Few sounds in motorsports are as sweet as the frenetic ping of a two-stroke engine. However the bumble bee buzz which has been a mainstay of enduro riding for close to two decades is slowly giving way to the roar of the four-stroke. Yet, despite the public's infatuation with thumpers, two-strokes remain an exciting and thrilling way to experience off-road riding. Need proof? Look no further than the Kawasaki KDX220R.
Recently, we had been pushing our Editor, Kevin Duke, to procure a 220R for testing purposes for quite some time and after a few months of badgering him, he finally came through. I had only ridden a two-stroke a couple of times since selling my 2001 KX250 a few years ago and was interested in revisiting the smell of premix exhaust just for kicks. Doing so on a rider-friendly machine that is legendary in hare and hound circles just made it that much better.
Back in 1980 Kawasaki unleashed the KDX175 and KDX250 on the off-road world and they were an immediate commercial success. Offering up impressive handling in a relatively light-weight package, the new line of motorcycles quickly became a regular site on the trails of North America. In 1983 the 175cc version was upgraded to a 200cc mill and one year later the 250cc model was dropped from Kawasaki's lineup. Kawasaki made its final changes to the KDX family in 1997 when they offered up the 220R in addition to the standard 200.
Unfortunately for Kawasaki, the rising popularity of four-strokes has diminished some of the luster on the 220R and other two-stroke trail bikes. But make no mistake about it this is a very effective weapon on tight trails. The same light-weight and impressive handling that won the KDX-line loyal followers remains on the 2005 model and we had a gas flogging this little two-smoke over the course of a month.
B.C. flogs the KDX220R during one of our test sessions at John's Peak in Southern Oregon in spring time.
The KDX200 went unchanged for years with a usable, and some argued, underpowered mill. In an attempt to satisfy the public's seemingly unquenchable thirst for more power, Kawasaki developed the 220R, increasing the bore from 66mm to 69mm, which inflated overall engine volume by 18cc. The result is a liquid-cooled engine that dishes out low-end torque and mid-range power that more closely resembles a 250cc than a 125cc.
While you might expect Team Green to boost the size of the carb as well, they actually opted to utilize a 33mm carb, 2mm smaller than the one fitted to the KDX200. The theory is that by using a smaller carburetor with larger displacement the engine receives a small boost to the low-end torque and mid-range power. The downside is riders who are expecting 250-like power won't experience the kind of top-end scream normally associated with two-stroke motocross machines.
On the trail the power is perfectly suited for tight single-track. A beginner or intermediate rider will have a blast on this bike because it doesn't require such judicious use of the throttle. Twist your wrist and the low-end grunt feels respectable as does the mid-range, pulling bike and rider out of slow corners with impressive prowess.
"I think the power is really usable," said MCUSA Prez, Don Becklin. "A good rider can certainly keep up with guys on faster bikes and tackle almost all situations, except possibly, huge hillclimbs. It's nice because it never seems to get going so fast that you can't handle what's being thrown at you."
For a two-stroke, the 220R seems to rev-out rather quickly, making the bike feel relatively anemic on top. At 185 lbs, I felt like I could get a few more real world ponies out of the KDX if I dropped a few elbows. Ultimately, riders who crest the 200 mark might be too big for the 220R. Although I'm sure there is some super fast fatty out there that would beg to differ.
Although the KDX weighs in at 241 pounds, Kawasaki engineers did an admirable job of making the weights disappear at speed.
Revisiting a two-stroke after years of riding the latest four-strokes is like rekindling an old flame; there's really nothing like the first time is there? When the latest high-po thumpers emerged on the market we all marveled at how easy they are to get along with. No fighting, no fuss, neglect them as much as you want and they'll still get you where you want to go. Prior to riding the KDX, I was lamenting the need the roll through the gears on the two-stroke, but no sooner was I fanning the clutch and working the shift lever when a huge grin took control of my face. I realized instantly that dancing through the gears and working the clutch are a few of the reasons riding a 2-stroke is so much fun. The KDX complies perfectly too, a buttery clutch and an impressively smooth six-speed transmission at your disposal are a couple of the real high-points of this particular machine. Negotiating difficult terrain is an absolute blast since it's dependent on precision riding skill, rather than the luck of the chosen line like it can be when riding a brutish thumper. Missed shifts and false neutrals were noticeably absent throughout our test.
Ultimately, pure horsepower isn't the highlight of the KDX, but rather it is meant to fulfill the needs of riders who get their internal combustion fix on tight and sinuous trails as opposed to scaling cliff faces and sand dunes. The backbone of the KDX is a high-tensile steel perimeter frame derived from Kawasaki's classics KX line of motocross machines. A short 56.5-inch wheelbase coupled with an aggressive 26.5-degree steering angle offers impressively quick turn-in capabilities and agility I've all but forgotten about. The KDX feels as nimble as advertised with a light front end feel, but remarkably it remains planted when railing fast corners and traversing bumpy terrain.
The KDX made a big splash with our group of testers, proving that older technology can still bring a smile to the face of riders who have the opportunity to test the most technologically advanced bikes on the market.
"The handling characteristics are the highlight of the KDX for me," exclaimed our graphics guru, Brian Chamberlain. "Although weighing 241 pounds, more than today's modern 4-strokes, the bike feels very light while riding. The KDX is very agile and its steep rake offers very quick steering, making it a good choice for tight single track."
Up front a 43mm conventional cartridge fork does a nice job of suspending the front end over rough terrain. For most trail situations, the fork absorbs most big hits and really rocky material with aplomb, but the desire for a stiffer front end was espoused on more than one occasion. For the intermediate riders in our group, the fork performs within reason, but more advanced riders seem to push beyond its performance capabilities. Under heavy braking, the front end is overwhelmed, using up every inch of travel before traction is jeopardized. It's a good thing this bike is light.
"The KDX's suspenders perform well for their intended use," continued Chamberlain. "You won't want to attempt any supercross whoop sections or land any huge airs, but when ridden in its intended environment, the KDX soaks up the bumps well offering a plush ride without shaking up the bikes stability. Larger or more aggressive riders will find both front and rear to be a little under-sprung."
Out back the single shock and Uni-Trak linkage system is much better suited for aggressive riding. With 16-position rebound and compression adjustability, it is up to the task of keeping the rear wheel planted, insuring the power is delivered to the ground and you're heading in the right direction.
Not surprisingly, the KDX feels incredibly comfortable on the trail. A cushy seat provides a plush platform for the backside and actually allows the rider to sit for long periods while traversing tighter trails. It's not overly soft, but it's an improvement over the 2x4 feeling of most motocross machines.
Although it doesn't possess the kind of power exhibited by a 250cc motocrosser, the KDX provides more than enough grunt on the trail.
The KDX is ergonomically accommodating to almost all riders, putting you in a comfortable sitting position that everyone claimed fit them like a glove. Feet fall naturally on the pegs and the arms reach out to the grips, offering plenty of space between the torso and the bars. The seat height on the KDX measures in at 36 inches, which will leave shorter riders on their tippy-toes, but we didn't have any problem dealing with stops and pauses in the action. Of course, for those who prefer to dismount in order to soak in the views, Kawasaki fits the KDX with a side-stand for convenience.
The 220R brakes offer up plenty of stopping power with a single disc up front and out back working in concert with one another. They weren't the strongest we've ever tested, but they definitely felt adequate enough to bring bike and rider to a rapid stop. Lever feel provides ample feedback and is surprisingly progressive.
The KDX may not have all the latest-and-greatest technology available, but Kawasaki fits the 220R with some nice extras that make life on the trail much easier. The brush guards are a nice addition, but for those that are serious about riding fast through tight trails rife with Manzanita and other painful foliage, an aftermarket set of aluminum guards would be a welcome addition. Also just in front of the tail light is a nice little repair kit flush with all the tools one would need to make on the fly repairs. Up front, a headlamp is fitted for those with enduro aspirations and an easy-to-reach on/off switch is fitted to the bars near the throttle grip.
This was our first experience on a two-stroke in a while and we all came away very impressed with the 220R. The biggest complaint from the motocross contingent is the lack of power, but even the speed-greedy testers in our group admitted that the bike possesses more than enough gumption for trail riding. The only locations where it might be at a serious disadvantage is in wide-open desert situations, some hill climbs and the infamous sand dunes where a paddle would likely burn-up too much of the tiddler's power to be much fun.
At $4,499 we think the Kawasaki KDX220R is a steal for riders who spend the majority of their time in tight, woodsy trails.
The KDX line has been a fixture on the trail for the last 25 years and after spending a month in the mountains of Southern Oregon, we can see why. It's definitely not race ready and those with designs on trophies and contingency money might be better served looking across the Atlantic towards a certain Austrian manufacturer with high-end stock components. With the price of the leading off-road machines inching toward the $7k mark every year the $4,499 KDX220R is a steal for woods and trail riders. Heck, even the KTM EXC is $1,300 more than the KDX.
If you find your days on the trail growing a little stale and redundant, go ahead and revisit that old flame. She may be a little old fashioned, but once you fan that clutch and scroll through the gears you'll remember why those high pitches screams left you satisfied every time.
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