This Suzuki DR-Z400S And KTM 500 EXC Comparison test first ran in Cycle News in September 2019 but continues to be a popular story on the site so we are pushing this back up to the top in case you missed it before. There isn’t supposed to be a checkered flag at the end of a dual-sport ride, but can one of the most beloved and endearing dual sport bikes ever made—the Suzuki DR-Z400S—beat out or at least compete with one of the most technically advanced dual sport bikes ever made—the KTM 500 EXC—when it comes to just plain having raw fun? We set out to find out
Suzuki DR-Z400S And KTM 500 EXC Ride Review Comparison
We know what you’re thinking—isn’t comparing the Suzuki DR-Z400S to the KTM 500 EXC like comparing figure skating to cage fighting? Yes, figure skating and cage fighting are both sports and both produce a winner after all is said and done, but that is where their similarities quickly end. It’s kind of like that with the Suzuki DR-Z400S and the KTM 500 EXC. They are two very different machines but are designed to achieve the same result—fun—at the end of the day. So we wanted to find out which bike can actually provide the most fun. The answer seems obvious at first—the KTM, of course. It’s high tech and regarded by many as the dual-sport bike by which all others are judged. However, we weren’t so sure and asked the question: Can you have the same amount of fun on the old-school and loveable DR-Z400S as you can on the new-school and racy 500 EXC?
Both bikes fall into the dual-sport category but, as mentioned, they are two entirely different animals. One has a five-speed transmission, the other a six-speed. One has 398 and the other 510.4 cubic centimeters of piston displacement. One weighs well over 310 pounds, the other barely hits 260 pounds. One relies on a carburetor for fueling, the other modern-day fuel injection. One has a suspension system that is nearly two decades old in design, the other about as modern as you can get. One is made in Japan, the other in Austria. One sells for $6749, the other $11,199.
However, as different as these motorcycles seem to be, they both share one thing in common—providing, as mentioned, fun. And that is, in our option, the number-one reason why we ride motorcycles, especially dual-sport bikes.
So, in this not-so-typical comparison, our objective was to compare the fun factor between these two bikes, not so much about which one does what better. Most of us already know that the KTM is by far the superior motorcycle of the two in practically every category in terms of outright performance and is the bike you want to be on when it comes to covering the most amount of ground in the least amount of time. But does this mean the KTM is automatically tons more fun to ride than the Suzuki on your typical dual-sport outing?
To do this, our plan was simple—to go riding. Suzuki loaned us a 2019 DR-Z400S and KTM a 500 EXC, and we took off for the hills but not before making a couple much needed, but minor, modifications to the Suzuki. We swapped out the way-too-street-focused stock tires for something with a lot more knob but had to remain street-legal. We went with Dunlop’s trusty DOT-stamped D606s. Even though this tire is somewhat heavy in design, we still like it for its excellent all-around performance both on the street and dirt and its exceptional longevity. We also removed the silly rubber pads that are bolted onto the DR’s footpegs to help mask vibration. We prefer having better grip and foot support than risk having numb feet, so the rubber blocks were tossed into the trashcan. Otherwise, we left both bikes box stock.
Our daylong ride required a mixed bag of elements: pavement, dirt roads, single-track, technical trail, and anything else we could find in between.
Since most of us don’t have an OHV staging area in our backyards, dual-sport rides tend to start out on the pavement, or more specifically out of driveways, like ours did. Usually, there’s a meeting place, such as someone’s house, a gas station, or any place where there is hot coffee and doughnuts. These are all common meeting places for dual-sport buddies before the real fun stuff begins. If that meeting place requires a long haul on the pavement, however, you’re day could already be getting off to a rocky start, especially if you’re on the EXC. No new news here but the KTM isn’t a street bike; it’s a dirt bike. It doesn’t like the street, it doesn’t want to be on the street, and it’s no fun on the street. But it can—legally—be ridden on the street, which is a very good thing. The 500 EXC wants to be ridden on the dirt, and that’s where it’s designed to be. So if you find yourself having to log a lot of pavement miles on the KTM right off the bat, the fun-factor meter needle won’t budge. It’ll stay right at zero. Advantage: Suzuki.
The Suzuki is a decent street bike, and if that meeting place is some 50 miles from your driveway, or if you have to hit the freeway for a bit, you’ll still show up at your meeting place feeling pretty fresh and anxious to get started for what you came to do. So, for the DR-Z, this is a huge advantage over the EXC, and this could make the difference between having a good day or a bad day.
We had a third bike on this ride, our Beta 430 RR-S test bike, which was recruited as our work/photo bike for this trip, so three of us could take turns on the Suzuki and KTM.
Finally, we headed out. After a quick stop for fuel and a few more miles of pavement and stoplights, we eventually got on the dirt and left the craziness of real life behind us. Ah, relief—dirt! Rennie happened to be on the DR-Z at the time and was anxious to “give the ol’ gal a go” on the dirt, in this case, a twisty fire road heading up a canyon. But it didn’t take long for Rennie to start bitching.
Our first stop, and he was already ranting through his helmet about things like high-speed damping, clickers, spring rates, ergos, front-end push, power, throttle response, and anything else he could pick apart. I was not surprised; after all, it’s his job to do that. In fact, I was expecting it because Rennie is a outstanding test rider. That’s why we hired him as our Road Test Editor—he knows a thing or two about motorcycles and the way they should work. We reminded him to forget about all that stuff this time and just ride. This “test” wasn’t so much about fork-oil level, seat-foam density, or tire pressure, as it was about trying to enjoy the ride and having a good time. Rennie had calmed down by the next quick stop, and I actually thought I heard him utter the words “pretty fun” before we were on the move again.
We came across our first challenging section—a relatively long rocky climb that would put the DR-Z to the test and even the KTM, as well as our own riding skills. We offered Rennie, our resident “street guy,” the KTM, but he was up for the challenge on the DR-Z. Next thing you know, Rennie was gone. We finally caught up to him at the top of the hill. He and the DR-Z did just fine, and they were waiting for us while enjoying the scenery. Rennie’s helmet was off, and I could see that “what-took-you-guys-so-long?” expression on his face. He and the Suzuki were warming up to each other, and Rennie’s fun-meter was beginning to show some signs of life. Sean’s and mine, however, were already very active; after all, we live for the dirt, so our fun-meter always shoots straight to at least 50% no matter what we’re riding. As long as we’re throwing dirt and making dust, we’re having, at minimum, a good time.
We swapped bikes for the rocky descent, and we continued on our journey. Our destination? Unknown. We had a basic idea where we were going, but we were just winging it, really, which in my opinion, is the best way to enjoy a dual sport ride.
As the miles piled on and we transitioned from morning sun to afternoon sun, it became more and more apparent that it really didn’t matter anymore which bike we were on. We really weren’t “testing” anymore, or on the clock, so to speak. Instead, we had simply turned into three guys out for a dual sport ride. “Hey, Rennie, you want to ride the DR-Z now?” “Yeah, sure!” This would not have been the case earlier in the day when we had defaulted into our “testing mode.” After all, that’s we do for a living, test bikes. In all honesty, we all wanted to be on the KTM at first. It was the bike of choice for sure, and, yes, it was hard to hand it off to someone else. Man, the KTM is a damn good motorcycle! But after a while, it was getting clearer and clearer that, no matter how good the KTM was, the ride itself—our destination, the route we were taking, where we’d stop for food—had become more important than which bike we were on. It didn’t matter anymore. We seemed to be having an equal amount of fun riding both bikes, and fun had taken precedence over how good, or not so good, the bikes performed. It just did not seem to matter anymore…until.
With the sun now setting, and with the prospects of a long ride back home on the pavement, and now with a full day of riding under our helmets and butts on the seat, suddenly the DR-Z became hot property. Since I had the slightly longer ride back home on the pavement than anyone else, I got to finish off the day on the bike I started out on, the DR-Z.
I think when all was said and done, at one time or another during the ride, our fun-meters were pegged on both bikes, just not always at the same time. The Suzuki kicks the KTM’s butt on the pavement and rivals it on smooth dirt roads. The KTM, on the other hand, is a far superior motorcycle on technical off-road terrain, but the Suzuki can get by—you just have to work a little harder, but in a weird kind of way, that’s what makes the DR-Z such a blast to ride. You have to ride it, while with the KTM, it’s so good that it almost feels like it does everything for you! Then again, the KTM is a lot more hyper than the Suzuki, and you have to give it a lot more respect every time you crack the throttle. Depending on your riding talent, the KTM can be a bit of a handful. The DR-Z you don’t have to worry about that. It is a far more easy-going, forgiving, and user-friendly motorcycle. Chose your personality.
The debate as to which bike is better, the old-school DR-Z or the high-tech EXC, will go on forever. It’s pretty much what matters most to you? The bike or the ride? If it’s the bike, then, yes, the KTM is still the king, but if it’s about the ride, well, there really is no winner. Both bikes will deliver fun by the boatloads. CN
Click here to read this review in Cycle News digital edition magazine.