Riding Yamaha’s 2011 Grizzly 450 EPS in Washington’s Rainforest

Home Page Slide Show, Utility, Yamaha — on October 26, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Wild, highly-specialized ATVs are on the loose, attacking nearly every conceivable niche in the market — motocross and cross-country machines, all-out mud boggers, two-passenger touring buggies, luxuriant cruisers, diesel workhorses, etc. — but the heart of ATV sales come from traditional users like farmers and outdoorsmen who might like a little trail riding on the side.

Specialized models are ideal if you have specific, fixed needs, but the do-it-all midsize grocery getters of the ATV industry continue to be the mid- to upper-displacement four-wheel drive utility quads. It’s the Sportsmans, King Quads, Brute Forces, Ranchers and Outlanders that dominate the market.

In terms of popularity, one cannot forget Yamaha’s 550 and 700 Grizzlies — both best sellers of their respective classes. There are reasons for their success; the larger Grizzly twins are based on rock-solid platforms, offer strong power, adjustable suspensions, strong tow/rack ratings, modern features, good looks and small, confidence-inspiring features that make a big difference.

We awarded the Grizzly 700 our ATV of the Year award in 2007, and lauded the 550 when it joined the scene in 2009. Yamaha’s lower-displacement utilities have received less love, however, as they’ve lacked the capable-but-fun appeal embodied by the big Grizzlies or energetic Raptor 250 sport quad. That changes now with the introduction of the 2011 Yamaha Grizzly 450 Auto 4×4 EPS — an ATV that covers the bases with power, refinement, comfort, ergonomics and capability.

2011 Yamaha Grizzly 450 EPS: Minor Changes, Big Result

2011 Yamaha Grizzly 450 EPS

2011 Yamaha Grizzly 450 EPS

The Grizzly 450 is not entirely new, originally debuting in 2007 as a rebadged, upgraded Kodiak. There have been some meaningful changes for 2011, but this year’s machine is still packing the same engine that resides in a largely unchanged chassis. With a few small, but meaningful changes, however, Yamaha has transformed a decent ATV into a class-leading midsize competitor.

First, and most importantly, Electric Power Steering (EPS) has been added to the Grizzly 450, although it’s still available without it. For an extra $600, the EPS brings lighter steering for tight situations and valuable impact damping to reduce rider fatigue.

Ditching the previous two-piece design held together by bolts, a new one-piece frame means this year’s Grizzly 450 is 9.9 pounds lighter, even with the added weight of power steering. Sitting side-by-side, stripped and on a desk at the media presentation, the difference in frame heft is clear, even though the two still retain the same basic architecture.

A new sealed wet brake delivers 20 percent more braking torque out back, with improved feel transmitted to the operator’s hand. Under-body plastic skid plates and CV boot guards protect the machine’s underbelly from sharp obstacles, adding to the 10.8 inches of ground clearance.

Other notable features include a digital display, a dual-range transmission, four-wheel independent suspension, a no-tools air filter, 12-volt power outlet, under-seat and in-fender storage and a three-way locking differential that retains the best-in-the-business two-button design.

Automatic locking differentials and all-wheel drive are fine in some situations, but precise driveline control between two-, four-wheel drive and a locked differential makes Yamaha’s system more predictable than some others.

Lower displacement utility quads can be fun too!

Lower displacement utility quads can be fun too!

The suspension is no longer preload-adjustable, a cost-cutting measure we’re not crazy about, but it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker in this class. Suspension travel numbers of 6.3 and 7.1 inches, front and rear, are comparable to the Honda Foreman (6.7/6.7), less than Suzuki’s King Quad 450 (7.1/7.9), and much less than Arctic Cat’s 450 H1 (10/10).

Yamaha officials hammered hard on a central mission: the Grizzly 450 EPS is compact, light (620 pounds wet) and durable, citing an independent study claiming Yamaha has the strongest CVT durability in the industry for machines 400cc and up. The second part of their message was the Grizzly’s appeal to trail riders, hunters and farmers who make up the bulk of the market, meaning Yamaha is expecting plenty of customers.

Home Of The Grizzly

Flying into Washington State to ride four-wheelers, you know you’re in for a treat when you spot the towering peaks of Mounts Rainier, Adams and Baker outside the tiny window. This is the state where you’ll undoubtedly hear that it’s feasible to swim in the ocean, ski on a mountain and hang out in Seattle in one day. I don’t know anybody quite so ambitious, but it sounds like a snazzy lifestyle.

Having never traveled to Washington State, I was immediately exposed to the local culture and lifestyle upon arrival in Seattle. We drove directly from the bilingual Sea-Tac Airport into the contemporary downtown core and onto the Bremerton Ferry Terminal. The Rainy City’s waterfront is absolutely packed with cargo containers, bustling docks and ships of all sizes.

Crossing the Puget Sound was a picturesque excursion, and surprisingly quick. We then headed to the historic Alderbrook Resort & Spa on the Hood Canal, located next door to one of Bill Gates’ vacation homes. We ATV folks like to keep it classy, you know.

Our group had plans to live the high life, scarf some seafood, stalk Mr. Gates and ride the new Grizzly 450 in the Capitol State Forest southwest of Olympia. Things were looking good.

Natural Habitat

North America’s second largest carnivore, second to the polar bear, the mighty grizzly bear’s territory dips down from Canada into areas of Washington State. Local EMTs supervising the event said they’re not rare, but that big cats, elk and black bears are much more common sights. On the narrow, tree-hugging trails of the Capitol State Forest, the smaller-than-a-big-bore Grizzly 450 EPS was also feeling right at home.

Washington's Capitol State Forest is a lush, temperate rainforest with miles of excellent tight-woods trails.

Washington's Capitol State Forest is a lush, temperate rainforest with miles of excellent tight-woods trails.

Pat Biolsi, Yamaha’s ATV testing supervisor and an excellent rider, brought a group of us on a spirited jaunt into Washington’s temperate rainforest where ferns covered the ground and moss hung from the trees. Most bridges were built in an era of narrower ATVs, providing only minimal fender clearance. The rocky, rutted trails meant a high-power, full-size quad would be overkill for this thick forest. Out here, this Grizzly never felt too slow or too big.

The ride included plenty of opportunities to really open up the Grizzly 450, and its carbureted 421cc single-cylinder engine shined. Low-end torque feels stronger than many other 450s, and its upper range felt unexpectedly sporty, easily bringing the machine beyond 50 mph. This versatile, smooth power is the new Grizzly’s best advantage against the competition.

Variable-assist power steering mimics the character of the company’s other systems. Both Yamaha and Can-Am have explicitly tasked their engineers with maintaining steering feedback while simultaneously lessening effort at low speeds. The handlebars are nowhere near as light as a Polaris with EPS, and we welcomed the positive feedback on the trail. One might prefer lighter steering during repetitive work, like plowing snow, however.

The Grizzly’s dual-lever brake levers allow full braking force control. We think this simple upgrade makes an ATV much more controllable during work or play. Single-lever braking just can’t provide the control aggressive riders rely upon when dropping the hammer through the twisties or hauling a load over off-camber hills.

Yamaha’s unique Ultramatic CVT maintains constant belt tension, like other Grizzlies. Its consistent engine braking pays off big, benefiting the rider in all conditions. Instead of simulating engine braking, or only allowing it at lower speeds, the Grizzly 450 is predictable and gradually scrubs speed whenever letting off the throttle. In the undulating terrain surrounding the Middle Waddell staging area, this means we never had the dubious pleasure of freewheeling down a steep hill. The experience was not missed.

Suspension action is largely unobtrusive and sufficient. It may not have the travel of some of its competitors, but the Grizzly 450 stays flat in corners and rarely bottomed out. If your usual riding involves skying your utility quad off jumps, you may have greater problems than a dearth of suspension travel.

2011 Yamaha Grizzly 450 EPS: The  Do-It-All Quad

After a full day it was obvious: the new Grizzly 450 EPS is a very well-rounded machine, more than capable of delivering fun and utility in equal parts.

The Grizzly 450's new one-piece frame is 9.9 lbs lighter - even with the added power steering.

The Grizzly 450's new one-piece frame is 9.9 lbs lighter - even with the added power steering.

Even without an entirely new platform or engine, this midsize Grizzly is updated with careful attention to detail instead of eye-catching changes. Power steering, predictable moves, giving riders full control and accommodating ergonomics serve this machine very well.

Despite our best attempts to push them beyond their limits, and some very tight, rock-strewn trails, the new two-ply Maxxis tires provided decent traction without any flats. That’s a worthy accomplishment, especially when some competing stock tires are incredibly prone to flats. There were some pretty hard hits out there, and plenty of dinged-up rims to prove it.

Ergonomics are a Yamaha strong suit, and your six-foot-four author found the Grizzly 450’s perch to be less softly padded than larger Grizzlies, but ultimately more comfortable. The underlying seat construction allows the pilot to stay back and away from the hard plastic surrounding the gas tank for a natural, more comfortable body position than the 550 or 700. Riders of all sizes should find enough room on the midsize Grizzly, and anybody loftier than Danny DeVito will be able to handle its dimensions.

Starting at $7,499, the 450 EPS makes a strong case for saving $1,200 over the larger Grizzly 550 EPS. Either way, this reinvigorated machine has the capabilities, comfort and performance to appeal to a massive chunk of the ATV market, from farmers to trail riders. It’s no wonder Yamaha is feeling confident — it’s got another winning Grizzly on its hands.

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