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Common Tread

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R and KLX300R first ride review

Sep 25, 2019

Take a bunch of grown-ass men and women, drive them out to the woods, throw them all on small-displacement dirt bikes, and watch the fun ensue. That was Kawasaki’s recipe for launching the all-new KLX230R and KLX300R.

In my review of the street-legal KLX230 from last week, I mentioned that we kicked things off with a quick trail ride through a 1,300-acre OHV area located just outside of Jacksonville, Oregon. While the land is owned and managed by the Motorcycle Riders Association (MRA), it’s completely open for public use.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R First Ride Review
Once Kawasaki turned us loose in the dirt, we wasted no time sitting around. There was fun to be had. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Unlike the first day of the launch on the KLX230, when we saw a limited amount of dirt, the good folks at Kawasaki turned us loose on the second day. We had full access to the entire facility and a trailer full of KLX230Rs and KLX300Rs to play with.

But first, let’s get the information out of the way.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R Review
Kawasaki's all-new 2020 KLX230R. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The Kawasaki KLX230R

Maybe it was the knobby tires or the slightly taller suspension, but the KLX230R seems more aggressive than the dual-sport KLX230 version, even when just sitting still. An observation that would prove true once we started riding.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230 First Ride Review
Both the new KLX230R and KLX300R are fuel-injected. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The engine is the exact same 233 cc, air-cooled, four-stroke, two-valve, single overhead cam engine found in the KLX230. The engine is fed via a fuel-injected 34 mm throttle body and features an electric starter, so it’s push-button simple to use and requires no knowledge of carburetors or a kick starter.

The fuel injection features the same quirky idle programming I discussed in the previous review: the FI system increases the idle at certain times in order to prevent the bike from stalling and to improve bottom-end feel. It’s aimed at helping new riders but for an experienced rider it was odd and it took a while to get used to.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R First Ride Review
The KLX230R shares the same engine as the KLX230. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Because the KLX230R is green-sticker compliant in the state of California, Kawasaki informed us there isn’t really any real difference in power output between the two 230 models.

That being said, there is a significant weight difference, almost 40 pounds on the dot. The KLX230R weighs in at a nimble 253 pounds (258 for the California version) making it extremely manageable for new and smaller riders alike. Headlight, mirrors, turn signals, tail light, exhaust heat shield, passenger pegs... it’s amazing how much weight all of that street-legal bullshit adds to the KLX230. The “R” also only holds 1.7 gallons of fuel (the California version holds 1.9 gallons).

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R First Ride Review
Kawasaki image.

While the frame is the same high-tensile, steel-perimeter design, the swingarm is aluminum and the chassis geometry is different from that of the KLX230. This is due in part to a different suspension and steering head angle. The KLR230R gets a steeper steering head rake angle of 26.5 degrees, a shorter wheelbase of 53.5 inches, and over an additional inch of ground clearance, sitting at 11.8 inches on this model.

The additional ground clearance is due in part to longer suspension travel, and stiffer springs and better valving make the suspension feel more accurate. The front 37 mm fork features 9.8 inches of travel and the rear shock provides 9.9 inches. The rear shock utilizes Kawasaki’s Uni-Trak linkage system and has a five-position preload collar.

Seat height is listed at 36.4 inches but don’t let that number intimidate you. While it wasn’t as approachable as the dual-sport version, even the shortest riders in our group were able to comfortably reach the ground. Keep in mind that unlike street bikes, dirt bikes have a narrower seat, which makes for an easier reach to the ground. Their suspension is also designed to sag roughly 30 to 35 percent.

Aside from the fact that no ABS option is available, the brakes are identical to those found on the KLX230. A dual-piston caliper up front is paired with a 240 mm disc and out back there is a single-piston caliper with a 220 mm disc. Braking isn’t sharp or aggressive, which means it’s actually quite forgiving for new riders.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R First Ride Review
Simple and clean, the KLX230R dash. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The dash varies depending on whether you live in California or not. Assuming you reside in one of the other 49 states, you’ll get a on/off button, a power indicator, a low-fuel light, and a FI malfunction light. This is damn near identical on the 300R. In California you will have a keyed ignition cylinder, an engine kill switch, a locking steel fuel tank (the 49-state version is plastic with no lock), a power indicator, low-fuel light, and FI light.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R First Ride Review
Spurgeon, making the KLX230R look small. Photo by Kevin Wing.

While the bike sits on full-sized tires, it’s definitely a smaller machine in stature. It’s not nearly as intimidating for new riders as a full-sized dirt bike. But for larger riders like myself (six feet, three inches, 220 pounds) it almost felt too small. While I had a hell of a good time riding it, if I were an actual customer, I would want something a little bigger. And that’s where the KLX300R comes into play.

2020 Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
The Kawasaki KLX300R. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The Kawasaki KLX300R

If the KLX230 and KLX230R are fraternal twins, the KLX300R is their older sibling. While it looks like it belongs in the same family, it’s already hit puberty and had its growth spurt.

2020 Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
The KLX300R's 292 cc, DOHC, liquid-cooled, four-valve, four-stroke engine. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The engine is an all-new, 292 cc, liquid-cooled, four-valve, DOHC, single-cylinder, four-stroke. It features fuel injection, which is fed by a 34 mm throttle body. It’s tuned for solid low-end response while revving up quickly. You can get the party started with a push of the electric starter as there is no kicker.

2020 Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
Two high-capacity radiators give away the fact that the 300R features liquid-cooling. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The engine splits its focus between performance and durability. The cylinder bore has been hard Nikasil plated, it gets wide connecting rod big-end bearings, and two high-capacity radiators. The exhaust is stainless steel and is fitted with a spark arrestor.

At 14/50, the stock final gearing is the shortest of the group, barely edging out the KLX230R’s 13/46 setup. The gearing on both of these bikes is much more appropriate for off-road use than that of the KLX230.

2020 Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
The rear shock on the KLX300R gets an adjustment for compression damping in addition to a preload collar. Photo by Kevin Wing.

With 11.2 inches of suspension travel at both the front 43 mm fork and the rear shock, the KLX300R is a full-sized bike. It’s also got the most sophisticated suspension out of the bunch with an inverted telescopic fork with adjustable compression damping and a Uni-Trak rear suspension with adjustments for preload as well as rebound and compression damping.

With that comes 12 inches of ground clearance and a 36.4-inch seat height that sits the highest of all three models. For a Spurgeon-sized rider, this is going to be the option that fits you the best. There is even a four-position, ERGO-FIT handlebar setup so you can fine tune the fit that is most comfortable for you. Just keep in mind the 300 boasts significantly more power and weight over the 230R.

With its 2.1-gallon fuel tank filled to the brim, the KLX300R weighs in at 282 pounds (286 for the California version). That’s about 30 pounds heavier than the KLX230R and about 10 pounds lighter than the street-legal KLX230.

2020 Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
KLX300R's rear brake made it real easy to get silly with this bike without locking up the rear wheel and stalling the engine. Photo by Kevin Wing.

This bike features the best brakes of the bunch. A dual-piston caliper and 270 mm rotor handles braking duties up front while a single-piston caliper and 240 mm rotor can be found out back. I loved the fact that I could get on the rear brake and slide this thing through the corners without it just instantly locking the rear wheel and stalling the engine.

And with that, let the shenanigans begin.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R Review
It may be small, but there is a lot of fun to be had with Kawasaki's new KLX230R. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Riding the KLX230R and KLX300R

Our day began with a guided tour of a fast sweeping loop of a wide-open hard-packed dirt and sand track through low shrubs that ended with a pretty decent hill climb. Compared to the prior day’s ride on the KLX230 with its tall gearing, street tires, and soupy soft suspension, the KLX300R felt like a rocket ship.

The 300R’s power impressed me. It was definitely more powerful than I was expecting. We turned loops, popped wheelies, and hit all the jumps we could find, strutting our stuff for cameraman extraordinaire Kevin Wing.

2020 Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
The KLX300R's power impressed me more than I was expecting. Photo by Kevin Wing.

My buddy Abhi Eswarappa from Bike-urious hit the hill climb in the wrong gear, stalled it out, and got stuck. I bopped around him, got to the top of the hill, and parked my bike before crawling back to help him. We got the bike up and steadied, kicked it into first gear, and it crawled right up the hill… on the second try. Abhi’s first try saw him lose his balance and ended up with me laughing and the bike on its side yet again.

The point of this part of the story is that no matter how friendly the bikes, trail riding is best done with a riding buddy. You get stuck at the right angle, even with a small bike, and you could end up in a real pickle. Abhi and I have ridden off-road together numerous times and we’re pretty used to helping each other out.

I have my personal bike geared down one tooth over stock. I’d probably do the same thing with the KLX300R, just to give it a bit more bite. I’d start with a 13-tooth countershaft sprocket and go from there. I’m currently running 13/52, which might be a bit much for this bike, depending on its intended use.

2020 Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
The KLX300R is a heck of a lot of bike for the money. Photo by Kevin Wing.

After a few good laps in this section, we moved to a tighter section on a different part of the mountain. This was made up of rutted single-track and a lot of climbs and descents that called for first and second gear. I got up into third gear a couple of times, but again, the gearing was a little bit different than I was used to.

The one thing I didn’t love was the fact that I kept hitting false neutrals with the six-speed gearbox between first and second gear. Other riders were having this problem, as well. Talking to some of the Kawi reps, they suggested that perhaps the shifter lever was set too high and I was hitting it with my boot. This is possible, but I didn’t get the chance to see about changing this.

2020 Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
Out of all three new KLX models, only the 300R gets an adjustable lever, the brake lever. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The only change I made to the KLX300R was to rotate the clutch and brake levers down slightly. Other then that, I just hopped on and had a blast. Swapping to the 230R, I made the same alterations.

Climbing off the KLX300R and onto the 230R felt like I was getting on a kids’ bike, by comparison. But realistically I’m playing in the dirt testing motorcycles for a living, so really, my colleagues and I are nothing more than a bunch of big kids. This really isn’t a bad gig, if you can get it.

We proceeded to run the same tight single-track woods loop that we had just come off of. Landing the same whoops and jumps that we had tackled with the 300R, the 230R was a bit less stable. I would bottom out the suspension and then pogo my way down the trail until the chassis would finally settle, and then we’d jump it again.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R First Ride Review
Using all of the suspension stroke on the KLX230R. Photo by Kevin Wing.

While the suspension was too soft for me, the 230R’s suspenders were much more thought out than the street-legal 230’s. If you remember last week’s review of the KLX230, I talked about how even Bonnier’s 125-pound rider, Andrew Oldar, was able to bottom out that bike. He was riding the KLX230R like it was sprung for him. And most likely it was.

Kawi said this bike was really intended to fill a hole in their lineup for folks coming up through the ranks who didn’t want to make the jump to a full-sized 300R. It also works perfectly for adults who are just starting their off-road moto journey. All of that official positioning out of the way, it’ll do a really good job of bringing a smile to even an experienced rider’s face, especially if he or she is ripping around with a bunch of buddies on the same small bike.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R First Ride Review
The performance of the KLX230R was vastly improved over the KLX230 due in no small part to some real off-road rubber. Photo by Kevin Wing.

With proper dirt tires on the KLX230R, it felt significantly more powerful in the dirt than the KLX230 with DOT rubber. That made me  realize how much power was lost just because  the rear wheel was spinning. That being said, I did find the limits of the 230R’s power on some of the steeper hill climbs. If you’re going to try to hit some of the gnarlier terrain with this lil’ guy, make sure you get a running start.

Other than that, it proved to be a really capable little trail bike that holds the potential to create a lot of smiles. And that goes for both of these bikes. Whether you’re looking for something to pass around to all of the grandkids or a bike to serve as a teaching tool for that one friend who has always wanted to try riding or just as another toy in the garage, there is a good fun-to-cost ratio with these.

Kawasaki KLX230R and KLX300R First Ride Review
The all-new 2020 Kawasaki KLX300R (left) and KLX230R (right). Photo by Kevin Wing.

Cost and competition

The Kawasaki KLX230R has an MSRP of $4,399 and the KLX300R is $5,499.

Looking first at the KLX230R, you could compare it against the Yamaha TT-R230 with an MSRP of $4,449. But the TT-R230 feels a bit dated by comparison with a carburetor, smaller front brake, a rear drum brake, less suspension travel, and less ground clearance, all for a few more dollars.

Honda’s CRF230L has a 2019 MSRP of $4,349 but shares a lot of the same shortcomings as the Yamaha. Also, Honda has yet to announce whether this bike will remain in their lineup for 2020.

Kawasaki KLX300R First Ride Review
Kawasaki KLX300R. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The KLX300R is a different story altogether. I could get two of these bikes for what I paid for my KTM 350 EXC-F. You could argue that it’s not a fair comparison because my bike is a street-legal dual-sport, but I would argue that comparing the 300R against any KTM isn’t a fair comparison. KTMs are performance-focused with higher end components, so it’s a classic (green) apples and oranges comparison.

Kawasaki really has this class to itself. For riders looking for a fun and competent trail bike, and who don’t want to spend a lot of money, I’m not sure what $5,500 could buy them that would best this machine.

The only complaint I have is that I can’t get a plate for it, which severely limits the places I can ride it here in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Outside of private land, there are very few options to legally ride unplated bikes. The majority of public use land is located west of the Mississippi River.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R and KLX300R First Ride Review
We don't have the same amount of public land in Pennsylvania as the good folks of Oregon do. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Conclusion

Towards the end of the day we were given “free time” with the bikes. We all split up and scattered in different directions. Some found an awesome little loop through the woods and set off chasing one another around a make-believe race track. Others tried to see how far they could make it up hillclimbs. And then there were those who hit the sand pit to practice sliding around sideways. All grinning like goons and laughing with one another.

Kawasaki KLX230R First Ride Review
Simple bikes, simple fun. Photo by Kevin Wing.

I couldn’t help but think that if everyone had a few of these small bikes in their garage, and easy access to land to ride ‘em, the world would be a much better place. If nothing else, it would make existing motorcyclists that much better at riding.

These are not serious motorcycles; these are fun motorcycles. Machines that remind us all about why we got on two wheels to begin with. And for those who aren’t yet aware of how much fun motorcycles can be? Well, Kawasaki is offering a hell of an educational experience with these new KLX models.

2020 Kawasaki KLX230R 2020 Kawasaki KLX300R
Price (MSRP) $4,399 $5,499
Engine Type SOHC, four-stroke, air-cooled single DOHC, four-stroke, liquid-cooled single
Displacement 233 cc 292 cc
Bore x Stroke 67 mm x 66 mm 78 mm x 61.2 mm
Compression 9.4:1 11.0:1
Transmission  six-speed, wet clutch six-speed, wet clutch
Front suspension  37 mm telescopic fork 43 mm inverted fork with adjustable compression damping
Rear suspension  Uni-Trak linkage system, with adjustable preload  Uni-Trak gas-charged shock with compression, rebound and preload adjustment 
Front suspension travel  9.8 inches 11.2 inches
Rear suspension travel  9.9 inches 11.2 inches
Front brake  Single 240 mm rotor with dual-piston caliper  Single 270 mm rotor with dual-piston caliper 
Rear brake Single 220 mm rotor with single-piston caliper Single 220 mm rotor with single-piston caliper 
Tires front/rear 80/100-21, 100/100-18 80/100-21, 100/100-18
Wheelbase 53.5 inches 56.5 inches
Seat height 36.2 inches 36.4 inches
Tank capacity 1.7 gallons (1.9 gallons, Calif. model) 2.1 gallons
Wet weight (claimed) 253 pounds (258 pounds, Calif. model) 282 pounds (286 pounds, Calif. model)