2023 EMPIRE OF THE THREE-FIFTIES: KTM 350SXF VS. HUSQVARNA FC350 VS. GASGAS MC350F
These three bikes represent the complete spectrum of 350cc motocross bikes. Can you imagine a shootout that Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki aren’t eligible for.
The whole idea of doing a 350cc motocross shootout seems like a massive waste of time. After all, there are only three readily available, mid-size, 350cc, four-stroke motocross bikes on American showroom floors. The trio of 350cc motocross bikes are all generated from the same Mattighofen, Austria, factory—the KTM 350SXF, Husqvarna FC250 and GasGas MC350F.
We know what you are going to say, because we’ve said it many times ourselves: “What are we testing? These three bikes share all the same parts, roll down the same assembly line and the only real difference between the three is the color of the plastic. They are clones of each other.”
No offense, but that isn’t true. Yes, it was true one year ago, but that’s history. For 2023 the GasGas MC350 is an outlier. Not only is it red, but it has its own engine, frame, suspension, shock spring, triple clamps, electronic suite, subframe and airbox, and even the radiator cap is different.
If any of the 350s are clones, it is the 2023 KTM 350SXF and Husqvarna FC350. They are platform-shared, which means they have the same frames, engines, electronics and design philosophy. But even then, the KTM 350SXF and Husky FC350 are not exact clones. The Husqvarna FC350 gets WP XACT air forks that are 10mm shorter than the KTM 350SXF forks. Plus, the WP shock is 15mm shorter, has a 3.5mm-taller seal head cap and the shock linkage is configured to lower the rear of the FC350 by 1 inch.
“The Empire of the Three-Fifties” is based on three machines that can credit their existence to three market factors.
(1) Logic. Why the concept of building a mid-sized four-stroke race bike evaded every other manufacturer is a mystery. Even more mysterious is that Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki still haven’t embraced the 350, even though it is a proven sales success. In the cutthroat business of selling motocross bikes, the KTM 350SXF and its Austrian brethren have gotten a freebie for the last 12 years.
(2) Constant improvement. No other production bike in motocross history has been so noticeably improved from year to year as the KTM 350SXF. Since its rather mediocre introduction in 2011, it has made dazzling yearly gains, winning converts with every technological leap.
(3) Vet card. On paper, the KTM 350SXF is illegal in the 250 class and down on power in the 450 class, so who would want to buy one? Vets didn’t like that their choice of weapons were limited to an under-powered 250 or an over-powered 450. Vets were the first to recognize, after Tony Cairoli, that the KTM 350SXF could be revved like a 250 while pumping out 450-style horsepower. Riders over 30 who were racing in an unregulated class embraced the two-in-one usability of the KTM 350SXF. They made it a sales success of epic proportions.
The concept of a 350cc motocross bike may have looked like an unlikely success story back in 2011, but take it from the MXA wrecking crew, we have raced the three 2023 350s back to back every weekend, and we know these bikes deserve your attention. They are all quite unique.
2023 KTM 350SXF
Consider the KTM 350SXF the stalking horse of all 350cc motocross bikes. It sets the standard. This bike is not a traditional motocross bike. It was designed as a niche bike to fill a unique spot in the off-road market. It has done that and more in its 12 model years, and the technological leaps that the 350SXF has made since it was introduced in 2011 (when it wasn’t a very good bike) are dazzling.
The KTM 350SXF started the whole 350cc four-stroke movement, which has proven to be a massive sales success for the KTM group. “The Empire of the Three-Fifties” was built on the simple premise of keeping nine-time World Champion Tony Cairoli happy, since he had been the archetypal mid-sized four-stroke pioneer.
KTM had so much faith in Cairoli and the 350 format that they wanted to drop the 450SXF from their product line and put all their eggs in the 350SXF basket back in 2012. Luckily, Roger DeCoster had joined KTM in 2011 and told KTM management, in no uncertain terms, that without a full-race 450cc motocross bike they would never be able to sign a top-of-the-line AMA star to race for KTM (and by that Roger meant Ryan Dungey). You can thank Roger for saving the KTM 450SXF from the boneyard. But you can thank local Vet motocross racers across the country, along with KTM’s constant improvements, for making the KTM 350SXF a massive sales success.
INTERESTING 2023 KTM 350SXF FACTS
(1) Powerband. It is a lot stronger than last year from low to mid. The previous 350 engine always seemed down on power as it worked its way towards the midrange. The 2023 engine jumps out of the corners and pulls harder into the midrange. It pulls more like a 450 when exiting corners and yet still revs to the moon like a 250F. Overall, the 350SXF is a high-rpm rocket ship that demands 100-percent commitment to bleeding the revs dry.
(2) Weight. We can’t blame you for thinking that the KTM 350SXF is light, but it’s not, at least not within the KTM family. It weighs 1 pound less than a KTM 450SXF. That is nothing to jump up and down about, but because of the reduced rotating mass of the 350 engine’s diminutive moving parts, it feels lighter than it is.
(3) Handling. The combination of the 350SXF’s progressive powerband, chromoly tubing, spot-on head angle and accurate frame geometry gives the 350SXF inspired handling; however, it takes a serious amount of break-in time to get comfortable on the 2023 frame. Our 2023 KTM 350SXF came full circle for us at the 10-hour mark. The engine was freer-revving. The WP XACT air forks were plusher, and, most important, the chromoly steel frame became more resilient.
(4) Suspension. WP reworked the forks and shock for 2023 with the goal of making the damping firmer at both ends of the stroke. As far as mechanical changes go, the WP XACT air forks got new valving and Hydro-Stop bottoming cones, while the rear shock and shock spring were shortened 15mm. Even though the shock and spring are shorter, the shock’s stroke is unchanged from 2022, and the spring rate is still 45 N/mm.
(5) Electronics. All the electronic switchgear has been updated. On the left handlebar is a multi-switch that allows the rider to choose between the stock map, aggressive map, Traction Control, Quick Shift and Launch Control (by pressing the Quick Shift and Traction Control buttons at the same time). On the top triple clamp is a new hour meter that also functions as the FI diagnostic light. On the right handlebar are the electric start button and kill button
(6) Ergos. Once considered a “European bike” in terms of layout, handling and rider triangle, the KTM 350SXF has put that criticism behind it with sleek, slim and narrow ergonomics—and KTM was brave enough to bulge the bodywork in the places where rider contact needed a little help. KTM’s American-based test program has made the KTM 350SXF more Yankee than Austrian.
(7) Price. $10,699.
WHAT DO WE REALLY THINK OF THE KTM 350SXF?
We can’t believe that no one outside of Austria jumped all over the 350cc concept. It melds the brute power of a 450 with the high rpm of a 250 to produce a bike that if it were porridge would be Baby Bear’s porridge. It is not too hot and not to cold; it is just right. Unfortunately for consumers, the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers aren’t as adventuresome as they once were, and they handed KTM sole possession of a market bigger than anything Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki or Suzuki have.
This is the fastest, tallest and hardest hitting of the three 350s. It is the biggest seller of the three 350s. It feels stiffer, even though it shares its fork and shock valving with the Husky. It is the raciest bike in “The Empire of the three-fifties.”
2023 HUSQVARNA FC350
Husqvarna has the longest-running history of any motorcycle manufacturer, but the Austrian-built Husqvarnas only represent nine of Husqvarna’s 119 years in the motorcycle business. In fact, the Cagiva/MV Agusta Group owned Husky for 20 years (1987–2007). Then BMW acquired Husqvarna in 2007 in hopes of getting a foothold in the dirt bike market but failed miserably and sold it to KTM in 2013. After buying Husqvarna, KTM set a production record by getting their platform-shared 2014 Huskys on the showroom floors in less than a year, leading to the derisive label of “white KTMs.” The first FC350 models didn’t make their USA debut until 2015.
Those first Husqvarna FC350s were noteworthy for three reasons: First, although a KTM clone, the Husqvarna differed in its plastic bodywork, most notably the molded airbox/subframe KTM co-opted from Husaberg, which KTM dropped after buying Husqvarna. Second, most MXA test riders liked the suppler feel of the resilient plastic subframe compared to the KTM’s traditional aluminum tube subframe. Third, 2015 was the first year that MXA claimed that the molded Husqvarna airbox did not breathe. In 2015 we said, “The Husky airbox is buttoned up tight. A loaf of bread would stay fresh in Husky’s airbox for a week. Less air means less throttle response at low rpm.” Husqvarna still hasn’t fixed that problem eight years later.
INTERESTING 2023 HUSQVARNA FC350 FACTS
(1) Suspension. The 2023 frame is stiffer than any previous Husky chassis. In fact, it requires the same 10 hours of break-in time as the KTM 350SXF before all the various pieces and junctures take a set. But, Husky had an ace in the hole over KTM. Shortening the forks by 10mm internally and externally means the front of the Husqvarna can be as much as 15mm lower than the KTM (counting the ability to slide the forks up in the clamps). When you combine the shortened forks with Husqvarna’s totally different rising-rate shock linkage, shorter shock and reduced stroke (to keep the rear tire from hitting the fender), you get a bike that is 1 inch lower. You don’t need a degree in physics to realize that a lowered center of gravity is a major positive when it comes to handling.
Amazingly, the FC350 shock and fork valving are essentially the same as what is in the KTM 350SXF, but it feels plusher. The KTM forks ride a little higher in their stroke, which is good for faster riders willing to hit things harder, but the Husqvarna can run lower air pressures to smooth out the action of the fork, deliver a much more responsive feel, improve front tire contact and increase overall comfort. Best of all, riders with short legs can touch the ground when seated on the 2023 FC350, something they can’t do on a KTM 350SXF.
(2) Handling. Lowering the chassis makes the Husqvarna FC350 turn like it’s on rails. Every test rider felt that the Husky handled better than the KTM, but mostly they raved about the fact that they could touch the ground on the starting line and in tight corners. Compared to the KTM 350SXF, the Husqvarna is more rider friendly thanks to its plusher feel and mellower powerband.
(3) Powerband. From a mechanical point of view, the 2023 Husky FC350 has almost identical numbers to the 2023 KTM 350SXF engine, but the KTM hits harder and has better throttle response. From an in-the-saddle perspective, the 2023 FC350 has a more pleasant power delivery. It feels a little more hooked up because the throttle response is muted.
You might ask, “If the two engines are identical, how can the Husky engine feel different from the KTM engine?” The short and sweet answer is that the KTM Group doesn’t want the KTM, Husky and GasGas to have the same powerband. KTM managed to achieve three different performance envelopes by controlling how much air gets through each brand’s unique airbox cover.
(4) Miscellaneous. KTM, Husqvarna and GasGas have pulled away from their red, green, blue and yellow competition in the 350 class because Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki don’t make 350cc mid-size motocross bikes. Thus the KTM Group has a monopoly, leaving the choice between KTM, Husqvarna and GasGas up to the buyer.
(5) Price. $10,799.
WHAT DO WE REALLY THINK OF THE HUSQVARNA FC350?
This is the perfect Vet bike, which is good, because there is no Pro market for the FC350. But KTM, Husky and GasGas don’t need Pros or Novices. They have the Vet market lock, stock and barrel with a bike that is fast like a 450 but fun like a 250. The Husqvarna FC350’s big selling points are that it is more comfortable, sits much lower and has a powerband that is supremely manageable.
2023 GASGAS MC350F
For the 2023 model year, KTM’s and Husqvarna’s bikes were revamped to be all new from the ground up. Some buyers like the idea of a totally renovated machine, but others, burned by first-year models in the past, are wary of throwing away the 2022 machines that worked so well. They wanted KTM to stick with the old frame—and that is where the GasGas MC350F comes into the picture. It is not platform-shared with the 2023 FC350 and 350SXF. It is a stand-alone machine with its own chromoly frame, proven engine, WP forks, longer rear shock and well-tested shock linkage.
The 2023 GasGas MC350F may have rolled down the same assembly line, but it is night and day different from the 2023 KTM 350SXF and 2023 Husqvarna FC350; however, it isn’t one iota different from the 2022 GasGas MC350F. Strangely, not updating the 2023 GasGas MC350F makes it totally different from the new FC350 and 350SXF. For many racers, the 2023 GasGas is the best choice. Why? Read on.
INTERESTING 2023 GASGAS MC350F FACTS
(1) Suspension. The most noticeable difference on the GasGas is the softer suspension settings. The 2023 KTM 350SXF and Husky FC350 come with 45 N/mm shock springs. The GasGas shock comes with a 42 N/mm spring. Additionally, while the KTM 350SXF and Husky FC350 have the same valving in their forks (both with Hydro-Stop), the GasGas has lighter valving in its forks without Hydro-Stop. Of course, the air forks can be made stiffer or softer with the use of WP’s hand pump, but overall, the GasGas forks are softer, and so is the shock valving.
(2) Suspension action. The GasGas setup is designed to suit the needs of the vast majority of riders (Novices, Vets, old-timers, trail riders and play riders). Conversely, it isn’t well-suited to heavier or faster riders.
(3) Triple clamps. The most obvious difference between the 2023 KTM/Husky combo and the GasGas is that the orange and white bikes have billet-machined aluminum triple clamps. The GasGas has forged-aluminum triple clamps that are softer and more forgiving. This is a plus in the rough but a minus on corner entrance.
(4) Power train. The GasGas engine is different from what’s cradled in the 2023 KTM and Husky frames, because GasGas didn’t get the new engine for 2023. Instead, it is based on last year’s six-year-old design that has been well loved since 2016.
(5) Powerband. The GasGas doesn’t give up a lot of horsepower to the 2023 KTM 350SXF or Husky FC350. It does suffer noticeably in the low-to-mid transition, but most of this is by design (as in the Austrian designer muted the power to make it more entry-level friendly). The power killers are the suffocated airbox, lack of a resonance chamber and disappearance of the map switch (the aggressive map, Traction Control and Launch Control are in the ECU, but GasGas did not provide a switch to activate them).
(6) Handling. Since the 2023 GasGas MC350F uses a tried-and-true platform, riders know what to expect from it. The MXA test riders felt right at home jumping on the 2023 MC350F. It doesn’t take 10 hours to break in. It is easy to ride, compliant over the bumps and nimble in the corners. Compared to the 2023 Husky and KTM chassis, with their stiff frames and anti-squat rear-end geometry, the GasGas MC350F feels like a well-used pair of running shoes.
(7) Miscellaneous. The GasGas is 5 pounds lighter than the Husky or KTM. The GasGas comes with silver handlebars, triple clamps and rims, which we like because they don’t look scratched and dinged from roost and tire irons. The GasGas MC350 price went up by $300 for 2023 (but it is still $900 cheaper than a Husky FC350 and $800 cheaper than a KTM 350SXF).
(8) Price. $9899.
Although the ECU has two maps, traction control and Launch Control embedded in it, the GasGas MC350 does not come with a map switch. It only has one map.
WHAT DO WE REALLY THINK OF THE GASGAS MC350F?
Not everyone needs all the bells and whistles that come on modern motocross bikes. Having mega-horsepower looks good on paper, but broader power is where the speed is found. Electronic trickery like Quick Shift, Traction Control, Launch Control, a mellow map and aggressive map are nice touches, but most of the time you are going to run just one map. A significant number of MXA’s Vet test riders prefer the bare-bones MC350F over the Husky and KTM 350SXF.
As noted above, this year there’s a bigger difference between the three brands, and the 2023 GasGas is a failsafe option for riders who don’t want to buy a first-year model from KTM or Husky. In lots of ways the 2023 GasGas MC350F is a bare-bones hot rod that you can upgrade as you please when you are ready.
FINAL SHOWDOWN: 2023 KTM 350SXF VS. HUSQVARNA FC350 VS. GASGAS MC350F
The MXA wrecking crew lived with, raced, adjusted and fiddled with the three machines in “The Empire of the Three-Fifties” shootout until we felt we knew them inside out. It was an easy shootout given that the three bikes offer distinct choices. Who you are plays a bigger role in which bike you choose than any technical aspect.
However, there are some commonsense caveats about these three bikes. (1) Don’t let the power differences sway you one way or the other. You can make any one of the three bikes into a fire-breathing dragon. (2) If you plan to add aftermarket triple clamps, a Vortex ignition, FMF exhaust, Pro Circuit port job and Cone Valve forks, then worrying about the stock parts is nonsensical. (3) The unique aspects of the three bikes are limited to the GasGas’ price break, the lowered suspension of the Husky and the lack of a map switch on the GasGas. (4) All three bikes run better with the optional vented airbox covers, although you have to get the vented GasGas cover from UFO plastic.
Over the years, suspension travel and seat heights have gotten out of hand. Husqvarna is the first manufacturer to do something about it by lowering their chassis one inch.
2023 KTM 350SXF: ARE YOU FAST?
The MXA wrecking crew races our test bikes every week. We value performance over appearance, function over flash and race-ability over all else. Broken down to its basics, the KTM 350SXF is the best all-around mid-size motocross bike for a fast Intermediate or aspiring Pro. It rides higher in its stroke, hits harder off the bottom, pulls through the middle with gusto and revs to the moon. If it has flaws, above and beyond the long break-in time, they are that it is taller, stiffer and more abrupt than the Husky or GasGas. It has a taut frame allowing riders to push harder, but it will push back.
The raciest of the three bikes in the “Empire of Three-Fifties” is the KTM 350SXF. It hits harder and has firmer suspension.
2023 HUSQVARNA FC350: ARE YOU SHORT, OLD OR PICKY?
Whereas the 2023 KTM 350SXF is a special machine that requires an owner with special talents, the 2023 Husqvarna FC350 magnifies the skill level of riders who don’t have special skills. The Husqvarna FC350 powerband is almost perfect for the average racer because it combines manageable low-to-mid power with forceful mid-to-top acceleration. It allows the rider to roll the throttle on sooner at corner entrance and keep it on through corner exit. And, the lowered suspension delivers a sensation in turns that makes going faster an option, unlike some bikes that don’t give the rider any options short of puckering up and hanging on.
The GasGas MC350 is five pounds lighter, $800 cheaper, outfitted with soft suspension and has a different frame, engine and suspension package than its two brothers.
2023 GASGAS MC350F: DON’T WANT A FIRST YEAR MODEL?
If you have doubts about buying the totally new 2023 KTM 350SXF or Husqvarna FC350, you should consider the 2023 GasGas MC350F. Why? It has a proven engine, frame, brake, clutch and transmission package. Its time-tested chromoly frame geometry allows it to respond quickly and accurately to rider input. It doesn’t suffer from unwanted oversteer or understeer. It tracks straight and slices through corners. Plus, parts and know-how are readily available from any GasGas, KTM or Husky dealer. As a bonus, it’s red—and everybody feels faster when their bike is red.
WHAT WOULD THE MXA TEST RIDERS CHOOSE?
Given that they aren’t really giving anything up regardless of which bike they choose, the MXA test riders made their choice based on their skill level, physical attributes or mindset. The Pros typically chose the KTM 350SXF, although Dennis Stapleton chose the GasGas MC450F. The Intermediates were split between the KTM and GasGas, and the older, shorter or more experienced test riders preferred the Husky FC350, not just because of the lowered suspension but because of the engine’s gentlemanly manners.