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Common Tread

2020 Kawasaki KLX230 first ride review

Sep 18, 2019

When Kawasaki announced their new KLX230 street-legal, dual-sport model, it left me scratching my head. Didn’t they just release a KLX250? Was a KLX230 replacing this model or supplementing it?

This was the question on most everyone’s mind as we sat down for dinner at the press briefing in the small town of Jacksonville, Oregon, just outside of Medford. Kawasaki was actually launching three new models, the KLX230, KLX230R, and KLX300R, but only the non-R 230 would be street-legal. I’ll talk more about the latter two “R” models in a future article.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
The all-new KLX230 is aimed at entry-level riders along with folks who want a simple, small, no-frills dual-sport. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Kawasaki PR Manager Ken Essex immediately assured us the KLX250 wasn’t going anywhere and that these new models were going to be filling holes in their lineup. The new KLX230 is aimed squarely at new riders looking to get on a dual-sport motorcycle as well as existing riders looking for a completely approachable dual-sport for their first foray off-road.

The Kawasaki KLX230

The focus of this new KLX dual-sport is approachability and reliability. Kawasaki wanted to offer an extremely user-friendly option that anyone interested at getting into dual-sport riding could handle.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
The all-new 233 cc, two-valve, air-cooled, SOHC engine. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Unlike the larger KLX250 with liquid cooling and dual overhead cams, the KLX230 features a 233 cc, air-cooled, four-stroke, two-valve, single overhead cam engine. Translated, this engine has a little less bite than the KLX250 but features very friendly power delivery. If you’re new to riding off-road and accidentally grab too much throttle, the consequences will be much less severe. The simplicity of the design should make it pretty damn reliable, as well as easy to maintain.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
Clean and clear information from the dash. Photo by Kevin Wing.

It’s also lighter. The claimed weight for the KLX230 is 293 pounds (297 for the California version). That’s more than 10 pounds lighter than the KLX250. That weight includes a full tank (two gallons) of gas on the KLX230. Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to test the range prior to the warning light illuminating on the digital dash.

According to Kawasaki, the engine is tuned for low-end and mid-range performance. The engine is fed via a fuel-injected 34 mm throttle body. Combined with an electric starter, it’s a simple system to use and requires no knowledge of carburetors or a choke.

Fueling was smooth but the idle took a little bit to get used to as it wouldn’t sit still. Talking to the folks from Kawasaki, the idle on the KLX230 and 230R is designed to fluctuate in an effort to benefit new riders. I read up on all of the specifics and the easiest way I can break it down is that the bike's FI system increases the idle at certain times in order to prevent the bike from stalling and to improve bottom end feel. For an experienced rider it was odd and it took a while to get used to. 

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
The KLX230's chassis. Kawasaki image.

The engine is housed in a high-tensile, steel perimeter frame. Kawasaki explained that it allowed the engineers to keep the engine height and center of gravity low, giving the chassis a light and balanced feel. While the swingarm on the 230R is made of aluminum, the 230 dual-sport features a box-steel design that my buddy Abhi Eswarappa from Bike-urious confirmed with a magnet.

The 37 mm front fork features 8.7 inches of travel and the rear shock (which mounts to the bike via Kawasaki’s Uni-Trak linkage system) offers up 8.8 inches. Basic preload adjustment is available at the rear, but overall the suspension feels very soft and underdamped. Kawasaki claims 10.4 inches of ground clearance, but that gets eaten up rather quickly due to the soft suspension.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
Don't let the numbers on the page fool you, the seat height of the KLX230 is very approachable and inviting for shorter riders. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Same goes for the seat height. Listed at 34.8 inches, it sounds pretty intimidating at first glance. I can promise you that this bike is far from intimidating and the seat height squats far lower than 34.8 inches once you sit on it. Plus, the KLX230 is much narrower than a traditional street motorcycle, which makes for a straighter path to the ground for your feet. The result is a very approachable machine for shorter riders.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
While our bikes were not equipped with ABS, the KLX230 will have a special programmed dual-sport ABS available as an option. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The bike is slowed down via a dual-piston caliper clamping down on a 265 mm rotor up front and a single-piston caliper with a 220 mm rotor in the rear. Braking isn’t anything impressive in the traditional sense, but the lack of bite makes it easier to live with for newer off-road riders. I say this because it’s harder to lock up the wheels, which can cause the engine to stall or the front end to tuck.

The bikes we rode were the base versions, but an ABS version will also be available. The ABS is a first of its kind for Kawasaki as it features a dual-sport program that allows for more slip at the rear wheel prior to engaging. However, there is no way to override the ABS completely.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
That is a big headlight, which looks even bigger in person. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The bike is styled after Kawasaki’s more performance-focused KX line, aside from the giant, oversized headlight. In my opinion, this is a glaring miss as it looks out of place compared to the KLX250’s smaller headlight. It also is a huge point of vulnerability, susceptible to roost from other riders.

Overall fit and finish is very basic, as would be expected for the price point. Levers aren’t adjustable, brake lines are just rubber hoses, and the mirrors kept banging me in the forearms while riding off road, I eventually just moved mine out of the way.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
Spurg and Steve enjoyed being back together on small-displacement bikes, especially these, which are a lot nicer than their "$1,000 Adventure bikes." Photo by Kevin Wing.

Riding the KLX230

Jacksonville, Oregon was chosen for this event due to its proximity to a 1,300-acre OHV Trail Riding area managed by the Motorcycle Riders Association (MRA), a group dedicated to preserving off-road riding in Oregon. The idea was that we would get a feel for the bikes on the street while riding to the trails.

At six feet, three inches tall, I immediately felt huge on this bike. I’m a big fan of bikes that are small in stature, as well as displacement, but this one took a minute to get used to.  In the seated position, the handlebar hit my knee braces in tight turns and when I was standing the bike held me at an awkward cramped angle with my forearms smashing into the mirrors.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
Big guy on a little bike. Photo by Kevin Wing.

I eventually resolved the mirror issue by moving them out of the way. If this were my bike I would just remove them completely. A modification that I make on all of my ADV and dual-sport bikes prior to riding off-road.

Moving beyond the speed limits of the town, I worked the KLX smoothly through all of its six gears. It will ride comfortably at 65 miles an hour without feeling overly buzzy, something I can’t say for my KTM 350. Stock gearing features a 14-tooth sprocket up front and a 45-tooth sprocket out back. This gearing worked well for street riding but proved to be a bit tall off-road.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
Searching for the right gear on the KLX230. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Pulling into the MRA’s 1,300-acre property, we started off riding some loose dual-track trails. A lot of sand on steep-ish hills made it hard to find the correct gear. I would be screaming in first and shift into second only to start losing momentum. If I were spending a lot of time off-road I would probably opt to change the sprockets to lower the gearing. That and the tires.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
Looking for traction from the KLX230's rear IRC tire. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The rear IRC Trails GP22 tire had a hard time finding traction and the front GP21 had a tendency to push. The combination just made it hard to maintain momentum in the sandy, rocky terrain. By comparison, the 230R we rode the following day featured a 13/46 final gear ratio and off-road focused rubber and traction was drastically improved.

I really liked the way the brakes performed in the dirt. You could get pretty far into the rear brake without stalling. It made it really easy to slide the bike and initiate a turn. It was a heap of fun seeing how far you could get it sliding sideways before the engine would stall.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
The KLX230 is so easy to ride I bet even Lance Oliver could handle one off-road. Photo by Kevin Wing.

This will come in handy for folks who are new to dirt as they begin getting used to how the bike handles itself in unfamiliar terrain. While I am sure some folks will opt for the ABS version, I’d probably save the money and spend time learning how to control the bike manually in controlled situations. The KLX230 is the perfect bike for this.

We came off the mountain and stopped for a lunch of pizza and Cokes before heading back up to the hills. We hit a hard-packed, worn-out Jeep trail with a series of whooped-out water bars that were fun to jump, but not so much fun to land. For me, at 225 pounds, the suspension was just blowing completely through the stroke and bottoming out. My buddy Steve Kamrad writing for ADV Pulse joked about getting to test out the rubber suspension dampers. Even Andrew Oldar from Bonnier, who weighs about 125 pounds, was bottoming out the bike over the bigger hits.

The suspension on this bike is different than that of the purely off-road-oriented 230R. Quite a few of us felt that Kawasaki should have just used that suspension on both models. However, Kawasaki reps pointed out that it would have increased the travel as well as the seat height, thus making it a bit more intimidating for shorter, new riders.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
For as hard as we pushed the KLX230s, they never quit, and they took everything we threw at them. Photo by Kevin Wing.

And in fairness, we were pushing these bikes a bit harder than the average rider looking at this machine would be pushing them. These are aimed squarely at light trail use and day-to-day commuting. For folks considering a small-displacement daily rider with dual-sport styling and off-road potential, this one is leading the class.

The KLX230’s competition

The non-ABS version has an MSRP of $4,599 which bumps to $4,899 if you opt for ABS. That’s comparable to the Suzuki DR200S with an MSRP of $4,649 or the Yamaha TW200 priced at $4,599.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
2020 KLX230. Photo by Kevin Wing.

I rode a DR200S when I was living “The terrifically fun tale of the $1,000 adventure bike.” While the DR is a little lighter with a slightly lower seat height, the Kawi has better brakes, better fueling, and more power. Plus it just looks a bit more modern, both in its overall lines and its digital dash.

I don’t know if I think the Yamaha is a completely fair comparison as the TW200 is kinda in a class of its own, with its big balloon tires and odd-duck looks. But Kawasaki was quick to point out that you get a stronger engine, fuel injection, more suspension travel, and better brakes. All for the same amount of money.

No one from the competition offers ABS as an option. So Kawi is leading the charge in bringing this technology to small-displacement dual-sports. Although I’m not sure you need it, ABS has become a deal-breaker for a lot of people. If you want it, it’s there for you to consider.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
A dual-sport will take you places you'll normally never get to see. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Conclusion

Everyone that I was riding with was used to riding larger faster machines and thus we were pushing the KLX230 far beyond its intended use. That being said, it never quit on us.

Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
Testing the limits of the KLX230's suspension. Photo by Kevin Wing.

We ran it wide open, bouncing it off the rev-limiter, jumped it, crashed it, and in general had a good ol’ time. We even tested the passenger limitations to see about riding two (errr… three) up. It didn’t always enjoy the way we were treating it, but it kept soldiering on.

I think for larger, “Spurgeon-sized” riders it might be worth considering the $800 bump to the KLX250, but the KLX230 is an impressive little machine. It’s simple, affordable fun, that is approachable and inviting for a variety of riders, especially those who are intimated by larger, taller machines.

And for those of you who are looking for something a bit more dirt-focused, we got to spend a full day riding the KLX230R and larger 300R back-to-back. But that is a story for another day.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230
Price (MSRP) $4,599 ($4,899 with ABS)
Engine type SOHC, four-stroke, air-cooled
Displacement 233 cc
Bore x stroke 67 mm x 66 mm
Compression 9.4:1
Transmission Six-speed
Front suspension 37 mm telescopic fork 
Rear suspension Uni-Trak linkage system and single shock with adjustable preload 
Front suspension travel  8.7 inches
Rear suspension travel 8.8 inches 
Front brake Single 240 mm (265 mm w/ABS) petal disc with dual-piston caliper 
Rear brake Single 220 mm petal disc with single-piston caliper 
Tires front/rear 2.75 x 21; 4.10 x 18
Wheelbase 54.3 inches
Seat height 34.8 inches
Tank capacity Two gallons
Wet weight (claimed)  293 pounds (297 pounds for CA model)