First Impression: 2021 Kawasaki KX450

Championship Pedigree, Packaged Consistency

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The 2021 Kawasaki KX450 is not really changed much. In fact, a new handlebar in the form of a switch to a Renthal Fat Bar might be the biggest change for most, at least visually. But to finish off the list, a new coating on the piston and a new diaphragm spring on top of larger diameter clutch plates on the hydraulic clutch assembly completes the changes for 2021. These are the only changes since the bike’s total re-do in 2019. But if you are Kawasaki and watching the recent performances of Eli Tomac with Motocross and finally Supercross championships, why mess with success? At least with the small changes, they are showing that they are paying attention.

Funny thing is, as much as it takes a brand to develop and change an existing model, it take a race team almost as long to get the bike figured out. And the previous KX450 was a good bike as well, so not messing it up is the first challenge.

If you take a short-term historical look at what Kawasaki seems to do with its KX motocross line, they are pretty smart. They don’t go pioneering anything. They seem confident in letting other brands do that. Instead, they analyze what riders want and see which trends and directions are first accepted by the moto media, then embraced by the moto riding public. For instance, the early 2000s KX450 used to be a powerhouse in a slow handling and stable chassis, which felt heavy (but won shootouts). Honda and KTM were pushing boundaries with much lighter bikes coming out and looking to have a more front-end tuning handling style. At first Honda and KTM were punished in the media for this direction, but it came to be the future. Then as front-turning bikes became more accepted, since most riders also liked this character, the KX was redesigned to fit right in the middle and riders (including the media) found it to be just what they were looking for. You could see that Kawasaki engineers and test riders were definitely influenced by the CRF. They were looking to get the weight feel and the better part of the handling characteristic while smoothing out the motor to make it easier to ride, a necessity for this type of handling character. And if you think Kawasaki was not looking at the KTM, at least a little, check out the hydraulic clutch with a diaphragm spring, oversize handlebars, and maybe even as far back as electric starting.

So here we are in 2021 and the KX450 is and will be a contender for being the best 450. But you have to decide if that Kawasaki direction is the right one for you. Our experience tells us that if you are coming off an older Kawasaki, say pre-2019, you will instantly fall in love with this bike because it is everything you tried to make your old KX into but did not have factory-level equipment to do it.  Though we say the power is smoother, we are not saying it is slow. It doesn’t even feel slow but it isn’t as violent as it may have been in the past, especially in the bottom end. The power is smooth, predictable, and lasts a long time in each gear. But we will say that almost every one of our testers preferred the aggressive (white-colored) coupler on the bike. It mostly allowed the bike to easily be ridden a gear higher in the turns and gave heightened throttle response without a lag in top-end feel that often comes in a manufacturer’s pre-programmed “aggressive” mode. The black-colored coupler was richer or more mellow and really flattened the power delivery and mostly the throttle response. So much so it was more of an off-road style setting and we are told the KX450X comes stock with this coupler installed. We’d also say that the bike felt a bit smoother than even the 2019 we spent a lot of time on and this bike being brand new, could be a result of the coating on the piston early in this bike’s life. The clutch has a lighter pull and was definitely an improvement in feel and operation over the previous version.

The suspension is simply good. It does not stand out in any area for any certain trait. It isn’t the best at anything nor does it seem to have any faults. This bike is often picked on for having too light of a front fork spring, but we feel it is a trade-off, and in reality, the character of the bike changes with the fork spring. If you like the turning, don’t go stiffer. If you could lose a bit of that character, stiffer will work. But we were able to open up the fork’s rebound or stiffen the compression to get the desired feel. Also, some riders preferred the ride height to be in the 108mm range as opposed to the suggested 103mm to balance the bike a little more to the rear. Initial compliance is easy to further tune with the clickers and bottoming resistance is also where it needs to be.

On the handling front, the bike is still a more front turning bike than in the past but not as much as other bikes. A happy place that does not offend riders but is not lacking in having the traction on the front tire to make the bike steer where you want. It is easy to move around on and even has the ability to move the footpegs mounts lower in the frame and handlebars forward if the rider desires (the multiple footpeg location on a motocross bike may be a Kawasaki pioneering thing). We did not feel the need to alter this. It feels lighter than in the past but is not the lightest feeling 450MX bike. It isn’t as loud as it was (a good thing) and the build quality is still high. Maintenance of the air filter and oil changes is easy and will keep the bike working for as long as any other 450cc MX bike. The brakes, at least the front is average in the class. But the rear, oversized at 250mm, at first seemed tamed down from what we remembered in 2019. But after some time it was much more powerful and to some a bit grabbier than what they were accustomed to. Once you get familiar to it, other bikes will seem weak. Another feature, the launch control for the starts, was noticeable but like almost every other version, a rider has to learn what it is doing and when it is an advantage to use or not use.

After taking some time off riding every 450cc MX bike last year, hopping on the 2021 Kawasaki KX450, for this rider, was a pleasant surprise. It isn’t pushing any boundaries that may be risky in a character that the buying public might not like or be ready for. It has a solid motor, well-rounded suspension and handling that isn’t polar. It has the ability to be tuned for a wide variety of riders with standard equipment and to get the motor even farther along, Kawasaki has a user tuning tool for an additional $700. At $9399.00 it is priced with the other bikes in the class and if you like the color green, the rest of the bike’s traits will not disappoint.

 

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