Whether at work or play, Kawasaki's new Prairie 300 and revamped 400 four-wheelers take shiftless effort to a new level.

Just two years ago, Kawasaki launched its first fully-automatic ATV, the Prairie 400 4x4, which received critical acclaim from the media and buyers. In fact, it became one of the top 10 best-selling models in the industry one year later.

For 1999, the company, fresh off a reorganization to put more focus on its ATV line, set out to improve a good thing. The company claims its newly revamped Prairie 400 and totally new Prairie 300 four-wheelers take its shiftless transmission and suspension technology to the next level.

To judge for ourselves, we put these machines, both 2-wd and 4-wd, to the test for two days on 13 miles of trail in the steep and creek-laden hills of Missouri's heavily forested Ozark country, just a stone's throw from Branson.

Not only was the terrain a tough test on the machines, the riders also were tested with 95 to 100 heat and high humidity both days. However, the riding scenery was spectacular, set in the 10,000-acre private wilderness refuge of Dogwood Canyon. The area is home to rocky cliffs, small caves, a bison herd, old Indian burial sites and a trout stream where bigger-than-your-net rainbows toy with flies.

Prairie impressions. Over the course of two days, we were able to ride all four new machines and compare them to last year's models. By riding the '98 and '99 versions of the 400 4x4 back-to-back, I immediately sensed the new model's higher horsepower (claimed 12% more) and more responsive transmission due to a smaller, lighter continuously variable transmission (CVT). It accelerated up steep inclines instead of leveling out, and the front suspension that now features stiffer springs to handle the added power provided a more comfortable ride, even compared to the good suspension on the original 400.

The 2x4 model, in my opinion, was the most fun to drive, especially in and out of the corners. Perhaps it was the sliding rear end that provided more of a challenge for this 40-year-old thrill seeker. (Does the water-crossing photo give this passion of mine away?)

The other most noticeable improvement was the shifting mechanism. Gone is the H pattern of shifting into high and low range, reverse or neutral; it has been replaced with a straight-line, automotive-style pattern for quick and easy shifting.

Underneath the shift lever is the revamped Kawasaki Automatic Power-Drive System (KAPS), designed for better power transfer down the shaft to the rear wheels. Wider transmission ratios are incorporated for higher top speed and improved hill climbing and towing ability. And transmission settings also are revised to ensure smooth power delivery and maximum acceleration.

Both 400 models use an identical engine (391-cc 4-stroke SOHC), transmission, chassis and suspension components. The 4x4 ($6,099) has composite cargo racks, a multifunction digital display panel, aluminum wheels, new headlamp shape and full-time 4-wd with an easy-steering, limited slip front-differential. The 2x4 ($5,199) has steel racks and an analog speedometer/odometer. Both ATVs can haul up to 242 lbs. total on front and rear racks and can tow up to 1,100 lbs.

Birth of a sibling. To build on the success of the 400, Kawasaki decided to crank up its Lincoln, NE, factory to add a new smaller Prairie, the 300 2x4 and 4x4.

"Our goal with the 300 is to create the best performing, best handling, most comfortable and highest value ATV aimed at this largest sales segment," says Jim Williams, ATV product manager.

The company says these automatic 300 models will not replace its gear-driven Bayou 300 series, but will complement it for riders seeking a no-shift machine.

Both 300 models use an identical engine (290-cc air-cooled 4-stroke SOHC, based on the Bayou), transmission, chassis, wheels, tires and suspension components. And both use the same CVT as the 400, but tuned differently to match the 300's power output. The 4x4 features new composite cargo racks, a standard speedometer/odometer and full-time 4-wd with a limited-slip front differential.

Shifting is the same as with the new 400 automotive-style mechanism. Once underway, no shifting is necessary with KAPS, which keeps the engine operating at peak performance.

The front and rear racks of the 300 are ready to haul up to 242 lbs. And it can tow up to 1,100 lbs., claimed to be the highest in its class (and the same as the 400 model). Price: $5,299 for the 300 4x4, $4,399 for the 300 2x4 ATV.

All four 1999 models are currently being shipped to dealers, available in either firecracker red or hunter green colors. For more information, see your local dealer or contact Kawasaki Motors Corp., Dept. FIN, 9950 Jeronimo Rd., Irvine, CA 92618-2084, 949/770-0400.