Every one of us DR staffers was fighting to get his hands on Kawasaki’s biggest bike of the year first. Luckily for me, I threw a leg over the off-road-specific offering from Team Green deep in the Arizona desert during the 2008 KLX450R introduction. Everyone else had to wait.Set in the thick of 700 varieties of stab-happy cacti, Kawasaki’s unveiling took on a low-tech, relaxing atmosphere-the complete opposite of the bike it was introducing or the philosophy behind it. While our two arid days in the striking desert landscape lacked the pomp and circumstance of an uppity introduction, the rural, in-the-rough setting was a perfect match for an off-road bike. And the KLX450R is an off-road bike-make no mistake.One of the worst fears the off-road-riding contingent has is that a manufacturer will build a quick and dirty rendition of a trail or woods bike from a motocross-specific model. Fear not, my fellow trail hounds: The KLX is no motocrosser. While the new bike borrows most of its components from the Bubba-mounted KX450F, the trail attention it has received makes it more than capable off the racetrack. I racked up five hours on the bike in two days, and in between loops, photo shoots and delicately pulling vegetation spears out of my skin, I learned a pile about the new model and why it was working so well on the trail.The first thing everyone notices about the bike is the exhaust noise, or lack thereof. The bike is ultraquiet, and that’s awesome. An ultralow and long header pipe and a quiet spark arrestor-equipped muffler do a great job at keeping the bike whispering along while allowing the powerful motor to still work efficiently. This power, while plenty abundant, is calmly and greatly subdued when compared with the KX-F motocross version’s. Starting at the bottom: The motor features a huge flywheel with twice the mass of the MX version. This has a great smoothing effect on the motor and throws down some serious traction-hungry power. Inside the flywheel, we get a 10-coil stator to power up the battery and lights. The other end of the crank is connected to a wide-ratio five-speed transmission with enough height in the gears to push this bike into some serious top-end speed. First is lower than that of the MX 450 gearbox, but the rest of the gears grow taller in comparison. On the trail, I used second and third exclusively and only went to first when I wanted the bike to rev up. (Sometimes it’s fun to feel fast.)The bike’s low-decibel output is deceiving and tricks your brain into thinking that it lacks bottom-end power and that you need to downshift. However, once you test the bottom grunt in a third-gear corner, you’ll find plenty of torque on tap to haul you through all but the tightest turns. This great bottom pull comes from revised cam lift and timing and a slight reduction in the diameter of both the intake and exhaust valves (to 36mm and 30mm, respectively). Swapping the titanium exhaust valves for more durable steel units is the only other head game Kawasaki is playing here.The addition of an electric starter and some creatively effective clutch cable routing (the pull is so sweet) round out the motor updates for the new KLX.Kawasaki took a similar approach to the suspension action on the new bike. Starting with the stock KX-F fork and shock, Kawi simply lightened spring rates, increased rebound damping and softened the compression all around. The end result is a great trailbike with plenty of plush to take care of the rock and roll of off-road. Spring rates dropped from 4.6N to 4.3N in the fork and from 54.0N to 50.0N on the shock. Faster riders, like the Kawasaki off-road heroes in attendance (Destry Abbott, Nathan Woods, Jeff Fredette, Larry Roeseler and Ricky Dietrich), will likely want to stiffen up the bike for full race situations. But for the average Joe, the bike’s suspenders are really solid stock, make long rides easy to endure and can handle racing duty no problem.
At 2.1 gallons, the gas tank is not huge, but compared with those seen on its competitors, it’s right in there. Another boosted capacity compartment is the radiators. A catch tank/reservoir bottle under the left sidepanel keeps the boilover monsters at bay. And the stock, sealed O-ring chain rounds out a solid off-road package.This philosophy is further evident in other neat features. The airbox is a quick-access type with a removable door on the left side; the rear tire is an off-road-standard 18-inch unit; and both sidepanels are plugged up to keep water and dirt out of the airbox as much as possible. Engine and frame protection is covered by an aluminum skid plate and engine guards on both sides. Plus, the bike has a sidestand (kickstand for those of us who kick ‘em) and a simple yet effective digital instrument cluster featuring a speedometer, clock, dual tripmeter and odometer. Obviously, we need a headlight, and the KLX comes with a very lightweight 35-watt unit and a nifty in-the-fender LED tail lamp.Throughout my days testing, I absorbed all of this newness and came away very surprised. I was really expecting a motocrosser with a headlight. But I got a sweet off-road bike. Sure, it misses on a couple spots, and here are my biggest beefs: I don’t like a nonadjustable headlight that shines more light to the sides of the front tire than in front of the fender. And during my night ride trying to keep Nathan Woods in sight, this is exactly what I had to deal with. Also, the instrument cluster doesn’t illuminate, but I shouldn’t really be looking at it while riding in the dark anyway. I can update a headlight, but it would be nice to have a great functioning unit come stock. Big complaints, huh?After the introduction, I hightailed it west and met up with DR ber-editor Karel Kramer on the freeway as he headed to an epic trail ride. I handed him the bike and told him to enjoy, and the following, my dirt-bike loving friends, is what he discovered in his first experience with the new KLX450R.I was lucky enough to get invited to the Best in the Desert/Harden Offroad Nevada 200 Trail Ride at the same time I was to put the first testing miles on the KLX. The bike was totally stock except for a heavy-duty tube in the front and Acerbis Uniko hand guards.The area around Caliente, Nevada, where the Nevada 200 is held, has virtually all types of terrain, from rocky, sandy and silty desert soil to snow at 9000 feet. In between, we splashed through standing water and twisted around miles of cedar woods. Connecting the various terrain types were rude tracks and power-sapping sand washes. Some of the trail had me longing for a sixth gear, and other sections had me wishing for lower gearing for first and second gear. That made Caliente a perfect test, because these days a majority of serious riders choose modern 450cc off-road models as the do-it-all bike of choice.The KLX is super quiet. In fact, you hear the starter more than the motor, really, because it is reluctant to wake up cold and doesn’t stay running until fully warmed up. Once the engine reaches operating temperature, it responds cleanly with no hiccups or hesitations. The power delivery is smooth and tractable. At low rpm, throttle control is effortless in low-traction sections or when picking your way over or between rocks. Dial in more throttle and the bike squirts forward energetically. It takes a very slippery surface or a heavy hand on the clutch to generate unwanted wheelspin. Despite the control available, the KLX has plenty of boost for most people and conditions. Deep uphill sand washes let you feel the space between gears more than you want, and the power is soft at 9000 feet or above, but what bike’s isn’t?Helping the power get to the ground is an ultratough clutch with smooth engagement and all-but-effortless shifting. I hadn’t gone 50 feet into the 200 miles before I realized that this Kawasaki has extremely plush suspension. As the group crossed the first rocks-and I didn’t feel them-I was thinking the KLX was a very good off-road bike. As the days got long and the rocks became more extreme, I began to feel them more but was pretty confident I felt them less than most of the other riders did. We didn’t hit many whoops, but the KLX handled the ones we encountered just fine-and every surprise G-out and washout as well. No flats or dinged rims, either.No doubt the supple fork action is a large part of the trait, but the steering is exceptionally accurate on firm dirt-whether it is wet, dry or even partially rock. In sand, you need to pay a bit more attention to ensure clean turns with the front end.Like the KX450F, this off-road version is a bit cramped for riders taller than six feet (like myself). Shorter riders will find the plush seat makes eating up the miles easy. The other details are all there as well. The simple speedo is easy to read, the odometer reliable and the brakes powerful but progressive.Kawasaki had the benefit of having the other brands on the market to shoot for, and its aim was good. I could have used a bit more room in the riding position, but the KLX didn’t short me one bit in any other area of performance and comfort.After my 200 miles, I met Jimmy “Night Owl” Lewis in the middle of the Mojave Desert to give him a shake at the new Kawasaki. He did some loops in between six-hour stints on other test bikes.I was skeptical about the performance of the just-off-the-showroom-floor KLX. But it didn’t take but one minute on the bike to realize Kawasaki nailed it. The big KLX’s manners are strikingly aggressive, from the snappy, quick, perfectly carbureted power spread to the bike’s light and agile feeling. In fact, it feels lighter than the KX-F, the exact opposite of what I was expecting for a bike with a battery, lights and a larger-capacity gas tank. It feels fast, gets great traction and handles like a moto-inspired trailbike. It would be an easy choice for racing use as well. About the only thing I did was lighten up the compression on the fork a bit, and I want to try riding with a little more rear spring preload to get more of the steering in the front wheel as opposed to the rear-a picky personal preference. I never felt the need to change anything on the motor, even the restrictive muffler. Just gas and go. Our 450 enduro comparison story is coming soon, but even if you jump the gun and buy one of these, you’ll be stoked.There it is, our editors’ first impressions of the newest off-road bike to date: the 2008 Kawasaki KLX450R. If you’re itching to see how green stands up to the other colors out there, don’t worry, we’re already pounding out the miles in a 450 enduro comparison that will hit the pages of DR soon. It’s so on.MSRP: $7299Claimed dry weight: 254 lbActual weight (ready to ride, tank full): 278 lbSeat height: 34.5 in.Seat-to-footpeg distance: 19.5 in.What’s HotSound, or lack thereofSmooth power and plenty of boostPlush suspension actionWhat’s Not Headlight weak at bestAdd your own hand guardsChain guide pad wears out fast