Our totally biased and probably completely unfair enduro shootout
In the process of testing the 2015 Beta 390 one thought has repeatedly appeared. The Beta seems very reminiscent of an early model KTM 400exc. This was never a negative impression, the 400’s were great bikes in the day. They were easy to ride and always performed just bit better than expected. Prior to 2003, 400 was “the” class to be in. It was the core displacement for the emerging generation of new four strokes. KTM, Yamaha, Cannondale, Gas Gas, Husaberg, everyone made a 400. There was even a KTM 400sx model.
For me, they were an important group of bikes. I owned two of the KTM’s. I raced my first ISDE on one and it still sits in my garage (long since converted to a 450). I have the notable distinction of probably being the only American to qualify for the ISDE on a Gas Gas 400. I also qualified for the ISDE on an ATK 440 (Cannondale). Before I digress too far…. let’s just say I have ridden lots of 400’s.
Gas Gas EC400 2002 Idaho City Qualifier , doug karcher photo
So as the similarities kept appearing in our 390 Beta, it wasn’t just a passing thought. It was actually very thought provoking. I kept thinking about the idea of something lost, something gained. As time progressed, we all moved to 450’s. Bigger more powerful bikes wanted stronger components and stiffer frames. KTM frames of the era were rather puny. There was very little advance in design from about 1990 to 2004. In 2005 KTM finally went to a much stronger frame design and beefier swingarms were to follow.
But 2005 also saw some of the KTM handling characteristics go to pot. The new frame came along and changed everything. The suspension package would take a couple of years to catch up. So 2005 models were pretty harsh feeling without some suspension work.
For enduro junkies, 2004 was a pretty good year. The KTM was a very nice overall package. What we now look back on as a flexxy frame was actually thought pretty highly of by woods riders at the time.
ATK 440, 2005 Idaho City Qualifier, doug karcher photo
All of these ideas fit right in with the results of our Beta time. The frame is certainly not as stiff as most contemporary bikes. The overall ride is very plush and the lack of any vibration is very welcome. Just as I remember a KTM 400. Or is it just as I want to remember it being like? When I chanced upon a low mileage 2004 400exc for sale, I just couldn’t resist the temptation. I sent the owner a low ball offer and waited patiently. As nobody in his right mind wants such a small bike here in the desert regions, it soon became mine.
The new 400 is a clean, low mileage bike. Most importantly, except for suspension, it is completely unmolested, just as delivered from the factory. A 10 year old dirt bike still requires a full day of my time to get up to snuff. But once prepped it was ready to take on the Beta in a generation separated shootout. Just how much have dirt bikes progressed in the last decade?
The first trip was out to the my favorite vet motocross track. It just took a couple of laps to get up to speed on the KTM. Everything seemed in place, no surprises, so time to turn up the speed. The suspension has been set up much stiffer than stock and handled everything on the track well. The KTM has that same wonderful RFS motor character. There is lots of low end and midrange. The top end of the power seems to come a bit too soon. It is a little slow to rev and certainly not as eager to do so as modern bikes.
The ergonomics are not quite new feeling, as you sit more in the bike and don’t slide forward quite as easy. The brakes are good for a bike that sat around for most of the decade. I am sure with some new fluid and surfacing on the pads they would be great. Overall the 400 felt really nice, very KTM and very much an RFS feel. I was absolutely at home on it.
Next up was the Beta. The very first thing to notice is how it does not have the same power way down low as the KTM. But is revs much quicker and gets into the power almost as fast. It also continues to rev and make power much higher than the 400. The 400 may have been cutting edge in it’s day, but today feels more like a tractor. Not all bad, but certainly a little dated in feel.
2002 ISDE Czech Republic
In terms of handing, the Beta felt far more responsive and composed. Letting both tires drift around beneath you is of no particular concern. It will hardly do anything wrong. Turning input is far lighter and precise. Everything feels more modern.
On the track, I could turn about the same lap times on both bikes. The big difference was in effort. On the Beta I could ride all day and never tire. The KTM would have me puffing in just a couple of laps. For this day, the KTM stands up well on its own and has a fun factor quite unlike anything else, but the Beta easily took the day.
But I figured that neither bike was truly in its element and they needed to see some real single track trail. So we loaded up for a trip to McCain Valley next. I guess it is no surprise that different characteristics came out in each bike. Again the Beta was very hard to beat for its gentle suspension and ultra friendly motor.
As before, the KTM started strong. The superior low end torque gives it a more powerful feel. But we found the clutch a challenge in very technical terrain. The engagement range is very small. It requires a more precise hand. The Beta is very smooth by comparison.
Next came the issue of compression braking. Chop the throttle on the KTM and it is like throwing out the anchor. The heavy KTM crank feels very old school today. Mind you, if I only rode the 400, I could learn to use this characteristic as a benefit and brake less. But it again takes a more careful hand in on/off throttle situations. Otherwise the ride is very rough. I think it is a quality that tends to go unnoticed in the larger 450 and 525 bikes. They don’t need to be revved as much, so the engine braking is less pronounced. The Beta had almost no engine braking in comparison, very smooth even with a heavy throttle hand.
At the end of the day, some of our fond feeling for the KTM was clearly from looking back with rose colored glasses. It is a very nice bike, but no real match in outright performance to the 390. The 400’s shortcomings were probably exaggerated on tight trails and the moto track. For casual trail riding or the style we do in Baja, I think the beefy bottom end will shine a bit more and the low points will move to the background. Regardless, the Beta really shows a decade of refinements.
Finally, I am still left with the conclusion that both are smoother and vibrate less than many of the current bikes we ride. There really is merit to the idea of something lost for something gained.