The Play Bike company has emerged as a legitimate force in the enduro world despite its small size. Solid off-road and dual sport bikes in the past years have brought the Italian manufacturer out of the obscure world of trials and helped it garner a foothold in the States. The American Beta dealers will have a strong 2012 lineup with the 350 RR ($8899) now in its stable. This bike is the first true 350cc to challenge KTM in the new marketplace.
Internal cylinder dimensions are very similar to the KTM with an 88mm bore and 57.4mm stroke (KTM uses 57.5mm stroke). The 350 was initially brought out in late 2011 but Beta quickly made upgrades for the ’12 model. The cylinder head was redesigned to reinforce the camshaft bridge and valve retainers. It also gets a revised cam chain tensioner, stronger cam chain guides and new counterbalance bearings. A new oil drain plug helps ease maintenance.
One of the big difference is with the Keihin 39mm FCR carburetor. It gives the bike a unique feel compared to the KTM’s fuel injection but it’s not necessarily a disadvantage. Every tester felt the silencer is restrictive, but the Beta tractors along with great chugging power. The Beta feels like it has more flywheel effect down low, but the KTM’s EFI allows it to bog down just as far with less tendency to stall. Dyno charts show the Beta’s carb is slightly less consistent throughout the power curve, but testers were happy with the usable nature of the engine. The bike is wonderfully easy to ride and maximizes the rider’s energy savings.
Wide-open terrain or deep sand washes where the weight and restricted engine play against it are not the Beta’s favorite riding areas. The carbureted DOHC powerplant prefers to torque around tighter trails.
“The Beta feels plugged up,” Pekarek says. “I think the Beta would come to life with a quality exhaust installed.”
Peak horsepower and torque numbers are lower than the XCF-W and all of our riders noticed power discrepancy when ridden back-to-back. The bikes are close in horsepower and torque output until around 6000 rpm where the KTM starts to pull away. The carbureted engine spools up more slowly and has a higher rev ceiling than the orange bike, though it’s best to shift before redline. Torque max is at 7700 rpm and horsepower tops out at 8900, but the engine spins up to nearly 13,000 rpm.
“Good, smooth power delivery,” notes Chamberlain. “It just doesn’t seem to produce as much as the KTM.”
Finding traction is one of the Beta’s strong points. It uses a Pirelli MX eXTra rear tire (110/100-18) and Pirelli MX eXTra front tire (90/90-21). The RR is equipped with a six-speed transmission that feels more widely spaced than the KTM, particularly between the first two cogs. We’re big fans of hydraulic clutches and the beta gets a new primary gear and springs. Clutch pull is light and the feel consistent with a new Brembo master cylinder. We rode the Beta in steep terrain, regularly charging hillclimbs and hauling it down difficult terrain. Clutch abuse was constant, and while we didn’t experience a drop in performance during a single ride, after a few weeks there was noticeable amount of drag. It made starting the bike in gear difficult and also caused some issues when shifting under power and finding neutral. The KTM was subjected to identical riding situations and never showed any signs of wear. We were happy to find that engine and transmission oil are held separately which minimizes contamination and improves engine life.
The biggest change for the 350 RR is a switch in the suspension components. An all-new 48mm Sachs TFX fork replaces the Marzocchi unit previously used in Beta’s lineup. It was designed specifically for Beta and uses SKF seals and wipers. It’s an open-chamber fork with rebound adjustment on the top of the fork cap and compression on the bottom of the fork leg. The triple clamp, which is beautiful, was redesigned to accept the new suspension and uses a two-bolt pinch system on the upper and lower clamp. It provides 11.4 inches of travel, as does the Sachs rear shock, which we found gets used up very quickly. Both fork and shock are softly sprung and work best at a slow trails pace. As soon as the speeds pick up to even a moderate level, both ends start finding the end of their stroke. The supple suspension eats up small junk, which is evident by Cody Webb’s success in the EnduroCross stadiums.
The chassis is unshakable. A revised chromoly frame and new fork make for an extremly predictable ride, plus it looks amazing.
The new frame gets extra gussets and larger lower tube diameters for greater rigidity. During high-speed impacts, the chassis feels solid and stable with the suspension showing the only shortcoming. All of our riders complained about bottoming resistance, but none of them commented on wallowing, flexing or swapping – a tribute to the chromoly frame which goes where it’s pointed. Ground clearance is an inch lower on the 350 RR (12.6 vs. 13.6 inches) and feels even more than that. We were bummed to discover this since the Beta’s engine and suspension make it most comfortable on slower-paced, nasty trails. Its soft suspension allows the frame rails and footpegs to drag in corners and ruts for our faster riders, but our intermediate-level tester never had any problems.
The seat is extremely comfortable and holds the rider in place much better than the KTM’s slippery saddle. Because the 350 was developed alongside the larger Beta models, it’s no wonder the chassis feels like a bigger bike. It’s an impressive feat considering the seat height is only 36.8 inches compared to the KTM’s lofty 38.2 inches. As a result it’s extremely easy to mount the Beta or to dab a foot when things get sketchy. Also, the handlebars are placed farther away
from the seat, keeping the rider spread out and provide a more comfortable bend compared to the KTM’s awkward bars. It’s easier to stand on the 350 RR which helps keep as much weight as possible down low and improving handling.
“The Beta is very comfortable while sitting on the bike,” says our mid-size pro, Boney. “Nice comfortable seat, great for long rides. The controls have great feel and a nice bend to the handlebar. The good thing about the low ground clearance is it is very easy to get on and off the motorcycle, and to touch the ground.”
The 260mm front and 240mm rear Braking wave rotors are new and do a very good job of slowing the bike down. The Brembo units would be close to the performance of the KTM brakes if they didn’t have to deal with an extra 22 pounds. No, that isn’t a typo. The 350 RR tips the scales at 278 pounds ready to ride, and the KTM is a miniscule 256 pounds. It’s easy to feel the difference in braking and handling. If Beta could shed the extra weight it would go a long ways in boosting the bike’s overall performance.
Beta puts a lot of effort into the finish quality of its 350. Our trio of intermediate and pro riders agrees that the Beta provides better instrumentation and features than the Austrian bike – and that’s saying a lot. It comes with a burly aluminum skidplate which is a major highlight for our enduro riders (though certainly adds a bit of that extra heft). Bright red powdercoating on the chassis (also additional weight) looks amazing and is durable with plastic frame guards in high-wear areas. It uses billet hubs, no-tool airbox access and Domino grips. It also offers both electric and kickstart. All of these items make the Beta more agreeable to live with than many off-road bikes. One shortcoming is the relatively small 2.1-gallon fuel tank, but otherwise the Beta is well equipped.
“I’m very impressed with how many quality parts the motorcycle comes with,” says Pekarek. “The burly skidplate, great quality hubs, wheels, triple clamps and swingarm are standard equipment. My favorite part about the Beta is the push-button seat release.”
The new triple clamps are gorgeous and the Beta retains a thin feel through its midsection, partly due to a smallish fuel tank, which encourages rider movement.
Neither bike requires seat removal to get to the air filter, but the Beta stores its battery and small tool kit underneath the saddle. It’s easily accessed by a small button which pops it loose, and all of our testers thought it was a nifty Italian design. Another feature that proved to be better than we expected are the reinforced handholds along the back edges of the seat. These cutouts show their true value in muddy conditions where the rider can pick up the bike without destroying their gloves. It’s a major convenience and also a lifesaver in a racing environment.
Our Vet rider was quick to praise the attention to detail as well, saying: “I really like that the Beta comes stock with a skidplate, and it features cool integrated grab handles and an easy-to-remove seat.”
Beta gave its bikes red plastic this year to match the bright powdercoated frame. Black engine highlights, fork tubes and wheels add to the aesthetic package that won over all of our testers, but the Beta does start to show wear faster than the orange bike. “The KTM looks awesome, but I give a slight nod to the Beta because of its cool angular lines, and mostly because it’s just different,” says BC.
Beta took the highest marks for its appearance, instrumentation and features and rider interface. Obviously this is one comfortable and enjoyable bike to ride, but the 350 RR is not as impressive as the KTM in the engine, drivetrain, handling and suspension or brakes. Ultimately our testers prefer the KTM, but it’s only when ridden back-to-back that we can be pulled away from the Italian. It offers a roomy rider compartment and loves to work through nasty terrain. This Beta does a masterful job of living up to the company’s play bike slogan. For the right rider, the 350 RR will be the ultimate midsize dirt bike.