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2008 Kawasaki KLX450R Bike Test

Friday, June 22, 2007
We had to get the KLX450R back home to Oregon for some woods testing to fully appreciate the bike s enduro capabilities.
We had to get the KLX450R back home to Oregon for some woods testing to fully appreciate the bike's enduro capabilities.
Kawasaki stunned us with its 2008 KLX450R at the press introduction back in March. So much in fact that we went right home, typed the First Ride article, and then sent off an email to the proper Kawasaki authority figures to line up another KLX as a MotoUSA test bike. The whole purpose of this follow-up evaluation was to A) get this beast onto our digital scales, dyno and sound equipment, B) test its abilities in tighter terrain, and C) satiate our burning need for a second date.

It only took one ride at our local stomping grounds to realize that Kawasaki had done a tremendous job of picking the perfect spot for its intro. The trails we rode in Arizona played right into the strengths of the KLX. The bike is sturdy, powerful and comfy, and our two days in the desert were spent on a pair of enduro loops featuring single-track that required second gear or a bogged out third in the tight sections and third/fourth in the open stuff, sand washes that reward high-speed/low-rpm riding and cactus fields that demanded a deft throttle hand. As we discovered later on the dyno and during our Oregon test, these are exactly the type of scenarios where the KLX works best.

Even though the peak dyno numbers are lower than we expected, it's a little like watching A-Rod go 0-for-4 against the Red Sox - you know he's way better than his evening SportsCenter highlights indicate. The same goes for the KLX whose dismal dyno performance hardly reflects the bike's efficiency in the working enduro world.

The relevant connections between the seat of our pants and the dyno are in top-end power and low-end torque. What we love most about the 450R is how much muscle it has off the bottom. It's especially impressive given the bike's emission-passing, 50-state-legal trim. Making over 25 lb-ft from around 5200 rpm to almost 8000, the KLX has plenty of usable torque down low and into the midrange. It peaks at 6300 rpm with 28 lb-ft, just a few marks shy of the KX-F we dynoed at Area P for our shootout. Anything higher than 8K rpm and the motor starts to wane. Max horsepower is delivered at 7800 with 38 ponies. By the time it hits 9000 it's down into the 20s - so shift early. Life with the KLX at low rpm is bliss, but try to rev it and you'll be an unhappy couple.

Did we mention it also blew an 87 on our decibel meter? We took it to a local hare scramble race and the guys at tech inspection actually laughed, and waved me through - it's that quiet.

The extra-stable chassis and suspension was a benefit when jumping over waterbars and off cut-banks  but it could stand to lose a few pounds.
The extra-stable chassis and suspension was a benefit when jumping over waterbars and off cut-banks, but it could stand to lose a few pounds.
Another statistical area that spec-sheet fanatics might read too much into is the 264-pound tank-empty weight. We readily admit, with a full 2.1 gallons of premium unleaded this 277-pounder isn't headed for a FMX near you, but the KLX450R carries its considerable bulk with considerable grace. We were tricked into thinking the bike is lighter than in reality during our first ride in Arizona. Heading through wide-open spaces in third and fourth gears has something of a slimming effect, and even when the course funneled into single-track, we still carried a quicker pace than at home in the woods. You can imagine our surprise, then, upon unloading the big Kwakker for our first wooded trail ride.

Seeing how it's based off the already-heavy KX450F, 30 lbs isn't really exorbitant. A larger fuel tank, electric start, 18-inch rear wheel, USFS-approved exhaust, kickstand, and lights are the tradeoff. Having ridden the KX-F on some of the same trails, I think the extra weight is worth it simply for the benefits of thumbing the starter button. We found the KLX to be an excellent starter during our first ride, but the test bike we took possession of was reluctant to light at first. Even with a couple photo-session rides, the battery still wasn't replenished. With the battery charger mysteriously absent from our garage, we spent more time exercising our right leg than right thumb. Not until we left the camera equipment at home and blasted for a couple hours did the battery get a good charge. After that it worked as flawlessly as we remembered.

With shiny, happy memories of our time in the desert, we embarked on our first outing filled with optimism. It took all of about an hour for the KLX to fall from our mental pedestal to dwell with the crowd of ho-hum riding impressions. Where it was swift, agile and relatively light in the desert, the 450 was overbearing, sluggish and impossible to lift out of ruts. Oh, it was still swift all right, but only in a straight line. The front end didn't want to bite and combine with the considerable grunt of the motor, the bike always wanted to stand up in turns and head off into the sunset on one wheel.

Getting more weight on the front end transformed our test bike from a slow-turning beast into a relatively agile machine.
Getting more weight on the front end transformed our test bike from a slow-turning beast into a relatively agile machine.
To combat the problem up front, we went searching for answers out back. The rear sag on the Kayaba shock was still set to 112mm from our time in the desert. We cranked it in a bit and things improved, but we had to go all the way to 100mm to satisfy our testers. Doing so placed more weight on the front wheel and drastically improved the handling. Finally we were able to toss the bike through tighter single track and avoid the lever-grabbing shrubbery and knuckle-busting trees.

The next step would have been to raise the fork in the magnesium-colored triple clamp, but adjusting the sag and twisting the clickers sufficed before going that far. We went out 16 clicks on the fork compression and down to eight on the rebound. Settings for the shock were best at 12 clicks for low-speed compression, but we left the high-speed dial alone. Nine half-turns of rebound kept the rear end in contact with the ground without being springy and trying to buck the rider.

Hustling the bike through tight stuff can be a handful, but the extra-low first gear, which we never had a use for in the desert, became very handy, indeed. With the temperatures rising, our local trails are draining moisture faster than our CamelBaks, and we're pleasantly surprised at how well the Kawi hooks up. The smooth, torquey delivery makes it easy to keep the bike moving forward. Anytime we hit the trails with MotoUSA's Brian Chamberlain along as a photog/videographer/tester/safety sweep/trail guide, our course invariably takes us through more unnecessary hillclimbs than most trail rides. BC's affinity for climbing put the KLX to the test in defying gravity as we chased him up (and went back down and tried again) one incline after the next, and it taught us some important things.

While Chamberlain makes his way to the top of most climbs on the first try, our other testers (read JC) usually hit a snag somewhere in the form of a root, rock, water bar, rut, tree or all of the above, that seize his upward momentum. This is when the e-start and ultra-low first gear really proved their worth. Even with the hard, slick soil conditions and a semi-worn Bridgestone, Hilde was able to get going from a dead stop more times than not.

The KLX wanted to stand up in corners which took a little effort to sort out with the suspension. But  the available torque was sure handy to get over obstacles immediately after a turn.
The KLX wanted to stand up in corners which took a little effort to sort out with the suspension. But, the available torque was sure handy to get over obstacles immediately after a turn.
"Now, I've seen JC get stuck on a million different hills, and usually I just start heading back down to see how far he made it," laughs Chamberlain. "During our test it was surprising how many times I turned around at the top and he came squirming up right behind me on the KLX - never pretty, but he made it. I also saw him get caught midway on some hills so steep that he was sliding backwards, and I couldn't believe he was able to get moving again instead of turning around."

The problems we had with the front tire not biting, and the abundant torque wanting to lift the front end was especially troublesome on inclines. However, the roomy layout allowed us to position our body far forward to keep the wheel in occasional contact with the dirt. We also had some trouble with the front end wanting to climb out of ruts under acceleration, but the unshakable chassis and well-matched suspension do an excellent job of keeping any cross-rutting action from getting too hairball. Stability was also at a premium under braking. The binders proved worthy in every aspect, even slowing all that mass during our descents, controlled or not.

In our month of testing, the bike required almost no maintenance. The easy-access airbox panel was extra handy with its single Dzus fastener. We also fell back in love with o-ring drive chains after not having to adjust the slack a single time. Bouncing over countless logs made us appreciate the engine protection, and even the plastic brake guard proved its worth by protecting our rear disc from getting mangled during a race. As far as the controls are concerned, Renthal bars, decent grips and a simple, usable computer made it easy to keep everything in hand. The only thing we would change is having a way of viewing the digital computer display without starting the engine - at least the clock. We've got to be home for dinner, you know.

After a solid month of thrashing  the KLX came away running like a top and we came out with a better appreciation for what this bike can do in tighter terrain.
After a solid month of thrashing, the KLX came away running like a top and we came out with a better appreciation for what this bike can do in tighter terrain.
One negative thing we noticed by having the bike as a regular steed is the annoying placement of the choke. Tucked in tight under the left frame spar, and blocked by the fuel line, reaching the knob takes a deliberate effort. We also had the choke get hung up on the fuel line once when we tried to flick it down while riding up the trail. It's kind of a pain, but make sure to warm up your bike and turn the choke off fully before heading out, or you might get 30 minutes into the ride like we did and start wondering angrily what the hell is wrong with that big green turd.

We were supremely disappointed with the Kawi's initial Northwest outings, but after sorting out the handling issues, the Kawasaki KLX450R returned to its high standing. The bike is still heavy, which you'll discover after picking it up a few times, but the motor is extremely usable, and fun. Ergos, handling, suspension and finish are all on par with the rest of the market offerings, and we still feel the bike's emissions hardware doesn't need to be tampered with unless you plan to race full-time. In 30 days our three goals were met, only now we're stuck waiting impatiently for a third go-around. Our efforts at collecting hard data and empirical riding assessments prove that the 2008 KLX450R is a viable option for enduro riders no matter where they kick up roost.


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