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2015 KTM 500EXC Bike Review: Aaron Steinmann

I had made my decision and knew what I wanted before I walked into the KTM dealer, but was it the right decision for what I had in mind?

There it sat at the end of the store and to me it was the sexiest bike in there. Sleek and light looking compared to other dualsport bikes. I walked straight up to it and couldn’t help but flick the throttle a couple times, even though this has been a little pet peeve of mine if someone does it to my bike.

Soon enough the salesman was there next to me and although there wasn’t any of his sales skills needed, once I told him what I had in mind he shook his head and said well I’m not quite sure this is the right bike for you and tried to steer me over towards the KTM 690. That’s a first for me – a salesperson trying not to sell me the bike I want! I looked over at the 690 and in the back of my mind I knew he was probably right and it was the smartest choice but hey, I’ve never claimed to be the smartest guy and my mind had been made up weeks ago.

Shortly after I found myself driving away in my van, glancing in my rearview mirror at the front end of a 2015 KTM500EXC thinking ‘well it’s done now soon it’ll be time to see if this bike can make it from New Zealand to Oregon via South and Central America’.

Now time to ride it! I went to Burt’s farm down Matata. First thing you notice once you throw your leg over it, is that it’s a tall bike. I’m 6ft and it felt good for me but I can easily see why a vertically-challenged person may want to lower it a little for comfort if using it for Adventure riding.

It was a pretty slick day for a trail ride but even with my lack of seat time of late I still didn’t feel like I was just hanging on to the big 500 as the power was predictable and smooth from the bottom through the range. Being a little over-excited to get going I forgot to check the tyre pressures and the back end was a little all over the place so I had to be pretty mindful of throttle control but it still wasn’t intimidating power.

The old heart did skip a beat once or twice when I gave it an accidental blip before a couple of corners though but thankfully the brakes felt strong and always slowed me down or stopped me before a get off. Later, while loaded up with my camping gear I still found the brakes work well enough not to worry about doing any type of upgrade.

The suspension felt good to me but it had been a few years since my last bike and it been slippery – it was a little hard to really put it to the test.

The next ride was at a small motocross track and here I realised I didn’t need all that power and the suspension was too soft but that’s to be expected as it’s a dualsport bike not a straight up motocrosser.

Taking in the fact that I was able to ride the bike to the track then home and I wasn’t going to be using it on the track, I was still happy with it and the grin factor was certainly still there.

Since then I have put a stiffer rear spring on it to help with the extra weight I’m always carrying and that’s helped with a little bit of the lazy-boy effect.

Now for a bigger test which was riding down to the Bluff and back from Mount Maunganui.

First things first after sitting on the 4x2 of a seat I knew that it had to go, so on went a Seat Concepts seat which my butt has thanked me for ever since. Next, I knew I needed better fuel range than the stock tank would give me so I opted for the 5.3 gallon 20l KTM power parts tank (Acerbis). On went the Barkbusters and although there were other things I would of liked to do I really wanted to keep the bike stock and money was a deciding factor as I already had a list of “musts” and “wants” with a big trip and lots of expenses coming up, so I left it at that.

Now where am I going to put all my gear? I opted for the Giant Loop Coyote bag which comes with three dry pods inside. I wanted to keep the dirt bike look and feel to it, so hard luggage or putting a rack on it didn’t appeal to me. I also didn’t want to be wider than my bars to sneak my way through traffic better and not be clipping trees in the woods when the bags were ditched. Later I found out that being able to get through doorways opened up more accommodation options for me as well, giving me secure parking.

A friend of mine was coming with me on his Triumph Tiger 800 and when he pulled up, I must say looking at his seat and bike then over at mine a tinge of doubt came into my mind. Then working my way through the city to the highway, all of a sudden the normal vibration of the bike seemed a lot more noticeable, knowing how far I was going to have to ride it, and that doubt grew. I stopped and waited for him thinking ‘what the hell have I done, was that sales guy right?’ He pulled up and we took off.

Popping the front up in 3rd changing to 4th, 5th and yes – nice – a 6th gear, the smile grew and I knew at least it was a wheelie weapon. Then when the front came back down on the road I found it had a pretty decent sweet spot at around 105kmh where the vibration mostly went away and so did my doubts. Well mostly, I still had that reliability question in the back of my mind that people kept bringing up.

What I have found on this bike with fuel economy is that headwind and the right hand can make a huge difference but in general I’ve been happy with it and, on average, get around 18k/l. With the big tank that’s enough for nearly anywhere I have been without having to carry extra. There have only been three places to date that I have needed extra and these were: the Ruta de las Lagunas, from the top of Chile into Bolivia; the Dempster Hwy, heading as far north into the Arctic circle in Canada; the Dalton Hwy in Alaska, which takes you to the end of the Continent (Deadhorse) and the Arctic Ocean. In the last case I took an extra 5l container and 3 Gatorade bottles – my fuel light came on just as I rolled back into Coldfoot.

Now I’m the first to admit I’m no mechanic but I feel I’m pretty handy with my hands, and the best way to increase my chances of this bike lasting was to keep on top of the oil changes and keep a clean air filter. After having done a couple it really wasn’t an issue and anyone without any experience could do it easily. It only takes 1.5l so it wasn’t a big deal to either carry a change or just think ahead a little and find a bike shop on the way to take the 10 mins to do it. I started off changing it every 1000-1500km and since then I have stretched it a little longer and a couple times if I knew is it was easy road k’s up to 2500km.

The air filter doesn’t even require a tool to replace it so again, very simple for anyone to do and, being a basic dirt bike, taking the wheels off to repair a flat or change a tyre is quick and straightforward.

I had put TKC80s on it (not my tyre of choice now) and I found on the road it handled really well but being a light bike I did get pushed around a bit from the wind coming from oncoming bigger trucks or when I was passing them. I have since put on Renthal fat bars with a Scotts sub-mount steering stabiliser and now I wish I had done it sooner.

Coming out of Nelson there is a pretty long uphill and loaded up with my gear she still pulled in 6th without having to think about chopping down. In fact, the only time I’ve had to chop down was crossing the Andes when I was over 4000m (13,000ft) heading up a long uphill stretch. The fuel injection never gave me an issue but the bike was just feeling like a 250. I did take it up to just over 5500m (18,000ft) on a dirt track up a volcano in the Atacama Desert and it still never missed or stalled but it was dragging a bit trying to suck in oxygen, but shit, so was I!

Back to the reliability question. By the time I left New Zealand and had gone to the bottom then to the top having a blast in the dunes up Ninety Mile Beach I had done 7000kms. The only issue I had was the ground cable to the battery formed a crack and the bike had an intermittent miss. It was an easy fix and I haven’t had that issue since.

The bike has really surprised me as when I took off north from Santiago towards the States I went with the attitude ‘it’s probably not going to be if but when will the bike brake down, and more importantly, where?’ I guess I had been listening to the KTM “haters” out there a little much.

As it turns out it didn’t break down on me and Oregon wasn’t my end destination as the Forrest Gump effect kicked in and I wasn’t able to stop until I reached the top of the Continent then back down to the lower 48.

All good things must come to an end though and after seeing some smoke on start up and finding myself wanting more power on long stretches of gravel roads I knew it was time for a new top end so with 67,000km and 870hrs on the clock is was time for a rebuild.  That is still a lot of top to bottoms of New Zealand though.

I did have to do the clutch at around the 45,000km mark and I must admit I did baby the old girl on a bunch of those kms when on the road.

Overtime I have added/modified the following parts to the bike:

  • Fold away levers
  • RHK clutch cover
  • Rear disc guard
  • FMF Q4 silencer (and about to put the matching powerbomb header on)
  • Oversized pegs
  • Grab handle
  • Changed out the shift and rear brake lever
  • Motominded BD ultimate pro headlight
  • Haan wheels with cush drive rear

 

In general is this a bike that I would suggest to take around the world? Well no, it’s not for everyone having to keep up on the oil changes while chewing through tyres, and it’s still not the comfiest bike on the butt but the point is, it can be done. I’ve proved it.

Aaron_Steinmann
Author of this article: Aaron_Steinmann
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