Look up the word “dominance” in the dictionary, and it wouldn’t be unfathomable to see a photo of a red Honda off-road racer streaking across Mexico’s Baja California peninsula to illustrate the definition of the word.
Honda can boast of an amazing 16-year unbeaten streak in the legendary Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, with most of those wins also including the outright fastest elapsed time in the race.
While many of Honda’s earlier Baja wins came aboard its XR-based off-road machines, the equally capable CRF450X has maintained a virtual stranglehold on Baja since it replaced the factory team’s XR650-based racer in 2006. Derived from the championship-winning CRF450R motocross bike, the X model has been the flagship in Honda’s off-road line since its introduction in 2005. Its strong points – a user-friendly Open-class engine, excellent suspension quality and ultra-stable handling at speed – make it a solid platform for everything from weekend play riding in stock form to Baja-winning performance, albeit with a few requisite modifications.
We recently got the chance to test the 2013 CRF450X, which is unchanged for 2014. It didn’t take but a few hours of riding to realize just how well the 450X maintains Honda’s legacy of producing great off-road machines.
The 450X’s single-cylinder four-stroke engine shares much of the technology found in the CRF450R. Rather than following the trend of larger, bulkier DOHC cylinder head designs, the CR450X uses a version of the compact Unicam four-valve cylinder head that was introduced on the CRF450R. Honda says that the Unicam configuration not only saves weight over a comparable dual-overhead-camshaft motor, but it also permits a narrow valve angle, effectively flattening the combustion chamber to facilitate ignition flame propagation and reduce the chance of detonation even with the X’s 12.0:1 compression ratio. The camshaft also sits lower in the head for a lower center of gravity.
But there are some marked differences in the X model’s fuel and ignition systems. For starters, the 450X uses a good old-fashioned Keihin 40mm flat-slide carburetor rather than the more high-tech fuel-injection system found on the 450R, but Honda engineers have narrowed the performance gap between the 450X’s carb and today’s state-of-the-art fuel injection systems by incorporating an EFI-style throttle position sensor to enhance the 450X’s throttle response. Another obvious change is that the 450X’s ignition system is designed with a coil to power its headlight and taillight.
Further separating itself from its motocross-bred sibling, the 450X uses a more off-road friendly, wide-ratio five-speed transmission to cover everything from tight, single-track trails to wide-open desert terrain. The 450X also adds the convenience of electric starting.
Bashing over wide-open stretches of Southern California desert and threading our way up and down single-track trails gave us a good understanding of the CRF450X’s engine performance, which we would rate as just shy of excellent. While the X motor’s design is a typical state-of-the-art four-stroke off-road engine, the racers amongst our test crew were left wishing for just a little more snap in the powerband. The 450X engine runs hard, and its TPS-controlled carburetion delivers smooth throttle response as the engine churns seamlessly from its low-end grunt into a top-end rush with no hitches along the way. Its clutch action is light and linear, and its five-speed transmission is buttery smooth.
But the X doesn’t feel as fast as other high-performance four-stroke off-roaders we’ve sampled. It’s power delivery is smooth, but it isn’t snappy. As is, the CRF450X’s power output might best be characterized as a boil rather than a burn.
That isn’t a bad thing, however, as the user-friendly CRF450X motor delivers a predictable chug, chug, chug down low that’s much more likely to endear itself to a wider range of customers, from weekend play riders to novice off-road racers, especially in rough or tight sections. It’s also noteworthy that the X motor also meets current California Air Resources Board (CARB) and EPA off-road emissions standards, so its performance potential is probably choked up a bit in stock form. The Baja success of Johnny Campbell Racing is proof positive that the CRF450X engine can be modified to win races.
The CRF450X’s aluminum perimeter chassis delivers freight train-style stability at the expense of slightly heavy steering response. That came as a bit of surprise considering that its wheelbase checks in at 58.3 inches, almost half an inch shorter than the motocross-based CRF450R. Steering geometry numbers suggest that the 450X should be able to carve turns as quickly if not quicker than the 450R, but the extra fuel carried in the X’s 1.9-gallon fuel tank (the R carries 1.6 gallons fully fueled) and additional off-road and emissions equipment add up to a significant 26-pound weight penalty over the motocrosser.
Some of the deliberate feeling may also stem (no pun intended) from Honda’s Progressive Steering Damper (HPSD), which is designed to act like a rising-rate suspension and increase damping force as the steering deflects further from its center line (straight ahead). It certainly helps keep the X stable at high speed, but the HPSD was noticeable when negotiating brushy single-track sections where quick turns are required to swing the handlebars back and forth between thick branches. While the 450X’s front end remains sure-footed, it lacks the light-steering feel of some of its competitors when the going gets really tight.
Whereas the motocross world has undergone a suspension revolution of sorts by introducing such weight saving techniques as separate function forks and air-sprung forks, the CRF450X sticks with the proven and reliable inverted 47mm Showa cartridge fork that offers 16-position rebound and 16-position compression-damping adjustability to tailor its 12.4-inches of front wheel travel. The rear suspension’s 12.4 inches of travel are managed by Honda’s trademark Pro-Link rising rate linkage with a Showa single shock that features adjustable spring-preload, 17-position rebound-damping adjustability, and compression-damping adjustments separated into low-speed (13 positions) and high-speed (3.5 turns). We certainly couldn’t find fault with the CR450X’s suspension. It’s more than capable of slamming through rough off-road chop at high velocity while maintaining ample low-speed sensitivity in stutter bumps or rocky sections. It’s good stuff.
The 450X’s brakes are also exceptional. Its single 240mm front disc features a Nissin twin-piston caliper that delivers plenty of braking power with a linear feel, and its 240mm rear disc likewise exhibits a good feel and easy modulation without any undesirable tendency to lock up the rear wheel. Of course, having good tires also helps, and the CR450X’s 80/100-21 front and 110/100-18 rear Dunlop tires deliver plenty of bite on everything from hard pack to soft sand with excellent durability.
Out on the trail, the 450X at least feels smaller than its 267-lb. weight would suggest, with a slim seat, narrow aluminum perimeter chassis and quality Renthal handlebar that offers plenty of leverage in any terrain. While the seat is slim, it is well padded, and the overall seating position is very comfortable for longer off-road excursions. We’d have no trouble riding the 450X all day, every day.
While the CRF450X sports exceptional attention to detail — for instance, we especially liked the trap door in the left side panel, which makes removing the air filter for easy servicing a snap — we would like to see it come with a few more off-road amenities, such as handguards to ward off bashed fingers on tight wooded trails. Also, a rear fender-mounted tool bag, such as the one that was delivered on generations of big XR’s would be a welcome return.
Overall, we’re stoked with the performance and feel of the Honda CRF450X. Its engine power, suspension and chassis are well suited for a wide variety of off-road terrain and rider experience. Its list price of $8440 is fair when you take into account the build quality of the bike and Honda’s excellent reputation for reliability. And while it wouldn’t be our first choice as an all-out racer in stock form, the CRF450X is worth a serious look if you spend most of your time riding in the desert or the woods rather than burning laps on a motocross track.