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2009 Kawasaki KLX 250SF: MD Ride Review

“My dirtbike is a lot of fun, I just wish I could ride it on the street.” I heard, and uttered those words many times as I grew up on motorcycles. Aside from the various illegal sorties carried out on XR75s, YZ80s, etc., it didn’t happen. Then, in the early 80s, ABC televised a motorcycle race that had a mix of pavement, dirt & jumps and racers from the various disciplines of motorcycle racing to put on what turned out to be a great show. Although the network pulled the plug and the phenomenon fell from sight, and as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind” here in America, the Europeans picked it up and it got big over there. It made a comeback in the States around 2003, largely due to the massive efforts of Cycle World Associate Editor Don Canet, the AMA, and the ultimate participation of well known personalities like Mike Metzger, Jeff Ward, Doug Henry, and others.

Supermoto’s resurgent popularity caused the manufacturers to take notice, and so now there is a strong market for what are essentially converted dirtbikes, such as this Kawasaki KLX250SF. Visual differences are pretty straightforward – Smaller diameter, 17″ wheels, big front brake, aggressively styled bodywork. That pretty much covers the visual.

The engine is a water-cooled 250cc single transplanted directly from the dual sport version, with taller final drive gearing to make it more suitable for the higher sustained speeds on the street. This makes acceleration softer, but it also means the engine isn’t topped out at sane street speeds. Horsepower tops out at about 20, and torque peaks around 14 ft lbs. Redline is 10,000 rpm, which you’ll see a lot of. In this day and age of fuel injection, it seems a bit of a throwback to the 90s to see a carburetor where you’d expect to see a throttle body and wires coming out of it. Add to that, this strange black knob that you have to pull out for cold starting, and don’t forget to make sure the fuel petcock is open….. Starting couldn’t be easier, due to the absence of a kickstart lever, and the presence of an electric starter. Just press the button and it comes to life.

Suspension front and rear is shortened an inch from the dual sport, with damping rates revised for the shorter travel and for the smoother (mostly, anyway) surfaces of the street environment. Coincidentally, the seat height is lower by about an inch, as well. Up front, the fork has 16 clicks of adjustable compression damping. Out back, the shock is adjustable for preload, and compression and rebound damping. Rake is slightly steeper than it’s dual sport brother, at 25.5 degrees vs. 26.5 degrees, and trail shrinks considerably to 2.9 inches vs. the 250S’ 4.1.

Even a modestly powered 250 needs to be slowed down, and Kawasaki made sure that the KLX would have no problem stopping on a dime and giving nine cents change with a 300mm petal disc gripped by a two-piston caliper up front and a 240mm disc combined with a single-piston caliper out back. There isn’t that much weight to get slowed down (302 lbs fully fueled), so this brake setup has it pretty easy.

Riding the KLX after spending 99% of my time on larger sportbikes, it’s somewhat shocking how easily and quickly this bike changes direction. Very little pressure on either the left or right handgrip sees you & the KLX flitting from one part of the road to the other in the blink of an eye. Think hummingbird, and that’s how quickly this thing changes direction. That’s not to say the bike is unstable. It is stable – pretty much, anyway. It never does anything evil, but often you seem to be correcting your corrections and setting a smooth line through a corner or even on the freeway (short stints preferred) can be challenging, as the KLX’s quick-handling character takes some time to acclimate to. The smaller diameter front wheel, combined with the reduced trail numbers means if there are any grooves for the front tire to follow, it will do so in a hyper-wandering fashion until you get out of the groove.

The suspension setup from the good folks in Irvine proved to be a good compromise between compliance & control. Bigger bumps were soaked up with barely any of it reaching the rider, while heavy braking allowed just the right amount of weight shift and pitch.

Engine performance was adequate, but to be honest, the throttle cable was pulled tight as a piano wire 95% of the time. Traffic today is aggressive and populated with high-horsepower cars & trucks and drivers with heavy right feet. You need to be on your toes at traffic lights with anxious drivers behind you. The KLX rider would put a quarter-turn throttle to good use. Vibration from the single cylinder engine was quite low, and the rubber covered footpegs do their part to quell the vibes. Shifting action of the transmission is light, quick and positive, with use of the smooth-action clutch being largely optional after leaving a stop.

How did that old-fashioned carburetor work? Quite well, thank you very much. Fueling through the myriad passages, jets and past the needle provided smooth, surge-free throttle response under all conditions despite the EPA compliant air-fuel ratios.

We saw top speeds from the KLX of 90 mph in a drafting situation, but left to push its own air, a typical 80-85 mph could be coaxed out of it, depending on wind direction. At these speeds, the KLX felt somewhat nervous for this tester, but not for the editor (seems his extra girth raked out the front end a bit) — as if it had ingested a large quantity of energy drink on an empty stomach. As expected, getting out of the throttle at anything over 65 mph then getting back on it left the rider waiting for the gradual re-accumulation of lost mph. Patience, grasshopper.

The engine / exhaust is very quiet, which should leave touchy neighbors with one less thing to complain about. The seat is not your buttocks’ friend, however. Narrow and fairly hard means it is less of a seat than a wedge…. Your complaints about the seat could reach decibel levels exceeding those of the exhaust. Spend more than 20 minutes at a time in the seat without a break and you’ll know what we mean.

Instrumentation is compact, digital, and reasonable in the amount of information it provides – speed, bar-graph tachometer & two tripmeters. Fuel economy was not what you’d expect of a small capacity engine, that is, 80 mpg and such. As a consequence of the throttle being wide open a majority of its time, we routinely saw figures in the 47 – 52 mpg range. With a two-gallon tank, you’re not going to go far before needing to refuel, but that’s okay, anyway, since this isn’t really a long distance mileage eater anyway.

What’s our verdict? The KLX is an entertaining, entry-level admission to the world of motorcycling / supermotard riding. The light, predictable handling combined with the low(ish) seat height makes it easy to handle, helping the rider stay confident. That light handling also makes the bike easy to chuck around when doing a supermotard-style trackday (you know you will). It’s quite economical to own and operate as well. When interacting with the urban and campus environment, the KLX is clearly in its element. We like it, but wish it had a bit more horsepower, and a bit more trail in the steering geometry, but those are our only complaints.

Kawasaki’s MSRP is $5299 and you can have one in any color you want as long as it’s black.

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MD Readers Respond:

  • Literaly every single cylinder bike I’ve ever owned has imploded at almost exactly 20,000 miles. Has they figured out a way to stop that from happening yet? Ed

  • Just had to say something. I’m an experienced rider and a 220lb guy. I teach MSF classes, ride a 06 R6 on the street, used to roadrace and now race a YZ426F in a local supermoto series.

    Why the hell won’t they build a OEM motard for me? I am close to getting a Husky 610 or a KTM 690, but I really really don’t want to spend 10K+ for a toy bike. And yet I want more than 20-ish HP.

    Seriously – Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki can’t build a nice 500 – 600 cc liquid cooled modern reliable single cylinder engine with 3000 mile oil change intervals and reasonable valve check intervals, stuff it into a tweaked dirtbike frame with 17 inchers and some sport-touring rubber and call it a real motard?

    Do you know how fast I would be at my dealership with a deposit if Yamaha announced a 2010 WR500R for $7,999 (2K over the 250cc bike) ? Or if Suzuki announced an updated 2010 DRZ500SM? Seriously – I’d be waiting when the damn door opened tomorrow morning with a wad of cash in my hand.

    If you know someone at yamaha – please send them this. Hell – send it to all of them. Brian

  • Great bike and I hope to see more available like it. As you stated, the KLX250SF is perfectly adequate for just about any sort of riding – at least for 20 minutes… I have owned a street legal KLX300 and understand FUN. About the power; why ask for more? If you want more there are bikes like the DRZ or the Duke, Aprilia or Husqvarna, – or a Hyabusa. In fact there are many more choices for people who want more power than for those who want less. -todd

  • All this thing needs to be perfect is a 19″ front wheel for more stability and a 450cc engine. And a better seat. John

  • I enjoyed your review of the KLX 250 SF, dirt bike set up for the street. I’m 57 and I can tell you that for the past 45 years men have sat around and argued that the ideal city bike would be a motocross or enduro bike with 17 inch rims laced up and good street tires. If you scour the Internet you can still find companies that will sell you the parts (horn, relay, switches, headlight, taillight, etc.) to make you dirt bike “street legal”. Of course you can’t do this anymore and be entirely legal as the engine would not have EPA testing and certification. However, back in the day, lots of folks did so anyway in places like Georgia, where the DMV just wanted to see if the horn honked and the lightbulbs glowed. They would then sell the street-registered bike to customers in places like Manhattan. As you’ve discovered, most dirt bikes don’t make good street bikes for the following reasons: Not enough power, not a wide enough range of gearing, too much vibration, no weather protection.

    Which brings me to the reason for this e-mail. Why not test an example of the bike I recently purchased, a KTM Duke 690? The most powerful single cylinder engine certified for street use (65 hp), a counterbalancer to keep the vibration down, and a six speed transmission; all wrapped in an Enduro frame with 17″ cast wheels and Dunlop Qualifiers. It’s still not a good bike for a long day on the freeway, but everywhere else it rocks.