The world launch of the 2012 Gas Gas enduro range, comprising the EC250F, EC300 and EC300R, was thorough, to say the least. Part one of the test was conducted in England’s Peak District in sub-zero conditions. Part two, close to the marque’s factory in Girona, Spain, should have been easier.
However, high in the Catalan hills, a hard overnight frost had iced up much of the test course. So it was just as slippery as the UK, and the underlying terrain was in any case equally as brutal – a combination of hard-pack and rock.
The only section that yielded to the Gasser’s Metzeler knobbies was overly-vertical and so overly-committing. An ever-so-slightly bruising endo going up meant an altogether much more bruising endo coming down…
However, this was living the full Gas Gas experience. This is a small, specialist firm operating in a niche where you have to be tough both commercially and physically. In enduro only the strong survive.
The arrival of Gas Gas’s 2012 EC250s and 300s is big news. In Europe these two-strokes have become the core engine capacities in the sport and, after KTM and Husaberg, we can put Gas Gas as one of the biggest names in this category.
Coming third in the popularity stakes is not something the Spanish brand is willing to accept. A new broom has swept through the Girona factory, the outfit has been totally rebranded and its bikes have been comprehensively updated. The 2012s might look a little like the already-sharp 2011 models, but after that they’re a ground-up rethink.
To ride the up-spec’d EC300 Racing model – with a Marzocchi fork and Öhlins shock – was to experience the ride and build quality we’ve been waiting for from the Spanish brand.
The motor was crisp and responsive, while the suspension was an extremely reassuring combination of compliance and control. This was cool kit that travelled at speed effortlessly.
Being thorough redesigns means lots of time in R&D, including a U-turn on the NASCAR-influenced air filter, now back to a conventional foam filter. But that’s all forgiven the moment you see these bikes in the metal, for they are stunners. The standard EC250 and EC300 look good enough, but the judiciously upgraded Racing versions look even hotter.
This new look combined with seriously good results in various top-level races this past season – Ivan Cervantes has been going great in EWC E2 on the EC250; Christophe Nambotin seriously challenged the late, great Mika Ahola in E3; while Danny McCanney won the European E3 championships (both on EC300s) – means we look on the 2012s afresh, as serious contenders again.
The 2012 ECs feel like the 2011s. The 2011s were good bikes, doing everything well: slow, fast, technical and flowing terrain. They were a jack of all trades, but also a master of all trades. When a bike is that good, do you really want to go away from that design?
That was a concern when Gas Gas revealed the 2012s. Well, as much as the ECs have changed, they’ve stayed the same. The best option would be to test the 2012 next to the 2011 as key ergos like footpeg placements are said to have changed, but in a blind test you’re hard pressed to pick that up.
The bikes are impressively quiet. Fitted with FMF Q-pipes, they really make only a little more noise than a trials bike. The one negative aspect of the trend to four-strokes over the past decade has been the noise pollution – four-strokes got us banned from riding many venues because they can be be so damned loud.
After that you’re sure to appreciate just how light and agile these Gassers feel, too. The slim feel of the new (chromoly) perimeter frame and tank, combined with a slim seat, makes for quite the athlete’s perch. Moving around on the ECs is a delight and – combined with Renthal’s finest to hold on to (the excellent Twinwalls on the Racing models) – you’re set up in a position that’s both comfortable and alert. Ergonomically, we’d not want to change anything.
Same goes for the brakes and controls. The brakes are all good: Nissin calipers gripping Galfer wave discs (with a sizeable 260mm front rotor), with bags of feel and power. Similarly the Magura hydraulic clutch system is simply perfect – super light yet with plenty of feel and progression. Gas Gas modified the clutch this year with more oil flow for better cooling and more durability.
The suspension on the standard ECs on the first test in the UK felt good – not too firm, not too soft. But when tested against the Marzocchi/Öhlins set-up of the Racing models in Spain, they felt a touch harsh.
The engines are comparatively unchanged. We like the balance of good bottom-end to midrange and a strong top-end – combined with a six-speed ’box it can produce crazy speeds.
On the two test days in question in the UK the EC300 was given the nod – using the bottom-end torque in tricky, slick conditions it was an ideal choice – but in Spain it felt over-powered, tricky to handle on the climbs (it found so much traction there was plenty of potential to loop it) and a bit boisterous crashing through the fast and jumpy cross-country track. On the latter occasion the 250 felt the better match, less likely to bite.
How the all-new polymer subframe stands up to the rigours of repeated crashes remains to be seen. It was given a good shot in the destruction stakes, though, with two EC300s being thrown down two very steep hills. Nothing untoward happened on either occasion.
The new subframe has a conventional airbox within it after the factory backtracked on the NASCAR air filter design it originally heralded – allegedly it wasn’t the innovative rubber air filter that was the problem, but the lack of capacity in that design to allow the engine to breathe sufficiently at high rpm. Regardless, good on GG for recognising it wasn’t going to work instead of foisting on new owners a highly innovative white elephant.
All the bikes come with a two-way switch for moderating the power delivery, handily marked with sun and rain icons (situated under the fuel tank on the left side).This certainly came in handy for our test rides given that it was indeed both wet and slippery. Gas Gas is certainly keeping up with the Joneses on that one.
A number of the test bikes also came with electric starts, which is an option. These kits don’t look so nice: they’re quite a bundle of metal and plastic on the side of the engine, However, they worked well – they make quite a whizzing sound in operation – and importantly worked with the bikes in gear. When riding you couldn’t appreciate the difference in weight.
If you’re into racing in a big way then the Racing models are all that the standard ECs are and more. Having enjoyed the latest Kayaba 48mm fork on the recent 2012 Yamaha WR450F launch, it has to be said, based on limited testing (and no prior experience with this fork) that these latest 48mm Marzocchis – which are a twin-chamber design – feel pretty damn good, too, with that nice balance of plushness and ability to absorb bigger hits without getting wayward.
The Öhlins 888 shock was much the same. They feel so good they highlighted the standard Sachs suspension as feeling a bit harsh (on this test). Again, in truth, it’s best to reserve judgement to testing on local tracks.
The Racing models would appear to be well worth the cost of the upgrade as they feel and look that little bit more Factory in every sense. The Renthal Twinwalls are a firm favourite and they make the cockpit feel that bit more familiar and comfortable. And the extra detailing, from the Talon sprocket, to the higher-spec footpegs and Galfer discs, will all short-cut the prepping process for the dedicated racer.
FOUR ON THE FLOOR
But it’s not all two-smokers from the Spaniards – Gas Gas is also firmly back into the four-stroke market. You can’t recognise that just now, but the bikes are coming. Having inked a deal in January for a three-year supply of engines from Yamaha, we can expect a re-emergence of Gas Gas four-strokes – and that’s not something the company is taking lightly given the debacle of reliability issues over the 2003 EC450FSR.
Yamaha are to supply WR250F and WR450F engines from which Gas Gas will make 250, 300 (which we understand to be the 250 with a Vertex big-bore) and 450cc machines (the latter we suspect Ivan Cervantes will race in this year’s EWC).
We should note that Gas Gas also recently appointed Pere Ibanez as technical head for its four-stroke project and race team. Ibanez has a long history working with Yamaha through the Rinaldi race shop and directly with its off-road R&D.
The second step of the project will be to make its own engine – one it is determined will be 100 per cent reliable. And while that project has been touted as a 450, Gas Gas’ General Manager, Ramon Puente, rather firmly called it a 350…
The first 4T to reach the market will be the 250F, as we got to ride on this launch. It’s a half-step up from its last 250F – using the same chassis but now with the latest-spec Yamaha engine (the previous model used a 2006 engine). It runs sweet, handles sweet and looks pretty sweet, too. A thoroughly pleasing machine, but as direct competition for racing 250Fs like KTM’s 250 EXC-F or Husqvarna’s TE 250, we’re not so sure.
First feedback is of a soft-ish, comfortable chassis making for a soft-ish, comfortable ride – very much the trail bike rather than a racer (which is no bad thing). It does have some strengths, however – amazingly on the hills where we had problems with technique in getting the 300 Racing to the top, the 250F chugged up without so much as a hint of an issue.
But where the KTM and Husky 250Fs are natural-born racers, the Yamaha engine takes a bit more coaxing to get up to speed – you really need to thrash it along and when you do that softish ride of the chassis feels like it might be a tad over-stretched.
It goes well enough when thrashed, but we can’t help but think as a true competition model it needs some extra home fettling to get up to speed.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This test suggests there is a stack of reasons to really like the new EC two-strokes; for all intents they look and feel like they’re on the money. Watch out KTM! And there will be EC125s and 200s to follow. The 250F will make an excellent trail bike as is – whether it makes a good racer, we’ll have to check in a comparison test. Perhaps the 300F might be the real racer.
There’s a lot of positive energy coming from Gas Gas. With new models and a busy production line, it’s full gas into the future.