Possibly the coolest bike on the planet


Just a few short years ago it was unheard of to purchase one of the best off-road bikes that was also street legal. The KTM 450EXC is the same machine with a headlight, taillight and blinkers as the machine that won our off-road shootout, the KTM 450XC-W. The best part about a dual sport bike is that you can ride to your favorite riding spot.

We seem to have done something terribly wrong somewhere along the line and are being punished. When it comes to street-legal dirt bikes, California is the black sheep of the country. We hear tales from across the country from readers and friends about how their state will street-legalize anything with a motor. In Arizona, we’ve witnessed plated Rhino’s, two-stroke motocrossers and numerous ATVs chugging down the streets. This same operation will have you chained to a cell fighting for the top bunk with a serial killer. Luckily, one manufacturer has gone after this niche, and mirroring their passion for filling a need, has overcome the legalities, the boilerplate laws and all-consuming EPA laws to give us what we want: A true dirt bike with a plate. Enter the KTM 450EXC.

There is no mechanical difference between the 2009 KTM 450EXC and the 2009 KTM 450XC-W, the machine that won Dirt Bike’s 450 Off-Road shootout. The differences visually are the headlight, taillight, turn signals, mirrors and, of course, the license plate. Even with these street legal accessories, the 450EXC is one bad off-road machine, and we still giggle when we see the license plate and know we can pull out of the garage and ride around town on a machine that is at the top of the off-road world.
The changes in the single overhead cam 450cc motor for 2009 start at the cam, which received a slightly new grind and an all-new auto decompression system designed to improve starting. Other internal changes are new center cases for improved oil flow, new crank seals to keep the separate oil baths separate, and a new ignition for stronger spark at lower rpm. The friction plates for 2009 are thicker, and the clutch basket has new holes for better oiling.
The suspension changes are minor but make a big difference in performance. The fork tubes are now sourced from Japan and feature a thinner wall and improved chrome plating, resulting in lower friction and improved flex. For 2009, the fork springs are a little stiffer, going from a 4.4 to a 4.6. The WP PDS shock received a bigger needle and different valving, creating a softer setting with more resistance to bottoming. The new two-bolt machined bottom clamp and smaller diameter steering stem has a fixed 19-degree offset versus the previous setting of 20 degrees.
Moose header wrap reduces the chance of burning your leg, pants or catching the world on fire. The orange CV4 silicon hoses reduce the number of junctions for the radiator hoses.
We received our KTM 450EXC and made a few essential small changes. To pass the sound drive-by test, which is third gear wide open, the stock KTM gearing is crazy tall at 15/45. The hot ticket is going down to a 14-tooth front sprocket and up to a 49 on the back. This allows the use of the stock chain, and even with the lower gearing, the 450EXC will pull 75 mph on the freeway without a fuss. We also raised the needle one clip and ran the fuel screw at 1 turn out.
KTMs are known for quality in stock form, so it’s no surprise we love the brakes, hydraulic clutch, oversized Neken bars and Excel wheels. We added some full wrap handguards and have been enjoying the bike in pretty much stock trim for hundreds of miles.
The suspension on the 450EXC is wonderful. The little changes KTM made from 2008 equaled big improvements. The suspension is exactly what comes on the shootout-winning XC-W, and bottoming is infrequent while plush and great out on the trail. We felt comfortable going from the street to any off-road situation; we even hit the local MX track for a few laps. The only reminder we were on a street-legal bike was hitting our helmet on the mirror (we took one off) and noticing the rear blinkers were gone after our first ride. The bike’s performance off-road is awesome.
KTM really hit the proverbial nail on the noggin with the single overhead cam KTM engine. The 450 has a nice balance of sweet bottom-end and quick-revving characteristics. It can be super smooth or hard hitting and aggressive, it depends on how you use the throttle and hydraulic clutch. Perhaps the strongest suite on the engine besides the broad useable band of power is that it doesn’t flame out at slow speeds like some four-stroke motors. This lets you chug in conditions where traction is scant without the fear of a burp, cough or belch.
We’ve resisted the urge to veer too far from stock exhaust and EPA trim. We know there are aftermarket exhaust systems that will give us more boost, and a lot of riders are going to want to rip all the emission stuff off. Our machine runs strong with all of the do-dads necessary for legality, starts easy and is jetted just right for our sea level to 5000-foot adventures. Just the thought of Officer Bill sticking his nose in the bowels of the engine searching for illegal bypassing of EPA canisters and hoses when the bike does everything pretty darned great bone stock is a head scratcher. What’s the point when we can gear up in our garage, slip down the driveway, stab the left blinker and point it towards the hills?

Yeah, $9198 is a lot of cash for a dirt bike, but you aren’t just getting a single-sided, one-thought wonder. You’re getting the freedom of the open road and the ability to go where no non-street-legal bike could ever dream. Having a license plate opens doors that would normally not even exist to a dirt bike. This isn’t a dirt road dual sport; this is a hard-core dirt biker’s dual sport bike.

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