First Ride Review – 2020 Kawasaki KLX230

In Dual-Sport, Japan, Less than 5k, Reviews by AbhiLeave a Comment

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To pay tribute to the fact that Kawasaki had brought us out to Oregon for the launch of the KLX230, I busted out my See See jersey. 15 minutes into our time on the dirt, the right forearm was all torn up. Oops. I was secretly hoping that there was something bad about the bike that I could use to deflect the blame from my rustiness and incompetence, but what I really needed was an attitude shift.


Photos by Kevin Wing


Let’s take a few steps back…

ON PAPER

The KLX230 is all new for 2020, but it might be a surprising thing to see if you’ve been keeping tabs on Kawasaki’s lineup as of late. If you’re looking for a small dual-sport, they’ve already got the $5,399 KLX250. If you’re looking for something street-oriented that can tackle the occasional fire road, they’ve also got a $5,499 Versys-X 300 waiting for you. So…why is Team Green undercutting themselves with an additional dual sport priced at $4,599?

230 | 250 | 300. Just like Goldilocks, you’ve got three choices! Photos from Kawasaki.

Kawi would argue that they’re looking for a slightly different customer. The 250 is easy to ride, but the 230 is designed to be even more approachable. Also, while the 250 isn’t what anyone would call cutting-edge, it offers plenty that you can’t find on the new 230: liquid-cooling, DOHC, 4-valve head, and highly-adjustable suspension. Meanwhile, the 230 (actually 223cc) features a SOHC, 2-valve, air-cooled motor with non-adjustable forks and only preload adjustment in the shock. Power’s not the name of the game here. Instead, you’re looking at low costs for purchase, operation, and maintenance. But inexpensive isn’t the same as cheap. Sure, the basics are all straightforward and likely what’d you expect for this type of machine, but there are two somewhat novel features on the KLX230 to note.

1.) Dual-Purpose ABS
The KLX230 offers Kawasaki’s first implementation of what they call dual-purpose ABS. We were not provided ABS-equipped models to test, so all I can share is the sentiment from Kawasaki’s representatives – they note that the system allows a very small amount of slide compared to street ABS before it engages. The Bosch-built ABS is a $300 option and it changes the front disc from a 240mm unit to a 265mm one (both have twin-piston calipers. Whether or not you order ABS, you get a 220mm rear disc with a single-piston caliper.

Not pictured: Kawasaki’s ABS system, unfortunately.

2.) Idle Settings
On both the KLX230 and the KLX230R (review of that coming soon), Kawasaki has implemented an adjusting idle designed to make life easier for a beginner. Here’s their breakdown:

Warming up: idle is at 2,400 rpm
Normal operating temperature: idle is 1,800 rpm
Returning to idle (clutch pulled in): the last 400-500 rpms “slow down more gradually to provide quicker throttle response when accelerating.”
Getting into gear: When releasing the clutch, the idle jumps up to 2,400 rpm to make it harder to stall.

I found this to be a little distracting, mostly because I felt like the surging idle was inconsistent – I wasn’t able to replicate it regularly. I could see why a first-timer would benefit from this design (it’s very difficult to stall this bike), but I think experienced riders would find it annoying and there’s no way to shut it off. Whether or not I agree with the idle, the design should make it clear that Kawasaki tried to make something easy to ride. Did they succeed?

ON (AND OFF) ROAD

Kawasaki gave us a full day of riding with the KLX230, and I’d like to think it was a good example of what the average customer might do: start in the morning at a cafe, get out of town on pavement, and then explore the local trails.

Jacksonville, Oregon has often been named one of America’s “top 10 coolest small towns”, and it had a beautiful Main Street for us to start from.

Approaching the bike for the first time, I felt that there was one thing that wasn’t particularly beginner-friendly about the KLX230: the 34.8″ seat height. But it’s hard to pick on the Kawi for that, considering it comes with the territory of dual-sports. In addition, the suspension is soft enough that once you climb aboard, the seat height compresses significantly to make it much easier to get your feet down. And once you’re on, the ergonomics are comfortable while sitting (less so while standing for my 6’2″ frame), with easy reach to all the controls. The non-adjustable levers are light, the seat is narrow, and the frame/bodywork is slim. Everything is easy, assuming you can get your leg over the seat in the first place. One of the riders at the event was 5’2″ – at stops she’d have to basically get half off the bike, but otherwise she seemed happy. Check out her thoughts here.

Fire up the bike (with an easy electric starter, of course) and it settles into the high idle of 2,400 rpm, something you won’t see on the no-frills LCD dash. You get the basics plus a fuel gauge to let you know how much you have left in the 2.0 gallons of range. Tires are the Foot Loose GP-21F/GP-22R shoes from IRC, which are also OEM fitment on the Honda CRF250L. We ran 18 psi all day, and it was adequate for our in-town adventures. The KLX feels great with slow speed maneuvers because it’s well balanced, I had no concerns with leaning it over and counterbalancing with full lock turns.

It’s easy to read, but there aren’t many reasons to look at it.

In honor of the tires, here’s a quick musical intermission that you can enjoy as you finish out the review:

Kawi doesn’t release power figures, but I was eventually able to hit 75 miles per hour before the rev limiter kicked in. Acceleration is good enough to stay ahead of most traffic until about 40 miles per hour, beyond that you won’t be making many passes. Even approaching redline, the vibrations don’t feel unreasonable, especially as you’re getting more vibes from the tires than the bike itself. I’d say you can comfortably cruise between 60-65 miles per hour, but this is a “stop and smell the roses” kind of bike. Just don’t inhale too deeply, because there aren’t many roses in this part of the country. Instead you’ll find a staggering amount of weed farms.

Thankfully, our organizers recognized that we were there to ride some dirt, so we were in the wilderness after just a few miles of pavement. That’s when I got in trouble. It’s admittedly been a while since I’ve spent a day in the dirt, and I initially treated the KLX230 like it was a high-horsepower dirt bike, not a $4,599 dual-sport. First, I made the mistake of assuming I could get up a hill climb in second gear when I really needed to be in first. The KLX started to bog and I wasn’t able to drop a cog before the motor stalled. The nice thing is that the KLX is so manageable at 293.3 pounds (297.7 for the CA model because of emissions equipment) that I had no stress about pausing for a moment to reset and then crawling my way up.

My second mistake was, again, being a little too optimistic with the performance of the 230. This time it was with regards to the suspension. We were going through a series of small bumps that I was enjoying a little bit too fast. The Kawi has 8.7″/8.8″ suspension travel front/rear. That sounds like a decent number, but the suspension is very soft. With my 200 pounds and a little bit of velocity it didn’t take much to bottom out, and at one point I hit a rock while there was no travel left in the fork. The front end deflected to the right, rotating the wheels out from under the bike, and I instantly found myself on the ground. Poor See See jersey.

Oops.

This made me stop for a moment and think about how I was trying to ride the KLX230. Seeing as the answer was “like an idiot”, I backed off and switched into a more casual pace. That’s when I started to fall for this bike. It may not cost much and most of the components wouldn’t have impressed anyone two decades ago, but this is a sub $5,000 bike that you could ride around the world. It’s a true dual-sport motorcycle that’s competent on both pavement and dirt, and the performance levels are just fine as long as you’re not looking to race.

I am a huge fan of this, because I think most motorcycles are getting too expensive. Kawasaki has found a balance of cost and performance with certain models that I’m ecstatic about – I think the Z400 is the best bargain in street bikes and now I think the KLX230 is the best bargain in dual-sports. Obviously, you could spend more money and get something more capable and exciting, but if you just needed to get from point A to point B across a wide variety of road surfaces for cheap, this would be an excellent call.

When it comes to air-cooled small displacement dual-sports, the Kawi is very much ahead of the game. A lot of that is because the KLX is a new design, while the competitors have been plodding around with minimal changes for several years. Kawasaki specifically called out the Suzuki DR200S and Yamaha TW200 during the technical presentation – the KLX is cheaper than both and offers more across the board. One bike Team Green chose to ignore was the Yamaha XT250, which has a larger motor, bigger fuel tank, more ground clearance, and a lower seat height…but it’s ~$600 more expensive and at that point you might want to look at some liquid-cooled options like the KLX250 or CRF250L. I thought the KLX230 was a pleasantly competent machine, but it truly stands out when you consider the price.

I’ve included destination pricing because you’re stuck paying it – note that Kawi charges $220 for destination while Honda wants $380 and Suzuki wants $395, so the Kawi ends up as even more of a relative bargain:

Kawasaki KLX230: $4,819
89%
Yamaha TW200: $4,824
89%
Suzuki DR200S: $5,044
93%
Yamaha XT250: $5,424
100%

All in all, the KLX230 is a “good” bike that gets elevated to “great” because it’s so inexpensive. But it’s not perfect. ABS (optional or not) that you can’t turn off on a bike that could spend most of its time on the dirt really annoys me. The suspension should be firmer. And after just a few hours, several testers had rubbed the paint off the “high-tensile steel perimeter” frame. Here was a bike that Spurgeon from RevZilla had been riding – note the wear on the frame behind the engine after less than 50 miles of riding:

You can tell which riders really like to grip the bike with their boots!

Lastly, while I might have made a joke about the 80s earlier, this thing looks like it was designed in that decade. But I still find myself looking back on my day with the KLX230 very fondly. When I write up a review of a bike, I go through my notes and photos from the day – sometimes, I’m satisfied with my experience and I’m fine with moving on to the next story. This is one of those cases where I wish I was back on the bike, exploring new trails. This bike is good, simple fun, and I adore it. There’s a high probability that I’ll ask Kawi for a KLX230 for a travel story in the future. I’ll just make sure to take it slow.

MY GEAR


Helmet: Arai VX-PRO4 – $749.95 with design
Upper Body Armor: Alpinestars Bionic Jacket (no longer available, replaced by Alpinestars Bionic Action Jacket)
Jersey: See See Moto Ranker – $68
Pants: Aerostich Roadcrafter R-3 with Extra Forward Lean and Extra Forward Rotated Sleeves – $1,197
Lower Body Armor: Forcefield Pro Shorts (no longer available, replaced by Forcefield Pro Shorts X-V 2)
Gloves: Fox Legion – $39.95
Boots: Sidi Crossfire 2 (no longer available, replaced by Sidi Crossfire 3)
Hydration: Kriega Hydro-3 – $145

SPECIFICATIONS

2020 Kawasaki KLX230 ($4,599, $4,899 w/ABS)
Engine: Air-cooled, 4-stroke, single-cylinder
Displacement: 233 cc
Bore x stroke: 67 x 66mm
Compression ratio: 9.4:1
Clutch: Wet multi-plate
Transmission: 6-speed
Chassis: High-tensile steel perimeter
Front suspension: 37mm telescopic fork
Rear suspension: Uni-Trak single shock with adjustable preload
Front wheel travel: 8.7 in.
Rear wheel travel: 8.8 in.
Front brake: Dual-piston caliper, 240mm disc (265 mm w/ optional ABS)
Rear brake: Single-piston caliper, 220mm disc (optional ABS)
Front tire: IRC Foot Loose GP-21F, 2.75 x 21
Rear tire: IRC Foot Loose GP-22R, 4.10 x 18
Steering head angle: 27.5°
Wheelbase: 54.3 in.
Seat height: 34.8 in.
Fuel capacity: 2.0 gal.
Weight (wet, claimed): 293.3 lbs. (297.7 in CA)

I started and ended with this photo for one simple reason – the KLX230 is fun. Isn’t that what motorcycling is all about?

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