The 2018 Kawasaki KX450F is almost the same machine from last year, however the bike does offer some subtle updates to the suspension valving and the power characteristics thanks to a fuel mapping device. So where does this leave the KX450F?
I seem to be going on about this a lot at the moment, but the 2018 Kawasaki KX450F still has no electric start, and is now the only Japanese model to be running an air fork.
All new for this year, however, is an accessory hand-held fuel mapping device that can hold seven different options, along with the previous model’s three mode plugs.
The holeshot assist button remains, which works in first and second gears only and is designed to enhance acceleration while reducing wheel slippage.
The chassis is highly adjustable for rider fit with four-position handle bars across a 35mm range and the footpegs can go up and forward 5mm, or obviously, down and back 5mm.
As part of the test appraisal for the KX450F, I rode the new bike in the Tarawera T100 and for a bit of background the Tarawera T100 is a 100 mile (160km) trail event that takes four hours to complete and offers an extreme testing ground.
I hadn’t ridden the T100 since 1991 (I think… it’s lost in the mists of time), and never at the new location. I also had never even started the KX until I warmed the machine up on the start line… so, it was in at the deep end, racing at its very best.
My memory of the old track was that it was either very fast or quite tight, and not so rough other than the usual choppy stuff and tree roots. With that in mind I had softened the rear shock two clicks and a quarter turn on compression, went two clicks quicker on rebound and moved the bars to the second most forward position because I’m tall – all of which was a mistake. The track was mainly third or fourth gear and MX-style ‘whoop’ rough, so the shock was way too soft for my size and the conditions.
Also, I felt less comfortable with the bars in that forward position. It gave a slightly over-centre feel in turns that required a reasonable amount of lock and felt odd, even though the extra room was appreciated when going straight.
One lap done I hit the pits and quickly adjusted the shock back to standard settings. Straight away it was a massive improvement. Now, with the shock riding higher in the stroke with more control and a heap more bottoming resistance, the whole machine felt better.
To me the shock feels a little softer than last year overall and very plush. Given that I’m over 100kg suited up, I think a younger/lighter racer would be very pleased with the shock’s action.
Up front the Showa SFF Air TAC fork is pretty plush and has decent bottoming resistance. They’re super adjustable and I found the action stable for the whole race. Air spring forks do feel a little different, in that air is more progressive in action than a spring… so they can be softer initially, but still man up enough for the big hits.
However the difficulty is getting the balance correct, where they’re riding high enough in the stroke and then not becoming too firm lower in the stroke… which I would say they were for the T100. Kawasaki has got them pretty much right as standard for the MX track, but I’m sure a little testing and tuning will pay off.
After all, there are the inner and outer tubes, plus the balance chamber pressure to experiment with. Kawasaki recommends the air fork is bled and run at zero psi. Overall the suspension is a decent package and very adjustable.
The 450F chassis has a great balanced feel and I find the ergonomics excellent. It is one of the slower steering bikes in the class but it always feels planted yet accurate, and never gives the rider any ‘interesting’ surprises. I think it’s better in fast, open turns and berms but, don’t get me wrong, it can still turn tightly pretty well. As a handling package the KX450F is solid.
The engine has plug-in fuel maps for standard, hard and soft terrain (white, black, green respectively). Unfortunately, I was only given the standard (white) plug to try for this test, but it provided strong useable power right through the range, and there is serious thrust in the mid-range.
In the past I have liked the black plug most as it boosts torque and is less likely to detonate in deep sand under load, and I prefer to ride using the torque of the motor rather than the revs.
The power delivery is particularly smooth from idle and just above it, which is awesome where subtlety is required on slick conditions ,when trying to feel for every last bit of traction. However, that certainly does not mean it lacks responsiveness – when required it hauls. This is an easy to ride, tractable and fast engine.
What else? Well, the brakes are great, there’s plenty of power and feel there. The seat is a good flat shape with nice firm foam that doesn’t cause discomfort.
The overall impression I’ve been left with of the the 2018 Kawasaki KX450F is of completeness. It is a well thought out, nicely put together and totally competent package. While it may not be outstanding in any one particular area, it doesn’t perform poorly anywhere either – making for an excellent machine in general.
The one thing it doesn’t have, but needs, is an electric start. Both Honda and Yamaha machines have electric start this year, as do KTM and Husky – so for this reason alone it is falling behind. That said, the KX450F is still a great bike.
2018 Kawasaki KX450F Strengths and Weaknesses
Plus – Smooth engine; adjustable chassis; great package.
Minus – No electric start; panel plastics seem a little brittle.
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