The Beta 500RR-S and the Husqvarna FE501 are two elite machines from the top of the dual-sport world, and that makes them natural subjects for a one-on-one comparison. Both are fully legal in all 50 states, and both are considered so capable in the dirt that they have replaced their off-road counterparts. Neither Beta nor Husqvarna offers a 500 four-stroke off-road bike, trusting these dual-sport bikes to cover all the bases.
Government regulations play a huge role here. The list of requirements to clear the bar for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation is long. Some of these are easy, such as lighting equipment, containment of fuel vapor and so forth. Some are hard. The bikes are expected to meet very strict noise requirements, as measured in a ride-by test.
The Husqvarna FE501 was an all-new bike in 2017, and the biggest design goal for the bike was to meet all these standards legitimately, without any measures that the buyer would have to disable or work around. In Europe, many bikes are sold with throttle stops and artificial means of making the cut for the Euro 4 standard. Those kinds of tricks wouldn’t work here. Husqvarna started with the same motor layout used on Jason Anderson’s 2017 factory Supercross bike. It’s a single-overhead-cam, four-valve engine that uses many of the same castings. One big exception is the displacement. The 501 measures 510cc because of an 8.6mm increase in the stroke. Another difference is the provision for a kickstarter. The FE501 doesn’t have a kickstarter as delivered, but unlike with the motocross motor, there is a place to put one if you wanted. Also, the FE501 has a wide-ratio six-speed gearbox, whereas the MX bike has a five-speed.
In order to meet the sound requirement, Husqvarna invented some interesting technology, using a reed valve between the air filter and throttle body. The engineers say this dramatically reduces intake noise with the bonus of a slight increase in torque. As for the chassis, once again it’s very similar to that of the MX bike, aside from suspension. The WP shock is mounted to the linkage in the rear and a WP Xplor 48 fork is used up front. The brakes are Magura, and the tires are Continental TKC80s.
Beta is in a very different situation. The U.S. government allows small companies to comply to more relaxed standards, so the 500RR isn’t that different from a full-blooded dirt bike. It still has all the proper equipment, reduced emissions, and it’s still very quiet. However, the concessions aren’t as dramatic as those that Husqvarna faces. The 500RR’s motor is also a double-overhead-cam four-valver with a six-speed gear box. Beta uses Synerject fuel injection, whereas the Husky has a more mainstream Keihin system. It’s an electric-start-only bike, but as on the Husky, there’s a place to put a kickstarter if you don’t trust the button.
There’s no motocross bike in Beta’s lineup, but there are three other dual-sport bikes of different displacements that all share the same chassis. They share the same motor, for that matter, differing only in bore and stroke. In the case of the 500, the actual displacement is 478cc. All have Sachs suspension and come with a Trail Tech Voyager GPS as standard equipment.
BROTHERS IN THE DIRT
These are powerful motorcycles. You probably guessed that already, simply because 500cc of dirt bike is a lot of motorcycle for anyone. Both makers, however, have clearly made controllability a high priority. These aren’t like 450 motocross bikes. They have much smoother power delivery, less peak power and a fairly mellow disposition. In the end, the power of both bikes is excellent and perfectly appropriate for trail riding.
Which is the most powerful? The Beta. It has more power from the bottom to the top by a noticeable margin. If you didn’t already know the numbers, you would think the Beta had the most displacement. It revs like a big bike and has more engine braking. The Husky, on the other hand, has a quicker-revving, livelier feel. Part of that might be simple illusion created by noise—or the lack of it. The Husqvarna is incredibly quiet. You can hear the humming of the reed valve, but overall exhaust noise is absolutely minimal, remarkable even. The Beta is quiet too. It’s just not as quiet as the Husky, probably because of those looser requirements. Neither bike will get you dirty looks because of noise.
The engineers who designed the Husky did a good job of complying with those standards when it comes to engine manners too. You would expect a bike that meets EPA emission requirements to hiccup, stall, backfire and do all the things associated with lean fuel mapping. That’s not the case. It can occasionally stall, just like any bike of this size, but the burping and popping issues are minimal. Beta has also done a decent job with this for the most part, but the 500RR-S has a tendency to cough and die more frequently than the Husky. It’s also a little more cold-blooded. Odd. You would think that this is one area where more relaxed emission standards would be a big advantage.
Both of these bikes are feathers by dual-sport standards. The Husky is 248 pounds with no fuel and one mirror. The Beta is 257 pounds. This is a big improvement for Beta, which lost considerable weight since last year, partially with a new frame and partially from the loss of the kick-start lever. When you ride the bikes, the 9-pound difference isn’t noticeable. In fact, the Husky tends to ride lower in its suspension travel. Both bikes are soft and have an uncomfortable amount of fork dive when you ride at an aggressive pace, but the Beta has a more progressive feel and bottoms less often.
By far, the biggest limitation for both bikes is rubber. The Beta comes with a DOT-approved Michelin Enduro rear tire, which was designed to comply with the FIM’s 13mm knob-height rule. The Husky’s Continental TKC80s were originally designed for heavyweight adventure bikes and are used on this model for the main purpose of complying with the drive-by noise rules. Both rear tires are weak in loose dirt, but the Michelin is at least fairly good in hard-packed soil. The Beta’s front tire is pretty much a regular knobby and works far, far better than the Husky’s Continental—everywhere.
The tire factor colors all the handling comparisons between the two bikes. With stock tires, the Beta turns better, hooks up better and is easier to ride. We know from past experience that the Husky handles like a completely different bike with full-time dirt tires, but for the purposes of this comparison, the bikes were left stock.
ON THE ROAD
We’re delighted to report that these two motorcycles feel like dirt bikes when you take them on the highway. That’s much better than a motorcycle that feels like a road bike when you ride in the dirt. They have a light, insubstantial feel at highway speed, as if a good wind could blow you off the road. They both have wheels that are badly out of balance, seats that are too hard and mirrors that are hard to use. Clearly, these are real dirt bikes that are only made for short stints on the pavement, which is exactly what we like. Both makers have done a good job with gear ratios. First gear on both is appropriate for the dirt, and sixth is tall enough so that the motors aren’t screaming to keep up with freeway traffic. Of the two, the Beta has taller ratios, gear for gear.
MODS AND PERSONALIZATION
In order to obtain dual-sport bikes for testing, we have to promise most manufacturers that we won’t modify them. Even local dealers can get in trouble for doing anything to change the emissions or noise equipment. Still, we live in the real world and know that owners are going to personalize their bikes. Tires, of course, are number one on the list of things to do. And when you put them on, you should balance the wheels. Double rim locks in the rear will do most of the work. Both bikes need stiffer suspension too. The Sachs fork on the Beta can be made to work as well as anything on the market. The Xplor fork on the Husky is still so new that some suspension shops don’t know what to do with it. In general, it works best when it’s set up slightly soft.
After that you get into a gray area that varies state by state, but in most cases motor modification will make these bikes into closed-course competition vehicles. If you go down that road, both bikes could benefit from a piggyback fuel modifier like the one from JD Jetting, particularly the Beta. We know that a little more fuel will solve the cough-and-die issue. The Husky, on the other hand, doesn’t see much improvement unless you alter the fuel mixture and change the exhaust system at the same time. Don’t even think about removing the reed valve unless you plan on fuel-delivery modifications. That’s a step backwards.
Even if you leave these bikes perfectly stock, they’re simply amazing. These are street-legal motorcycles that could outperform the full-time race bikes of just a few years ago. Tires and suspension notwithstanding, we would stack either of them up against Doug Henry’s 1999 YFZ400 Supercross bike.
As for picking one over the other, we have to say that the Beta is the top bike in stock form. It has an edge in power, suspension and standard equipment. The Beta’s instrumentation is much better, and the price is over a grand lower. Once you get into modifications for competition, it might be different. But, that’s a story for another time.