Even though we had little time aboard the Beta machines, we had no problem finding some soft dirt to explode at the dusty Zaca Station MX Park.
Unless you are an avid trials rider, or recent emigrant from Southern Europe, the chances of you being intimately, or even remotely familiar with Beta Motor Company is likely slim. We didn’t know much about the Italian firm either until receiving an invitation to attend the 2008 Dealer Meeting in Central California with American Beta.
Whenever I hear the term “handcrafted in Italy,” it doesn’t immediately conjure images of motorcycles, but more along the lines of foo-foo man-bags and pointy shoes. Well, there’s nothing limp-wristed about the 2008 lineup of Beta motorcycles. The RR (enduro), RS (dual-sport) and RM (supermoto) all consist of 450cc and 525cc machines. Only the RR models have another sibling in the form of the 400RR. Before you get too confused or anxious about keeping track of all seven bikes, let’s get it straight right now that the 450 and 525 machines are exactly the same from one model range to another with the exception of a few purpose-specific items such as wheels and tires and street-legal hardware.
All three of the machines use a 2006-spec KTM EXC motor. However, even though the cases have “Made in Austria” stamped on them, this isn’t an orange bike. The chassis, bodywork, rider layout, suspension and even the ignition and exhaust are all exclusive to Beta. We busted down to Zaca Station MX Park in Los Olivos, California to see what’s so special about these machines and the 103-year-old company that makes them.
With only 20 dealers in the United States, Beta is a rarity in the enduro world – something they don’t intend to change. This is the first year that the Florence-based company is importing any models other than trials machines. A few enduro bikes were shipped over back in 2005, but 2008 will be the true initial wave of red-and-black Italian machines. Only 300 bikes are being brought in to cover all three model ranges. American Beta’s Marketing Manager, Tim Pilg, likens the small company’s presence in America to that of a more well-known Italian motorsport company, Ferrari.
Beta has put forth an enduro machine in the RR form that can compete with the rest of the off-road market.
It would be fairly easy to argue that these two businesses are anything but comparable, but the important similarities are in consumer perception. Beta has no intention of flooding the market with their off-road machines in order to keep the sensation of owning a Beta motorcycle one of exclusivity. Once the market is saturated, the novelty, community and desirability are lost in the masses. Not only does Beta want to remain a desirable product, but limiting their production and imports to America has the added benefit of not forcing them into direct competition with the Big Five and other mid-level OEMs like Husaberg and Husqvarna. Beta expects their marketing demographic to be riders aged 35-70 with income in the $75,000 range. Why do they expect middle-to-upper-aged riders with a ton of money to buy their bikes? Probably because the cheapest model retails for $7799 (400 RR) and the most expensive is $8799 (525 RM).
We only had a few hours in which to straddle the Beta lineup, but during that short time we threw a leg over four of the seven models to get an idea of what a group of 120 Italian factory workers can put together.
Beta 400/450/525 RR
As we mentioned earlier, the three model lines are almost exactly identical, and they are all based off the RR setup. The RR lineup is Beta’s answer to the WR, KLX, CRF-X and XC-W of the established enduro world. However, with the addition of a 400 and 525, Beta offers more options than most others. The obvious compromise, however, is the distinct lack of a 250cc machine.
As factory rider Jordan Brandt demonstrates, the RR models are perfectly capable of tackling big off-road obstacles.
According to Pilg, the Tuscan company is anticipating a change to allow for in-house engine production. Though it is uncertain when that will happen, abandoning the KTM motor will allow Beta to develop their product line as they see fit.
“We’re working really hard on developing a 350 because we think that’s a really important market,” says Pilg. The Italians are also working on a 250cc playbike that would utilize a trials motor and enduro-styled chassis, much like the Scorpa T-Ride. Pilg indicated that it might be the perfect cross-breed for tackling extreme races such as the EnduroCross. Both models are something we’d absolutely love to see, but Beta is pretty vague on any further details or prospective arrival dates in either Europe or America.
Anyhow, back to the existing arrangement, the only difference between the trio of electric start, single overhead cam motors is in the bore and stroke: 89 x 64mm (400), 89 x 72mm (450) and 95 x 72mm (525). There really isn’t anything not to like about the powerplant. We didn’t get to ride the 400 RR, but torque and horsepower on the other two models were smooth and usable – excellent, in fact. Fed by a Keihin 39mm FCR carb, the motors ran without any issues during our sampling. Likewise, the 6-speed transmission was a pleasure to operate, especially with light pull of the hydraulic clutch and steel-braided lines.
Attached to the billet wheel hubs are a floating 255mm Braking wave rotor on front and a 240mm Braking disc out back. Grabbing the sweet circles of metal are a single-piston Nissin caliper on rear and dual-pot Nissin under the fork. Braking was generally very good, but a touch grabby, especially up front.
Hilde had no trouble lofting the 525’s front end in multiple gears, even with the soft, powdery soil.
We think that with more seat time we would have come to terms with the front brake, and there was another component on the front end that we’d have liked to have sorted out. The 45mm Marzocchi Shiver fork was a bright beacon for us coming into the test, so it was a bit disappointing that it didn’t perform like we’d hoped. The bike had a hard time settling the front into corners and it jolted through the stroke rather quickly. We attribute much of this to a lack of break-in and the fact that the bikes were traded fast and loose between journalists and dealers, leaving no time for proper dialing. We’re coming off another quick review of Marzocchi-suspended Italian machinery, but the 2007 TM Racing MX 450 F tested in August utilized the 50mm fork. And, like the moto-oriented TM was tested primarily off-road, the enduro Beta was ridden around a modified MX track due to the extremely dry conditions at Zaca. Neither machine got a totally fair opportunity to demonstrate their prowess, but Tom Watson, owner of Watson Performance Suspension and the man who lent us the TM, confirmed that our differing impressions were to be expected.
“They are entirely different forks,” says Watson of the 45 and 50mm Marzocchis. “Aside from the obvious difference in diameter, the internal settings are completely different. I really like the 50mm but I haven’t had as much luck testing the 45s.”
Amen, brutha. Still, the Beta sticks aren’t terrible, they just weren’t as agreeable as the larger Marzocchi offering, or the Sachs shock for that matter. However, we have the 450 RR scheduled to participate in an upcoming 2008 Enduro Shootout where we’ll have ample time to tinker with both ends of the Tuscan’s suspension. We’ll reserve our final judgment until then.
The RS models have everything the competition RR bikes do with the addition of street-legal hardware.
Having ridden the 450 and 525, we found that the larger-displacement machine felt more stable through turns, despite having the same claimed dry weight of 248 pounds. We think that figure is slightly optimistic, but regardless, the 525 motored into and out of berms with greater comfort and precision for our tester. Oh, and speaking of comfort, perhaps it’s from making seat-less trials bikes for so long, but the RR, RS and RM all have ridiculously hard foam. Our tester’s butt was sore even with such a short stint. Race director, Jeff Clements, says the foam breaks in after a month or two of regular riding and then holds up nicely, but get some padded shorts for that introductory period.
Beta 450/525 RS
Beta brass describes the RS models as 95% off-road and 5% street-worthy – a ratio we’d have to agree with. The RS has a set of dirt-biased Pirelli MT21 dual-sport tires versus the Pirelli Scorpion MX eXTra spooned onto the RR machines. Both utilize 21- and 18-inch wheels with 11.4 and 11.8 inches of travel, respectively, and sport the exact same Marzocchi fork and Sachs shock. Seat height rests at 37 inches for both classifications, and the rest of the spec sheet numbers match as well. That 5% comes strictly from a horn, taillight, modified hand controls, larger enduro computer, toned-down meats and a set of turn signals.
The RS is much like KTM’s EXC line in that it qualifies as a dual-sport but it’s really just a dirt bike with a license plate. We got on the larger of the two available models for our photos session and quick ride, and the bike is definitely what we want out of a dirt-biased dual-sport. Highs include the comparatively light weight and nimble handling, and the 6-cog tranny makes it long-legged. As for the lows, well, we can’t get past the single obvious one. There are plenty of dirt-biased dual-sports that are uncomfortable for highway riding, but we simply cannot bear the thought of logging even jokingly respectable pavement miles on that plywood seat. Yes, it will get you from one trail to the next and then proceed to thrash said trails, but just make sure they are close together.
Despite having all the same components, the motard version is much easier to touch the ground thanks to the smaller 17-inch wheels. It gives the bike a much more compact feel.
Beta 450/525 RM
Our time on the supermoto machine consisted of a few short blasts down the dirt road to a nearby highway. All that we can really say is that the 17-inch wheels and Pirelli Diablo tires make for a much smaller-feeling machine. The seat height is an inch shorter (36), but it makes a huge difference in the amount of control a rider has. The RM comes with a stubby front fender that gives the machine a more compact visual appearance to match the riding sensation.
Again, getting back to the exclusivity factor, Beta offers a warranty on all of the models. The RR machines get a 6-month coverage while the RS and RM are warranted for a full year. Of course there are limitations and special conditions, but either Beta has enough faith that their equipment will hold up to abuse or they think the rich old guys who are going to buy them won’t dish it out. Either way, try getting that from a Japanese OEM.
There is also a growing list of accessories ready to customize your Beta machine including Leo Vince and FMF exhausts, a Rekluse auto clutch , STM slipper clutch, taller seat, a supermoto kit and a host of carbon fiber parts to name a few. In our eyes, the Italian company is taking many of the right steps to obtain their goals for the US enduro market. Getting your hands on one of the 300 imported units might be difficult due to their rarity, but that’s exactly what makes a Beta – a Beta.
Let us know what you think about the 2008 Beta Off-Road Lineup in the MotoUSA Forum.