It’s impractical, it’s tiny, there’s no luggage space, no roof and you need to wear a helmet to drive it at all. Those are the downsides dealt with, there are no more in the KTM X-Bow R.
KTM made its name in motorcycles, especially the off-road variety, but in 2008, the Austrian manufacturer branched into cars with the original X-Bow. It created a storm, it looked like a very angry insect and decimated virtually everything on track. Trackday toys like the Ariel Atom and even a Caterham are much, much cheaper, but the X-Bow is the ultimate track car and both Christian von Koenigsegg and Loris Bicocchi, the test driver for Bugatti, Pagani and Koenigsegg, have one.
It still looks fresh even today, thanks to the extruded carbon-fibre chassis covered in just a few glowing orange panels and those mirrors that still look like antennae on the head of some malevolent stinging beastie. The R version has even more wings, and has lost a touch of the facial expression, but it is still there if you look hard enough.
The cockpit is familiar fare, soft plastic seats, a steering wheel with all the relevant controls and a waterproof centre console with a rubber start button. Then there’s the LCD display, which lights up with the greeting: ‘Ready to Race?’ Well, yes, thanks for asking.
That’s what the X-Bow really is: a road-legal, reliable, well-engineered racing car for the road. It sits low to the ground like a go-kart and in the new R version, KTM has dropped the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that started life in an Audi S3 even lower in the racing style carbon-fibre chassis to improve the handling, and the car sits 19 mm lower than the standard machine.
That engine is tuned for 300 bhp, which in a car that weighs just 790 kg is an awful lot; it’s 25 per cent more than the original car, too. And there’s nothing so advanced as traction control here, it’s all down to you and the Limited Slip Differential. I’m on Michelin slicks, too, which help give that added dimension of grip and pure speed.
I lower the visor on my full-face helmet as I exit the pit-lane at Estoril and bury the throttle. The results are frankly incredible. The car blasts from a standing start through 100 kph in just 4.0 seconds and storms through the six gears on to its top speed of 232 kph. That isn’t modern day hypercar fast, but that tends to matter more at the bar rather than on the track or road these days.
It’s more than fast enough, but the open cockpit makes it feel even faster as the wind beats against my helmet and the two-litre screams through the trumpet-style exhaust mounted just inches from my head. I can see the outboard suspension doing its work at the front, too, each wheel skipping off kerbs and it really feels like a four-wheeled motorbike.
The X-Bow is a car you can really throw into the bends and sort out on the exit, it’s a big go-kart with supple suspension and downforce of a near-unbelievable 226 kg at 200 kph. Within minutes you’re pushing it in, carrying more speed than seems sensible and revelling in that catapult feel as it whips through the apex. Of course, you can tweak the suspension too, but it’s not always wise.
On track it is simply brilliant, running rings around cars five times the price with three times the power, thanks to the incredible cornering skills that come through a lightweight frame, Michelin slick tyres and the downforce generated by pronounced wings on the front and rear.
The tiny proportions mean its easy to place too, and will feel even faster on a tight road. It’s also forgiving and friendly enough to really push it, while the likes of Koenigsegg’s Agera always have too much power available: the X-Bow is just as fast, but much more fun.
It is simply incredible how late I can brake, how fast I can throw the car into the bend, how the slightest nudge on the steering wheel sends it spearing towards the apex and how much power it will take on the way out. It will drift too, arcing gracefully through bends and leaving trails of black rubber.
And all the time I’m outside, sitting on the car like a motorbike, steering it with the fingertips and ripping through the six-speed gearbox on the straights. Shift lights on the wheel are another racing touch and help focus on the road ahead.
But it is absolutely immense fun. The gearbox comes from Audi too, which makes it as easy to handle as a rental car, and just as reliable, but it comes with all the racing touches of the best supercar, things like horizontal shock absorbers, the carbon chassis and the detachable steering wheel with indicators, lights and stopwatch all via buttons.
The X-Bow R is, all said and done, a weekend toy for the well-heeled enthusiast who wants to drive to the track, go all day and then drive home. It’s also a car that will redefine what driving fast feels like. It’s the most extreme, best engineered and most fantastically fun car you can buy – almost at any price.
In fact, the only criticisms you’ll hear centre around the noise and the price. And neither is fair.
The X-Bow R could be louder, and with a short track session, those crazy reverberating revs are what we want. But on a regular basis? Over a long distance? I’ve done it in a louder Caterham and I didn’t enjoy it one bit. The lower noise from the Audi 2.0-litre means you can enjoy the car anytime, and do remember that the noise would have to penetrate the helmet you’re wearing, which means it would have to be insanely noisy.
And the price problem comes from the comparisons to the likes of Caterham. But then the Caterham is based on age-old technology and would be literally seconds a lap behind this carbon-fibre monster on any circuit you care to mention. So would the Ariel Atom.
How much that matters, even when you’re driving on track, is a matter for the individual taste and budget. But of all the trackday toys out there right now, if money was no object, I would take this one each and every time. The only other problem? You can’t buy them here…
Layout: Transverse engine, rear drive
Displacement: 1998cc, 4-cylinder turbo
Max power: 300 bhp@6300 rpm
Peak torque: 40.8 kgm@3300rpm
Valvetrain: 4 valves/cyl, DOHC
Front: Double wishbone, horizontal dampers, pushrod
Rear: Double wishone, pushrod
205/40 R 17 (f)/235/40 R 18 (r),
0-100 kph: 4.0s
Top speed: 232 kph