Driving report: Cannondale MX 400


Driving report: Cannondale MX 400


Initially, the first production crosser with injection suffered from breathing difficulties. But now you can get it sprayed properly with the Cannondale MX 400.

The Americans are known to be self-confident. And brave: instead of presenting journalists with fresh material, as is generally the case, Cannondale provides two rather derelict endurance test machines for test drives. Rusted screws, welded cracks on the engine housing and scratched plastic, the test vehicles can clearly see the tough everyday testing of the past winter in every nook and cranny. Testing is carried out extensively at Cannondale (see box on pages 38/39). There are plenty of reasons for this, because the four-stroke crosser is peppered with innovative solutions (see technical report in MOTORRAD 7/1999). Starting with the upturned cylinder head with intake path through the control head to the injection with modern engine management to the one-piece tunnel housing of the engine, into which the forged crankshaft and the cassette gear are inserted from the side.
But the unusual design caused concern. When the first pre-series machines were presented to the US press in the summer of last year, there was criticism. Too high weight, mediocre chassis, delicate injection. The engine’s set-up seemed screwed up, which the test drivers attributed to the unconventional airways: the intake port on the control head seemed too narrow to the US colleagues, the exhaust too short. In short, a huge disaster, the spontaneous withdrawal from the cross business was already being discussed at the plant in order to instead force the extremely successful quad – with the same engine, by the way. After all, more than half a million quads are sold annually in the United States.
But now it goes on with the two-wheeler, many criticisms of the first series have already been resolved. In addition to the red MX 400-Crosser, the European testers had the yellow XC 400 at their disposal, the cross-country version with a different exhaust, side stand and slightly smoother engine characteristics. Both, as mentioned, quite shabby, but supposedly technically state-of-the-art. However, not in top shape, extensive adjustment work on the chassis was necessary before the first test drive. The Americans had not even given the troubled test vehicles fresh batteries, with the XC the electric starter refused to work after just a few turns. A jump start cable ended the energy crisis.
Not using the Kickstarter is certainly consistent and forward-looking, KTM even dares to do it on this year’s GP machines from Joel Smets. A feeling of insecurity remains with the Cannondale, however. Although the high-tech crossers always started warm, the starter only barely cranks the engine. One millimeter of gas and the compressed air chokes off the starter. Will this work in the long run under all conditions? A jumper cable will probably be on the shopping list of skeptical Cannondale customers.
Even with the first bursts of gas, you notice that the sound is typically American, namely roaring loud. A quieter damper, which even delivered significantly more power on the test bench, is already in the works. The first sprint out to the cross-piste brings further insights: The engine runs as smooth as butter, almost vibration-free and hangs directly on the lightly rotating throttle grip. The suspicion that the recently enlarged to 432 cm³ engine is hard and hooked because of the short and open exhaust is not confirmed. On the contrary, it can be dosed gently and cleanly, perhaps precisely because of the injection. Only when driving the XC on a trial basis in winding forest passages does the engine sometimes stop suddenly. According to Cannondale, only a consequence of a low centrifugal mass – a remedy is already planned here.
This is not noticeable in cross-appropriate locomotion, as the linear performance increase that can be calculated at any time inspires. Similar to a 1998 YZ 400 F, the MX engine gains evenly, but with more punch from below. And quite different from the current 426 with the more brutal use in the middle range and the lightning-fast increase in speed, which requires more concentration and stamina. However, there is a noticeable lack of top performance for the YZ, and especially for the 520 KTM. The MX 400 should currently produce just under 50 hp. The speed limit is extremely high at just over 12,000 revs, the Cannondale roars more like a Formula 1 than an Ami-V 8. The XC version, which is limited to 1,000 revs lower, looks tamer and even more good-natured.
The chassis poses more puzzles. When the vehicle is stationary, the rear wheel suspension with the directly linked Ohlins PSD damper looks strange. The level can hardly be adjusted, the motorcycle sometimes gets stuck fully sprung, then it sags five centimeters again. As if something was stuck. A new damper brought in from the factory brings hardly any improvement, and replacing the fairly tight series spring several times does not change much. The suspension is still hard in the upper area, but still occasionally hits through on the track. Is there a lack of progression or compression damping? The problem cannot be clearly localized on the soft meadow course. Here the hindquarters work quite well, even offering a lot of traction on the soft waves. On the other hand, there is no doubt about the flawless function of the Ohlins fork. The tuning fits, the fork responds softly and works well even with rough loads.
While the suspension cannot be definitively assessed, the fantastic handling clearly comes into play on the narrow, slippery enduro course. The Amicrosser turns like a mountain bike into the bends and does not rear up at the apex, even under full throttle, but precisely follows the steering commands. If you hit the gas so early, you can easily overcome a small performance handicap on the straights. The decisive factor for the excellent handling is certainly the compact design and the concentration of the weight around the center of gravity, possibly also the large balancer shaft, which eliminates part of the gyroscopic forces of the crankshaft. The flat, functional tank-seat combination plays a decisive role in the neutral cornering behavior. You automatically slide close to the handlebars in corners, so you can put pressure on the front wheel.
Obviously, the weight doesn’t matter. Because the Cannondale is not exactly light: 117 kilograms with oil, without petrol – secretly weighed on calibrated scales at the factory. Although she can throw the electric starter in the balance, that doesn’t count on the slopes, where she has to compete with machines that are six to ten kilograms lighter.
VMaybe you can save a little on the add-on parts. The fenders and side panels are made of a soft, thick plastic, but are uncomfortably sharp-edged and unstable. The deep and wide cooler also needs improvement; a harmless slip can ruin it. It also attracts the mud magically as it sits below the fender. The strangely shaped beams are also unnecessarily expansive. Criticisms such as a somewhat long gear lever, a hard to reach brake pedal or a soft seat foam can easily be corrected. The designers are busy writing down all of this in their notebooks. When the motorcycle comes to Europe next spring, many things will certainly look different.

The wheel house

Everything at Cannondale revolves around bikes, but until a few years ago it was all about bikes. What drives a globally successful bicycle manufacturer to build motorcycles? Quite sober economic considerations. The end of the mountain bike boom was already announced in the early 1990s. As a public company committed to growth, Cannondale inevitably had to look for new areas of activity. Those responsible, above all company boss Joe Montgomery, focused on two strengths: the processing of high-quality materials, such as aluminum alloys, and the experience in handling suspension / damping elements, because Cannondale was a pioneer in full-suspension mountain bikes. These fields should form the basis of the motorcycle project, additional components for a competitive four-stroke crosser such as the engine should be purchased. But after just a few test drives, at the end of 1997, hopes of being able to fall back on the Swedish Folan single-cylinder – a more conventional further development of the Husaberg engine with a dohc head – were dashed. The only solution that remained was a dedicated motor. European and American specialists were hired quickly and another plant was built at the Bedford / Pennsylvania site, where the motorcycle and quad are now being produced. Cannondale has delivered around 500 motorcycles to date, with around 300 expected to join this year. A significantly higher number is planned for 2002. The investments for the Ptrojekt were enormous, already in mid-2000 more than 20 million dollars had been devoured. Cannondale had to start practically from scratch. The development department is still largely concerned with basic research. For example, the technicians fitted the frame, add-on parts and motor housing with strain gauges to get to the bottom of the actual loads on the cross-country course. These values ​​are fed to computers that use the most modern CAD programs to calculate parts for strength. The data from practical tests also feed the load and endurance test benches on which frames or wheel suspensions, for example, are tested. The computer-controlled engine test bench is also noteworthy because it can be used, for example, to simulate the load / speed spectrum of a real lap on the cross-country course. Even supplier parts such as pistons from an Italian supplier are examined on a special hydropulse test stand. Before the Americans earn money with motorbikes, a lot of water will probably flow down the Mississippi. At the moment, around 250 machines from the first production series are being recalled to the factory for “updates”, such as replacing the motor housing, an expensive but customer-friendly measure. The success of the quad was a stroke of luck and certainly also the salvation for the whole project. Production is currently the top priority.

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