“What is it again that you’re driving?” my mom asked over the phone, after I said I’d be going to Sonoma Raceway in California for a track day the next week. “A Bowflex?” For the first of many times that week, I reminded her that it was the KTM X-Bow Comp R, not a name-brand fitness machine.
She did an image search, surprised at what popped up.
“Wait, this has no roof,” she said, despite being a fan of dropping the soft top on her various Mazda Miatas. “That’s silly. Why buy a track car without a roof?”
(Full disclosure: KTM flew me to California for a track day at Sonoma Raceway, put me up in a hotel and provided a couple of meals.)
She had a point. The manual Comp R version retails at $104,500 and isn’t street legal in the U.S., launching it far past the realm of attainable or practical for anybody who isn’t ultra wealthy. (The direct-shift gearbox automatic goes for $112,500.)
Even then, it’s hard to see what void the X-Bow could fill. Despite a fiendish power-to-weight ratio, its lack of a windshield or roof made it seem more like an overgrown go-kart than anything else in photos—its driver completely susceptible to the elements, and easily thwarted by a rainy day.
Neither of us could quite understand the appeal, but I figured I would at least understand the car’s capabilities as soon as I got to drive it.
But after a day on track with it—cold winds whipping my hands and thrashing at the car from both sides as rain sprinkled across my helmet visor, unimpeded by such things as windows, a roof or even a windshield—I understood so much more than just what the car can do.
The entire concept of the X-Bow, lack of a top half and all, makes sense. The sheer vulnerability of its open design not only let me experience a track in a way I hadn’t before, but it was a reminder of how absurd the concept of tracking a car is—that no matter how cushy modern vehicles get, the act of speeding around a race track will forever be absolutely nuts.
The X-Bow lineup, with the “X” pronounced as “Cross,” has been around since Austrian motorcycle company KTM built the first prototype in 2007, but it’s something people in the U.S. don’t have much experience with. Up until now, for Americans, the X-Bow has simply been that bright-orange go-kart car some of the world’s best racing drivers use in the Race of Champions.
That’s because the X-Bow isn’t road legal here like in other parts of the world, and, according to AutoGuide, it was only available to Americans as a kit car for its first decade of existence. But now you can get one that’s already built in the U.S., in the form of the Comp R, even if you can’t take it out on the road for a coffee run.
The Comp R that KTM brought to Sonoma comes with a turbocharged, 300-horsepower variant of Audi’s 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, which sends power to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission.
It also weighs just over 1,740 pounds, or about 600 pounds lighter than the 181-HP Mazda Miata.
Basically, it’s fast, light and open to the elements, like most other vehicles in KTM’s motorcycle-dominant lineup. It also comes without modern comforts like traction control or an anti-lock braking system, meaning that the car, if bitten, will bite back.
When we arrived at an overcast and chilly Sonoma Raceway, a twisty, hilly road course with multiple configurations and 160 feet of elevation change from its highest point to its lowest, five Comp R vehicles were waiting for us just outside of the grandstands.
Because the X-Bow vaguely resembles a Polaris Slingshot, the vehicle, at no fault of its own, looks a 300-HP midlife crisis. Lazy connotations aside, it’s without question a track car: angry, low to the ground and sporting the bare minimum of body, in an effort to add lightness until there’s no more lightness to be added.
The specs match up, too—from the Comp R’s carbon-fiber monocoque that, according to KTM, weighs 176 pounds, to its claimed time of 3.9 seconds from a standstill to 62 mph. The seats are integrated right into the monocoque, feeling like a plastic toddler swing on a playground and providing near-constant hip discomfort to remind a driver just how important lightness is.
The seating position in the X-Bow is a cross between the more upright position of traditional vehicle and the laid-out posture of a formula car. The driver sits up, but because the seat is barely off the ground, the clutch, brake and gas pedals are directly in front of the hips. Since the seat is stuck in place, the pedals slide forward and backward for adjustment.
We spent half of the day in a parking lot with slalom and autocross runs to, as the instructors repeatedly said, “Mess up when you can hit cones, not walls.” Starting off with low speeds and tight turns is the norm with this kind of track day, to get drivers used to how the car handles.
The X-Bow is easy to maneuver, even if starting it up is a strange, multi-step process that none of us really managed to grasp, even by the end of the day. Its pedals and steering reacted to input like hand puppets, while its shifter went smoothly through the gears. The only limitations in the car were my own, since it was a breeze to handle up until the point I began to push myself.
But when we pulled in for a lunch break after those runs, I sat on a couch with my laptop open in front of me, trying to think of what overall angle I wanted to go with for this story. After all, I’d been in the car for a couple of hours by then.
I stared at my notes on the screen, waiting for the idea to come.
Time went by. The increasingly bad battery life on my computer continued to deteriorate, dipping under 50 percent, while the cursor on my word document continued to blink on and off—the ultimate torture for someone who just wants that cursor to turn into words.
Each occasional idea I typed out was met with an almost immediate mashing of the backspace key. So far, it just felt like a usual track day with an unusual car—nothing riveting enough to go on about for an entire story.
Eventually, the instructors migrated to the front of the room for a presentation on the track. They coned off the 2.4-mile Sonoma IndyCar course for us, with its 12 turns, two hairpins, sweeping carousel and massive elevation changes.
The lunch break ended the same way it started: with no worthwhile words in front of me. I shut my laptop to head out onto the track for the first time, worried I’d finish the day in the same situation.
But it only took a couple of laps to realize what I couldn’t during low-speed runs in the parking lot: In this context, the X-Bow make total sense. It’s not just another $100,000 track toy for the wealthy, with an enclosed cockpit meant to look fancy.
Instead, it became obvious that the X-Bow and its open cockpit don’t care if people equate them to the things retired men drive around in their newfound free time, or if an oversized go-kart isn’t exactly ideal in the rain, because the X-Bow isn’t meant for comfort or to be outwardly pretentious.
It’s for the opposite of that: a raw driving experience that, on track, never lets a driver forget their own fragility or the absolute lunacy of what they’re doing.
That feeling is present despite the safety of it all—the Comp R comes with an FIA-approved six-point seatbelt, which is designed to fit a HANS device. KTM also claims that its crash box on the car, meant to absorb energy in a wreck, is FIA compliant for FIA-GT and Formula 3. The car’s steel roll bars, KTM says, can withstand up to seven times the weight of the vehicle in the event of a rollover.
Specs aside, completely exposed in the wide-open X-Bow cockpit while making laps at speed, it finally became more than a track day. I could feel, hear and smell everything that went on in the car and outside of it—vividly—compared to the various levels of deadening created by closed-cockpit cars on track.
The cold wind washed violently over the car from both sides, throwing me back and forth as my breath continually fogged up my helmet visor. The force of the wind pushing each side of me was, physically and mentally, like a carnival ride your friends convinced you to get on despite your objections. It was so raw when compared to tracking a car with a roof that it felt like the X-Bow could lift off of the ground and roll at any point, although I knew that wasn’t likely.
On my first lap out, consumed by how it felt to be so unsheltered from the wind, I hit a braking point late and carried too much speed into the sharp Turn 9A, barely clipping a puddle on the other side of the rumble strips. Mud caked the driver’s side of the car, and, without a windshield, my visor.
I wiped the mud off with a clumsy but determined gesture and shot straight into the hairpin at the entrance to pit road, unfazed—and perhaps even empowered by—the elements.
On a run where I forgot my gloves in the pits, my hands went from frigid to on fire as the wind continued to lash at them. Any mistake could be heard, sharply, from the driver’s seat—the sliding of tires, the squealing of brakes that should have been applied earlier, the vicious chattering of rumble strips out of a poorly exited turn.
If anything, the sensory overload of it all made me more cautious on track than I would have been otherwise. I was deeply aware of my own vulnerability and how I could screw up at any point, and that made me appreciate the backbone it takes to enjoy things I’ve done often throughout my career—like taking a car to the track, or even driving one at high speeds.
Modern vehicles are their own little sealed vacuum. They’re great at blocking out what’s going on outside of their doors and windows, and the powerful, well-handling ones can make any person feel like a demigod on track—powerful, and perhaps most dangerously, invincible.
But the X-Bow doesn’t do that. The X-Bow acts as a constant reminder that no matter how well any other car can seal off the elements or the reality of driving on track, all of that is there, and it doesn’t get any less intense—no matter how good vehicles continue to get at blocking it out.
It’s a car with the exposed essence of a motorcycle, which is so admirably KTM. It also gives a person like me, whose few ill-fated attempts at riding bikes with training wheels at age 4 left me with a shattered elbow and an inability to reconcile with two wheels, the ability to experience such a thing on four.
Sure, a good performance car, roof or not, will always let a driver feel the track beneath them. But there’s something so real about having the cockpit wide open—allowing a driver to feel what’s going on around them as well, regardless of what ends up inside.
The X-Bow, no matter how much it might look like it’s got something to prove, or how unattainable it might be at such a high price tag, is a sensory experience more than anything.
It’s an experience that proves no matter how invincible or insulated modern technology might make us feel, that’s all the car, subconsciously enabling us to forget just how extreme some of the activities we choose to do for fun—like driving cars on track at high speeds—are. Yet we remain nothing more than sacks of bones behind the wheel of a vehicle, feeling grace and power only vicariously through the machines we’re able to create.
Perhaps that makes us far more brave—or reckless—than cars with enclosed cockpits give us the chance to realize.