The race to deliver the best 450cc motocross bike on the planet grabbed another gear in 2017 when Honda released its all-new 2017 CRF450R to challenge the recent dominance of Yamaha’s YZ450F and the never-ending onslaught from the aggressive European companies, namely the KTM 450 SX-F and its fully revived sister, the Husqvarna FC 450.
With Kawasaki merely revising its 2017 KX450F after a complete makeover of the green machine in 2016, and with Suzuki holding fast with its RM-Z450 that hasn’t been updated since 2015, we figured it was time to round up these six combatants and pit them against each other to see just who is delivering the goods in the 450cc class.
But first a quick caveat: KTM agreed to join our 450cc motocross shootout only with the stipulation that we pit its 450 SX-F Factory Edition against the other machines rather than use its standard 450 SX-F. Why? Simple: KTM’s SX-F test fleet was already depleted, and the $10,399 Factory Edition was all it had available to us. In full disclosure, we polled all of the other OEMs to make sure there would be no cries of “foul!” before agreeing to KTM’s offer. Also, bear in mind that price would be an important factor in our Scorecard criteria.
Other than the expectation that the performance of all six machines would be razor close, we had no preconceived notions about the outcome. The game plan involved a full test day at one of our favorite Southern California tracks, Sunrise MX Park in Adelanto, California. Then, just to be sure of our results, we added a follow-up day at the world famous Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, California — although the rains that have bombarded Southern California made riding Glen Helen as much an exercise in survival as it was a test session. In between, we weighed and measured these six beauties, flogged them on the dyno and otherwise gathered as many notes as we possibly could to help determine a winner.
We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, as national-winning power and lightning-quick chassis performance may satisfy pro-level riders all day long but might be too much for the average novice to handle. With that in mind, we pulled together a diverse range of rider skill, including DirtBikes.com lead test rider Ryan Abbatoye and DirtBikes.com regular test team member Nic Garvin to represent the pro viewpoint. We also added another Southern California pro in Nick Stover, as well as local racer Bryan Burch to offer up the perspective of the Intermediate/Expert-level amateur. In a unique twist, we think, we also invited veteran motojournalist Jean Turner to deliver impressions on behalf of both females and novice-level riders. The plan was to find the best machine for every rider, and we were supremely confident that our Scorecard points ranking system would get the job done nicely.
Our team focused on five key talking points when ranking these beastly machines: Engine, Suspension, Handling, Braking and Ergonomics. Our comprehensive Scorecard also addressed details such as price, model features such as electric start and engine management control and the overall cool factor in determining our winner. What follows is the collective thoughts of our test team, which we want to thank for doing such an awesome job of taking notes to codify their thoughts about each bike. We also want to point out that these impressions appear in alphabetical order of the machine’s make and thus do not reflect rank of a particular bike in a particular category.
So let’s get on with it!
Fact is, while there are many details that make up a winning 450cc machine, engine performance ranks right up at the top. The manufacturer that can build not only the most power, but the most rideable power, will often have an advantage on the track. With horsepower levels now topping 60 ponies at the crankshaft, getting all that gallop to the ground is of prime importance. Thus, every machine in the class now makes use of sophisticated fuel-injection and adjustable engine mapping controls in various forms to help mete out the power to suit rider abilities and skill levels.
For 2017, Honda completely revamped the CRF450R engine, making it the most powerful CRF yet. The Honda’s fuel-injected Unicam SOHC engine boasts a new cylinder head, a new piston that raises the compression ratio to 13.5:1 and a new downdraft intake layout to help ram the air into combustion chamber for increased power. A new, more gradually bent exhaust system is also used to increase power. The Honda also makes use of a revised Engine Mode Select button system that allows the rider to alter the power characteristics by accessing three preset maps with the touch of a button. The CRF also has the ability to accept an optional electric start, although our test unit retained the standard kick start. Its five-speed transmission is engaged via a cable-actuated clutch.
On the track, all of our riders agreed that the new CRF engine delivers a level of excitement of which the previous model was simply not capable. The Honda delivers serious punch right at the hit of the throttle, and it pulls long and hard all the way through its rev range – it simply doesn’t go flat. It’s also extremely tractable.
“The Honda motor is awesome,” Abbatoye said. “It has strong power when you need it, but it is also smooth for the average rider. It simply doesn’t run out of power on long straights. It pulls all the way to its rev limiter. I noticed a little hesitance in its fuel-injection, and yet sometimes it’s too responsive. The Honda’s clutch and shift action are also perfect for me.” Garvin added that one of the CRF’s highlights is that the engine is brawny yet smooth. “The power build is amazing,” he said. “It comes in strong right off the bottom and just keeps pulling and pulling and pulling, and the transmission is buttery smooth. The fuel-injection gives the bike good throttle response without being too aggressive as well.”
Stover and Burch also agreed, noting that the CRF is strong and useable at any rpm. Even our novice tester dug the CRF’s engine character.
“Wow,” Turner said of the CF450R’s power delivery. “The motor is nice, free-revving. Kind of loud? Multiple maps. The motor is quite potent. Power was very smooth, however, and manageable for a novice. It also flamed out kind of easy. It was the only bike I stalled on the track (I noticed another rider also had a flame-out on the CRF). Good thing it starts easy, but I would definitely want the electric-start option if I were to buy this bike.”
Being owned by the same conglomerate that owns KTM has been both a blessing and a curse for Husqvarna. The blessing is that the hallowed brand has received all of the support necessary to bring the brand back to the prominence it enjoyed from the 1960s through the 1980s. The curse is that many fans perceive the Husky FC 450 to simply be a KTM of another color.
While it’s true that the two share a lot of awesome engineering details – they both feature convenient electric start, sophisticated traction control and adjustable engine mapping systems that are accessed with the simple push of a button – their engines are supposedly tuned identically, and their five-speed transmissions and hydraulically actuated clutches are also identical. Even so, our test crew found that the 2017 Husqvarna FC 450’s fuel-injected, SOHC engine performed quite a bit differently than the supposedly identical KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition engine on the track, and there was some disagreement among our pros as to just how well it performed.
“For all the power it supposedly makes, the Husqvarna doesn’t feel all that fast to me,” Abbatoye said, confirming Garvin’s similar desire for a Husky engine with more pep. “The engine has a lively feel, but I had to ride it harder to go fast compared to the others. I think that part of it might be the throttle response, which felt a little slow to me. I also feel that the Husky vibrated more than some of the other bikes in this shootout. As far as the clutch and transmission go, I had no issues except maybe feeling like I was a little in-between gears in some spots on the track. I liked the aggressive ignition map the best.”
That differed quite a lot from Turner’s novice perspective, where she called the Husqvarna’s power “almost deceptive.”
“The power comes on in a very well-behaved manner off the bottom,” she said. “Roll-on is strong and manageable, but touch that clutch when you’re coming out of turns, and boom! Here comes the eye-popping torque! It gripped the ground in such an impressive way. Wheel-spinning power is easy to come by, but ground-gripping power isn’t easy to produce.”
Burch also felt that the FC 450 was strong and consistent throughout the rev range, but he did express a complaint that more than one member of our test crew also noted with regard to the Husky’s shifter.
“It’s one of my favorites as far as power delivery goes,” Burch said. “I also thought that the transmission was well-spaced for motocross, but it was hard to find the shifter with my boot to upshift and downshift it.”
The Kawasaki KX450F underwent its last major revision in 2016, with Kawi serving up a lighter, faster version of the KX’s fuel-injected DOHC engine. The KX received all-new engine cases, new intake porting, new intake valves and higher-lift camshafts along with a new airbox design to help the engine breathe better. Kawi engineers also went with a new piston and a new exhaust system to enhance power, most notably from midrange to redline. That engine is back for 2017 along with Kawasaki’s Launch Control holeshot assist and adjustable ignition mapping that is altered by swapping to different plug-in DFI couplers. Like the rest of the Japanese contenders, the KX features a five-speed transmission and cable-actuated clutch.
While the KX450F motor still feels lively, the majority of our test crew was looking for more bite to go along with the bark of the Kawi’s exhaust note.
“It’s strong and clean down low, but it flattens out way too early, and its throttle response is not the best in this class either,” Stover said. “The transmission is smooth, but at times I wasn’t sure of the engagement.”
Garvin was even harsher in his description of the KX’s power.
“The top end is weak,” Garvin said. “The bike has decent grunt off the bottom, but there’s a difference between the sound it makes and its actual power response. It’s weird because the throttle response is there, but it just needs more power. You have to work harder on the Kawasaki than you do on some of the others to maintain a fast pace. At least it shifts smoothly.”
Abbatoye noted that switching to the leanest of the Kawasaki’s plug-in power couplers helped add a measure of throttle response, but then the KX developed a tendency to pop under deceleration. Kawasaki’s tech offered to let us try a custom-mapped coupler. It reduced the pop but did nothing to enhance the Kawasaki’s power. But, truth be told, our crew is over the whole plug-in power coupler method of adjusting the engine mapping on the Kawasaki and Suzuki. It’s time for both brands to get up to speed with Honda, Husqvarna, and KTM by fitting a handlebar-mounted mode switch that does away with the couplers, which can be easily misplaced at the track or left at home.
Intermediate/Expert representative Burch agreed with the overall consensus of the group.
“The KX feels pretty lively, but it isn’t the fastest,” Burch said. “It has good throttle response but there’s just no snap to the power delivery. I also think that the transmission was geared a little too tall. Shifting was on the harsh side for me.”
In reality, other than its high-end finish details and outrageous price tag, the KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition is identical in spec to the standard 450 SX-F. In addition to offering customers a bona fide “factory replica,” the real idea behind the Factory Edition is to give KTM the opportunity to introduce changes that will eventually make their way onto the standard SX-F.
Other than the pipe, there are no changes to the KTM’s electric-start, fuel-injected SOHC power package or selectable-map engine management system. The KTM makes use of a hydraulically activated clutch to help riders mete out power through its five-speed transmission.
Like we said earlier, the KTM is supposed to be tuned the same as the Husqvarna, but the KTM’s power character was a whole lot different than the Husky’s. Like the Honda, the orange rocket was unanimously appreciated by all of our testers.
“The KTM is really fast,” Abbatoye said. “Throttle response is a little on the dull side, but the engine is so fast that it hardly matters, and the KTM doesn’t lose any steam on top. I actually liked the stock ignition map the best. Like the Husky, the KTM’s clutch and shifting action are smooth.”
Garvin also rated the KTM engine highly, noting that there was a more distinct difference between the engine maps on the KTM than on the Husky. “Of its two maps, the first one is smooth down low and fast up top,” he said. “The number two map was smooth until you got past quarter throttle, and then it felt a lot more aggressive. On the other hand, I had trouble shifting the KTM, and I would definitely look at a sprocket swap because I found myself in between gears a lot.”
Stover added that the KTM delivers “smooth and controlled power,” while Burch called it “a strong engine package.”
“On the track, the KTM is just as fantastic,” Turner said. “The motor is very refined, yet also a brute, making big power when you’re ready for it. Roll-on is smooth and non-intimidating, even for a novice, but it will quickly ramp up the speed and come on incredibly strong, especially with a flick of the clutch. What makes it so potent is its ability to put the power to the ground.”
Despite the fact that the Suzuki RM-Z450 hasn’t been updated since 2015 and hasn’t had a full redesign for several years, Suzuki has been more than just making do with its big and mellow yellow machine. On its own merit, the Suzuki is a great bike, possessing a fun and easy-to-ride DOHC engine with nearly flawless fuel-injection/throttle response, and a chassis that can turn like a corkscrew. In 2015, Suzuki enhanced the RM-Z by adding the Suzuki Holeshot Assist Control (SHAC) to the RM-Z’s engine control unit, giving riders even more control when trying to get the Suzuki out of the starting gate. The Suzuki also makes use of DFI couplers to swap various ignition maps that alter the Suzuki’s power character. One minor complaint is that the Suzuki’s kickstarter is awkward, although the bike will fire up pretty easily.
Still, as much as all of our testers liked the Suzuki, its power simply isn’t up to snuff with the newer bikes in the class. That came through loud and clear from our testers.
“The Suzuki makes smooth power, but it’s not the fastest bike in the class,” Abbatoye said. “It has decent bottom end, but the power really drops off quickly. Its throttle response is very responsive, maybe the best of any 450, but as lively as the engine feels, it’s still slow compared to the competition. Its clutch and shifting action are good. I had no issues other than that I had to shift the RM-Z a lot more than the other bikes.”
Garvin was a little more forgiving. “She’s an old motor, but she’s still a strong motor,” he said. “You have to work to keep up with the other machines in the class, but its power is steady and smooth, nothing crazy. Throttle response is smooth, but the overall engine character lacks aggression. I’m glad it shifts well because you have to rev it and pull a lot of shifts.”
Stover was not as excited, stating that the Suzuki’s power “is fairly uninspiring, but at least it makes the RM-Z450 easy to ride.” Burch called it the “the weakest of the bunch” and “kind of dull, really mellow, but easy to ride” while also praising the Suzuki’s five-speed transmission by noting how easily it shifted especially at high revs.
But for novices, it’s a different story.
“Reeeeeally liked the motor on this one,” an enthusiastic Turner said. “It comes on smooth and steady off the bottom, and has a nice hit in the midrange. It feels like the stock exhaust probably holds it back a little. The motor might be a bit of a Labrador among pit bulls, but for the novice rider, there’s no such thing as a 450 without enough power! Shifting and clutch feel are very good.”
It’s no secret that the Yamaha YZ450F has been one of our favorite motocross bikes for the past couple years. The reverse incline-motored blue bomber is unique, and it has easily had the most powerful-feeling motor in the class for the past couple seasons. Compared to the rest of the class, the YZ’s fuel-injected DOHC Single is sort of a brute, although its aggression can be altered by plugging in Yamaha’s accessory GYT-R tuner and adjusting the fuel mapping parameters. The YZ450F doesn’t feature electric start, although a mounting boss for the starter is found on the YZ engine cases since the YZ450F and the electric-start WR450F and YZ450X share the same cases.
Regardless of the YZ’s brawny power character, it’s clear that some of the competition has been working hard to catch up. So how does the Yamaha’s engine performance fare against the latest crop of 450s?
“The Yamaha is definitely still one of the fastest 450s,” Abbatoye said. “It has the power you need when you need it. The YZ is easy to ride because you can run it in a taller gear and it still pulls well. It can tractor around the track all day, yet it’s lively and fast with excellent throttle response. I really had no issues with its transmission and clutch action, and I really didn’t have to shift it as much.”
Garvin agreed, adding, “It is really responsive. Love the cable clutch action, and its shifting action is smooth and easy.” Turner was also onboard with the Yamaha engine, at first, noting that “the motor just pours on power everywhere, and without really trying, you’re just floating down straights and over jumps. It’s fast-revving, very responsive and crisp. It’s exciting, but it’s also a challenge to hang on to.”
That tapped into something Stover said: “The Yamaha is aggressive, but it can become tiring to ride,” and Turner later added. “The power is a bit much. KTM/Husky and Honda prove that you can have massive power that is also manageable. I don’t feel like the Yamaha’s power is as manageable.”
All the power in the world is useless if it cannot be effectively transferred to the ground to create forward momentum, and that’s magnified on a 450cc motocrosser where high-speed bump absorption can mean the difference between cutting a fast lap time and flailing on a machine that is hard to ride.
For 2017, Honda has moved the CRF450R’s suspension away from the air brigade, opting to replace the 48mm KYB PSF with an all-new, fully adjustable 49mm Showa coil-spring fork. Out back, the Honda’s fully adjustable Showa shock is placed lower in the Pro-Link chassis without sacrificing suspension travel. Our testers unanimously agreed that the changes Honda made are worthwhile when the going gets rough.
“The Honda’s suspension works great,” Abbatoye said. “It feels plush over the smallest chop, and it is well balanced, which helps the bike to corner well. For tracks with big sand whoops, I might want to stiffen things up a little more, but I love the spring fork, and the rear delivers awesome traction. The shock doesn’t blow through the travel in rough sections. I’m impressed, even with the stock settings.”
While Garvin felt that the stock CRF settings were on the soft side, he found it easy to dial-in and well balanced in all conditions. Novice rider Turner, on the other hand, found the suspension to be a bit firm overall but with nice initial plushness. Burch noted that the Honda fork’s damping is consistent all the way through the stroke, and the rear suspension is “amazing” through choppy bumps, which helps it settle nicely into rough turns.
The only knock against the Honda came from Stover, who compared the Honda’s new Showa fork to the KYB SSS coil spring fork on the Yamaha YZ450F and found the Showa wanting. “I don’t think that the Honda’s Showa coil-spring fork is as good as the Yamaha’s KYB SSS coil-spring fork, but it still offers smooth action,” he said. “I think that the Honda is sprung a little too softly, which makes it comfortable but not quite as controlled as the Yamaha in the chop.”
When it came to the Husqvarna and the KTM, our test crew universally praised the new WP AER 48mm fork found on both machines. The AER 48, which replaces the maligned WP 4CS coil-spring fork, is 3.7 lbs. lighter than the 4CS. It features an insulated air “spring” chamber in the left leg and a pressurized oil chamber for damping in the right, with a single air valve located at the top of the left fork to fill the air chamber and tune the spring rate. The compression adjuster is located at the top of the right fork leg and the rebound adjuster is located at the bottom of the same leg. Out back, a fully adjustable WP DCC piggyback shock is connected to the swingarm on both the Husky and the KTM via a rising-rate linkage.
“The WP fork actually works pretty well, although I did have to take out two clicks of compression to like the KTM at first,” Abbatoye said. “Otherwise it’s just too stiff and doesn’t balance with the rear suspension. But once I made that change, the front and rear did a good job everywhere on the track.”
Surprisingly, Garvin found the Husqvarna suspension to be different than the same units found on the KTM Factory Edition.
“I know the Husky and the KTM have the same fork, but for some reason I had a tougher time getting a good feel for the Husky’s front end,” Garvin said. “It didn’t feel bad, but it didn’t feel as good as the KTM. I also found that the Husqvarna’s rear suspension didn’t seem to want to settle down when the track got really rough.”
Our Novice and Expert riders also felt that the Husqvarna was aces in the suspension department.
“I’ve spent some time on 2017 Huskys so I know how good the suspension can be,” Turner said. “The WP air fork is incredible, and not just for pro riders. It behaves like an oil/spring fork and has a nice plushness that other air forks don’t have. It’s also very easy to live with and adjust. The sticker on the side of the fork tube makes it very clear to the user, as well. No need to pull out the manual or the smartphone before you start messing with it. Air pressure level is straight forward, and the adjustment knobs are the same as they used to be [with the 4CS]. A+ to WP on the user-friendliness of the AER 48.”
Burch added, “The WP AER 48 is the best air fork on the market now. It is plush and smooth in just about every condition, and yet it doesn’t go through its stroke too quickly. The shock settled better for me than on any other bike. The rear wheel stayed planted on the ground the whole time I rode the Husky.”
Kawasaki made only minor upgrades to the KX450F suspension for 2017, fitting a more-rigid aluminum triple clamp to hold the KX’s 49mm Showa Separate Function Fork, Triple Air Chamber (SFF-TAC), which itself was changed via a swapping of the inner and outer air chamber filler valves that are located on top of the right fork cap. Kawasaki also updated the KX’s valving. Out back, Kawasaki revised the KX’s Uni-Trak linkage ratio, revalving its fully adjustable Showa piggyback shock and opting for a lighter weight, 52 Newton-meter spring.
After logging dozens of laps on the KX, air fork skeptic Abbatoye admitted the KX suspension worked better than he thought it would, but overall the Kawi’s suspension drew less than rave reviews.
“It is plush and worked well over fast chop, and it helped the bike to stay in the ruts well,” Abbatoye commented. “The rear suspension also worked well, but it’s just a little too soft for big G-outs.”
Garvin, however, said that the suspension was “just okay,” and Stover was far less conciliatory. “It was my least favorite of the group,” Stover said. “I think that the KX’s Showa fork is too stiff initially, although it does handle big hits pretty well. Out back, the shock is plush initially, but overall I find its valving to be too stiff. It just has a stiff feeling overall.”
Likewise, Turner called the KX’s fork “a turn-off,” and Burch seemed to be less than impressed with the fork action but happy enough with the shock action. “The Showa air fork on the KX seemed to ride high in the stroke, and I couldn’t get it to settle in,” Burch said. “On the other hand, I thought the shock was great, especially when accelerating out of bumps.”
Comments on the KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition’s suspension performance were naturally similar to those of the Husqvarna FC 450, although some of our testers seemed to like the KTM’s suspension action better than the Husky’s.
“The KTM fork seemed to be a little stiff at first, and I actually experienced some headshake,” Abbatoye said. “I pulled back in, and we took eight clicks of compression out of the fork. It made a world of difference and solved the problem. It made the fork work really well with the shock everywhere on the track, over large hits or through small bumps. The KTM’s suspension was really balanced, and it helped to give the bike awesome traction.”
Garvin differed slightly again, and Burch agreed with him.
“The AER 48 fork on the KTM is by far the best air fork I have ever ridden,” Garvin said. “It has such a plush yet controlled feel. I feel like I could hit anything with it and be fine. However, I didn’t have as much love for the rear suspension. I couldn’t get it to settle in to my liking when I was going into corners.”
Stover was still not bowled over by the WP fork or the KTM/Husky suspension in general.
“I like the KTM’s fork action, which seems to work well over a wide range of terrain, but I still think that the Yamaha’s KYB coil spring fork works better,” Stover said. “Overall, the KTM’s valving is on the stiff side, but I don’t really have any complaints about how it goes through the stroke at either end.”
The most dated bike in our stable, the Suzuki RM-Z450 also has the most dated suspension. Up front, the RM-Z450 sports a 48mm Showa SFF-Air fork fitted since 2015. The triple-chamber SFF-Air fork is 2.5 pounds lighter than any spring fork, and it is claimed to be easily adjustable. Holding up the rear is a fully adjustable Showa piggyback shock that, like every bike in the class, features high- and low-speed compression damping adjustability as well as rebound damping and spring preload adjustability.
Compared to the rest of the group, the Suzuki drew the most negative comments for the way it dealt with small and big hits.
“The Suzuki feels well-balanced, but overall its suspension action is just too rigid and harsh for my tastes,” Abbatoye said, and Garvin was even less impressed. “I would swap the Suzuki’s Showa air fork off the bike if I owned it,” Garvin complained. “The fork was harsh no matter what I tried. It actually hurts what might be decent rear suspension action. The shock really needs a better fork to help it realize its full potential.”
Turner agreed, saying “That fork… we were not able to dial any of the harshness out of it. Landings sent a sting to my hands.”
But not everyone was willing to hammer the Suzuki’s suspension performance. Burch and Stover were able to find some happiness with the RM-Z’s suspension.
“Once you get into the stroke, I think the Suzuki fork is reasonably plush,” Burch said. “Once I made some adjustments to the high-speed compression setting, the rear of the bike actually handled choppy bumps really well and felt great at higher speeds.” Stover simply said, “I thought that the Suzuki’s suspension wasn’t great over small bumps, but it was progressive enough for me.”
Yamaha has continued to spec the YZ450F with the 48mm KYB Speed Sensitive System coil-spring fork rather than jump on the air fork bandwagon, and for good reason: The SSS’ big and small bump compliance has proven to be worth whatever added weight it carries when compared to the latest in lightweight air forks, and it is easy to balance with the YZ450F’s fully adjustable KYB shock.
The Yamaha still ranks well in the face of newer suspension designs from Honda and KTM/Husqvarna, although some testers felt that the YZ is starting to lose some ground.
“I love the KYB coil-spring fork on the Yamaha,” Abbatoye said. “It worked really well after we backed the compression off a few clicks from stock. It can really handle rough ground well, and that only helps the Yamaha to be even more stable over rough ground. The shock is really in balance with the fork – not too soft or too stiff. It really works well over big G-outs.”
Stover called the YZ’s suspension action smooth and progressive. “I didn’t feel like it was harsh anywhere on the track,” he said. “On the other hand, I had to dial the shock so that it was quite a bit softer than stock just to get it so that it had a settled feel.”
After riding all of the bikes in the class, though, Garvin said he sees the writing on the wall.
“The Yamaha has had pretty good suspension for a long time, but compared to the newer bikes in this class it needs some updating,” Garvin said. “I found both ends to be a little too stiff for my liking when ridden over rough sections. The suspension seems to react to everything.”
Suspension has a big influence on handling, but the true DNA of any bike’s handling character lies within the chassis. While all four Japanese manufacturers abandoned steel in favor of aluminum perimeter chassis designs long ago, KTM and Husqvarna continue to stick with more conventional backbone-style chrome-moly steel designs, citing a more forgiving material that is easier to tune for just the right flex – something that has proven to be a lot more hit-and-miss with aluminum frames.
Honda thinks it got it right on the 2017 CRF450R. The CRF’s all-new aluminum perimeter frame features longer and more gradual bends in the frame spars, which are thicker close to the steering head and gradually thinner as they move away from it. Although it has a more compact feel than its predecessor, the CRF isn’t the lightest machine in the group, checking in at 246.2 lbs. with its trick, 1.6-gallon titanium fuel cell topped to just under the filler neck, but the 58.3-inch wheelbase machine drew positive reviews from our pro and intermediate/expert riders.
“The new chassis is a big improvement,” Abbatoye said. “In the past, the Honda tended to oversteer, but the 2017 simply doesn’t have that issue. Front end traction is great, and it’s very stable in choppy corners.”
Stover noted that cornering competence is a strong suit of the CRF450R. “Cornering is thoughtless,” Stover said. “It just goes right where you put it every time.” Garvin added that the Honda is very stable and yet really easy to maneuver. “The Honda chassis turns on a dime,” he said. “It doesn’t shake its head, but it does tend to wander a little bit on fast, rough straightaways.”
Turner wasn’t as convinced that the Honda was the best choice for novice riders.
“I didn’t feel as planted in the ruts on the Honda and just tried to avoid them on it,” Turner said. “If I had all day on just the Honda, I know we could have dialed it in a lot more. As it was, the Honda felt like a nice tight package, much like the Suzuki in the handling department, a good combo of stable and responsive. I feel like it will really reward the precise rider.”
Burch felt that the CRF450R was the best bike in the class when it came to cornering.
“You can put it wherever you want with very little effort,” he said. “It’s also plenty stable in mid-corner, and it really puts the power to the ground smoothly on exit.”
Weighing 238.3 lbs. fully fueled, the Husqvarna FC 450 was the second lightest bike in our test—only the KTM Factory Edition with its feathery Akrapovic exhaust system came in lighter, at 236.3 lbs. There is no difference between the KTM and Husqvarna’s chassis geometry numbers or their 58.5-inch wheelbases, as both use the same hydro-formed, laser-cut and robot-welded main frame, which is designed by WP. The Husqvarna differs from the KTM via its use of a three-piece carbon fiber composite subframe rather than an aluminum subframe, however.
On the track, the Husqvarna was extremely stable in the rough, but our testers once again noted differences between the Husqvarna and the KTM when it came to bending through corners.
“The Husqvarna gives up very little to the other bikes in terms of handling,” Turner said. “It feels a little tall, and wanted to stand up on me a bit more than the others coming out of turns. It wasn’t bad, just not as good as some of the others.”
“Other bikes cornered better,” Abbatoye added. “The Husqvarna’s front end just feels ‘choppered out’ to me.” Garvin, Stover and Burch all gave the Husqvarna more props. Garvin noted that the Husqvarna is plenty stable, turns in nicely and is unflappable through the middle and on exit, and Stover pronounced it very easy to flick into a corner, also mentioning that it doesn’t want to stand up or understeer. “It’s steering is nice and neutral,” he said, while Burch also appreciated the Husqvarna’s overall handling performance. “I didn’t have any issues,” Burch said. “I could put the Husky wherever I wanted in a corner. It was stable and quick-steering through the middle of the corner.”
The 2017 KX450F features the same chassis that Kawasaki cooked up when it put the KX450F on a diet back in 2016. The KX’s new frame spars were 6mm slimmer than the 2015’s, and its aluminum subframe boasted thicker walls for improved strength. A lighter but more rigid aluminum swingarm shaved another 7.8 oz. from the chassis, for a total weight loss of 7.5 lbs. While Kawasaki claimed that its handiwork brought the KX’s weight under 240 lbs., our fully fueled 2017 test unit weighed 242.2 lbs. – pretty much in the middle of the road for the class. Its 58.9 inch wheelbase makes it just a tad longer than the competition, and its straight-line stability is a well-known and respected commodity, but the Kawasaki doesn’t seem to be as willing to rail corners as its competition, a point noted by the majority of our test crew.
“It’s one of the better turning 450s that Kawi has produced in the last few years, so it’s a step in the right direction,” Abbatoye said, “but there are definitely better-turning bikes in the class.” Garvin, too, found the KX450F less likely to want to turn on a fresh track, saying. “It tends to like to chase ruts, but it is pretty good through them.”
Stover said, “The KX’s rear end tended to resist following the front end into corners, so you end up having to steer the bike with the rear end a lot,” while Burch said, “For me, the KX was a little hard to hustle into a corner because it wanted to push wide, but once the front end hooked up it steered well.” Turner also noted that the KX doesn’t seem to track through turns with same precision as some of the other machines.
We expected virtually identical comments regarding the KTM’s stability and cornering capability when compared to its sister, the Husqvarna, but for some reason the crew liked it even better. The KTM’s WP-built chrome-moly chassis is as stable as a train over rough ground, and yet it corners with tremendous agility. The KTM is the lightest bike in the class, weighing just 236.3 lbs., but could that difference equate to a machine that is even more agile than its white sibling? Apparently so.
“The KTM turns awesome,” Abbatoye said. “It’s amazing how much traction the front end had even when in flat corners where the track was slick. It falls in easily, and it feels awesome through the middle and on exit, ruts or no ruts.”
“The KTM handles really well in corners,” Stover agreed. “Basically, the rear follows the front willingly, and the bike stays planted in mid-corner, which also helps it to accelerate off the corner quickly. But I do think that the front end is a little twitchy in a straight line.”
Burch also liked the KTM, but Turner wasn’t as accepting when representing the novice point of view.
“The KTM doesn’t seem quite at the top in terms of agility,” Turner said. “It feels a little tall at the front, and feels like you’re sitting more upright than others. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it is still an extremely agile bike. Just not the best of the bunch. Anything it might give up in that department, it gains in stability. It feels like it was harder to make a mistake on the KTM. Aside from me having to keep the front end down [due to the KTM’s power and ability to drive off a corner], it’s very forgiving.”
It might be hard to believe that the aged RM-Z450 would be in the hunt with the newer 450s where it pertains to handling, but the Suzuki’s amazing agility is a testament to just how awesome it was when it was first introduced. At 243.7 lbs., it is neither the lightest nor heaviest bike in this comparison, and its 58.9-inch wheelbase is among the longest. But, to a person, our team agreed that while the Suzuki suffers from straight-line stability issues mostly due to its stiff suspension performance, throwing the yellow bike into turns is a different story.
“The Suzuki corners well as long as you don’t have to contend with a square-edged bump or a rut,” Abbatoye said. “Otherwise its stiff suspension action and chassis cause the RM-Z to deflect and get twitchy, and sometimes the front end will lose traction.”
Turner said, “Handling is distinctly fantastic, but you have to like a quick-handling bike,” and Garvin said, “The RM-Z is a great-turning motorcycle even against the more up-to-date bikes in its class. You can put it anywhere on the track, and it stays stable and pulls through any corner.”
Burch noticed a different issue with the RM-Z, however.
“Initial corner entry on the RM-Z is a little tough compared to the others because the chassis is pretty rigid, but it actually suits my riding style really well,” he said. “Its mid-corner performance is great. Once the RM-Z450 settles into a corner, it settles well, and it definitely gets the power to the ground coming off of a corner.”
While Yamaha prefers to call its aluminum chassis a bilateral beam aluminum frame to differentiate it from the competition, it is still an aluminum perimeter frame. This arrow-stable generation of the YZ450F chassis has been basically unaltered since 2014, when Yamaha narrowed it by 14mm and tucked the steering head 10mm closer to the rider.
The Yamaha was the tank of the class, pressing the scale to the tune of 249.1 lbs., outweighing the Honda by just under 3 lbs. Our testers had no issues with the Yamaha in straight, fast chop, but what was once considered to be a great-turning machine is now a step behind many of its peers in the steering department.
“The Yamaha is stable, but it has a heavy feel to it,” Abbatoye said. “Coming into a corner, you really have to make sure you are over the front of the bike. It stays in ruts fairly well, but its steering is heavy compared to the other bikes in the class.” Garvin had even more issues with the YZ. “It really has a tendency to push wide in a corner,” he said “I also felt like it could stand to be a little more stable in the middle of the corner.”
Stover, too, felt that handling is where the Yamaha struggles.
“It feels wide and heavy, and while it is stable, it wants to stand up when you’re diving into a corner,” Stover said. “If you’re not really careful with the throttle, it will push wide in the middle of a corner, and it seems to dart around a lot in ruts.”
“The Yamaha sits really high, and I did notice a little head shake at speed,” Burch said. “Corner entry on the Yamaha was also a little difficult, as it was hard to get the bike to settle into a turn.”
Going fast is one thing, but when you get to that next corner, you need to be able to check your speed quickly and with confidence. In the past, it seemed that KTM [and now Husqvarna] have always had the advantage in the power department because they use Brembo brakes while the Nissin brakes that are usually spec’d on the Japanese motocrossers held the edge in linear feel. Despite some of the OEMs stepping up to ever-larger front rotors in an attempt to gain even more whoah power for their respective 450cc models, the song remains the same.
The 2017 Honda CRF450R features the same brake specs as its predecessor, using a 260mm rotor with a Nissin twin-piston caliper up front and a Nissin single-piston and 240mm rotor out back. Of all the things the test team found impressive on the new CRF450R, the Honda’s brakes were not among them. That isn’t to say that the Honda’s linear-feeling binders were bad, but they simply weren’t as powerful-feeling as some of the competition.
“Honda needs to work on the brakes,” Garvin said, chorusing the feelings of the group. “They feel linear enough, but I was really looking for more stopping power at the end of some of the fast sections.” Stover added, “They’re not the best in the class, but they’re pretty good. Burch called the CRF’s braking performance “pretty average.”
But nobody, and we mean nobody, had a bad thing to say about the Brembo 260mm, twin-piston front and 220mm, single-piston rear brakes on the Husqvarna and the KTM, which still smoke the competition when it comes to ground-clawing stopping power.
“The Husqvarna’s Brembo brakes are excellent, just like the KTMs!” Abbatoye said, and Garvin added, “Brembo brakes are amazing.” Stover simply shouted, “Brembo!” And Burch called them “the best brakes on the market.”
The KX450F’s oversized 270mm front disc and Nissin two-piston caliper tie the YZ450F for biggest front brake in the class. With a 240mm rear disc and Nissin single-piston out back, you would think the Kawi would deliver the kind of stopping power that would satisfy our test team. Not exactly.
“The Kawasaki’s front brake could be a little stronger,” Abbatoye said, and Garvin echoed, “The KX450F’s brakes are okay, but like the Honda’s they are not the best.” Stover felt as if they were “Not great, but not the worst.” Just as he did with the Honda brakes, Burch called the KX450F brakes “pretty average.”
Of course, the KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition, like the Husqvarna FC 450 received unanimous praise from the gang for its braking performance – no surprises there.
“Anyone who knows KTMs knows that they have the best brakes,” Abbatoye said, while Garvin said, “Best brakes, period. Well, best brakes, tied with the Husqvarna.” Stover simply stated, “The Brembos win again.”
The RM-Z450 runs the smallest front rotor of the group, its 250mm unit clamped by a Nissin twin-piston caliper. Out back, the Suzuki is fitted with a 240mm rear disc and Nissin single-piston caliper. When we tested the 2016 Suzuki RM-Z450, we thought that they offered plenty of stopping power and a smooth, linear feel, but in the presence of Brembos, they suffer.
“The Suzuki’s brakes are in need of an update,” Abbatoye said. “The front brake definitely could be stronger.” Garvin, too, felt that the Suzuki brakes missed the mark, while Stover said, “They’ll slow you down, but they don’t feel very powerful at all.” Turner added, “Perhaps 270mm is now the standard and the Suzuki is in danger of having an “undersize” front brake? “Fortunately, an oversize front brake is an easy aftermarket fix, if desired.”
The Nissin-clamped 270mm front and 245mm rear rotors on the Yamaha YZ450F didn’t exactly offer the kind of stopping power their size would imply either.
“The Yamaha’s brakes work well, but they’re not as strong as the KTM’s or the Husqvarna’s brakes,” Abbatoye said. Stover not only griped about the YZ’s braking power but also its lack of feel in the rear. “The front brake on the Yamaha is weak, and the rear tended to lock up on me,” Stover said. “Neither the front nor the rear brake had much in the way of feel.”
Cutting the fastest lap of the race is cool, but the winner is the one who consistently cuts the fastest laps. With the power that these 450cc thoroughbreds deliver, such seemingly unimportant items as control location, handlebar rise, seating comfort, chassis width and the overall size feeling of the machine can profoundly influence rider comfort. The right ergos can help preserve a rider during a long moto while a cramped or large-feeling bike can contribute to sapped energy and less comfort.
For the most part, the Honda CRF450R received favorable feedback with regard to its fit and feel.
“Hondas have always been known as ‘small’ bikes, and that has always worked for me,” Abbatoye said. “The CRF just feels great in the cockpit. It’s easy to move around on the bike however you need to.” Garvin concurred, saying that the Honda fit his 5’11” frame perfectly. Stover noted that the Honda was easy to move around aboard, especially front to rear. Turner, on the other hand, had some pointed complaints about the CRF’s ergonomic features.
“I really hate the stock footpegs on the Honda,” and “The old-school 7/8-inch handlebar with crossbar also leaves something to be desired,” Turner said. “If you want to install an oversize bar – which I definitely would – you not only have to buy the bar, but new mounts as well. An oversize tapered aluminum bar (like the Suzuki’s!) is a much better stock option, in my opinion.”
The Husqvarna FC 450’s ergos were less of a favorite, generally speaking.
“I wasn’t a fan,” Abbatoye said. “I don’t know whether it is the Husqvarna’s bars or triple clamps, but the bars are set too high for my tastes, and the seat is pretty hard compared to the seats on the other bikes. And again, there’s also the engine vibration. But I liked the Husqvarna’s electric starting system.”
Stover noted that while the FC 450 has a nice, flat feel in the saddle, he noticed that it was too easy to accidentally hit the engine map switch and the electric start buttons when he was riding the Husky. Burch praised the FC’s thin feel but noted that the location of the footpegs left his legs cramped while also mentioning his difficulty in finding the shifter on the Husqvarna.
While Abbatoye said that the Kawasaki KX450F looks big and long, “You don’t really feel it as much as you see it.” But he may have been the one rider who liked the Kawasaki the most, as the others weren’t as enthusiastic.
“The KX feels wide through the middle and long in back to me,” Garvin said. “It just has an odd feel in the cockpit.” Stover said pretty much the same thing: “The KX feels long, like it is set up for a larger pilot. I felt decent on it, but not at home.” While not necessarily complaining, Burch also mentioned that the bars on the Kawasaki feel much higher than some of the other machines in the class. “
Turner added, “The good thing about the KX footpegs is that they are adjustable. If I had all day to ride just the KX, I would have tried it out. But the quality of the pegs themselves isn’t great. The 7/8 bar with crossbar is, again, not my preference. And it’s a pain to have to buy different bar mounts when you inevitably swap out the bar for a tapered one. I like the stock seat, though. It’s comfortable and has good grip.”
Once again, while you would think that the KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition and the Husqvarna FC 450 would elicit the same responses due to their very similar design, the KTM’s ergonomics received wide range of comments from the group.
“The KTM feels very comfortable, and everything just falls into place for me,” Abbatoye said. However, Garvin said he found that the KTM “sits a bit taller and has a funky overall feel.” Stover noticed that his right foot “kept snagging the rear master cylinder, and it felt like the rear brake lever was hidden under the KTM’s motor.” Burch was more in line with Abbatoye, noting that the KTM “is very slim-feeling,” and he was able to move back and forth and side to side with ease.
Of the KTM, Turner said, “Fit and finish is superb – bar, grips, footpegs, seat, levers, everything! There’s no fuss, nothing to replace straight from the dealer floor on the KTM. It feels a little tall at the front, and feels like you’re sitting more upright than others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it is still an extremely agile bike.”
The Suzuki RM-Z450’s ergos were largely approved of by our test crew. Abbatoye said that the Suzuki’s cockpit feels as small and comfortable as any bike in the class, and Garvin offered that its riding position, highlighted by its low bars and smallish feel, was more than acceptable.
“I don’t have any major complaints about the Suzuki’s ergos,” Stover added. “The bars feel a little low and the footpegs feel a little high.” Burch also said that the Suzuki “feels pretty slim to me.”
Turner also commented about one aspect of the Suzuki ergos that others on our test team mentioned but did not place in their notes: “The kickstarter was long and kind of awkward, with a long stroke to start it. But the RM-Z lights up very easily. Also, I like the stock handlebar – the tapered Renthal bar is nice.”
When it comes to the Yamaha’s cockpit, our test crew’s consensus pretty much pointed toward the middle of the road.
“The Yamaha just feels big when you’re just sitting on it, but that goes away on the track,” Abbatoye said. “Overall, it’s a nice ergonomic package, but it isn’t as good in the corners as some of the other bikes.”
“What can I say?” Stover said. “I like the YZ’s bar bend, and I think it has the best footpegs, but overall the bike feels wide.” Burch agreed that the YZ felt wide. “It was harder to squeeze with my legs than the other bikes,” he said.
Turner felt the same about the YZ, saying, “It’s a little wide at the front, which takes a little getting used to at first if you’re used to a slim tank. The wide shrouds make it a little harder for me to grab on with my legs and hold myself forward.”
Like we said from the beginning, we knew that the battle for supremacy in this class would be close, and with our MO Scorecard, it ultimately turned out to be amazingly so. However, just as one bike has to finish first, another bike has to finish sixth, and after adding up our test rider scores, that turned out to be the 2017 Kawasaki KX450F.
2017 Kawasaki KX450F: Sixth Place, 79.8%
Honestly, more than a few were surprised, but the numbers didn’t lie. The KX is a machine that probably has a lot more potential hidden in some key areas that need more refinement, most notably its power output and suspension performance. If we were Kawasaki, we would figure out how to give the KX450F even more top-end hook and exchange its Showa air fork for the fine Showa SFF spring fork that is used on the KX250F. Those two changes alone would probably help the big KX achieve a much higher score than the 718.32 points out of the possible 900 available. Also, at $8849, its price tag matches at least one machine that outperformed it in every category.
2017 Suzuki RM-Z450: Fifth Place, 81.1%
Finishing fifth, the 2017 Suzuki RM-Z450 tallied a total of 730.02 points. Nobody on our crew disliked the Suzuki, but it is very clear that the race for the top of the class demands a motorcycle with a little more power, a more forgiving chassis and more supple suspension performance. If the recent news of the 2018 Suzuki RM-Z450WS works bike is any indication, Suzuki may be addressing some of these shortcomings for the 2018 RM-Z450 production model; we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, the RM-Z450 is a well-refined design that is simply coming to the end of its road. We could cut the Suzuki even more of a break if its $8749 MSRP was the cheapest of the group, but it isn’t.
2017 Yamaha YZ450F: Fourth Place, 85.0%
Fourth place really surprised us. We really get along well with the 2017 Yamaha YZ450F, but this year the blue bomber has gotten shelled by newer designs that boast much lighter weight, better handling and handlebar button-activated engine map controllability. Its 765.30 point total leaves little doubt that the Yamaha still has a powerhouse engine and boasts very good suspension performance, but our test crew felt that the Yamaha motor could stand to be wrapped in an even more compact-feeling chassis package with a lower center of gravity to aid in its handling. Better brakes to slow the beast would also be a welcome addition. Even so, at $8699, it is the least expensive bike in the group, and that punchy motor still makes the Yamaha a hell of a bargain.
2017 Husqvarna FC 450: Third Place, 87.7%
Watching the points race among the top three was a lot like watching the last presidential election. Early on, we thought it was going to be lopsided in one direction, but as the scores filled in, the balance swung the other way. Nowhere was this truer than with the 2017 Husqvarna FC 450, which started off strong in our scoring before winding up third with 789.69 points. Husqvarna has really created a fantastic motocross machine with the FC 450. It makes potent yet rideable power, its WP AER 48 air fork is the king of the genre, and it is slim and handles well. It’s just that our testers found other machines to be dialed in better, and the Husqvarna’s $9499 price point didn’t do it any favors in a podium race that was so close.
2017 KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition: Second Place, 88.2%
How close? So close that its sister, the even more expensive KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition tallied 793.52 points – less than four more – en route to finishing second. Akrapovic muffler and blingy bits notwithstanding, the KTM just plain works well, thanks to its electrically smooth yet smokin’ fast engine, neutral handling chassis, brilliant WP suspension and powerful Brembo brakes. It all makes for an amazing machine. So what holds the KTM back? Price, mostly. At $10,399, the Factory Edition is an expensive proposition, and we can’t help but note that the standard 2017 KTM 450 SX-F might have pulled off the win in this shootout if it was available for our testing.
2017 Honda CRF450R: First Place, 88.3%
That leaves the 2017 Honda CRF450R, which claimed top honors in our 450cc Motocross Shootout with a total of 794.46 points – that’s right, the Honda beat out the KTM by less than a point! When all was said and done, our testers pointed to the Honda’s brawny yet smooth-feeling power delivery, excellent adjustable engine mapping and quick-turning chassis as big reasons for the CRF450R’s win. Its new Showa coil spring fork eliminates a lot of headaches while performing to a much higher standard than the air fork that it replaced, and the Honda’s compact feel and trademark slick shifting transmission are also praiseworthy. The Honda is simply a strong overall package, and in the categories where it isn’t as strong it is close to the top. Its fit and finish levels are on par with the European machines in this test, and yet its Kawasaki-matching $8849 price bests the Husqvarna by $650 and the KTM Factory Edition by a whopping $1550.
We found happiness aboard all of these 450cc motocross machines, but the 2017 Honda CRF450R provided the biggest grins.
|2017 450cc Motocross Shootout
Hover your mouse over the overall score for individual category ratings.
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