Dual-sport riders in America have never had it so good.
It wasn’t even 10 years ago that even the best dual-sport offerings were mere shadows of their off-road sisters, with more show than go when it came time to head into the outback. Anemic engines, underwhelming suspension, lots of weight and resultant handling like a runaway bull were the norm rather than the exception. That all changed when some manufacturers got more serious about building machines that were closer to 80% dirt, 20% street-oriented rather than 50/50.
Now, in a day when even large-displacement heavyweight adventure bikes exhibit better handling than some of the bulky single-cylinder dual-sport motorcycles of a decade ago, off-road riders seeking a hybrid machine have a decent selection of machinery from which to choose.
KTM’s 500 EXC is widely regarded as the current king of the mountain in the Open dual-sport class. However, Beta, a tiny Italian company with a reputation for building World Championship-winning trials bikes, has made it a priority to try to cut into the dominance enjoyed by the Austrian powerhouse in every off-road riding segment, including hard-core dual-sporting. Hence, it has produced the 520 RS.
While Beta is an Italian brand, it shares a kinship with the Austrian-bred KTM in that once upon a time (2004-2009) all four-stroke Beta off-road motorcycles were powered by KTM Singles. But when Beta introduced its own proprietary engine for the 2010 model year, it was far from a mere copy of KTM’s SOHC thumper. The Beta’s four valves are actuated by double overhead cams, the company favoring the design over a single-cam setup because it feels that the twin cams offer more exact valve timing at high rpm. Its 100.0 x 63.4mm bore and stroke are also far more over-square than the KTM’s 95.0 x 72.0mm dimensions. Do the math and you’ll see that the Beta 520 RS actually displaces 497.9cc, while the KTM 500 EXC actually displaces 510.4cc.
The KTM engine is a shining example of compact design in a high-performance single-cylinder four-stroke. It incorporates some neat engineering, such as a counterbalancer shaft that also acts as the water pump drive. Its twin Eaton oil pumps are also multi-taskers: The pressure pump lubricates the engine and clutch, while also cooling the ignition; the scavenge pump sucks oil from the crankcase and lubricates the transmission.
There are other differences and similarities between these two thumpers. The Beta features separate oil chambers for the crankcase and transmission, while the KTM circulates the same oil through the engine and transmission. Both powerplants feature twin oil pumps for more effective circulation and scavenging, both have smooth-shifting six-speed transmissions, and both come with silky and linear-feeling hydraulic clutches. But these two are miles apart when it comes to their fueling systems. The Beta still uses a good old-fashioned Keihin FC-39 (39mm) carburetor while the KTM sports a more modern Keihin EFI system with a 42mm throttle body.
Slugging It Out
It’s funny how wary these two opponents were of each other before we sent them into our testing arena – or rather how concerned their respective factory representatives were. While there is no malice between the two companies that we know about, each representative politely warned us to watch out for little “tricks” used by the other guy to improve their vehicle’s chances. One manufacturer warned us to make sure that the other’s bike had all of its smog-legal equipment hooked up, while the other pointed to a string of things that its rival is purported to do in order to give its bike the edge. Just goes to show you how close these two machines really are.
So what did we find?
Our test KTM 500 EXC was delivered with two deviations from completely stock: The first was a significant change in gearing that equated to adding six teeth to the rear sprocket to yield shorter gearing than stock. The other change was that KTM’s tech services team took the time to balance the front wheel so it wouldn’t hop like a frog during high-speed pavement riding.
Our test Beta 520 RS was a CARB-legal unit designated for California and came complete with the evaporative canister and all of its breather hoses. American Beta distributor Tim Pilg assured as that our test unit was stone stock. No funny stuff. We believe him.
The Beta 520 RS engine was our favorite whether we were on the trail or on the street. Despite its bigger bore and shorter stroke, its carburetor-fed engine is slightly less responsive and not as quick-revving as the KTM 500 EXC’s, but its power character is smoother overall, with an extremely tractable low-end pull that transitions seamlessly through a potent midrange before gently signing off near the Beta’s 9100-rpm rev limiter. Its brawny pull allows the rider to hold the same gear a long time, even with its tallish stock gearing. In fact, Motorcycle.com Editorial Director Sean Alexander noted that it reminded him of the old Honda XR four-strokes on which he grew up, and we have to agree. Rest assured, the Beta is a whole lot lighter, quicker and more powerful, and it revs much higher than any Honda XR ever did, but the impression only underscores just how the Beta’s heavier-feeling flywheels smooth its power delivery. It is one of the most user-friendly Open-class off-road engines we’ve ever experienced, but it also has an edge to it that’s the hallmark of any good race motor. We really do love it.
The KTM motor is very consistent, delivering the kind of power you would expect from a modern high-winding, state-of-the-art, off-road four-stroke Single. Its flawless fuel-injection gives it a linear and lightning quick throttle response that is snappier than the Beta’s, and it revs even more quickly, (plus another 500 rpm higher) than the Beta. Yet despite its modified gearing, the KTM didn’t necessarily deliver a more powerful forward lunge when the throttle was cracked open. That’s because the KTM motor’s forte is a solid midrange that transitions smoothly into its top-end rush. Conversely, its low-end isn’t all that potent-feeling, which made it easier to understand KTM’s choice to deliver it to us with shorter gearing.
Based on our seat-of-the-pants feel, we were convinced that the Beta 520 RS would be the horsepower champion between these two bikes. However, our trip to the dyno, where gearing isn’t a factor, revealed just the opposite. The KTM 500 EXC not only delivered more peak horsepower and torque than the Beta, but its spread of power above 30 lb.-ft. was also broader.
The KTM motor churns out 50.2 rear-wheel horsepower at 8,800 rpm with 34.1 ft.-lb. occurring at 7,100 rpm and staying above 30 ft.-lb. from 5,300 rpm all the way to 8,700 rpm. Though slightly down in the numbers game, and 2.5% down in displacement, the Beta compares quite well with the KTM, with 48.2 rear-wheel horsepower at 8,300 rpm and 33.7 ft-lb. of peak torque occurring at 7,400 rpm, while staying above 30 lb.-ft. from 5,800 rpm to 8,400 rpm.
On the trail, both machines are happy slogging along at lower rpm, and both can be pegged in the lower gears, but the Beta engine feels more comfortable picking its way through low-speed sections like an enduro bike. It also sounds absolutely fantastic from the saddle, like a good four-stroke should. On the other hand, the KTM is more at home when ridden like a motocross machine, including an occasional slap to its clutch lever to help launch it out of corners or over obstacles in its path. It’s almost a draw, but the majority of our test crew preferred the Beta’s overall engine character, sound and power delivery – like a big friendly XR cross-bred with a thoroughly modern racebike.
The Beta’s engine is even more superior on the road, thanks to its lower vibration levels. The KTM transmits more buzz through the handlebar, which makes it less comfortable when motoring along at continuous throttle settings, such as when cruising at 70 mph on the freeway where its lowered gearing forces the revs up.
“I feel like there is a little more zip in the KTM’s motor,” Off-Road.com Editor Josh Burns said while summing his time on both machines. “It doesn’t feel more powerful than the Beta, although its fuel-injected engine runs a little cleaner. The KTM also doesn’t feel as good to me under braking as the Beta. You can really feel the Beta’s engine braking helping you out, which I like. I just prefer how easy the Beta is to ride.”
Burns also echoed the unanimous sentiment that, while both machines have six-speed shifter and hydraulically activated clutches, the Beta deserves the nod for its slicker-shifting gearbox.
“I missed a few shifts on the KTM,” Burns said. “I didn’t miss any on the Beta.”
The balance quickly tilted back in favor of the KTM 500 EXC when it came time to judge the chassis and handling of these two big-bore dual-sports. Both feature non-perimeter chromoly steel chassis with removable subframes and aluminum swingarms, but their chassis numbers differ slightly.
The KTM rides on a 58.3-inch wheelbase and places 48.4% of its 266.4-lb. wet weight, or 128.9 lbs., on its front wheel (give or take a few ounces for KTM’s sneaky wheel balancing job). On the trail, the KTM feels like a featherweight, with effortless, precise turning manners regardless of how rough or loose the terrain. With its 26.5-degree rake and 4.3-inch trail, the KTM requires little more than a nod of the rider’s head to change direction quickly, and it yet remains arrow-stable at high speeds, even on the most whooped-out trails.
With Beta’s excellent history of building trials bikes, we expected the 520 RS’s steering to be even more precise than the KTM’s, but that simply isn’t the case. The Beta is slightly longer, at 58.6 inches, but it’s also nearly 11 lbs. heavier: 277 lbs. And while it places less of its weight by percentage on the front wheel, 47.8%, that equates to 132.5 lbs., or 3.6 lbs. more than the KTM. Beta claims a rake of 26.2 degrees and 4.7 inches of trail for the 520’s steering geometry.
Regardless, the 520 RS requires more effort to turn than the KTM. Its steering character is far from cumbersome, but the difference between the two was especially noticeable when picking our way down rocky single-track trails or in deep desert sand, where the Beta’s front end tended to plow and wander while the KTM was laser-like in its steering accuracy. There might be another factor in play here than just steering geometry, however. The Beta’s stock, DOT-legal Michelin Enduro Comp front tire has small and widely spaced knobs that clearly hurt its overall grip on our desert sand test loops.
The difference is far less noticeable on the street, as both bikes exhibit the handling characteristics of dirtbikes on pavement – their skinny 21-inch front hoops and DOT knobby tires making them twitchier than the typical streetbike with 17-inch wheels and meaty radials. The Beta’s length and extra front end weight help give it a slightly more planted feel than the KTM.
Both of these machines handle great, but the KTM wins the handling category by virtue of its lighter steering and its capabilities in a wider range of speeds and in more diverse conditions than the Beta.
Both of these on/off-road warriors feature 48mm inverted open-cartridge forks clamped in aluminum triple clamps. While KTM’s suspension subsidiary, WP, has even more sophisticated closed-cartridge units in its arsenal, KTM’s North American arm continues to request that the 500 EXC be spec’d with the older open-cartridge units because its R&D team feels that they offer a more supple ride over small bumps than the closed-cartridge forks while not sacrificing control during high-speed G-outs. The 500 EXC’s WP 4860 fork features adjustable compression and rebound damping while delivering 11.8 inches of front wheel travel.
Although its motocross machines have returned to rising-rate linkage rear ends, KTM has practically perfected off-road suspension with its proprietary Progressive Damping System (PDS), and the 500 EXC’s rear end makes use of this non-linkage technology. Its fully adjustable WP 5018 piggyback reservoir monoshock mounts directly to the swingarm and offers 13.2 in. of rear travel, 1.8 inches more than the Beta.
The Italian 520 RS is fitted with German-made Sachs suspension components, with a Sachs TFX “Tuned Flex System” fork up front and a fully adjustable Sachs piggyback reservoir shock out back. The Beta’s shock is connected to a rising-rate linkage. Like the KTM, the Sachs shock features separately adjustable circuits to address both low- and high-speed compression damping. The 520 RS boasts 11.4 inches of travel at both ends.
Our testing revealed that dialing in the rear suspension is critical to getting optimum performance and handling out of the front. The Beta’s rear definitely influences its steering to a greater degree than the KTM. As delivered, our 520 RS test bike was set up with 100mm of rear suspension sag with a rider aboard, but that gave it a mushy feel at speed as the rear shock would collapse through big bumps far too easily for our tastes while also making the bike steer like a chopper. Adding preload helped tremendously, bringing the Beta much more level with KTM in terms of overall suspension quality.
But while the Beta’s suspension is very good, it does not yet match the KTM’s overall plushness, especially over smaller bumps and rocks where the KTM delivers a Cadillac ride and cushions big blows, like full compression jump landings or pounding through whoops. And the KTM does so with tremendous composure.
The Beta’s suspension continues to improve, but as good as it is, it simply isn’t as refined as the KTM’s WP components over off-road terrain. On the street, the Beta’s ride quality is slightly superior to the KTM’s, as its initial stiffness makes it less likely to pogo through road undulations or transfer weight too quickly on acceleration or during braking, but when considering both sides of the fence, dirt and street, the KTM still holds the advantage here.
Brake It to Me Gently
Both machines feature single 260mm front and 240mm rear wave rotors clamped by twin-piston front and single-piston rear calipers, and the binders are just another example of the high-quality componentry that abounds on both bikes. The KTM’s brake package is all-Brembo, while the Beta’s brakes feature Nissin calipers clamping Galfer rotors.
The KTM’s brakes are superb, delivering dirtbike-style braking performance and character on- and off-road. That is to say they’re extremely linear and feel supremely powerful in off-road conditions while at the same time requiring more effort at the lever to approach anything close to a one-G stop on the pavement. They rule in the dirt, yet they’re more than adequate on the street.
Street-oriented riders will undoubtedly like the Beta’s braking performance better than the KTM’s because its front brake has a strong initial bite, while its rear brake is hard to lock up, which practically eliminates the potential for an unwanted skid in the event of a panic stop. However, even after we dialed back the leverage at the master cylinder by twisting out the adjuster knob on the Beta’s brake lever – a nice detail, we might add – we weren’t able to get the Beta to match the KTM’s linear feel in the dirt. The Beta’s front brake comes on too strong initially, while its rear brake tends to be rather mushy at the pedal. The Beta’s brakes are good, but the KTM’s are better.
Both bikes also ride on identically sized rims and D.O.T.-legal tires, with 21-inchers up front and 18-inchers out back. At the end of the day, we preferred the KTM’s Maxxis Enduro 90/90-21 front and 140/80-18 rear tires to the same-sized Michelin Enduro Competition tires on the Beta, primarily because the Maxxis tires have larger knobs and tighter lug spacing that offered noticeably superior traction in the California desert.
Couch Potatoes and Video Games
How can we put this mildly? The Beta’s seat is, in our opinion, awful. Any time you have a motorcycle saddle that can make a KTM seat feel like a sofa, that’s an issue. Lurking underneath the Beta’s beautiful two-tone red and black seat cover must be the hardest foam in the universe. The Beta’s seat is also sharp-edged, and while we appreciate the added utility of the small-windowed case at the front of the saddle, it doesn’t overcome the “numb bum” we experienced after 70 miles in the 520 RS’ saddle.
It’s too bad, because, except for its seat, the Beta has a roomier and generally better overall ergonomic feel than the KTM. Its mid-section is a slimmer, and when the rider is standing over the Beta on the pegs, it feels like one of the company’s world-class trials bikes in that there is almost nothing felt between the rider’s legs. Most of our testers also preferred the reach to and the bend of the Beta’s aluminum handlebars more than the KTM’s.
In front of those bars, Beta’s instrumentation is also vastly superior to the KTM’s. Betas come equipped with Trail Tech’s awesome Voyager GPS/speedometer unit, which gives the rider a powerful array of functions, including a GPS, speedometer, bar-graph tachometer, tripmeters, clock, engine temperature, compass, altitude, ambient temperature, an hour meter and a volt meter. The Voyager can also readily accept GPX files through a micro SD memory card slot on its right edge, making it easy to download pre-calculated riding routes to its map display. During daytime riding, we appreciated just how easy it was to keep tabs on our speed and trip distance thanks to the Voyagers large LCD screen.
The KTM’s LCD instrumentation offers a wealth of functions as well, including digital speedometer, odometer and tripmeter functions as well as a standard clock and average speed function along with more competition-oriented features such as a lap timer, a mileage meter and a stopwatch function for enduro competition. However, its screen is sensitive to the position of the sun during daytime rides, sometimes making it hard to read.
Engaging in a few night rides on both machines, and the KTM’s headlight and taillight are far superior to the Beta’s. The KTM’s headlight/numberplate could stand to be tilted slightly more forward (an easy fix) for even better night vision, its 35/35-watt headlight offers a wider and much brighter field of view than does the Beta’s 60/55-watt headlight. Both machines use sealed LED taillights, but the KTM’s double-row taillight is larger, brighter and much more conspicuous than the tiny single-row unit on the Beta.
Viewing the instrumentation on both bikes at night revealed a substantial difference in visibility as well. Whereas the KTM’s narrow viewing screen can be difficult to read, the Beta’s Voyager unit is generally easier to see. However, at night the KTM’s screen offers superior backlighting to make monitoring vehicle speed and other functions much easier at a glance than the Voyager display, which isn’t nearly as bright.
The Little Things
There are a few more details that help differentiate these machines. For starters, it could be argued that both of them aren’t properly equipped for rigorous off-road use – but in opposite ways. The KTM 500 EXC comes standard with excellent handguards, a must for woods riding. The Beta 520 RS doesn’t, but it does come with a durable aluminum skid plate to protect its engine cases and side covers, while the KTM doesn’t. We found this out the hard way as pounding through the rocks left both side covers of our 500 EXC test unit leaking oil, which forced us to become certified JB welders before we could ride it again. Both machines offer their respective missing pieces as accessory catalog items, but we have a hard time accepting why they aren’t fitted from the get-go. If forced to choose between these two critical off-road items, though, we would rather have the Beta’s standard-equipment skid plate every time.
The Beta’s riding enjoyment is interrupted by its smallish 2.1-gallon fuel cell. That might not be so bad if it had EFI for more-precise fuel metering, but our carb’d 520 RS was far thirstier than the fuel-injected KTM, delivering an average of 53.5 mpg for an estimated total range of 112 miles between fill-ups. The Beta is however fitted with a reserve petcock, so at least the rider isn’t completely SOL when it starts gasping for fuel. The KTM’s EFI is paired with a larger 2.4-gallon tank to offer better fuel economy and substantially better range, the 500 EXC averaging 58.1 mpg for an estimated range of 139 miles.
Both machines are equipped with electric start plus a kickstarter for a back-up. We only ever needed to use the kickstarter on the Beta, as its tiny battery balked under the strain of multiple stops and starts while performing a photo shoot out on the trail, leaving us without enough juice to spin the starter.
If this were a beauty contest, the Beta would win it hands-down. The Italian machine always seemed to draw attention wherever we rode it. There’s just something about that sleek bodywork and stark white with red and black accents and those bright red frame tubes that scream “two-wheeled Ferrari!” While riding the Beta at the King of the Motos event, Alexander commented, “When I was parked outside of the media tent, even the most jaded moto journalists were coming up to me and asking, ‘Hey, is that the new Beta? What’s it like?’ They were attracted to the 520 RS like bird poop on a shiny new car.”
The KTM 500 EXC looks like, well, a KTM. The EXC is no ugly step sister, but it can’t hold a candle to the Beta’s exotic sex appeal. To be fair, KTM places substance over style, but there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of sex appeal, is there?
|2014 Open-Class Dual-Sport Scorecard|
|Category||Beta 520 RS||KTM 500 EXC|
|All scores have a maximum of 10 except Engine which is scored out of 20.|
Beta says that it has worked very hard to bring the 520 RS up to par with the class-leading KTM 500 EXC, and we think that it has indeed come very close, only to miss the mark by the slimmest of margins. The Beta’s awesome engine, sexy looks, great ergos and value-packed instrumentation are packaged with very good suspension and a good chassis that simply need more refinement if it is going to topple the KTM from its throne.
Sure, KTM tried to stack the deck with its unsolicited gearing adjustment, but in the end that didn’t really help the KTM nor hurt the Beta in our judgment. The KTM 500 EXC’s sweet-handling chassis, superior suspension quality and linear brakes were enough to keep it ahead of the slower-handling, stiffer-suspended and heavier Beta 520 RS in this comparison. The two perform similarly on the pavement, albeit with different character, but the KTM’s chassis and suspension simply make it better in the dirt than the Beta is, and dirt is the reason most people buy this class of dual-sport in the first place.
So while the advantage remains ever so slightly with the KTM 500 EXC – for now – we have no doubt Beta is going to continue to dial-in the 520 RS. We also have a feeling they’re going to want a rematch next year. Believe us, so will we.
|2014 Beta 520 RS||2014 KTM 500 EXC|
|Engine||Liquid-cooled, DOHC four-stroke Single, four-valve cylinder head||Liquid-cooled, SOHC four-stroke Single, four-valve cylinder head|
|Horsepower (claimed)||48.2 hp @ 8,300 rpm||50.2 hp @ 8,800 rpm|
|Torque (claimed)||33.7 lb.-ft. @ 7,400 rpm||34.1 ft-lb. @ 7,100 rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed w/hydraulically activated clutch||6-speed w/hydraulically activated DDS (Damped Diaphragm Steel) clutch|
||Inverted Sachs TFX 48mm, adjustable compression and rebound; 11.4 in. of travel||Inverted WP 4860 48mm, adjustable compression and rebound; 11.8 in. of travel|
||Sachs fully adjustable monoshock w/piggyback reservoir, 11.4 in. of travel||WP 5018, fully adjustable monoshock w/piggyback reservoir, 13.2 in. of travel|
|Front Brakes||Single 260mm Galfer wave rotor with Nissin 2-piston caliper||Single 260mm Brembo wave rotor with Brembo 2-piston caliper|
|Rear Brakes||Single 240mm Galfer wave rotor with Nissin single-piston caliper||Single 240mm Brembo wave rotor with Brembo single-piston caliper|
|Rake/Trail||27°/4.7 in.||26.5°/4.3 in.|
|Wheelbase||58.7 in.||58.4 in.|
||37.0 in.||38.1 in.|
|Ground Clearance||12.6 in.||13.6 in.|
|Fuel Capacity||2.11 gal.||2.4 gal.|
|250.3 lbs.||245.8 lbs.|
|277.1 lbs.||266.4 lbs.|
||12 months, limited||12 months/12,000 mi.|