2014 KTM 500 EXC Dual-Sport Test

Mar. 26, 2014 By Scott Rousseau, Photos by Josh Burns
The KTM 500 EXC could be crudely labeled as a dirt bike with plates, but that would be selling the dual-sport bike a little short. 

KTMís 500 EXC is widely regarded as the current king of the mountain in the open dual-sport class, and it was praised for raising the bar in the dirt/street category when it debuted in 2012. It has been hailed as little more than a racebike with lights, but such a compliment does some injustice to the 500 EXC.

For while its amazing engine performance and lithe handling make it easy for even the most ardent off-roader to confuse it with one of KTMís XC-F off-road only models, achieving such lofty performance levels took a lot more engineering acumen. Remember that street-legal motorcycles are subject to stricter smog and noise emissions laws than closed-course or even dirt-only off-road machines. That the KTM delivers on its intended performance goals is further proof that Austria is capable of producing not only world-class dirtbikes, but streetbikes as well.  

The 500 EXCís asking price of just over $10,000 isnít cheap, but youíll be hard pressed to find a better dirt-focused dual-sport bike. Photo: Art Eugenio/GETSOMEphoto.com.

Power Up
Do the math and youíll see that the KTM 500 EXC isnít a true 500. It actually displaces 510.4cc, courtesy of its 95.0mm bore and 72.0mm stroke. Packing in extra displacement is certainly in keeping with the rest of the engine, as itís a shining example of compact design in a high-performance single-cylinder four-stroke. This SOHC, four-valve, single-cylinder four-stroke incorporates some neat engineering, such as a counterbalancer shaft that also acts as the water pump drive. It also uses two Eaton oil pumps that are also multi-taskers: The pressure pump lubricates the engine and clutch while also cooling the ignition, and the scavenge pump sucks oil from the crankcase and lubricates the 500 EXCís six-speed transmission.

But perhaps the biggest reason why the KTM 500 EXC is such an amazing performer lies within its induction system, which incorporates a Keihin electronic fuel-injection system with a 42mm throttle body.

The 500 EXC is actually a 510.4cc motor, and in dyno testing concluded the motor produces 50.2 rear-wheel horsepower at 8,800 RPM with 34.1 ft.-lb. of peak torque at 7,100 RPM.

Our test KTM 500 EXC was delivered with two modifications from the factoryís North American headquarters. First, KTMís prep crew made a gearing change six teeth to the rear sprocket to yield steeper gearing than stock. The other change was that the team took the time to balance the front wheel so the 500 EXC wouldnít hop like a frog during high-speed pavement riding.

Firing up the 500 EXC is as simple as turning on its ignition key and thumbing its starter button. The KTM motor roars to life quickly, and its EFI system is dialed-in so that it takes little time to warm up before you can hit the street or tackle the dirt. Blipping the throttle reveals a quick-revving character with crisp throttle response.

Go through the gears and youíll find that the KTM motor is very consistent, delivering just the kind of power you would expect from a modern high-RPM, state-of-the-art, off-road four-stroke single. Its flawless fuel-injection gives it a snappy feel, yet even with the tighter gearing of our test unit, the KTM doesnít blow you away with an intimidating forward lunge when the throttle is twisted aggressively. The motor delivers an electric feel with a rather mild low-end that builds to a solid midrange before transitioning smoothly into an authoritative top-end rush. Look up electric power delivery in a mechanical engineering textbook, and youíre likely to find a picture of the 500 EXCís motor.

Based on our seat-of-the-pants feel, we were convinced that the 500 EXC was going to have a hard time cracking 50 rear-wheel horsepower on the dyno, but it not only delivered the 50 ponies, it amazed us with its broad torque. The KTM motor churns out 50.2 rear-wheel horsepower at 8,800 RPM with 34.1 ft.-lb. of peak torque occurring at 7,100 RPM. The torque curve is also surprisingly broad, staying above 30 ft.-lb. from 5,300 RPM all the way to 8,700 RPM. 

The KTM certainly feels more comfortable when ridden aggressively in the dirt. 

On the trail, the KTM can putt along at lower RPM, but it is much more at home when ridden aggressively like a motocross or off-road race machine. Even though it is a 500, giving an occasional slap to its clutch lever helps launch it out of deep, sandy corners and up and over just about any obstacle in its path. Itís an absolute blast on fire roads and in wide-open desert tracts, and its six-speed transmission and hydraulically activated clutch deliver linear action and good shift feelóalthough some of our testers did complain of missing an occasional shift.

On the road, however, the KTM transmits a fair amount of buzz through its aluminum handlebar, which makes it less comfortable when motoring along at continuous throttle settings, such as when cruising at 70 mph on the freeway. Here is where having lowered gearing didnít help the 500 EXC much. Even so, the fuel-injected KTM delivered an average of 58.1 MPG for an estimated total range of 139 miles before its 2.4-gallon fuel tank will need a refill. 

Getting a Handle on It
The KTMís light and precise steering and nimble chassis make picking through technical sections a lot of fun. Its non-perimeter chromoly steel chassis features a removable subframe and an aluminum swingarm. The 500 EXCís 58.3-inch wheelbase 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 KTMís wheel balancing job). Its 26.5-degree rake and 4.3-inch trail foster a feathery, predictable feel with effortless, precise turning manners regardless of how rough or loose the terrain. We are especially impressed with the KTMís laser-like steering accuracy, as it requires little more than a nod of the riderís head to change direction quickly, and it yet remains arrow-stable at high speeds, even on the most whooped-out trails.

The 500 EXC is not the bike for a long-distance tour ride, but it does perform well on the street considering how proficient it is in the dirt. 

On the street, the KTM handles about as well as you might expect a dirt bike with a skinny 21-inch front hoop and DOT knobby tires would. Itís a touch more whippy, although we never detected any high-speed headshake, even in freeway rain grooves.

The Shocking Truth
KTM practically rewrote the book on off-road rear suspension with its Progressive Damping System (PDS), and the 500 EXC uses the linkage-less system to mount its fully adjustable WP shock. The KTMís performance is nothing short of excellent, with 13.2 inches of travel, a plush feel and superior control in fast and/or rough terrain.

Up front, the 500 EXC is suspended by a 48mm WP 4860 inverted open-cartridge fork secured by an aluminum triple clamp. KTMís suspension subsidiary, WP, has even more sophisticated closed-cartridge units in its arsenal, but KTMís North American arm continues to request that the 500 EXC be specíd 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 4860 fork features adjustable compression and rebound damping while delivering 11.8 inches of front wheel travel.

KTM practically has no equal when it comes to overall ride on the trail, especially over smaller bumps and rocks where its delivers a Cadillac-plush ride and still cushions big blows, like full compression jump landings or pounding through whoops, without losing its composure. The excellent fork works in conjunction with the rear end to instill confidence in riders of all skill levels.

Tackling more rugged off-road terrain on the 500 EXC was not intimidating thanks to its well-tuned suspension and powerful Brembo brakes.

Thatís The Brakes
The KTM 500 EXCís single 260mm front and 240mm rear wave rotors are clamped by Brembo twin-piston front and single-piston rear calipers, and the binders are just another example of the high-quality componentry found on the bike. The brakes are superb, delivering dirt bike-style performance and character on- and off-road. Theyíre linear, easy to modulate and supremely powerful in off-road conditions, while at the same time they require some effort at the lever to approach anything close to a one-G stop on the pavement. They rule in the dirt; theyíre more than adequate on the street.

Rolling stock on the 500 EXC is typical off-road fare, with a 21-inch front and 18-inch rear wheel shod with Maxxis Enduro tires, 90/90-21 front and 140/80-18 rear. The Maxxis tires have large knobs and a reasonably tight lug spacing that deliver excellent off-road traction while supplying decent feel. You wonít mistake them for the radials on your average streetbike, but they offer a reasonably smooth ride on the street.

Have A Seat
At 38.1 inches from the ground, the 500 EXCís might be a tad high for short-legged riders, but at least it is reasonably comfortable once you climb aboard. Its overall ergonomics are very good, although some of our larger testers said they felt a bit cramped in the space between the seat and its aluminum handlebar when riding on the trail. Its mid-section is slim, and there its radiator shrouds are tucked-in nicely to avoid catching a boot if you should stick a leg out to make a fast turn.

The instruments on the 500 EXC can be tough to read at times during the day, but the back-lit orange screen is very easy to read once the sun goes down.

The KTMís 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. Itís a different story at night, as the KTMís screen offers excellent backlightingóin orange, of courseóto make monitoring vehicle speed and other functions easy with a simple glance.

The headlight on the KTM provided great lighting during off-road night rides and evening road trips.

Speaking of night riding, weíre impressed with the KTMís headlight and LED taillight. Its 35/35-watt headlight offers a wide, bright swath of light in low-beam mode and a focused yet well-lit high beam, and its sealed, double-row taillight is large, bright and conspicuous.

One Gripe
The KTM isnít faultless as delivered, however. One of our biggest gripes has to do with its stock equipmentóor rather, the lack of itówhen it comes to extreme off-road duty. While the 500 EXC is fitted with excellent handguards, a must for woods riding, it lacks a skidplate to protect its vulnerable engine cases from rock damage on gnarly trails. We found this out the hard way after a trip through the rocks left both side covers of our 500 EXC test unit leaking oil like the Exxon Valdez, which forced us to become certified JB welders before we could ride it again. Our advice? Opt for an accessory skidplate before you even head into the dirt!

As for overall styling, the KTM 500 EXC looks like, well, a KTM. Itís far from ugly, but definitely places substance over style.

The KTM 500 EXC offers a great blend of power, precision and handling, putting it at the top of the Open-class dual-sport bikes on the market.

The Verdict
The KTM 500 EXC is the Open-class dual sport king for a reason. Its electric power character, sweet-handling chassis, awesome suspension quality and linear brakes are amazing attributes that should please first-time off-roaders while not boring desert or woods aces. You could probably build a fairly competitive brand-X machine for the 500 EXCís $10,099 asking price, but why bother? KTM already did it for you.

The KTM 500 EXC is an amazing dirt bike that just happens to wear a license plate. If youíre in the market for a capable dual-sport machine, youíll be hard-pressed to find a better one.

Off-Road.com Newsletter
Join our Weekly Newsletter to get the latest off-road news, reviews, events, and alerts!