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MX vs ENDURO – which makes the best all-rounder? (revisited)

Oh gosh, that old nugget again – which is the best off-road racer, the enduro or the motocrosser? Actually, worth asking as we learned some stuff...

Back towards the beginning of last summer I briefly touched upon (in my blog: https://rustsports.com/lockdown-life-6-humdrum/ ) my purchase of a new Husqvarna FE350 and my remit of building a trick, fun all-round dirt bike that I could turn to any type of riding. It had been a funny old year or so, and with events and plans all over the place (due to you know what), I just wanted to have some fun, a change from the more focussed approach I’d committed to in the last few years of being an amateur/midlife crisis desert racer.

Also, it’s been a time of contemplation for many, chaos breeds opportunity as they say, but also reflection. I’ve personally been ‘at it’ on motos since around 2005, no schoolboy MX or trials background here, but 15 odd years. Advice back then, if you wanted to go quick, was to buy an MX bike and make yourself from that a fast enduro racer. The enduro stuff was, by most accounts, a bit soft. My little journey is a different story for a different day, but I followed that advice and it kind of worked.

Back to the current day and my search for a ‘fun’ bike. I’d decided I wanted something of an all-rounder, quick, yet light. With my FE450 Rally Cup setup retired and the factory FR rally bike not entirely ideal for hare & hounds, the FE350 seemed to fit the bill. But also, in the spirit of reflection, it being circa 10 years since the 350’s inception, and indeed nearly that since I last had one – and the constant evolution of engines, suspension, mapping and tech – I found myself asking ‘should we revisit the age-old question?’ Namely, can you build a better club racer by starting out with an MX bike or an enduro bike? And where does the baseline lay for the one bike to do it all? Well, here goes: ‘Answers to questions we probably already know the answers to – the 2021/2 edition’.

Ey up, we're in Lancashire – and it's time for a head-to-head
2022 HUSQVARNA FE350
Boxing for the long-distance, aging, quiet life's a good life rider – the Husqvarna FE350
HUSQVARNA FC350
And for the go fast or go home brigade – the Husqvarna FC350

KRAMER VS KRAMER

To answer that question, we figured we’d need two siblings, one MX, one enduro, from the same manufacturer. Husqvarna had in their workshops exactly what we needed, an FC350 and an FE350. The FC was a little beauty with about an hour on it, the FE350 a little older, but still fit and stock standard whereas my own FE had been heading for some time down the road of personal setup, and was a way off standard by this time.

In our selfless search for truth we kept the bikes for a little longer than we are normally allowed to and put about 10 hours across each of the two bikes, so more than a 30 min test for sure. We also took them to three venues. An enduro race venue – wide open, but with tricky, rocky sections and some technical single track. A woods venue – quickish and flowing but tight enough to keep you on your A-game with any pace applied. And a motocross track. The latter decent enough, but I get a bit bored at the MX track, and I don’t like jumping, so we took along a lad in some pink pyjamas that loves it, and we let him loose there.

I’ll be honest, I thought I knew the answer before we started, and as ever I garnered the opinion of anyone that decided to comment on two shiny bikes coming out of the van – my mates, track owners and hangers on etc. We all thought the same, but…

2022 HUSQVARNA FE350
FE350 – note big fuel tank and curly engine bracket
HUSQVARNA FC350
FC350 – shorter header and stronger engine bracket
2022 HUSQVARNA FE350
FE350 – Six-speed 'box, another wispy engine bracket
HUSQVARNA FC350
FC350 – power bomb exhaust – note near identical XACT shock
2022 HUSQVARNA FE350
FE350 – long muffler – for more torque?
HUSQVARNA FC350
FC350 – short muffler for shouty excited rev

SMALL THINGS

As it happens, I was surprised at how many physical differences there were between the two bikes. I’m not talking the things we all know about – 18” vs 19” rear wheels, fuel tanks and lights etc – we’re talking the setup out of the box. For example, the MX bike sits a lot lower, and has a much lower rise ‘bar, making it feel instantly smaller, both off and on the bike. It made it handy for getting the two in the back of the van, too, as the bars don’t clash!

So, the MX bike feels and behaves lighter. Obviously it is, the smaller pipe (no cat), tank, lack of lights, stator, some smaller engine cases (one less gear ratio), the air fork (which drop nearly a kg on their own) all add up to make it feel like a mountain bike alongside the enduro bike. I’ve since found out that the mx foot pegs also sit 5mm lower, too. Apparently the enduro bike wants more ground clearance.

If you take a quick look at the top engine mounts the enduro bike’s are sculpted, skinny little things, whereas the MX ones look like they’re capable of lifting a shipping container. This inherent flex is the stuff that used to be (and is still to some extent) whispered around pro paddocks. I know of one rather quick schoolboy racer that runs with a pretend top mount in his bike. Funny game is schoolboy MX, F1 levels of nonsense. And while engine power is top trumps stuff, in real life you’ve got to be able to hang on to the thing for a full moto or enduro.

HUSQVARNA FC350
FC350 skips along with the urgency of a six-month old puppy
2022 HUSQVARNA FE350
FE350 is a proper bloodhound, nose to the ground and knows what single track is all about

THE ENDURO TEST 1

We start out at RAW Enduro’s Hapton venue. We’re there for other things, but it’s a great proving ground for our first comparison. A huge expense of typically northern hillside, with sections of big, open old school scramble type going, but interspersed with technical streams, rocks and climbs. A proper playground.

On starting the MX bike it is instantly more aggro, it’s peaky and brash. A pleasant hour ensued flicking it about, popping (rubbish) wheelies and pivot turning out of trouble. Its agile snappiness a total joy. I can blip the throttle off the top of little mounds and not worry too much about where I’m landing – a bit like a puppy after a stick again. Of course, I stall it a few times, but it doesn’t matter, fun is being had. I like the stiffness of the air fork, too. It goes where I want it to. And I’m starting to think today is going to get expensive and I’ll be adding another bike to the Keyworth line-up.

The FC comes with a phone App power tuner so for this test I calmed it down a little on the throttle, told the bike that it’s slippery and reduced the engine braking. And it’s working really rather well. BUT, there are no tapes up. I’m not being held to one of the awkward lines or ruts, and I’m not being pushed into making mistakes by the rider behind me. I’m also not two hours in. It’s easy to be a winner when you’re the only one in the game. JB doesn’t get many shots of the bike upside down, too, so we are sort of winning.

We are very much – quite literally – out of the woods here, though. I know the venue, and I know what’s coming, so it’s easier to keep a peppy bike on the boil. This FC350 is definitely that. I’ve said many times that I think the 350 is the racing man’s 450. You have to really ride them, or they’ll show you who’s boss. They like to rev and they’re snappy.

In the interest of photos, and knowing how much I like to hog the bike I prefer, JB insists I swap onto the FE350. And I don’t like it. At all. It feels MUCH taller than the MX bike. This is the huge advantage of hot laps – unless you immediately jump off one and onto another some of the finer points are lost. It’s actually quite bizarre how much taller and more cumbersome the enduro bike feels. The bars feel MUCH higher and it all feels so much more ‘leggy’. The clutch-dump spin turns and constant back and forth of corners (“do it again, do it again but slower, do it again but go wider, actually, the first time was fine, do that again”etc) are much more effort. I find myself on tiptoes a good few times. Interesting. The bike feels soft, not surprisingly, but I had mapped the MX to be soft, too. That said, the stalling no longer occurred, and I could actually pull a bit more pace on the staccato, repeated granite hard rocks of the fire roads and the driftier corners. 

It’s probably time to discuss the mapping capability of the MX bike. Husqvarna say:

“Following the launch of the 2021 motocross range, Husqvarna Motorcycles is pleased to announce the availability of the myHusqvarna app – an easy-to-use smartphone application that grants exact customisation of engine on all 2021 four-stroke models. Ensuring true performance can be tailored to suit individual riders of all abilities, the myHusqvarna app and accompanying bike-mounted Connectivity Unit also allow the management and storage of motorcycle set-up information.

“Together with many other features the key highlights of the myHusqvarna app are two main engine modes – Prime and Advanced. These options let riders of all abilities accurately set-up their engine’s performance according to their specific requirements and track conditions.

“Combining valuable input from Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing with extensive in-house research and testing, both modes give valuable set-up recommendations to support riders using the application. Additionally, in Prime mode riders have the possibility to adjust the level of traction control interference. The Advanced mode further permits modification of the engine brake, throttle response, traction and launch control, based on personal preferences.”

So there’s the blurb, but is it a gimmick? Well, not at all. Now, I’m not sure how much is ‘mapping’ and how much is really adjustment of the throttle position for a given situation. You might argue they’re the same thing, but they’re not. The reality is, though, the bike definitely behaves differently, and markedly so. You’ve the option to setup for sand, hard pack, slippery conditions etc, as well as throttle response and how intrusive the traction control is.

For fast cross-country going the FC350 is a fair crack
Stuff like this is better dealt with by the FE350
A cracking one night stand, but could you live with it long term?
If we were to take one thing from the FC350? Probably the air forks

ENDURO TEST 2

To test how well the mapping App might turn the FC into an FE we did a blind test with two guineapigs at our local Lincolnshire enduro loop. The loop is a good mix of fast going, woods and tech rocks, plus some man-made features (tyre jumps, big logs etc). I set the bike up, sent out two very different riders and didn’t tell them what I’d done (the interface was on my mobile via the free to download App).

To cut to it, it was full marks all round. With both our fast and fit expert rider, and our less so, a bit lazy – likes to sit down a lot – 50 year old (who still more than holds his own to be fair) the only ‘erring’ was the throttle response and the TC intervention, with both not entirely sure if it was throttle response down or TC up.

For me, I’m convinced the difference was staggering, but the human mind will do anything to justify a fancy bit of kit strapped to a shiny bike, so we ignored my own input. This aside, the MX bike did show its bad manners here. On the enduro loop, and especially in the woods and the tech going it rather let itself down. It’s cough stall city and the power is still mx-sharpish. It’s fair to say that a novice rider would probably be still stuck in the boggy bits at the bottom of the rooty woods climbs unable to realise the traction that comes more naturally on the FE.

So, we’re starting to form an unsurprising opinion that the MX bike is great at the MX track, and for hooning about outside of the race tapes, but that it’s a bit too full of itself otherwise. We then start to wonder why enduro bikes don’t have the programmable mapping of the MX bike… (Ed: only they do, Craig, or at least Yamaha’s WR-Fs do).

Honesty, it was very slippery
HUSQVARNA FC350
Who needs traction when you can just spin it up? The FC350 was a handful in the technical stuff
Yeah, he didn't expect that! Craig missing his Cone Valves
The FE350 – quietly getting on with the job

THE MX TEST

For completeness, and because our mate in the pyjamas has an MX track to himself and a local championship round at the weekend, we moved onto the third phase of our test, the MX track, taking it in turns to do a hot lap on the mx bike and the enduro bike. This would be the final nail in our own ‘we all knew it already’ story. Only it wasn’t.

Try as we might, we couldn’t pull more than a second a lap difference between the two bikes. Same riders, same bikes, same outcome. We stopped when it became clear everyone was getting tired (our old man tester had already bowed out here) and the risk to the bikes and bodies was becoming too much.

The track as we’re riding it is between 1m and 1m10s per lap, depending on the day. Today was 1m7s. Or within a second. On both bikes. Every time. The last laps were discounted as arms were beginning to fail and front ends were running away with them. This was our surprise. Surely the softy enduro bike was no match for the MXer at the track? Now the track has no washboard whoops (they’re out of favour with insurers) and most jumps in today’s direction are safe enough to go biggish or not, so there is that, but still… A surprise.

SO, WHO WON EXACTLY?

So, there we have it, given certain conditions the FC350 did better than we thought at the enduro venues, while the FE350 did much better at the MX track than we expected. Is that surprising? Or informative? Perhaps.

At the beginning of this feature – well, before JB so rudely edited it out, at least – I discussed the recent lack of imported XC models (as we used to get from KTM) and queried the reasoning for that. But in light of this evidence, it’s maybe apparent that these models were dropped on account of the fact that we’re not so different from each other – MX and enduro – and that with some tweaked suspension, an out of the box enduro bike is these days all we really ever need.

And so – is this a ‘bombshell’? – today’s enduro bike (not the MX bike), with a few tweaks, is actually the all-rounder we’re looking for. It’s good at it all: enduro, cross-country and… motocross! (Only that’s not such a new thing – JB explained to me that at the New Zealand launch of the 2001 Yamaha YZ250F and WR250F they set an expert motocrosser off around a national motocross track there and he, too, set lap times just one second apart on the two bikes). Hey ho – either way we (the enduro nuts) are winning… So, time for a bit of motocross perhaps?

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