Photos and Banter: Scott Hoffman
With parts of Arizona on fire and a guy named Weiner all over the news about his, you know, you might deduce the world is all chaos–yet there is a bright side if you ride motocross and especially if you’re a Kawasaki fan. The only distressing part of being a current KX450F owner is that you might need to start saving dead presidents to buy a new one, sorry for the news!
Kawasaki is the first to pull the trigger in regards to 2012 450 motocrossers. Yes, the KX450F is all-new in a sense, yet also kind of refined, tweaked, and skinnier with updated bodywork and new gizmos. And not to mention, the new ride offers a slew of ergonomic as well as performance tuning options. We were one of a few lucky dogs to get the chance to ride the new mount at the famed RedBud track in Buchanan, Michigan home of the infamous LaRocco’s leap. No, I did not huck the gargantuan gap, although our photo model Chris Green, from our sister publication Dirt Rider Magazine, did.
The list of changes on the 2012 KX is vast, yet the bike still has that KX feel many are very fond of. In fact, the 2011 KX450F won Dirt Rider Magazine’s shootout this year. First off, the frame is 4mm narrower and the flex points have been altered. The steering head area has a little more give while the center of the bike is a tad more rigid. The chassis’ steering head angle and basic dimensions remain the same as the current model. In our mind, one of the most attractive elements of the new machine is how adjustable the 2012 truly is–probably the most tunable production bike to date. The 2012 can easily be altered to fit standard-size riders and tall or short riders via the 4-way adjustable bar mounts, the ability to lower the footpegs 5mm, and an optional lowering link (sold separate) that drops the rear 6mm. Then on the performance side, Kawasaki now has three different ignition/fuel maps pre-programmed into the ECU or what they call DFI or Digital Fuel Injection. These three maps can easily be switched from the standard setting (good overall with a nice hit in the mid), a mellowed out power curve (more bottom less hit), or switch to a full performance setting (longer pull in each gear and lots of top end). To change the setting, simply swap out a wire harness coupler to one of the two different supplied units. And if you wish to make further changes, it’s still possible to further alter the performance traits, which we found very helpful, even with the 2012′s potent standard settings.
The 2012 KX450F is more than just new fancy body work, in fact most of the bike is either all-new or very much refined compared to the already potent 2011 model.
Another industry first is the electronic Launch Control. The concept is fairly simple yet innovative. You push a button located on the handlebar for three seconds in neutral, first, or second gear until a red light starts to flash. From there, the system activates a separate timing and fuel setting for maximum traction during starts. When the rider shifts to third gear, the Launch Control deactivates and diverts back the standard ignition/fuel settings.
The basic engine has not been completely altered yet internal components have been updated for durability and performance. The cam has a slight increase in lift and the piston has been refined including a thinner ring. Inside the guts of beast, the tranny has been beefed up as well as the shift fork length altered for better and smoother shifting.
The 2012 also received a nice facelift with new bodywork, fuel tank, and a shorter muffler, which Kawasaki says helps mass centralization. Yes it is a big word. The muffler is claimed to meet the new 2012 AMA/FIM sound regulations, which is the 2-meter max power sound test. On the track the sound of the bike still has a meaty rasp, yet on-the-track sound is a lot different than sound testing. We will have to break out our testing tools at a later date.
During our two-day test at RedBud we had two different riders aboard the new KX, a scrawny 160-something-pound fast intermediate and a larger and older 220 pounder that used to know how to ride and now just rides slower and mostly just for fun.
After our outing, we conclude the new KX is better than the last. Why, you might ask grasshopper? Simply because they took a solid platform, the 2011, extracted all of the positive traits, collected feedback in areas where the bike might need improvement and proceeded to build a better mousetrap. Although the older version is still very popular, riders also noted the chassis felt more old school and larger compared to some of its competition. The 2012 chassis has a slimmer feel and does not feel as big on the track, yet it still has that KX feel and stability. The bodywork is sleek and nothing seemed to snag or get in the way. The stock bar position was liked by our smaller rider yet felt way too cramped for our Big N Tall rider. That problem was solved in just a few minutes by adjusting the bar forward.
Although the 2012 KX 450F is no lighter than the 2011, the changes in the frame do cause the bike to feel lighter and easier to toss around in the air and change direction on ground.
Our taller rider, myself, also tested the lower footpeg option as well. The added distance had a nice feel on one side but on the other side, and the fact the pegs are also moved forward 2mm, put the peg just a tad too far forward for my liking. If the peg, or a different set of pegs were back to the standard position, I would embrace the lower position. Maybe when we have more time on the bike, the lower position might offer a different feel once we get more accustomed to the position. I just think the lower position is a tad too far forward.
The suspension complemented the chassis and seemed more progressive with a lot more bottoming control compared to the 2011. The components are the same yet slight valving changes were made to the 2012. Both our 165-pound intermediate and our 220-pound washed-up sap were able to tune the fork and shock to their liking with subtle changes, going between 2-5 clicks stiffer on compression front and rear and 1-2 in or out on rebound front and rear depending on conditions. According to Kawasaki, the target weight for the 2012 450 is right around 190 pounds. Race sag of 104mm was able to be achieved by both riders.
Just like the last few years the engine on the 2012 is a powerhouse. The stock delivery is very similar to the 2011 yet we felt it had more hit. But the novelty is how different the power delivery is between the three different map/fuel settings. The stock setting is a mid-range monster that many will love the first time they get a chance to twist the throttle. Yet because no two riders are alike, Kaw has more than one setting. Just by switching the coupler, which takes all of about 30 seconds to no more than a minute, it feels as if you made a major change or switched to a different exhaust system. The mellow coupler switches on a map that gives the bike a smoother bottom and a more ridable transition into the midrange. The off idle bottom in corners was actually easier and more fun and easier to ride, yet we felt it was a little flat through the upper mid and top (more of a personal preference). The third coupler links up the hotrod map. This setting really wakes up the top end and each gear pulls way further than stock. If we had to pick from all three maps, this would have been our favorite.
However after testing all three settings, we kind of liked traits in all three maps. And for this we took the performance map along with Kawasaki’s Calibration Kit software and created another setup using the performance setting as a starting platform. By changing fuel settings and timing down low and into the mid, the power was once again altered or fine-tuned to our liking by giving the bike a smooth tractable bottom, manageable mid, and amazing top end. The 2012 makes so much power stock, it can be moved around and altered to one’s personal desires. If I owned a 2012 and one of the three provided settings were not exactly what I was looking for, my first purchase would have to be the Calibration Kit software. This is an amazing tool–almost like having your own personal exhaust shop at your fingertips.
The electronic launch control is a pretty nifty device and we did over a dozen starts to test the new unit. The changes are again subtle but on second gear starts there is less wheel spin when dropping the clutch and there is way less clutch needed to keep the front end from wheeling when the rear starts to really dig in. I could see the device work really well in loose- or hard-pack conditions.
The power on the 2012 KX is full of spunk and able to be tuned to the liking of the rider via the provided three maps pre-programmed into the ECU or additionally altered using Kawasaki Software.
If we had to nitpick the 2012 KX, we have only a few items. First, the paint on the clutch cover starts to wear off before the first tank of fuel is burned. Second, some questioned, myself included, if there are three pre-programmed maps in the ECU, why not just put a three-position switch instead of different wiring couplers that can easily be misplaced or lost. The only chassis issues we had, which could have been track related, were the front end had a light push entering corners and didn’t seem to bite in certain conditions. Suspension settings and lowering the fork 5mm helped, but didn’t completely take away the sensation. We will have to do more testing once the bike gets back to California. And although the 2012 KX feels lighter than the 2011, it still weights around 245 pounds with all fluids, which is not necessarily a bad thing but is still heavier than some of the competition.
At the end of the two-day venture to RedBud, we were really impressed with the new 2012 KX450F. The changes make the KX a better motorcycle in our opinion. The chassis is slimmer, has a new look, and feels smaller. The power is amazing and very adjustable and the suspension caters to a fairly wide variety of riders’ weights and abilities. These days it is hard to find a bad 450 motocrosser, yet thus far, the 2012 Kawasaki raises the bar, especially when talking about its vast adjustability to both chassis and performance as well as new innovative additions such as adjustable peg position and electronic launch control.