2016 KTM 500EXC

The Most Versatile Bike In The World

MSRP: $10,399.00

Credits

  • Writer: Jimmy Lewis
  • Photographer: Ray Conway/Jimmy Lewis

Introduction

  • This is a test of a dealer bought box-stock KTM 500EXC.

The dream dual-purpose bike formula is this: Take your motocross bike and give it electric starting, a wide ratio transmission and lights. Maybe a kickstand and tune the suspension a little, but not much more. The reality of a dual-purpose bike is that it must meet stringent sound and emissions standards set but the federal government and they don’t care how your motorcycle performs out on the trail. It has to be quiet and it can’t stink like un-burnt gas.

KTM has been finding the compromise by starting with their full-blown motocross package and doing only what is truly necessary to get to this point. And because of that they are very successful with the 500EXC. A bike that has won so many awards it is getting boring. The chassis is a linkageless version of the 450SX-F from just a few years ago and the motor the same architecture of that pre-2015 SX-F engine. How good is it? Well for this test we did something a little different. We went and bought one at a dealer and rode it box-stock to give you a complete experience and will follow the test with updates on the modifications and lessons learned with this bike. Especially since DBT testers have easily over 1000 hours on various KTM 500EXCs dating back to 2012.

"The dream dual-purpose bike formula is this: Take your motocross bike and give it electric starting, a wide ratio transmission and lights."

Changes

  • Better looks come standard in 2016.

For 2016 The 500EXC gets a bold new color scheme with an Orange headlight shell being a big change. Better than the usual bold new graphics, the orange frame that appeared in 2015 really brings the bike to life and KTM added a different seat cover and a skid plate standard. The mechanical parts of the bike have not changed since the 2012 introduction largely because that requires re-certification which is an expensive process. Last year the big change was to a new front axle which was smaller in diameter and also required a different offset triple clamp and lower fork clamp to keep the geometry the same. Plus, don’t mess with something that is already near perfection. We also know that there is an all-new 2017 500 EXC on the way.

" The mechanical parts of the bike have not changed since the 2012 introduction"

Power

  • Smooth, long lasting and plentiful in power.
  • Standard gearing is very tall and needs to be changed for real off-road riding.
  • The bike is quiet and very fuel efficient.

There should be no power shortage in a 510cc motorcycle. But we have seen what neutering sound and emissions regulations can do to a bike. Don’t worry since the introduction of fuel injection and digital ignitions keeping the power has become a lot easier and more efficient as well. The bike is corked up a bit in the muffler, it exhales through a very restricted perforated exhaust tip that definitely traps heat inside the muffler as well as restricts flow. But unless you are holding the throttle open for large periods of time, you really don’t feel it that much.

The 500 fires right up hot or cold and we will say the 2016 bike did start better than the earlier models. It also felt like it warmed quicker and did not lean stall or pop on deceleration as much as we remember earlier models doing. The throttle response is very crisp and once open the bike makes smooth power with gobs of torque. It isn’t as impressive as an uncorked 500cc bike should be but you can’t even hear this one coming. The RPMs build slowly when compared to a race bike but it is still better than any carbureted dual-purpose bike ever.

Good thing the fuel management and throttle response is so good, along with the hydraulic clutch control because the gearing is the biggest hurdle this bike faces. Final drive gearing is 15/45 which is fine for street riding and tame off-road riding. It places first gear a little too tall for anything technical and then the gaps between the gears are a little wide for someone who is picky. But the bike will still easily loft the front wheel in first or second gear, power isn’t the issue. When the time comes to go really slow, a lot of clutch slipping is required and that heats up the engine. Good thing there is an automatic radiator cooling fan that comes on and does work. We did not lose any coolant in our stock testing but we also did not abuse the bike in the slow going. On other bikes we have changed the gearing to 14/48 (you can still use the stock chain with this gearing) or more ideally 14/50 or 14/52 for more technical off-road trails.

The bike is pretty fast too. It will get into the mid-90s with stock gearing in fifth gear on a dry lake bed, it actually goes a little slower in sixth cause it can’t pull as much RPM. What is impressive is the throttle response and the willingness of the bike to take big throttle openings at low RPM and pull clean and accelerate. There is very little surging at steady RPM but if the bike isn’t happy at any RPM a quick shift will fix that.

The 500 EXC has long clutch life and excellent feel at the lever where the pull rivals any bike out there in ease. The ratios are progressive in equal steps and having that six-speed gearbox gives it range in gearing. There is very little mechanical ticking in the motor but with the quiet exhaust some hear noises that are normal but hard to hear with a louder exhaust note. The engine has roughly 1.2 liters of oil that lasts an easy 10-hours of hard use and still comes out clean. The oil filter is simple to get at as well. The only part we keep an eye on inside the engine is the small rubber dampers inside the clutch hub that can wear in about 15-20 hours in abusive riding on-road or in times of high traction and lots of wheel slamming.

The biggest things the very restrictive muffler end piece does is create heat in the muffler, it gets much hotter than a less restrictive aftermarket or uncorked muffler will. And the air injection only causes backfires, there is no power gain or reduction from it. The crankcase venting into the air boot before the throttle body inlet does not create any issues unless the oil gets very hot or in long stints of high-RPM running where a light mist will coat the inside of the boot. Usually on your next restart, after the bike sits, there will be a nice puff of oil smoke.

"Since the introduction of fuel injection and digital ignitions keeping the power has become a lot easier and more efficient as well."

Suspension

  • Balanced and set up for trail riding.
  • Stock springs handle most riders in the 165-200-lb. range.
  • Simple to work on and easy to tune.

Simplicity seems a good path and the linkageless WP shock and open cartridge 48mm WP front fork succeed in doing the job. Ever since KTM took the upper shock mounting point off the frame backbone and mounted it upon a tower, then system has been great. This took a lot of the sharp forces that riders felt and dampened them but it also allowed a longer shock stroke length too, giving better control. The shock can easily be removed in a minute and service intervals are long as well.

The bike is very balanced too. It has a plush trail riding nature where the initial part of the stroke is very supple and the progression of the suspension builds and gets stiffer as expected. It may bottom too easily for aggressive riders or with jumping and track-type use but for most it is just fine. The target weight range hovers near 185 pounds with a 20-lb spread on either side of that. The clickers will allow for tuning in a reasonable range with the expected results. No miracles will be accomplished. If you don’t like to feel the small imperfections on the ground and hate the sharp hits from roots and rocks getting to you or deflecting the bike, then KTM has nailed it. The suspension picks up right where the tires with 12 PSI give in to the bumps and the suspension moves through the stroke and stiffens till it bottoms controllably. You can add some oil to the front fork and adding compression to the shock will help to a point but you have to remember what this bike was targeted for if you are bottoming it out often. A suspension revalve can quickly and easily fix the ride for you since the components are nearly the same as stuff that was on race bikes not too long ago. We have found a big improvement with just a suspension service after about 20-hours when the bike is broken in. The excellent thing about the KTM is that those components are such high level, not an afterthought or a cost down item making the improvements much less cost prohibitive. Even the open cartridge fork is considered by many to be better than even the 4CS fork on the competition machines because it is very simple to work with and making changes is easy.

" We have found a big improvement with just a suspension service after about 20-hours when the bike is broken in."

Chassis - Handling

  • One word: Light!
  • Well built and extremely durable.
  • No need to replace and modify street going parts.

There is one thing about the 500EXC that stands out. It is thin and feels very light if you come from any other type of dual purpose machine. At 268 pounds on the scale full of gas it seems a little porky when compared to pure dirt bikes, but this is a far cry from the usual number that pops up when looking at dual-purpose bikes. More like 280 pounds or even 300-plus for some of the 650cc bikes. And this chassis is built off the same frame that was a top of the line motocross and enduro race bike just a few years ago adapted to the PDS linkageless suspension system.

Once in motion the light feeling gets better and better and unlike heavier bikes the 500 EXC stays light as it picks up speed and RPM in the engine. It has stability all the time but more riders feel how quick handling and maneuverable the bike is. The steering stays pretty light and for most this bike likes a steering damper too--as the light feel through the bars can be confused with the bike being unstable. Additionally the EXC likes at least 100mm of sag or it will get unstable. It is that simple.

For tight single track you will not find another 500cc bike that works this well and compared to any previous version of KTM’s largest offering in EXC it feels like a 350cc in comparison. The power isn’t overbearing to interfere with the control and the light weight only compliments this. In the open and faster riding the bike moves right along with suspension that soaks up hits that will bottom any average dual-purpose bike. It is basically a race bike with enough lights to make it street legal and for that it is perfect.

In the road-going comfort it isn’t as bad as it should be. Now you wouldn’t really want to grind out hundreds upon hundreds of street miles on this bike, but you could. Here the EXC vibrates a little compared to the heavy, more 50/50 bikes, especially with a more off-road final drive gearing change. The seat just does not have the padding it needs for hours of sitting down. But that isn’t what this bike was designed for.

The gas tank holds two-gallons and that will get most riders 60-70 miles. We've even seen some riders stretch out 40MPG on the 500 EXC. Some are not too fond of the push-button quarter-turn gas cap but you learn how to work it. The KTM kick-stand is light and stays out of the way but it will not hold a rider's weight when climbing on the bike.

The controls, footpegs, handlebar and plastic on the KTM are all top notch stuff. The brake and clutch levers are easily adjustable, even on the fly. Shifter and brake pedal are made from aluminum and adjustable for height too. Getting to the air filter is tool-less and simple. Oil changes are a one bolt affair, three if you need to replace the oil filter as the skid plate comes off without tools. Handguards are a nice touch for keeping the branches and sticks off the hands. Stock tires are a Maxxis enduro that wear faster than most Maxxis tires we are use to here in the US. They work OK for the first 300 miles then you’ll be ready for your favorite tires to replace them.

The street legal stuff like blinkers and especially the license plate holder do not just fly off on the first bump like they use to. It takes a real crash or a solid rubbing against a rock or tree to break the rear blinkers. And in years of use we’ve yet to suck a license plate into the wheel on this design. The headlight will get you in at night but it isn’t very strong, especially with some of the aftermarket LED systems out there changing the game. The ignition key is mounted next to the front fork and it seems like it will get smashed off but we have not had that happen yet. The biggest issue is interference with tie straps when loading the bike. 

 

"Additionally the EXC likes at least 100mm of sag or it will get unstable. It is that simple."

Conclusion

There is a reason the KTM 500EXC has been voted best dual-sport bike of the year by just about every outlet giving such an award. Or just plain bike of the yea--outright. There really isn’t a motorcycle this versatile and so good at being a trail bike in general. It isn’t cheap, we know dealers are getting $11,000 all day long for these, if they have them at all. We tested this bike completely standard, box stock and were not let down one bit. There was no need to make any changes but knowing the potential small changes can have on this bike make it an even better machine. 

You could take this bike, stock and ride at a motocross track. You could ride the same bike from Mexico to Canada on and off-road. There is a ton of aftermarket support for the 500EXC so it is possible to morph the bike into anything you’d need. So if you are thinking about a KTM 500EXC you are making a great choice, because the bike is so well rounded and good at everything. We know there is an all-new version for 2017 but that does not take anything away from what this bike already is. And it will be hard to make it that much better.

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