Life can really suck for the odd man out; the one who’s too big to play with the little guys but too small to hang with the big boys. Off-road motorcycles follow a widely accepted displacement structure and correlating racing categories, so there’s not a whole lot of manufacturers breaking out of the standard 250/450 four-stroke model. Fortunately, there are some that change things up. In the case of Beta Motorcycles it’s not the off-sized machines that lose out, but anyone who doesn’t get to ride them. We picked up a Beta 400 RR and used it on our home soil in Southern Oregon where the Italian oddball impressed us with its dexterity.
Beta makes a line of dirt bikes for enduro use (RR), street-legal dual sport versions (RS) and supermoto trim (SM). Unlike most modern four-stroke manufacturers, Beta doesn’t even have a 250cc machine. Instead the RR lineup has a 350 (new for 2011-’12), 400, 450 and 520. Beta has been known in the past for sourcing KTM RFS engines which were placed in the Italians’ rolling chassis. Last year marked a change in philosophy as the engine development was taken in-house and Beta introduced a brand-new engine completely of its own design.
The lineup is based around the 450 model which is modified to produce the larger and smaller displacements. In the case of the 400, the 450 cylinder bore is unchanged but the 400 gets a 56.2mm stroke compared to the 63.4mm of the base model. Compression ratio jumps on the 398cc machine up to 12.4:1 from 11.95:1. Otherwise the bikes are essentially the same. A 39mm Keihin carburetor dishes out the fuel mixture and we never noticed a single bog or stutter. It’s one of the most consistent and cleanest carbureting machines we’ve ridden lately, especially considering it’s green sticker legal in California. The single cylinder uses four valves and is electric start and kick start. The battery is fairly durable. Though we managed to drain it once, it quickly charged and never repeated. Using the starter button takes a little practice as the engine likes a touch of throttle at just the right moment to start.
The Beta powerplant loves to run in the bottom of the rpm range. Controllable power had us trying obstacles we normally go around.
The 400 RR prefers to ride low in the rpm range. It makes more than enough power down low and it is ridden best when short-shifted. The shorter stroke takes away the burly, wheel-spinning snap of a 450 and tames down the midrange surge that wears out riders’ arms. This equates to a machine that constantly seeks, and finds, traction, and can be ridden effectively through nasty terrain with a fraction of the effort required for other bikes (much like the Husaberg FE 390 we tested last year). A 450 has to be reined in and a 250 has to be spun up and ridden aggressively. The 400 simply goes forward effortlessly, changes direction, continues on its way… whatever is necessary.
Even though the engine is most effective at low rpm, we had to remind ourselves to rev it out at times. It does rev and it does it willingly. The RR climbs seamlessly through its power delivery which adds to the rider’s sensation of complete control. It is missing some of the sheer speed of a 450 on top as well so basically it’s just what should be expected from a 400 – a little less than a 450 across the board – and that’s a wonderful thing.
A six-speed transmission doles out the usable power. A very short first gear is worthy of trials riding while second and third can plod along at slow speeds. Occasionally the gap between first and second is slightly tall because the downsized displacement is slightly less willing to pull the second cog. But these are few and far between and the 13/48 gearing works almost perfectly in all trail situations. “Trail” is the key word. The Beta doesn’t come across as a race bike. The engine is just one component that yearns for endless single track. Being so easy to manage, carrying a smooth flow is effortless and it challenges the rider to conquer taller logs, rockier climbs and more technical trails.
Because the engine is new, the chassis was redesigned as well to house it. The double-cradle design uses molybdenum steel which has been powder coated bright red – a favorite aesthetic feature of ours. The frame feels appropriately narrow without being too thin to get a grip on. Gripping the bike with the knees is simple and the shrouds don’t flare out much from the bike. Plastic frame guards work great for protection and caused us no problems. We particularly liked how narrow the fuel tank and radiator shrouds are. Part of this is due to the small 2.1-gallon fuel capacity. Though a bit low for extended rides, the effect in the cockpit is positive and plays into the Beta’s strengths.
Beta’s molybdenum steel chassis is light and the 400 RR craves single track and technical riding. It’s so good in the low rpm and slow-speed terrain that we forget it’s still willing to rev out.
We regularly rode the Beta alongside a modded Honda CRF250R project bike set up for off-road duty and a Yamaha WR450F. In terms of handling, the 400 is more like the Honda. At 242 pounds (dry), the Beta is a big bike, but its compact nature and easy handling had us trying things that we had no interest in doing with the bulky WR. It’s light in the turns and has a reactive front end, more on that in a second. The RR doesn’t plow through things and rewards riders who like to ride the edges of the trail. However, it does take a little extra mindfulness in line selection. Beta measures the footpegs at just over 16 inches and we found that they ride a bit lower than many other motocross and enduro bikes. It takes more care to avoid snagging the rider’s feet on stumps, ruts and debris. Ground clearance is 12.6 inches though it too scrapes more often than other machines. However, it doesn’t feel as low as the Beta 525 RS we tested in 2009. Fortunately it comes stock with a great skidplate. The aluminum bash protection keeps the engine and frame rails away from danger and we put it to the test plenty of times.
An AJP hydraulic clutch makes controlling the 400 simple. In the
event that a rider screws up, the built-in handholds work great.
The suspension is about the only area we didn’t completely fall in love with the RR. A Sachs shock with traditional linkage works great at soaking up trail garbage. Usually when the rear end did something strange we attributed it to the 18-inch Pirelli Scorpion MX tire which was better on certain areas of dry and moist dirt than others. This year sees a new 50mm Marzocchi fork mated to new triple clamps. Steering geometry feels fine at all speeds but the fork’s bump absorption isn’t perfect. The front end deflects on sharp impacts. We were able to get rid of this by softening the compression three clicks from stock, which dials in a great deal of suppleness. But, it allows the shock to sit low in the stroke and causes knifing at slow speeds. It’s also too soft for jumping or bumps at higher speeds. Just one click firmer helped the slow turning but the deflection was right back again. This seems to be a problem we encounter frequently with Marzocchi front ends. Front and rear both offer 11.4 inches of wheel travel.
Details are what you would expect on an Italian dirt bike. When Beta took complete design responsibilities upon itself, it incorporated several concepts from the KTM camp. Beta built its new powerplant with separate clutch and engine oil compartments to help keep contaminants at a minimum. The air filter is also accessible via a side panel that pops off without any tools. Both of these features are things that we like. Getting to the air filter is very simple thanks to a unique and clever push-button seat latch (definitely not a KTM trick). This scored major points with us for a long-term relationship with the 400. It also gets a hydraulic clutch, though Beta utilizes an AJP master cylinder. The action is great with an easy pull and no fading. We used the consistent modulation to help balance on the rear wheel across stumps and logs.
Trail riders should consider Beta’s off-sized displacements. Easy handling + easy power = easy fun. And it’s topped off with upscale components and unmatched styling.
Braking is very KTM-ish in terms of power and bite, which is a good thing, but the Beta uses Nissin calipers with steel-braided lines. Up front is a dual-piston unit squeezing a 260mm Braking wave rotor. Out back is a single-pot caliper and 240mm rotor. Both are plenty powerful but a touch grabby. We did manage to heat-fade the front brake on long descents. Hubs are billet aluminum and the wheels are black Excel. Take one look at the swingarm and it’s clear the Italians value sex appeal. This is one of the sharpest dirt bikes we’ve laid eyes on.
The brake light is small and tucked away neatly under the tip of the rear fender. We never broke off or had any issues with the small mud guard. In fact, the entire bike held together very well despite getting tossed to the ground more than any other machine in our recent stable history (that’s what it gets for tempting us into bigger obstacles!). No levers broke, Domino grips barely tore, no plastic creased, small radiators never tweaked and no bolts came loose. It’s a solid machine top to bottom. The exhaust is whisper quiet and the most noticeable noise comes from the cam chain tensioner which runs off hydraulic pressure. The pressure bleeds off once the bike quits running for a while and a slight clacking is noticeable upon first startup, but it quickly disappears.
An $8399 pricetag is the same as the 2010 model. Combining a torquey, completely controllable engine with a light chassis, thin layout and buttery controls points to the company’s trials heritage. Because it isn’t a big horsepower machine or high revver, this makes the 400 RR a trail rider’s dream. This bike was grabbed without hesitation over several other machines of various sizes in the MotoUSA garage, and it was grabbed often. There are very few things to diminish from the complete package and things like the suspension tweaking is something most riders will have to work with regardless of machine. We love all kinds of dirt bikes, but breaking outside of the norm introduced us to a bike that is practically tailor made for our local area. Riders who don’t want a 450’s devastating grunt and aren’t racing every weekend will find this oddball to be a nearly perfect companion.