2008 Kawasaki KLX450R
Kawasaki's first-year effort is very good, but it seems to our testers that it is best suited for casual riders rather than racers. Once Kawi fixes a few quirks this bike might be in contention, but not this year.
We all know that you don't have to be the biggest, baddest dude in the group to get some action. Sure, those guys have their moments, and maybe those attention-grabbing physiques are exactly what some people are looking for. But, if people only shack-up with the best there'd be no hope for the rest. That's exactly where Kawasaki falls into the mix with its 2008 KLX450R. While Honda is the chiseled muscle-head that impresses with its biceps, and the Yamaha is more of the easy-on-the-eyes, smooth talking type, the Kawasaki's role is of "the friend". The KLX is definitely lovable and has some attractive features alright, but they're hidden behind its somewhat oafish appearance. If you can look past the soft exterior you'll find that there's more to this bike than meets the eye.
First impressions are always critical and the Kawasaki doesn't do a good job at all with that one. Trying to start the KLX is the least endearing feature of the entire machine. If you can manage to reach the choke knob on the first try then you're doing better than we did. Lighting the engine should be as simple as a touch of the button, but it's not. The battery in the Kawi doesn't crank out a lot of juice, and it doesn't seem to hold a charge well either. This is our second test bike to have the problem, plus we've had first-hand reports from current KLX owners who are equally frustrated with the wimpy OEM battery.
Once you get past the initial problem of starting the bike, things are much more pleasant. The clutch pull is very light, though not as light as a hydraulic unit, and is the easiest of this cable enabled crew of enduros. A wide-ratio five-speed transmission puts the power down via sealed O-ring chain but it lacks the grunt we've come to expect from Team Green over the years. Down low the KLX is right in the ballpark with tons of torque off the bottom. While the low-end power is more abundant and user-friendly than the Honda or Yamaha it simply doesnt offer the top end of the WR and CRF.
"The engine on the KLX was definitely a little down on power in comparison with the other two," says BC referencing a three horsepower deficit and early sign-off, "but its super smooth, predictable delivery made it the easiest to ride through the tight stuff. The KLX was able to be bogged down the lowest without stalling, making it easy to get through any situation."
Negotiating the tight, technical sections isn't too bad on the 2008 Kawasaki KLX450R thanks to that ultra-forgiving motor and supple suspension.
While the CRF and WR peak at 8K rpm or higher, the 4-valve 449cc KLX mill makes its 39 max ponies much sooner at 7400 rpm. The torque curves are a little more synchronized, but the KLX shows a solid advantage between 2500 and 3500 rpm. Crawling through the technical stuff is mindlessly easy on the Kawi thanks to the combination of its heavy flywheel and great bottom end. Riders can get away with leaving it a gear high in the tight stuff where the other two require more aggressive shifting regiment. However, when the engine speeds pick up, the Kawi loses a lot of ground to the competition, and at around 7500 rpm it falls on its face.
"It simply is not in the same class with the rest of the group, and it leaves the rider wishing for more," says Chilly White, our fastest and most experienced tester. "This lack of top end overshadows the other good characteristics of the KLX."
One of those characteristics is general comfort. With the softest, widest seat, spending all day in the saddle is more than tolerable on the 450R. The seat isn't the only soft spot as the suspension does a relatively good job of soaking up the rough and tumble terrain that these enduros do the majority of their dirty work in. Its 48mm Kayaba fork and fully adjustable shock compliment the KLX engine's low-speed prowess, but not everyone likes to ride at that pace so it's a compromise that worked against it in this comparison.
"Like most everything on the KLX, the suspension works well for slower trail riding. It's very plush and provides a very comfortable ride over the rough stuff at lower speeds, but faster guys will ride above its capabilities and find it a little too soft on the bigger hits," shrugs our intermediate-level graphics man.
Soft suspension settings are joined with the heaviest weight of the group at 267 pounds tank empty. Top off the 2.1-gallon tank and you're looking at 280 pounds - that's no teenie Greenie. The Honda is ready to ride at 11 pounds less and the WR is eight pounds under the Kawi. It might not sound like much but the weight is very noticeable and feels like it is carried slightly higher than the other two. This makes the handling feel like it resists more and is somewhat slow in comparison to the quick-turning Yamaha and Honda. Again, like we did during our first long-term test, we had to reduce rider sag more than usual in order to get better bite on the 21-inch Bridgestone and pin down that wandering front end.
It almost seems as though this bike is already outdated. Even though it's a 2008 model with an aluminum perimeter frame, petal-style rotors and eay-access to the airbox through a handy trap door on the left side-panel, the KLX was a very early release, and we first tested it back when the '07 crop of enduros were on the tail end of their development cycle. Hopefully Kawasaki will have had plenty of time to update some of these shortcomings, which are all fairly minor and very fixable, in an effort to catch up to the other machines in the next go-around. For now, the KLX450R is still going to be a great bike for a lot of people, but those are likely going to be casual riders who will need to diligently leave their battery hooked to a trickle-charger between rides.
Like we said earlier, the KLX450R is kinda like that the quiet friend on the sidelines just waiting for an opportunity to get in the game. There's plenty to like since it brings a combination of usable low-end power, comfortable ergos and trail-rider friendly suspension to party but that approach didn't help it pull the scores compared to the more-experienced players from Yamaha and Honda. If you want to take it easy then the KLX450R is a nice option, but if you like it fast and rough then you should keep on moving.