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Rifle Magazine
November - December 2002
Volume 0, Number 0
Number 0
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Special Edition! Elk Photo by Mike Barlow. Whitetail Deer photo by George Barnett.
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Rifle Magazine
Product Tests

Mashing the throttle left me with only one question, ‘Is this an ATV or a rocket sled?” The answer is even better than one could hope. It is absolutely an ATV, an ultra-sophisticated, exquisitely powerful ATV that just makes you think it is a rocket sled. While at the same time, it is a very subtle, gentle, easy-to-ride machine with traction to match its power.

Not long ago we were quite happy with 300cc motors. We climbed hills, pulled the occasional elk and did a lot of ranch work with the machines. Progress brought us 400cc’s, then 450, then 500cc motors. All the while I kept saying to myself, “this is enough power,” while that little nagging bird in the back of my head asked for more. Of course, power is useless, even harmful, unless the rest of the machine is designed to handle it efficiently and gracefully. We now fast-forward to the present, to the throaty voice of a really big, 650cc, twin-cylinder motor with the Kawasaki Prairie wrapped around it.

To fully understand my perspective and appreciation of this machine, we have to back up a little. I have always liked Kawasaki ATVs. They were extremely user friendly, nimble, quick and easy to handle. For me and my mountain pursuits, machines of the past lacked one extremely important feature: engine braking. That is, the belt-driven “automatics” lacked the ability to use engine compression to assist mechanical braking when riding downhill. This is an extremely important feature, one you may only fully appreciate when you point a heavily loaded ATV down a steep pitch, through the rocks. The goal is to go slowly, very slowly. Hands are very busy in these instances and so is your head.

It is simply wonderful to have a system that controls most of the machine’s forward speed, without any conscious effort. With that said, the 650 comes equipped with the K-EBC (Kawasaki-engine brake control) - this a very powerful and effective way to link engine compression to the wheels, in conjunction with the belt-driven transmission. It has the ability to restrict forward speed to about 2 mph (in low range) on a very steep downgrade. There is one small catch: The K-EBC does not work when the machine rolls backwards. That is, if you are going up hill and release the throttle, the 650 can roll backward very rapidly unless you stop it. The solution is simple: You apply any of the three brake levers.

While we are on the subject of brakes, the 650 has another different feature in that the braking system for the rear wheels is not conventional drums or disks. Instead, there is a sealed, wet-plate system essentially wrapped around the rear drive shaft. Thus, there is a completely sealed, weather-proof, hydraulic brake system that grips the drive train. It does not know or care about mud, water, ice, snow or dust. The front brakes are disk that self-compensate for wear. We can see that the 650 package is a fine combination of powerful “go” with a “stop” to match.

The suspension is fine and friendly over bumps, while having good stability on severe terrain and especially on side-hills. The front suspension is McPherson strut that has 7 inches of travel to step over serious obstacles and soften bumps. The rear is a classic swing-arm (solid rear axle), combined with an adjustable spring and shock absorber system. The combination adds to the smooth ride, while maintaining very good side-roll stability.

Two other major features add to this stability: the low height of the 90-degree twin cylinders and the low-under-the-rear-fender gas tank location. When we combine the suspension with a thoroughly engineered low center of gravity, the end result is a machine that behaves itself very well under severe conditions. Or put another way, it is designed to keep the rider on top, instead of the very undesirable alternative.

With all the power and braking we are only left to ask: Can the 650 put that power on the ground? The answer is a resounding “yes.” The basis is the two-speed, high- and low-range gear selection. In high it has that “rocket-sled” feeling of quiet, low rpm cruising. While in low range, the torque and bottom-end power are absolutely amazing.

Even more interesting is the extreme traction in an ATV that does not feel like a tractor. While light for its tremendous power at 606 pounds, the 650 is obviously not a midget. Sometimes big ATVs are simply tough to steer - not so the 650. Along with a total “handling” package, two significant features make this one easy to manage, while it goes like a tank. It has selective two- and four-wheel drive. A switch on the handle bar selects between 4x2 and 4x4 drive options. In two-wheel drive the steering is extremely easy. Switching to four-wheel drive only increases steering effort slightly. But that is not all. One of the challenges to any 4WD designer is to find a way to get all four wheels to pull, pull that is without having a vehicle that is nearly impossible to turn.

Kawasaki’s solution is to utilize a limited-slip front differential, combined with a manual front differential lock. A small lever in front of the brake lever on the left handle bar can be used to progressively lock the front wheels. When fully engaged the 650 applies full power to all four wheels. It claws and scratches like a badger.

As we move beyond sheer mechanics, there are many other very thoughtful and friendly features. Little things like a full digital instrument panel with its speedometer, clock, trip meters, hour meter, two- or four-wheel drive indicator as well as a fine digital gas gauge add to the class and user-friendliness.

Applying the park brake is also unusually easy. Many machines ask you to use both hands in a forward and backward motion to lock the park brake. The 650 park brake goes on (and off) by first pulling the brake lever and then also pulling the brake-lock lever to the rear. The brake can be engaged and disengaged with only your left hand.

Another fine thing is the auxiliary cooling fan. This fans kicks in when normal air flow is not keeping the liquid-cooled engine cool enough. If you have been riding and stopping, and if the engine is hot, the fan will be running. Many other machines kill the fan if you turn off the switch. I always feel a little guilty and stay with the machine until the fan has sufficiently cooled the engine and shuts down. Then I turn the key off and go about my business. The Kawasaki 650 fan keeps running, even after you switch the ignition off. It keeps running, that is, until engine temperature falls to the correct level. Then the 650 automatically turns the fan off. Essentially the 650 performs the useful cool-down cycle automatically.

Another extremely useful and friendly feature is one that allows the 650 to start in any of the four “gear” positions: high, low, neutral or reverse. If the gear lever is in any but neutral position, starting only asks you to depress any one of the brake levers. Power is initially limited in reverse, but can be overridden by the push of a button on the left bar. The gear lever is also easy to shift.

One may not consider the start- in-gear and easy shifting until the going gets tough. This spring I used the 650 to “break trail” to the top end of the ranch. Many of the steep uphill grades were still heavily guarded by big drifts of rotten snow. The way through these obstacles is rather simple. You attack them uphill. (Wise backcountry drivers know you do not want to get stuck going downhill - because then you are really stuck!) The plan is to go until you cannot go any more, then to back out and get another run. At times I bog things and kill the engine. If you are buried to the frame, in gear, with the engine dead, it is very handy if you can get started again. The 650 started immediately, every time. It also shifted effortlessly from low to reverse and back again, over and over. The short end to a long story is that I made the 12-mile circle. I was hot and tired and amazed Ð amazed that any machine had actually plunged through the mess I had asked the 650 to tackle. It took a combination of all it can do, the ease of operation, full-scratch of the diff-lock and the screaming leap of the zero-to-whatever-in-10-feet power.

There is another very important test/requirement of all that power. You must be able to apply the horses very gently. Imagine for a moment that you are riding up a logging road and you want to ask the machine to do something apparently very simple. You want it to climb over the upper road bank and up a steep hill to latch onto your buck and bring it home. The best place on this bank has loose dirt and at its upper edge is guarded by some random rocks. Above, the “road” is littered with slick deadfalls. It looks easy until the front wheels begin to climb the bank. In the space of 10 feet the mountain just got really steep, so steep in fact that it has fully engaged your fear factor, as well it should.

At this moment doing anything rash or silly will have one result: The machine will jump over backwards. Bad idea! You nudge the bank, being wise and cautious in low range with the throttle only slightly open. The machine stops; you need more power. Now here is where, (pun intended) the rubber really meets the road and also where the great power can be your best friend. Any lurch or jerk is going to be disastrous. You gently, little by little, bring up the rpm. If you are on this wonderful 650, the clutch/ belt drive begins to engage smoothly, and you move forward almost imperceptibly. There are no surprises and with only the smallest part of throttle it claws its way over the bank. The movement is so slow that you remain in control. Even if the climb is too much and the front end starts to come up, all you have to do is release the throttle and touch the brake.

While using the 650 this spring, we noticed two seemingly unrelated, but very interesting, things. The first surrounds its engine sound. The big twin makes a deep throaty sound, one that actually sounds “louder” than some of the smaller engines. We feared that more noise would equal more disturbance to the deer and elk. In reality they seem to take significantly less notice of the 650. The larger voice, for reasons known best to wild critters, is less threatening.

Also, I had the occasion to use a pair of mules this spring when the world was literally afloat in water and extremely fragile. Yes, mules, the four-footed, smelly kind. The road up the hill behind the house was steep and water-logged. In four trips the mules had slipped, tearing significant gouges and poked lots of holes in the new green sod. They plowed the road in such a way that said if I made 20 trips the entire half-mile would be a mud hole. In contrast, we made nearly a dozen passes with the 650 and left only the smallest tread marks. Actually the ATV pressed down and repaired some of the mule-mess.

Yes, it is possible for idiots to do damage and tear up the world with any vehicle, but the concerned and cautious rider can move without leaving a trace.

Before we leave for the mountain, we must pause for a moment and think about the use of an ATV, or any motorized vehicle, in the wild world. More specifically we need to think about ATVs as a hunting tool. First, any motor must be used as quietly and gently as possible and then only in places where a motor should be. In a hunting context, using any vehicle as a hunting platform is a bad idea. Actually hunting from an ATV (unless you are severely handicapped) usually breaks legal law and always breaks moral law.

An ATV can be a wonderful tool, one that is used to transport gear or a hunter to a camp. It can also be used to get close to a hunting area. Then it is time to switch off and hunt on your hind feet. Later, an ATV is an excellent retriever. The point in this is to ask you to think, think about the results of your actions in the natural world. This not only applies to ATVs, pickup trucks and, yes, even mules, but to everything you do. Your ultimate goal as a hunter should be to enter and exit the wild world without anything, or anyone, knowing you had ever been there.

We really like the Prairie 650. One will become a full-time part of our ranching and guiding operation. It only wants the addition of a set of front and rear “baskets” from Moose Industries to make it complete. These carry salt blocks, fencing gear, the ever-present Labrador and major pieces of deer or elk. You also have a choice of three colors: red, hunter green and camo.

The ATV industry has become a rider’s paradise. The competition is severe, and the companies are responding, not with price wars but with quality and performance wars. I am sure the design engineers of every major maker are under a lot of pressure, pressure to make a better machine than the one that just passed them. There will be other and perhaps even better machines in the future. One thing is certain, however, if it is going to be better than the Prairie 650, it is going to be exceptional. Kawasaki has raised the bar extremely high. (There is, by the way, a little brother to the 650 with a 350 motor. A very similar machine that costs about $1,500 less.)

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