A new and improved dual-sport motorcycle for off-road adventure? Kawasaki signed us up and we were along for the ride in Death Valley, California.
Death Valley Dual-Sport
As the sun lit up the rock walls on either side of Titus Canyon the eve of our guided tour of Death Valley National Monument was upon us. The only thing left was 50 highway miles back to the watering hole for some much needed re-hydration and chow. This was the end of our ride aboard the new and improved 2009 Kawasaki KLX250S and, after spending all day trying to bust the bike, it was clear the little KLX has the ability to survive both a harsh desert thrashing and commuter duty in urban sprawl.
The ’09 250S is Kawasaki’s latest entry to the increasingly popular dual-sport market that its steadfast KLR650 has dominated over the years. Kawasaki sees a need for a competent off-road dual-sport and that’s where the light, compact and quick handling S comes into play. Filling the void the big six-fifty simply cannot, the more diminutive 250S is well suited in its role as the ‘other’ motorcycle for riders who have the discretionary income for multiple bikes in the garage. It’s not the best looking or the fastest, but it is a load of fun to ride in a wide assortment of locations – perfect for travelers wanting a multi-purpose bike to stick in the RV. An electric-start, liquid-cooled 249cc Single teams with a 6-speed transmission, box-section steel frame, aluminum swingarm and all the necessary street-legal accoutrements to make this bike an first-rate dual-sport motorcycle.
Leading a long list of updates are improved carburetion and exhaust systems to meet the strict California emission requirements. The past few years the bike was only available as a 49-stater and Kawi was keen to get a piece of the largest dual-sport market in America when it fine tuned its little dually.
Petal-style brakes front and rear are a good addition to the KLX. There’s enough feel at the lever to provide aggressive riders the ability to scrub off speed in the hard-packed desert without tucking the front and they are powerful enough to slow it down quickly on the street. When you get journalists together with the fast dudes that run these intros you can imagine the bikes get ridden hard: Some harder than others. Our guide knew his way well after scouting the route a couple times, so we had a good time connecting turns and kicking up enough dust to choke a coyote. The brakes are consistent and the new Dunlop 605 tires provided just enough traction to keep us upright with only a handful of hairy moments tossed in to keep us on our toes.
Changes to the steering geometry have the rake decreased from 27.5 to 26.6 degrees to make it more responsive to rider input off-road. During our day of bashing we didn’t tackle a ton of technical terrain but it was clear the bike is light on its feet and easy to manhandle in the rocks of Death Valley’s twisty canyons. The first real challenge came at the halfway point through the rugged Echo Canyon section. After miles of rough road riding an imposing 100-ft section of boulders and rocks that climbed about 20 feet proved to be a challenge and assured us the 250S is an off-road bike at heart.
Considering its intended purpose as an all-around motorbike, the KLX transmits enough feedback to make it easy to go fast.
An inverted 43mm fork with 16-way-adjustable compression damping does a nice job of absorbing small to medium sized hits but it dives quite a bit on the street under braking. The rear shock features 16-way adjustability for both compression and rebound. Stock settings are on the soft side, so it rides like a Cadillac over the roads we traversed, absorbing all bumps and moderate-sized ruts without complaint. As the speeds pick up and the hills become jumps and the rocks turn threatening the suspension is pretty wimpy. Despite this, it recovers from hard hits without much wag in the bars. A testament to its capable chassis arose when our guide dusted me out during a high-speed run through the desolate wasteland of the Amargosa Desert. Bombing blindly at 70-mph into a 90-degree left-hander at the start of a rutty silt-belt was a real eye-opener.
Moments after the dust blew away and revealed this little treat there was a split second to avert the disaster, turning was not an option so when I hit the ruts at an angle and the bike pitched me into the bars and the rear started swapping. I thought I was really going to regret not wearing elbow guards as I blitzed past the scrub brush and rock piles before getting back on track. Fortunately, the KLX regained composure quickly, demonstrating that it’s capable of going over the edge and still coming back in one piece.
Everything about the KLX250S is on the gentle side. The suspension is as soft as the mellow power delivery and the riding position is painless. On the trails the shock and fork absorb the rough stuff admirably so advanced riders will be able to easily push the KLX to its limit.
Considering its intended purpose as an all-around motorbike, the KLX transmits enough feedback to make it easy to go fast. But Kawasaki expects it to be ridden by riders who want to soak in the surroundings, not pass them by in a blur, and the 250S is right at home at those speeds. The 21-inch front and 18-inch rear wheels have been beefed up with thicker spokes wrapped in tires with a tread pattern aimed at improving the off-road worthiness and providing a more stable ride on the street than the spindly units on its predecessor. Once again the rocky terrain and deep gravel could have wreaked havoc on these OEM components, yet we didn’t see a flat, no bent wheels, nada. If it had, the bike is equipped with a useful tool kit on the rear fender that includes pliers, plug wrench, screwdrivers and the wrenches necessary to remove the axles and change a flat.You supply the spare tube.
Helping to take the edge out of the OHV equation is an assortment of standard Kawasaki switchgear, mirrors, comfy seat and modern instrumentation. A trick new digital dash replaces the dual analog dials on the previous bike and features a bar graph-style tach across the top of the slim screen. The display also houses a speedometer, dual trip meters and clock. Heck, the mirrors even stayed in place on the majority of our test fleet units and they provide a great view of the aft action. A few did come loose, requiring the rider take a minute to tighten ’em back down before moving on.
Between photo ops and water stops we were pushing our luck and the sun was disappearing behind the towering walls of Titus Canyon. We did manage to soak in the sights near the end of the day. The picturesque rock formations demanded attention and coming off the wet season there was an unusual amount of green foliage in contrast to the brown and red rock canyon walls.
The KLX250S might not be the biggest or baddest off-road bike to come out of the Kawasaki camp but it will go farther than most riders will be willing to go.
The KLX’s stylized front headlight acts as a number plate/wind deflector if you can call it that. It didn’t block much of the 30-mph headwind we battled on the highway our last 50-miles back to the Furnace Creek Resort but it definitely looks cool. The seat was plush enough to do a couple hundred miles on without any concern, which is a big deal considering how hard some dual-sport seats are. Another highlight is the nifty flip-top gas-cap that has keyed access and a hinge that lets it remain on the bike during fuel stops. At our first 55-mile fuel stop the bikes only took a bit over a gallon for a gas-sipping 46mpg average. Using the power of deduction, knowing that the 250S has a 2-gallon fuel tank, we estimate the range to be in the neighborhood of 100 miles.
Mother Nature spent millions of years crafting the Death Valley monument, and despite the fatal nature of this places’ name it is a wonder to behold. Here, sitting astride the 250S, a mere spec in the history book of this place, it is clear why we need these types of motorcycles. They are unobtrusive, easy to ride and capable of going where few people have gone before. It opens the door for casual riders to explore places that many would never dare to go on foot and venture further than many four-wheeled vehicles. And at $4899, this dual-sport offers a smile-per-dollar ratio that’s pretty damn hard to beat.
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