Middle of the Off-Road: Is Kawasaki’s KLX250 Just Right?

By Fish, with Surj Gish
Photography: Max Klein
Rider: Fish

My time on our 2018 KLX250 began in front of Max’s lens, on some amazing property owned by friends of his. Our instructions: don’t disturb the cows, everything else is fair game—including the miniature motocross track. I don’t think I could have asked for a better playground on which to get to know the bike.

The KLX isn’t new—it hit the US market way back in 2006 but had been absent from the US since 2014. For 2018, Kawi’s little dualie has returned to America, graced with electronic fuel injection, a refinement that puts the KLX on even ground with its Japanese competitors.

Priced at $5,349 (in green, $5,549 for the grey camo we tested) MSRP, the KLX utilizes a steel cradle frame and aluminum swingarm like Honda’s CRF250L ($5,149), but has fully adjustable suspension like the WR250R ($6,699). Its spec sheet paints the KLX as a compromise between the CRF and the WR: the CRF on the milder, more road-oriented end of the spectrum; the WR having more dirt cred right out of the showroom.

The primary thing everyone seems concerned about with these little enduros is power. Let’s get this out of the way right now: though the numbers differ a bit on paper, the KLX is really no more or less powerful than its competition. The differences just aren’t material in day-to-day riding, but none of these bikes are underpowered. The KLX has all the power needed to drag me up most any incline that I can stay on the bike for.

It won’t throw copious roost and wheelie on power alone, but the counterbalanced single is tractable and smooth throughout its rev range, delivering friendly and useful power that lets you concentrate on controlling the bike rather than your right hand. Fueling is nothing short of perfect, with nary a hint of flat spots to be found, although I did perceive an almost “dual” powerband: a very pleasant wave of torque down low that mellows before a finishing touch of peaky power up high. I wouldn’t call the middle a valley, but sort of a plateau. It’s not like a two-stroke powerband, but it helps with climbing.

Further aiding the KLX’s excellent controllability is its adjustable suspension. Sporting a cartridge fork with 43 mm diameter tubes (same as the CRF250L, 3 mm smaller than the WR250R), the addition of 16-way compression adjustability, plus adequate spring rates for my 200-pound body, really help the KLX’s cause. For all my jumps, wheelies, and general nonsense, I never heard the dreaded clunk of the fork bottoming out. This may not sound like a big deal, but the reality is that many bikes are easily overwhelmed in stock form.

The back half of the KLX features 16-way compression and rebound adjustability in addition to the usual preload. In a world where every bike I ride seems to be sprung for someone lighter than me, the KLX’s rear spring rate had no issues with my body or the terrain I subjected it to. One of my favorite activities on these kinds of bikes (well, most bikes) is sliding the rear around on gravel roads. I ran into issues with the CRF250L in this area, as the underdamped rear suspension reacted to my inputs with wheel hop instead of wheelspin. Not the case with the KLX: loose gravel, mud, hard-packed dirt, even dust covered “roller rocks” are all managed with minimal drama.

Travel is 10” up front and 9.8” out back, again placing the bike in between the Honda (9.8” front, 9.4” rear) and the Yamaha (10.6” front and rear).

My father bestowed upon me an expression about selling motorcycles: “It doesn’t matter what wrong seat or wrong bars are on the bike when you sell it.” This rings especially true for dirt bikes, where the first mods are often an upgraded seat and handlebars with a different bend. The KLX’s cockpit, however, avoids the need for immediate upgrades, at least for me. Both on and off-road, I found the appointments functional and comfortable.

I’m 6’ tall with a 34” inseam, and thus usually unaffected by seat height. The KLX’s 35” seat height is admittedly high—but the bike does settle a little under the rider’s weight. Again, the KLX is in the middle—the Yamaha’s seat 1.6” taller (“real dirt bike,” remember?) and the Honda’s is .4” lower.

While braking off-road is usually traction-limited, on the road, components and setup make a difference. The front half of the KLX sports a fairly typical 250 mm petal style rotor, squeezed by a two-piston, sliding style caliper. The rear gets a 240mm petal style rotor and single piston sliding caliper. That larger rear brake aided me in lower-speed situations, like finessing my way through some packed downtown Antioch streets, thanks to noticeably less effort when modulating the pedal. It’s not overly sensitive, but does require a bit of mindfulness.

When talking about off-road and dual-sport motorcycles, weight always finds its way into the discussion. I’ve made my personal “don’t give a fuck” stance very clear by buying the heaviest 250 dual-sport, but for those of you more concerned about poundage, the KLX tips the scales at 304.3 pounds—almost ten pounds more than the WR, and about thirteen pounds less than the CRF. These are all wet weights, of course—full of fuel and ready to ride.

Despite my cavalier attitude on bike weight, the KLX feels lighter than the CRF in turn-in and responsiveness of the chassis. But it also feels thinner between your legs.

The 56.3” wheelbase is not dramatically shorter than the Honda’s 56.9”, nor substantially more than the Yamaha’s 55.9”, cementing the KLX as the middle child.

There are no surprises when the dirt ends and it’s time to ride home—the digi-camo bike  is equally capable on pavement and dirt (and probably the green one too). The KLX offers reasonable road manners, and its mixed-use Dunlops do a great job both in town and on the highway. Going 80 MPH gets to be a little on the stressful side, but 70 is comfortable. The addition of luggage or cargo does complicate things a bit—there’s only so much you can do with a 250. Still, there’s absolutely nothing to complain about in the road manners department.

As you can see, this middle of the road theme repeats itself over and over except in one subjective area, and that’s fit and finish. This is not to say that the KLX is bad, but there are a few details that don’t stack up as nicely to the competition. I’ve yet to find a Honda that didn’t have what I would call top notch fit and finish for its segment, and Yamahas are also typically very well-constructed. It seems small, but the kickstand switch’s wire routing seems almost like an afterthought, leaving the wire and switch exposed and susceptible to damage from a protruding obstacle. Up on the bars, the switchgear lacks the rounded edges of the Honda’s, and seem slightly less robust in design and action. The Kawi’s instrument cluster is plenty informative, and our tester’s speedometer was remarkably accurate, but its overall look is a bit less elegant than the clusters on the others.

These are small complaints, and totally reasonable compromises given the price point of this bike, perhaps simply the explanation behind how Kawasaki can make such a great package for less than the cost of our beloved CRF250L.

Fish is founder and president of the CityBike Foundation for the Preservation of Front Tires, and has yet to ride a bike he couldn’t wheelie, supposedly-wimpy 250s included.

Surj: Street Smarts

I’m not much of a dirt rider. Sure, I’ve been known to show up at the occasional dual-sport ride to trash some hardware, maybe break a bone or two, and I do occasionally head to Carnegie for a bit of dust ‘n’ dehydration and a good schooling by little kids on TTR125s, but I’m mostly a street rider. So I treated the KLX to my usual utili-thrasher routines, round town rowdiness and such.

There’s a case to be made for 250 dual-sports as the ultimate round-towners. They tend to be relatively cheap to acquire and maintain, and are very capable, whether used as a good ambassador runabout, quietly picking up groceries, or a hellraising hooligan, launching off ledges and taking arguably pedestrian-only shortcuts like staircases.

If the bike falls over, who cares? It’s easy to pick up, and it’s not like there’s bodywork to trash, really. In the case of the camo KLX (which will be the title of my next detective novel), the uh… paint scheme, as it were, will hide a lot of signs of abuse anyway.

The only real downside of a 250 is limited freeway prowess—yes, they’re hypothetically fast enough, and I’ve done tons of freeway miles on a fully-loaded 250 to prove it—but they lack headroom. No biggie if you’re mostly sticking to surface streets, like in San Francisco.

The KLX is good mount for such malarkey, offering willing power delivery and a lithe feel. Plus, the camo paintwork meant The Fuzz couldn’t see me!

Sure, it doesn’t set anyone’s hair on fire with eyeball-flattening acceleration, but the old adage “fast enough to get into trouble” applies. I like trouble, so Surj+KLX=G2G. And the bike’s brakes and suspension are certainly good enough to manage that trouble. 

Stoplight-to-stoplight, block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood? The KLX is quick enough to outrun most cars in low speed urban environments, agile enough to slice between obstacles both moving and stationary, and cheap as hell to insure.

Here’s the funny thing. Like Fish, while riding the KLX, I couldn’t help but run constant comparison scenarios in my head between the Kawi and Honda’s CRF250L, because—also like Fish, but I was first—I own a CRF250L, which I bought new in 2014. It’s been extensively modded, and has served me well. One of the key modifications was comprehensive upgrades to the suspension, thanks to Race Tech, because the stock suspension is, as Fish says, “easily overwhelmed.” Translation: it sucks, unless you’re Shayna Texter-sized.

Shit. She’s a Husqvarna rider. Who rides a Honda and is small, like Lilliputian?

Oh, here we go: the CRF250L is sprung for Dani Pedrosa.

Anyway, at the time, the KLX250 was still carbureted and cost $5,099, $100 more than the EFI-equipped 250L. It was a no-brainer, even though the Honda is a little heavier—I’m kinda with Fish on the “who cares what it weighs” thing, within reason.

But if I was shopping today, I’m not sure I’d make the same decision. On paper, it’s harder to choose the Honda  now (although smart folks know that Hondas seldom look as good on paper as they perform in the real world). Sure, the CRF is $200 less than the plain green KLX and has optional ABS, which isn’t available on the Kawi. But the KLX is now fuel injected, and you’ll piss away the $200 (and probably a lot more) you saved buying the Honda on making the suspension functional (unless you’re Pedrosa), meaning the KLX’s adjustable suspension (with cartridge fork!) alone is worth it.

Plus, the camo is cool.

Editor Surj doesn’t think it’s at all strange that he and Fish both own a CRF250L and a Buell Ulysses. Fish’s is a Rally, after all, and Surj’s is better anyway.

This story originally appeared in our August 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

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