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This Athletic New Quad Takes Over as Top Dog in the Highly Competitive Sport Utility Segment


By: Bob Davis

Kawasaki Prairie 650 V-twin mud testWho says you can't go to the big city and not have fun riding ATVs? Not us. We know better. The occasion was Kawasaki's new 650 Prairie introduction for the media. They had made arrangements for us to test the new quad just outside San Antonio, Texas on a privately owned trail system offering a nice array of terrain.
Kawasaki's New Flagship -- We gave it a good beating at the intro.
 I have to confess that it was hard for me to become emotionally involved with the Prairie 400. It wasn't that it was a bad machine--on the contrary, it ran well and was reliable. It has a typical limited-slip front end, a decent ride and 400cc's of power, but there wasn't anything flashy about it to make me fall in love with it. But with the new 650 Prairie as their flagship model, my position has changed dramatically. This exclusive 4x4 V-twin was over three years in development--and it shows. I absolutely love what they've done with their new flagship model.


In 4WD mode the Prairie will bury any other utility machine. In 2WD it can hang with any sport quad with the exception of the Raptor, DS650 Banshee and 400EX.

Rather than borrow from Kawasaki's big book of four-strokes, they decided on building the new Prairie engine from the ground up. The 633cc liquid-cooled, four-stroke V-twin spits out a reputed 43 horsepower. Almost twice the power of the Prairie 400. The dual 32mm CVKR carbs have exceptionally high air intakes and feed dual 80x63mm cylinders. Top end is reputed to be 65mph. Although the engine is brutally powerful, the 90-degree cylinder configuration allows for a smooth running engine with no need for a heavy counterbalancer like found on regular big-bore single cylinders. The 1,250-pound towing capacity is the highest in the 4x4 segment making this machine the most powerful 4x4 on the market. Not surprisingly, the Prairie 650 will mop up any other 4x4 both in torque and drag racing.

This quad had the lowest center of gravity of any we've tested on a 25"-tired 4x4 ATV.
Jumping the Prairie
Another reason for the totally new engine design was to allow for a lower center of gravity. Unlike the conventional high design of single cylinder ATVs, the V-twin's compact design and unique chassis layout make for a few interesting weight distribution improvements. For instance, the 4.5-gallon gas tank is located under the right rear fender while the air cleaner has been raised to where the gas tank usually is. The air cleaner is exceptionally easy to open and clean. Besides allowing for deep-water crossings, it places 30-pounds of fuel tank weight about 6-inches lower and 16-inches rearward than conventional designs. The combination of low engine height and fuel tank location gives the Prairie a 53:47 percent front to rear weight ratio. Getting the quad air born from small hills showed it to be a well-balanced machine.

Front Differential

This would have been a difficult maneuver without a locking front end and scads of torque.
Going through a mudhole
During Kawasaki's presentation the morning of the test ride, we learned that a finger operated pull lever controlled the limited-slip locking front end. Originally suspecting this to be an elaborate and bizarre way to lock the front end, we soon learned that we couldn't have been more wrong. Here's why: There are currently three other ATV models with locking front-end systems. The Polaris "On-Demand" system, Bombardier's "Visco-Lok" system and Suzuki's manually operated lever system. Only after testing Kawasaki's new locking front end did we realize the shortcomings of other systems. For instance, the On-Demand (after 20% rear-wheel spin), and Visco-Lok (front tire spinning ratio) systems only engage after the quad is already beginning to slip and get stuck. While Suzuki's lever-system is operable before wheel spin, you must be stopped to engage it and it's only available in low-range mode. The advantage of Kawasaki's system is that you can lock in the front tires prior to hitting a deep mudhole or climbing over a log--and do it in either high or low range. We deliberately tried getting the 650 stuck but it always managed to quickly recover by digging itself out backwards after getting hung up on the frame. Picking another line through the mudhole it would push through remorselessly--far better than anything we've ever tested. We eventually did get it stuck, but believe us when we say that with the slick locking front-end and power to weight ratio, the Prairie 650 has an extraordinary amount of deliberate forward movement.


Every time we thought the Prairie might roll--it didn't.
For climbing over wet slippery logs or short steep embankments, we just slowly pulled up until the front wheels hit, then pulled the lock lever (Kawasaki recommends engaging the lock mode while under 12-mph) with our left index finger. The engine's tremendous power split evenly with all four locked wheels makes obstacle climbing a breeze.
      For as goofy as we originally thought the finger-controlled locking front end would be, this mechanical wonder (unique to the ATV industry) proved to be superior in both use and practice to anything currently available. The system is similar to the Traxter's locking front end in that the wheels lock using a clutch pack--consisting of 24 bronze plates with kevlar end discs. With its exceptional power and traction, the 650 Prairie can impose its will on just about any kind of terrain imaginable. It makes you brave to a fault.


Power from the high-tech engine is transferred through a fully automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT). It's a different system than found on the 400 Prairie. The new CVT offers more belt-gripping power with four-button sheaves. The gear selection lever is located on the right side of the machine and has four positions. Neutral, reverse, high and low ranges. The improved look and mechanical design of the lever is more user-friendly than the Prairie 400. The engine will start in any gear provided the brakes are applied.
      The eager to build safer and more user-friendly designs has intensified with the fast-growing automatic transmission segment. It's evident with the Prairies' right handgrip 2WD/4WD switch and Kawasaki Engine Brake System (KEBC). The system works by electronically monitoring ground speed. Once your speed falls below 8-mph, the engine compression will begin holding you back. In other words, it only kicks in when coming to a stop or on slow-speed steep downhills. It worked great during our downhill tests.


Like the entire Prairie lineup, the 650 has a nice ride to it. MacPherson struts with 7.0-inches of travel are on the front while an aluminum swingarm with a full adjustable spring with a piggy-back oil reservoir and 7.2-inches of travel are on the rear. For normal recreational or utility use, the stock front springs are fine, but if you're the type rider who frequently rides ahead of the pack, you should consider installing the optional heavier duty front coil springs. At higher trail speeds the front end needed a little more rebound damping. Rack weight capacities are 88-pounds for the front and 176-pounds for the rear.

Braking System

Another new design feature is the braking system. The front disc brakes have dual-piston calipers while a totally new multi-disc wet braking system provides rear braking. It's an integral part of the drive shaft and is completely sealed in the Prairie's aluminum swingarm where it operates in an oil bath. This type of braking system is very strong providing an abnormally long lifespan as well. While zipping around on the test trails at warp speed we gave the brakes a good workout. Indeed, they're the best we've yet tested.

Other Stuff

Here are a few small things I noticed. For a close-up view, click on the photos in the right hand border.

Display panel: The full-digital instrument panel is super-cool looking. It includes a speedometer, odometer, dual resettable trip meters, clock, hour meter, fuel gauge and 4x2/4x4 indicators. A handy item on the display panel is a warning light that starts flashing when fuel is running low.

Fit and finish: The fit and finish is first rate. To the best of my knowledge, it's the first Kawasaki to have encased handlebars. It gives the machine a cooler appearance while protecting all of the electrical wiring and cables. Air filter access and seat removal is very easy.

Floorboards: The floorboards have adjustable footpegs.

Lighting: The front headlights are 45-watt halogens with a multi-faceted reflector lens. The Prairie also includes a brake light.


Two things I'd like to see and one genuine concern: I know I'm getting picky, but I'd like to see a "Park" mode integrated into the transmission. We found the Traxter's Park mode to be handy and safe when transporting the quad or parking on a hill. My other concern is not to have the towing hitch as an option. I think it's a little silly to have a 4x4 machine of this caliber and have to pay extra for the hitch. My only conclusion is that it must be an OEM/Dealership arrangement.

I'm a bit concerned about the 4.5-gallon fuel tank. There's no funny arithmetic here. With dual 32mm carbs, any sort of long term ride will necessitate the carrying of extra gas. We were testing the fuel mileage at the intro but somebody reset the trip meter on our test unit so we were unable to get exact figures for you. Ordinarily, a 4.5-gallon tank would be sufficient-- this machine could use a bigger one.

Every so often an ATV comes along that is so unique--and so unique in performance--that it defies comparison. The new Prairie is one of them. Thought not merely in terms of single new ideas, but of the whole machine, this is the premier 4x4 on the market. Kudos to the engineering team behind this unit. Kawasaki expressed itself in an ambitious building program and who now rightly see themselves as the ruling class of the sport utility market.
       The physical resources of this machine put the Prairie in a class by itself. Maybe we should start a new category of quads and call it the "Super Sport Utility" class? Because that's where this machine belongs. The MSRP hasn't been set yet, but expect this quad to be around 7K. Look for it in dealer showrooms by late April.

Note: With the introduction of a V-twin model, the ATV industry is now governed by a virtually unrestrained market and by their own ingenuity and energy. Rumor has it that Kawasaki has several new machines in the works. Polaris and Suzuki also have new 4x4's coming out. I haven't heard anything about a new Yamaha but imagine they're not going to sit quietly and rest on its Grizzly laurels. It doesn't take a whole lot of foresight to say that they're working on something pretty big as well. What does all this mean? More competent machines of course!

Please discuss your opinions of the all-new Prairie 650 at our forums: Kawasaki Forums


  • Engine: 90-degree four-stroke V-twin
  • Valve system: SOHC, four valves
  • Displacement: 633cc
  • Starting system: Electric or manual pull start
  • Bore x Stroke: 80x63mm (dual)
  • Compression ratio: 9.9:1
  • Cooling: Liquid
  • Carburetion: (2) Keihin CVKR-D32
  • Transmission: Dual range CVT plus reverse
  • Final drive: 4x4/4x2 shaft
  • Frame: Double-cradle, tubular steel
  • Suspension type:
       Front: Macpherson Strut / 6.7" travel
       Rear: Aluminum swingarm and single shock / 7.2" travel
  • Tires:
       Front: 25x8-12
       Rear: 25x10-12
  • Brakes:
       Front: (2) Dual-piston disc
       Rear: sealed wet multi-disc
  • Overall length: 84.8"
  • Overall width: 46.1"
  • Wheelbase: 51"
  • Ground clearance at lowest point: 7.6"
  • Seat height: 33.7"
  • Dry weight: 606-pounds
  • Fuel capacity: 4.5-gallons
  • Instruments: Speedometer, odometer, dual tripmeters, clock, hourmeter, fuel gauge, 4x2/4x4 indicator light, neutral indicator light, reverse indicator light, low fuel warning light, low oil warning light, parking warning light
  • Lighting: (2) 12V, 45W
  • Colors: Firecracker Red, Hunter Green

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