To remind us of a few of its underexposed models, Kawasaki invited us on a two-day road/dirt riding excursion from Kawasaki’s HQ in Irvine to the mile-high cabin resort at Idyllwild, Calif.
The idea was that on the way there we’d trade off three street middleweights, and once there we’d romp on some easy trails with a couple dual-purpose bikes.
Based partially on the sales performance of these bikes, plus a comprehensive lineup that includes jump-eating motorcrossers, laid-back cruisers, hardcore sportbikes and off-road play machines of two and four wheels, Kawasaki has shown itself able to hold its own the old-fashioned way.
Specifically, in March and April Kawasaki led the North American market in sales, and has surpassed even longtime leader Honda. This is the first time since 1988 – when the Ninja 250 was introduced – that Kawi has been the sales leader among Japanese motorcycles.
No doubt Kawasaki would like to repeat its performance, and it would appear this trip was at least a small part of that effort, as it highlighted some of the bikes that have helped with its success.
All these bikes are priced competitively, offer high performance for low fuel consumption, and are eminently practical for real-world use.
Rather than repeating details you can read in single-bike reviews already written (linked below), we’ll offer a few general observations.
Street Middleweight Buffet
Kawasaki has built a compact and versatile 650cc parallel-Twin that powers a diverse range of middleweight streetbikes. In addition to the sporty Ninja 650 and the ER-6n naked roadster, the willing fuel-injected Twin is also the core of the do-it-all Versys, a bike we’ve enjoyed since its 2007 inception that has been updated for the 2010 model year.
"...Kawi has tried to keep seat heights as low as possible so the bikes are unintimidating for shorter and less-confident riders."
The Versys is tuned for a fatter midrange with different cams, a lower compression ratio and redline set at 10,500 rpm instead of 11,000.
All three are a blast while strafing a circuitous course, and they are fine just riding around town or plodding down the highway.
Of this trio of brothers, Kawi has tried to keep seat heights as low as possible so the bikes are unintimidating for shorter and less-confident riders. This is a boon for all except those with especially long legs. My 34-inch inseam was content enough for our daytrip, but tall riders hoping for long-range comfort might want to look into alternative saddles with more room to sit back, if not from Kawasaki, then possibly the aftermarket.
The Versys has the tallest seat height of the street group, which gives it the most legroom of the three, but more fore/aft room would be helpful for taller riders. Kawasaki says the Versys is often purchased by older, more experienced riders and while it's more popular in Europe, in the U.S. it may be perceived as having less overt sporting intent.
This notwithstanding, the Versys has super-quick steering, and it encourages riders to slam the bike into corners not unlike a supermotard-style bike. This sportbike in disguise remains planted, and in the process contributes to the feeling among several of us who’ve ridden every kind of bike, and with decades of experience, that the Versys may be the most enjoyable of the three – in twisties or anywhere.
Its extra midrange makes the Versys the only one that will pretty easily pull second gear wheelies with a little clutch slip, just like a literbike will, and its plush suspension is confidence inspiring even on rougher pavement.
Because the Versys was updated this year, we’ll be bringing you a full review in the coming weeks after we pile on some miles.
Since we just wrote about the Ninja recently in our Everyday Sportbike Shootout, we’ll skip further elaboration on that competent little bike. It will suffice to say that, compared to its class rivals, the Ninja was the favorite among our sport-minded test riders and was judged the most attractive in its class, plus it’s docile enough to be a great around-town runabout.
The ER-6n, as the naked Ninja that it is, is also quite capable. The main difference between the two, aside from the lack of bodywork, is the ER’s upright riding position from its tubular handlebar and less rear-set footpegs. These ergos encourage levering the naked Ninja into tight corners, but a couple of us did not like the handlebar position because it forced our arms into a narrow and comparatively awkward stance. This could easily be remedied with an inexpensive handlebar swap, if you felt the same way, but otherwise this is a great bike.
After traveling many serpentine miles with some skilled riders, we came to the Quiet Creek Inn in Idyllwild. The town of around 5,000 or so people was a welcome retreat away from the claustrophobic suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, and provided some terrific dirt roads nearby to sample the KLX and KLR dual-purpose bikes the following day.
The KLR650 was introduced around 23 years ago and if any bike can be called “tried and true,” this one definitely can. It is one of the only motorcycles in recent years that a MO staffer actually paid his own money to own.
It is also the top-selling bike in its class, period.
The KLX250 is much closer to a real dirtbike with lights. Its curb weight is three pounds shy of 300, compared to the 432-pound KLR. The KLX emerged as the winner in a shootout against its rivals from Honda (CRF230L) and Yamaha (XT250).
Both these street-legal bikes use bombproof liquid-cooled single-cylinder engines and are capable on- and off-road machines.
Of the two, the 650 is the obvious candidate for long journeys and is known as an economical choice for many adventure-touring riders.
The 250 has most of the ingredients of a great adventure bike, but alas, its top speed is maybe 85 mph or a little more, and is tolerable rather than at ease on long highway stints.
Its suspension, however, provides 10 inches travel up front, and 9.1 inches rear travel. Its fork is a 43mm inverted cartridge design with 16-way compression damping adjustability. In contrast, the big 650 rolls on a lighter-duty 41mm telescopic fork.
Both use Uni-Trak single-shock rear suspension, but again the KLX has more adjustability with 16-way compression and rebound damping, compared to the KLR’s 5-way preload and stepless rebound damping.
Combined, the KLX’s 135 pounds lighter curb weight, longer, more sophisticated suspension, and somewhat more dirt-oriented on/off road knobbies make it the obvious choice for pushing the limits off road.
That said, the KLR works surprisingly well too, and compared to some seriously over-engineered creations from a certain Motorwerks company in Bavaria, it makes a worthy bargain-conscious alternative for travelers who want to push harder off road.
The KLR’s oldie-but-goodie Dunlop K750 tires offer prodigious grip on-road as well, and the substantial fairing gives a measure of weather protection.
On the other hand, the KLX250 as-delivered is so much nicer off road. We asked why Kawasaki does not split the difference with, say a 400-450cc version, and were told intermediate displacements have been tried before, but consumers seem to like the two extremes better.
If this is so, we still think a bike with 30% more oomph, but spec’d like, and within 25 pounds of the KLX250, could be a winner. A hypothetical 325-pound bike that could pull freeway speeds all day would bridge the extremes, and we know of another MO writer who’d line up to buy such a bike: yours truly.
Kawasaki is holding its own in the marketplace, and these five bikes undoubtedly are part of the reason why. If we were to buy any of them, we might end up modding a thing or two to suit our tastes, but all are economical, well-engineered, and versatile machines that made for a fun trip.
2009 Kawasaki KLX250S Review
2009 Kawasaki KLX250SF Review
2008 Lightweight Dual Purpose Shootout
2007 Kawasaki KLR650 Review
Quarterliter Supermoto Shootout
2010 Kawasaki Ninja 650 vs. 2009 Suzuki GSX650F vs. 2010 Yamaha FZ6R
2009 Kawasaki ER-6n Review
2009 Naked Middleweight Comparison
2008 Kawasaki Versys Road Test