My eyes feel like raisins. My lips have become pork rinds. I'm blasting across the sand-drenched, boulder-strewn Funeral Mountains of Death Valley on Kawasaki's fully revised KLX250S, and the one thing I can say for sure is: If this bike weren't so easy to ride, I'd have crashed hours ago.
Kawasaki's smallest street-legal dirtbike feels more stable than ever thanks to an all-new rear suspension linkage, firmer damping settings and reduced wheel travel front and rear. The latest 43mm inverted fork gives you 16 clicks' worth of damping adjustment and 10 inches of travel, complementing a likewise adjustable Uni-Trak rear setup that dishes out a taut 9.1 inches along with adjustable spring preload. A new diamond-type frame and rigid D-section swingarm also improve steadiness and precision-traits that are especially precious in long stretches of foot-deep gravel garnished with rocks the size of oranges. The KLX's relatively short 56.3-inch wheelbase, lowered center of mass and tweaked steering geometry make it more manageable in just about any off-road scenario. A revamped riding position helps as well. The new, straighter handlebar brings your hands and elbows up to improve control in the rough stuff. The 250's seat has also been reshaped with denser foam, nice for off-road antics but tough on the bum during a long day.
Our first day was comprised of 40 miles on the pavement and 90 in the dirt. The KLX handles off-road challenges easily, including some threatening ledges along with one dicey climb up a dry waterfall. Although the four-valve single wants plenty of revs to make power, it spreads torque over a broad enough range for the technical sections. You'll never mistake it for a KLX450R, but the twin-cam single has enough steam to squirt across open sections quickly enough. And the new gearing lets you get the most out of every pony and foot-pound.
Look close and you'll see just about every element of the '09 KLX has been replaced, revamped or sharpened, from the fresh all-digital instrument pod to the more aggressive bodywork. Front and rear brakes get petal-style discs for '09. Gripped by a KX-type caliper, the 240mm rear is 20mm larger than last year's model. Stronger spokes help these new wheels survive ruts and rocks, but they come shod with street-oriented, mileage-minded rubber-an odd choice for a bike Kawasaki says will spend 94 percent of its time on the trail. Still, the stock rubber managed the gravel surprisingly well, and did a whole lot better on the pavement.
It's not what you'd call comfortable for extended highway stints. And though nobody's going touring on a 250cc single, the revamped chassis is quite stable at speed. It's a perfectly agreeable way to reel in the paved sections of any dual-sport loop, or stand in for some fuel-swilling four-wheeler around town. Better still, the latest version is street-legal in all 50 states. It's not as quick or capable as a full-on enduro bike, but it is a whole lot more economical than topping off a pickup truck every time you want to get dirty. These days,that sort of 60-mpg logic is hard to argue with.