Let’s get to the point: KTM’s completely revised 2012 500 EXC is the best street-legal enduro ever. It simply has blown our minds. Just about everything on the big EXC is brand-new, right down to its name, and there’s not a single aspect of the bike that isn’t better than before.
Despite the name change from the previous model’s 530 to this one’s 500, both of these Singles have identical, 511cc displacements. But that’s about the only thing they have in common. The new engine uses die-cast aluminum cases in place of sand-cast pieces, accounting for a big chunk of the mill’s claimed 5.5-pound weight reduction and increased strength.
But it’s what’s inside that will really get your attention when you crack open the throttle. A new crankshaft, lighter Pankl connecting rod and forged aluminum piston decrease reciprocating mass. A more compact counterbalancer quells vibration while also serving a secondary function as the waterpump drive.
Improved breathing is facilitated by a redesigned sohc cylinder head that uses rocker arms to actuate a pair of titanium intake and twin stainless-steel exhaust valves. Reshaped ports and combustion chamber optimize flow and are fed by a new airbox, intake boot and revamped Keihin EFI system. It all gets spat out through a larger-volume, quieter, spark-arrestor-equipped silencer.
Big upgrades were made to the chassis, as well. The chrome-moly steel frame is stronger and offers better lateral stiffness, while a lighter cast aluminum swingarm relocates the shock mount closer to center for better load distribution. The WP PDS shock and 48mm fork of the same make were recalibrated to improve their effectiveness. Wheels now are CNC-machined aluminum hubs laced to Giant-brand rims.
All those changes weren’t just for show; from the moment we first threw a leg over the EXC, we were in awe, starting with the engine. How could you not be impressed by a bike that effortlessly lofts the front wheel in fourth and fifth gears? Or that sprints to 100 mph without breaking a sweat, chugs up ridiculously steep mountains of loose rock in third or fourth gear, or powers through sand washes like they were paved? Its engine performance almost borders on overkill. Almost. In the tight stuff, the 500 can be a bit of a handful, but in the open desert or when you hit the blacktop to connect trails, or even when commuting, it is the ultimate dual-sport. Nothing else comes close.
Credit some of that performance to the chassis and suspension. Initially, the fork felt firm and responsive, yet its reaction to hard-edged bumps and rocks was more forgiving than before; and the PDS shock was less prone to kickback on choppy trails, keeping the rear end planted for traction. The EXC made us feel like desert heroes as it gracefully sucked up three-foot-deep sand whoops while wide-open in fourth gear.
As a hardcore dual-sport, the 500 is vastly improved, too. Details like a new translucent 2.3-gallon fuel tank (easier to see when filling), a more durable license plate holder (that no longer gets sucked into the rear tire) and relocated rear turnsignals (that don’t melt from exhaust heat after a few rides) are better executed and don’t seem like afterthoughts.
If there was any doubt about the stature of KTM’s big-bore enduro before, there isn’t anymore. The 500 EXC is King.