Dual Sport Done The Honda Way
This is not a bad motorcycle. In fact it is very good. But instead of having to read between the lines and guess what others are trying to tell you, here is the plain straight up fact. This CRF450L is not going to replace your KTM 500 EXC. It isn’t in that category though many hoped it would be. The CRF450L is a modern day XR650L and here is why.
Honda has a Honda way of doing things. And even though other companies do things differently and a lot of times that means better, Honda will not change some certain standards and practices no matter what. The plan was to take the CRF450R and make the most minimalist street legal dual-purpose motorcycle they could and that is exactly what happened. So much so that the tag line for the bike is “trail to trail” and no where does that say “street”. But since this bike will carry a license plate, Honda has a very strict set of standards for safety, emissions, sound and mostly durability that just don’t jive with making a minimalist “barely legal” dual sport machine. We know compromises were made to get this model to the higher performance level this market segment is expected to be at. When was the last time you saw a Honda motorcycle that has a license plate not have buddy pegs? In reality this was the same fate that positioned the XR650L into the place in the market it has had, unchanged since 1993. It was going to take the then hugely popular XR600R and “add turn signals.” And as much as you want a KTM EXC beater, Honda will sell a ton of these bikes to plenty of eager customers that may not be as performance oriented as the hard core off-road enthusiast. For a lot of riders, going trail to trail is more important than being ready to race.
Right from the get-go the CRF450L will have a battle with weight. At a claimed 289 pounds with a full tank of fuel it is easily 20 pounds heavier than a KTM 500 EXC’s weight. My seat of the pants dyno will tell you the peak horsepower is 30% less and the torque 20% less than the similarly box stock KTM. These two points will have those hoping for a Red challenge to a sea of Orange and White dual sport bikes running for cover. Wondering if there will be ways to fix or modify the Honda into the bike they have been dreaming of? So are we, but these questions we can not answer. Yet.
Honda brought a flock of journalists and a few dingbats with influencer credibility to Packwood, Washington for a dual-sport ride in an excellent place to experience this machine. Do your research on the “story” of new CRF450L to see how different riders felt about the new model as I’m positive opinions will vary as widely as skill levels and riding experience did here. Our route was a 100-mile mix of pavement, gravel roads, jeep roads and a bit of single-track in a beautiful setting that gave us a pretty good impression in a short amount of time. DirtBikeTest, as usual evaluated the CRF-L with a heavy bias towards off-road knowing exactly what we want in a dual-sport bike, a dirt bike with blinkers and a license plate.
From first laying eyes on the CRF-L, it is a sharp looking motorcycle. Honda’s attention to detail is evident and it’s obvious Honda went out of their way to meet the requirements–especially details to keep it quiet in every way possible. Aa well as make it look as close to the CRF450R as possible. The Federal Motor Vehicle Standard sound requirements are the toughest standards for a motorcycle to meet and they are so stringent that often chain noise, tire noise and ticks and clicks from inside the motor are catastrophic to the sound meters more so than even the exhaust note. There are covers all over the motor, foam alongside the side panels and even urethane inside the swingarm to dampen the sound waves. The bike is very quiet.
The L starts right up but from what we gathered it is a little on the cold blooded side (the techs were very keen to have the bikes well warmed up before the ride) and all the time while riding it has a lean feeling (crisp) nature to the throttle response. The bike responds to what your wrist does, likely even quicker than a stock KTM. For a corked up 450cc emissions and sound compliant motorcycle the CRF-L is exactly what we expected it to be. Since we have ridden the motocrosser, the engine is family member too, we know what could be–but that is impossible in these times. We’d estimate the power levels are half of the motocross bike and with a smoothness and very linear pull.
Like any quiet bike, it uses RPMs to get power and it hits peak power before you’d ever hit a rev limiter. There is a gradual and long sign off telling you to shift. Thankfully Honda utilized a six-speed gear box that is spaced just right to get the most out of the power delivery. The motor is not the most torquey nor does it posses a lot of flywheel effect right off idle but it builds, so in slower than first gear conditions, stalling will happen. The power and torque build up pretty quick. Lifting the front wheel with just the throttle is possible in the right gear with good traction but adding a little clutch really helped. And speaking of the clutch, the pull is lighter than the motocross bike which is great but the engagement is a little slow and arguably a little soft, so depending on a rider’s preference can be better or worse.
And here are some of the interesting things we experienced. The bike will rev quite far in first to fourth gears, well past peak power, nearing the 10,000 RPM mark we were told before a rev cut kicks in. But in fifth or sixth gear there is a lower rev cut off that comes in closer to 8,200 which actually limits the bike’s top speed to 90 MPH. We know, we hit it. In normal riding you will never experience this. It was explained this is done to keep the bike within the speed rating for the stock tires. Since it is a rev cut, you could in theory re-gear the bike to go faster, but then first gear would get a little too tall for the technical riding we prefer. It is on the verge of being too tall as delivered for expert-level singly track. Our bikes were equipped with Dunlop D606 tires front and rear as the standard tires are not much for true dirt riding. So these DOT legal knobbies let us feel what the bike could do in the dirt, especially as wet as it was in some sections of the forest.
How fast is it? Overall the power is adequate for everything from trail riding to moving the bike comfortably down the road. And in a roll-on it is a dead match for a XR650L, we tried it, fourth gear on the 650L to fifth gear on the CRF450L as the ratios seemed very similar here. But running through the gears the 650L gets pulled a bike length or two at every shift where the 450’s tighter spacing moves the smaller bike more quickly. This 450 is smooth while still having good throttle response so it does not feel lazy one bit.
A couple of small annoyances were the popping on deceleration especially when going downhill on trails and the bike’s throttle responded differently if the catalytic converter burning inside the muffler was super hot. For example. if you’d just done a long section of road while running the engine really hard, then hopped onto a slower single track, the bike acted different (throttle response) than if you had been chugging along slowly for a while. And the muffler gets glowing header red hot and stays that way any time the bike is running, don’t touch! The CRF also comes standard with a cooling fan on the radiator. It ran a few times when the bike wasn’t getting the air flow through the radiators while stopped waiting on the trail doing it’s job. We didn’t see any bikes steaming up but the trail sections were very easy. There is a also a coolant catch tank mounted behind the skid plate between the frame rails to recover any that gets spit out–within limits.
Onto the chassis and suspension and here the CRF-L holds the family trait of being precise, stiffer and for a dual sport bike. aggressive. While sitting, its thin where it needs to be and a little wide up high to hold the extra fuel in the titanium tank. The seat height feels a little lower than the MX bike and indeed it is with slightly lower setup due to the frame, swingarm and linkage all specific to the L and X CRFs. It is slightly wider at your ankles but you can’t tell, they had to squeeze that sixth gear in somehow! The suspension components are the same as the MX bike with different internal valving set up specifically for the task. For this ride Honda had taken a little bit of compression damping out of the fork and the shock and lightened up the rebound on the shock a little. Additionally they want the ride height at 110mm. We checked our ride at lunch and (maybe since I ate so much) it was 113mm. We brought it back to 109mm with a turn-and-a-half on the shock spring and it really helped the chassis liven up and especially made the fork work better on the initial part of the stroke. The suspension is good and we are sure it will work just fine for aggressive riding. But for riders coming off of bikes like the Suzuki DRZ or moving up from a Honda CRF250L would find it really stiff.
And one of the traits that really stood out to us was the weight, which was something we didn’t expect to show up so strongly. Usually on bikes that have less power, the motorcycle often feels lighter. On the CRF you feel the weight from the time it comes off the side stand and any time you start riding aggressively. We think it comes primarily from the muffler and the stiffer rear subframe, which has strong tubes that extend all the way to the back of the fender (this will be great for those looking to add bags or luggage options) and then attach the necessary large taillight and license plate holder. The steel rear sprocket isn’t helping but it will last forever. And when you look closely at things like reflectors and turn signal parts, they are also well built and made to last. Then when you are turning the bike either straight up and down between trees or leaned over in a berm you notice the heavy feeling. When you hit bumps and tag roots, you feel it. It feels every bit of a 450cc bike and then some. The good, on the road it feels very planted and has very little vibration. It is very stable and gives a confident steering feel for an aggressive bike. There isn’t too much forward and back yaw to the chassis when going through twisty roads either paved or dirt and it gives a very confident feel on the brakes, which felt strong and controlled. The LED lights are bright but since we did not ride in the dark we can’t comment on where they point. The Speedo/Odo meter is easy to see and has very useful functions for trip distance and fuel consumption. It will tell you how many gallons you’ve used till you reset it with an A and B (different trips) as well as a instantaneous consumption view. All told the bikes ranged between 42 all the way up to 48 MPG, this with riders really getting on it to feel the power during the day.
So where does this put one of the most anticipated motorcycles we’ve ridden? For those looking for a KTM killer, this isn’t going to be it. And it might be a lot tougher and more expensive that you might expect to modify it into something that gets close. The engine was designed to last a long time, a Honda long time, so it won’t be as easy as changing out the muffler and hope it turns into a rocket. Due to the catalyst in the muffler and the restriction it causes, going to an open muffler will place engine fuel management into a very lean state. We were told that even taking the lid off the air box in not a good idea with the stock fuel mapping settings. Then you have a smaller exhaust header, steel valves, a lower compression piston and some rev ceilings that will make it difficult to get power easily. Dropping weight would be quick at first but also involves the muffler, hopefully the aftermarket is onto a solution already.
Yet maybe this bike will be a better match for a different customer and best ridden stock? There are plenty of 250cc dual sport riders who might be looking for the next step up. Riders coming off a Suzuki DR-Z400 would be happily impressed. And if you are one of the many Honda XR650L riders out there looking for a lighter and higher performance Honda option, this bike is right in your wheelhouse. Want to do more trails than your Kawasaki KLX will handle, now we’re talking. This bike is about as good as Honda could do in a world where sound, emissions and safety standards keep widening the gap between competition race bikes and bikes you can ride on public lands and on roads when needed. With the CRF450L Honda has sharpened the point on its current offerings and filled a long standing gap in the model line. Honda dealers and the right customer will be very happy.
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