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"Dirt", December 1, 2012

DATED BUT NOT DEAD

KAWASAKI’S KLX450R IS SOMETHING OF A HIDDEN GEM. IT JUST NEEDS TO KNOW ITS PLACE

STORY DAMIEN ASHENHURST

PHOTOGRAPHY BARRY ASHENHURST

I’m not sure everyone’s got to know the KLX450R all that well. It’s not setting record sales figures; nor have I seen it in the bush all that much.

I have a theory as to why this is. I think the KLX has been offered as one thing but is in fact something a little different. And when you look at it with that new perspective it becomes a better bike.

This probably makes about as much sense as an explanation on the Higgs Boson particle. Apparently the Higgs Boson holds all matter together. Don’t we already have Gaffa tape for that?

For those of you too young to remember ALF, Voltron or The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, all staples of TV long in the past, you may not remember that Kawasaki once had a great trail/enduro bike. The KDX range was super popular with weekend warriors and racers alike. I had a KDX200 myself and Josh Strang made a name for himself early on that same model.

Then the two-stroke got sick. It was a strange sickness that seemed to only affect Japanese bikes and they started to die off in numbers. Model after model was wiped from the Earth and extinction was on the cards. The KDX died during this period of devastation.

Kawasaki had nothing with any real guts to offer the serious trailrider till the KLX450R came along with an unveiling in 2007 that had many a bush basher salivating, me included.

DIRT ACTION was the first Aussie magazine to test the KLX450R back in July, 2007 (issue #98). When we tested it back then, we were impressed and one particular quote from then-editor Shannon Warner stood out when I reread the feature recently: “The new KLX450R is better suited to the trails than the race track.”

Shannon was spot on then and it’s still true. This is the message that’s been lost since ’08 while Kawi has continued to hype the KLX as a race-winning enduro weapon. I understand that the flashy race-winning persona is far sexier than the trailbike for every man, but I’m going to try and convince you that the KLX isn’t a race bike and that fact is its greatest asset.

GET ON TOP

The KLX is a very comfortable bike to ride. The seat foam is generous and although it isn’t a wafer-thin bike it doesn’t feel like it’s too big. It’s not far off the overall feel of the new WR450F, with a little CRF450X thrown in from the radiators forward.

There’s a bit of a throwback with the speedo, which is large and cumbersome but functional all the same. The air filter is easy to access and the footpegs again sit somewhere between the WRF and CRF. With the exception of the speedo, nothing screams to be ditched because there’s a better option.

The engine fires to life via the obligatory magic button but is easily kicked to life if needed and the exhaust note is pretty mild, quiet and not that far off the 2012 WR450F’s tune.

From there on, the engine just continues to impress. Smooth and consistent in its delivery, the KLX is a torque monster that doesn’t so much explode as build. There’s plenty in this engine for any trailrider but racers will want more low-down punch.

It’s so controllable on the trails that you tend to get up more pace than you expect from an engine that doesn’t really feel like a bolter — but you need to use the clutch in tight stuff to get a launch from corners. We found that staying in the lower gear and revving the KLX was the best way to get the most from it, which isn’t totally unlike the KTM 350 EXC.

The engine is based on the KXF motocross mill so don’t stress about being caught short on muscle even though it’s been tamed a fair bit for ease of use and durability over a long haul: extra flywheel weight, steel exhaust valves instead of titanium, to name just two examples. We haven’t heard any horror stories about the KLX’s reliability so it’s fair to say the formula is proving a success.

The suspension is sufficient but not all that inspiring. From the trailrider’s perspective, it’s a good offering; we could hit drop-offs without bottoming out but the ride still remained pretty comfortable. The front tends to get a little twitchy and it’s not helped by the fact that you can’t easily get right up over the ’bars and keep your weight forward. In fact, the natural sitting position is quite a long way back from the ’bars in comparison to most of the competition.

Having to work with that geometry and a fairly stiff feel from the chassis means it’s not so easy to feel completely confident in the front end; you’ll find every now and then the KLX will throw out a sphincter-puckering understeer moment. A re-spring will pay big dividends for anyone over 90kg but getting deep into suspension work gets costly and there are better options when the dollar figure starts to climb. The shock doesn’t respond well to being run soft and we found that the clickers centred ended up giving us the best overall performance.

If there’s a weak link on the KLX it’s the suspension — for it to appeal to faster riders, that’s where Kawi has to focus any updates.

SO WHAT’S THE DEAL?

So, from the story so far you get that the KLX is a great trailbike. But if you want to get more from it, where do you turn? We’ll get to that in a sidebar elsewhere in this feature (Make Me Faster).

Up until the KLX arrived the DR-Z400 was the king of the pure trailbikes. It sold and continues to sell exceedingly well. It’s proven and loved and a great bike in its own right. The DR-Z was originally designed to be Suzuki’s four-stroke motocross machine and, as laughable as that seems now, the bike has become a success — just not in the way originally envisioned.

The Kawasaki is a better bike. It’s the best big-bore trailbike on the market today. It’s not another among the crowd of enduro bikes; it’s the best trailbike on the market, end of story.

The only caveat here is that at an RRP of $12,449 it’s only $200 cheaper than the Kato and a whopping $1654 more than the 2013 Husqvarna TE449. That’s pretty expensive for what’s on offer, so look to do some hardcore haggling at the dealership and keep an eye out for one of Kawasaki’s fairly constant price deals.

Line it up against a 450 EXC and it’ll come up well short in a number of areas. Not as nimble, not as much top end, heavier, needs more in a number of areas to be a bona fide race bike — and on it goes. Trying to match the top enduro machines will cost a fortune and negate the reasons you had for not buying one in the first place.

But drop it off your ute and hit the trails and you’ll need nothing to have a blast. You won’t be physically smashed after the ride and you’ll be smiling like a half-tard monkey.

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