It might be a dual sport bike, but the EXC can be ridden hard like you would a full-on off-roader.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIT PALMER
Up until 2012, when the all-new KTM 500 EXC first hit the market, there were already some pretty impressive off-road-minded dual sport bikes on the market. Husqvarna, Beta, Husaberg and, of course, KTM all had dual sport models that leaned far more towards dirt than street, something that so many of us off-roaders have been screaming for since the inception of the dual purpose, or now “dual sport,” motorcycle. But it wasn’t until the 2012 fuel-injected KTM 500 EXC came along that we really got excited. As good as some of the other dual sport bikes were, the EXC was far better. It was truly a full-on dirt bike with a license plate on the back that performed like a true full-on dirt bike. But here’s the key – right out of the crate.
For all intents and purposes, the 2012 EXC was simply a 500 XC-W woods racer with blinkers and that’s all. Okay, maybe not all (it also had a lights and mirrors) but where it really mattered most, they were the same – they shared identical 510cc SOHC motors, chromoly-steel frames, footpegs, handlebars, WP forks and PDS rear suspension systems. Any differences were small and had to do with emissions and a few other government regulations that KTM had to comply with so the company could sell the EXC as a street-legal motorcycle. And the EXC was also only about six pounds heavier. So, you can see that the EXC really was (and is) a street-legal XC-W. Basically, you can thank the latest in fuel-injection technology for this and KTM doing its homework.
Bottom line: The 2012 KTM 500 EXC was a godsend for hard-core off-roaders looking for an honest to goodness street-legal dirt bike that worked like it should right off the showroom floor. KTM got it figured out, so there was no need to mess with the EXC’s emission system as soon as you got it home from the dealer. In fact, KTM actually advised against it because you would be doing more harm than good. The bike was designed to run as good as possible with every part, hose and breather in place. If you did tinker with the EXC’s emissions system in any way, even messing with something as seemingly as harmless as the gas cap vent tube, it would hinder performance and would probably require a return trip to your dealer and his computer to have the EXC’s tamper-resistant hard-drive reset.
Unfortunately, as excited as we got about the 500 EXC, we were also quickly brought back to earth by its near $10,000 price tag. Yikes! That’s a lot of dough for a dirt bike. But we haven’t met anyone yet who has since bought a 500 EXC that didn’t think it wasn’t worth its hefty price tag.
For the first time since its 2012 debut, the KTM 500 EXC sees some notable changes with the 2014 model, but, for the most part, it’s still the same great bike as it was – only a little bit better.
All-new plastic gives the 2014 500 EXC a fresh look.
The most notable change is visual. The 2014 500 EXC has an all-new and updated look, thanks to new plastic everywhere – the fenders, side panels, headlight shroud and radiator shrouds are all new and reshaped. And the change wasn’t all about looks, though. The front fender has been redesigned to be stronger, and there is less ribbing under the fender to minimize mud buildup. The radiator shrouds were reshaped for easier movement for the rider, and the hand guards have been tweaked for better knuckle protection. There’s also new seat foam to improve comfort as well as durability.
Look a little closer and you’ll notice that the airbox has also been redesigned. It now has improved sealing and airflow, and access to the Twin Air foam filter element is a little quicker. The filter, which is now more securely attached, can still be changed without using tools.
Even though it has a license plate, KTM hasn’t skimped anywhere when it comes to the EXC. It still gets all the good stuff that the XC-W has, like tapered aluminum handlebars and the latest high-tech Brembo disc brakes with wave rotors and an upgraded front master cylinder with a new reservoir, a smaller piston diameter and a new lever with optimized “kinematics.” There are even new sinter Toyo B169 brake pads.
The 2014 EXC’s 510cc SOHC four-stroke motor hasn’t changed, though fuel mapping has been tweaked a bit, and the “quiet” screen at the tip of the muffler can no longer be removed. It’s welded in there solid.
Unlike the original 500 EXC that was fitted with Metzler DOT tires, the 2014 version comes with Maxxis Enduro DOT tires.
It might be a 500 but the EXC feels very light and agile on the trail. You can throw it around like a lightweight two-stroke.
The 2014 500 EXC is still a blast to ride. It still feels light and agile and very narrow between your legs. The bike is still incredibly responsive and nimble, and far more sensitive than you’d think from a big 500cc dirt bike. In fact, the bike almost feels small in size, despite its somewhat tall 38-inch seat height.
As before, the new 500 EXC is a jewel on the trail. It loves tight and twisty single-track and it soaks up the hard hits like a serious dirt bike does, not like a traditional overweight and under-suspended dual sport bike from Japan. We wouldn’t hesitate one bit removing the mirrors and blinkers and riding it in a local enduro; heck, we’d probably not even bother taking the turn signals off!
Yet, as good as it is on the trail, the KTM is remarkably comfortable on the tarmac. Our last ride on the EXC had us on the pavement for 30 or so miles before we hit dirt, which really isn’t all that unusual when it comes to dual sport riding. You have to get to the good stuff somehow, and the EXC makes that process very acceptable.
Sure, it vibrates a little bit at speed and doesn’t feel quite as refined on the road as some of the more street-orientated dual sport bikes, but the KTM handles the pavement quite well overall. Our test bike came re-geared, from the super-tall stock 14/50 sprockets to a more-sensible 14/48 (lower) gearing. This KTM-recommended combo works quite well both on the trail and the pavement, where you will arrive at sixth gear fairly quickly but still have enough gear left over to get you to 90 mph fairly easily. In general, though, we found the KTM to be quite happy at a steady 60 mph on the pavement. Luckily, for the long sit-down street hauls, the seat is more comfortable than it was on the earlier EXC.
The EXC’s motor is nothing less than superb. It is just about perfect for moderate to hard-core dual sport riding, i.e. technical and non-technical trails. Its large motor displacement translates into awesome torque and horsepower. But don’t let the number “500” on the side panel scare you – yes, the 500 EXC has lots of power on tap, but it’s all very useable and extremely user-friendly. It does, however, rev up quickly and gets right to business as soon as you open up a bunch of throttle, but we wouldn’t call it explosive or hard to handle by any means. In general, most of the “kick” is from midrange on up; it’s actually quite tame from bottom to mid. You can ride the EXC hard when you’re fresh, or mellow when you’re tired, many miles into your ride. Either way, the KTM’s motor is very capable in many situations. Yes, it might be a “race” motor, but that doesn’t mean you have to ride it that way all the time. It also does just fine plonking around at slower speeds.
What the 2.2-gallon tank might lack in capacity is made up for with its translucent and slim construction.
Fueling is crisp and clean, and the new mapping seems to have eliminated the annoying deceleration popping that the original EXC had. And we didn’t experience any stalling or hard starting.
Adding to the KTM’s riding enjoyment is its ultra-light clutch and throttle pull, smooth shifting of the six-speed gearbox and outstanding brakes, though the front brake did get a little mushy on our bike but didn’t really lose any stopping power.
Simply put, suspension is outstanding. It offers a plush ride overall yet can, without surprise, withstand some serious pounding on the trail. The 48mm open-cartridge WP fork and the single PDS rear shock are well sprung and fully adjustable. Our test bike was ridden back and forth between a 160-pound rider and a 180-pound rider and neither felt the immediate need to make any adjustments.
So what didn’t we like? Not a whole lot, but one tester thought that the handlebars were too low and flat. The gas cap can be a bit of a pain to loosen, and the meter isn’t exactly user-friendly (though it does offer plenty of useful information once you figure it out).
With the EXC, you can do this as soon as you ride it off the showroom floor.
On the other hand, we loved the KTM’s translucent fuel tank, which makes it easy to monitor capacity during your ride. Its 2.25-gallon capacity isn’t anything to brag about, however, but it did once get us about 70 miles of mixed riding with still some fuel splashing around inside, and it’s hard not to like its narrow profile. We feel the KTM’s tank is a fair compromise between comfort and long range. We also liked the bike’s useful hand guards, easy access air filter and sturdy license-plate holder. There is almost no worse feeling than finishing a long ride only to discover that your valuable piece of aluminum is no longer with you.
Many people, including us, still gulp at the EXC’s now $10,099 price tag. Is it really worth it? It certainly is if you’re looking for a super-high-performance go-anywhere dual sport bike that is ready to hit the trails as soon as you roll it off the showroom floor. Yes, it’s a lot money for sure but at least you get what you pay for. You might want to change gearing and ditch the mirrors for ones that are more versatile and can be quickly and easily stowed away, but the KTM 500 EXC is more than ready to take on any trail at any trail pace, not to mention any city street, right from the get-go.
So, does it really get much better than this? The KTM 350 EXC, perhaps?
2014 KTM 500 EXC
ENGINE: Liquid-cooled, SOHC, 4-valve, 4-stroke, single
DISPLACEMENT: 510.4 cc
BORE x STROKE: 95mm x 72mm
LUBRICATION: Pressure circulation w/two rotary pumps
PRIMARY DRIVE RATIO: 32:76
FINAL DRIVE RATIO: 14:50
CLUTCH: DDS Multidisc clutch/hydraulically activated
FRAME: Chrome molybdenum steel tubing
FRONT SUSPENSION: WP Suspension USD 4860 MXMA PA
REAR SUSPENSION: WP Suspension PDS 5018 DCC
FRONT WHEEL TRAVEL: 11.81 in.
REAR WHEEL TRAVEL: 13.19 in.
TIRES: Maxxis DOT
FRONT BRAKE: Disc, 260mm Brembo
REAR BRAKE: Disc, 220mm Brembo
WHEELBASE: 58.3 in.
GROUND CLEARANCE: 13.58 in.
SEAT HEIGHT: 38.2 in.
FUEL CAPACITY: 2.25-gal.
CLAIMED DRY WEIGHT: 245.8 lbs.