ATV TEST: Racing 450 Shootout

This is the golden age for performance quads. Ten years ago, we were patching up old two-strokes from an earlier era, hoping to get them through each week while the manufacturers virtually ignored the high-end sport market. Now we have at least six makers offering state-of-the-art 450 sport quads with performance we could only dream of in the past. There have never been so many choices, especially for the weekend racer.


Even so, the ready-to-race ATV isn’t quite here. Government regulations, liability concerns and emissions requirements keep manufacturers from delivering a truly finished race quad to your doorstep. Several makers like Yamaha, Suzuki and Can-Am come very close but leave you to finish the job. Kawasaki, Honda and Polaris offer narrower cross-country machines that require a little more investment to be track-ready. KTM came closest of all to making a production racer last year, but unfortunately the 450MX isn’t offered as a 2010 model and the company has no leftovers at the warehouse level.

That leaves us in a place where deciding between the current 450s is more difficult than ever. To compare bone-stock models wouldn’t be meaningful—no one races them that way. Even riding them stock would be a shameful waste of potential. Since they all require different modifications, we settled on a mod-quad format for our 2010 shootout. Each quad would get roughly the same investment, starting with the MSRP of the machine and continuing with key modifications. The goal was to spend $15,500 total on each. We contracted six different builders to target each ATV’s weakness and try to spend our budget in the most effective way. Some overshot the budget, others left money on the table. But they were close enough to represent what is raced in the real world and not an unrealistic collection of dream machines. Here’s what we found.


The list of things you don’t need on Can-Am’s DS450XMX is impressive. This version sells for $1350 more than the standard model, but it comes with 2-inch wider A-arms and an adjustable axle set to 50 inches. It has upgraded KYB suspension, upgraded wheels, upgraded tires and comes with nerf bars, a bumper and a beefier steering stem. There’s no way we could have purchased all that for the additional price that Can-Am asks for the XMX.


We feel the best place to invest in the Can-Am is the motor. The Rotax powerplant is decent in absolutely stock form, but it has a reputation of being difficult to hop-up. The leading expert on the subject is Motoworks, which is currently running BRP’s National Motocross program.


Motoworks performed its Works package on the motor. It consists mostly of head work and modifications to the throttle body, which is bored out to 50mm and gets new injectors. A Fuel Management box and a new ECU are included. Also in the package are a Motoworks stainless steel pipe, a billet drive gear and Motoworks cams.


Even though the X model comes with upgraded suspension, we went a step further with Fox shocks on both ends, which is as good as anything on the planet. This was done to all the machines simply because we wanted to eliminate one variable—with six different quads, we didn’t want to spend valuable test time setting up and debating six different types of shocks. As another control measure, all of the Quads got DWT wheels and tires. These tires dominated the last ATVA National MX and allowed us to concentrate on the rest of the package in our testing. The fronts were the MXFV2s and the rears were MXFV1s.

Finally, with a little cash left on the table, we installed a GPR steering damper.


The Can-Am was the sleeper in the group. With fewer modifications than the other machines, we didn’t expect it to rate so highly. First of all, the motor was excellent. It wasn’t the fastest on top, but it might lay claim to being the most manageable and easiest to use. Low-end-power was smooth, and the fuel mixture was perfect.

Novice test riders found it the easiest bike to ride because of its stable handling, predictable steering and oversized layout. The Can-Am is taller and more spread out than most sport quads. This makes it more comfortable, especially for large riders. On the flip side, small riders might feel that the Can-Am is hard to manage. The biggest complaints on the quad center around the standard clutch—which has a poor feel—marginal brakes and crunchy shifting.



Honda’s TRX450R is such a well-known commodity that you can easily build it into anything you want. It’s a proven race winner, but in stock form, it’s set up for trail riding. The stance is narrow, the tires are bouncy and the motor is mild. But the Honda has the second-lowest MSRP, and its good, old-fashion carb and single overhead cam make motor hop-up easy and cheap.


Former MX champion Gary Jones built a Honda 450R for his son, Justin, to race. With only a few changes, it fit into our parameters perfectly. First on the list was the width. Walsh A-arms were installed that were 2 inches wider than stock. The kit comes with tie-rods and ball joints. Brake lines are another issue; the stockers aren’t long enough to deal with wider A-arms. PEP came to the rescue with brake lines that are rated much higher than stock. To get the rear end to the same width, we used an RPM Dominator 2 axle, which is currently discounted at the factory level—normally it’s the most expensive axle you can buy, but now it’s priced in the $400 range.

We love the stock Honda motor as a trail ATV, but to get it up to race speed we took a few steps. First was a Motoworks stainless steel exhaust system. Then we installed a new Yoshimura cam. We were somewhat involved in the development of this cam, so we knew it would have good results. For the intake, we removed the airbox lid and installed a Pro Designs Pro Flow filter, and all of that required the switch to an NCVQ needle in the center position, a 55 leak jet, a 45 pilot and a 170 mainjet. The next mod was the cheapest of all. We disconnected the green wire on the ignition, which raises the rev ceiling. Cost: nothing.


For the clutch, we tried something new. Most of the pros are running Hinson BTL slipper clutches, but we didn’t have enough money in the budget for that. So we tried the new Hinson single-spring clutch, which lightens the clutch pull and provides a more solid engagement.


Stock handlebars on the Honda are somewhat embarrassing, so those had to be upgraded. And we installed DG nerf bars with built-in heel guards. For the steering damper, we installed a Precision Pro Series. Like all the other quads in the shootout, the Honda got a set of Fox Float Evol shocks up front and a Podium X in the rear. The Douglas wheels and Gold Seal tires were on the Honda, too.


The Honda was a solid performer. We knew it would be, as Justin Jones had already won several expert-level races on it. In handling, it feels like the lightest quad of the bunch, and turning was easy without being twitchy. In the motor department, the Honda would be great for Novice and Intermediate classes, but it will probably need more to be competitive against the big boys. The Honda starts off with a fairly low price tag, but it needs a lot, and we exceeded the budget before it became a truly competitive pro-level machine.



Hot on the heels of winning last month’s 450 cross-country shootout, our Kawasaki KFX450 underwent a transformation from mild-mannered trail machine to full-blooded racer. In stock form, it suffers from familiar shortcomings. It’s meant for twisting between trees more than track riding. It even has reverse. Like the Honda, it also has fluffy tires and a mild power delivery.


In our past experiences with the Kawasaki, we have complained of twitchy steering, particularly on motocross tracks. We rode Josh Creamer’s Monster Energy Kawasaki last year and found none of this issue, so when Dubach Racing built our KFX, we asked that he borrow heavily from the testing that the race team did last year. Jimmy White managed that team, and he was happy to share his secrets as well as some leftover parts.


First on the list was Walsh A-arms that were 2.5 inches wider than stock. These are more than just wider; they alter the geometry to calm the KFX’s hypertension. The actual units that we used were leftover veterans from the race team, but identical units can be ordered from Walsh. PEP had longer, steel-braided brake lines in stock and ready-to-go. Another used race team part that we gobbled up was the Lonestar rear axle. That carries a price in the $420 range.


The widening process left the Kawasaki at a disadvantage. The KFX starts off at almost $8000, so there was very little money left for the motor. Jimmy White listed the priorities in this order: 1) exhaust, 2) airbox, 3) fuel controller, 4) cams, 5) head, 6) compression. Dr.D supplied the exhaust and the Mod Box; we installed cams from the KX450F motocross motorcycle, then took the quad to Fuel Customs for an airbox and dyno testing. Garret at FC took one look at the dyno numbers and proclaimed the motor a winner. He made some minor adjustments to the Mod Box metering and said there was no need for a piston or head work. Call Fuel Customs for the specs.


The damper we used was a GPR (just like the Kawasaki race team used last year). And like the others, Fox suspension was used all the way around. When you order the Float Evol from shocks, you have to specify what A-arm you have. In the rear, the race team used an extended swingarm, but we didn’t have the budget, so the Podium X shock was valved for the standard KFX swingarm. Like the Honda, the KFX needs an upgrade in the handlebar and nerf bar department, where we used Renthal and DG, respectively. Tires and wheels were again DWT, which were the control item for all the quads.


We thought the KFX would be handicapped in the motor department. Man, were we wrong. It turned out to be the fastest machine in the test. It wasn’t just a little bit more powerful than the others; it was a monster. Our test KFX could give Josh Creamer’s 2009 race quad a run for its money.

Once past the shock of the motor’s incredible output, we were pleased to learn that the KFX was very good in the turns. It still had very quick steering, but there was no jerkiness. It tracked well and was fairly stable in a straight line. Overall, we feel that our modified KFX is one of the only quads that was ready to race in the Pro class.


Suzuki came into this shootout as one of the clear favorites. It was the first of the modern 450s to target the racer, and it has dominated the National motocross world for years. Not only does the LT-R450 come in full MX width, but it also was designed with easy modification in mind. The EFI system is easily altered, the airbox can be opened up and the stock tires are somewhat race-oriented. We already performed the stage one modifications and tested the Suzuki against the Yamaha earlier in the year, where it did well.


To take the Suzuki to the next level, we went to Yoshimura—an obvious choice. With the chassis already somewhat race-ready, we were able to target the motor heavily. Our advisors at Yoshimura knew exactly where to go to get the most bang for the buck. Head work and compression were deemed unnecessary. The motor got a stainless steel exhaust system and Yosh’s new PIM 2 engine management system. This system allows you almost unlimited control over the fuel injection. You can also add on the Data Box, which lets you collect information for further fine-tuning, but that’s a project for another day.


Yoshimura’s race team uses the Hinson BTL slipper clutch, but with the motor work we had done, it was just beyond the reach of our budget. Instead, we opted for the Hinson Single Spring, just as we had on the Honda. We added on a Hinson steel basket to give the motor a little more flywheel effect.


Suzuki’s chassis works so well that heavy attention wasn’t necessary. Nerf bars had to be added, so we turned to AC Racing. For the steering damper, we followed the lead of the Yoshimura/Rockstar racing team and installed a Precision Pro Series. And Suzuki is another member of the crummy handlebar club, so we installed a set of Pro Tapers.


Like the others, the Suzuki got Fox Float Evol front shocks and a Podium X rear shock, which corrected the weakest link in the Suzuki’s otherwise impressive handling package. It also got DWT wheels and tires in the same size as the others.


We knew exactly what the Suzuki would be like before we started. It’s excellent. In stock form, we consider it to be one of the best-handling quads on the market. With the upgrade in suspension, it only got better. The Suzuki sticks in the turns and corners effortlessly, and stability is excellent.
In the motor department, the exhaust and PIM 2 brought the machine up to the next level as we expected. It was certainly fast. But oddly enough, it wasn’t quite in the same league as the Kawasaki, which could pull away at will. Conversely, the Suzuki was much faster than the Yamaha and the Honda, which had essentially the same motor modifications.



Dollar for dollar, there’s no better deal on the market than the Polaris Outlaw 450MXR. For $7399, you get a legitimate 450 with one of the greatest motors in the off-road world: the KTM-built RFS. In its quad form, the motor has reverse, a feature shared by only the Kawasaki in this group.


Instead of experimenting with MX conversions on our own, we turned to the leading Polaris expert in Southern California, Wes Miller of H-Bomb Films. Wes might not have a MX background to match Yoshimura or Hinson, but his freestyle team has come to know the Outlaw and its Austrian motor inside-out, and he relied heavily on Rath Racing for guidance.


Like the Kawasaki and Honda, the Outlaw needs a wider stance. This was accomplished with a Lonestar axle and Rath Racing A-arms. Interestingly enough, the stock brake lines are long enough to accept the additional width—more savings courtesy of Polaris. Rath also provided the nerf bars and the steering stem. Once Wes installed the Fox Float Evol shocks up front, the Podium X rear shock, the Precision Pro Series damper and the DWT wheels and tires, he found he still had lots of money in the bank to spend on the motor.


But what do you do with a motor that’s so good? It turns out that the KTM motor can’t reach its potential simply because it can’t breathe. An FMF pipe fixed the exit, but the intake took some doing. Darryl Rath came up with a new intake to feed the Keihin carb that involved some serious testing and fabrication. Then the motor itself was turned over to DASA for head work and a piston. The Keihin carb was also modified and jetted by DASA. A Web cam was used.


With a little cash left in the bank, Wes paid attention to detailing the Outlaw. It got a Quad Tech seat cover and nose piece, plus in-line coolers. It also represented the first time we got to try the Precision shock and vibe-absorbing handlebar mounts, which were very cool.


The H-Bomb Films Outlaw was the second-fastest quad in the shootout. It had good top-end and a fairly hard hit. It was an absolute gas to pin the throttle and watch dirt fly. We never quite got the bottom-end jetting perfect in our test period, and that handicapped the machine somewhat on the track. Still, it was obvious that the engine had excellent potential. It was also obvious that the Polaris was built by guys who like to jump. The setup wasn’t your typical race quad. It had a tall stem, which was great for throwing down an occasional heal-clicker, but made cornering more difficult. The Outlaw loved to go very fast in a straight line, but took more effort to turn quick laps than most of the others.


Yamaha rocked our world last year when the YFZ450R came out. It was already track width, it was fuel-injected and it had a high-tech aluminum frame. Finally, we had a machine to take on the Suzuki in terms of being race-ready.


Now that we have lived with the machine for over a year, we have a clearer view of its place in the big picture. We love it as much as ever, but can objectively see where it needs to be improved. Hinson Racing spent most of the year testing with Adam Campbell to develop our test machine for this shootout.


The Yamaha starts off with a fairly steep price. It’s a good thing that so much of the work was already done. We didn’t need a wider axle or extended A-arms, but we still wanted to target handling above all else. We have noted a slight twitchiness in the YFZ’s cornering manners—perhaps not as bad as the Kawasaki’s, but notable nonetheless. We addressed it with Houser Racing’s Tric Trac kit. This is a system that alters the caster as the front suspension is compressed—many of the top Yamaha pros use it, including Bill Ballance in the GNCC series and Pat Brown in the ‘09 MX series. Unfortunately, it can only be used on Houser Pro Series A-arms, and we hadn’t planned on replacing the A-arms. We compromised by replacing only the top A-arms, an option that took a little work. This is where the testing came in—it took days to set up the front end properly.

Another issue that Yamaha riders complain about is the harsh lash between open and closed throttle. The EFI system has a somewhat jerky transition between on and off. If ever there seemed a good application for the Hinson BTL slipper clutch, this is it. Engine braking could be greatly reduced by the one-way slippage of the clutch, and the harsh engine lash would be less of a factor.


That left little budget for motor mods. We settled on a Yoshimura stainless steel exhaust and a PIM 2 engine management system. A GYTR air filter kit allowed the motor to breathe better. GYTR also was represented with nerf bars, and the Yamaha comes stock with a Pro Taper handlebar (way to go!).

The rest of the quad got the same modifications as the others, the Fox Float Evol front shocks and Podium X rear shock, plus DWT wheels and tires. For the damper on this unit, we selected the Precision Pro Series.


It’s debatable, but the Yamaha was probably the best-handling quad in the test. The twitchiness was 90 percent gone and the machine seemed to be a traction magnet. The front end would stick in the turns, and the rear end was always predictable. It was an easy ATV to get on and ride fast, from lap one.

The only shortcoming was purely the result of an exhausted budget. The Yamaha is fast in stock form, but against this army of fire-breathers it was out-gunned. The motor was super-easy to use and fun to ride, and most riders frankly couldn’t use more power. But in the expert ranks, it needs more fire in the oven.


When the dust cleared and the voting was done, our testers unanimously choose the Dubach Racing Kawasaki as the best race quad in the group. The handling was greatly improved over stock, and the motor was awesome. Clearly, the assistance that Dubach received from Jimmy White and the Kawasaki racing department was the secret to the KFX’s success. They knew exactly where to go to get the most value for our budget.

For the rest, the aftermath of the shootout was all about second-guessing. Virtually any of them could have won if the test was set up with different rules. In bone-stock configuration, the Yamaha would be a winner, as we found in the May 2009 issue of Dirt Wheels. With just slight modification, the Suzuki comes to life, thanks to the Yoshimura Cherry Bomb and the other quick and easy shortcuts that are built into the machine. The Can-Am is super user-friendly, and the Polaris is the best value for the money.

Could the Yamaha could have used more motor work? Did the Polaris need more dial-in time? Certainly. But the facts are the facts. Right now, the best racer in the Dirt Wheels shop is a Kawasaki.

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