2016 Honda CRF450R First Ride Review

Scott Rousseau
by Scott Rousseau

Last year, Honda made excellent strides with its flagship CRF450R by tailoring its power curve to deliver more midrange boost, and Honda appeared to accomplish that mission quite handily. Even so, the 2016 CRF450R is capable of even faster lap times with the same exact engine specifications as the 2015 model.

2016 Honda CRF450R

Editor Score: 93.5%
Engine 19.0/20
Suspension/Handling 14.5/15
Transmission/Clutch 10/10
Brakes 10/10
Ergonomics/Comfort 8.0/10
Appearance/Quality 9.0/10
Desirability 9.0/10
Value 9.0/10
Overall Score93.5/100

So how did Honda pull that one off? Simple. Honda engineers applied a couple of seemingly minor chassis revisions and, voilà! The 2016 Honda CRF450R is markedly better than the 2015.

Performing its own version of a song we heard during our recent review of the 2016 Yamaha YZ450F, Honda engineers have sought to give the CRF450R’s suspension and handling more balance. However, Honda’s rendition isn’t quite the same. Whereas Yamaha’s engineers changed the triple clamp offset and installed a softer shock spring to make the YZ450F’s suspension and handling more harmonious, Honda’s engineers effected basically the same change in the CRF450R by adding 5mm to its 48mm KYB PSF (Pneumatic Spring Fork), thus raising the front end, while also changing its Pro-Link rear suspension linkage. The new linkage features longer pull rods and a different delta link (the triangular-shaped fixture in the linkage) to make the linkage ratio stiffer initially yet softer and more progressive when the shock stroke reaches full compression. Beyond that, the CRF’s chassis dimensions and weight are virtually identical to last year’s, with a 58.8-inch wheelbase, 27.0-degree rake and 4.6 inches of trail.

The CRF’s KYB 48mm Pneumatic Spring Fork now boasts 5mm longer legs to raise the front end of the bike, aiding in stability both when cornering and while straightlining over fast, choppy ground.

But those two suspension changes still help make the 2016 CRF450R quicker than it was in 2015 without the engine making a single additional horsepower. How? Honda’s suspension revisions simply put the engine’s existing power to the ground more efficiently than before, which gives the 2016 model a stronger acceleration feel and better drive out of the corners with the exact same power as the 2015.

It may sound like a sleight-of-hand trick to some, but it works. The difference was readily apparent to our expert-level dirtbike tester, Ryan Abbatoye, when American Honda invited us to sample the ’16 CRF450R at Pala Raceway near San Diego, California, yesterday. Abbatoye praised the work that Honda did in an attempt to improve the 2015 CRF450R when we rode it last year, but after shredding Pala’s beefy berms and landing several of its skyshot jumps without a hitch, he certified that the 2016 suspension performs better than last year’s, and it was already pretty good.

“I definitely feel like the bike is more powerful than before, but the Honda guys say that it is due to the change in the suspension linkage and the fork,” Abbatoye said. “It just makes the chassis feel more ‘free,’ and it helps to get more of the engine’s power to the ground. It is really noticeable. I feel it coming out of the corners, for sure. In the past, the Honda has felt like it is down on power compared to some of the other manufacturers, but it feels a lot better now, maybe up to par with them.”

With its revised linkage ratio, the CRF450R makes better use of its electric-like 450cc power curve, which makes it easier than ever to rocket out of a corner.

The revised suspension affects the CRF450R’s handling for the better as well. Past versions have had a tendency to ride in a tail-high “stinkbug” attitude, which made them a little nervous at the corner entry, sometimes resulting in a tendency to cause an oversteer condition that Abbatoye calls “knifing.” Honda’s linkage change and 5mm longer KYB fork even out the CRF450R’s ride height now make the chassis more stable and more precise all the way through a corner, whether fast or slow, tight or wide – and all this without sacrificing wheel travel at either end; the 2016 features the same 12.2 inches of suspension travel up front and 12.4 inches out back as the 2015.

The suspension’s improved performance may also be partially due to another change that Honda incorporated into the CRF450R for 2016, as its 48mm PSF fork and KYB piggyback reservoir shock now feature twice the adjustment range of their respective 2015 units – 8 clicks each, instead of 4 – in order to make it easier to fine-tune each end to his or her liking. While the difference with each click is still noticeable, the CRF’s suspension isn’t as sensitive as it was before, making it easier to find comfortable settings.

Other than its longer legs, the KYB PSF fork’s specs are identical to the 2015 model’s, and it handles smaller spike hits and large G-outs with complete composure. As a refresher, The PSF design compartmentalizes the compression-damping circuit in the left leg, and the rebound damping circuit is in the right leg, with the valve specs being the same on both sides. During compression, the displaced oil travels through a bleed port at the bottom of the fork through the space between the inner and outer fork tubes to make the ride more supple. Both sides feature high- and low-speed adjusters to simplify the process of dialing-in the desired fork performance.

The CRF’s front and rear suspension are harmonious whether tacking small bumps, whoops or landing from big jumps. Still, it’s interesting that Honda fits the big CRF with KYB components despite owning suspension giant Showa.

Out back, the KYB shock still features the same adjuster configuration as last year, placing the rebound damping adjuster with the shock’s high- and low-speed compression adjusters just above the oil reservoir for easy adjustment. Honda officials tell us there is slight difference in the shock-valving, particularly mid-stroke, to offset the linkage change.

Lastly – and this is kind of a strange one to us – Honda claims that changing the CRF450R’s chain roller diameter from 38mm to 34mm actually improves the rear suspension performance by addressing a condition that its factory racers and test riders noticed last season. The smaller roller reduces the amount of load on the chain under braking and thus does not influence shock performance during rebound, which equates to better rear-wheel traction.

While Abbatoye said he likes the 2016 CRF’s suspension better, he admitted that it took some fiddling to get it right for him.

Previous CRF450R models tended to oversteer in corners, causing the front end to “knife” or grab traction earlier than the rider wanted. The new fork and revised linkage make the steering more neutral, helping to increase rider confidence.

“It’s more level now, pretty solid in the corners and tends not to oversteer like it used to,” Abbatoye said, “but we needed to make some adjustments to make me happy. We had to go slower on the rebound damping in the shock because in the fast stuff it would blow through the travel and then spring out (extend) and kick side to side. We slowed it down a little bit and also went stiffer on the compression. It was the same with the fork. We made some minor adjustments to make it stiffer. The changes really helped it smooth out, and it felt great.”

Normally, we would start our evaluation with the engine, but the 2016 CRF450R’s 449cc, liquid-cooled, Unicam (SOHC), four-valve, four-stroke Single is identical to last years’ in every way. The engine retains the same 96.0mm x 62.1mm bore and stroke, and the same 12.5:1 compression ratio as the 2015. Its right-side exit exhaust port configuration and combustion chamber shape are the same, and uses the same size titanium intake and steel exhaust valves. Also, its exhaust header still curves inside the front downtube – a change that was made in 2015 along with the new exhaust port layout – and exits spent gases through twin mufflers.

With just a couple minor tweaks, the 2016 Honda CRF450R feels faster than its predecessor despite having the exact same motor specs the 2015 model.

The CRF450R still makes smooth low-end torque before rolling into a seamless mid-range and finishing with a clean and authoritative, if not thrilling, top-end rush. Throttle response through its 46mm throttle body is excellent, thanks to ignition timing and fuel setting changes to the Honda’s Dual-Timing PGM-FI engine management system in 2015, and there’s no question that the CRF450R delivers user-friendly, open-class power. Frankly, we’d love to race one in an off-road event, and Honda’s Engine Mode Select function is one of the reasons why.

The CRF450R’s Unicam SOHC four-stroke single went through a host of changes in 2015. It returns unchanged for 2016, and yet it is more effective than ever before. Smooth, user-friendly, open-class power is practically a Honda trademark, and the CRF delivers it in spades.

Incorporated in 2015, the CRF’s Engine Mode Select button allows the rider to select among three EFI/ignition maps stored in the CRF450R’s ECU simply by pressing a button mounted on the right side of the handlebar. The first is the stock map, but the other two slots are available for customized maps that can be reprogrammed via an HRC accessory tuning tool. As delivered, Mode 2 is for slippery off-road surfaces, while Mode 3 is more aggressive for high-traction surfaces. The system could be extremely useful in the varied terrain and conditions that are usually found in a typical off-road race.

That said, while we thought we might see some sort of holeshot-assist technology incorporated into the Engine Mode Select system for 2016, Honda elected not to add one. It seems to us that this would have been a fairly simple way to increase the CRF450R’s customer value.

While we have no complaints about the buttery-smooth shift action of the Honda’s five-speed transmission or its silky clutch performance, the CRF’s stock gearing was a tad short for some of our test track’s longer straightaways, although Abbatoye was convinced that taking a tooth off the rear sprocket wouldn’t hamstring the Honda’s brawn at the expense of being able to hold a lower gear just a little longer.

The CRF450R can make quick direction changes thanks to its excellent wave rotor-style disc brakes and Nissin calipers. When it comes to brakes, the Honda more than makes up for any perceived lack of power (compared to its competition) with a linear feel, front and rear.

Regardless of how fast you go, the CRF’s braking performance is still awesome. It’s wave-style 260mm front and 245mm rear rotors are clamped by Nissin calipers that offered excellent feel and consistent stopping power in Pala’s deep, tacky clay, which later became dry and slick on some parts of the track. The CRF450R also still wears Dunlop’s excellent GEOMAX MX52 intermediate/hard-terrain tires front and rear, and we love them for their grip and consistency regardless of how hard the bike is leaned over in a corner.

The CRF450R features comfortable ergonomics, too, with a slender seat and a roomy cockpit layout – for the most part. We do have one complaint – and this is the third time we’ve bitched about this – Honda’s radiator shroud design makes it far too easy to catch a knee guard or a boot when cornering. We’ve already mentioned how Honda’s factory race teams trim and/or zip-tie the stock shrouds to alleviate the problem. It should be taken care of at the factory for the rest of us.

We’re not fans of the CRF’s angular radiator shrouds, which tend to snag knee guards and boot tops during hard cornering. The shrouds spoil an otherwise very good overall ergonomic package.

But if that’s the biggest issue that potential Honda customers have to face when considering the purchase of a CRF450R, we think that Big Red will have a big hit on its hands again this season. The 2016 model is indeed better than the 2015, and it can be had for the same $8,699 price, which already makes it a better value. New copies of Honda’s tried and true 450cc moto-masher are making their way to dealer showrooms as we speak.

2016 Honda CRF450R Specifications

Engine Type449cc liquid-cooled single-cylinder four-stroke
Bore and Stroke96.0mm x 62.1mm
Compression Ratio12.5:1
Valve TrainUnicam, four-valve; 36mm intake, titanium; 31mm exhaust, steel
InductionDual-Timing PGM-FI, 46mm throttle body
IgnitionFull transistor with electronic advance
TransmissionClose-ratio five-speed
Final Drive#520 chain; 13T/48T
Front Suspension48mm inverted KYB PSF (Pneumatic Spring Fork) with air-adjustable spring rate, and rebound and compression-damping adjustability; 12.2 inches travel.
Rear SuspensionPro-Link, KYB single shock with adjustable spring preload, rebound damping adjustability, and compression damping adjustment separated into low-speed and high-speed; 12.4 inches travel
Front BrakesSingle 260mm wave-style disc with twin-piston caliper
Rear BrakesSingle 240mm wave-style disc
Front TiresDunlop MX52 80/100-21
Rear TiresDunlop MX52 120/80-19
Wheelbase58.8 inches
Rake (Caster angle)27° 04’ (‘= minutes)
Trail116mm (4.6 inches)
Seat Height37.5 inches
Ground Clearance13.0 inches
Fuel Capacity1.7 gallons
Claimed Curb Weight*243.0 pounds
*Includes all standard equipment, required fluids and full tank of fuel – ready to ride.
Scott Rousseau
Scott Rousseau

More by Scott Rousseau

Join the conversation