Manufacturers generally select premium locations and luxury accommodations when it comes time to introduce their newest addition to their line. We may travel to Monza in Italy, the Baviaanskloof in South Africa, the rain forest of Costa Rica, which is all well and good. Imagine my surprise when Kawasaki took me to the mile marker 11.5 on desolate Arizona state highway 74 in the Sonora Desert, up against the foothills of the Hieroglyphic Mountains. There, circled well-worn travel trailers awaited, which would be home for the duration. With a little warning, I could have given our hosts the number for Dynamax or Featherlite.
Kawasaki was determined to let me loose in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain—for both man and motorcycle—on its new, no-nonsense high-performance 2008 KLX450R off-road bike, letting the chips fall where they may. Certainly, this was an audacious gamble by Kawasaki, which highlighted the quiet confidence they have in the machine.
To prevent lost riders, two test courses—13- and 26-miles in length—were marked with assistance from the Arizona Trail Riders organization. Lest one think that these circuits were pleasant tours through the desert, the short itinerary ranged from first-gear technical to fifth-gear flying, while the longer course—which utilized some of the single-track trails from the notorious Desert Mountain National Enduro—varied from tough to tougher. This was going to be anything but an easy ride in a carefully groomed and manicured off-road park.
While one might think the California deserts that I grew up riding in are rugged, they’re nothing compared to the rocky, cactus-filled Sonora Desert. Not only did the KLX450R have to negotiate its way through harsh trails, it also had to give the rider enough confidence to ride aggressively, knowing that one false move could result in a thorn-punctuated body.
On my introductory short-course lap on the KLX, I got a taste of the forgiving nature of the machine when I overcooked a 45 mph chicane on some slippery hardpack. As I was quickly coming face-to-face with a prickly cholla cactus, I pitched the 450R sideways to scrub off speed, then hit the gas to straighten up and accelerate away from the barbed-thorn menace. Had the bike not fulfilled my request promptly and fully, it would have resulted in an extremely painful highside, in more ways than one. Instead, I was off to the next corner, feeling like I was a better rider than I might actually be. Throughout the test, that would prove to be a recurring theme.
Kawasaki has aimed the KLX450R at the competitive rider, taking the supercross championship-winning KX450F motocross bike and retuning (not replacing) the motor, chassis and suspension for off-road riding. The motor has a less-explosive powerband than the KX and first gear has been lowered (the other four are raised), making it capable of picking its way through highly technical trails without excessive, arm pump inducing clutch work. Rather than erroneously describing the KLX as soft off the bottom, the key here is controllability. Wheelspin is virtually eliminated, thanks to manageable power delivery, due in part to a heavier flywheel. The only time the rear wheel is likely to spin is when the rider intends to break it loose.
In the midrange, power starts to build progressively, making it a workable powerplant for weekend trail riders, as well as most competitive applications; the KLX will top 80 mph in fifth. At those speeds, especially in sandwashes, the KLX owner would do well to install a steering damper, as the geometry that allows it to pick its way through technical trails becomes busy at speed.The KX’s premium suspension is softened—both damping and spring rates— on the KLX, but the fully adjustable high-tech units are retained. I lightened the compression damping from the stock settings, as I am at the lighter end of the weight range considered for the bike. Were the bike mine, I would install lighter springs and have a suspension modification company perfectly tailor the action to my riding style, but the wide adjustability of the stock components gets the bike quite close.
The Kayaba forks bailed me out more than once, particularly on an unexpectedly brutal square-edge step. A twist of the throttle lifted the wheel, but also increased the speed. As I braced for a hard spike and possible endo, the forks erased the hit, much to my relief, and the rear shock followed suit. Likewise, jumps, drop-offs and whoops were dispatched with effortless aplomb.
After working my way down lump-in-the-throat-steep, rutted switchbacks into a ravine, then clawing my way up a rocky hillclimb, I took a break at the top to absorb what I had just done. Had I enjoyed a preview of the downhill, I would have considered dismounting and bulldogging the bike. Instead, the KLX gave me the confidence to ride the bike down, without so much as a dab of a Sidi Crossfire boot. The tires, brakes, suspension, geometry and motor conspired, by their own volition, to exceed my personal boundaries without my consent. The KLX450R doesn’t do what you ask—it does more.