King of the Hill
Last year, the second generation Honda CRF450R used smooth power, plush suspension and superb ridability to take top honors in our 2003 4-stroke open MX shootout. So, with the release of the ’04 model, you might expect Honda to rest on its laurels and deliver an unchanged bike, right?
Of course not. Honda understands this might be the most competitive class in off-road motorcycling, and if you chop the figurative throttle for even a second you will get roosted.
We were curious to see just how serious Honda is taking the competition this year and what changes it had made to the defending class champion. We’ve spent the past several months wringing out the new CRF450R to find out.
The most common concern with any 4-stroke motocrosser is weight. Although last year’s CRF was by no means a porker, Honda focused its attention on reducing the 450’s waistline even further for 2004. Honda shaved grams off everything from the piston to the fork guards and ended up with a machine three pounds lighter than last year’s 235-lb. CRF.
Brian Chamberlain blasts through a berm at the RVMX track while the rest of the test crew waited for their turn to abuse the big red thumper.
The engine is one place Honda engineers looked to for a weight trimming. A new lightweight piston not only shaved some ounces, but it also provides quicker throttle response and features a recontoured crown that yields higher compression and improved torque over the entire rpm range. The CRF’s ACG unit has been lightened to improve throttle response and rideability, and its cover is now made from magnesium to match the lightweight mag clutch cover on the opposing side. Honda also revised the ignition timing to enhance tractability and modified the carburetor settings for sharper throttle response.
Aside from the engine, the winged logo team saved weight with a newly designed front fender and number plate, new fork and engine guards, and even in the new aluminum spoke nipples. The swingarm is also revised, featuring a dual-axis, double-taper design with a large cast aluminum cross-member that further reduces the CRF’s weight.
While most of the changes to the new 450 would be difficult for the average Joe to recognize without Honda pointing them out, some of this year’s modifications are very evident. Probably one of the first items you will notice are the Renthal handlebars and crossbar pad that come standard. Gone are the days of replacing your bars the same day you pick up your new bike. The 971-bend Renthals are not the top of the line double-walled units, but they are certainly better than the putty-like bars that usually come on stock motocrossers. Honda also decided to reduce aftermarket business by including a non-slip seat cover and quick-adjust clutch perch as original equipment.
The new magnesium ACG cover saves some weight and looks really cool but it gets scuffed-up pretty easy during normal riding.
In the Real World
Honda may have made many modifications, but that doesn’t automatically mean the bike will perform better on the track. We needed to find out firsthand if any of these changes would be noticeable when riding. To help with the testing duties we enlisted the services of our own thumper racer Jeremy Hamblen, who races in the Intermediate and Pro classes in many Northwest events, and Shawn Highland of FMX fame. Both riders currently pilot 2003 CRFs, so we knew they could provide the feedback necessary to accurately judge the improvements Honda made to the ’04 version.
Bringing life to the 12.0:1 compression 4-stroke motor is a concern for many riders, myself included. After being terrorized by the starting procedure of first generation 4-stroke motocrossers, I am always a little reluctant to hop on an unfamiliar Thumper and begin the top-dead-center routine. Luckily the CRF’s auto decompression and hot start mechanisms work very well. Starts are easily achieved with a light stroke of the leg, and the engine usually fires on the first or second kick. The choke is only necessary when cold and a few more kicks are occasionally required. However, it seems as though the 2004 offering is easier to start than last year’s model.
Once on the new CRF, it is obvious that Honda has indeed made improvements over last year’s offering. This is especially true of the motor that has taken full advantage of the engine mods that help boost low-end and midrange grunt.
“The motor is stronger than last year’s,” claims Highland, who was continually swapping between the test bike and his ’03 model. “It revs much faster and hits harder on the bottom.”
As testimony to Honda’s engineering prowess, the hard data doesn’t support the sensation of a stronger motor, despite our tester’s claims. According to the White Brothers dyno, last year’s CRF cranked out 47.4 horsepower at 8750 rpm, which is nearly two ponies better than this year’s model. Our tester pumped out 46.0 horsepower at 8250 rpm on Hansen’s BMW/Ducati/Triumph dyno. Even though both dynomometers are 250-series Dynojet units, this power discrepancy might be just a variable of using two different dynos.
Despite what the raw data indicates, our test team was adamant that the ’04 model feels more powerful, “It has a hit to it unlike the ’03 and it seems to rev faster as well,” said Hamblen. “I was impressed with the new motor – not only by the hard-hitting power, but by how long you could rev it out. It seemed to just keep pulling and pulling well after you think the power should fall off.”
Our 2004 CRF showed to produce less power on the dyno than an ’03 unit we evaluated last year. However, the difference in power is likely attributable to running the bikes on two different dynos. Our testers – who have scads of experience on 2003 CRFs – all preferred the revised motor.
Helping put the smooth yet bountiful power to the ground is an excellent drivetrain. Its 5-speed gearbox is smooth and shifting is very easy and precise. No testers reported any negative comments on the gearbox or had any missed shifts or false neutrals. The clutch was praised for its good feel and the lever is very easy to pull and seemed to release quicker than the ’03 when dumping the clutch. A quick-adjust perch is a nice added feature to the ’04 CRF.
The CRF’s suspension and handling capabilities have won praise since its introduction three years ago, whether the rider is a squid or a pro. Honda claims improvements for ’04 by honing the fork stanchions’ inner surfaces to reduce friction. This is the same process used on works bikes and it is the first time it has been used on a mass-production motocrosser.
At first we weren’t so sure Honda’s new suspension was everything the factory claimed. We made no adjustments to the suspension prior to our first test session, basically starting with it set up as delivered from a local dealer. After a few laps on the track the 185-pound Highland found the suspension to be less than perfect.
“The compression is very good but the rebound is way too fast,” said the freestyler and ex-motocrosser, Highland. “It bucks in the braking bumps and the whoops too much.”
After tinkering for a few minutes we realized what all of the complaining was about: The rebound on the fork was backed out all the way and the rear was not too far behind. After referring to the owner’s manual we found that both the front and rear rebound controls should have been delivered 7 clicks out. We quickly put the settings back to stock and took it out for another session.
We were all was amazed at how much better harsh braking bumps were soaked up by using the suspension’s stock settings. It delivers a very plush ride, easily soaking up small bumps, and it never bottomed out on the really big hits. And if stock settings don’t work for you, the suspension of the CRF has a plethora of adjustability. The 47mm inverted twin-chamber Showa cartridge fork offers 16 positions of rebound and 16 positions of compression adjustability; the rear Showa rear damper offers even greater adjustability, with its 13 low-speed compression positions, 3.5 turns of high-speed compression adjustability and 17 rebound damping positions.
The Showa suspenders combine with Honda’s third generation twin-spar aluminum frame to provide excellent handling capabilities. Highland repeatedly expressed his surprise at how much better the ’04 model handled than his 2003 model.
“This package is definitely better than last year’s,” raved Highland after we got the suspension dialed. “I’m a little surprised at how much better the bike handles – you can get in tight and it just drives out of the corners smoothly.”
The CRF is very stable in all riding conditions, with never a headshake from the front end, and yet Highland noted that the ’04 model handles better in the corners than his ’03, especially in the tight corners. The big Honda Thumper has excellent front-end feel and yet it turns in quick and tracks very well.
“Yeah!” said Hamblen eagerly when he was asked if believed the improvements to the ’04 model justified trading in his 2003 CRF. “It seems to rev a bit quicker and has a better hit off the bottom than my 2003. It also turns quicker, handles better, and the clutch is much smoother.”
The 2004 CRF is definitely an improvement, but it’s an enhancement that is mostly lost on sub-Intermediate riders.
“It felt like it turned better and it had decent power but, I really couldn’t tell much of a difference,” said MCUSA prez, Don Becklin, a fast trail rider. “I would not sell my ’03 and buy a 2004 because, for a rider of my skill level, it wouldn’t be worth it. However, if I was going to buy a CRF and I had to choose between a used 2002-03 and the ’04, I would go with the new bike because it does have all the latest advancements.”
With improved power delivery, finely honed cornering skills, plusher suspension and lighter weight, the 2004 CRF is definitely ready for all contenders in the battle for the big MX Thumper crown.