2021 Kawasaki KLX300 First Ride Review


When it comes to dual sports, the high-performance models tend […]

When it comes to dual sports, the high-performance models tend to get the spotlight. But not every rider is looking for a hard-edged enduro. Many want something more approachable, easier to ride, at an affordable price, that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. And what’s not to love about that?

Enter the KLX300, Kawasaki’s replacement of its 250cc dual sport first introduced in 2006,  which returned to the lineup in 2018 after a three-year hiatus with the addition of fuel injection,  refinements to its suspension and a new digital dash. Fast forward to 2021 and Kawasaki has given the little thumper a displacement upgrade, now boasting 292cc’s, plus a higher-performance camshaft profile from its KLX300R dirt bike. In addition, the new KLX300 receives slimmer-profile radiators, optimized ignition timing and engine balancer, updated gear ratios and some additional suspension tweaks on the damping. Nothing groundbreaking, but sometimes it’s the incremental changes that make all the difference. 

Jumping up from the 250cc to 300cc range is one change that can make a significant difference, especially when it comes to dual sport riding that entails getting on the highway to reach the trails. That’s also true if you are planning on doing any ADV Rides carrying all your gear for a few nights in the wilderness. 

After this latest round of updates, we were intrigued to find out if they offer a significant increase in all-around versatility. Enough to tackle more-aggressive dual sport rides or use as a Light ADV? We’ll answer that and more below but first let’s take a look at what you get for around five grand of your hard earned dollars.

First Look

As before, the engine is a water-cooled single, featuring dual overhead cams with four valves and a 34mm throttle body EFI system mated to a 6-speed gearbox. Kawasaki hasn’t released performance figures, sharing only a dyno chart graphic without numbers, that shows both horsepower and torque increases across the entire RPM range. 

The KLX300 features a 292cc water-cooled engine with optimized ignition timing, updated suspension damping and more. The Camo version goes for an additional $200.

The KLX300 chassis uses a steel-perimeter frame and an aluminum swingarm. Up front, it sports a 43mm cartridge-style USD fork with 16-way adjustable compression damping. The rear shock offers preload adjustment along with 20-way compression and 30-way rebound damping adjustments (up from last year’s 16 compression and 16 rebound damping settings). Suspension travel is 10.0 inches in the front and 9.1 inches in the rear, which translates to a 35.2-inch seat height.

The wheelbase is fairly compact at 56.7 inches and it has a modest (for dirt bike standards) 10.8 inches of ground clearance. The steering head angle is a dirt-friendly 26.7° and it rides on a 21″ front and 18″ rear spoke wheels shod with Dunlop D605 dual sport knobbies. Stopping power is provided by a 250mm front disc with a 2-piston Nissin caliper, along with a 240mm disc and single-piston caliper in the rear.

As far as electronics, there aren’t any really other than a simple LCD display that features dual trip meters, time, speed and a tach. Dash lights provide warnings for the engine, fuel level, coolant temp, high beam, neutral, and turn indicators. No ABS, no traction control, no rider modes, just you and your wrist to control the bike.

A simple LCD display features dual trip meters, time, speed, and tach. Plus warnings for the engine, fuel level, coolant temp, high beam, neutral, and turn indicators.

As for travel-related amenities, you get an old school tool bag mounted on the rear fender, 2.0-gallon fuel tank and a helmet lock. There’s no windscreen and the seat is a long, flat dirt bike-style saddle. There are also a set of fold-out passenger pegs if you want to ride two-up. Trail protection consists of engine deflector rails welded to the frame and a small skidplate that mounts underneath the engine. There is also a pipe guard, rear brake caliper protector, and heat shield but no hand guards.

All that equipment on the new KLX300 (or lack thereof) weighs in at 304 pounds wet, which is the same as last year’s model. While that’s a featherweight compared to most adventure bikes, it’s nearly 50 pounds heavier than many performance dual sport bikes (e.g. KTM or Beta). Where does the weight come from? Generous use of steel; from the footpegs, to the foot controls, fuel tank, kickstand, and 7/8″ handlebars, there’s a lot of things on the bike that magnets stick to. 

Dunlop D605 dual sport knobbies come stock on the KLX300.

That usually means it can take some abuse though. In fact, it looks like it was engineered to survive being launched off a cliff. Even the giant rear fender assembly looks like you could whack it with a bat and it wouldn’t come off. But how does it ride? Let’s find out!

On the Road

Sitting on the bike for the first time, it feels similar to a full-sized motorcycle if not a tad small for my 6-foot 2-inch frame. It doesn’t feel undersized like a Yamaha XT250 or a Kawasaki KLX230. I sat flat-footed on the ground but did notice a few of my fellow journalists in the 5’3” range shimmying from one toe to the other at a stop light.

The first thing you notice when you fire up the KLX300 is a pretty tame-sounding engine. Fueling is very smooth pulling away from a stop and the clutch pull is feather light. Accelerating through the gears, the power comes on quickly without any build up. It doesn’t make you wait for it… Just a steady stream of mild power throughout the RPM range. Enough to get you up to speed and to merge into traffic safely. A step up from most 250cc dual sport singles for sure, but not quite on par with a BMW G310GS or Kawasaki Versys-X 300 in full-throttle acceleration.

Most 250cc bike launches tend to avoid the freeway completely, but the first two minutes of our test got us straight onto Highway 50 heading up into the Sierras. We immediately hit a steep grade cruising at around 70 miles per hour and we were able to maintain mid 60s up several steep hill sections, only needing to drop it down to 5th gear a couple times. Passing slow moving trucks felt like slow motion compared to the big ADV Bikes, but I never felt like I was struggling or hesitant to pass. Even so, it does take a little planning and a good check in the rear view before attempting a pass,

Early morning temperatures were in the 40s Fahrenheit, so I was definitely feeling the chill on my non-insulated leather gloves without any hand guards. Also, my breathable enduro gear was passing all the cold air directly to my chest without any windscreen to block it. While the KLX300 doesn’t have much in the way of aerodynamics, with a high-speed tuck behind the dash I was able to achieve an indicated 85 mph on a slight downhill. 

What surprised me the most on the highway was the lack of vibration. The increase in engine displacement allows the KLX to push higher gearing than last year (14/40 vs 14/42) and it also has an updated gear-driven engine balancer to help smooth things out. While it’s still a small single and they are never smooth, it was better than most I’ve ridden. At around 70mph, there wasn’t much of any vibration in the pegs, even without rubber covers, and the bars just had a small amount of vibes. The vibes start kicking in under acceleration and get a little stronger at about 74mph, but cruising at around 70mph is fairly comfortable.

Stability was good too. It didn’t have that twitchy dirt bike feel and the Dunlop D605 knobbies were quiet. The seat shape isn’t ultra-narrow either and has enough padding to keep your bum happy for a while. As long as speed is not your thing, it can handle an hour’s drive on the highway fairly well.

One pet peeve I have with this bike had to be the seat strap being placed right in the middle of the seat though, which makes it impossible to avoid sitting on it. If you look at other dual sports from Honda and Suzuki, you’ll notice their seat straps hang out more towards the back. I can only guess that the extra letters in ‘Kawasaki’ seat graphic forced the designers to place it further toward the middle for aesthetics reasons. It’s a quick fix though if you decide to remove it.

The throwback seat strap encroaches on the seating area a bit, but can be removed in a matter of minutes.

Into the Twisties

After a chilly morning ride, exiting the freeway was a big relief and we soon got onto some backcountry roads that traveled through scenic rolling hills. With its short wheelbase, the KLX felt nimble and flickable in tight bends. Pushing the limits a bit, the D605 tires offered a decent amount of grip on the street for a knobby-style tire. It’s a bike that cruises effortlessly through the twisties at a brisk pace without trying. Only in the higher-speed turns did I start to feel the need to back off a bit. 

As far as the braking performance, the feel from the twin-piston front caliper was good with not a lot of abrupt bite. They aren’t the most powerful brakes for the street, but didn’t leave me wishing for more. The rear tire grip suffered a bit under hard braking but that is pretty common with knobbies. Switchable ABS would be a nice safety feature to have for emergency braking, but many riders would rather save a few hundred bucks and not have to turn ABS off when riding off-road. 

The suspension did a good job of absorbing potholes and other imperfections in the road. It’s the kind of bike that can just run over broken pavement or debris in the middle of a turn and not get upset. It feels pretty planted for a dirt bike and there was enough firmness in the suspension that you didn’t feel excessive dive and squat. 

As for the power, it feels peppy on the backroads but it’s not enough to trigger your adrenaline glands. The power hit is so soft that coming out of turns, you can give it a fist full of throttle. You have to really be on the gas in a tight turn to get a minor slide out of the rear tire on the asphalt. 

Hitting the Trails

Once we hit dirt, the bike felt like it was in its true element. Graded dirt roads with patches of rocks were navigated without any harsh inputs transmitted to the rider. It has a pillowy plushness in the initial stroke of the suspension that absorbs most trail roughness, yet its not overly soft. 

As we got into more-rugged terrain, I was expecting a thunk on sharp edged rocks or deep ruts but it never lost its composure. The damping is good and so is the bottoming resistance, even for a rider of my size (215 pounds without gear). Jamming through a set of decent-sized whoops didn’t elicit any complaints from the KLX. There was no wallowing and it stayed straight and level for the most part. Although the suspension can get overwhelmed as speeds increase and it starts to fight with you a bit as the suspension tries to catch up with what you are doing. I did notice the rear suspension seemed to go through the stroke rather quickly in bigger bumps and occasionally I found myself wishing it had an extra inch of travel in back. However, I never experienced any hard bottoming of the suspension, even launching it off jumps with flat bottom landings. 

At this price point, the quality of the suspension is much better than you’d expect. The stroke and damping are tuned for an intermediate rider who doesn’t want a sky-high seat height. Its sweet spot is slow to mid-range speeds on rough terrain. There is still some room in reserve for those who want to get more aggressive at times, along with a range of suspension settings to dial things in, but fast riders do need to be cautious not to ride past the bike’s capabilities. What I liked most about riding the KLX300 off-road was its slow-speed crawling ability. It has a smooth throttle, great clutch feel and stable chassis which lets you inch through technical terrain with ease.

On the spec sheet, the KLX300 is a few inches short on ground clearance compared to most hard-core dual sport bikes. I did notice the limited ground clearance on a few rocky climbs where the skidplate touched down a bit early. Even so, it’s capable of scooting through all but the gnarliest of dirt bike trails. 

Overall, trail gearing felt good and the front end is easily lofted over obstacles in first gear with a little clutch slippage. Not so much in second gear though. For your average off-road terrain, second gear pulls fine up most hills. Although, getting into more-advanced hill climbs, second gear could benefit from lower overall gearing. Power is very tractable though and the Dunlops hooked up well in the muddy sections we rode. Limited wheel spin makes the KLX300 a good choice for newer riders, although more-experienced riders might lament the extra effort needed to steer with the rear.

Braking performance on the trail was pretty good too. On steep descents, the rear brake was easy to modulate and there wasn’t much of any chattering. The front brake was powerful enough and also had good feel. Yet it was a little touchy on soft terrain. 

The KLX was a blast to ride on the motocross track if you are just out cruising around for fun. Try to avoid those big doubles though.

I got an opportunity to get in some laps on a motocross track during our test and the KLX was a blast to ride if you are just out there cruising around for fun. Its mellower power output makes it less intense to ride than a serious motocross bike, allowing you to focus on your turns and maintaining momentum. On flat turns, it has good feel but the front end wants to tuck if you push the pace. You also notice a lack of power when trying to get the motor spun up for big jumps, and the suspension feels too soft for aggressive riding. Even so, it still put a grin on my face launching it over table tops. Stay away from any big doubles though.

The Bottom Line

Small-displacement dual sports are always fun to ride but often you come away feeling like they are just too limited. A 43cc increase in displacement may not seem like a lot, but in the case of the KLX300, it’s just enough of a boost to have a significant impact on its versatility. Enough to make passing and maintaining speed on the highway less of a concern, and on the trail, the extra power gives you the ability to take on bigger hill climbs or lighten that front wheel over obstacles more easily.  

For those riders who don’t have a vehicle that can carry a bike, the KLX300 is about as smooth of a small single as you can get for short stints on the highway enroute to the trails. It’s quiet, stable, and keeps vibes to a minimum. It would be ideally suited for those living in the suburbs or rural areas who aren’t far from the trails and might use the bike for getting to work or running errands during the week as well. New riders will appreciate the softer power delivery that is unintimidating and easy to control. Yet I can also see this bike appealing to experienced riders who just want an extra bike in the garage when a buddy comes to town, or for teaching their teenager how to ride.

What the KLX300 lacks in adrenaline-pumping performance, it makes up for in balance. And ‘balanced’ is the keyword I would use to describe this bike after testing it. The green team engineers have continued to make incremental changes, going on 15 years now, creating an approachable, solidly-built dual sport that is easy, fun and comfortable to ride over a variety of terrain. For those who like to ride hard off-road, the KLX300 has some limitations in aggressive terrain but it’s capable of getting through most gnarly sections. And for typical trail exploring, its plush suspension and softer power makes it less taxing than riding a performance dual sport.

But can it be a Light ADV? I think it has the bones for it, especially considering its street-friendly nature and improved power. Another thing it has going for it is an oil change/valve check interval of 7,500 miles. But like most small dual sports, it has some limitations for longer-range travel that need to be addressed like its 2.0-gallon tank and lack of windscreen, hand guards or luggage rack. It could also use some better sump protection and a wider seat as well. Throw on some soft luggage and it could be a nice little BDR machine. A large number of aftermarket companies already support the KLX250 platform, and all of those parts should still be compatible with the KLX300. 

We’re looking forward to spending more time on the KLX300, exploring some of our local trails and backroads to learn more about its capabilities. We’ll report back with more details on what we find out! 

Gear We Used

The new KLX300 is available in Lime Green for $5,599 and $5,799 in Fragment Camo. All KLX300’s are manufactured in Kawasaki’s Thailand facility. More information on the 2021 KLX300 can be found on the Kawasaki website.

Kawasaki KLX300 Specs

ENGINE: 4-stroke, 1-cylinder, DOHC, 4-valves, liquid-cooled
BORE X STROKE: 78.0 x 61.2mm
FUEL SYSTEM: DFI® with 34mm throttle body
FINAL DRIVE: sealed chain
RAKE/TRAIL: 26.7°/4.2 in
FRONT TIRE: 3.00-21
REAR TIRE: 4.60-18
FRONT SUSPENSION: 43mm Inverted Cartridge Fork with 16-way Compression Damping Adjustment
REAR SUSPENSION: Uni-Trak with Adjustable Preload, 16-way Compression and Rebound Damping Adjustment
WHEELBASE: 56.7 in
FRONT BRAKE: 250mm single disc
REAR BRAKE: 240mm single disc
SEAT HEIGHT: 35.2 in
CURB WEIGHT: 304.3 lb
MAINTENANCE INTERVAL: Oil change and valve check every 7500 miles
WARRANTY: 12 months

Photos by Kevin Wing and Chris Scott

Author: Rob Dabney

Rob Dabney started a lifelong obsession with motorcycles at the age of 15 when he purchased his first bike – a 1982 Honda MB5. Through his 20’s and 30’s he competed in off-road desert races, including the Baja 250, 500 and 1000. Eventually, his proclivity for exploration led him to dual sport and adventure riding. Rob’s never-ending quest to discover what’s around the next bend has taken him on Adventures in Mexico, North Africa, Europe, and throughout the American West. As a moto journalist, he enjoys inspiring others to seek adventure across horizons both near and far.

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