2008 Kawasaki KLX450R First Ride

JC Hilderbrand | April 8, 2007
2008 Kawasaki KLX450R
Kawasaki is a newcomer to the 450 enduro market, but that doesn’t mean it won’t kick ass right out of the gate.

I’m getting mixed signals. The bike beneath me is saying “Go, upshift!!” but the surrounding field of cholla cacti cautions to think otherwise. The single-track winds before me like the path of one of the many sinuous jack-rabbits that scamper in front of my wheels. They don’t seem to mind the prickly vegetation; should I? I’ve not even completed my first lap on the smaller of two rocky loops and already I’m in love with this romping beast. So familiar, and yet a whole new sensation – a real off-road Kawasaki.

The Green Company has been doing its homework in preparation for its 450 enduro market offering. With the modern 4-stroke movement in full bloom, if any company knows how to make an entrance into these brave new categories of late, it’s Kawasaki. Just like it did when unveiling the monster KX450F motocrosser, Kawi delivered a winner on its first try with the 2008 KLX450R. There’s no reason for it not to be a hit. After all, it’s based on the same KX-F moto machine that has been collecting championships and converts from the first gate drop.

While there’s plenty to like about the KX-F MXer, those lovable traits don’t necessarily transfer off the marked course. But Kawi engineers have done a remarkable job of building on those strengths and creating an off-roader that is, quite frankly, awesome. The motor retains its low-end power, and according to our butt cheeks, the wide-ratio transmission spreads out the torque without losing any. With a flywheel mass double that of the KX-F, the KLX spins up in the revs slower than its moto cousin. This isn’t a bad thing. Traction is more readily available and the bike is much less of a brute.

If you can beat Kawi’s 450 motocrosser into off-road submission without getting hurt, then give yourself an extra overzealous backslap, stud. If for some strange reason you don’t belong on the cover of Fitness Magazine, you’ll probably love, or at least appreciate, the KLX’s agreeable demeanor. It still feels like a real off-roader like any of the other Japanese or European enduros – it isn’t a wimpy trail bike. We were able to ride for a long time on the KLX without feeling tired of holding on. Our death grip through the rocks created problems that were something else altogether.

Powering out of deep sand was possible even when running a gear high. The new cams and exhaust and revised jetting give the bike tons of low-end grunt.
Powering out of deep sand was possible even when running a gear high. The new cams and exhaust and revised jetting give the bike tons of low-end grunt.

So what exactly did happen to the motor? The exhaust valves shrank from 31mm to 30mm and traded titanium for steel, but the Ti intake valves remain unchanged. As mentioned before, the twice-as-heavy flywheel was added, as was the electric starter motor which is located between the carburetor and engine cases. The battery is tucked beneath the seat, behind the airbox.

The wide-ratio, 5-speed transmission has a similar feel to the KX-F, not particularly slick, but positive and sturdy. Pounding up or down without the clutch is really more of a tap, and missed shifts were sparse with or without using the cabled-lever. First gear is lower than the KX version, so low we never needed it for the desert terrain, but once the rider’s toe moves upward the ratios climb increasingly higher. Top speed with stock gearing will satisfy all but the craziest speed demons.

It wasn’t broke – They didn’t fix it.

The whole thing is still fed by a 40mm Keihin fitted with jetting appropriate to the enduro. The bike’s lean, emission-passing jetting reveals a minor flaw by requiring the choke even when you wouldn’t think it’s cold. But, it only takes a few seconds to warm up and from then on it runs just fine.

According to the chassis engineer, Motoaki Yonemitsu, the twin-spar, aluminum frame is identical except for the air pump mounting tabs (yes, this bike is 50-state legal) and a repositioned engine cover mount. It also picked up an additional 0.6 degree of rake and 0.2 inch of trail (27.7 deg/4.8 in) over the MX version. The Kayaba suspension is the essentially the same, using a 48mm fork with softer springs. For extra forgiveness at the rear, damping rates on the shock were reduced.

Now, here’s the kicker. If you do want to pick up some extra moto attitude, plenty of your KX-F parts will bolt right on. The exhaust system is one of them, which means you can order any wicked carbon/Ti/aluminum ear-blowing full-system combination readily available from your favorite muffler-manufacturer. You’ll also be able to swap the dual overhead cams which have revised lift and timing, and the reworked ignition which gives that extra low-end – all without any problems.

Hilde spotted this photo op  but Fredette couldn’t hold back and laid the first tracks – selfish bastard.
Jeff Fredette was another Kawasaki star on hand to help guide us lowly editors. A KDX man for life, Fredette dropped several comments about how the KLX might force him to give up his trusty 2-stroke.

Kawasaki chose Arizona as the launch point for its new off-roader. Our media liaison (shuttle driver) whisked us away from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport, and through the tinted windows introduced a better idea of what to expect from the rugged terrain. We traveled northwest for nearly an hour, coming to rest just outside of Morristown. The specific location came at the recommendation of one Destry Abbot. The current AMA Hare and Hound champion/Kawasaki employee lives nearby in Peoria, and he was on hand to help demonstrate the new machine’s capabilities while doubling as a local guide.

Awaiting our arrival and set to be the home base for the next couple days was a campsite complete with bonfire, folding chairs, fifth-wheel sleepers, a line of brand new bikes and a catering truck – everything a stylin’ family would have for a weekend out in the boonies. A group of locals, the same ones who actually laid out the 11- and 23-mile loops, actually did make it feel more like a normal weekend of camping with their tattered bikes and dusty 4-wheelers. The crew of Arizona Trail Rider members put together a layout that would allow any kind of self-respecting off-roader to fully enjoy themselves.

The smaller of the two loops was by far the less technical. Both consisted primarily of single track with sand washes filling the spaces in between. I burned off a couple laps on the short course while I awaited my turn with the photographer, and before it was my turn in front of the camera I was already grinning like a fool.

A claimed decibel output of 85 is really, really easy on the ears, and best of all it doesn’t make you want to immediately tear into the aluminum muffler like a Tijuana chop-shop. We couldn’t quite hear the birds chirping, but we did notice a ton of chain lash and every single rock that pinged off the aluminum skidplate. Unlike the WR450F which has a ton of restrictive shortcuts, and the Cali-model CRF450X that sounds like your asthmatic, chain-smoking grandmother holding back a sneeze, the KLX450R doesn’t feel choked-up or toned-down in any way.

Jumping into this sand wash no problem with the stable chassis of the KLX.
Arizona had plenty of rocks for us to bounce through and get a feel for the suspension and chassis – both of which are good.

The suspension felt dialed on the faster trail. With the sag set at 112mm, I didn’t need to touch a single clicker throughout the morning. Combined with the super-stable chassis, the KLX ate up every rock and sand whoop in sight. I spent a lot of time dodging rocks in my first outings, but soon realized it was unnecessary. The softer spring rates and increased rebound kept the wheels from deflecting and stuck to the sun-baked soil. Once I took on the longer, tighter, rockier loop later in the afternoon, it required two clicks softer on the fork compression to give my wrists a break. Slowing the shock rebound by one adjustment was enough to make the stellar rear end even better.

Until gaining full confidence in the suspension, my attempts at dodging rocks had been very successful. The chassis is super precise and nimble which allowed me to pick my way through the rock garden like a lithophobic. Some riders commented that it needed some additional stability in the desert, but I was content with the stock arrangement. Those who did, including ISDE god, Jeff Fredette, found that dropping the fork tubes a few millimeters in the magnesium-colored triple clamps did the trick.

Easy handling was complemented by the bodywork and rider layout. This might be the one area most dissimilar to the KX-F. A larger, 2.1-gallon fuel tank protrudes upwards at the seat junction, but we never had any issues with it being obtrusive. Though an extra 0.2 gallon doesn’t seem like much, if nothing else it gives the bike a distinct off-road look – one that we find very appealing. Kawi claims the bike weighs 253 pounds without fuel, and we don’t doubt it. While the KX-F feels a little heavier than other open-class motocross bikes, the KLX is a pretty svelte off-roader. We’ll wait until we get to test it in some tighter conditions and have to pick it up a few times to really get a better feel – or on MotoUSA’s insanely accurate digital scales, whichever comes first.

This attractive headlight assembly puts out 35 watts with its halogen bulb  but Kawasaki needs to figure out how make it point downwards.
This attractive headlight assembly puts out 35 watts with its halogen bulb, but Kawasaki needs to figure out how make it point downwards.

The seat is a little wider and softer for improved rider comfort, and the radiator shrouds are noticeably void of the extra cooling holes that are drilled in the motocross shrouds. Kawasaki engineers didn’t figure the off-roader would be ridden quite as hard, and the high-capacity Denso radiators wouldn’t need any additional airflow. It never overcooked on us.

A wickedly styled, angular headlight assembly offers 35 watts of halogen luminescence. Our brief night ride showed that it is plenty bright, but needs to be angled further downward to be really effective – it will still get you home. Tucked between the headlight/numberplate and Renthal handlebars is a simple trip computer with speedometer, odometer, clock and two trip meters. The only thing that would make it better is if it were illuminated for after-hours play. A cleverly integrated LED taillight will let your buddies know where you’re at if they can manage to see through the shower of roost coming off the 18-inch rear wheel.

Clutch and brake levers both operate powerful, responsive systems. The 5-speed tranny plays right into your hands, but the lever was a tad far away for our test rider. The right-side lever was easily accessed and drops the anchor on twin-piston Brembo calipers and a wave-style disc. Out back is another rippled speed-reducer which is equally as pleasant. No qualms about braking.

Here’s what we recommend – don’t change anything on the 2008 KLX450R, at least not for awhile. They’re cropping up at local dealers right now with an MSRP of $7299. Get one and ride the piss out of this bike in stock trim, because it doesn’t take any modifications to make it run like a champ.

Low-end torque got the Kawi up and over every obstacle we came across.
The 2008 KLX450R is a fantastic machine in stock trim. Hopefully some other OEMs take note of how to make a 50-state legal bike without sticking a cork in it.

Kawi has done a terrific job of bringing a competition-capable machine into the real world spectrum of everyday use. Most people should just leave it alone and have all the fun they can handle. That’s what we did.

2008 KLX450R Specs:

Engine: Four-stroke, DOHC, 4-valve single
Displacement: 449cc
Bore x stroke: 96.0 x 62.1mm
Compression ratio: 12.0:1
Cooling: Liquid
Carburetion: Keihin FCR40
Ignition: Digital AC-CDI
Starting: Electric, with primary kick backup
Transmission: Wide-ratio 5-speed
Final drive: Sealed chain
Frame: Aluminum, perimeter design
Rake / trail: 27.7 degrees / 4.8 in.
Front suspension / wheel travel: 48mm inverted AOS-type cartridge fork with 22-way compression damping and 20-

With the sun rising over Kawi’s new off-roader  it may be setting on some of the competition.
With the sun rising over Kawi’s new off-roader, it may be setting on some of the competition.

way rebound damping / 12.0 in.
Rear suspension / wheel travel: UNI-TRAK single shock system with 22-way low-speed, two-turn variable high-speed compression damping and 22-way rebound damping / 12.4 in.
Front tire: 80/100-21
Rear tire: 110/100-18
Front brake / rear brake: 250mm petal rotor with hydraulic dual-piston caliper / 240mm petal disc with hydraulic single-piston caliper
Overall length: 85.8 in.
Overall width: 32.3 in.
Overall height: 49.4 in.
Seat height: 37.0 in.
Wheelbase: 58.3 in.
Ground clearance: 12.6 in.
Fuel capacity: 2.1 gal.
Dry weight: 253.5 lbs.
Color: Lime Green
MSRP: $7,299

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JC Hilderbrand

Off-Road Editor| Articles | Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn’t matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

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