Church of MO: 2010 KTM 530 EXC

John Burns
by John Burns

`Twas 2007 when the KTM 530 EXC was deemed legal for street use in these United States, and while Mary probably wouldn’t want to ride an EXC to Bethlehem, it did represent Christmas to many American dirt riders who’d always wanted a serious dual-sport. All these years later, fuel-injected and more sanitary than ever (and now referred to as 500 EXC though the engine’s always been 510 cc), this one still leads the pack.

Bringing off-road racing to the street

Photos by Dan Paris

Dual-sport bikes, by definition, are masters of none. Traditionally softened, civilized and neutered, they have never turned on hardcore riders. That left dirt bikers scrambling to jump through licensing loopholes to get adequate lighting and license plates strapped to their competition enduro or motocross bikes. In a bold move KTM released its ever-popular four-stroke EXC line with full DOT certification a few years ago. The latest incarnation of that popular breed is the 2010 KTM 530 EXC.If you aren’t familiar with the enduro championship winning EXC formula, here are the basics. The liquid cooled 530 engine actually displaces 510cc and features a four-valve OHC cylinder head and an 11.9:1 compression ratio. That top end breathes though a 39mm Keihin FCR-MX carburetor, while power flows through a wide-ratio six-speed transmission and hydraulic clutch.

KTM’s healthy mill is wrapped in a Cr-Mo frame, with WP forks up front (11.8″ of travel) and KTM’s simple, non-linkage rear suspension (13.2″ of travel). Despite its dual-sport legality, the package is spec’d with appropriate spring and damping rates for off-road racing. In fact, minimal work has been done to make the bike DOT legal. The big differences between the EXC and its off-road cousins lie in DOT approved Metzeler knobby tires, emissions friendly carburetor jetting, taller gearing and a quieter exhaust.

Dirt biker’s dream come true? KTM’s 530 EXC is essentially an off-road race bike with lights.

How effective is this bike to ride? On the street, the answer is ‘not very.’ Gearing is tall, allowing effortless runs at normal highway speeds. But this is a dirt bike first and foremost, so it vibrates, wiggles, lurches and is generally uncomfortable to ride when pressed into the streetbike role. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to ride the 530 EXC on the street, because it is. It’s a riot actually, because the KTM is tall, torquey, fast and draws looks like a bull (Red Bull?) in a china shop. The brakes are great, considering the limited grip of knobby tires on pavement. The digital instrumentation is not exactly easy to read, but provides enough info to keep you out of trouble. The mirrors are blurry, oversized and awkward. There are no passenger pegs, nor is there a big fat saddle or a big fat gas tank. This is a dirt bike, a serious dirt bike, with just enough street stuff to satisfy the authorities. Being dirt bikers, those limitations as a street bike are fine with us. Anything more would be unnecessary, and dare we say it…dorky. The KTM 530 EXC is most assuredly not dorky.

Dual sport meets moto. The big 530 proved to be surprisingly capable on a motocross track.

The first stop in our test was a trip to a motocross track used in the Canadian National MX series. Whooped out sand, big jumps, a bone stock dual-sport bike and a Pro Motocross racer should be a recipe for disaster. Nope. The big Katoom surprised everyone with its prowess on the fast, soft course. All we did was remove the mirrors, adjust the compression damping at both ends and let the tires down to 10psi. Before long Novice and Intermediate riders were being passed by a big orange dual-sport bike, accompanied by a symphony of horn honks and a light show of high-beam flashes and turn signals. Pretty soon we had our own fan club on the sidelines, cheering every time our Pro test pilot honked the horn over the 100 foot double on the front straight.

Wide, fast trails are where the 530 really shines.

Naturally the final drive gearing was much too tall, but the suspension worked pretty well at both ends. The EPA-spec corked-up engine wasn’t as strong as the 450 motocross bikes, but it wasn’t far behind either. Amazingly nothing came loose or broke during our motocross track beating, and after a few motos the signals still signaled and the horn still honked.

Next stop, GNCC-type trails. Here, on the fast, flowing trails the 530 was totally in its element. It felt light enough, the suspension was excellent and the lazy, torquey engine was content to lug out of turns or rev down the straights in third gear all day long.

We then graduated to hilly, tightly wooded Eastern Enduro singletrack. Here’s where shortcomings began to be felt. In slow first and second gear trails the 530 got hot enough to steam with little effort, especially when the clutch was abused. Abuse the clutch on a 530? Yup, because of the tall street-oriented gearing and crummy FIM-Spec short knob rear tire riding the woods was an exercise in fighting for traction. The big engine, thankfully, was content to lug down, never farting or loading up even when boiling hot. The clutch never faded or did anything weird either, but those tires were brutal on the wet, leafy clay. Much better DOT approved knobby tires are everywhere these days. Get some.

When descending steep hills or muscling the bike around after failed hill climb attempts the bike’s weight became noticeable. KTM’s claim of 251.1 pounds is optimistic, to be sure, and when coupled with heaps of sticky wet clay and marginal tires, going down or up steep hills became sketchy. By comparison, we brought along a new KTM 300 XC two-stroke that was way easier to ride aggressively in those conditions. A few minor falls on the 530 EXC resulted in one of the rear turn signals and the rear license plate holder breaking, but everything else remained unscathed. With appropriate gearing and good tires the 530 would have fared better, because they were holding back the smooth engine, light steering, good suspension and brakes.

Can you race it? Absolutely. Anywhere. You might not win, but if you’re fast you won’t be last…and you can ride it home.

So here’s what our Pro and Intermediate testers agreed on. The engine pulls in such a linear fashion that it hides the fact that you are hauling ass. Perhaps not as much ass as you would on a 450F MX bike, but ass never less. The front suspension was fantastic but the rear not so much, with a tendency to fade and blow through its travel in long whoop sections. The fuel tank was a tad wide, but nothing cumbersome. Cold morning starts strained the battery, sometimes requiring kick starting in conjunction with using the magic button, even when the battery was fully charged. The lean jetting also required a long warm-up period and perhaps contributed to overheating issues in tight woods. The kickstand was a nightmare. The bike fell over more during our test because of that dopey kickstand than it ever did from us riding. We eventually just left it up, locked into it’s goofy rubber band holder-upper, and found something to lean the bike against whenever possible. The seat is hard and the bike shakes and vibrates on the street, but as we said earlier we dirt riders don’t really care.

With gobs of smooth power, a great juice clutch and excellent brakes the KTM 530 EXC may be the ‘easiest to wheelie’ dirt bike ever. That’s gotta’ count for bonus points!

End result? You could ride this bike to an enduro, hare scramble or motocross, race it in one of the amateur classes and be competitive. Fix a few shortcomings by ditching the street stuff and doing some ‘closed course only’ mods to the jetting and exhaust and you could be very competitive indeed. That says a lot about the overall effectiveness of this machine.

We should also warn you riding on the street with this bike requires a ton of discipline. Like the caption says, the 530 EXC is quite possibly the wheelie king of all dirt bikes.

If you want an honest, hardcore dirt bike with lights the KTM 530 EXC is the answer. If you want a squishy, comfortable dual-sport bike to ride to the corner store or for endless adventure rides, look elsewhere. The 530 EXC is what it is – a serious dirt bike with turn signals – and what it is we like!

John Burns
John Burns

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