2009 Husaberg FE 450 Bike Test

December 29, 2008
Chilly White
Chilly White
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Having spent most his riding career desert racing, Chilly White brings expert racing skills to his off-road dirt bike reviews. The Californian is also an International Six Days Enduro competitor, including the 2009 Portugal ISDE.

Welcome to the Revolution!

2009 Husaberg FE 450
With new resources coming from the alliance with KTM, Husaberg has been able to create a unique motorcycle with a built-in support network.

If you ever knew anything about Husaberg, well just forget it! That bike, and in many ways that company, no longer exists. Every since its acquisition by KTM there have been hints to revamping the line and repositioning the market for the famous Swedish brand. For 2009, KTM now truly has its premium marque, its own “Lexus.” The new Husaberg represents the powerful combination of Swedish design and Austrian manufacturing.

The ‘Berg is a mix of both strikingly new and vaguely familiar elements. The motor dominates the visual effect with its radical 70-degree tilted cylinder sitting atop the transmission. This is really the heart of the new bike. Engineers set out to rethink the whole concept of weight distribution and mass centralization. The crank has been moved up 100mm and back 160mm to set the rotating mass closer to the bike’s center of gravity. There is more than just a little MotoGP tech applied here, and it is safe to say that it will forever change our ideas about what dirt bike engine design parameters can be. It all looks very compact and purposeful.

Up top, the cylinder and head are borrowed from the KTM 450 XC-W. The cylinder and piston are the exact same parts while the head is similar except for oil passages and titanium intake valves. The valve cover is sharply angled to the left to allow easy access. The cam is a fairly mild profile with gentle lift-off and set-down characteristics designed to extend valve life and service intervals. This is fed by an all-new Keihin fuel injection system with a 42mm throttle body drawing air from a bona fide airbox residing below the seat. A multitude of sensors and three fuel maps make for a system that truly works in all conditions. Our bike was equipped with an optional bar-mounted switch that allows the rider to select the best match for riding conditions. A fast idle knob is located on the throttle body for cold starting although I never found the need to use it during my time on the FE. One quick stab at the electric starter is all that is ever required to bring everything to life. That’s a good thing because there is no kickstarter.

2009 Husaberg FE 450
Maintenance should be simple on the new ‘Berg.

Down below, the wide ratio, six-speed tranny and hydraulically actuated clutch are again straight from the XC-W line. Unlike the current trend in off-road motors, the ‘Berg does not separate engine and transmission oil. It has 1.5-liter capacity, utilizing only one oil filter and a sight glass. Oil changes should be a snap with easy access to both the drain bolt and filter. Separated oil chambers seem like a good idea on paper, but the combination of very small fill quantities and complicated oil change procedures might limit the real world value. Perhaps the engineers have come around to what many have always believed; keep it simple and keep it clean. The ease of servicing will encourage owners to be more diligent about keeping fresh oil in the bike.

Next on the list of all-new things is the semi-perimeter steel frame with a plastic subframe. The airbox resides between the frame rails. Air filter access is a no-tool affair thanks to the quick pull release on the seat. The narrow engine gives lots of ground clearance requiring very little for protection. The standard plastic skid plate would hardly be considered suitable for most bikes, yet on the FE it provides all the coverage you need. The normally vulnerable U section of the exhaust header is routed securely behind the frame rails, but the long mid-pipe, while tucked in closely, will quickly burn up any over-the-boot pants. The 2.2-gallon gas tank is a rather complicated design starting at the filler cap, wrapping around each side of the airbox and winding down below the seat to the area normally reserved for an airbox. The fuel pump is located in the lower section of the tank.

2009 Husaberg FE 450
The plastic subframe is one area that gives us a little concern. We never had any problems, but the design allows for a lot of flex at the muffler mounting brackets.

One of the very few things on the ‘Berg that I question is the plastic subframe. It’s made from injection-molded, cross-linked polyethylene and is quite strong. The battery/electrical box is molded safely into the subframe, but the first of my concerns is the exhaust. There is noticeable movement in the exhaust canister. Some of this comes from the rubber mounts and long, unsupported mid-pipe, but I suspect the plastic mounting tabs also flex and one can’t help but wonder how well these will hold up over time. The second issue is that a traditional subframe would have probably left more room for additional fuel capacity. I consider 2.2 gallons to be just barely acceptable, and the complex design of the tank will make it difficult for aftermarket companies to design larger-capacity options. Oh, and that hole in the subframe that looks like a grab handle, just plan on using it for a tool holder or something as it is nearly impossible to actually lift the bike from that location.

The WP PDS shock now mounts to a cross member between the frame rails. Unlike the KTM shock that bolts directly to the backbone, this configuration provides some engineered flex to soften the ride. The leverage ratios are the same as new generation KTMs. It does require removing the shock to get to the preload adjuster on the 7.2/250 spring; fortunately this is a quick two bolt operation. It is probably just as well as the aluminum shock threads are sensitive and it is best to avoid using a hammer on them.

The 48mm WP fork is the open-chamber design with external preload adjustment. Technically this is the older design, but the internals and valving have been modified again this year. Versus the newer WP twin-chamber design, this is still probably the best choice for a plush ride off-road. The fork is mated to a two-bolt machined bottom clamp. The stock spring rate is 4.4 N/mm. With relatively soft spring rates the FE is pure enduro, with comfort being high on the priority list.

2009 Husaberg FE 450
The 2009 FE is a long way from the early fuel-injected machines.

Nearly all of the remaining components on the FE are lifted directly from the KTM parts department including wheels, brakes, suspension, computer, pegs, side stand and all of the controls. Standout items include the new, smaller Brembo front brake package and the Magura FLEX clutch lever that will bend out to 90 degrees, although it would be nice if both levers had that feature. This is all top-shelf stuff, just a set of hand guards away from being race-ready.

It all adds up to a pretty cool list of technological features on the new ‘Berg. It seems hard to believe that is was almost six years ago that I was testing and racing the first true production fuel-injected dirt bikes. There were two of them, the GasGas and the Cannondale. I hold a kind of unique (dubious) position as probably being the only person to have qualified for the ISDE on each of those bikes. I don’t claim to know a lot about the engineering of fuel injection systems but I can say that even in 2002 it was clear that it represented the future. Each of those bikes was flawed in its own way, but they showed us a glimpse of the future and broke the ground for today’s EFI bikes. I am sure that in just a year or two we will consider anything with a carb to be pure old-school. The revolution is upon us.

For testing I really tried to find as much variety and difficulty of terrain possible. I rode two of the best local vet MX tracks, Lake Elsinore and Amago as well as making a trip to Ocotillo Wells to sample some open desert and big hillclimbs. Finally I hooked up with a couple of buddies and trekked up to Gorman to hit some of our favorite all-time AA trails including Snowy Creek, Miller Jeep trail and an old torturous favorite called “Long Dave.”

So just how does all this work in the real world? Let’s start with the fuel injection, because it’s such a critical element. Well, it just plain works. Honestly I probably spent more time trying to figure out the odometer than I did thinking about the EFI. I wish I had some really good way to explain it, but it is kind of boring, it just works. I rode from sea level to just about 7000 feet. I boiled the bike to the point of having to stop and add water. I tipped the bike over, monkied with the throttle and started the bike at least 50 times while shooting photos. Nothing would phase the system. The same goes with the electric starter, in gear or out, just hit the button and go. The ‘Berg has a tip-over switch that will shut the bike off after two seconds on its side to keep it from starving for oil. The bike will restart on its side, but will again stop after two seconds. The one truly interesting thing is the three position fuel mapping. It takes the FE from trail bike to full race mode. The bar-mounted switch that we tested was hampered by not being a true “on the fly” system, requiring two hands to change the setting.

2009 Husaberg FE 450
Power is delivered in a very enduro-ish manner, but the adjustable fuel map gives riders the ability to play with the output to some degree. Traction is always at a premium.

That brings me to the motor. It’s quiet, smooth and very easy to use. It puts the power to the ground in a purposeful manner. No fussing around with wheel spin or wheelies, just forward progress. It can be deceiving because it never acts “fast,” it just covers ground really quickly. The dyno puts it all into perspective; 46 hp at the rear wheel is right in line with the best in the class. If you insist on having aggressive power characteristics, this might not be the bike for you, or perhaps wait until the FX version comes along. The wide ratio, six speed transmission has a gear for all occasions. The stock 13/52 gearing is a little too short for my preference, 13/50 would be a better starting point. Also, the chain is too long. Once the chain stretches it leaves the adjusters at maximum extension and the chain will have to be cut by one or two links.

I am a huge 2-stroke fan. The precise handling makes them such a joy to ride, like wielding a scalpel instead of a butcher knife. This just might be the straw that breaks the 2-stoke’s back. It sounds over-simplistic, but the FE handles like a two-cycle. I figured this day would come in the form of some type of bored out 250F bike, but the ‘Berg has just shot beyond that target; big bike power with small bike manners. Overall the bike feels very normal, nothing strange at all. It is so smooth it almost feels Japanese. All that work at mass centralization makes for a bike that changes direction every easily and corners like it is on a rail. Want to go faster though a corner? Just lean it over a little more and use the smooth motor to get on the throttle earlier at the exit. Down the trail is where the whole package starts to come together. The longer and harder the ride, the better it feels. The light suspension settings hold to the trail well, always with an emphasis on traction.

2009 Husaberg FE 450
Open, fast terrain makes the bike move around similar to a 2-stroke. Suspension modification can help with weight balance and settle things down.

One of the positive side effects of all this design is that is bike is a fantastic MXer. The lightweight manners in the corners translate to flying with ease. I was able to ride longer practice motos because I was working less, and at the end of a session I wasn’t blowing corners like I normally would when tired. Yes, the suspension is too soft for serious action, but overall this bike is surprisingly fun to moto, so it will be competent at crossover events.

So are there any negative side effects? Well, yes, there are a couple of things to consider. First, for its prowess as a technical terrain bike, the ‘Berg does suffer some in open terrain. It still acts like a 2-stoke but in the open that leads to a sort of busy feeling, always moving around just a little. It doesn’t have the feel of a natural-born desert racer, although suspension setup may have a lot to do with that. I would love to spend some time with the 570 version when it arrives to further test suspension. Another issue is that in difficult hillclimbs, the FE seems to lose rear wheel traction early, again like a 2-stroke. Climbs need to be attacked instead of just relying on 4-stroke power to chug up them. The overall sensation is that the weight bias is just a little farther forward than on most bikes and in some situations contributes to a rear wheel light/front wheel heavy feeling, but stiffer springs may well completely alleviate this sensation.

2009 Husaberg FE 450
Husaberg has done a phenomenal job of putting usability and innovation into a tightly wrapped package. This is the kind of development that the 450 enduro market has been waiting for.

My only serious complaint is about the fuel capacity. I expect it to be good for 45-50 miles on a full tank. Overall the FE does seem to get good mileage, keeping in mind that with the EFI system there is no fuel loss via the traditional carb overflow hose. During the moto testing I did notice that the fuel was consumed fairly quickly so depending on conditions the mileage will certainly vary.

So what is the bottom line? Well if I haven’t been completely clear, this is one very good motorcycle. The majority of the core components debuted on the ‘08 model KTM, so there is every reason to expect the reliability will be good. With so many common parts it would be natural to think this is just a blue KTM, but that could hardly be farther from the truth. They are like fraternal twins; sharing the same DNA, but to very different ends. The FE feels closest to a Yamaha WR450 in motor, but ultimately it is very much its own bike.

If you are going to be revolutionary, you had better be good. Most manufacturers would choose the much safer path of evolution, yet it will always leave vacancy at the very top. Husaberg has chosen to jump straight to the head of the class and with the impression it has left on me, I have every reason to expect it to be a full success.