I just got back in from a great day of riding the new 350 Beta. It left me with a very favorable impression on the Italian manufacturer’s 2012 line up. The 350RR has some distinct handling traits that make it a hoot to ride. The smaller motor makes power in a way that is fun and rewarding. In short, I found the littlest Beta a great trail companion.
The 350 is more or less all new for 2012. A few 2011 models arrived in the spring. Yet with the new frame and suspension components, this is really a significantly different package. The Chromoly frame has been modified to decrease flex. New larger diameter tubing is used throughout. There is an additional cross bar added just below the exhaust header. The area around the top shock mount is also beefier.
The suspension package changes significantly also. For the RR models, the 50mm Marzocchi fork is gone and a new 48mm Sachs unit is fitted. This is a traditional open chamber design. In the rear is a Sachs shock similar to last year’s models.
The 350 gets some engine details that separate it from its larger siblings. The Titanium valves, new design head, higher compression piston and smaller exhaust are all aimed at getting the best performance out of the little enduro motor.
In general, the rest of the motor is similar with the larger models. Features include, a six speed transmission, kick and electric start and separate motor and transmission oil. All Beta’s get an updated clutch this year. The 400cc model is also still available, but primarily shares its design with the 450 instead of the 350.
For our day of testing, we hooked up with Beta’s Johnny Murphee and Javier Gonzales of Trail Tricks to ride some of my favorite mountains near Gorman. We brought along our long-term 2011 KTM 350xc-f to provide some benchmark comparisons.
The first thing we did was put the bikes on the scales for some real world weight comparisons. I don’t know that our bathroom scales are strictly accurate, but as we weighed the bikes side by side, the variance should be pretty reliable. All bikes had a full tank of gas and were ready to ride. These are the results: 2012 Beta 350RR – 263 lbs, 2011 KTM 350xc-f – 244 lbs, 2011 Husaberg FX450 – 261 lbs.
As you can see, the Beta is little on the heavy side. It should be noted that the 350RR we tested was essentially a dual sport spec bike without turn signals. It had the full complement of lights, switchgear and instruments. That should easily account for as much as 10 pounds of the weight difference.
As we started our ride, I instantly took a liking the new 350. Surprisingly, it was because the bike feels so light. As we put on a few more miles, two more characteristics really started to stand out. First, the chassis gives excellent feedback. It is very stable and confidence inspiring. The other thing that struck me, was how well the cockpit design fit me, sort of reminds me of my favorite KTM RFS bikes.
The motor is something unique. It is not quite the rev happy race engine of the KTM. While it is still fitted with a carburetor, Beta has become known for excellent stock jetting. Our riding took place at over 5,000 feet and the bike was jetted for closer to sea level. So it suffered a little; showing one of the conditions where fuel injection is superior.
Clearly, the Beta is carrying around more mass in the crank and flywheel. The motor revs a little slower, but with very smooth power delivery. Instead of feeling similar to the 350 KTM, it feels much more like a 400, a little stronger right off the bottom, smooth through the middle and not quite as much on top.
The suspension worked very well for the conditions we rode. For mild to medium pace trails is was very supple. The fork is a big contributor to the positive front-end feel of the bike, it is confidence inspiring.
The shock action is similar and good for most trail riding situations. As the pace increases, it starts to suffer a little more. The rising rate on the linkage is very progressive. There is a spot about two-thirds of the way through the stroke were the shock nearly comes to a stop. By increasing the pace, I was able to get the shock to move all the way through the stroke. Nevertheless, at a medium fast pace through the whoops, the ride was certainly harsh.
This was one of the issues that I recall from the last Beta we tested. However, that bike would suffer from a big frame flex at the same time and would become unpredictable. With the new frame, the Beta tracks better regardless of the situation.
The Nissan calipers and Braking rotors are first rate. They work so good as to really demonstrate the one significant weakness of the 350, it is still carrying around a little extra weight. Getting on the brakes hard brings a strong weight transfer that will quickly overcome the front fork, as it dives through the stroke.
That is where we get back to that argument of “feels light versus being light”. The Beta handles with amazing ease. It is a little tall and long, but with a lighter mass (compared to a 450), it flicks side to side and tracks without effort. Regardless, once it is time to put the brakes on, or the wheels in the air, the actual weight does start to become obvious.
As for overall riding impressions compared to the KTM, I really enjoyed riding the Beta better for the conditions. Now coming from me, that is a huge compliment. The 350 xc-f is one of my absolute favorite bikes. Yet, the general feel and feedback of the Beta are such that I could see myself trail riding it anywhere. Slap on the new 3.8-gallon Clarke tank and it is ready for Mexico. Perhaps that will make a great test for one of the larger models.
With the KTM, the harder you push it, the better it works. Throttle pinned, with one wheel in the air, is when it really shines. That is not how the Beta wants to be ridden, more a “steady as she goes” feel. For example, stab the rear brake on the KTM and the rear will start coming around. On the Beta the wheel does not move, it just slows the bike down. This is not to describe good versus bad, just two different creatures; one hyperactive and the other predictably stable. To be blunt, the KTM is a more natural race bike, while the Beta is more fun to trail ride.
With our ride finished. I had one more thing that I wanted to look at. I have not had much love for the Sachs suspension components that I have tested in the past. One of the issues is the 7mm shims that they use in the forks. They do not match anything else, so very few people are set up to work on the forks.
Trail Tricks did a quick disassemble for us to look at the internals of the new 48mm TFX fork. For the most part, it is just a straightforward open chamber design. It uses a check valve instead of intermediate shim stack. The piston diameter is reduced to 22m from the previous 27mm size. On the base valve the ports have been enlarged and a chamfer around the edge increases oil flow, allowing better oil distribution between the ports. Javier says this mimics the type of modifications he typically does to WP components.
Here is the fork description from the Italian website: “Hydraulic system with compression / extension pistons with differentiated diameter (greater in compression, smaller in extension). This choice improves the balance of the oil flow inside the stems and, specifically, it makes the front end capable of cashing out the bumps without unpredictable reactions”.
As for ride quality, I do like this fork much better than last year’s 50mm unit. Additionally, I think this Sachs unit probably has a little bit better performance range than the 45mm Marzocchi that will be standard on the 2012 RS dual sport models.
So overall, I came away from my initial ride with some very positive results. The Beta 350RR just feels like one of those bikes you can ride all day and never tire. There were a few moments where I was wishing for a little more power. If this bike could lose ten pounds, it would be a real contender against anything. For now, it has all the makings of a fantastic trail bike.