With the trail bike market heating up as we enter a new decade, approachable off-road motorcycles are just the thing to entice new riders into the sport.While they aren’t as sexy as the GNCC-ready 250cc four-stroke racebikes, motorcycles such as the 2020 Kawasaki KLX230R cost about half as much and aren’t the least bit intimidating for the neophyte to ride, or maintain.This is a motorcycle that is all about fun in the dirt, and that’s what we did with it—had a great time out on the single-track trails of southern Oregon.
Although the 2020 Kawasaki KLX230R shares a good number of parts with its also-new dual-sport KLX230 sibling, there are plenty of significant differences. Most of the changes are chassis oriented. Compared to the KLX230, the KLX230R has suspension that is longer-travel (an inch at both ends) and considerably firmer, a shorter wheelbase (0.8 inches), tighter rake (one degree), more ground clearance (1.4 inches), a taller seat (1.4 inches), smaller fuel tank (1.2 quarts), off-road knobby tires, and it is 40 pounds lighter. Due to state environmental laws, the California version of the KLX230R gets a steel tank, more emissions folderal, and it weighs an additional 4.4 pounds. We tested the 49-state version with a plastic fuel tank. With that out of the way, let’s hit the trails.
Ergonomics on the KLX230R are just right. It’s a natural step up from the popular KLX140G trail bike, which is suited to younger teenagers and smaller adults. The KLX230R isn’t as large at the truly full-size KLX300R, which is a good thing. The slightly smaller size gives the newer or more-compact rider that extra sense of security. When learning to ride off-road, falls are inevitable. The ability to touch the ground is critical, and the 36.2-inch seat height is manageable—remember, there’s about an inch of sag with the rider aboard. The pegs and grips are where they should be, the controls are easily found and manipulated, and the chassis is helpfully narrow.
Getting started is as easy as pushing a button. We think all trail bikes should have electric start—learning to kickstart a motorcycle shouldn’t be a barrier to entry. Making things even easier is EFI. Forget about managing a choke and throttle when starting the KLX230R—just push the button, and it purrs to life. Air-cooled trail bikes are notoriously cold-blooded, and require an extended warm-up period, especially in colder temperatures. With EFI, that’s a thing of the past. The ECU manages the motor flawlessly, so you can focus on riding rather than fiddling.
The motor and the chassis of the 2020 Kawasaki KLX230R are a perfect match. Power is ample for trail riding, with plenty of low-rpm power. Although you can rev the two-valve engine out if you like, there’s not much additional power to be had at higher revs—consider that an overrev option when it’s inconvenient to shift the slick six-speed transmission. Handling is absolutely neutral. As this isn’t a racing motorcycle, the compact dimensions favor agility over high-speed stability. That makes sense, as the KLX230R is not a high-speed motorcycle. Instead, it’s at its best going through technical single-track trails where the balance of the design is most apparent.
Fortunately, the Kawasaki engineers got the suspension right, as there are no damping adjustments to be had. Rather than ramp up the price with adjustments that most riders won’t need or understand, Kawasaki fixed the damping setting on the KLX230R. It is appropriately on the soft side, with no strange kicking due to over-springing or inadequate rebound damping. This isn’t a motorcycle of anything more than casual jumps, as that sort of behavior overtaxes the suspension. That’s fine, as the settings help the KLX230R in its mission—fun trail riding. To accommodate riders of different weights, the shock has spring-preload adjustment so you can get the rear sag right.
Riding the KLX230R is about steering and wheel placement. You won’t be flying over terrain on the KLX230R. There’s not enough snap to loft the front end at will over obstacles, let along skip whoops or steer with the rear end. Instead, the 233cc mill is all about smooth power and maintaining traction. It does this flawlessly, so work the KLX230R’s attributes to your advantage. It teaches the rider to pick good lines and provides enough power across the rev-range to give the rider confidence. Even though the ground clearance is generous at nearly 12 inches, if you ride anywhere near rocks, we recommend Kawasaki’s accessory plastic skidplate—a steal at $28. Handguards are also a good idea if you ride near bushes and branches.
The KLX230R is no lightweight, but it carries its weight well. At 253 pounds with its tank full, it weighs about the same as a Yamaha YZ450FX GNCC racing motorcycle. Sure, Kawasaki could have knocked 20 or 30 pounds off the weight of the KLX230R, but that would have about doubled the price of the trail bike. The only time a KLX230R owner is going to notice the extra weight is when it comes time to pick it up on the trail after a fall. The reality is this—if you want a higher-performance, lighter motorcycle, there are plenty to choose from. They will all cost you considerably more than $4399.
Kawasaki gave the 2020 KLX230R long-wearing Dunlop Sports D952 tires. Clearly a budget choice, the D952s still do a decent job. Again, they aren’t having to deal with an excessive amount of power, so they don’t get overwhelmed. They have a long life, so it will be quite a while before you wear them out. Given how much time the KLX230R spends with its tires on the ground, we suggest having the dealer replace the D952s with the excellent all-around Dunlop Geomax MX53 (or similar) before you roll the KLX230R into your truck. Great tires always help, and you can save the pair of 952s for resale time—nothing spruces a used dirt bike up like a pair of new tires!
When you do have an opportunity to wick things up, the KLX230R maintains its composure. While an expert can easily override the KLX230R, an expert should be riding a different motorcycle. At the speeds intended by the targeted riders, the KLX230R focuses on control and comfort rather than absolute performance. The KLX230 dual sport motorcycle was compromised off-road by overly soft suspension, even at low speeds. The KLX230R is much tauter than its street-legal sibling, though nothing like a full-on racer. This gives the rider the ability to pick a line, hold it, and not worry about the motorcycle wallowing or the suspension bottoming out. It is a fun ride for a motorcyclist who knows his limitations and how to make the most out of them.
The KLX230R gets the same brakes as the standard KLX230 dual sport model. That means you have plenty of stopping power in the dirt. Fortunately, Kawasaki picked the right calipers, master cylinder ratios, and brake pads, as the braking off-road is predictable and controllable.
Maintenance is uncomplicated on the 2020 Kawasaki KLX230R. There’s a window to keep tabs on the engine oil level, while the drain plug and oil filter are easily accessible. The flat-slab air filter is a bit odd, and requires the removal of eight bolts for access. Adjusting the chain is straightforward, and it probably won’t need much attention other than a quality lube. If you aren’t a regular rider, you’ll be thrilled with the fuel injection system, as there are no jets to get fouled by problematic modern fuels. You will want to keep on eye on the battery, of course, as the KLX230R has no kickstarter.
Without a doubt, some keyboard warriors will complain about what the 2020 Kawasaki KLX230R isn’t—a full-fledged off-road racer. While they’re at it, thousands of people will be snapping them off the showroom floor and heading to the woods for some unforgettable fun. For full-sized adults, the KLX230R is an excellent introduction to the sport of off-road riding. Older riders who have dialed things back will also find quite a bit to like about the KLX230R, given its agreeable nature and ability to get things done, albeit at a slower pace. For decades there has been a constant concern about where new riders are going to come from. Once we find them, motorcycles like the 2020 Kawasaki KLX230R give them a way to begin to realize their two-wheel dreams.