Kawasaki’s New 1997 Off-Road Models
First Ride: KDX220R and KLX300R
Kawasaki has a good thing going with their KDX 200, a motorcycle they humbly refer to as “the greatest trailbike ever made.” But what do you do for an encore when your bike is already considered to be the standard by which all others are judged?
A lack of significant changes can result in a loss of sales as buyers flock to what’s new from other manufacturers, but even worse is change for change’s sake that results in an inferior product.
Kawasaki solved this dilemma by introducing the new KDX220R while still keeping the venerable 200 in the line up for those loyal to that machine. Clearly the powers at Kawasaki were cautious of alienating faithful customers with a “New Coke” version of their famous enduro.
We had a chance to test both bikes back to back along with the new KLX300R which replaces last year’s KLX250, at Kawasaki’s ride introduction. The three day event took place in a tiny mining town nestled deep within the beautiful mountain ranges of central Idaho. Scenery was stunning with views rivaling Switzerland and Austria’s best. Sorry, but we’re keeping the place a secret as some things are better left undiscovered. Temperature was the only downside to this spectacular locale as the mercury dropped to a bone-numbing thirty degrees in the morning and only mustered fifty-five during the afternoon.
Kawasaki pulled out all the stops to make sure the test bikes were properly presented to the press. The Team Green crew, complete with their eighteen wheeled rolling workshop, had a fleet of KLX’s and KDX’s gassed up and ready to go upon our arrival. Off-road heroes Ty Davis (two time ISDE top American), and Larry Roeseler (winningest off-road rider to date) were on hand to guide the group, lend their expertise and do what they do best for the cameras.
“I was anxious to climb aboard the new 220R to see what happens to “the world’s greatest trailbike” when it is improved.”
Over the next three days we rode all three models in a variety of conditions. The trails were primarily single track loops joined by tracts of dust, mud, technical rocky sections, rutted switchbacks, trees, logs and considerable snow in the higher elevations.
Having personally owned nearly a half dozen KDX models over the years I was anxious to climb aboard the new 220R to see what happens to “the world’s greatest trailbike” when it is improved.
This year’s all new 220R has generated a great deal of excitement amongst KDX diehards everywhere. Kawasaki claims that the 220R “bridges the gap” between riders who feel a 200cc machine might be underpowered, but consider a 250cc bike to be too much motorcycle. Both KDX models share an identical chassis with the only differences being the motor and carb.
Kawasaki is presenting the 220R as the more race-worthy version of the KDX family because of its engine modifications. The 220R comes on strong off the bottom and builds smoothly until it’s time to shift. However compared to the 200 it seems to run out of steam quickly, almost as if it’s being held back. These type of power characteristics make the bike more suitable for trail riding than serious competition. Maybe the altitude played with our best judgement but the smaller 200 seems capable of generating power more rapidly and for a longer duration than the 220R. Without a Dyno run we can’t be sure but a quick dissection of Kawasaki’s new lime green Frankenstein might shed some light.
It’s rumored that the 220 engine is borrowed directly from a domestic (Japanese) dual purpose unit. While the motor is virtually identical to the 200 there are a few subtle differences which no doubt contribute to the 220R’s tamer disposition. The cylinder bore is three millimeters larger yielding an overall displacement of 216 cubic centimeters as opposed to the 200’s 198 cubic centimeters. This looks like we’re on the right track, however, from here things go awry. Strangely, a carburetor that is a full two millimeters smaller (PWK33) than the 200’s provides the intake mixture. While theoretically this would create improved low end response one would assume bumping the displacement and leaving all things constant would accomplish the same end.
Kawasaki engineers cooked up further changes in their cauldron. At idle both models report almost identical compression ratios but as rpm builds the 200 comes out .7:1 higher. On the 220R both the transfer and exhaust port timing has been ever so lightly tinkered with to produce smoother, more tractable power. We would be interested to see the results of a carb swap but time did not permit this.
We’re looking forward to reviewing a 220R for an extended period of time but at this zero hour we’re hard pressed to recommend one model over the other. Both KDX’s are very good and very similar. With the 200 retailing a full $250 less it’s difficult justifying the purchase of a 220R for racing purposes. It makes more sense to buy a 200 and spend the savings on an aftermarket 240cc kit, a pipe and maybe a port job. At least you’ll be starting out with a larger carburetor.
Kawasaki’s KDX200 has experienced a strong following since its inception in 1983 and the latest perimeter steel frame version (H model)is probably the best ever.
While the only noteworthy refinement is the addition of 10% stronger clutch springs the little 200 is still a very competitive mount, both on the showroom floor as well as the trail.
A suggested retail price of just $4,299 makes the KDX a very attractive package indeed.
Frankly, we did not expect any significant revelations from a motorcycle who’s powerplant is based on last year’s borderline-anemic KLX250. But after having ridden the package it’s hard not to be excited about what we discovered. Kawasaki has come up with a combination of engine and component modifications that have made notable improvements in power and handling.
Displacement was increased by boring the cylinder an additional six millimeters to bring total size to 292cc. A Keihin CVK34 (Constant Velocity) carburetor is fitted and performed without hesitation or error during our evaluation although we did experience some minor backfiring during high speed runs when the throttle was abruptly chopped. This did not seem to affect performance, although it did scare off nearby wildlife.
Starting the bike hot or cold is easy thanks to Kawasaki’s Automatic Compression Release (KACR) system while last year’s rough idling has been eliminated by advancing the ignition five degrees. Modifications were also made to fifth and sixth gears to improve transmission performance while attempting to reduce overall gear noise.
However, during our test the KLX jumped out of gear on two separate occasions, both while under load. This problem wasn’t unique to our bike either as several members of the press were able to duplicate this condition.
Kawasaki is aware of the problem and says it will be fixed. Smaller detail changes include a repositioned oil filter for easier access and larger radiator shrouds that are fastened via a plastic “pop-in” tab rather than the traditional bolt-on design. One rider managed to pop one out during a crash but the piece was undamaged and quickly snapped back into place. Very nice.
Front forks are 43mm upside-down cartridge units with 16-way adjustable compression damping. A rear shock with piggyback reservoir and 16 compression and rebound damping adjustments rides on Kawasaki’s patented Uni-Trak linkage system. Kawasaki claims that both front and rear suspension spring rates have been slightly increased to suit faster riders. With stock settings at both ends the suspension did a good job of keeping the machine on its intended course and only a few unexpected drop-offs and some large jumps resulted in light bottoming.
The plastic engine coolant reservoir shares the same under-the-seat left side positioning as older KDX models. It’s easily accessible, or rather would be if the KLX came with a toolbag like it’s KDX cousin. In the event that the KLX requires any sort of trailside maintenance necessitating tools you’re out of luck. Although there’s plenty of room on the rear fender you’ll have to shell out the extra cash for a KDX or aftermarket toolbag in order to enjoy the comfort of having tools.
The KLX’s exhaust canister has a removable baffle assembly for competition riding. While this does not compromise the function of the mechanical spark arrestor it does, obviously, result in a louder exhaust note that might be offensive in some parts of the world. Sound levels were not overly obnoxious in the wide open areas we traversed but you should use your own judgment based on the situation.
Both front and rear brakes are the same as last years KX250 and are very capable of hauling the bike down from speed. We were less pleased with the routing of the front brake line which hangs below the front left fork leg inviting possible failure in the event of a severe enough hit. While we did not experience any troubles we would anxiously keep an eye on this.
The KLX has .8 inches less ground clearance than the KDX although its seat is .2 inches taller. Despite the numbers, riding the KLX gives the pilot an impression of sitting very close to the ground with ergonomics reminiscent of the older KDX175, albeit superior in design. Whether it’s the seat’s slimness or perhaps the positioning of the low footpeg, the layout works well as the KLX inspired confidence in nasty mud and snow-covered terrain. It is a very easy bike to ride and worked well in technical situations that required frequent touching down to stay upright.
With a claimed weight of only 231.5 pounds dry the KLX weighs just 8.5 pounds more than both KDX200’s and a full 25.5 pounds less than the 1997 Honda XR400R. Having ridden both machines it’s clear that Kawasaki has jumped into the ring with a viable open class contender that can go head-to-head with the XR. Perhaps putting the KLX over the top is that performance gains are easily achieved by installing a steel sleeve and 340cc piston. Larry Roeseler (714-528-1448) claims 375cc is attainable with a bored and stroked motor which, with a different carburetor, would give much more horsepower.
As mentioned earlier both KDX models are identical in every way except for their engines. Both share the same steel perimeter frame based on the KX125 and 250 designs. Both are fitted with conventional 43mm cartridge forks, with 16-way compression damping, and a nitrogen-filled aluminum body rear shock. The rear unit supports 16-way compression and rebound damping as well as a spring pre-load adjustment and uses a remote reservoir to avoid shock overheating. Stock suspension settings produced some rear wheel hop and some front end deflection but worked quite well overall.
“Kawasaki should be applauded for their continuing efforts to produce high quality two-stroke motorcycles for recreational off-road enthusiasts — an off-road segment that is under heavy scrutiny due to ever-tightening emission regulations.”
All three models mentioned here utilize a special Electrofusion cylinder bore. This is a process that leaves a porous hard coating of molybdenum and steel permanently secured to an aluminum bore by using high voltage during manufacture. While such cylinders can’t be bored in the same manner as steel units the benefits of the design are a resistance to wear and the ability to transfer heat more efficiently.
An O-ring chain, quick release rear wheel, snail cam chain adjustment, head and taillight assembly, U.S. Forestry-approved spark arrester and a resettable tripmeter come standard on each model.
Each machine comes stock with flimsy plastic handguards designed to protect you from bugs, small branches, the cold and little else. Toss them in favor of some good aftermarket aluminum or sturdy plastic wrap-around pieces. The psychological effects of real protection will do wonders for your riding confidence.
Kawasaki should be applauded for their continuing efforts to produce high quality two-stroke motorcycles for recreational off-road enthusiasts — an off-road segment that is under heavy scrutiny due to ever-tightening emission regulations. It would seem that producing four-stroke motorcycles is not only the politically correct thing to do but they are also easier to market. With impending CARB regulations we’re not sure how much longer you’ll be able to purchase new KDX’s in California but consider this model the last of a dying breed. Two-stroke off-road machines may soon join their street siblings as classic heirlooms to remember.
Get ’em while you can.
Model: KLX300R KDX220R KDX200 Price: $4,699 $4,549 $4,299 Engine: 4-stroke 2-stroke 2-stroke Cooling: liquid liquid liquid Valve system: DOHC, 4 valves 6-petal reed 6-petal reed Bore x Stroke: 78 x 61.2 mm 69 x 58 mm 66 x 58 mm Displacement: 292 cc 216 cc 198 cc Carburetion: Keihin CVK34 Keihin PWK33 Keihin PWK35 Transmission: 6-speed 6-speed 6-speed Wheelbase: 56.5 in 56.5 in 56.5 in Seat height: 36.4 in 36.2 in 36.2 in Ground Clearance: 12.6 in 13.4 in 13.4 in Fuel capacity: 2.1 gallons 2.9 gallons 2.9 gallons Weight: 231.5 lbs 223 lbs 223 lbs