With the arrival and subsequent success of the Honda CRF450R and Yamaha YZ450F over the past few years, it was only a matter of time before manufacturers jammed their hi-po Thumper powerplants into a performance quad. Yet, even with the imminent arrival of the much-anticipated four-stroke sport machines, Kawasaki has one-upped its rivals by introducing a machine that combines face-flattening acceleration with utilitarian sensibilities and jammed it all into one mind-numbing package. Meet the Kawasaki KFX700, otherwise known as the V-Force.
The KFX is born of the functional Kawasaki 650 Prairie 4×4 that drew rave reviews when it was introduced in 2001. Its 90-degree V-Twin put the wood to many sport machines in a straight line. Kawasaki saw the performance potential of the Prairie and utilized it as the platform for the KFX700.
Team Green engineers increased displacement from 633cc to 697cc and wrangled a claimed 49 horsepower out of the revamped Twin. All it takes to access the ponies nestled deep in this machine is a push of the thumb throttle, which shoots the cylinders full of an air/fuel mixture via a pair of 32mm Keihin carbs.
The KFX’s hit off the bottom is strong, so strong that the engineers might have alienated potential entry-level riders with an endless stream of wicked torque. This quad ain’t for beginners, and it’s probably not a good machine for the faint of heart. In fact, if you’re not careful you’re likely to get your butt kicked by this rip-snortin’ son-of-a-bitch.
The power is certainly impressive but focusing solely on the muscle of the V-Force would be missing the point of Kawasaki’s big ATV. It’s a new way of thinking about off-road riding by instituting a host of user-friendly features that are usually reserved for utilitarian ATVs.
A sport quad with an automatic transmission has never been a popular idea, but Kawasaki has changed all that with the Kawasaki Automatic Power Drive System.
Likely the most amazing engineering feat is the nearly flawless automatic transmission. Even though 4x4s and sport-utility ATVs have employed the use of autos for years, sport quads with shifting assistance have never had as much retail success as their manual counterparts. However, Kawasaki’s Automatic Power Drive System (KAPS) seamlessly integrates a continuously variable automatic tranny into this sporting package.
An ultra-strong Kevlar belt delivers power to the driveshaft drive and an alloy rear axle, greatly reducing maintenance time and expense. Another advantage to the shaft drive is increased durability and ground clearance over a traditional chain driven machine.
A handlebar-mounted shifter next to the left-side hand grip selects forward, neutral and reverse via a push of a button on the rotating hand shifter and a turn of the shift dial to align the button with the corresponding position; difficult to describe, easy to do. Reverse differs only slightly requiring the rider to hold down the rear brake while moving the lever into the reverse position. The ability to back a quad up is a guilty pleasure of ours, something we don’t usually get to do with the assistance of the motor.
Going in reverse made us smile, but going forward made us mess our drawers. Factory literature states the V-Force is geared for low end torque, which is like saying a nuclear warhead packs a punch. The V-Force is geared to rip your freakin’ arms out of their sockets. Busting wheelies is as easy as punching the thumb throttle and having the balls to stay on it. Covering the rear brake to bring the front end down is a smart idea.
The V-Force pulls evenly throughout the powerband with the Kevlar transmission belt engaging as soon as the throttle is off idle. There isn’t any noticeable slip, and acceleration is as smooth as a 697cc V-Twin can be.
Kawasaki reached another industry milestone with the V-Force boasting the first mass-produced race-style frame with a single-spar front frame tube. Kawi’s engineering team uses wide, competition-style A-arms by making the A-arm mounting area very narrow. The result is a quad with excellent steering and traction control despite its substantial heft.
We quickly appreciated the KFX suspension while ripping through the woods. With 9.5 inches of travel in the front and a whopping 7.9 in the rear monoshock, nearly every bump, dip, and undulation feels like soft butter underneath the 50-inch wheelbase. The stock preload setting are a bit soft for larger riders, but adjusting the preload a couple positions improved the overall feel and allowed us to ride at greater speeds without bottoming out.
The KFX’s suspension is impressive, but keeping the burly quad heading in the right direction is accomplished with the help of some impressive engineering feats. Most notable is a remarkably low center of gravity, which is achieved by rearranging the traditional fuel/air system. The airbox and carburetors occupy the space where the gas tank usually resides, and the 3.2 gallon fuel cell is mounted at the rear of the quad. One negative aspect of the component rearrangement is the required removal of a plastic cover behind the seat to access the fuel cap. The process is relatively easy and just a minor annoyance.
The brakes on the V-Force are much like the platform from which they are derived: utilitarian. Up front, twin-piston calipers and dual disc brakes bring the hulk of a machine to a rapid stop. The sealed, oil-bathed rear discs are almost as good, although they can lock up rather quickly. This makes it easy to slide the rear end around, but we’d appreciate a greater margin between slowing and skidding. However, we are willing to concede their performance flaws in exchange for the ultra-long life afforded by the enclosed brakes.
If the warp speed of the KFX isn’t enough to keep the kids off the V-Twin, the ergonomics might do the trick. This quad seems to be suited for much bigger riders, and my six-foot frame felt right at home, with my arms resting comfortably out front and my legs falling naturally on the pegs. The position encourages sit-down rides, but also accommodates aggressive stand-up performance as well. All the standard controls are easily within reach and the rider even has the benefit of two rear brake controls, one up top and another located near the right foot.
Our only complaint with the controls is the rather cluttered assortment of buttons and switches located on the left side of the handlebar. In addition to the brake and shift levers, the on/off switch, choke lever, brights, compression release, and starter button are all mounted within an inch of one another. We figured it out quick enough but it would be nice to see that dizzying section cleaned up.
The V-Force is much wider than most traditional sport quads, especially between the knees, which makes sense considering the KFX tips the scales at a portly 516 lbs. In all fairness to the Kawi, it’s lighter than its rivals, the Yamaha Raptor and the Bombardier DS650, by 46 and 118 lbs, respectively. The weight is noticeable when attempting to muscle the quad around. Where lighter, manual-shifting sport quads can be man-handled, the KFX maintains the tunnel vision set forth by the front tires.
It’s easy to get lost in the engineering and impressive power when talking about the V-Force. Taking a step back, it’s obvious the V-Force is an aesthetic triumph with a menacing front end that looks like an extraterrestrial being thanks to alien-like headlight lenses that house 45-watt lamps. The front grill slopes forward to meet the skid plate, rounding out the monstrous appearance.
The faux carbon-fiber finish of our KFX looked cool but it tends to scuff easily. After viewing the three color options of green, orange, and carbon fiber, the green color wears better over time than the other options.
In the real world, the V-Force will likely be best suited for endurance and trail riding and all-day rides in the sand. We flogged the KFX in Southern Oregon for more than a month and it was right at home on elevation varying trails, the open range, the sand, and, heck, anywhere you can stuff four wheels.
Make a run for those distant horizons, the V-Force will get you there and you won’t even break a sweat.
Despite its many everyday uses, Kawasaki isn’t afraid of a little competition and they’re hoping to prove that the potent combination of a powerful Twin and auto tranny can win races. Kawasaki hopes to have the KFX on the GNCC podium with regularity during the 2004 season.
The final question I ask of most our test machines is: Who would this machine appeal to? The answer to that question is best answered with another question: Who wouldn’t this quad appeal to?
Individuals looking for a track quad will likely gravitate towards the new breed of manual-shifting 450cc four-strokes. However, those that venture beyond the confines of the track and cast their gaze toward a distant horizon might have just found the perfect machine for a modest $6,499. It’s comfortable, functional, and you’ll reach those far-flung locales in a hurry. And you have the option of wheelieing the whole way.
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