Photography by Jeff Allen
Mainstream media has latched onto scooters and all kinds of other forms of cheap, fuel-efficient transpo in these times of unstable gas prices and a crazy economy, but there are no better two-wheeled machines for saving money, riding anywhere you want and having fun than lightweight dual-purpose bikes. They totally peg the fun meter by being compact and easy to ride, while being unintimidating for almost everyone. They’re also low in cost, get great fuel mileage and are easy to maintain.
Thanks to a recent upswing in the D-P segment, both Kawasaki and Yamaha have introduced 250cc machines that are perfectly happy digging in the dirt or just droning to work.
Kawasaki’s KLX250S first popped on the scene in 2006 and was based on the off-road-only KLX300. It was a fun bike, and about the only problem—at least for those of us out here in California—was that the 250S was a 49-state model that didn’t meet Cali emissions standards. It was the same bike in ’07, then Kawasaki skipped out on an ’08 KLX altogether, instead taking the time to give the 250 an overhaul and unveil it as an early-release ’09 model.
It was a substantial revision, but the biggest news (at least for us in the West) is that the 250S is now street-legal in all 50 states, while still retaining a carburetor. Yes, the new styling, swingarm, shock linkage, radiators, gear ratios, brakes, tires and beefed-up wheels are nice, too!
In fact, the revisions have really changed the bike quite a lot. Trail has been decreased from 107 to 105mm. Also, the suspension has reduced travel and new valving (for improved stability) at both ends, with the 43mm fork dropping from 11.2 to 10.0 inches and the shock allowing 9.1 inches of travel instead of 11.0. The lower suspension and more-stable chassis feel make the KLX more user-friendly than ever.
The Yamaha WR250R is new to the dual-purpose class. We were anxious to try this bike because its stablemate is the agile and entertaining WR250X with its supermoto-inspired 17-inch wheels (“Best Firsts,” September, 2008). Although the WR250R’s model name suggests a close kinship to the full-race enduro WR250F, it’s not much like that off-road-only machine. Beyond having identical bore and stroke (77 x 53.6mm), these are different horses for different courses.
The all-new dohc, liquid-cooled 249cc Single features a counterbalancer and has titanium intake valves fed by a 38mm Mikuni EFI throttle body with a 12-hole injector. The exhaust system uses a honeycomb catalytic converter and Yamaha’s EXUP valve that helps to improve bottom-end power while keeping the engine EPA compliant.
Anchoring the WR’s chassis is an aluminum semi-double-cradle frame that uses a removable steel under-engine section and subframe. Nice touches include a tapered aluminum swingarm and forged aluminum triple-clamps. Suspension, too, is very good, with a stout 46mm KYB fork offering 10.6 inches of travel and a SOQI shock that gives 10.6 inches of travel and .9 inches of ride-height adjustability.
Similarities between the KLX and WR abound. Both are electric-start only (bump start ‘em if the battery dies!). Brochure babble pitches each bike as having close ties to their companies’ higher-performance race models through the use of similar pieces such as brakes, radiators, bodywork and other miscellaneous parts. One uncanny likeness was that the two bikes weighed-in at the exact same mark—286 pounds with no gas. That is about 25 pounds more than a full-on 450 enduro bike; add a full tank of fuel (each has a 2.0-gallon capacity) and the bikes teeter on the 300-pound mark, ready to ride.
Okay, so it is clear we are not riding flyweight racebikes here. This message becomes more evident once you are under way, too, because an EPA-legal 250cc Single doesn’t belt out tire-torching horsepower. But for quarter-liter commuters/playbikes, they deliver enough snap to have a good time. The extra pounds over a straight-up dirtbike are noticeable in most off-road conditions, but because the center of gravity is fairly low on both machines, they are easy to handle in all dirt riding situations. For the really technical stuff, the c-of-g is almost too low, actually! To keep seat heights on the lower end of the scale, ground clearance on both machines is less than that of your average dirtbike. The KLX has 10.8 inches while the WR has 11.2. A plus for the Yamaha is that you could actually replace the lower cradle if you get aggro and smash the rails into pancakes. In any case, not a deal-breaker for either bike, but be aware that if you ride on technical trails, the bikes will make contact with rocks.
Surprising, though, how well these 250s work in highly difficult rocky sections. The soft suspension of both machines makes for a relatively supple ride, even feeling better than an actual enduro bike in some terrain!
On the opposite side of the off-road speed spectrum is where the suspension falls short. When the riding gets faster, the suspension has trouble keeping up and bottoms often, more so on the KLX than the WR. Even with that, the Kawasaki is fairly competitive with the Yamaha if you and a buddy are racing around.
A surprising disparity is in the power department, which is quite different on each bike. The KLX has better bottom-end, traction-grabbing oomph and continues to be mellow all the way through the range. This is a trait that makes riding easy for beginners and even experts, especially when trying to get moving on difficult terrain or from a dead stop on an incline. Above 5 mph, though, the WR is the motor. In addition to being the quicker of the two, the WR makes a lot better power at high revs, and more-experienced riders will find it fun to keep those revs up like when riding a 250F motocrosser.
At higher altitudes, the fuel-injected WR continues to keep the majority of its power while the carbureted KLX loses a larger amount. Still, both bikes often have trouble pulling in their tallish second gears because of the large gap between second and first. On technical uphill trails, you either have to wring ‘em out in bottom gear or bog out in second until you can gather more speed.
On the street, the WR’s more potent power is very apparent, so the bike will practically wheelie from corner to corner while the KLX struggles to keep up. The WR also has more stable handling around speedy turns where the KLX tends to wallow sooner. Nonetheless, both bikes have a high degree of street appeal and are reasonably comfortable as daily commuters. Best is the fact that you don’t have to stick to paved routes and can even explore a city’s less-traveled areas. Not that we rode on any stairways or in the no-man’s land between freeway interchanges or flood-control channels or anything…
It seems as though Yamaha went a little farther in putting the finishing touches on the WR, as the rider controls are more up-to-date and the lighting is brighter. A mark against the Yamaha, though, is that it drives its odometer off the transmission; so, every time there is wheelspin, extra miles are put on the bike!
For as much street guise as these two bikes have, they are very competent go-anywhere machines, and the small displacement has an appeal of its own. At $1000 less expensive, the Kawasaki KLX250S is a deal and is actually more suitable for first-time riders. But in this heads-up comparison, the Yamaha WR250R is a clear winner. It uses newer technology, tops the performance numbers, has a stronger suspension package, is superior on the street and has a higher-quality finish. No matter what happens out there, it’s ready to roll.