'Ready to Race?' As messages from your car go, they don't come more provocative. It's what pops up on the console of your KTM X-Bow every time you start it up and the invitation can only be answered one way.
The regular X-Bow is hardly lacking in track potential, but KTM felt it could do with some more. More power. More grip. More competence. More fun. So the Austrian motorbike maker has developed this, the X-Bow R, the capital R standing for - you guessed it - Racing. So when you thumb the info screen into life on this little baby, you can answer its question with a double affirmative.
None of you are going to be shocked that KTM has boosted the power of the car's Audi-sourced 2.0-litre FSI turbocharged four; it is, after all, an engine with massive tuning potential. What might surprise you is that KTM has only pumped it up to 300bhp when some of its full-on race cars are zipping about with 370bhp. Nevertheless, the R is 60bhp more potent that the standard car, representing a 25% increase, so it's not like the engineers have been mean.
The power hike isn't just down to some white-coated boffiny types fiddling with the engine management system, although some of that has been done. The block's been strengthened, the turbo's bigger and the injection system has been revised. And while the workshop guys were in the mood for re-engineering, they not only dropped the engine in the chassis by 19mm to lower the centre of gravity, they also attached the engine mount torque tube directly to the carbonfibre monocoque - rather than the rear subframe as previously - to help make the back end more rigid and therefore better able to put down the power coming out of corners.
Make a car more grunty and you also need to adjust the chassis settings, in this case revised dampers and stiffer springs. There are some aerodynamic improvements, too, but the various winglets and reprofiled spoilers aren't standard on the R, they're options that you could fit to your current X-Bow if you were that way inclined. KTM sells a variety of aero packages, and it makes more sense to buy your air tamers this was rather than individually, because you'll save yourself a small fortune.
The X-Bow continues to look like a Transformer that's halfway through changing from a car into an earth-saving robot, all sharp angles and panels that look like body armour. Pretty it ain't, but you can't fault it for visual drama. And if you're not fully familiar with the X-Box formula, anything that looks like carbonfibre is carbonfibre, including its chunky central monocoque.
Clearly working on the theory that if you ask someone 'Ready to Race?' then you'd best provide them a venue to do just that, KTM has invited PistonHeads along to the newly rejuvenated Spielberg Ring in Austria; actually the neat little circuit has a new name, the Red Bull Ring, on account of that's who stumped up the considerable amount of cash for the revamp and who hosted the opening party only a couple of days ago. Several variations on the X-Bow R theme are available for us to play with, including a race version with the full aero treatment and slicks, a couple of bitsas with some aero parts and Toyo grooved trackday rubber, and a standard R running on fully treaded Michelin Pilots.
With a bunch of journalists from all around Europe to get through, KTM has devised an itinerary that includes driving all versions of the R in an order they've devised. In an ideal world I'd have preferred not to start with the racer, but at least the other cars have been arranged for me in descending order.
Starting the X-Bow is a palaver. First, remove steering wheel. Then step over broad sections of undertray and sill, and stand on a seat that's moulded into the monocoque. Try to slide gracefully into a sitting position. Replace steering wheel. Find a lever mounted low and to the right of your right knee, and use it to move the pedal box into a comfortable position. Wait for a nice bloke from KTM to strap you into your harness because you've already put your helmet on and can't see where the straps are. Place your feet on the clutch and brake pedals. With your right index finger press the rubberised start button on the transmission tunnel beside you. Wait expectantly for the engine to fire into life.
It doesn't. That's because you now have to press the 'mode' button nestling amongst a plethora of buttons on the steering wheel. Up springs the 'Are you ready to race?' message. A second stab of the starter button confirms that yes, I am indeed ready to race. Or perhaps not that ready because I stall in the pit lane and then have to press the 'stop' button before going through a big chunk of the process again...
At 790kg - and that's dry - the X-Bow R isn't the featheriest of track cars, but the 300bhp doesn't half make amends. In reality, it's the 295lb ft of turbocharged torque peaking at 3300rpm, that ensures the R rockets away from the end of the pitlane with unexpected and quite considerable vigour: from a standstill it'll hit 62mph in 3.9sec. With a helmet on the nuances of the engine note are lost to a hurricane of wind roar, so it takes a moment or so to realise that the insistent red blinking the right-hand side of your peripheral vision is a change-up light. It's a flashing beacon you see with great frequency, because the slick Audi motor is a rev whore, meaning your arm is bounding back and forth from the alloy gearlever at a pace almost brisk enough for the Chinese Olympic ping-pong team.
With each fresh ratio comes a fresh slap of thrust, and while the engine delivers the goods in a fairly linear surge, towards the top end - 5000rpm through to the flashing light at about 6200rpm - it really ups the ante. And when that happens on the approach to a corner, it makes you question the wisdom of keeping your toe down all the way to the braking point.
Adding to the sense of drama is the fact that the air flowing over the cockpit roils madly, batting your head from side to side and occasionally threatening to rip off your helmet. Spend time in the gym working out your neck muscles before considering a prolonged stint in the R, although it seems that a screen is being developed for launch next year.
The brakes are nicely set up. Powerful. Progressive. Give you the confidence to go deep towards the corner. They don't lock up even when you're hard on them from 130mph. Even on the slicks of this racer, the R turns in with a lightness of touch; there's huge grip but the steering wheel doesn't feel overburdened by the cornering force. If you're unaccustomed to slicks, it takes a few bends to work out that even if you've messed up your entry line, you can usually just steer the nose back to where it was meant to be and it won't wash wide.
The Spielberg Ring has a couple of long, fast sweepers and the racing R employs its aero package to hunker down and hurtle around them, plenty fast enough for you to start wondering if you could make it through all that gravel and reach the Armco if it all went awry. On a couple of laps there's a little twitch through the wheel, a need for a snippet of corrective lock, but it doesn't feel twitchy. A few laps later one of the pro drivers spins in front of me, however, and later still a couple of other journalists cruise back into the pit lane to have piles of stones and dust vacuumed from the undertray and footwells, so clearly the X-Bow will spit you off if properly provoked.
After the racer, it's time to try the press demo car. It's got the aero but not the slicks, 'making do' with Toyo grooved slick trackday rubber. First tight corner and the reduced level of grip becomes very apparent. Slight slide: not expecting it. Not the fault of the tyres, merely my inexperience.
But having less grip allows the strength of the engine to muscle through, because one of the few pieces of advice from our KTM hosts is to use a gear higher than think is right; being in a lower ratio out of a tight corner boots the tail out of line. Use fourth, say, rather than third, and you can steer your way through the bend without the corrupting influence of a power-startled tail, exiting with 3500rpm on the dial and a big slug of thrust booting you down the straight.
The third of my X-Bow R's doesn't have aero, yet does have the Toyo trackday tyres, but the fronts are narrower than the car I've just been in. Sure, this one isn't as stable in the sweepers, but its nose moves quicker making the whole car feel more nimble. The outright pace of the other two isn't there around a lap, yet it's more involving, more entertaining, less likely to intimidate drivers without an intimate knowledge of downforce and slick grip.
Last of my line, the standard car, and it too is as playful and able as the car I've just been out in, quick without being nerve-jangling - despite sliding earlier than the others - and connecting readily with the driver. It's a real joy to thunder around in and makes even a numbskull like me feel like a racing hero.
Oh yes, it's real easy to feel the love for the X-Bow R. Until it comes to paying. The basic car is approximately (depending on the prevailing Euro/Sterling exchange rate) £57,850. Plus VAT. Plus delivery (from Austria). Plus first registration costs. Then you're bound to want some options - the aero bits, for instance - and maybe some upgrades, of which KTM has plenty to offer. If you need a calculator to tot up that little lot, then you can't afford one... And if it weren't for that little stumbling block, I'd have one tomorrow.