Kawasaki KLX230 Review: Old-school, with new technology

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I hear it all the time: “Motorcycles are becoming too complicated. I don’t need traction control or other electronics to have fun, blah blah blah blah blah.” To a certain extent, I can understand where the Luddites are coming from. For years, I’ve owned and ridden simple, single-cylinder motorcycles because they don’t have many parts to break down, and they’re usually easy to fix if something goes wrong. But, I still see the advantages of modern technology like electronic fuel injection and anti-lock brakes.

Lucky for me, then—Kawasaki’s got some engineers who think the same way. The result? The new KLX230 dual sport that came to Canada for 2020 at the very attractive price point of only $5,499.

The KLX230 is fun on-road, or off. It just isn’t very fast. Photo: Laura Deschenes

The Run-Down:

The Kawasaki KLX230 broke cover in late June, 2019, and I finally got my hands on it almost a year later. When it debuted, the KLX230 was a bit puzzling. Kawasaki already had the liquid-cooled KLX250, and with adjustable suspension. Why introduce the air-cooled 230, with its basic, non-adjustable forks? 

The answer is, the 230 is aimed at a different rider. With a seat height around 880 millimeters, it’s a little easier to throw your leg over the 230. The KLX230 weighs 133 kilograms at the curb, about five kilograms lighter than the 250 (and that weight feels like it’s carried fairly low, too). 

The 250 is hardly a speed demon’s dream, making just under 22 hp. The 230 has even less jam, though. Kawasaki says its air-cooled, single-cylinder engine, with SOHC two-valve head and six-speed transmission, makes 19 hp and almost 15 lb-ft of torque.

With roughly 19 horsepower, this engine is aimed at the beginner market.

By now, you’re getting the picture: While a more advanced rider can feel happy on the KLX250, the KLX230 is primarily aimed at beginners. But, the most beginner-friendly feature isn’t the light weight, modest power or low seat: It’s the off-road friendly ABS.

Motorcyclists can get into trouble with their throttle, but many riders get themselves into big trouble with their braking, too. This is especially true for beginners. Now, I don’t think the KLX’s brakes are powerful enough to be scary (265 mm front brake disc in front, 223 mm rear brake disc). However, the ABS system makes this machine easier to ride on pavement. The ABS proves its real worth on dirt, where it helps riders avoid washing out their wheels in a clumsy stop.

The Indonesian factory left some rough-looking welds, but you don’t notice that while you’re riding. Photo: Ramona Rodden

The Ride:

I picked up the KLX230 at my local Kawasaki dealership, and the ride home through the city gave me a good chance to see one of the machine’s greatest strengths: urban riding.

Savvy motorcyclists know lightweight dual sports are one of the best options for bashing around city streets for several reasons. A high riding position means good visibility in traffic. Long-travel suspension means you can handle potholes, and even jump the occasional curb, with alacrity. Even if your bike is low on horsepower, you’ll have no trouble keeping pace with around-town traffic. The KLX is no exception; it does all this stuff well, although I suppose the air-cooled motor could prove to be a hassle in gridlock traffic.

Otherwise, the EFI seems pretty well-tuned for this sort of usage. Even on country back roads, I couldn’t find any issues with the power delivery. Sure, it would have been nice to have more power, but as it is, the KLX is a fun little scoot on quiet single-lane roads. There’s no unreasonable vibration (one advantage of having a small-bore single, I guess), and the gearbox is pretty slick for an Indonesian-built beginner bike. Put it this way: I’ve been on Italian bikes, costing three times as much, that didn’t shift as well as this Kawi.

The ABS works surprisingly well off-road. Photo: Laura Deschenes

Get on those back roads, keep the engine on the boil, and you’ll have lots of fun trying to maintain a 90 km/h-ish speed. The bike’s light enough that it turns fairly well (the wide bars help, too). With 50/50 dual-sport tires and a 21-inch front, 18-inch rear, this thing is no supermoto, but it’s enjoyable. At a little under 100 kilos, I’m heavier than most people riding this thing. As a result, I did find it a bit undersprung on the gnarliest potholes, but overall, it’s got enough zip for for small roads.

Highway riding is a different story. I was able to maintain an indicated 100 km/h, even a bit more, on level ground. On long grades, I’d start to lose speed; really, the bike works best around 90 km/h (or with a lighter rider?—Ed.). You can ride multi-lane highways with this, but do you really want to be on the 401 with a bike that will do 125, if you’re light enough and really flogging it? If you’ve got to make short freeway hops, sure—just watch your back. Otherwise, stay on smaller roads.

Dual sports may spend a lot of time on city streets, back roads and highways, but people buy them for their off-road capability. I didn’t have as much time off-road with the KLX as I would have liked, but I got enough to make a rough assessment. I was surprised—this small machine is actually reasonably competent in the dirt.

That headlight is a bit bulbous, but the rest of the bodywork looks OK. Photo: Laura Deschenes

Don’t get me wrong, the suspension is basic, and the weedy engine means you’re not going to be pulling endless high-speed wheelies through the whoops. But I took the KLX through tight, super-rocky forest trails and wide-open two-track, and was surprised how well the rear end hooked up. The front end seemed to deflect more than I’d like, but I didn’t put the bike into the weeds at any point. The 50/50 tires have reasonable performance off-pavement. Overall, this bike gets the job done.

I do think Kawasaki should have put hand guards on this bike, even if they were cheap, basic plastic. Same for the skid plate—the bike should have one. Most riders can easily add them at their own expense, though.

The 50/50 tires are a decent compromise.

What about the ABS system? Until now, most off-road bikes with ABS could disable the feature when desired. Although it’s never a good idea to lock your front wheel, some riders like to lock the back wheel while ripping around in the dirt, as it allows powerslides to “steer with the rear.” 

The KLX230’s ABS cannot be disabled. However, I’m happy to report that under normal riding conditions, it seems to function pretty well. Kawi designed this in conjunction with Bosch, and both parties seem to have done their homework. I’m sure some crackerjack riders would be unhappy with it, but it actually allows a bit of rear wheel lock-up in the dirt, still. The ABS just stops the sliding before everything gets out of control.

One other note about dirt riding: Kawasaki has cleverly designed the KLX230 to keep everything more-or-less tucked inside the frame. Even the tiny nine-litre fuel tank is well-protected by the frame rails, so if you tip this machine over while you’re hooning around in the dirt, you probably won’t damage anything too important.

The KLX230 is cheap and cheerful. Photo: Laura Deschenes

The Summary:

The KLX230 is an excellent choice for a beginner rider. If you’re an experienced motorcyclist who realizes the bike’s performance going in, you might have a lot of fun, too. The small gas tank and limited engine performance mean most riders won’t take this bike very far—but in the world of COVID-19, that’s the story for most of us anyway. It’s light, and easy to ride. If you don’t mind the slow lane, you’re getting a very fun bike for $5,499.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I had a KLX 250 for one year, it was bulletproof but review would be about the same as Zac. I would only go on the 110 kph divided highways for short stints to connect roads, really fun on the 80 kph roads and really fun on gravel or off road. It was too tall for me, I usually ride solo, I am late 50’s and a newbie off road. After a few scary falls in the middle of nowhere I sold it and went back to tarmac. Perhaps if I had bought a shorter bike?? Not sure, but not going back to dirt now. One serious injury and I am done riding for good, don’t want that to happen. Some things are best learned when we are young and bounce better. LOL C

    • You could always try a Tee Dub or a VanVan. I think these bikes are perfect for newbies that are a bit older. They’ll get you around off-road, without enough power to really hurt you. Having said that, the last time I was on a TW200 I put it through the wringer.

    • Yes, after a couple of close calls and finally falling and breaking my bike (off road, after a whole two weeks of owning it), I’m questioning now whether off-road riding is something I want to get into. My knee is still sore from that little fall.

  2. Nice. I just picked up a KLX250 a few weeks back. And promptly broke it after almost two whole weeks of owning it. No big deal, but parts are on back order (COVID, sigh). I think it’s the better choice for me – it’s a little more capable on both the highway and in the dirt. But no ABS.

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