KAWASAKI & HONDA FIRST RIDE, 2018
New bike intro season has officially started, with both Kawasaki and Honda presenting moderately changed motorcycles to the press just days ahead of their arrival in motorcycle dealerships. Yesterday, it was the Kawasaki KX250F that was featured at Cahuilla Creek MX track in Aguanga, California. The day before, it was the Honda CRF450R at Racetown in Adelanto. Both of these bikes were pretty much all-new in 2017 and, surprisingly, they both have even more changes for 2018.
Kawasaki gave the KX a whole new chassis last year along with a mostly new motor. The changes for 2018 fall into the subtle refinement category. Both ends got suspension changes. The fork on the 250F, remember, is still a single-spring version of the Showa SFF. That spring is softer this year by about 7 percent. The motor got a new throttle body with a more steeply angled injector, a new head with a different intake port, new intake cam, a more powerful fuel pump, a different head pipe and new ignition/EFI mapping. It still has the “upstream” fuel injector in the airboot, and that airboot is shorter and reshaped. Overall, not a long list of changes, but still more than we expected so soon after a major redesign. The adjustable footpeg height is a feature that returns, as well as the four handlebar positions and the interchangeable electronic couplers that provide three different maps for different track conditions.
Riding the KX is mostly the same experience as before. This bike still provides a middle ground between the torquey Yamaha and the high-revving KTM (and Husky). It’s a fun bike to ride because it has a responsive, lively feel. Even if the KTM motor is faster, it takes a long time to spool up and get going. The changes this year give the KX a little more bottom end, and that encroaches on the Yamaha’s identity as the low-end-king of the 250 class. We also like the changes to the fork. It’s a little cushier, but still doesn’t dive in turns. Overall, though, the bike isn’t dramatically different. The biggest complaint, once again, has nothing to do with performance. The bike is loud, and beyond that, it pops and sounds raspy. We’ll have to wait until October or November to see how the KX stacks up in the 250 class as a whole. The Honda is all new for 2018, and when it finally arrives, it will doubtlessly shake things up.
A day earlier we rode our 2018 Honda CRF450R test bike for the first time in the heat of the high desert. Like the Kawasaki, it was new last year and got more change than we expected. Tops on the list is the electric starter. The kickstart lever is gone completely. Also gone is the capacitor, which functions like a battery on most fuel-injected bikes to store up energy from the kick in order to light up the EFI system. Now, there’s a lithium battery for that. If you’re a purest who wants to return to your kickstart ways, you’ll have to deal with more than just adding a lever, shaft and gear mechanism. The hole in the engine case where all that would go is still there.
Honda also stiffened up both front and rear spring rates. The bike still has three ignition/EFI maps that can be accessed through a handlebar switch. The baseline map has been altered for 2018, while the “mild” and “hard” maps are unchanged. What made this bike so interesting when it was introduced last year is that the whole intake path is rearranged. The airflow is directed over the top shock mount, which provided a very straight downward angle. This year there’s a battery tray in the airbox, and there was some concern that this would affect performance. As it turns out, the new battery is so small that it has no affect on power.
Honda had a fresh 2017 model on hand for us to ride at the intro, so it was easy to tell what was different about the two bikes. Just riding the bike from the pits to the track you can tell there’s something different about the mapping. The older bike was either on or off down low, whereas the new model has a much smoother transition. The mild map runs just like it did last year, and it’s probably not going to be much benefit for 2018. Previously, it was useful on some tracks. Personally, I liked it better all the time. Now, however, the jerkiness of the standard map is mostly gone.
The best thing about the Honda remains its handling. It’s an easy bike to ride. It still feels light, even if it did gain weight this year with the addition of the starter and battery. Just how much weight it gained remains to be seen when we put it on our own scale next week. Honda says the increase is 5 pounds. We had the 2017 model at 235 pounds without fuel, so that would make the 2018 model the heaviest in the class, at 240. Yamaha claims its new bike is the same weight as the 2017 YZ450F, which was 238 on our scale. Same goes for Suzuki. KTM is making them all look bad in this department. Our 2017 450SX-F was 224 pound on the same scale.
Most of the riders my age are a little stunned by the death of Hakan Carlqvist this week. As a kid growing up in a time when all the best MX riders in the world were from Europe, this hits a little hard. I wasn’t really a Carlqvist fan; I was kind of afraid of him. He was the embodiment of how much we sucked. He was a Swedish rider who was so tough he made it seem like the U.S. riders should just quit. Carla almost always rode with some kind of broken bone and was famous for stopping to have a beer on the last lap of a GP, then going on to win. I don’t know if the story is true, but it doesn’t really matter. That’s who he was. The fact that a brain hemorrhage took him out seems wrong. It should have taken much more than that. The photo above is out of my top desk drawer, where it has been since I shot it in 1981.
RANDOM HARD DRIVE SEARCH
Remember this? Back in 2003, Jeremy McGrath signed with KTM. This was in a time when KTM wasn’t taken seriously in the motocross world, at least not in the U.S. Mac was injured early in the year, so he didn’t actually race the bike, but it made a tour around the country. Reportedly, Jeremy didn’t like the PDS rear suspension. Regardless, he was a professional about it, and was a good spokesman for the company. Later, the story goes, he referred to the KTM as a “Wake up bike.” He would ride it, and the next thing he would remember would be someone telling him to “WAKE UP!”
This is Mike Brown on a Pro Circuit Kawasaki from 2003, as well. The number is a giveaway. He won the title in 2001 wearing number 100. He would have carried the number one plate in 2002, and as a former champion, he earned a single digit number. Number 3 was his until he stopped earning national points, then it was up for grabs. It was taken by another Kawasaki rider named Eli.
Back in 2003, National number four was also in different hands. Ricky Carmichael had the right to ride with the number one plate in the 250 outdoor class, as he earned seven straight championships starting in 2001. For most of that time, he ran with number four. When he retired, Blake Baggett jumped at the opportunity to run a big four, which he earned on a Pro Circuit KX250F in 2012.
Mike LaRocco was the iconic number five long before Ryan Dungey was the iconic number five. Oddly enough, Mike didn’t get the opportunity to run with a number one plate after winning it in 1994. He had the bad planning to win the 500cc National Championship that year, and then the class was discontinued in 1995. All was set right when he won the 250 National Championship in 1995. He ran number five anyway.
FULL GAS SPRINT ENDURO
AMA VINTAGE DAYS
I missed the AMA Vintage Days at Mid Ohio this year and I’m bummed. Next year, for sure! For now I have to be content with Youtube searches. Here’s what I came up with.
See you next week,