*Not an ad, not sponsored content, not for ESPN. Just my opinion/highly unscientific analysis of a new bike I had the opportunity to ride recently.
I don’t write about motorcycles, and I’ve never written a review about one. But for two decades, I’ve told the stories of the men and women who ride them (and helped me to fall in love with them). Today, I’m breaking from the norm and writing about something near and dear to my height … dual-sport bikes for short riders. (Like Santa and unicorns, I believe in them, but have seen little tangible proof they exist.)
Last week, Kawasaki invited me to Los Alamos, Calif., for the media launch of their 2023 KLX 230S, the “S” denoting that the bike is designed for shorter, smaller riders. As someone who fits that description to the letter, (I’m 5’2”, slightly taller in moto boots) I’ve spent an obsessive amount of time researching and riding off-road bikes someone has told me, “will be perfect for you!”
The first thing I learned about most dual-sport and enduro bikes with short seat heights is that few major manufacturers still produce them. I was thrilled to learn that Kawi is putting effort and engineering into producing bikes meant to introduce new riders and let’s be real, women, to the sport. The company’s website advertises the bike with the distinction, “NEW RIDER FRIENDLY.” I love any brand that’s making something as intimidating as motorcycle riding feel inclusive and welcoming to new participants.
I learned to ride dirtbikes in my late 30s on a motocross track where seat height isn’t an issue. When I moved to Big Bear Lake a couple years ago and started riding trails and progressed to more aggressive off-road single-track, seat height became something I thought a lot about.
On the street, I don’t want to hop off, side-saddle, at every stoplight. On new trails, I want to stop and assess a sketchy downhill without scouring the terrain for a rock or hill upon which to rest a foot. In other words: I want at least one of my feet to touch the ground while I am balanced over the bike. And in a dream world, the bike would have regular-sized (21/18) wheels and I wouldn’t have to cut its seat like a freestyler and lower its suspension to the point of rendering it useless.
Few four-stroke, street-legal bikes fit that description. The KLX 230S does. It is, exactly as billed, a great bike for an entry-level dual sport rider or an experienced rider who’s 5’5” or shorter and plans to ride a little street, some trails and start pushing herself on more advanced terrain. At an MSRP of $4,999, this bike has little competition in the space it inhabits. (The Yamaha XT250, which I own, is the closest bike I’ve seen and I compare the two below.)
Early in my search for a trail bike, I was pointed toward Honda, a company that used to make several light, short, trail bikes, including the CRF 230L dual sport which, incredibly, had a seat height and weight comparable to the CRF 150/230F, both of which I have in my garage with after-market lights and blinkers added to them. The 150 is my go-to for advanced trail riding but, alas, has small-bike (19/16) wheels and is not street legal.
Honda stopped making the 150 and 230 in 2019 and produced the 230L for only two years in the U.S. I imagine when they released it (2008-2009), it didn’t sell. Today, women make up a massive percentage of the new-rider category, especially in street and dual-sport riding, and I bet that bike would sell like hotcakes.
I next bought a Yamaha XT250, my first dual sport. It was a great entry-level bike with a low seat — and it’s been around since the 1980s — but it’s heavy and big overall (for a bike with a super-short seat height). I love it for riding around town (it has passenger foot pegs and a comfy seat for two), on fire roads and rocky two-track, but I’m not comfortable taking that bike up or down John Bull. (Or picking it up more than once or twice.)
We have a saying in my house: “The only upgrade your bike needs is a better rider.” I agree with that sentiment and work hard to upgrade my skills so I can hop on any bike and give it a go on any trail. But there’s also something to be said about having the right tool for the job.
Which brings me to the KLX 230S. During the media launch last week, we didn’t traverse steep climbs or descents or ride over big rocky sections, so I can’t speak to how this bike would handle advanced terrain. (It has 8.5” of ground clearance and weighs nearly 300 pounds, so that’s not what it was developed to do.) But we did a lot of street riding, including highway miles, and spent a couple hours on trails, gravel roads and some loose, muddy, slippery, rocky two-track. We hit a few mini jumps and played with turning the ABS on and off. (Oh yeah, the KLX 230S has ABS that you can turn off with the push of a large red button on the left side of the handlebars.)
The bike was comfortable and at home on pavement, more street bike than dirtbike. It has passenger foot pegs and a comfortable seat. But it’s a 230, so it’s more of an around-town bike than meant for the 405. It handled great on the trails we rode that day, and I was surprised how confident I felt on slippery and off-camber terrain, especially considering its 60/40 tires, which performed incredibly well. Its throttle is responsive and it has good low-end torque. The first upgrades I would invest in to make it more durable off-road would be a skid plate (it doesn’t come stock, but you can order one), hand guards (I like bark busters), folding mirrors and low-pro blinkers.
As for a head-to-head comparison to the Yamaha XT250:
Both are available in sleek black-and-gray, have 21/18 tires and 32.7-inch seat heights. The Kawi is slightly heavier, around +10 pounds depending on the model, but the XT is taller and longer and has a larger gas tank (2.5 gallon vs. 2 gallon). For that reason, the Yamaha “feels” bigger to me. The 2023 KLX has a slimmer headlight – a super bright LED – than its 2022 iteration and I felt I could see over the front of the bike better than I can on the Yamaha (great for steep descents) and it felt like it “fit” me better.
The Kawi is $5,299 with ABS and $4,999 without, so comparing apples to apples (the Yamaha, which starts at $5,299 doesn’t have ABS) the Kawi is a better deal.
My overall assessment after one ride on the Kawi is that it is a fantastic all-around beginner dual-sport bike. If I had been choosing between the two when I started trail riding — and taking into consideration the type of riding I was doing then — I’d buy the Kawi.
I appreciate that the company has made major updates to the bike, which is more of a performance machine than the XT. Kawi seems to be investing engineering and technology into this bike … and I can’t wait to see what they do with it next.
BIKE SEAT HEIGHT WEIGHT TANK CLEARANCE TRANSMISSION
KLX 230S 32.7 IN 299 LBS 2 GAL 8.3 IN 6-SPEED
XT250 32.7 IN 291 LBS 2.5 GAL 11.2 IN 5-SPEED
** Thank you to my height-challenged friends for sending questions I’ve hopefully answered above. If I haven’t, please leave a comment and tell me what else you’d like to know. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll ask!