Can-Am's DS450 racing quad - let's not mince words here, this is not a "recreational" machine - looks long, low and fast just standing there.

Its abbreviated body panels make it look more purposeful than anything else in its class - almost as if stripped down for action.

And that's not just a perception: in 2001 Jose Boisjoli, president of parent company Bombardier, challenged the Can-Am development engineers to build "the ultimate sports quad for the hard-core enthusiast".

He demanded that it have the lowest weight, lowest unsprung weight and highest power in the 450cc class and this, more than half a decade of intense development later, is what they came up with.

And it has just won the 2008 Quad Roof of Africa enduro in Lesotho at its first attempt!

Most quads, especially sports quads, have steel frames because welded aluminium frames have too much flex at the joints unless heavily gusseted - then they crack next to the gussets.

So Can-Am built up the DS450 frame from straight aluminium sections, riveted together with aircraft-industry lockbolts, in the form of two pyramids back to back so it's triangulated in almost every plane.

The front wheels are hung on what it says are the industry's first forged-aluminium lower A-arms with shorter king-posts and inverted brake calipers to put the hubs right inside the front wheels.

And the high-tensile steel rear axle - the heaviest unsprung component on any quad - is not only hollow but also shorter than usual because the aluminium rear hubs have been extended inwards.

Then sister company Rotax dropped in a 34kW, fuel-injected, 449cc DOHC single with a heavy-duty clutch and a notchy but positive five-speed gearbox (no reverse here, Cyril, a DS is not for sissies) to produce a Pro 450-class quad with a class-leading power-to-weight ratio of 218kW/ton.

We asked 2007 SA quad champion Shaun Gunther, who will be racing a "works" DS450 in the 2008 British National quad series, to put it through its paces at the Zone 7 motocross track north of Cape Town.

It was the first time he had ridden a DS450 and his comments were fresh, unrehearsed and to the point.

"It runs surprisingly hard for a standard machine," he said - and that was before he pulled off the air box lid and ran it without the air filter, which liberated plenty of intake roar and a lot more mid-range stomp.

"The suspension also works better than I'd expect for original equipment."

He demonstrated that with some awesome jumps over Zone 7's intimidating tabletops and said later: "I wouldn't try that on any other standard quad."

Ready to race

According to Gunther the DS450 is practically ready to race straight out of the box.

"Learn to ride this machine up to its capability before you spend money trying to make it faster," he advised.

Then it was my turn to ride the DS450; Wayne Bakker of Can-Am distributor Waterworld warned me that it stalls easily and I should keep the revs up.

The deep mud and extravagant direction changes of the motocross circuit weren't the best place to come to terms with a hair-trigger racing machine but I managed to get round without disgracing myself.

Mud everywhere!

The pared-down bodywork, however, has a not-so-hidden downside: every time I opened the throttle I got covered in mud thrown up by the 254mm-wide rear tyres.

If you ride the DS450 in a muddy environment bring lots of tear-offs - and a change of clothing to go home in! Even the front (non-driven) tyres threw some clods in my face going through the wetter parts of the circuit but the steering was accurate and reassuringly predictable although the throttle response was almost too instant. The 449cc single is apparently half the Rotax V-twin fitted to the Aprilia Mille.

The revs rise and fall with breathtaking suddenness, accompanied by a flat, gruff barking from the air box; there's some power-thudding at very low revs and noticeable secondary vibration from about half-throttle (difficult to tell without a rev-counter).

Nevertheless, the engine is willing to rev hard enough to lift the front wheels in the first three gears; only the very brave (or extremely foolhardy) would ride this thing flat out in the bush.

Firmer ground

Yet it was out on Zone 7's enduro loop that I began to get the hang of Can-Am's red hot racer; the ground was firmer (and drier!) the straights longer and the jumps less intimidating.

The steering kicks back very little, thanks to the short front spindles, although the handlebars are a little too low for comfort when you're standing (Gunther agreed with me on this one).

The clutch is heavy and the gearshift decidedly notchy. It's very positive, however; I only missed one shift on the long outride and that was more my fault than the Can-Am's.

I managed to give it a thumbful on the long, open back section - and was astonished at how quickly the DS450 got to the point where it was faster than I was and duly impressed with its stability and controllability at that speed.

Nobody's that tough

The seat is fashionably flat, narrow and thinly padded, harder than on other Can-Am sports but still distinctly more comfortable than its competitors; I can't help thinking that a little comfort can make a 400km enduro easier - nobody's that tough!

Certainly the DS450 is a little too sharp-edged for a weekend playtoy; for that you need a Renegade or even an all-wheel drive Outlander.

But if you're going to be on the start-line for Regional, even National, enduros you'll know that the DS450 has the power and the finesse to do the job; the rest is up to you.

  • Test quad from Waterworld, Cape Town.

    Price: R77 000.

    Can-Am DS450 specifications