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The Kawasaki Teryx, off-roading with the big boys: Motoramic TV

May 6, 2013

What has four wheels, fuel injection, power steering and costs around $15,000? Yes, a cheap car! And also something that’s not a car at all, the Kawasaki Teryx4 750 4x4 EPS LE.

That mouthful of nomenclature denotes a four-wheel-drive machine that seats four, has a 749-cc motor, electric power steering and some spiffy aluminum rims. Other than the diminutive size of the motor, it sounds like I just described a truck. And the Teryx, like other side-by-side recreational off-roaders, occupies a gray area between trucks and ATVs. It’s kind of what a small truck might look like if there were no rules.

But can it hang with a truck out on the trails? To help figure that out, I recruited a couple guys who think 35-inch tires are small and a 5-liter V8 a minimalist form of propulsion. Keith Wilson is the owner of Wilson Off Road in Fayetteville, N.C., and Shawn Godbold is the WOR vice-president. Keith brought his compact Toyota pickup that now packs a GM 5.3-liter V8 and solid axles; Godbold showed up with his Ford 302-powered Jeep Wrangler. Both trucks wear tires big enough for an all-terrain Soviet ICBM launcher. The Kawasaki would be mixing it up with the pros.

With its mid-mounted engine and four-wheel independent suspension, the Teryx is like a miniaturized Hummer H1. Kawasaki doesn’t quote power numbers, but I’d guess that the fuel-injected 749-cc V-twin is throwing down somewhere around 50 horsepower. Top speed is electronically limited to 50 mph, which feels quite fast enough, thanks. Like other V-twins, the Kawasaki’s forte is torque, and the midrange is plenty punchy to break the rear tires free on the dirt. The CVT transmission has a low range, but you really only need it for serious hill climbs.

Of which I attempted a few. The Teryx’s off-road Achilles heel is its breakover angle, which, while apparently competitive for a side-by-side is still a lot less aggressive than that of a jacked-up truck. The Kawasaki has the torque and the traction to blast up a terrifyingly vertical hill, but cresting the summit can cause the belly to bottom out and leave the tires dangling uselessly in the air.

But with the front diff locked and the transmission in low range, there aren’t too many places you couldn’t go with the Teryx4. And it is undeniably more fun than driving a truck — with no windows and thin little doors, the Kawasaki offers an open-air feeling of illicit fun that even a Wrangler can’t match. And yet, I keep coming back to the price: $15,499. That’s more than a Hyundai Accent and a lot more than most of the beater trucks you see out on the trails. As Wilson points out, “For 15 grand, I could build you a truck, and it would have a title and be street-legal.” This I know, because Wilson’s shop built my Bronco, which I used to tow the Kawasaki to the trails. Prior to its conversion to a 7.3-liter Powerstroke diesel, I paid $1,850 for that Bronco. Is the Teryx eight times as fun?

Maybe that’s the wrong question. Because an item like this isn’t a practical purchase — if you need to haul some hay around the farm, an old pickup will do it better and cheaper. Despite the fact that it looks like a jacked-up redneck golf cart, the Teryx and its ilk are luxury products, the off-road version of a gleaming Yamaha jet boat or a matching pair of new Ski-Doos. It’s a whimsical item. So while my train of thought kept turning toward how to make it more useful — turn signals and some sort of limited street-legal status? — a large part of the Teryx’s appeal is bound up in the fact that it’s got a steering wheel, but it’s not a car. You’ll never commute in it, never sit in traffic, never get a speeding ticket. Unlike almost every other vehicle you’ll encounter in your life, this one’s just for fun.