Test Ride: 2004 Kawasaki KX125 and KX250

There are still many dirt riders who understand there are some advantages to modern four-strokes yet appreciate the fact that two-strokes also have their advantages. Then there are those who don't care what four-strokes have to offer; they simply have a passion for two-stroke power. Even if you belong in the latter group, you can be grateful for four-strokes. For 2004, it appears that all the brands developed their two-strokes under the premise that they had to have a good two-stroke engine and it must be competitive on the same track as four-strokes. As a result, we are seeing some truly great two-stroke powerplants in the newly arrived models.That observation holds true with the fresh reincarnations of the Kawasaki KX125 and KX250. The green guys went full force into improving the new-for-2003 KX125. It was the first time in many years that the KX125 was such a major player in Dirt Rider's 125cc MX shootout (Jan. '03). With a year gone by and many changes and improvements undertaken, the KX125 is once again an impressive effort.The story of the KX250 is much the same. The '03 engine left us dissatisfied. It gave us a taste of its potential with a fat midrange pull, but the overall hamburger was diluted with a soy protein patty. That's fine for vegans, but even vegetarian motoheads demand motors with meat. The '04 KX250 has returned to the days of big bottom-end power. It hits hard off the bottom and pulls smoothly through the midrange before revving out well.In addition to receiving many changes to improve power, the KX125 and KX250 gained durability, and the rider compartment was adjusted to be a bit more comfortable. Both bikes basked in the attention of suspension engineers, and under that scrutiny grew a new (for Kawasaki but blatantly Yamaha-like in appearance) type of linkage anchored to the swingarm rather than the frame and a much-revised 48mm Kayaba fork.On TrackThe KXs received a serious overhaul in the rider compartment and suspension and chassis departments. Our favorite change is the 8mm-taller seat with its gripper cover. The foam change gets the rider in a more natural position, and the gripper cover holds him in the improved position via added buttocks traction. Along with the raised seat height, the footpegs are 3mm higher. The changes seem small, but they provide a noticeable improvement in rider comfort.When we first received news of the revised '04 machines, the tech writers were obviously most excited with the swingarm-mounted linkage and its contribution to what was claimed to be vastly improved suspension action. Our initial testing revealed that the suspension is indeed improved. In fact, the suspension on the 125 works great. It tracks and handles similarly to '03 KX125s but seems to be more comfortable at speed over choppy ground and feels more planted and surefooted than ever before. Both the suspension and the less-cramped rider compartment cooperate to improve cornering characteristics.The KX250 suspension feels balanced, too, and generally tracks well, yet it is more touchy about setup for the fast and rough parts of our test tracks. Part of the problem could have been that the 250 was just too soft for our testers. The '03 KX250 was one of the best-handling 250s in our shootout (Dec. '02), but the bike seems to have lost some of that universal appeal with the '04 model. Of course, slow motorcycles almost always feel as if they handle well, and the '04 inherited a much more muscular engine. Perhaps that is the difference.Whatever the case, the '03 KX250 was somewhat softly suspended and lacked bottoming resistance. For both KX models these facets of suspension performance have been bolstered, but the 250 still feels soft enough to ride off-road in a pinch. Our fastest and heaviest riders needed stiffer settings.Kawasaki may have made the suspension sound like big news, but when we rode the bikes, the big-time boost in engine performance was what we noticed first. The KX125 was perhaps slightly more impressive since it started with such a pleasant motor in '03. For '04, it has lots of power off-idle with plenty of strong, torquey midrange pull. Novice to intermediate-level riders will love the bottom-end muscle and the midrange hit. The top-end power is strong, but the KX also has good overrev and doesn't go annoyingly flat too early. Keeping the engine in the power sweet spot takes little thought or effort. The KX has the oomph to short-shift and not fall off the pipe. Flat, slick corners are usually a big handicap on a 125, but the KX has so much roll-on power that it gives you a feel of confidence when accelerating through flat, packed corners.Our '03 KX250 stayed around long enough for us to get a good feel for its bolt-on hop-up potential. We liked an FMF Fatty pipe and silencer, since the exhaust system came with a power-valve shim that really helped the midrange. The stock '04 engine feels far better anywhere in the rpm range than that modified '03 ever did. The engine not only is faster but adds more meat to the power. The bottom power is especially strong. Short-shifting the new 250 is the best option, but the engine is strong throughout the rpm range. You will be happily surprised at how much torque the KX250 cranks out.As for features, the Kawasaki has plenty of them. One of the noticeable changes was the graphics. Kawasaki heard the cries for graphics that don't self-destruct at the sight of a knee brace. This year, they're not just Bold New Graphics but are thicker and designed to have a gripper feel to them. After hours of knee braces rubbing against the radiator shrouds, the graphics were still intact and looked as though they may hold up a good long time. Kawasaki made a number of changes aimed at improving the durability of its product line, and the effort was well-spent. Our '03 KX250 got ridden more than any other staff bike, and it went home to Kawasaki feeling good--and it took only one top end rebuild during the year to keep it feeling fresh. That is a huge improvement over past years' models, and the '04 KXs promise to be even better. Add higher-quality parts to the list of improvements--more enhanced comfort, supple suspension and magnified power--and you have good reason to part with some green to go green!

The little green machine is a nice package for 2004! The motor has a good hit down low and has a YZ-ish midrange. The top-end is plentiful with not a lot of overrev. I would prefer a little more overrev due to my large frame. The suspension is a little soft for my liking. I tried clicking in on the compression, but I would definitely need stiffer springs. The KX turns very well, and I like the flatter and taller seat. The KX125 is a fun little bike, and I would love to have one in my garage!The KX250 has a little more bottom-end this year, which is a vast improvement over '03. The part that I didn't like was its lack of midrange power. You have to be very precise about when you choose to shift from second to third. A little too early on the shifter and you'll find Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble blowing by you in their Bedrock-mobile! If you shift correctly, the KX is a pleasant bike to ride. The top-end is improved over last year, and it also gained a little overrev. The suspension seemed OK except for the fork bottoming harshly. When I came into hard braking bumps, the fork would bottom solidly even with the clickers turned in. Stiffer springs would be in order for me. The shock is good and does not bottom very easily. The KX turns well. I had no problems dragging the throttle grip a good inch into sand! I like the KX250, but it needs a slightly better mid to be in my garage.
Kris Keefer/5'11"/170 lb/ProI spent more time on the '03 KX250 than anyone else in the Dirt Rider test crew (on the track and off-road), and I was most impressed with how well the bike stayed feeling new for the whole year rather than feeling worn out in a few months, as in years past. Kawasaki told us it put out a large effort to make the bikes wear better, and it really showed. As good as my experience with the '03 has been, I was eager to see what changes Kawasaki had made to the '04. The '04 runs better stock than the '03 did after putting in a power-valve washer, changing the jetting and running a pipe and silencer. What an improvement! Over bumps, the new fork worked quite well, as does the new linkage shock. The only minor downside was the bike seemed to sit a little higher off the ground. The new front brake-hose routing took all vagueness out of the lever. I rode the bike with the stock steel bar and Bridgestone 601/602 ultra-hard-terrain tires--which weren't ideal for LACR's sandy loam--yet the bike was still well-behaved overall.
Ed Tripp/5'10"/175 lb/IntermediateThe KX125's suspension is very good through chop, so the bike remains stable with no kicking from side to side. It was very neutral in the air, but some landings were a little harsh. It bottomed even after we went stiffer on the compression adjusters. The motor makes good, quick power. We turned the idle up a bit, and it helped; but there was still a small bog coming out of deep sand corners. I had to clutch it a little too much to get on the pipe. For a small-bore two-stroke, it seemed to have heavy engine-braking on downshifts. The best power is in the midrange. The ergonomics are much improved. For '04, the seat-to-bar relationship is more natural. The front brake is progressive with good stopping power.The KX250 suspension was tough to get balanced. We softened the front and the rear kicked. The front seemed to deflect on high-speed chatter bumps. Jumping felt good and predictable. The power is very responsive but not too aggressive, with really good torque and acceleration, though maybe a little short on overrev. It turned well in sweeping corners but needed some suspension tuning to get the tight corners dialed. Also, the footpegs feel a little forward, but other than that the ergonomics were comfortable--as on the 125.
Tyler Keefe/5'11"/160 lb/IntermediateThe Kawasaki KX125 was my favorite 125 in '03, and after riding the '04, I think there may be a repeat. The new 125 is really easy to ride and loads of fun. The motor pulls hard off the bottom and is the only one of the 125s you can short-shift and not fall off the pipe. The suspension and handling are great! You instantly get a feeling of confidence on the new KX. The graphics actually hold up to my knee braces. The higher seat and footpegs made the rider compartment even more comfortable than the '03's.The new KX250 hits hard right off the bottom, but almost too hard for me. The midrange power is about average, and the overrev falls a bit short for my liking. The handling is not as impressive as on the '03 bike. The suspension feels balanced but too soft and bottoms easily. Still, if you like bottom-end power, you will love the new KX.
Brad Daugherty/6'0"/155 lb/IntermediateI didn't really have a love/hate relationship with the '03 KX250; it was more like love/disgust. I embraced the nimble handling and light overall feel, but it felt sized for Ricky Carmichael, who is all of 5 feet 6 inches tall. And where was the motor that allowed it to win our shootouts in 1997 and 1998? The motor is mostly back, and the size is more mainstream. I do need the Kawi to be stiffer, but this bike is a huge improvement over the '03. The KX125--or any 125 for that matter--is not my cup of tea as a racer, but I have serious fun riding it--and it doesn't come much more fun than the '04. The power is great with a bonus for being easy to get along with, and the handling is just short of magic. Not for me personally, but I'll recommend these to friends for sure.
Karel Kramer/6'1"/200 lb/Novice

2004 Kawasaki KX125
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Kris Keefer demonstrates how nimble the '04 KX is. No, he isn't crashing!
2004 Kawasaki KX250
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