According to Kawasaki, the days of 50-plus-horsepower stock ATVs has arrived. With the introduction of the KFX700 and its potent V-twin powerplant, who knows where the industry might go next? We were admittedly skeptical when first confronted with what looked to be a Prairie 650 with sport tires, no racks and twin A-arms (the Prairie models have MacPherson struts up front). We've said before in editorial columns it was our sincere hope the next crop of ATVs would be lighter instead of heavier and more powerful, so this model was worrisome. We were downright floored when it was revealed that the site of the introduction was to be South Carolina's Big Buck GNCC course, home of some nice, tight woods riding. What are they, stupid? It turns out Kawasaki knew a thing or two about its own machine.
After extensive marketing research conducted on the East Coast, which included riding the V Force, Kawasaki concluded this was a machine that could be marketed in the heart of ATV country. The fact that power-hungry West Coasters (like ourselves) would like it was a given, but how would the more technical-riding-oriented east react to a 700cc Twin?
Kawasaki's market research consisted of taking a group of Pennsylvania ATV enthusiasts and letting them ride a number of traditional machines around a course, along with the KFX 700. The majority came into the test with negative attitudes about automatic transmissions, but a larger majority ended up preferring the automatic, drive-shaft-driven machine by the end of the ride. A similar thing happened to us at Kawasaki's event.
The typical problem we've found with belt-driven automatics is a distinct lack of responsiveness from the motor to the ground. As we swiftly discovered of the V Force, this trait is not necessarily a given. The biggest factor in overcoming the negative (power-sapping) traits of an automatic--or a drive shaft for that matter--is simply having gobs of power. Kawasaki claims its new 700 Twin--based on the Prairie 650 motor--cranks out more than 50 horses at the rear wheel. Don't go thinking this motor's just a top-end screamer, though; Kawasaki engineers made the power be the usable variety. Its gearing lets it edge out Yamaha's Raptor in top speed. As the Raptor clocked 65 mph on the radar gun in this month's open sport comparison, that would probably put the V Force in the neighborhood of the shootout-topping Bombardier DS 650, which we clocked at 70 mph.
Huge power output, along with the accompanying weight of a similarly huge powerplant, can be a double-edged sword. Instead of slapping a new powerplant into what is essentially an '80s-era sport ATV chassis--the prevailing practice in the current sport quad renaissance--Kawasaki significantly rethought several design norms.
A dramatic rethink is the KFX's single-spar front end geometry. Addressing some of the same concerns as Polaris' P.R.O. steering on the Predator, the Force's single-spar brings the A-arm pivots closer to the steering pivots for reduced bump-steer. However, elongating the lower A-arms by moving the pivots closer together also creates a couple of other conditions. The first is a tendency to add camber to the tire as the shock compresses, kicking out the bottom of the tire while braking for a corner, so the contact patch is more squarely aimed at the ground while aggressively cornering. Conventional designs will leave the tire "off-camber" and cause the front-end to push. In addition, the longer A-arm makes for a wider arc of wheel travel with a more consistent attitude of the tire to riding surface. All of these concepts were based on racetrack research conducted by William Yokley on his Roll Design chassis, Kawasaki-powered GNCC racer through the 2001 season. And to think we were wondering what Team Green was doing with an unobtainable quad racing in the series!
Other beefy items on the V Force include reinforced rims and a large-diameter axle.
As we mentioned earlier, our maiden voyage on the good ship V Force was to be at the Big Buck facility in Union, South Carolina, outside of Greenville, site of an upcoming GNCC race on April 12-13. While in the world of woods racing this is only a medium-tight track, it's still snug from a West Coast perspective.
So out into the woods we went. While still familiarizing ourselves with the KFX beastie, we timidly applied the throttle but got far more tractable power than we anticipated. Additionally, the obviously big quad (no published dry weight yet) wasn't feeling all that big and no immediately obvious bad habits were cropping up. Naturally, we turned it up a bit.
As the speeds increased, we were rewarded with lighter steering and a more responsive chassis. This quad likes to be ridden hard. In the tacky Southeastern woods, the ITP tires really bite and drive the machine. Quick turns in the trees are best executed while leaned over the front as the KFX wants to wheelie everywhere and not slide around corners. As speeds went up, we found the brakes to be more than capable of hauling the machine down from the high speeds that can sneak up on you.
Suspension action is excellent for a machine of its heft, whoops are tackled with composure and landing from jumps is drama-free. Smaller irregularities like roots and rocks are handled less well, with much jolting transferred to the rider, which can wear over time.
In the open (drier) sections of the course, we got a taste of what riding this machine back home might be like. Slides are as long as you have room for, with the very tightly tuned automatic always giving just enough power to keep the party going once a slide is initiated. In high-speed terrain, the suspension rapidly adjusts to ripples and whoops, rewarding aggressive riding here as well.
The ITP Holeshot tires coupled with the machine's low center of gravity and big power turned the few actual hillclimbs on the course into mere molehills.
There was only one treacherous descent at Big Buck, but even on the less challenging ones, the automatic tranny was a little tricky. Like the first-generation Prairies, the V Force doesn't have Kawasaki's Engine Braking System to save weight. Not to say it doesn't engine-brake; it does--until the belt disengages and you start to freewheel. So really steep downhills require both throttle input (to keep the belt engaged) and front and rear brake management. The upshot is the grippy tires and low cg kept things stable even when very tilted.
While banging our way through the woods, we found a couple of occasions for a little help from the reverse gear. The bicycle-style twist grip on the left handlebar seems destined to become an industry standard. Compress a button and twist forward for drive and back for reverse. A touch of the rear brake is all that's needed to engage reverse.
On our second day with the new quad, we were a bit fatigued and brought our riding back to a leisurely pace. Unfortunately, once you tire out, going slower and leaning a little heavier on the controls, the V Force gets to be a bit of a handful. When not on the throttle aggressively, the steering is a bit heavier, and bumps seem to transfer even more to the rider--the suspension tuned far more for performance at the expense of a plush ride. Getting on the gas brings back lighter steering and the lot, but going fast while fatigued seems to be a recipe for broken parts.
We wish Kawasaki would have brought a couple of its KFX400s to this intro, as we're curious how that light-steering yet manual-shifting machine would compare in this environment. Would the convenience of automatic offset the weight penalty? In the end, we're not sure the KFX700 V Force was the ultimate machine for deep woods riding, but of the true Open class machines (Raptor, Predator, DS 650), it's almost certainly the best. In more open terrain like the deserts and dunes of the West, it should be untouchable.
If you'd like to see more of the Big Buck course, check out our open sport-utility comparison test next issue, as the owners let us come back for another day of fun after the Kawasaki introduction.
Kawasaki's patented "wet"...
Kawasaki's patented "wet" rear brake coupled with shaft drive makes for quite a bit of rear-axle ground clearance (6.3 inches). Both it and the front binders were detuned from their application on the Prairie 650 to account for the V Force's lighter weight.
Another unfamiliar sight for...
Another unfamiliar sight for sport quad guys will be the large belt housing on the right side. An additional guard has been welded to the frame.
The big green machine has...
The big green machine has a few more bells and whistles than your average sport quad, with indicators for low fuel and worn belt, along with the usual engine temp, oil pressure, neutral and reverse. On the left grip in a twister bicycle-style control is the range selector, from neutral to reverse to drive
ITP Holeshot XC tires are...
ITP Holeshot XC tires are shod all around. Kawasaki sources say the company'd have been glad to equip a cheaper tire, but nothing else would handle the machine's prodigious torque, leaving you spinning, not driving.
The factory tool kit is opposite...
The factory tool kit is opposite the exhaust pipe. In fact, the mounts are the same, making for easy installation of a dual exhaust that Pro Circuit is currently developing for the 700.
The alloy wheels are reinforced...
The alloy wheels are reinforced by a welded steel ring on the inside rear rims
Here's a view of the V Force's...
Here's a view of the V Force's single-spar front end. Long A-arms make for less camber variance, while a narrow cross section helps fight bump-steer. Metal skid plates grace most underside surfaces.
An unfamiliar sight for sport...
An unfamiliar sight for sport quad enthusiasts would be the intricate air ducting for the automatic belt-driven transmission to breathe through
The gas tank's access is at...
The gas tank's access is at the rear of the machine; a plastic cover (which seems a little flimsy) keeps mud and debris from filling the indent. Racers will be able to use quick-fill systems easily, as the rider will be out of the way entirely.
Retail Price: $6499
Type: SOHC, four-valve V-twin
Carburetion: Dual Keihin 32mm CV
Lubrication: Wet sump
Drive System: Shaft, 2WD
Transmission: Single-range belt CVT with reverse
Front: Dual A-arms/9.25 in.
Rear: Linkless swingarm/7.9 in.
Front: 22x7-10; rear: 22x11-10
Front: Dual discs; rear: sealed multi-disc
Wheelbase: 50.8 in.
Claimed Dry Weight: NA
Ground Clearance: 9.6 in (6.3 in. @ rear axle)
Length/Width/Height: 78.0/47.1/46.9 in.
Seat Height: 33.5 in.
Fuel Capacity: 3.2 gal.
Headlight: Dual 45-watt
Instrumentation: Indicators for neutral, reverse, low fuel, belt wear,
temperature, oil pressure
Colors: Lime green, Blazing orange