2017 Honda CRF450R
Is Honda Double Jumping The Shark?
- New for Honda more aggressive power delivery.
- High power output as well, it is fast.
- Very balanced and light handling character, with traction!
- No longer the lightest 450cc MX bike on the scale.
- Electric Start isn't standard.
- The mufflers are getting louder.
#Absoluteholeshot. That's been Honda's hashtag for the 2017 CRF450R since we first touched it to make sure it was real at the press introduction at the company's Torrance, California headquarters a few months back. It (Honda's Hashtag) is a ballsy claim from a riders point of view. Because if its that good and you don't get the holeshot, or are not in the pack of 2017 CRF450Rs going into the first turn ahead of all other bikes, well then you must not be that good of a rider (or at least a starter). Sort of how the 2009-2016 CRF450R was treated by just about anyone who didn't buy one. Now we won't go as far as most in beating up the red-colored step child of the 450cc motocross class. But if you listened to anyone talking that it was slow, underpowered, didn't handle very well (if not downright cursed with incurable chassis issues) and had unrideable suspension. But most owners we spoke to or knew were actually pretty happy with the bike. They knew there were supposedly better bikes out there--still there was a Honda loyalty many spoke of. And with that loyalty came a very fond memory of the 2005-2008 CRF450R. And those less loyal yet still familiar with the older generation CRF, who were now riding other colored machines, ending up costing Honda market share.
Without a class leading machine in magazine shootouts and a dry streak in racing championships in the 450cc class, Honda had to do something. The result is the long-awaited 2017 CRF450R. Internally and externally they claimed to have thrown out the book and started from scratch. Different engine configurations were tested as were many chassis designs. Development riders from the older generation bikes were brought back in. They looked hard at what the competition was doing and for a change, paid attention.
From the hashtag to the presentation the CRF was developed and is being marketed as aggressive and a class leader right from the drop of the gate--literally and figuratively. So we got our hands on the bike and took it to all of our usual test tracks to shake it down both by itself and with other bikes for comparison.
If you are or were that interested in the long-awaited 2017 Honda CRF450R and still reading this test, odds are you have been watching and reading about the making of this motorcycle for the past two years. Must you read about what's NEW, again!
The answer is probably no but we will cover the basics to refresh some memories and bring those hiding under a rock up to speed. So the answer, what is new on the 2017 CRF450R? Pretty much everything! OK, the brakes have returned, as did the wheels and a random bunch of components such as the oil filter, some nuts and bolts, grips, and maybe the safety stickers that are impossible to remove from the rear fender.
Some keep talking about the 2017 went back to being the 2008 CRF450R. Yes there is a group from Honda R&D that worked on the last carb 450 and was involved in the 2017 project. To say the '17 is like a '08 is a stretch. The chassis has been totally updated. Frame and swingarm lengths have gone back in the direction of the 08 compared to when they were severely altered starting in 2009.
The number one goal, like several brands today, altering the center of gravity and mass centralization (which means trying to move as much weight to the center of the motorcycle). The 17 CRF has a CG 2.5mm lower than the 2016. The swingarm has been shortened and the steering head extended, 13.1mm forward after you calculate other changes such as .03 degrees less fork angle and 1mm less trail.
Honda’s theme for 2017 is Absolute Holeshot. And after riding the bike, they might be onto something. To gain horsepower and torque - air is an engine’s friend. Yamaha turned and tilted their cylinder to create a direct intake port. Honda achieved this by altering shock pickup points, new linkage and a slightly shorter shock. This opened up a place to go up and over the shock and directly into the intake track for better airflow. From there the head is new with the valve angle 1 degree less on both the intake and exhaust sides. A new intake rocker arm and oval coil cross section valve springs are utilized to achieve more lift. The compression ratio has also been increased to 13.5. There is now two scavenging oil pumps to remove oil from the crankcase to reduce overall power-robbing pumping loss. The ignition is new with three different maps available with push button activation. Honda’s goal, make more power and put more power to the ground via traction.
The transmission has been revised, cases new and room for an HRC optional electric start is now possible. Slimmer clutch with one less plate but thicker steel plates, yet oil is now pumped into the clutch to improve feel over riding in a bath of oil. The transmission is beefed up to handle the increased HP.
The front fork is one of the most talked about element of the bike. Is it a Showa A-Kit spring fork or not? The answer, yes and no. The design is a copy of the latest 49mm A-Kit Works spring fork, the ones several pros preferred over various air forks. For the most part the fork is a copy of the A-Kit without the special coatings and a few parts internally were made of steel for durability. But the similarities are just that, very close. One Honda engineer claimed this fork out performed the previous generation full A-Kit fork. The valving was setup for a broad group of riders so a top pro would likely need some setup before they would run them at a national. Out back the shock stroke is 5mm shorter but overall rear wheel travel has not been altered.
Other cool items for 17 are the production titanium fuel tanks, all-new plastic and a slimmer shroud width by 30mm. To say the new bike is like a 2008 or anywhere similar to the sometimes liked and other times hated 2013-2016 is not a fair statement. The '17 is its own motorcycle. Its more compact, altered frame geometry, lower center of gravity, back to a spring fork and new engine.
If you are coming off any CRF450R since they have been fuel injected, this CRF will impress you in the engine department. Honda has always been know for working very hard to make the power strong as possible but never letting that get in the way of the bike being rideable and smooth in delivery. Well from the first time you get on the gas and run through the gears you will feel the difference for 2017. On the bottom there is now some snap with just rolling the throttle on and the power builds progressively, just above the level of being called smooth, all the way to a new-found (for Honda) top end surge. There are no real steps in the delivery or areas where the power outshines another sector in the spread. There is just more power and more vigor everywhere. It isn't overly aggressive and still isn't the snappiest bike out there (the Yamaha is) but for most riders it's all they will ever need. It reminds us of the KTM or Husky and surprisingly the other single cam motor out there.
There are three ignition/fuel map settings and they are noticeable. The button, now partnered on the kill switch, requires the bike be at idle RPM and you must hold it for three seconds to get the map to change. It confirms or indicates the map being used with a blue flashing LED. It is pretty difficult to switch on the fly, we suspect by design. Most riders will be very satisfied with the stock map. The less aggressive #2 map really kills the upper-low end and and specifically the mid-range but then comes back on at higher throttle positions with a kick into the top-end that is aggressive. This map can help with low traction as long as you don't get too far into the throttle. Most experienced riders felt it made timing jumps difficult and caused the throttle feel vague and our novice riders commented they could not tell much of a difference. The third or aggressive map is just that. It livens up the throttle response everywhere and makes the bike spin up a lot easier and quicker, then the CRF will rev faster into the top end. Most riders felt this was just a little much, even our faster pro-level riders. Some felt it allowed them to ride a gear high in some turns and still pulled out of the corners without needing the clutch.
Another thing that is new for Honda recently is the noise output of the dual muffler. The 17 has a very loud snap or bark at certain RPMs though at idle it isn't any louder than other stock exhast. The dual mufflers do prompt some discussion. we even had a rider who had a 2017 CRF450R on order tell us the first thing he was going to do was go to a single pipe--"to make the bike more narrow", was his reasoning. Not to lighten or give it more power, two more common reasons. We were not sure on where he was going to get a thinner side panel nor which side he was choosing to ditch? Initially the dual muffler was a great way to combat the sound issues that were being enforced in racing, but that has lately become more relaxed. Then it was "for a more balanced handling feel" which we never really bought on to. But as the center of gravity gets more and more important in handling and feel, shorter mufflers could be beneficial. As of now we don't see an advantage or disadvantage for them here. There is also a bit more noise coming up from under the seat at the rider but it was not as noticeable as the intake noise on a YZ.
The clutch seems to be improved in durability from previous bikes as well. But none of our riders are particularly hard on clutches. We could get it hot with on-purpose abuse or from doing a third gear start. In those situations the bite would get a little soft for a few turns till it cooled down. But for most part riders' will appreciated the light lever pull and very consistent bite point and feel. Likewise shifting was precise and the gear ratios excellent for most.
Another thing to point out is the tiny size of the engine. Compared to any of the previous engines it looks like a 250F and as if everything on the top end has been shrink wrapped. We did not have the bike long enough to need to do any work on it aside from changing the oil and cleaning a filter, all standard issue procedures.
There is a kit to add electric starting to the CRF which is anticipated to retail for about $800. It was left off for a few reasons. Cost being the biggest, we're sure, but also due to some concerns over the use of a heavy battery versus a lighter lithium battery and some durability and shipping concerns. The CRF450RX off-road race bike comes with a regular (and heavy) lead acid battery and adding that weight figure to the specifications is not what Honda wanted. On that note we did not have any issues with starting our 17 CRF but we do know that if the idle is set too low it can be hard to start. Also we know of one magazine that broke some things in the kick-starting or cases so we are sure that will go viral. We also know that you don't twist the throttle when starting a FI four-stroke.
The big news is Honda's jump back to a spring fork as described in the changes section. The air fork is still fighting the battle of being setup intensive verses the weight savings it can provide, especially when Honda had up to three air chambers that should be checked before each ride. How they worked is about as productive as talking about a presidential election. Everyone has a side.
For Honda the suspension is a little more aggressive and just a bit on the stiffer side everywhere. The advantages of a air-spring fork is that the "spring rate" can be a little soft initially and then have incredible bottoming resistance. Honda kept air-like bottoming resistance with a less progressive overall stroke so the beginning can be stiffer than usual. But it isn't harsh or jarring, just stout. The rear shock is a match and balances the bike out, stiff and resisting bottoming.
We ran the bike at ride height everywhere from 100mm to 110mm and found right between 105mm-108mm to be the sweet spot where the handling is right and the shock and fork are very happy. It is a picky chassis but when things are right you can feel it, more about that in Handling.
Overall the fork and shock move pretty free but never to the point were the bike acts wallowly. But it does feel like there is a lot of travel when you get the wheels moving in the bumps. It absorbs right till the very end or stiff part of the travel and then you feel the bike move before it dampens heavily usually resisting bottoming. As if the progression of the fork and shock ramp up sharply at the very end of the stroke. Luckily the rebound control here is consistent as well or at least could be adjusted for riders who felt they got "caught" in certain bumps. A click on the rebound in either direction could make a very big difference.
We found that the stock setup is about as good as the bike will get. Going for a softer setting tended to make the bike pack in the bumps and jump landings and for as much as it got softer some of the time it acted stiffer as well. And going stiffer yet on the setting was just plain too stiff for all but pro-level riders who need that level of feedback and confidence from the suspension.
What did help everywhere was opening up the high-speed compression on the shock 1/4 to 1/2 turn depending on the rider. This lowered the back of the bike, increased the stability, allowed the fork to ride a little higher in the softer part of the stroke and not lose any of the good turning feel. It also took some of the stiff feel out of the shock everywhere. As you open up the high speed on the shock you can add a little spring preload to the shock and it balances out well.
When a rider got a good suspension feeling (usually not more than a click or two off of stock) they knew it and it was obvious to them and in the way they rode. Even for riders who are typically not so sensitive, this feeling was pretty universal. And luckily when the suspension felt good the handling was at its best too, on some bikes this is a tough battle.
So stiff and aggressive is the direction motocross is driving the manufacturers to produce bikes. As more steep jump faces show up on regular tracks, this is the setting bikes will have and we feel Honda nailed it for this. Not having to check 2-3 pressures on the front forks was a bonus, especially when those changes really can make or break a bike.
Chassis - Handling
Light feeling. This has been the one thing Honda CRF has always had. In 2009 thy dropped in scale weight to a point that had other manufacturers wondering where the rest of the motorcycle went. For 2017 the CRF scales in at 246 pounds full of fuel. which is the same as the previous bike for the most part, just a couple pounds heavier on our scales. Well, the fork gained roughly three pounds so other parts had to go on a diet. We have seen this as a trend with KTM of late going on weight watcher's to a level that mirrors bicycle manufacturing.
So for the most part the CRF has retained this light feeling even in the presence of higher power levels, something that masks weight savings. Honda's 450 has a smaller feel than other bikes without getting too cramped which helps the weight feel. It is light in front to rear movements since the bike has a compact weight center of gravity. In side-to-side movement the light feeling continues and the rider feels like they have more leverage while riding than on others without too loose of a feeling in the bars or feeling too wide at the footpegs. In design there is more weight in the front wheel, some of it from the fork, but this also keeps the wheel planted in turns and when getting on the power. The tank area is very thin and if you feel it getting wide in the rear due to the mufflers your legs are not where they should be.
Lately the CRF has been more of a front wheel following bike, some of that was because the motor was not constantly spinning the rear wheel like other 450s. It had a less stable feeling compared to other bikes and utilized a steering damper that was misunderstood by most. So the steering damper is gone for 2017, the steering feel is as good as ever but now the bike will slide and will ride on the rear wheel more. And being solely on the rear wheel speaks a lot for traction--all of it then comes from the rear and all of the bike's weight is generally helping traction. The more lively engine and more responsive throttle control allow the rider to steer the bike as much with the motor as with relying on how the chassis setup comes into play. Simply put, this bike handles any way you'd like it to. Very much like the previous generation Kawasaki KX would, and a ride that cleaned up at shootouts.
We don't feel that the chassis is really that different, but small changes really do go a long way. Yet the character seems to have more stability and a more overall friendly feel for riders who like a motorcycle to be loose and slide. It isn't the most planted or stuck to the ground compared to others but this is the payoff in feeling light too. The CRF will dance around a little but more than other bikes but not to the point that is does things scary or wrong. And the faster the rider or the harder and looser that the rider rides, the more this feeling shows up. Vet Novice, don't worry about it.
We went to the length of testing a steering damper off off a CRF250R on the CRF450R (it bolts right on) and it does exactly what they have been doing in the past. It helped the 17 450 stay laid over in the middle and exit of the turn, especially in bowl turns or when skidding in and pivoting. It did nothing for stability or for any other parts of the track that we could tell, though riders that scrub hard off or jumps can feel it--good or bad depends on the rider.
The 17 CRF appeared to guzzle gas, or at least that's how it seems when you fill the tank. The first portion of gas goes away quickly as the bulk is carried down low and back so there is more than you think in the tank. In reality it has a small tank for a motocross bike but will get most through a 40-minute moto but not much more. There is still a 7/8-inch handlebar though the bar is an excellent bend and of high quality to begin with. The graphics are in-molded so in turn, long time and don't peel away. The aluminum frame blackens easier and quicker than we remember from older Honda frames and we are not sure why. An abrasive pad will clean it easily. And the skid plate and disc brake protectors are nice pieces and it's easy to get at the lower fork adjustment now.
The CRF could have come with an electric starter. With a weight and cost penalty. We wish it would have for the sake of the button, and having rode the CRF450RX we like the way it works. But the parts are available through an HRC Kit through a Honda Dealer.
If you skipped all the way down here then the answer you have all been waiting for is, awesome! If you read through the whole test you already know. To be more clear we think this CRF450R is an improvement in every area for most riders, especially those that have wandered off to other brands looking for something the CRF was lacking. For those missing that elusive memory from 2008 and before, yes this bike is as close as you will get in about any color. Riders transported from that era would (and did, we had two riders who's current bikes were a 2006 and 2008 CRF450R) are impressed mostly with the suspension, then by the weight of the bike. Throttle response also surprised them. Riders off of other brands were surprised at how easy it was to quickly adapt to the new CRF as if something had changed. Seems this has always been a trait of CRFs and Honda's in particular.
Our belief is that the CRF has had a pretty tough go in the last few years for a lot of reasons, some justified and a lot of it bandwagon bashing. Yet there is always room for improvement and this bike has clearly reaped rewards from a clean-sheet redesign. We've had it out with other brands in the class and these days all 450s are pretty spectacular. We won't say we did a shootout (or go through the motions and pretend like most of the other dirt bike testing operations out there) but we can tell you where this CRF stands. If you like a bike that turns well and feels light on the ground and especially in the air the CRF is your style. If you like just the right amount of power, the kind that gets traction rather than throws a big roost, power delivery that is now exciting and plenty powerful to get you over jumps easily then the CRF is for you. If you don't mind playing (just a little) with the suspension clickers most riders will find themselves happy regardless of skill level and size, the CRF has as wide a reach as any bike in the class.
If the 2017 CRF450R is the right bike for you then it is the best bike out there. If you are waiting for a magazine, video or web site to tell you which bike wins, wait till they do. Better get to know who you are first.
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