All wheel drive (AWD) motorcycles are not new. Several companies have retrofitted existing machines with front drive systems, on a very limited production basis. Rokon has been building complete AWD bikes for more than 50 years, but with its 7 horsepower Kohler engine, it is closer to a minibike than a serious off-road weapon.
Philadelphia-based Christini makes complete turnkey AWD dirt bikes and dual-sport machines capable of competing with the best Europe and Japan have to offer. The rise of Christini brings a few questions: Is AWD really an advantage? Is it worth the added weight and complexity? How does it handle? Is the rest of the bike any good? Is this the future of off-road motorcycles?
The 2016 450DS we tested is a street legal, 450cc dual-sport. Other than the AWD components, it’s essentially a carbon copy of Honda’s excellent CRF450X. Components are made by various suppliers from all over the world, including Austria, Japan, Taiwan and China, then assembled by hand in Philadelphia.
Christini currently offers fuel injection on this model, but our test bike was carbureted. The mechanical AWD system delivers power from the motorcycle transmission to the front wheel through a series of chains and shafts, with no hydraulics involved. The 14-pound system works like those found on four-wheel drive vehicles. One-way clutches in the front hub allow the front wheel to be driven at a slower rate than the rear wheel.
Power is transferred to the front wheel only when either wheel loses traction. The front-to-rear power ratio is adjustable with a simple sprocket, allowing for fine tuning to suit personal riding preference or conditions. We rode this machine in the foothills outside of Denver, with up to 2 inches of fresh snow covering half of the trails. The most immediate impression is that it’s a real dirt bike; it rides and handles like a modern, high-performance dirt bike should. Christini claims 40 horsepower from the engine, which may be little weaker than a 450cc motocross bike, but is certainly enough. With ample low-end torque, the power is extremely linear and controllable throughout the rev range, making it unintimidating and easy to ride at any pace. The AWD system is neither intrusive nor terribly obvious.
The front wheel doesn’t start pulling until the rear wheel slips and spins about 20 percent faster than the front. Unsurprisingly, it comes in most handy in the slipperiest conditions. We were readily able to pull ahead of a traditional KTM in the snow. What is more surprising is how well the Christini turns. When thrown hard into a corner, most bikes tend to push the front end, but when the Christini front wheel starts to wash out, it rotates more slowly, and power begins to transfer forward.
The front wheel then pulls itself around the corner, which adds credence to the old saying, “When in doubt, gas it out.” Furthermore, relieved of some of its forward-driving duties, the rear wheel stays better planted, making powering out of corners this machine’s forte. The AWD also makes flipping a 180 in close quarters much easier. Point the front wheel where you want it to go and it powers itself there instead of pushing straight ahead like other bikes tend to do. Slow speed log crossings are also much easier, as the front wheel powers itself over, then helps pull the rest of the bike over.
In general, the AWD makes the bike much more tolerant of rider error and sloppiness, sometimes giving the rider a feeling that he can do no wrong. This bike’s owner could no longer ride like he used to, and the added capability of AWD gives him the confidence and ability to continue riding instead of quitting. As expected, the Austrian WP forks up front are fantastic, but the Taiwanese rear shock also works quite well. The brakes provided good feel and were not overly sensitive in any application. Some downsides include the added weight, most of it on the front end.
Additionally, some components aren’t top quality, like the switchgear, which was already malfunctioning. Though no special tools are needed, maintenance can be more complicated with all the added gears and chains. It also makes access to the carb and engine a bit more difficult, as there is more stuff in the way. This bike was also delivered with a horrible lean bog, making it virtually unrideable. Christini does not have a dealer in Colorado and sent the owner to a local shop whose staff twice claimed they fixed it, but didn’t.
A second shop tore down the carburetor and found manufacturing slag clogging the jets. Steve Christini himself worked with the mechanic through the whole process and covered all the charges, but new bike failures are disappointing, nonetheless. Overall, this bike is very good quality. There were some manufacturing issues, but Christini covered them and they will almost certainly get better as production increases and the company matures.
To answer the original questions: AWD is an advantage in certain conditions, but not everywhere. Though Christinis have competed in and finished many of the world’s most difficult races, top riders still race conventional dirt bikes. It would be fair to say that the more expert your skills, the less advantage AWD affords.
For riders of very technical, often traction-limited terrain, or those no longer able to ride a conventional dirt bike effectively, it offers distinct benefits. Getting the most out of AWD requires slightly modified technique, but is not difficult to learn. In the past, tooling up for motor vehicle production was a huge barrier to entry, particularly for a low-volume, niche production like this. Christini was able to turn AWD motorcycles into reality thanks in part to recent economies of global manufacturing. The direct sale model also allows these bikes to be competitively priced.
Being able to sell a reliable, capable, limited production, street legal, dual-sport for under $10,000, delivered to your door, is simply astounding. While Christini fills a definite niche, traditional dirt bikes still work very well and are capable of truly amazing things in the hands of a skilled rider. The added cost, weight and complexity of AWD is unlikely to become industry standard any time soon, but for the right rider, it’s worth the investment.