It goes without saying that all of us at The Watercraft Journal were excited to learn that Kawasaki’s longest-running runabout – the STX-15F – was getting a much-needed fresh for 2020. Although much of the Recreation-segment JetSki would remain the same – most notably the hull and 148mm axial-flow jet pump – a larger portion of the machine would be new.
Upon its introduction, Kawasaki revealed that the STX-15F would make way for three different-optioned watercraft, the STX 160, the 160X and the 160LX. And that’s precisely the model that Kawasaki provided for us for testing today – the 2020 Kawasaki STX 160LX. Priced with an MSRP of $11,699, the STX 160LX brings with it a whole new design, greater ergonomics and plenty of punch to send the other guys running.
The Watercraft Journal was invited to put the new STX 160LX through its paces, so we flew out to sunny Southern California for two nights at the luxurious Paradise Point resort that occupies its own island in San Diego’s Mission Bay. But there was no time to sit on the beach, we had work to do!
As noted, the 2020 STX was redesigned from the bondline up, with a whole new deck design. The footwells are deeper and much wider, giving the rider plenty of room to move around. The progressive rear swim platform is wide, and steps down to a lower level; together with a thickly-padded folding swim step that integrates into the bumper rail and a two-rung reboarding ladder – makes reboarding the STX one of the easiest to do in the industry.
In fact, a great deal of detail has been put into the rear of the STX. Below the rear passenger seat is a rubberized pouch that stows a dock line or tow rope with ease. The stepped deck and footwells are covered in two-tone, CNC-cut Hydro-Turf traction matting as well. Of course, a key feature is Kawasaki’s new hinged rear seat that folds up to reveal a removable, deep well storage tub.
The rear seat simply unlatches, slides backward and then up, vertically. A small stainless steel kick stand keeps the seat upright. If you’re looking to access the engine compartment, the rear seat simply slides up and out – with its two arms slipping out of their tracks. For the 160LX, the seats are tiered and wrapped in grippy, two-tone cover using the same heat resistant material found on Kawasaki’s top-of-the-food chain Ultra 310LX.
Upfront is a generously-sized storage bin that together gives the STX its 35-gallon total storage capacity. It’s definitely nowhere near the neighborhood of being watertight as we learned during a grueling all day “victory at sea” excursion up and down the San Diego coastline, so be mindful when packing more sensitive items like cameras and video recorders.
On the plus-side, Kawasaki took a page from Sea-Doo and installed a waterproof lid to the inside of its glovebox. On the 160LX, there’s also a USB socket to charge your smart phone, which is appreciated. The Kawasaki retains its “Immobilizer” colored key anti-theft system, so the new glove box is a bit tighter than the models that preceded it. we did notice that the glovebox’s top lid has a wonky latch that won’t snap shut on its own; you’re going to have to manually secure it if you wish to keep anything from flying out.
To compensate for the lost room in the glovebox, two cup holders were molded into the top deck, just ahead of the dashboard. These are wide and deep enough for most standard cans or bottles, but could benefit from some padding at their base to absorb some shock and vibration that sent our water bottles flying this day.
The LCD dashboard is serviceable, slightly glare resistant and reads off the tachometer and speed in large, legible readouts. An “ECO” icon will appear with chime when operating in what Kawasaki engineers deem to be the engine’s optimal curve for maximum fuel consumption. After a while, the constant chirping of the ECO bell became bothersome as we throttled in and out of the preferred speed.
The STX’s redesigned handlebars are a shining feature. The neck is long and thin, with a sleek narrow pad. The bars are capped with color-matched pistol grip-style handgrips that are flat-sided and thin. With the addition of Kawasaki’s full fly-by-wire throttle management system – new to the STX for 2020 – the Recreation segment watercraft gets its first swing at Cruise Control and No Wake mode, both found on the driver’s right hand side. The buttons are identical to those used on today’s Yamahas (because they share the same supplier), so if you know one, you’ll know the other.
And sadly, the 2020 STX lineup returns with a manually-operated reverse lever. Eleven years since Sea-Doo first introduced on-the-water braking in 2009, Kawasaki has yet to adopt the technology that has saved lives and thousands of dollars in damage. The lever has been moved from the right to the left hand side, but its throw is so brief, that there is ZERO room to feather a neutral position. You’re either idling forward or reverse. It can be immensely frustrating while trying to dock or waiting to circle up with your friends.
And in a similar “love it or leave it” carryover, the STX 160LX comes in the ever present Ebony-and-Candy Lime Green color variant. The Candy Lime does pop nicely in the sun, but c’mon, Kawasakis don’t always have to be green, guys. Hopefully demand will open the way for future color options.
A key feature for the 160LX is the addition of Jetsounds. Previously exclusive to the Ultra 310LX, the Jetsounds audio system provides a pair of 30-watt waterproof speakers smartly mounted below the mirrors, powered by an amp rated at 20W (x2 channels, max 40W x2) which can play all of the MP3s your smartphone (or other digital music player) can carry. You’ll definitely hear your music at full speed – and so will your neighbors – and the integrated head unit lets you toggle through bass and treble settings as well.
But for us, the biggest additions to the STX lineup were beneath the seat. As mentioned, the 1,498cc, 4-stroke, dual overhead cam (DOHC) 4-cylinder gets the same fly-by-wire throttle, ignition and engine management system as the larger Ultras, thus giving it the ability to operate in Cruise Control or No Wake mode. No Wake mode is permanently set at 5 miles per hour. No toggling up or down here. Cruise Control does permit for upwards adjustment of 5 miles per hour from the set speed though.
And feeding the 1.5-liter is the massive 20.6-gallon fuel cell from the Ultras as well. This gives the STX the largest fuel capacity of any competitors’ entry into the Recreation segment (although fuel consumption is an entirely different matter, altogether). When loaded down with fuel and oil, the STX 160LX weighs in at 877 pounds – that’s 110 pounds over the Yamaha VX Cruiser HO, and 140-pounds over Sea-Doo’s GTI SE 170.
Fully loaded with fuel, gear and a 240-pound rider pounding over brutal Pacific Ocean chop, we never saw over 56 miles per hour during our testing. Certainly, smoother conditions, less fuel and a lighter rider will let the 160-horsepower on tap push it to a slightly higher speed. And while top speed is great in short bursts, we found the new STX’s handling over white caps and pounding through surf admirable, just like its predecessor. Equally, its progressive throttle control eliminated the jerky surging of previous cable-operated throttles, making for a more enjoyable ride.
In all, the new STX 160LX is a much overdue refresh of the otherwise staid Recreation-segment entry from Kawasaki. It’s fun for sure, and offers plenty of bells and whistles to make it competitive on the showroom floor…to a degree. The lack of an on-water braking system – or even a true neutral on the reverse lever – is disheartening, and will likely ward off the uninitiated or cautious buyer, particularly when such safety features are now standard on the competition. That’s not to say the new STX 160LX isn’t good, it really is, but its just this close from being great.