After all this time, we admit we still don’t know what the heck a dual-sport bike is supposed to be. Manufacturers and riders use the term freely, as if everyone has the same interpretation, yet the bikes sold under that banner are wildly diverse. Just look at the current 500 category. The Beta 500RR-S, Husqvarna FE501S, KTM 500EXC and SWM RS500 represent a broad range of designs and capabilities. We’ve gathered those four to explore their differences and also included the Honda CRF450L as the most similar candidate offered by Japan.
All five bikes are fully street-legal in all 50 states. All are quiet and clean, as defined by the EPA and various state authorities. The main point of contention, of course, is dirt versus street bias. These are the most dirt-oriented dual-sport bikes offered in years, but even they cover a wide range of capabilities. For 2020, three of the five are new. The Beta, KTM and Husqvarna have redesigned frames, new bodywork and significant engine changes. The Honda and SWM are completely unchanged, although they were new models in 2019. Here’s how they line up.
Beta continues to poke at the giants of the off-road world with relentless progress. It wasn’t that long ago that this was considered an exotic Italian make, and most riders weren’t even aware they existed. Now, Beta is virtually mainstream and has proven capable of matching companies like KTM, blow for technological blow. The 2020 500RR-S got a redesigned motor that might not look that different from the previous one, but Beta engineers moved the crankshaft rearward and the clutch upward in the name of mass centralization. It actually displaces 478cc, just like before, and it shares much with the other dual-sport bikes in Beta’s line. There are four bikes built on the same platform: the 350RR-S, 390RR-S, 430RR-S and 500RR-S. They differ in displacement but have identical 6-speed gearboxes and are electric-start only. There’s still a plug in the right engine case where a kick-starter could go if you absolutely had to have one. A kit can be purchased from Beta for $400. Suspension at both ends is by Sachs. The frame is new for 2020, but remains steel construction with a central backbone. Along with the new bodywork is a new tank with 2.4 gallons of capacity. The Beta 500RR-S matches anything on the market feature for feature. It has a hydraulic clutch, oversized bars, Nissan brakes and Michelin tires. Plus, it has a bonus feature that no one else offers: a Trail Tech Voyager GPS. It actually serves as the speedometer and odometer as well. The tires are Michelin Enduros, which are DOT-approved knobbies. In stock trim without fuel in the tank, the Beta weighs 250 pounds. It sells for $10,899.
This bike made an incredible splash when it came out in 2019. It seemed that Honda was finally going to take on the Euros for the hearts of America’s off-road elite. For those who were wishing for a red KTM, though, the final product might have been a disappointment. For others, the CRF450L is exactly what Honda needed to offer. The 2020 model is completely unchanged. It’s loosely based on the current CRF450R motocrosser, even though virtually every part has been tweaked in some way. The fork and shock are the same as the Showa units that come on the MX bike, aside from spring rates and setup. The motor has lower compression and is in a much milder state of tune with a tamper-proof EFI unit. It also has a 6-speed gearbox, full DOT equipment, a single-sided muffler that is ultra quiet and, of course, it passes all the regulations with flying colors. The headlight, blinkers and taillight are a notch above anything else in the group. You can easily ride at night, and nothing is going to break or fall off in the course of normal riding. The rear fender is the only one that doesn’t bounce around in whoops, and, in fact, you can lift the bike by the tail section.
With such over-engineering, the Honda is no lightweight. Keep in mind that the CRF450R MX bike is already among the heaviest in its class. By the time it became street-legal, it gained around 40 pounds. On our scale, the CRF450L weighs in at 278 pounds without fuel. The Honda is the only bike in the group without oversized bars, handguards or a hydraulic clutch. It does, however, have plastic engine-case protectors. The price for 2020 is $10,399.
Husqvarna came in with some fairly significant changes for the 2020 FE501S, starting with a new look that mirrors the FC450 motocross bike. All the bodywork is new, and underneath it all there’s a more rigid frame and a more compact head. If that sounds familiar, it’s exactly what’s happened to all Husky’s big dirt bikes over the past two years, starting with the 2018 FC450 Rockstar Edition. Husky’s dual-sport bikes are much more closely related to its motocross models than is the case with the others in this group. The 501 does, however, have a 6-speed gearbox and full street equipment. It’s super quiet, and it passes all the proper emission tests without any intrusive and awkward equipment. There are no charcoal canisters or smog pumps hanging off anywhere. Between the motor and the airbox, Husky engineers have placed reed valves straight out of a 125 two-stroke in order to mute intake noise. It has the side benefit of improving low-rpm throttle response.
The Husky chassis uses the WP Xplor shock and coil-spring fork, which have undergone valving changes for 2020. The Husqvarna uses linkage for the rear suspension, which is a major difference between it and the KTM. It also separates itself from the KTM with an integrated subframe/airbox, Magura clutch and brake components, and a number of parts suppliers. It comes in slightly heavier than the KTM at 248 pounds without any fuel but with both mirrors. For faithful readers and cross-checkers (you know who you are), be aware that there was a mistake in the March 2020 issue that placed the figure at 240 pounds. Regardless of that, the bike is light. It is the most expensive in the group at $11,499.
The KTM 500EXC has become one of the most wanted dirt bikes in the world since it became street-legal 13 years ago. It really might be the one bike that can replace a whole garage-full of more specialized machines. The 2020 model has undergone a moderately significant redesign, although it doesn’t look that different at a glance. It got a PDS version of the stiffer frame that most of the KTM and Husqvarna dedicated dirt bikes got in 2019. PDS, for those who don’t know their KTM history, was the Progressive Damping System that replaced linkage rear suspension on all KTMs back in the late ’90s. Since then, the competition-oriented models have returned to linkage, but the company’s trail and dual-sport models still use PDS, or at least a modern version of it. It remains the key feature to differentiate the KTM and Husky in this group. The motors of the two bikes, however, are identical. They both got the more compact head like that of the 2018½ Factory Edition. They both use the reed valve in the intake boot, and they both have the Xplor fork, which has been reworked for 2020. The KTM uses Brembo brakes and a Brembo master cylinder for the hydraulic clutch.
The KTM comes in as the lightest of the group at 244 pounds without fuel and is only slightly less expensive than the Husky at $11,399.
You might not know it, but this machine is responsible for the very existence of modern dual-sport bikes, at least as we now define them. Before 2006, dual-sport bikes were either massive, street-oriented dreadnoughts or underpowered ornaments for motor home bumpers. Then the Italian-made Husqvarna TE450 changed everything. The Husky was a full-fledged dirt bike with minimal street-legal equipment, paving the way for others to follow. The 2020 SWM RS500 is a direct descendent of that bike. After the KTM takeover of 2013, the old Husqvarna factory was reopened by SWM, and it started producing Italian-era Huskys under a new name. The RS500 isn’t exactly like the 2006 Husky, though. It has a modern Mikuni fuel-injection system, KYB suspension and has been beefed up in a number of ways. The bike has top-notch components, like oversized bars, handguards, a hydraulic clutch and Michelin Enduro knobbies. Some of the old Husqvarna features are still there, though. It still has the dual-muffler exhaust system, the 6-speed gearbox and the central-backbone frame. Somewhere along the way, the SWM gained significant weight. It comes in at 285 pounds without fuel. On the plus side, the bike is actually priced about the same as it was in 2006. The SWM RS500 sells for $7795, which is an amazing value.
For this comparison, we kept all the bikes bone stock—almost. The one change we had to make was rubber. The Husky and KTM come with Continental TKC80 tires, which are heavily street-oriented. The Honda comes with IRC Trail Wings, which have even more of a pavement bias. Only the SWM and Beta have decent off-road tires in the Michelin Enduros, but they also suffer in comparison to full off-road rubber. That’s why we installed STI Tech 2 tires, which are street-approved full knobbies. As a side note, the KTM and Husky do not come with rim locks installed, but they are in the parts kits that come with the bikes. The Honda is completely without rim locks, so they must be purchased before knobbies can be used. With rim locks, all five bikes then have wheel-balance problems that should be addressed before riding them at speed. Also, the upgrade to full knobbies did add weight to each bike, as much as 5 pounds apiece.
POWER VERSUS NOISE
The biggest challenge that all these manufacturers faced was getting the noise level down. Honda, Husqvarna and KTM did a spectacular job. Those three are so quiet that you can barely hear them idling from a few yards away. The SWM is a little louder, and the Beta is loudest of all, but even those two bikes are much, much quieter than full-time dirt bikes or even a stock Harley.
Not surprisingly, the power output of these motorcycles is a perfect inverse of their noise level. The Beta is the horsepower king of the group. It makes the most torque and revs out the highest. The Beta wins every horsepower field test we could think of—drag race, hill-climb, roll-on, even top speed. It’s also geared taller than the KTM, Husky or Honda. Gear for gear, the Beta has more speed. If you installed a larger rear sprocket (say about 3 teeth), the gearing would be similar to those three, but it would pull away even more quickly. The SMW is closest to the Beta in power, noise and gearing. It’s clearly a powerful motorcycle and feels even larger than its 501cc displacement. The motor has an old-school, slow-revving feel with a lot of engine braking. Understandably, it feels like a four-stroke of the mid-2000s. There have been no technological revolutions in the last 15 years, but an accumulation of refinements have given the other bikes subtle advantages in throttle response and manageability.
The Husqvarna and KTM are pretty much identical in power output. They can’t quite keep up with the two Italian bikes in a straight line, but they’re super crisp and responsive. The motors of the two bikes both displace 511cc but don’t have a big-bike feel. They’re snappy and fun without any hesitation off the bottom. On top, they taper off quickly, but by then they’ve both done good work. They start easily and have light engine braking.
Despite its displacement disadvantage, the Honda is very close to the two Austrian bikes in performance. It might even have a touch more low-end power, and it also has a super-responsive, willing feel. It does taper off quickly, but you never feel like you’ve been shortchanged in the motor department.
What sets these dual-sport bikes apart from those of the past is the fact that EPA compliance is invisible. In the bad old days, getting through the approval process meant crazy-lean fuel mixtures, a lot of popping, backfiring and stalling. They would overheat and under-perform. All of the 2020 dual-sport bikes in this group have excellent motor manners. The KTM and Husky have made the most progress on this front. They don’t pop, hiccup or boil. And, for the most part, they don’t stall. The Honda, on the other hand, occasionally stops running for no particular reason. This doesn’t fit the classic flame-out scenario, because it most often happens when the clutch is pulled in. The quick solution is to turn up the idle. The SWM also might randomly stall, but this doesn’t seem to be because of lean mapping as much as tall gearing and the big-thump feel of the motor. Regardless, the class of 2020 has met the challenge of tight emissions standards without any cheats like throttle stops or inner baffles. None of them overheats, and all have radiator fans as standard equipment.
Like we said up front, where these bikes differ the most is in their definition of dual-sport. Beta clearly sees it just like a lot of us; the license plate is just a means to connect sections of trail. That’s clear not only from the tires, rim locks and sound output but from the way it handles in the dirt. It’s light and narrow and feels exactly the way a full-time dirt bike should. We thought we might have to gear the Beta down but found that the low-end power was so good that we didn’t have to. The suspension is evenly balanced, cushy and doesn’t exhibit excessive dive or chassis movement.
KTM obviously has a strong dirt identity as well, and once you have replaced the tires and added rim locks, it’s pretty much indistinguishable from a full-time dirt bike. Last year the EXCs were handicapped by suspension that was too soft for the street or the dirt. Now, that’s been corrected. The 500EXC is level and stable. It doesn’t have the stinkbug feel that riders often complain about with the PDS suspension. KTM has had a very long time to perfect the system, and now it has all the advantages in ground clearance without the nose-down attitude or chassis movement. The biggest improvement for 2020 is clearly the fork. It’s simply stiffer than it was in previous years, making for a very predictable, comfortable package.
Husqvarna once again is shoulder-to-shoulder with KTM in its off-road capability. With good tires, it’s a real dirt bike, plain and simple. How much difference does the linkage make? In outright performance, very little. Riders are hard-pressed to pick one over the other. The only time you notice a difference is when the Husky hangs up on a big log. We know from history, though, that the Husky’s linkage gives you more options. If you were to stiffen the Husky up for racing, it would be a much easier transition than the KTM’s.
There’s a lot of ground between those three bikes and the Honda in terms of off-road capability. The Honda’s single greatest asset is its suspension. It’s the best of the bunch, striking a very happy balance between cruise-speed comfort and hard-edged performance. It’s tough to please everyone, but the CRF450L does as good a job as possible. The bike’s weight plays a role in the suspension action, too, and it’s not necessarily a bad one. In a straight line, the bike’s mass keeps it super stable, while the fork and shock are working like crazy. In virtually every other way, though, the weight is a handicap. It affects turning, braking, climbing and descending. Overall, the Honda has what it takes to be legit in the dirt, but the weight is a big handicap.
That’s even more the case with the SWM. It’s heavy, plus the engine braking and a stiff throttle return make it feel even more cumbersome. It’s clearly the most street-oriented of these bikes, but it still has the bloodline of that early Husqvarna, and that allows it to at least follow the other bikes virtually anywhere. When the speeds pick up and the play racing starts, though, the SWM rider is going to have to work harder. As with the Honda, the suspension is outstanding. It isn’t quite as well-balanced, with more movement in the rear, but it, too, has kind of a Cadillac syndrome.
COMFORT AND STREET MOVES
Riders tend to spend hours in the saddle on dual-sport rides, so comfort takes on elevated importance. The Honda is the clear winner here, partially because of the suspension and partially because it has the best seat. The fact that it doesn’t have handguards earns it a demerit or two, but overall it’s not a bad way to spend a day. The SWM is surprisingly comfy, too, even if it doesn’t have as nice a seat. It does have a very tall sixth gear, so when you’re cruising at freeway speed, the motor isn’t revving out. That’s a slight issue with the KTM and Husky, which have the lowest overall gearing. Most riders automatically think they should lower the gearing on any dual-sport bike. The low-end power is so good on both the Austrian bikes that you might consider going the other way. The Beta has tall gearing for a good cruise comfort, but it has a truly uncomfortable seat.
Keeping some of these bikes legal in the long run can be a challenge. The Beta’s mirrors and blinkers self-destructed early. In the case of the right rear blinker, it actually melted because it’s positioned in the blast zone of the exhaust. It also has a flimsy rear-fender/taillight assembly. The Husky’s is even worse. The license-plate assembly got sucked into the rear wheel and destroyed on the second ride. We repaired it with new parts, and it happened again. The SWM had a number of electrical issues come and go. It also seemed to have hot-exhaust-pipe plumbing everywhere, occasionally melting parts of our riding gear. The KTM still has all its parts, but it’s only a matter of time before it loses its license plate, too. The Honda’s stuff will last forever.
THE DUAL DUEL
So, where does that leave us? This time around, all our test riders said they preferred the KTM 500EXC over the others. The 2020 model made big strikes in suspension and mapping, allowing it to be the bike of choice on any given ride. The Husky, Beta, Honda and SWM followed in every rider’s personal ranking. Keep in mind that our test riders have an admitted dirt bias, so the fact that the Honda and the SWM are better on the street didn’t factor in heavily. We were a little surprised that the Beta wasn’t the winner when it all was over. The Beta 430RR-S, after all, was the winner of our 450 dual-sport shootout last year. The results of this comparison reflect improvements in the KTM and Husky.
We didn’t factor price into our results because we don’t know your budget. The SMW is the hands-down winner in the value department. Every component and each part is top-notch on the bike, but its overall performance is handicapped by dated technology. As it turns out, each of these bikes could be declared the winner using different criteria. For us, we’re dirt bike guys, and that guides all our choices.
You should know that by now.