatery, I came no closer to desensitising myself to its charms. Wildly conceptual, brimming with spaceship-like aesthetics, the X-Bow also scores for its clever mechanicals. It looks the way it does to achieve those sensational performance figures and it really does deliver unprecendented levels of adrenaline.
But first, a warning to prospective owners. In the best tradition of Audi, the company who provides the engine, liberal box ticking (with exponential sticker price jumps) is possible from an options list so extensive it makes the customising menu on Gran Turismo 5 look spartan. For starters, you can spec yours in ‘Street’, ‘Clubsport’, ‘Superlight’ or ‘GT4’ models think lemon & herb, mild, hot and spicy as hell! For now South African buyers have to settle for either Street and Clubsport, but each can be delivered with an additional wealth of kit from racing exhausts and gearbox cooling hoses to racing springs, Michelin slicks, colour-coded wheels and an onboard air-jack system. Then there are the trick carbon spoilers, undertrays and even the racing headrest. And things get sillier with the branded car pyjamas, the bag to carry the steering wheel and a full suite of racing apparel. Ferrari’s lead taken. Cut through all the bull though, and you have a totally customisable car capable of doling out more thrills per second than anything else legal for the street. No chancers.