One of Dirt Bike’s guest testers, a longtime off-roader and a go-faster in his 50s, has an itch in his craw about KTMs. It’s a 35-year-old scratch that has never healed. Last week, during a well-lubricated ride in our soaked hills, we offered him our 2015 Husqvarna FE501 S. Because it’s not orange, he acquiesced, taking little time to adapt, adjust or dink with the machine. He bolted, hard and fast, aggressively handling the technical trails like he’d been born on the machine. For 20 miles we chased him, finally getting our bike back from our buddy, who was all smiles.
“So this is what you guys have been drooling over ever since the orange guys came out with a plated dirt bike. I would never have guessed that a street-legal bike could handle our trails. It feels and handles like a racer!” That’s the new dirt bike world shrunken down to a minimalist state—a tarmac-legal off-road racer. And the stunning news? Husky has upped the ante with its new FE501 S, a machine graced with KTM heritage and technology but blessed with suspension and refinements that add to its prestige.
SOMETHING OLD AND SOMETHING NEW
The engine on the FE501 S is a direct descendant of the KTM 500 XC-W/EXC powerplant. It’s a 510.4cc SOHC design with a 95mm bore and 72mm stroke. The engine is actually quite light by virtue of the die-cast production procedure that allows for thinner wall thickness that reduces weight while maintaining strength. The cylinder head uses a single-overhead cam that actuates two titanium intake valves and two steel exhaust valves. The vibration meter is kept down to an acceptable level via the counterbalancer shaft, which cancels inertia forces while driving the water pump and timing chain. As with the KTM, the Husky engine uses electronic fuel injection and a 42mm throttle body that targets strong throttle response focused on enduro riding conditions.
In order to meet the legal requirements of a road machine, the bike’s sound and emissions are enhanced over the green-sticker-legal-only FE line. The muffler features a super-quiet end piece. The mapping in the ECU is on the lean side. There is an air-injection valve that is an EPA device and a recycling setup that captures any unused fuel that sloshes out of the overfill in the gas tank. The final cog in the EPA gearbox is final gearing that softens the hit and therefore dulls the exhaust note. This means the six-speeder is equipped with 15/45 gearing, which works quite well if you’re taking the 405 into downtown L.A. on a daily basis. More on this later.
The Husky’s frame is chromoly and is designed to flex, giving feedback and feel that, according to the bosses, can never be duplicated by an aluminum frame. Unique to the Husky are the subframe, fender and saddle. The three-piece polyamide rear subframe has been reinforced and is more flexible than a traditional aluminum rear subframe. Husky claims more feel through the flex factor of the subframe, which gives the engineers the opportunity to integrate features like the airbox, electronics and rear grab handle.
In the suspension world, Husqvarna equipped the FE501 S with high-end WP dampers, full rear linkage and CNC-machined triple clamps. The fork is a 4CS unit, which is a closed-cartridge 48mm fork that uses a four-chamber system that combines the performance of a closed-cartridge fork with the simplicity of an open-cartridge design. It targets reduced weight and constant damping precision with a high plush factor. Damping adjusters are on top. The left side is compression, and the right side is rebound, making for easy on-the-trail adjustments.
At the rear shock, the Husky differs dramatically from the KTM EXC (dual-sport models). The dual sports are PDS designs (no linkage), and the Husky is a link setup. WP designed the rear damper with DCC (Dual Compression Control), mirroring the MX and off-road line, albeit with softer valving to make it more compliant. The rear linkage allows the shock to use leverage to accept hits. It is lower and more ground-hugging on downhills and takes high-speed consecutive hits with less chassis backlash and a more planted feel. The linkage models also target better cornering traits.
The Husky has a side-draft-access airbox with a clamping system that holds the filter in place via a hook-and-link system. It’s similar to the KTM’s but a little easier to use. Both of the side panels have fitment junctions that mate to the plastic subframe. They take some getting used to, especially if you’re a KTM guy. You bring them in from the back, fit them into their slots, and then slam in the front locating pin. The fuel tank is 2.4 gallons. It is slim, and the gas cap is easier to open than on past (KTM) models.
Husky fits the cockpit with Neken bulge bars (strong and a good bend, though a bit low) with handlebar perches that are six-way adjustable. The brakes are Brembo. The front lever is easily adjustable at the bar. The rear lever is quite adjustable, too, both in height and play. The clutch is the new diaphragm unit that is actuated by a Brembo hydraulic unit. The pull is smooth and easy; the feel and engagement are superb.
STOCK AND LESS SO
This baby is soft-spoken. In stock trim, you stab the button (we never needed to pull the choke) and it putt-putts with less snarl than a weed whacker. The clutch pull is very easy with good engagement, and first gear is tall. We’d guess it’s good for 25–30 mph. This is fine for the pavement and even okay for some fire-roading, but any good trail work will have you in first gear the entire time! Still, the 15/45 combo is doable, though it requires finesse with the clutch when the going gets super technical. The single best modification you can make to the bike is to switch to 14-48 gearing, or 14-50 is perfect if old-fashioned enduro work is your forte. Going with the 14-50 combo means you have to buck up and get a new chain, as the stocker is too short.
Getting back to your trail roots is something that the FE501 S has an immediate appetite for. With a fairly responsive bottom throb, the bike likes to make hay by short-shifting and using the meat of the powerband for motivation. This means it doesn’t like to rev. Shift quickly and use the excellent six-speeder and its trail-worthy second and third cogs to keep things sparking. Big hills and deep, gradual climbs will work the stock, bottled-up machine and will force you to dig deep and keep it hammered. Unfortunately, the corked-up exhaust is a hindrance in the search for a meatier powerband. We’ve fit on a Power Quiet end cap and also an FMF Q hex with very good results. The decibel level remains very acceptable, and the power improves substantially. There is one drawback, however. It runs a bit lean and will pop and snap on deceleration.
The handling side of the Husky is one with few glitches or groans. The 4CS fork is plush. It bottoms a little too easily, but a quick flick of the compression adjuster on top helps. For our staff of 180-plus-pounders, stiffer springs, both fore and aft, were mandatory. It tackles hack, rocks and roots with little deflection or hand abuse. It’s only when the going gets faster and obstacles bigger that the fork sends out a “back her down, Holmes, or things are gonna get ugly” message. Out back, the shock and its linkage system get high praise. In fact, on faster, rougher trails and all big downhills, it outperforms the PDS with a lower feel, more planted ride and enhanced control. Cornering is another area where the FE shined. The linkage and its lower stance get the bike down and into a good cornering zone, whereas the PDS KTM tends to ride high in the back and push the front end. For larger pilots, a stiffer 6.0 rear spring is needed (5.6 is stock).
NOTES, KNACKS AND NAUGHTS
The stock tires are DOT approved and do a very credible job off-road. Keep an eye on the spokes, especially near the rear rim lock, as they tend to loosen dramatically.
Great brakes. Love the pegs, and the bike has a nice feel through the middle. It seems to fit between your legs, making you one with the bike.
The bars are low. The grips are hard, and the seat is hard, low and slippery. We fixed the bars by adding spacers, and we canned the grips in favor of A’MEs. We added Seat Concepts foam and a cover and loved it!
We did test a modified FE501 from out of state and it had a lot more juice. The changes were minor—mainly adjusting the TPS and running a less restrictive muffler. You get bigger bottom, a meatier middle, and it pulls longer and harder.
MOVE OVER, ROVER, AND LET JIMI TAKE OVER
We honestly love this machine. There are quirks, as the power on the FE501 S is kind of yogurty. It packs a bit of a snap but lacks the stamina for titanic challenges. Still, there are things you can do with a plated dirt bike that let you transcend the boundaries of a normal machine because you can access dirt roads that require a license plate. The machine’s handling is full-blown, hard-core enduro. This machine has an appetite for ugly, hungers for nasty and rewards the pilot with a planted feel that lets him navigate the tough world of extreme off-road. o
WHAT WE LIKE
• Rear suspension and linkage
• Fork “valved for versatility”
• Power, once re-geared
• Clutch! Superbly light and great feel
• Brakes: seriously strong and progressive
• Odometer: easy to read and set
WHAT WE GROAN ABOUT
• The saddle: too stiff and slippery
• The saddle: very hard to get bolts in
• The one-piece header and mid-pipe: It’s impossible to remove shock without taking off the exhaust—and getting the exhaust off is a nightmare.
• Rear fender that can get torn off if you lift the bike by the fender
WHAT WE CAN’T FIGURE OUT
• Advantages to the composite subframe
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