The first thought that went through my head when our former bro, Brent Jaswinski, was assigned to attend the Honda CRF450L launch was, “Damn, that’s going to be a fun one.” The new Honda dual-sport was a much-anticipated model with promises of real trail bike performance in a plated package. Did it live up to the hype? Well, I couldn’t wait for Brent to write his review. So, I shot him a text, “How was it?” To be honest, I’m pretty sure I texted him while he was still at the launch for the bike. I was curious, as was the rest of the world, about whether this new model would be a thrilling performance-driven machine, or yet another soft polite dual-sport with street bike mentality. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure he responded with something along the lines of, “It rips!” It was at that moment I couldn’t wait to start planning a comparison of the Honda CRF450L against the time-tested king of dual-sports the KTM 500 EXC-F.

2019 KTM 500 EXC-F Review

2019 Honda CRF450L Review – First Ride

*Insert record scratching here* “Why couldn’t you have compared it to the 450 EXC-F?” I know it’s coming, particularly from the Honda fanboys. Because KTM didn’t have one available. But don’t worry! All will be considered in the following saga of Ryan and Brent’s Excellent Dual-Sport Adventure.

Would the KTM stay on top during our test? We couldn’t wait to find out.

KTM has long dominated the performance dual-sport market. If you wanted a dual-sport that performed like a dirtbike, KTM’s EXC-F line was the way to go. Other players like Beta and Husqvarna are solid contenders but, until more recently, hadn’t enjoyed the success the KTM has.

Since September, Brent and I had been scheming, trying to figure out when we could make this comparo happen. Three months later we were able to make it happen. Despite Brent’s lack of being employed by Motorcycle.com at this point, I still managed to negotiate his participation in this test, mostly because the rest of the MO staff is reluctant to get their boots dirty. Oh, and because Brent is a fantastic rider off-road, and I value his input (and you should too).

Way before dawn’s first light broke, Brent and I had loaded my Ford Ranger with the Honda CRF450L, the KTM 500 EXC-F and our gear (which alone probably retails for more than I paid for my truck). We would go out to the Mojave, unload, stage in Ridgecrest, and overnight in the once-booming ghost town of Randsburg. The surrounding areas would be our proving grounds. Fast sandy sections, rocky single track, plenty of elevation change, and paved roads to connect everything. The stage was set. We were ready.

Sand, ghost towns, and memorials

Our first day was spent meandering trails, trying to stay on the posted trails despite some closures in between, and making our way to Randsburg. Riding the two dual-sports back-to-back, it was quickly apparent how comparable these two really are.

I was pleasantly surprised, after getting some seat time on the Honda, that Brent was right. This thing is a ripper. The CRF450L is hardly noticeable as the middle child in an otherwise docile line of dual-sports. The new 450L is more comparable to the 450X on which it was based. Thank goodness.

And rip we did. The 50cc difference didn’t stop us from having a blast on the Honda.

When comparing it to the KTM the Honda doesn’t feel like it has a 50cc deficit, and looking at our dyno chart we can see why. The CRF450L is only down two horsepower and less than two lb-ft of torque, helped by the fact it sports a slightly higher compression ratio (12.0:1 vs. 11.8:1) and significantly larger 46mm throttle body to the KTM’s 42mm unit. On the trail, it feels a bit different because, as the saying goes, there’s no replacement for displacement. The 500 EXC-F does have a fair bit more torque off of the bottom and into the mid-range – a result of its longer stroke, which also accounts for its displacement advantage. The Katoom’s stroke is 72mm compared to the Honda’s 62.1mm. Bores stand at 95mm for the KTM and 96mm for the Honda. The Honda starts to catch up around 6,000 rpm where it then puts out a nice surge of power. While the Honda feels like it needs to be spun up a bit more to get you into the powerband, the KTM feels like it’s making strong smooth torque and horsepower throughout.

The dyno doesn’t lie, but the butt-dyno gives you that RealFeel©. The KTM’s extra horsepower is felt throughout the rpm-range, but it’s the torque that left us singing the 500’s praises.

Brent’s sensitive butt-dyno was pretty spot on when considering the two’s power output, “In the engine department, we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples, and the KTM’s extra 50cc are definitely noticeable,” Brent says. “The Honda is by no means a slouch – the bike rips! [Like I said he said – Ryan] – but the KTM gets the edge. The KTM packs a heavier punch throughout the powerband. The Honda is maybe a half step behind in power, but when ridden in the meat of its torque curve, the 450L cranks out plenty of super fun, usable power to keep up with anything.”

While Brent and I agreed we would swap in dirt bike rubber asap, the TKC80s on the KTM and IRC GP21 & 22s on the Honda did a pretty solid job during our mix of riding.

Despite the dyno, butt or otherwise, there’s another reason the KTM feels sportier while moving at a decent clip and definitely while tip-toeing through obstacles – 33 reasons actually. The Honda tipped our MO scales at 290 lbs with a full gas tank, a fair bit of weight, particularly when the KTM weighed in at 257 lbs. The slower you go or the faster you start changing direction, the more the Honda’s weight is felt.

“One thing that can’t be ignored when comparing the two bikes are their weights, and a 33-pound difference is a 33-pound difference, any way you cut it,” says Brent. “That said, the Honda actually carries its weight really well. The only time you feel the weight difference is when riding the bikes back-to-back in slow technical terrain, or when trying to turn the Honda around in deeper sand where you’re muscling it. Other than in situations like these (or similar ones), the Honda is unencumbered by its extra weight over the KTM.”

The Honda’s sound-proofing can be seen here with the engine covers and rubber coated sprocket, the key to passing regulations for years to come, while delivering 450X-like power.

The Honda has been engineered to withstand ever-tightening regulation standards, and in doing so, has put on a fair bit of weight between emissions equipment and the necessary bits to make it street legal compared to the 450X it was primarily built on. From the plastic-encased engine, to the urethane filled swingarm and sound-deadening sprocket, the Honda CRF450L passes current emissions with flying colors and will for many years to come. Honda does this by placing the catalytic converter in the muffler itself, accounting for 13 pounds. KTM has foregone the cat entirely by being able to squeak by with lean fuel mixtures and tip-toeing the line of red tape around regulation.

Service intervals are 15 and 30 hours for the KTM, 600 miles and 1,800 miles for the Honda. Right now, our KTM has 15.3 hours and 583 miles on it.

The weight didn’t bother me as much on the 450L as did the spacing of first and second gear. Sure, you can feel the weight more during technical riding, but first gear seemed much too short, and second too tall in relation. Those combined with a snappy throttle, made riding the bike in first through technical terrain more tiring than it needed to be. Should you decide to shift into second, the amount of clutch slipping involved is constant due to second being much taller than first. Thankfully the Honda’s cable actuated clutch pull is incredibly light, on par with the KTM’s hydraulic unit. That being said, Brent didn’t seem to mind as much as I did. While riding the KTM, this wasn’t something that crossed my mind, which is to say, the wide-ratio gearbox is spaced juuust right. Like Goldilocks. I’ve been told it’s possible the Honda’s gearbox is spaced the way it is due to a “ride by” test for noise emissions. A taller second gear would allow the engine to spin at lower rpm and such, easily pass today’s and tomorrow’s draconian noise emissions.

Comparing apples to oranges

Brent asked me if I thought I should have walked in there to take this picture. It was a question I’d considered myself before doing so. Although it was purely out of respect for those memorialized, maybe I shouldn’t have. I don’t know.

After blasting through sandy whooped out sections of trail – not my favorite – we were rewarded with our destination for the second half of the day, the Husky Memorial. An area more than 15 miles from any paved road, it has been used to honor deceased off-road motorcyclists for more than 30 years. The shrine received its name from the first monument placed there, axles deep in cement and then buried in the sand; a 1978 Husqvarna 390. The bike belonged to Jim Erickson. His friends and members of the Desert Zebras Motorcycle Club placed the bike there after Erickson’s passing in 1987.  

Once we had paid our respects, we jumped back on our two dual-sports to blast back into Randsburg as quickly as possible as the last sun began to set behind the mountains, and temperatures were beginning to drop fast. We made our way to the only gas station in the area and asked the attendant where the closest food options were. “Ridgecrest,” he responded. Where we had parked the truck –15 miles away by pavement. Note to self, plan better next time.

The Honda’s LED headlight is far superior to the KTM’s and so are the ultra-bendy LED turn signals. The Honda’s lack of handguards seems like an oversight.

What better time to test the headlights and highway stability than at night in the middle of the desert as the temp dropped into the thirties. First order of business, the LED headlight on the Honda is far superior to that of the old-school incandescent bulb used on the 500 EXC-F. When you hit the brights on the KTM, the throw of light is halved and splayed out to the sides. No wonder most KTM dual-sports you see on the trail have opted for a Baja Designs headlight swap.

In terms of highway stability at more than posted highway speed, both bikes are incredibly stable. The Honda may edge the KTM out ever-so-slightly when getting passed by a big rig thanks to it’s extra poundage. The Honda’s engine is smoother at certain speeds, but both have enough power to hit posted speed limits without feeling like you’re taxing them. The KTM wins the award for most UNcomfortable seat, though the Honda isn’t too far behind. Let’s be realistic folks, they aren’t ADV bikes.

Let’s pass it to Brent for his take on the situation:

“Dual-sport bikes will eventually be ridden on the street, and I thought both bikes performed flawlessly. Besides quick jaunts through town here and there, the 20-mile stretch of highway we rode proved both bikes to be totally stable at speed, and with less vibration than we expected from either.[Full disclosure: we may have been entirely numb at that point – Ryan] No, they’re not as smooth as a Gold Wing, but let’s be realistic here. Are they the most comfortable bikes to ride for that long on the freeway? Definitely not, but neither bike showed any signs of twitchiness nor gave me any reason to worry about any sort of instability.”

This Jackpine Enduro drawing on the wall of our Airbnb had me considering whether the legal ramifications of theft were worth it. Probably not. There were also a few Mint 400 decanters from years past on the shelves and a magazine with none other than Malcolm Smith himself on the cover sitting on the coffee table.

Once we made into town, Brent convinced me we should just load the bikes and drive back to Randsburg rather than endure the even lower temperature we would face after dinner. I guess. We had an Airbnb waiting for us in Randsburg so we had to make the trip back. Our casa for the night was decorated with off-road racing decor and had been wonderfully renovated. A good choice, if I may say so myself. After a brief discussion of our day, one of us showered (me), and one of us fell asleep on the couch upright drooling on himself (not me).

The next morning, we woke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to set off out of Randsburg to begin a day of more technical riding to see how these two dualies handled the other side of SoCal off-road terrain: rocks. Rocks and sand. That’s how we do it out here. But first, Brent wanted to move the KTM’s handlebars into the forward position, an option you have on the 500 EXC-F, but not on the Honda. 

2019 KTM 500 EXC-F Review

The KTM’s adjustable handlebar position allows riders to fine-tune the way they feel in the saddle.

Brent’s a sensitive guy, and cockpits are his specialty. “The first thing you’ll notice when getting off the Honda and onto the KTM is its cockpit. I really like the seat/tank junction on the EXC. It’s much flatter and allows you to really sit up on the tank and weight the front wheel while turning. The 450L’s slopes upwards a bit by comparison and doesn’t let you slide far forward as easily. Another cockpit/ergonomic advantage the KTM has (for me at least) is its adjustable bar riser mounts which can move the handlebars forward or back for a total of four different positions.”

Brent continues, “Personally, I prefer them in the forward-most position because at 6-1, it gives me the most leverage on the bike, and it doesn’t feel like the bars are in my lap. Both the Honda CRF450R and 450RX models have this adjustable bar mount feature which is awesome, but I wish the 450L did too.”

I would eventually decide that I preferred the bars in the back position, but compromise is what bike comparos are about. When one of your riders is 6’1” and the other is 5’8”, the only way to make things work is to compromise.

Both bikes performed very well during our two days of testing, but in slightly different ways

As we set off, our day was full of sand washes, rocky ascents and descents, and epic views far from the likes of where any four-wheeled vehicles could roam. We were doing it. We were doing exactly what capable dual-sports such as these two were made for, getting far away from everything via single track and rocky sandy canyons.

Of course, we couldn’t get too far away. The stock tank on the KTM holds 2.25-gallons and the Honda just barely over 2-gallons. We decided not pushing the Honda past 80 miles per tank should keep us comfortable. I preferred the tank on the KTM thanks to it’s slightly larger capacity, but the translucent nature also lets you get a visible gauge of how much fuel you have sloshing around. Honda definitely wins the bling factor award though; both bikes may use titanium valves, but only one is sporting a titanium gas tank. Honda says it’s lighter and cheaper to use the titanium tank versus a polyethylene one.

The KTM uses Brembo calipers versus the Honda’s Nissin. Brent found them both to be on par with one another, though I preferred the modulation and feel of the Brembo front brake on the 500 EXC-F.

After testing both bikes in fast and slow terrain of varying condition, the Showa suspenders of the Honda left me wanting as speeds ramped up. The Honda’s springs soak up bumps like nobody’s business, but as speeds increase, the Honda didn’t give the same feedback as the KTM’s WP XPLOR fork and shock. Yes, the CRF450L’s suspension offers more travel, at 12.01-inches up front and 12.36-inches in the rear, but the first bit of that sinks in as you sit on the bike. It feels much softer in the first bit of the stroke than the KTM. Overall, in my opinion, the KTM’s WP units felt more refined and tuned, and still offer a comparable 11.8-inches and 12.2-inches of travel front and rear.

Brent had also mentioned he never bottomed the 500 EXC-F, but had done so a few times on the Honda. According to his first ride of the Honda and my experience, the stock shock rebound setting for the CRF450L is a bit too fast; slowing that bad boy down helped from feeling like I was going to get bucked off the red bronco. The KTM’s ground clearance of nearly 14-inches was also welcomed in the rockier sections and drop-offs, though the Honda’s 12.4-inches of clearance felt ample during our ride. In exchange for that, the Honda’s seat feels like it’s about an inch lower, which can be an excellent thing if your legs aren’t so long.

The end of the trail

2019 Honda CRF450L vs 2019 KTM 500 EXC-F

At the end of the two days of riding, both bikes are fairly closely matched. Though, one bike left both of us ever so slightly bummed to get off of and just a little more excited to hop back on.

“For years I wondered why there were increasingly more and more orange bikes out on the trail. It almost felt like they were beginning to take over. At first, I thought maybe it was a fad, something that might eventually pass. Then, in racing, orange bikes seemed to become the ones all the top guys were gravitating to, especially off-road and in enduro/dual-sport. Was I missing something here? As it turns out, I was, and the 2019 KTM 500 EXC-F is one sweet machine. It truly feels like a straight-up dirt bike with turn signals,” proclaimed B. Jas. “That’s not to say the 450L isn’t a great performer, but when riding them back-to-back, the KTM’s strengths really start to shine.”

Our own John Burns and fam had a chance to spend a little father-son bonding time on these two dual-sports. “I didn’t ride them in such tough conditions, but my overall idea is there’s a slightly different philosophy.” concluded JB. “If you want all-out performance, the KTM lives up to the Ready to Race motto. It’s a sharper sword. The Honda leans a little more toward Honda’s typical big tent idea. It’s softer, its seat is lower, it runs a bit smoother, and it’s in general a slightly more friendly, less intimidating motorcycle for more, ahem, mature riders and slightly less aggressive ones. Having said that, I’d take the KTM, too.”

Even with a price difference of $10,399 for the Honda CRF450L and $11,199 for the EXC-F, I would choose the KTM for its refined feel, natural gear spacing and the extra cc’s it uses to spread a smattering of torque across its rpm. Would I be singing the same tune had we been able to test KTM’s 450 EXC-F? It’s certainly possible due to how closely this comparison turned out.

2019 Honda CRF450L KTM 500 EXC-F

Brent’s scorecard placed the two bikes dead even.

Though B.Jaswinski’s scorecard had the two bikes matched, he, too, said he would pick the Austrian to have in his stable, “Putting either one of these bikes in your garage is guaranteed to put a massive smile on your face. But if I had to choose just one, being the dirt bike junkie I am, I’d have to go with the KTM. For a rider like me, the KTM always had me a little more excited to hop onto than the Honda.”

There it is folks, the way we see it over here at Motorcycle.com with our rose-colored shades both figuratively, and in John’s case, literally. Thanks for reading, and now, feel free to blow up the comments section with your thoughts.

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