I have a thing for weird bikes. OK, exotic bikes. I don’t mind riding the bike that no one else wants to ride, or the one the next guy thinks can’t do something. It is as much about the challenge as it is about learning different ways of doing the same maneuver. They’re all dirt bikes, they’re just different flavors. Some of these exotic bikes have traits so endearing that riders are willing to put up with their rough edges. So they ride with handling issues, awkward power traits, durability problems, a lack of a dealer network or the plain inability to get parts. It must be like dating a supermodel in some ways.So here is the 2005 Husaberg FE550e, sitting in front of me in all its glory. This is the result of a bunch of Swedish ex-Husqvarna employees starting up a small company in 1988 after the Italians bought their brand. It was a lighter-weight and more-aggressive four-stroke than anyone thought possible, and definitely an eye-opener to the Japanese manufacturers at the time, with their air-cooled XRs, DRs and TTs. The Husaberg wasn’t conventional, and much of that uniqueness still lives on today. In fact, it has become the norm in this day of high-performance thumpers. Truth be told, there was a reason KTM bought the brand just before building its Racing Four-Stroke. And now Husabergs are built in the same factory as KTMs, though the technical development still takes place in Sweden.The yellow Berg runs the chain on the wrong (right) side, as well as the ignition, if you’re picky—all opposite conventional bikes. Its cylinder is encased in the centercases. There’s no airbox, and the air filter rides on the rectangular frame backbone underneath the gas tank in front of the seat. Everything is minimalist and quite simple. Take, for instance, the battery; it rides just above the transmission to keep its weight centralized. Fire up the electric-starting Berg, and it whines when it is running, one of the most mechanically loud motors you’ll ever hear. Blame the straight-cut gears and a counterbalancer that spins on the crankshaft in the opposite direction of crank rotation. The large, flat surface area of the cases doesn’t help, either. The intake snarls at you every time you open the throttle and whistles when you close it. This isn’t a Honda or a Yamaha, or even a KTM, though you can see where some of those companies got some of their ideas; the KTM head is an outright copy.Durability has been the Achilles’ heel of the Husaberg, with little problems that cause major grief for owners. The service life has been increasing over the years, especially since KTM took over the production of the bikes in 2003. Issues with counterbalancers plagued the brand, with tales spreading across internet boards like a barn fire on every occurrence.We decided to give the $7798 Husaberg a true test and picked up one of the very first 2005s in the country off the showroom floor of Eric’s Motorcycle Company in Pasadena, California. We took it out with zero miles on it. After a second tank of gas and just about two hours on the bike, I hauled it to an SRA Grand Prix at Glen Helen and raced it in the Vet race, pulling a huge holeshot and finishing in second on a completely stock bike. Cost: one taillight lens.According to Husaberg, after about three hours it’s time for a dealer service to check everything. We took the bike to Z Racing in Anaheim, California, where mechanics adjusted the valves, did an oil service and tweaked with the jetting (for roughly $200).Publisher Sean Finley threatened to kill me if the bike killed him at the Lake Elsinore GP. He threw on a Scotts steering stabilizer to make riding across curbs a little more pleasant, mounted up a set of Bridgestones, won the Vet Intermediate class and placed 16th overall in the Harvey Mushman 100. Then he took it out over the Thanksgiving weekend for a family ride. Upon its return, I did an oil service and went riding with my buddy, Dave Donatoni. After about two minutes on the Berg, he said, “I’ll race this!” referring to the Tecate Hare Scrambles. We changed the oil again, put on a Kenda Southwick rear tire and headed for Mexico. Donatoni finished third overall A-rider and first in the 40 A class, not to mention pulling a monster holeshot! He did manage to tear the tip off the brake pedal, but we’re blaming the rider.So we have the 550 going on 20 extremely hard hours, without any special prep, and it is still running better with every hour we clock on it. We know there have been Husaberg hiccups in the past, but this bike has been perfect.How does it work? Well, we can’t say anything bad about the performance because everyone finished at or above his expectations while racing the monster. And when riding it, well, there isn’t a bike we know of that has power availability with such a light feel. At 253 pounds on the calibrated DR scale, it nevertheless felt 20 pounds lighter than that when things became rough and bouncy.Power is a specialty served instantaneously, and right off the very bottom it’s incredibly smooth. But a hair further on the throttle and you had better be ready for a surge that will pull harder than any 450cc motocross bike. It’s ferocious yet still pretty smooth for the most part, till it starts screaming. Now all you can think about is the massive amount of dirt the rear tire is shoveling at whomever is behind you. The top-end power is phenomenal, and the bike doesn’t mind running there.Carburetion is crisp through the spread. Shifting is a bit on the stiff side, especially when the bike is new; it is constantly getting better, and it never misshifted. The hydraulic clutch has a great feel and will also take some abuse, but there isn’t much need for clutching in the first place. Tranny spacing is wide, and we’ll bet the top speed on this six-speed box is more than 110 mph yet it has a first gear that is still low enough for the tightest trails.Husabergs used to have awkward handling. They were long yet still unstable and never offered a firm feel for what the front tire was doing. They have been improving slowly, and with a new WP fork and triple clamp, it seems that the right combination has been found. The 550 is a longer and taller feeling bike, yet as roomy as it is, the footpegs are a little more forward than others. It is set up to reward a forward and aggressive riding style, keeping the weight on the front wheel and your head over the handlebar, now without the stinkbug, tail-high feeling of yesteryear. You can turn it however you like, on the front wheel or by sliding the rear around with the brakes or, even more easily, on the power. Stability is good, but we opted to run a steering stabilizer to back it up. With a bike this fast, it isn’t such a bad idea.The suspension is much improved and might even be better than the KTMs with which the 550 shares design and componentry. The front is fairly plush and still has a good stroke. Out back, the shock seems a bit more progressive than a KTM’s, so you can get away with a softer initial or low-speed compression without having a bottoming problem. The brakes are strong and touchy, as with a KTM. But you get used to them, and then you begin to think Japanese bikes have mushy brakes! Its gripper seat is great, especially in muddy conditions. Overall, the 550e isn’t too thin; and the 2.3-gallon gas tank is good for 55 to 65 trail miles or more than an hour and a half or 40 miles at a race pace.Is the Husaberg a good bike? After our experience with the 550, we’re even more excited to see what the 450cc version has in store during our 24-Hour, a true durability test. There’s no doubt the Berg is in the realm of high-performance four-strokes; even its service manual spells that out pretty clearly. But our experience thrashing this 550e and doing regular maintenance proved the Swede was in line with every other bike we run through a testing regimen. The only standout impression left by this Husaberg was that it has power to spare.Opinions
I admit I was a little disappointed when Jimmy Lewis suggested the Husaberg 550 for my Elsinore race, but beggars can’t be choosy. My 12-year-old daughter saw the bike and commented that it looked like an “old man’s bike,” which had me questioning my “choice.” I went to the line for the 30+ Intermediate class and couldn’t help but notice a few people looking at the headlight, taillight (broken) and kickstand; they were probably wondering why I was not back with the beginners. As soon as the flag waved, all those guys were able to see was that Berg disappearing into the distance. It was so fast and stable down the first high-speed straight that I immediately pulled away from all of the Intermediates and passed half of the Experts who had started on the minute ahead of us. The bike also worked well on the tighter “moto” sections, which included a wide range of jumps, hills and off-camber turns. I won the 45-minute Vet race fairly easily and had so much fun on the Berg that I decided to enter that afternoon’s Harvey Mushman 100. I spent another two and a half hours on the bike and was amazed at how great it worked and how fresh I felt at the end of the race. (Lesson learned: Off-road suspension is much better for long, rough events such as this.) The Berg never missed a beat, and I managed to finish 16th among 125 entries. I don’t think I would have finished higher on any other bike, which says a lot for the Husaberg. To top it off, I put another 100 miles on it out in the desert. We rode everything from extremely tight canyon trails to wide-open washes, and again, the Husaberg worked well on all of it.
Sean Finley 5’10″/165 lb/Vet IntermediateThis berm-exploding weapon trenches its way along with authority but still maintains a nimble feel on single-track trails and sand washes, where a bike this big should be a handful. Lug it down in the rpm and cruise, then if you want to accelerate, simply twist the throttle—no clutch slipping necessary. The tranny has gearing for anything found on planet Earth. With a suspension setup that is race-ready, I just set the ride height at 100mm and added a couple clicks of compression damping to the fork. With the addition of a Scotts stabilizer, I couldn’t find any faults with the handling. Did I mention that I liked the electric starter?
Dave Donatoni 5’9″/165 lb/Senior AOther than having a broken taillight lens, our bike was flawless, being raced for about 12 of its 20 hours. And we’re still flogging it! This bike, which was not specially prepped in any way, is showing us that Husaberg has worked out a lot of the durability issues. If you are the guy who breaks a Honda XR, don’t even think about it. But if you enjoy extra performance and don’t mind the possibility of a little extra work, a Husaberg might be for you. The price isn’t the huge premium it once was, and parts availability is getting better. The new importer is excited and motivated to get Husaberg to where it belongs. The bike is no longer a stumbling block but a catapult in the right direction.
Jimmy Lewis 5’10″/180 lb/Vet A