COMPARED: Three European Dual-Sport 500cc Motorcycles

Beta 500 RS vs. Husqvarna FE 501 S vs. KTM 500 EXC.

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Hard-core, enduro-quality dual-sports with the moves of a ninja and the punch of a heavyweight boxer are a luxury to us in the Golden State. Actually, they're a luxury no matter where you live, but strict California emissions and licensing regulations mean there are only a handful of bikes on the market that allow year-round exploration anywhere a motorcycle may legally travel. There are just six "plate-able enduros" from three manufacturers that tick all the boxes, and these three bikes are the flagships from each brand. The KTM 500 EXC has thus far been unchallenged for Ten Best Bikes honors, so we decided to gather up the other two new open-classers to see if the horizon remains orange.

Because the Husky is now based on the KTM (after the formerly Swedish-then-Italian brand was sold by German owner BMW and brought into the Austrian family in 2013) you’d expect the bikes to have a similar feel. And they do, but slightly different frame designs and much different suspension distinguish their performance. The Italian-made Beta, on the other hand, is absolutely its own animal and delivers a completely different feel than the Austrian-built bikes.

“Hard core, enduro-quality dual-sports with the moves of a ninja and the punch of a heavyweight boxer are a luxury...

Testing consisted primarily of off-road riding because no matter how you slice it, these machines are really just cross-country racers with lights, turn signals, and license plates. We ran them through the wringer in a variety of terrain from typical high-speed SoCal desert and whoops, to tight and technical wooded single-track, and even up some massive sand hills—the latter a test to see which engine has the most grunt in real-world riding.

And there’s plenty of grunt from this trio of monster engines. For the sake of manufacturing simplicity, the Husky and KTM share identical liquid-cooled SOHC 510cc singles. Titanium intake valves are actuated via DLC-coated rocker arms, while steel is used for the exhaust valves. Bore and stroke measure 95.0 x 72.0mm with air/fuel mixture being delivered via a 42mm Keihin throttle body. Beta’s proprietary liquid-cooled DOHC 477cc single uses four steel valves in a bore and stroke of 100.0 x 60.8mm. It also uses the rarest of beasts to deliver fuel: a carburetor, specifically a 39mm Keihin FCR. All three bikes are electric start, but the Husky does not offer a kickstarter.

The KTM and Husky engines might be identical, but suspension is quite a bit different. The orange bike is fitted with a 48mm WP 4860 MXMA open-cartridge fork and a Progressive Damping System (PDS) linkless shock, while Husky specs a WP 48mm closed cartridge 4CS fork and rising-rate-linked Dual Compression Control (DCC) shock.

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UPS DOWNS
Beta 500 RS * Revvy, powerful engine * Best dash computer ever put on a DS * Add hand guards and it's technical-trail ready * Suspension not up to the engine's challenge * Neutral tough to find at times * Be ready to rejet if you ride at high elevation

Each fork has its advantages: KTM’s open-cartridge design is much easier for the owner to set up and optimize to rider weight and preference and is far simpler to maintain. The more sophisticated 4CS, when set up properly, has the potential to outperform the open-cartridge design. But if you fall outside the weight range of the “norm” the 4CS was designed to accommodate, you will likely have to send the unit out to be resprung/revalved to work best for you. Another subtle but notable difference is that the Husky has CNC-machined-billet triple clamps instead of the KTM’s cast units.

The Beta runs a 48mm Sachs TFX inverted fork and a linked remote-reservoir shock of the same make. Like the Husky, the 500 RS comes with trick CNC-machined billet triple clamps, but the Beta’s allow for three handlebar positions.

Chrome-moly steel main frames are the norm here, but the KTM and Beta both have aluminum subframes, while the Husky has a three-piece polyamide unit with useful built-in grab handles. The Beta incorporates grab handles into its rear fender, and the KTM offers a great place to burn your knuckles on the muffler when hoisting the bike. The Husky’s aluminum swingarm differs from the KTM’s due to the linked shock, which, among other things, is responsible for the 275-pound Husky weighing 7 pounds more than the KTM fully fueled. The Beta weighs 278 pounds topped off.

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UPS DOWNS
Husqvarna FE 501 S * Balanced suspension and chassis * Tree-root pulling power * Great off-road handling * Might as well sit on the edge of a 2x4 * Power delivery can be abrupt * No kickstarter

If you want proof that street-legal enduros don’t come cheap, this trio of roughly $10,000 machines is all you need. Based on the pricing, we really paid attention to which parts they come with, or don’t, as standard. For starters, all three are equipped with the basic legal street equipment: headlights, turn signals, mirrors, and license-plate brackets. And all of these items, except for the Beta’s plate bracket, survived our abuse and stayed intact (the latter of which led to a fix-it ticket for not displaying a plate). The mirrors on all three bikes leave something to be desired; the Beta’s folding units at least offer the rider the ability to tuck them out of the way for off-road riding. All three have high-quality tapered aluminum handlebars, but only the Husky has standard hand guards (though they're essentially just wind deflectors). While the Beta comes with an aluminum skid plate, and the Husky a plastic unit, the KTM has no standard frame or engine protection. A huge Beta bonus is its dash display, a Trail Tech Voyager GPS/computer with a multitude of functions and information; every dual-sport should have one of these.

At the relatively low 2,500-foot elevation where we started our rides, all three machines fired right up and settled into a purr. The Beta’s carburetor never hindered performance. As a matter of fact, the 500 RS’s throttle response is as crisp and predictable as anything out there, and the engine flamed out less often than those of the injected bikes. Which was a good thing, as the battery on our Beta was low on juice, requiring us to use the kickstarter on a regular basis. And it was pretty tough to fire up on leg power alone.

Throttle response is very good from the injected machines but not as smooth as the Beta’s carb off the bottom. Both the KTM and Husky give you a lot of power the instant the throttle is cracked open, which isn’t always what you need. The plus side of EFI is automatic altitude adjustment, so fueling is always right, whereas the Beta’s carb may need to be rejetted for optimal performance if you ride at high altitude.

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UPS DOWNS
KTM 500 EXC * Potent engine has earned it three Ten Best awards * Ready to race, commute, or rock bash * Connecting trails has never been more fun * Needs better suspension balance front to rear * Never should have let Husky borrow its engine * For $10K, a skid plate and hand guards would be nice

As expected, the KTM and Husky felt virtually identical in terms of power output on the torturous 750-plus-foot-long mega-steep sand hills. The Beta looked and felt faster clawing its way to the top, while also sounding noticeably louder. Our interpretation: A freer-flowing exhaust seems to have unleashed more top-end from the revvy RS engine, making it the clear hill-climb winner.

Where the RS lost out was in range. Its less efficient carburetor works with its 2-gallon capacity to give it the fewest miles until empty. The more-efficient EFI bikes used less fuel and have 2.25-gallon tanks.

If the battle of the engines proved inconclusive in determining an outright winner, the chassis would surely determine the outcome. A variety of trails put an emphasis on handling, but we also spent plenty of time in terrain where stability was greatly appreciated. Despite the KTM and Husky having slightly longer wheelbases than the RS’s (58.3 inches versus 58.1), the Austrian bikes feel more nimble when the trail is tight and technical; the Beta’s extra weight is noticeable here. Where the Beta stood out was stability through rough chop, rock beds, and whoops where it stayed straight and true.

“These machines are really just cross-country racers with lights, turn signals, and license plates.

Which brings us to suspension performance. We set sag on the shocks (between 105 to 115mm) to ensure they were working in their happy zone and then headed out. For low-speed technical riding the RS performed quite well. Its stable chassis and plush suspension kept the bike on line through rock gardens and over roots. But at higher speeds when lofting over gaps or in whoops, the suspension easily bottomed out. The shock in particular felt soft when the pace heated up. Beta later replaced it with a new unit, which improved damping noticeably while keeping the bike on the softer end of the tuning spectrum.

Here is where things get interesting: The EXC’s fork feels soft compared to its shock, making the KTM feel high in the rear and also allowing the front to dive a lot under braking; stiffer fork springs would definitely make the EXC feel more level and balanced. The Husky’s 4CS fork and linked shock, on the other hand, felt very balanced in every riding environment: The suspension handled chop great and deflected less, while also being able to handle big hits and G-outs better than either of the other bikes.

Although ergonomics can be tuned via the aftermarket with different handlebars, risers, footpegs, and seats, the Beta definitely feels the roomiest and fit taller riders better. The other two machines are similar and more cramped, but the Husky’s seat is what stood out after a long day in the saddle; it’s pure torture.

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At the end of testing, the biggest takeaway was how capable, fast, and flexible the open-class dual-sport has become and that the KTM finally had real competition. How real?

Well, as much as we love the fueling on the Beta, we have also spent a lot of time riding in the Colorado Rockies and California Sierras on both carbureted and injected bikes and appreciate how well the EFI bikes perform at every altitude. Combine that potential hassle with suspension that was outclassed, especially considering how potent the Beta’s engine is, and the RS comes up a bit short.

Which brings us to a very hard decision between two bikes that share common parents and very similar DNA. Both offer amazing engines that border on beautiful overkill for off-road riding, have the ease of EFI, and can truly be ridden anywhere (even if that means getting stuck on the asphalt for more miles than you planned). But in the end, it all came down to suspension performance and handling, which is the one area where the two bikes are different. When the roost settled, we all agreed that the Husky’s ultra-balanced chassis and excellent suspension give it an advantage over the KTM. For now, the dual-sport horizon looks white and blue, even if there’s still a lot of orange at heart.

SPECIFICATIONS
|Beta 500 RS|Husqvarna FE 501 S|KTM 500 EXC
PRICE|$9799|$10,249|$10,199
WET WEIGHT|278 lb.|275 lb.|268 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY|2.0 gal.|2.25 gal.|2.25 gal..
SEAT HEIGHT|36.6 in.|38.2 in.|38.2 in.
FOOTPEG HEIGHT|16.2 in.|16.3 in.|16.3 in.
GROUND CLEARANCE|12.6 in.|13.6 in.|13.6 in.
WHEELBASE|58.1 in.|58.3 in.|58.3 in.
FUEL MILEAGE|43 mpg|55 mpg|55 mpg

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