Do 150-plus cc’s really make a difference? This is the question we wanted to answer with our 2020 Husqvarna FE 350 versus FE 501 Comparison.
For 2020, Husqvarna’s FE line of four-stroke, single-track-slaying woods machines are no longer just street-legal beasts. In line with KTM’s enduro offering, there are now trail bikes in the lineup without license plates.
Photography by Kit Palmer
In our KTM XCF-W vs EXC comparison a few weeks ago, we showed that the concept of compromise between bikes with license plates and those without is weak. And if you don’t need or want a license plate on your dirt bike, you should save the cash and get the one without. That’s simple enough, right?
Here, we’re skipping that debate (thankfully) and going straight to the hottest question on deck: What size dirt bike should I buy?
Husqvarna’s FE lineup only comes in two sizes—the FE 350 and FE 501. And as an American-based publication we’re predisposed to simply pick the bigger option of any comparison and then shoot off some fireworks. However, as unreasonable as we try to be, the real differences in power character, comfort and control in these modern dirt bikes vary as much as their bore/stroke specs. So, we just took them out for rides and made some decisions that way. We’re still buying fireworks.
2020 Husqvarna FE Off Road Bike Updates
Both FE models in Husqvarna’s family of dirt bikes feature a host of 2020 updates including new frames, new cylinder heads, new pistons and cylinders, updated cooling systems and more. Each engine featured here has higher compression than the previous generation. As we’ve seen every year since sometime around 2011, Austrian bikes lose weight every year. And this year, these bikes clock in with weight savings across the board.
Suspension components also get a freshening up with WP’s Xplor 48 forks with hand-operated spring preload adjusters (with preset detents) and compression/rebound knobs all located on the top cap. The rear WP Xact shock, mounted to the same progressive rate linkage as their MX range, provides full adjustability and the latest tune specs for the new frame.
Along with the rear shock linkage, Husqvarna models have a couple other unique features and setups worth noting. First, they utilize Magura braking components and we’ve been a fan every year we’ve tested them. Their performance has proven to be on par with KTM’s Brembo parts.
Next up is the composite rear subframe. It’s renewed for 2020 with a refined shape and with a longer rear section, now a two-piece unit, and it’s coming in lighter than ever at 2.2 pounds total.
Finally, the seat height of a Husqvarna is about 10mm lower this year thanks to a compact wiring harness and new seat. This and the new bodywork work together to improve the feel riders have on the bikes. All good news.
Generally speaking, both the Husqvarna FE 350 and FE 501 have very similar handling characteristics. Taking power delivery out of the equation (more on that later), the suspension performance and frame/chassis balance feels spot-on on both.
The suspension feels tuned right for where you’ll want to ride this bike—on trails, not tracks, and in competition held on trails. It has compliance to keep your tires on the ground through technical obstacles and enough hold-up to handle the occasional miscalculation of speed and trail obstruction. Its limitations come up only when pushed outside this preference for ground contact. If it’s flowing trails and finding a rhythm you’re after, with the occasional root-infested technical side-hill or rock garden, this is the do-it-all setup for you. If you want to jump, look at the FX for your closed-course fix.
One standout feature on the 2020 Husqvarna FE series is the dual-map switch and traction control. This was actually very cool to use during our tests. When applied, traction control provided noticeable stability through loose rock sections, even with haphazard throttle whacking. Having the two maps on hand to adjust power is fun, too.
2020 Husqvarna FE 350 – More Than Midsize
The 350-class of Austrian dirt bike engines needs little promotion. Most of the top GNCC and Enduro and EnduroCross racers race with the powerplant at least most of the time. And it’s an engine package that keeps on giving with impressive overall power numbers and a tame demeanor that translates into a very capable tight-trail and open-desert weapon. It does the rare trick of feeling like a small bore at lower rpm but surging with plenty of top-end to catch the open-class racers if motivated to do so. This is a motor that has lined up and beat 450 MX machines on the world stage.
In true off-road spec here, the 350 barely feels the leash of more restrictive exhaust or engine maps focused on traction over wheelspin. It performed admirably in all conditions from boulder sections to technical, loose climbs. Then, it goes wide open across the desert like a champ, too.
It’s smooth power character makes traction second nature and the more technical the trail becomes, the more the 350’s manners thrive. It is rarely out of control. But it always has a little more on tap if you’re looking for it.
This bike feels lighter than it is. Handles well, pivots easily, has an enticing ability to encourage you to twist harder on the throttle and responds very well to small-bore aggressive riding attitudes. At the same time, it can be babied and cruised in total comfort without the feeling of loading it up or holding it back.
The Husqvarna FE 350 is a bike I could take to any off-road riding destination in the western United States and use comfortably on any trail. Likewise, it will line up at a National Enduro and compete just fine. Sure, there are always trails on the fringe where a two-stroke is going to be much better, but it’s hard to deny the range of use this 350 has. And it’s hard to find an instance where you’d really want a lot more. Maybe a hillclimb contest? Then again, it’d be a lot of fun to beat your buddies on a smaller bike.
2020 Husqvarna FE 501 – The Displacement Rule Isn’t Broken
The open-class mentality of dirt bikes hasn’t always been a reasonable one. But modern half-liter, off-road specific dirt bikes put a lot of that old-world gnarr to bed with phenomenal power and torque that can be delicately applied should the situation call for it. The Husqvarna FE 501 is the latest edition of this masterful stroke.
There’s no hesitation in feeling what’s in store aboard the FE 501. At first idle stroke, you know what you’re dealing with and the gravitational pull a slight throttle opening has on your forward momentum is felt in your gut. It’s not too much, but it is strong and once you feel it, it’s hard to go back, honestly.
This isn’t a brainlessly over-powerful ride. There are slightly camouflaged MX bikes on the market that make wasteful off-road power and generally suck to ride on real trails if you’re looking for that sort of thing. This is big power with ambitions of massive traction.
Apart from the earth rotating underneath you and a more baritone exhaust note, the biggest initial indication you’re on a 501 here is the pulse through the chassis. For our test crew, this was noticeable every time. The 501 simply vibrates more and at a much lower frequency than its smaller brother.
It makes sense in some ways as the significantly larger bore/stroke on the 501 (95/72mm compared to the 350’s 88/57.5mm) is generating a pulse that can’t simply be muffled or balanced as easily. And it’s not like there’s more mass in the 501 platform to absorb or deflect it. In fact, there’s only about a pound difference in overall weight between an FE 350 and FE 501 (254 pounds/255 pounds full of gas, respectfully). So, you get more vibration, in a heavy sort of pulsing feel, with an FE 501. Some would classify these as good vibrations.
The power delivery of the FE 501 is so addictive. If you love wheelies, it makes them so easy. Yet, somehow, it behaves so well at low speeds that you’ll forget you’re riding a bike that can blitz across the desert for days without worry. It’s slightly more susceptible to pop-stalling with the lean stock fueling, but we rarely had it show up in negative ways, even during our rock hopping and sand-wash foot-plant games.
The big-bore power and torquey nature of the FE 501 beast means it’s more capable for longer-distance excursions like traversing Idaho’s backcountry or dropping down the Baja peninsula for a week loaded with luggage. It’s the do-it-all platform that only shows weakness in the most technical, throttle-control-vital situations.
The Bore-ing Truth
Everyone I ride with on a regular basis has a version of the full-size KTM or Husqvarna off-road bike platform—mostly 450 or 500-class XCF-W, XC-F, EXCs and FEs, even a Beta or two in that range. In California, EXC and FE-S versions are hard to beat with open-road legality of license plates and the longer-distance chops of bore and stroke math coming to the rescue if/when you need to powerline-road it home. The question of bike size for many out here is one of, “Why not?” as in, “Why not have 500 instead of 350?” It’s with this legacy many 350s are not considered after that point. This is the land that developed the Honda XR650R into the king of the desert, after all. The 350 pitch often falls on deaf ears in comparison.
Today, I think there’s a serious case for reconsidering that standard. In our testing, the FE 350 didn’t leave us missing any of the big-bore goodness of the 501. And riding it was honestly more fun short of effortless wheelies. Only if we were buying a bike for a specific, long-distance trip would we outright choose the 501 without hesitation. The new FE 350 seemed to perform better than ever with easier to control power and plenty of it to play. And what’s to say the 350-platform wouldn’t perform just as well across the country?
On the flipside, the FE 501 outshines the FE 350 in sand wash chases, open terrain, acceleration and hillclimbs, for sure. It makes pursuit and overtaking of the FE 350 fairly easy and if you’re looking to simply roost your buddies or want to rely on backup power in the case of a roosting opportunity/emergency, the FE 501 is probably the wise choice (fireworks!). Click up a gear and twist the throttle and the bike will catch what’s in front of it.
Likewise, if high elevation riding is in your future, the FE 501 makes more sense. It will have ample power at 10,000 feet where the 350 will drop off more so.
The FE 350 has easier-to-control power and remains controllable through tighter situations. It’s the wise choice if you want to use more of the bike’s potential in your quest for fun and going fast on it through technical terrain arguably uses less energy.
350 or 501?
You can’t go wrong with either of these bikes but your primary riding conditions should make your final decision between the 350 and 501. Most people that think they “need” the 501 would be surprised at just how little you give up on the 350, and the tradeoff in reduced vibration with more manageable power makes it the better choice for most riders, but if you prefer big fireworks, get the 501 and blow some things up. CN
2020 Husqvarna FE 350 / FE 501 Specifications
||$10,499 / $11,099
||Liquid-cooled, 4-valve, 4-stroke, single
||349.7cc / 510.9cc
|Bore & Stroke:
||88mm & 57.5mm / 95mm & 72mm
||13.5:1 / 12.75:1
||Keihin EMS 42mm
||Wet, DDS multi-disc, Magura hydraulics
||Central double-cradle-type 25CrMo4 steel
||WP-USD Xplor 48, fully adjustable
||Single WP Xact shock with linkage, fully adjustable
||Magura, 4-piston, floating caliper, single 260mm disc
||Magura, 1-piston, single 220mm disc
||90/90 x 21 in. Dunlop AT81
||140/80-18 in. Dunlop AT81
||X-Ring 5/8 x 1/4 in.
|Weight (wet, actual):
||254 lbs. / 255 lbs.