Out of the Woods
Street legal bikes from Husqvarna? Wrap your head around that for a minute, and then take time to hear about the new FE 350 S and FE 501 S.
As a “street guy,” I rarely get an opportunity to throw a leg over dedicated off-road machinery. So when Husqvarna offered a ride in SoCal on its new dualsport models for 2015, the FE 350 S ($11,249) and FE 501 S ($11,649), I gladly accepted. The trip would also be a chance to visit Husqvarna’s brand new American offices and meet the staff, which in this case was quite important.
In 2013, Pierer Industries AG, also the majority (51 per cent) owner of KTM, bought the Husqvarna brand from BMW, which had acquired it in 2007. None of the products designed by BMW were kept. Instead, plans for a genuine revival of the centuries-old marque (Husqvarna was established in 1689 as a weapons factory) were announced. Until new bikes could be developed, motorcycles based on KTM models—albeit with some technical differences—would be used.
Both KTM and Husqvarna strongly insist each brand will soon be evolving on its own. That’s why I was looking forward to seeing things for myself.
My visit to the Husky headquarters, which are located right by the KTM USA offices in Temecula, seemed to confirm what the companies say.
The buildings are separate and staff is completely autonomous for each brand. Inside, Husqvarna’s rich history is showcased everywhere you lay eyes with bikes and images from the brand’s heydays. As the normal development time for motorcycles of that type is about a couple of years, it is possible that the first entirely new Huskys could be revealed for the 2016 model year. Until then, considering KTM’s reputation as a maker of top shelf off-road machines, no one should complain if the Austrian products are used as a technical base for the current Husqvarnas.
The FE 350 S and FE 501 S are the only street-legal models of Husqvarna’s current lineup. “We” tend to take going from A to B on public roads for granted, but off-road enthusiasts certainly don’t. For them, getting to actually ride almost always involves transporting their bikes to a trail entrance. So the idea of bolting-on the necessary hardware to a dirt bike in order to make it street-legal makes sense. And that’s what the FE S-bikes are.
When you’re used to adventure models or even KLR-type dual-purpose machines as off-road tools, stepping on a purpose-built dirt bike is a shock. Tipping the scale at around 110 kg (242 lb.) and about as wide as an opened hand, they feel almost weightless. They’re tall, but their suspension is soft, so with a (ho-hum) adult-sized rider in the saddle, it compresses enough to get seat-height down to a manageable level.
I was surprised to discover how easy they are to ride on very rough trails, but only because my off-road background is with much bigger and heavier bikes on which you must pay great attention where you put your wheels and how aggressively you do it. On the FE S-bikes, it seems like nothing is out of the question, like there’s almost no necessity to decide the specifics of a path through rocks and holes. They simply and effortlessly glide over just about anything.
From my perspective one of the most surprising aspects of the FE 350 S and FE 501 S was discovering how significantly different their respective displacement characteristics are. You might think 350 and 500cc are pretty close, but the difference in character is as wide as it is between a 600 and a 1000cc sportbike. The 350 definitely isn’t a less powerful FE 501 S. Rather, it’s a higher and quicker revving engine than the torquier 500, which basically results in motorcycles that are almost technically identical, yet are ridden in two quite different ways.
I knew the FE 501 S would always get me out of a spot with just a twist of the wrist, so I rode it somewhat nonchalantly, at low revs, without paying too much attention to gears and often using its instant grunt to get the back out at corner exits and get me pointed where I wanted to go. I often heard off-road bikes with that kind of displacement being referred to as beasts, but I instead found the 500 to be quite forgiving and rider friendly, at least at my moderate pace.
The 350 isn’t harder to ride, it’s just more involving. Revs must be kept higher and the choice of gear must be wisely made. Or power simply might not be there when you need it. The 350’s snappier nature and noticeably lighter feel—even though it weighs merely a few kilos less—changed the tone of the ride. On it, I wouldn’t get the rear sliding right at corner exits, as there wasn’t enough power to do so easily. But immediately after, I’d pin it, let the engine shriek and slide a bit longer, basically riding it a little more recklessly than the 500.
I came away from the ride impressed by the purposefulness of both the FE 350 S and FE501 S, which, by the way, haven’t been toned down the slightest bit by their street equipment—little more than mirrors, flashers and a licence plate holder. Each is a lot of fun in its own way without necessarily being better. It’s rather a matter of rider preference.
-Bertrand Gahel, Issue #308, Jan / Feb 2015