Have plate, will travel–that’s dual-sporting in a nutshell, and nowhere is that description more appropriate than in Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada, where miles of rugged roads wait to entertain two-wheeled explorers and some of the best scenery in the desert is tucked away in remote canyons. The gotcha is that all vehicles must be licensed for the street. It’s no surprise, then, that Kawasaki chose the park to introduce its updated 2009 KLX250S last April, unveiling the bike’s first major overhaul since we reviewed the original 2006 model (see Rider, June 2006). A 70 percent dirt bias to the test circuit reflected Kawi’s discovery that nearly all KLX owners use their 250s for trail riding, so why not show off the changes by letting the press kick up some Death Valley dust?
From Kawasaki’s perspective, the best improvement has to be the emissions package that lets it sell the KLX in California and cash in on a surge in enduro popularity. Riders in the other 49 states might yawn at this, but it gives 17 percent of the dual-sport market a chance to snag a KLX for themselves. And the upgrades, which raise the MSRP by just $200, make that an attractive proposition.
Riders will appreciate the suspension changes that take a page from the 2008 KLR650 mods, providing a more solid ride by trading off suspension travel (now 10 inches up front and 9.1 in the rear, from 11.2 and 11) and 0.4 inches of ground clearance. The 43mm inverted fork features 16-way compression damping adjustment and has shorter, stiffer springs than before, while the revised Uni-Trak rear suspension controls a lighter D-section aluminum swingarm with a compression- and rebound-adjustable shock. To complete the stability enhancement package, half-millimeter-thicker spokes lace new, stronger aluminum wheels, while Dunlop D605 tires improve pavement grip. The semi-double-cradle steel frame remains unmodified.
The original rear brake was weak and lacked feedback, so Kawasaki replaced the entire system, mating a 240mm petal rotor (formerly 220mm) to a new single-pot caliper, modifying the lever ratio, and improving the pads. It’s now a good match for the existing twin-piston caliper and 250mm disc up front, and has much better feel. Brake action is progressive, with both ends easy to modulate on either dirt or street. It’s still a dual-sport though, so you can expect some front dive under hard braking.
The motor remains an electric-start, liquid-cooled, four-valver with a 10,500-rpm redline and a gear-driven counterbalancer. A needle swap in the 34mm CV carburetor helps balance fuel economy with go-power, while new thin-section, high-capacity radiators and a slimmer fan improve cooling. With temps in the 90s and plenty of hard riding we had no overheating problems. Shift cam changes ensured no missed shifts all day from the excellent tranny, where Kawasaki moved the sixth-gear ratio closer to fifth to make the overdrive more usable. The final leg of the ride was 30 highway miles with a stiff crosswind, turning our press posse into tired, tilted drones packed tight on a desert two-lane. Fifth and sixth gears were perfectly spaced for tag-team duty as wind and topography challenged the 250’s powerband.
The day had started with miles of soft, gravelly road–not the gravel road to granddad’s farm, but twin tracks of deep desert rock chips that ask a lot from bike and rider. After relaxing my grip on the new, straighter handlebar I let the KLX respond to the challenge, and was never disappointed. Sitting or standing –with standing more effective and comfortable for my 68-inch frame–it was eager to go where I pointed it. The KLX charged through the rubble of the Funeral Mountains at a good clip, dodging rocks easily and slicing through the ridges between wheel tracks like a water skier crossing the wake. It’s also adept at going slow, though first gear could be lower for technical terrain.
“Slow down for white rocks,” the Kawi guides said. I remember it clearly. “Watch for drop-offs.” Heard that, too. But what with one scenic distraction or another it all faded away until I was suddenly at the lip of a 30-inch drop. A blip of the throttle leveled the bike as I launched off the edge, then whoomp! But not wham! The KLX’s suspension sucked up the impact without bottoming or bouncing, and I was on my way. The last few miles traded off whoop-de-doos and sand traps; once again, the KLX soldiered through, tracking well in the soft stuff and soaking up the dips. Give the bike extra credit for doing it all with the Dunlops pumped to a firm 20 psi-plus. The Kawasaki folks were happy to let us thrash their bikes, but weren’t eager to fix our flats.
Ten miles of freeway flying to Beatty, Nevada, demonstrated the KLX’s abundant horsepower and stable chassis. It also brought out a buzz in the seat and bars, though less than expected for a 250 at high revs and elevated speeds. More fast dirt roads brought us to Titus Canyon, the scenic highlight of the day. A winding, one-way road descended colorful cliffs to the floor of an ever-tightening chasm, letting me spend some time on the KLX’s comfortable, firmed-up seat instead of the pegs. The bike was just as fun at tourist speeds as it had been charging through open country earlier in the day. The only thing the test route didn’t offer was a set of paved twisties, but there’s no reason the more capable ’09 shouldn’t handle them even better than the turn-happy 2006 model.
Keeping with the times, the updated KLX sports new plastic bodywork and an LCD instrument panel with a bar-graph tach, a clock and dual tripmeters, in addition to the speedometer and odometer. Gone are the handy luggage rack and grab handles, but dry weight is up by 16 pounds. So whether you look at mass or performance, there’s more to love with the 2009 KLX–and with 50-state availability, there are more people to enjoy it.
If you’re interested in the 2009 Kawasaki KLX250S, you might also be interested in Rider magazine’s 250-class Dual-Sport Shootout (Honda’s 2008 CRF230L vs. Yamaha’s 2009 XT250 vs. 2009 Kawasaki KLX250S)