The 2019 KX450 was a bolt out of the blue. Without any real hype, we suddenly saw a brand-new machine with all the big-hitting goodness that any green-blooded rider could hope for. Now we ride the 2020 version, and not only does it feel radioactive, it looks it too.
This is certainly one of those colour schemes that will go down in history as memorable. For good or for bad, the 2020 KX450 has gone all green. The traditional colours you would expect for the airbox/mudflap combo have been changed to green, as are the number boards – leaving no one in any doubt as to what brand of bike this is. Kawasaki are obviously proud of their identity as the mean green racing machines and it is something that goes far beyond the way that their bikes look. Our test at Pirinis left me in no doubt as to how intense this new bike has become.
I was given a baptism by fire. My bike had come equipped with the aggressive EFI coupling and I had not thought to check or ask about it. After all, the maps don’t usually make too much of a difference anyway – or at least I thought. Well, I can tell you that the power was so instant that it almost felt like I was riding a monster with the sneezles. Even in the higher gears – as I tend to ride when wanting to tame a bike down, it still felt so responsive that I could swear the engine almost prophesized what my throttle hand was about to do and jumped in with both guns blazing.
It wasn’t until after the bike’s owner had ridden the bike himself and exclaimed that he didn’t know how I had been able to ride it that we changed couplers back to the stock setting, where I discovered a much more manageable machine. Not that you would call it mild-mannered, mind you.
There were a million changes to the engine last year that could have contributed to it having such good response. Well, too many to list here without losing your attention. An interesting side-note that I discovered while researching this bike is that it actually makes less power than the previous generation of KX450 up until fairly high in the rev range, and yet you would swear it makes oodles more power the whole way through.
What it produces is a power delivery that most people will get a hoot out of. In saying that, it will pay to use the softer EFI coupler any time you are worried about your arms not being up to the challenge. This is definitely a bike where you want to take note of which map you are using in order to get maximum enjoyment from your ride. If you are in softer soil and your arms can handle it, then feel free to go for the aggressive coupler. But most mere mortals on normal tracks will be better on the stock or easy map, especially in slippery sections like some of what we had at Pirini.
Fortunately, the track had dried enough to give the suspension a thorough flogging as well. Not surprisingly I was pleased with the plushness of those beautiful 49mm spring forks. Aside from the bliss of not needing to bend my brain on all that was entailed in the old air forks if something wasn’t quite right, what I like most is how smooth the spring forks work through the middle of the stroke. But there was one reservation.
These forks were susceptible to blowing through the stroke on harder hits, to the point of bottoming. While you could effectively go up a spring rate or two with air forks by pumping the pressure up, on spring forks it is more serious of a job and something of an expense. Personally, I think the effort and expense of going to a heavier fork spring would be worth it in my case, partly because of my penchant for some pretty extreme G-forces, but also because of something that has everything to do with the rear of this bike.
We noticed that the shock felt over sprung. Checking the sag, everything seemed pretty good, but on the track, it just felt like the rear overwhelmed the front a little. You might think that you wouldn’t notice it, but there was more to it than only bottoming the fork. I mainly noticed it under sharp accelerating bumps where the rear didn’t squat nicely, and while it didn’t really bother me much, it was an indication that the balance could do with some tuning. I remember that last year we went five or six clicks firmer on the fork compression and rebound while we only made the shock a little bit harder. For this test we could have also given the bike a wee bit more sag, but that could have been at the risk of losing one of the best things about this generation of KX450 – which is how well it turns.
For many years the biggest Kawasaki was extremely stable. It would brush aside any potential threat of being kicked sideways as though swatting a fly, but its Kryptonite was tight turns. Fortunately, the engineers have been able to find a happy place that allows the big green to turn better than ever. Want to cut inside that rut? Go for it. This bike wouldn’t be your first choice for some of the tighter tracks found in the North Island, but it will get the job done and really reward you on the faster or softer sections.
On a similar vein, Kawasaki are on a seemingly endless quest to make their bikes narrower to help in that quest for flickability. Last year it was the area between radiator shrouds that received that treatment. It is now to the point of feeling more like a 250cc machine between your knees – especially when standing – and that is helped even more with possibly the smoothest and most rounded plastics found on any brand.
There is simply nothing for your boots or knees to get caught up on. I wonder if Eli Tomac himself had something to do with this, who just won his third consecutive AMA Motocross Championship aboard this machine. I say that because I think he had a problem with getting caught up on the shrouds of his previous bike and this bike takes smoothness to the extreme. Not only do the radiator shrouds curve like a VW Beetle over the top and around the front, but they also extend in one unbroken strip almost to the back of the seat. That is not to say that the ergonomics will completely suit everyone’s tastes.
There is something rather quirky about the handlebars. They don’t seem to have much of a sweep backwards, encouraging you to get over the front of the bike more. That can be a good thing if you stand a lot as Eli does, but can make the bike feel a bit restrictive to sit on. The handlebars also feel like they are on the tall side. They are a crossbar style handlebar, which could easily be swapped out for a tapered version, but you will want to test and see if all the gadgets on the left handlebar will fit first.
Competing for room with the left handlebar grip is a kill switch, launch control button and hydraulic unit for the clutch that dominates the space. A tapered handlebar might struggle to fit all of those things, but that is not to say we are complaining about any of it.
Having a hydraulic clutch has no doubt been the tipping point that Kawasaki needed to bring some people back to their side. It promises a smooth pull at all times in all conditions – which could be the silver bullet should conditions get extreme. I wouldn’t say that the pull is noticeably lighter than a cable would be, you just know that it isn’t going to fade. In saying that, any riders that always have their pointing finger resting on the clutch will want to be careful that they are not unconsciously slipping the clutch at the risk of burning it out before its time. It is slipping the moment you put any pressure on it, which is another one of the reasons why this bike feels like such an extreme racing machine.
Not only is the clutch and throttle super sensitive, the brakes are definitely cut from the same cloth. Coming into a rut I was made well aware that finesse was essential, both to avoid locking the rear and also to avoid the front brakes pulling me up too quickly. What it creates is an incredibly fun machine that takes the idea of “Racing Machine” to the extreme. Because everything is so responsive, very quickly you learn to respect and appreciate its aggressive attitude. This bike is guaranteed to give you the grin factor, which is good because very few people just use these bikes to get from A to B. We do it for adrenaline, which the 2020 KX450 delivers in spades.
By now you may have noticed that I have not told you about many changes for 2020. The reason is that there are simply no changes for this year apart from the green plastics. Yes, a lot of their R&D time and effort would have gone into the development of the new KX250F, but I am sure that had they been sure about the need to change something on this bike then they would have done it. You could look at it like this – they were careful enough to test the new bike so completely last year that it didn’t need any improvements. It could be some peace of mind to many people. Kawasaki dealers across the country also get a second chance to either sell or order more of what is essentially the same bike according to customer demand. And by now most people will know what kind of adjustments they would want to make to one of these bikes – if any.
I hopped on for one more ride, pushed that magical button to fire it into life and gave the launch control another test. Now that we had installed the green EFI coupler I was riding a more manageable bike.
But something within me wanted to go back to the wildness of the white coupling and the intensity of a racing start without the launch control – despite the fact that both decisions would cost me. Deep down, most dirt bikers share the desire to feel like they are on a Factory Race Team bike. Kawasaki might as well bring it out pre-printed with number one plates. Whether or not it is the right machine to propel you to earning that position depends on your desire. Eli Tomac has already proven that the bike can do it, and the cool thing is that I am pretty sure that this bike will make you feel like you could too.