KTM X-Bow. Into the unknown. Liwa, UAE

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Picture the scene. Two lanes of tarmac kink and buck their way through rolling dunes with not a piece of traffic in sight. My view through the visor of my helmet is of sand, sand, and yet more sand – stretching out for as far as I can see and much more. This is the edge of the empty quarter, beyond here is nothing but desert for 650km until you reach the sleepy town of Salalah at the bottom tip of Oman. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it?

Well, it would be if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s absolutely chucking it down with rain. Proper big rain, not annoying drizzle. To cap it all, I’m sitting in possibly the most impractical car around – a car with no doors, roof, windscreen or heater – the KTM X-Bow.

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It wasn’t meant to be like this. I’d planned to come down to this 20km stretch of tarmac that runs from the remote town of Liwa down to Moreeb Hill in the X-Bow to find what I’d been told was one of the best roads in the region. Now, I’m stuck behind our Range Rover Sport camera car trying to avoid puddles and generally feeling a little down. It’s not as if Liwa’s just around the corner from the CAR ME office – it’s 350km away and requires driving along some of the region’s dullest roads to get to. Not to mention the fact it’s taken the best part of four hours to get here and all I’m rewarded with is a seriously damp road and a grey featureless sky. Even some clouds would be nice, but no, it’s just grey – really grey. Soul destroyingly grey.

In a bid to improve my, online ed Phill who’s driving the camera car, and snapper Alan’s combined moods, we take the decision to retire to the nearby Liwa Hotel. It doesn’t work. The hotel is all-but empty and even a few games of pool in the deserted hotel bar fail to raise a smile, and the weather is still rubbish. We get an early night.

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I wake up at 4:30 full of trepidation. It’s pitch black outside, but I can see the moon and whole hosts of stars. This can mean only one thing, the sky is clear. I drag the others out to the cars. Phill asks if I want to drive the Range Rover, I knock him back without a moment’s thought. If I’ve endured the long slog down here behind the wheel of the KTM, I’m going to be the one who gets the first shot at the road.

It’s not a car to jump in and blast off in is the X-Bow. Firstly, you have to be appropriately dressed with a coat, gloves, balaclava and helmet. You can drive without all of this paraphernalia, but this early in the morning in the middle of the desert you’d be freezing cold, have frostbitten fingers and a sand-blasted face within five minutes.

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Once suitably attired, it’s just a matter of ‘unlocking’ the X-Bow via the Audi key, pressing the start button, strapping yourself in and you’re away. Obviously I say unlocking in the broadest of terms, as there aren’t any locks, but the transponder in the keyfob deactivates the immobiliser. Why an Audi key? Well, KTM is better known for building bikes and quads and doesn’t make anything bigger than a 1148cc V-twin. Although bike-engined cars do exist – they’re usually highly strung tuner specials which aren’t exactly ideal for day-to-day driving.

Therefore, with one eye on reliability and the other on tunability, KTM turned to Audi for its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. It’s a lump that’s been used across the VAG group in Skodas, Seats and VWs but first appeared in the Audi A3. Here, it’s used in 237bhp tune.

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And whilst it’s a very strong engine – providing plenty of power right through the rev range – and not overly peaky in its power delivery at the harm of driveability, it sounds – and there’s no easy way to say this – crap.

The X-Bow is a car that attacks the senses. People turn and look. You get inundated at petrol stations by cameraphone-wielding fools. It’s visually insane – all sharp angles and carbon fibre. It’s low and wide – much wider in person than it looks in pictures. Therefore, when you start it up you want it to explode with a short, sharp bark from a high-revving unit. But it doesn’t. Press the starter button and it burbles imperceptibly into life. There is a race exhaust available which helps amplify the note, and Nivea – the owners of this one-of-a-kind blue X-Bow – are planning on fitting it – but I wish it was standard.

Still, I’ve got other things on my mind as I tighten the four-point race harnesses, slip the stubby gearstick into 1st and leave the hotel. I’ve not driven 200metres before I come up against the mother of all puddles at the foot of the hotel’s driveway, but I have no choice but to drive straight through the middle – huge rooster tails splash off the wheels as I do.

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Within a couple of minutes, I’m on the road. I leave the others huddled in their heated leather trimmed cocoon in my wake as I take the X-Bow on the first of many runs from Liwa down to Moreeb Hill.

It’s a 20km run, and except for a little stretch that’s churned up by numerous trucks seemingly moving sand from the desert on one side of the road to the other, the tarmac is in great condition. Yesterday’s rain has washed the surface clean, and has the added bonus of helping the sand stay stuck on the dunes rather than wisping across the road. It won’t last for long, as the sun rises the surface temperature will increase and the fine top layer of sand will dry out, and grains will make their way onto the road.

With rear-wheel drive and no electronic driver aids, the prospect of hitting a patch of sand mid-corner is not something I’m looking forward to, so I waste no time in learning the road.

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The corners here are a rare mixture – some are big, wide sweepers with visibility for hundreds of metres in either direction. Others are tight, off-camber, unsighted. However, one benefit of being here so early is that after one run down to the road’s end I know the road is mine and mine alone.

With that in mind, I start to tackle the numerous curves with more and more confidence and bigger dollops of speed. The X-Bow’s top speed of ‘just 220kph’ left many interested parties a little disappointed as they asked me for the full Top Trumps run-down on the Austrian creation. But top speed isn’t the X-Bow’s mantra, it’s the getting there that it’s built for.

Anyway, 220kph is fast enough for me without a roof over my head. On the arrow-straight and empty highway on the run down to Liwa I pushed the X-Bow as fast as I dared. The biggest number I saw on the trip computer that sits basking in its orange glow in the middle of what pretends to be the X-Bow’s dashboard definitely started with a ‘2’. However, my head was being buffeted so much by the wind that I could barely see straight to read the rest of the figure – imagine trying to read the newspaper whilst sat on a washing machine mid spin cycle and you’re somewhere close.

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Stay at more sensible – and legal – speeds though and the X-Bow is a real boon. Everything has just the right amount of weight to it. The steering wheel is small, but isn’t ridiculous like a Caterham’s, and you really have to respect the X-Bow’s short wheelbase. This car doesn’t appreciate being manhandled – it’s better than that. Try and throw it out of shape and it will bite, however the brakes are so good and the car weighs so little that you can stop yourself before doing any damage – apart from to your pride. No, this is a car that will teach the dolt behind the wheel a few things.

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But it also teaches other manufacturers a few things too. Here is a car that’s built to the same light, rear-driving ethos as a Caterham, yet does such a better job of it. There’s plenty of space for two – though any luggage will have to be left at home, and the Recaro-designed seats proved to be extremely comfortable even though they look anything but. With the engine and gearbox sitting at the back there’s no driveshaft running through the middle of the car, therefore no uncomfortable heat and the exhaust doesn’t take the skin off your legs every time you get out of the car.

A road as good as this – believe me, it’s worth the boring drive down, even if the hotel isn’t – deserves a good car. The X-Bow proved itself to be worthy of tackling it, and then some.

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I did the best part of 1000kms in the X-Bow – including a fair few runs down and back on that stretch of road – and loved every minute. It may have been designed with the track in mind – and I’m in no doubt it would be an absolute blast in the right pair of hands – but even on the road, the X-Bow proved itself to be one of the greats. It’s a future classic, no less. I can’t wait to see what the Austrians are going to come up with next.

Categories: Road


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  1. Yep, remember reading that one…one of CAR ME’s better pieces in awhile for sure and not only because of the exotic machine + remote windy road formula

    Now about that road…that’s the Top Gear Murcielago SV road too isn’t it?

    Got directions?