2009 Kawasaki KLX450R Race Course Tested
We first tested the Kawasaki KLX450R off-road motorcycle in the harsh terrain of the southwestern deserts. There, it proved its mettle on wide-open cross-country sprints, as well as in the tight confines of waterfall-infested ravines and tricky hillside single-tracks. It handled these disparate conditions without a hiccup, giving the rider more confidence that would be expected on a bike that Team Green used to race Nationals on.
As an experienced, but not expert, off-road rider, I prefer a 250cc four-stroke in the woods, rather than a 450cc. The more manageable power means that I can go faster, as I am not constantly fighting the bike. The handling feels better, as more power always puts more onus on the chassis to perform. Of course, in the desert where single-track trails may be separated by many miles of top-gear riding, the extra speed and power of a 450 is welcome.
Riding the Kawasaki KLX450R throughout Southern California revealed to me a motorcycle that offers the best of both worlds—a motorcycle that has the high-speed thrust I need in the Mojave Desert’s Johnson Valley, as well as the agility demanded on the single-tracks on the Los Padres National Forest west of Hungry Valley SVRA.
In a straight line, the plush Kayaba inverted 48mm forks are superb for anything under race speeds. At that point, a trip to a custom modification supplier such as Race Tech is in order. However, stiffening up the suspension for racing (killer whoops, in particular) will make the Kawasaki KLX450R less appealing at trail-riding speeds. The same goes for the linkage-assisted rear. With high- and low-speed compression damping adjustments, the action can be personalized within a wide range. Undoubtedly, the suspension is stable and, again, for the non-racer, the perimeter aluminum frame geometry’s stability does not require a steering damper to keep the aluminum Renthal bars straight.
Once things get tight, one would expect such an outstanding straight-line bike to be a bit ponderous on tricky single-track. Thanks to a highly tractable (and incredibly quiet) motor-an expected four-valve, DOHC configuration–the 278-pound (claimed, ready to ride) Kawasaki KLX450R can easily be taken down to walking speed for picking your way through rocky or root-infested trails. Plenty of flywheel effect resists stalling, though electric starting will get you going again with the stab of a button. Even though the KLX is carbureted, the Keihin FCR40’s manners are impeccable, even over a wide range of elevations. Power delivery is hitch-free and there are neither hits nor dips in the powerband.
If the battery is dead, a condition we experienced, the motor can be started with a single kick, when cold, wearing tennis shoes-something you would not expect to be able to do with a 449cc four-stroke with a 12:1 compression ratio.
Back on the trail, the plush suspension keeps you comfortable and reduces fatigue, but it does not wallow, nor make turning vague. With 11 inches of travel front and rear, the action is perfectly balanced-no stink bugging or squatting. Just as the engine allows precise control at slow speeds, so, too does the chassis and Bridgestone M401 front tire. Pick a line, and this bike will execute your wishes. Sure, this is easy with perfect traction, but the Kawasaki KLX450R makes it happens when loose debris ups the level of challenge.
Clutching is minimal on a big thumper, but the left hand lever does not require a gorilla’s grip. Again, this lowers fatigue, allowing you to ride faster, longer and more safely. Although some might wish for a sixth gear, especially on open terrain, the five-speed transmission has flawless behavior and a ratio ideal for almost any situation.
Unexpected hillclimbs find themselves at your mercy, as the motor and the 18-inch intermediate Bridgestone M402 rear meat puts the power to the ground effortlessly. Any wheelspin is self-induced in anything but the slickest conditions. Traction is something you quickly learn to take for granted on the KLX450R. Another highly intuitive feature on the Kawasaki KLX is its brakes-the 250mm petal front and 240mm petal rear have ideal feel.
Ergonomically, the Kawasaki KLX450R is not a small bike, though more compact riders did not consider it to be a handful. At 160 pounds, ready to put on my gear, I had no complaint about the standard suspension settings-they felt as if they were tailored to my weight and riding style. A seat height of 37-inches is not short by any means, but there is enough sag to keep the ground accessible to my 32-inch inseam legs. The Kawasaki KLX is narrow, but the tradeoff is that the fuel tank holds only 2.1 gallons. A digital readout keeps you abreast of your speed, with access to an odometer, two tripmeters (helpful for maintenance schedules), and clock. Maintenance is easy, from oil changes to air filter cleanings.
From garage to trail, from mountaintop to desert floor, the Kawasaki KLX450R is the perfect mount for the mellow-to-aggressive trail rider or Walter Mitty racer. Sure, high-performance junkies will want more power or more personalized suspension action, but those modifications are easily had and took Team Green professionals to victory. It’s not impossible to build a bike that is a great racer or fantastic boondocker, but Kawasaki has come about as close as a company can to making a machine that is easily capable of both chores.
Photography by Don Williams
Chris Cullins of TEC-Cycles was the photo rider and contributed to this 2009 Kawasaki KLX450R test. Jess McKinley also contributed to the test.
Helmet: Shift Agent
Goggles: Utopia Slayer
Jersey, gloves, and pants: Shift Strike
Boots: Alpinestars Tech 10