2002 Kawasaki KX125 and 250 tested
IN recent years Kawasaki’s machinery and Ricky Carmichael’s brilliance have produced some inspiring results in the blue riband US motocross and supercrosss series. RC won three straight AMA 125 National Championships between ’97 & ’99 aboard the KX125 and in 2000 and 2001 continued his rout, winning the AMA 250 title twice. In 2001 he also secured his first 250 supercross championship – a meteoric victory which smashed the seven year winning streak of Jeremy McGrath. Not only did Carmichael win, he destroyed the opposition, posting 13 wins in a row – a feat only previously achieved by McGrath.
That sort of success is a great recommendation, but as anyone knows, the similarity between the works KXs used by RC and Co and the bikes you or I buy is a distant one. Add in the fact that Carmichael is probably the most on-from rider of the moment and it’s clear there’s a need for a more down-to-earth assessment of the bikes.
We rode the latest 2002 versions of the KX crossers to see how much the bikes have been developed since last year’s model and to see how they’ll come up to the standards of typical UK club riders rather than US megastars...
2002 KAWASAKI KX125 ON THE TRACK
OUT on the dirt the new KX125 has a suspension set up to die for – much like last year.
The rear shock and forks are well balanced producing a deluxe ride and excellent shock absorption in almost all conditions. Although the front and rear progressively stiffen through the compression stroke, the beauty of the KX125’s set up is its plush ‘factory feel’. The absence of that nasty notch of disproportionate stiffening in the middle of the compression stroke so often associated with production suspension gives the KX125 a full ten out of ten.
On the downside – and it is only a minor disadvantage, the KX125 will bottom out at the drop of a hat if you’re careless when landing from a big one, or slamming her into the face of a monster bump. Keep your weight well distributed and the front wheel light and she’ll cruise through the rough stuff with the grace of factory spec bike.
Although the powerplant has seen radical attention for ’02 – like the ’01 machine, the KX125 is still a peculiar little terrier when it comes to power delivery. The ’02 engine has seen some improvement in bottom end pick up, and the mid range punch is still there, but the top end power is poor at best.
It’s accepted that most motors have an rpm sweet spot where the engine produces its best power, but the KX’s is as narrow and elusive as they come. Hit it on the button – right in the mid rpm and you’ll haul ass – roosting heaven and earth. But under or over rev the wee motor and she’ll retort with disinterest and contempt. It’s just a matter of learning the engine’s character – but in the fury of a race, the last thing you need is an eccentric motor. Master it and you’ll fly, but you’ll need the patience and accuracy of a brain surgeon to do that.
The layout of the new KX125 is top class. The new seat shape is a big improvement over last year’s placing the rider further into the bike, rather than up on top of it like last year. All controls are smooth, light and well positioned, and the bike feels very light and agile to ride.
The high tensile steel perimeter frame holds the whole thing together very well and feels forgiving and well suited to both hard riding and fooling around.
All in all, the new KX125 is a fun bike to ride. Apart from the mysterious hit of thrust from the engine right in the mid range there’s no real surprises with the KX. The bike handles well, it has perfect suspension, and it’ll stop and turn on a postage stamp. To win at high level racing the engine will need some cunning modifications – but get that sorted and the KX125 will make a credible opponent on any track.
2002 KAWASAKI KX250 ON THE TRACK
TO sit on the new KX250, you’d struggle to tell it apart from its little brother. But as soon as you hit the track the extra weight and thrust really make their presence felt.
What’s instantly apparent about the new KX250 is its shift in power away from the low down bulldozer of 2001 to a more agile longer-legged power spread. Second gear is now usable, thanks to the revised transmission. The ’01 machine ate second gear for breakfast which forced you to choose third even in the slower tighter corners. The result – not enough engine braking on the approach to corners, then too slow on the pick up. Second gear just wasn’t an option because the engine would explode and wheel spin wildly, losing traction and drive. Thankfully the ’02 bike has woken up from this nightmare.
The engine now delivers a reasonable but controllable amount of bottom end pull, but it’s in the mid range when the thrusters ignite and bark out a scowling scream of explosive hit. Hold onto the throttle as the revs increase and you’ll soon find the motor’s curve trailing off in the lower section of the upper rpm range. Shame really as the earthmoving low power of ’01 appears now to still lurk within the motor’s metal, but this time a little higher up. In a nutshell – the power needs extending a little into the top end to allow the rider to hold onto a gear for a little longer. Low end power delivery on the new KX250 is fine – just about perfect in fact. It’s the hit in the middle that needs its ego flattening a little. Clip a bit off the middle, and stick it up higher the rev scale and you’ll be styling.
The ’02 KX250 is a fearsome stallion to hold onto on the track. Although the front and rear suspension carries an almost identical specification the 125, internal valving and stock 250 settings produce a cast iron firmness that demands to be ridden with resolve and aggression. Supercross is the word that springs to mind when you experience the KX250’s rock solid ride, and bearing in mind the Carmichael is the new champ, it’s not to hard to speculate where the bike’s influence came from.
Although the suspension isn’t bad, it is a shadow of its small brother the KX125. Whatever the 125 does well, the 250 does average at best – but the good news is that the 125’s suspensions headwear is identical, so it shouldn’t take too much trouble to get the KX250 up to speed – and if you do, it’ll be just as good.
Riding position, controls, brakes and handling of the KX250 are identical to the 125. The extra weight does make the whole package feel heavier and less nimble, but that’s to be expected. You can’t compare lightweight agility with middleweight stability – they’re different but equally effective in their own class. Produce a 250 that handles like a 125 and you’ve got a winner. No one has though, and probably never will.
Overall the KX250 is a good bike and without doubt represents an improvement over the 2001 machine. Once again though, the KX250’s potential for being a great bike is overshadowed by nagging inconsistencies. We know that the 125’s suspension is probably the best production set up on the market – so why this doesn’t make its way onto the 250 is a mystery. As for the power delivery – it signs off too early and needs to rev on a little longer. Cure this with fine tuning the carburettor jetting, perhaps look at the flywheel weighting and maybe an alternative aftermarket pipe and/or silencer.
Inside the KX250 is a blinding bike that’s longing to come out, and we reckon in the right mechanic’s hands the bike could be made into a winner in no time.
THERE’S no doubt that the ’02 Kawasakis have improved significantly over the 2001 models.
What’s surprising is that even after the considerable modifications that both bikes have gone through, they still carry the strong traits of the previous year’s bikes. Both the 125 and 250 need more top end power – especially the 125, and it’ll take some crafty spanner work to get this out of the little fella. On the other hand, the rest of the 125 is just about perfect, so get the engine singing and you’re onto a winner.
If the 250 is to be excused from producing more top end, then it needs an exceptional mid range to make up the deficit – and this it does not have.
The KX250 loses points on its failure to torque its way out of a corner. Instead it chooses to explode onto the pipe similar to the 2001’s bottom end explosion. It’s interesting to note that Kawasaki decided to add a tooth to the rear sprocket this year, but we think that one less tooth may be the answer to taming the beast and finding that elusive torque and grip.
In stock trim the KX250’s suspension is one hell of a tough cookie. Take a long hard look at the 125’s set up then modify accordingly and you’ll be amazed at the difference.