First Ride: 2005 Honda CRF450R
The CRF450R has been winning races since it was first unleashed in 2002 to challenge Yamaha’s YZ450F, the progenitor of the class. The mighty CRF has gone on to win not only Supercross and Motocross national races in the hands of Kevin Windham and Ricky Carmichael, it has also won national-level dirt tracks, TTs, GNCC enduros and desert events. And the CRF already has a supermoto championship under its belt, with Honda claiming nearly 60% of the entrants in the field.
The CRF was significantly updated in 2004, with a healthier motor, a Renthal handlebar and a weight saving of 3.0 pounds, among several other worthwhile upgrades. But in this competitive class, if you’re standing still you’re gonna get passed.
With that in mind, Honda has once again revised the CRF, making it lighter, stronger and faster. Honda now claims a dry weight of 218.5 pounds, a drop of 3.5 from last year’s model.
Each year, engineers spend countless hours in the pursuit of shaving grams from these race-ready machines, and each year the solutions get more creative and the materials used become more exotic. For instance, the rear hub of the 2005 CRF is made of a magnesium-silicon alloy that weighs 10% less (3.5 ounces) while being stronger than last year’s model. A new aluminum swingarm retains the previous dual-axis, double-taper design, but is now almost 9 ounces lighter while preserving the rigidity of the previous component.
Mikey airs out the burly CRF. Landings are made easier by revised suspension valving and a new rear suspension linkage.
The search for weight savings can be frustrating, as Honda has already fitted things like a magnesium ACG cover and aluminum spoke nipples. You know what Honda had to change to skim “12-plus” ounces from the CRF?
Titanium is used for the exhaust shield (matching the exhaust header and intake valves; footpegs remain stainless steel), aluminum spacers replace steel ones above the fork seals, and simpler coolant hose routing are new for ’05. Add in a slightly redesigned subframe, a brake pedal that is relieved on the interior side and lighter plastic bodywork and you’ve got just 12 ounces saved!
The CRF already had an excellent suspension from its 47mm inverted Showa fork and multi-adjustable Showa rear shock, but revised front and rear valving promises to offer improved bump absorption. The rear suspension action loses some of its progressiveness in favor of a more linear shock linkage.
If we were to only read spec charts and PR hype, every new bike would be a world beater. But it’s only by actually riding the bike that an objective impression can be ascertained. So when Honda invited MCUSA to ride the ’05 CRF at the I-5 motocross track near Gorman, California, we jumped on it.
Helping us evaluate the full capabilities of the new CRF was AMA, GFI, and NMA racer Mikey Mandahl, who was along during our 2003 Open-class MX shootout. The Intermediate-level rider is just 17 years old, but he has a wealth of experience on motocrossers, including a lot of time on a 2004 CRF450R.
The test was initially disappointing, as the CRF’s revised suspension wasn’t properly set up for the 155-pound rider.
An artful blending of aluminum, titanium, stainless steel and lightweight plastic: Honda’s 2005 CRF450R.
“It felt stiff and just didn’t come off jumps very well,” Mandahl said after his first session. “And when you went into berms it bounced you right out.”
Not to worry. Mikey was treated like a factory rider for the day, as ace Honda wrench Eric Crippa pounced on the CRF to add rear rebound in a well-judged effort to balance the chassis. One session later, the Hahm Motorsports/Race Tech-sponsored rider said, “It got a lot better, it’s way better now. It’s very smooth off jumps, and it doesn’t get away from you anywhere, like through the whoops. The forks felt really nice.”
The internals of the simple and light (64 pounds) SOHC powerplant have been untouched. However, Honda claims an increase in performance from a revised airbox with new intake routing. Air is drawn in from under the seat, aided somewhat by molded-in air vents in the upper part of the side number plates. Claimed horsepower stays at 55, about 47 or 48 at the rear wheel, but the Red Riders say the new intake bumps up midrange power while allowing additional over-rev above its 9000-rpm peak.
Mikey noticed the improved powerband immediately. “It feels a lot more powerful, and the power is just right there,” Mandahl said, adding it has snappier throttle response. “It just hits right away. CRFs before, they didn’t hit right away, but now it hits way harder. It flows really nice from the bottom to the middle to the top.”
A skinnier midsection and revised suspension means racking up air miles on the new CRF is even easier than before.
Honda made several changes to the CRF’s 5-speed gearbox, even though we had no complaints about the ’04 bike. Third and fifth gears were strengthened, as was the mainshaft, and the designs of the shift drum, shift forks and shift shaft have been revised for more precise cog changes.
Mikey said he’d lower the gearing if he were to race on the I-5 motocross track, but he had no complaints about the clutch or gearbox. “This track, you can pretty much leave it in third gear and not have a problem,” he said, adding he gets all the way into fifth in one section.
The 2005 CRF receives Honda’s fourth-generation aluminum frame. One of the few complaints about past CRFs few faults is a front-end push condition, and many top-level racers fit aftermarket triple clamps that reduce the stock offset. Honda has responded by reducing steering rake incrementally via a 2mm reduction in fork offset that Honda reps say reduces fork deflection and positions more weight on the front end; the front axle mounting point is altered and increases trail slightly (2mm). These small changes, together with the lighter rear-end components add up to a greater front-end weight bias that results in a noticeable improvement in handling
“It’s way easier to turn,” Mandahl noted. “Wherever you want to go, you just point it and it goes. Compared to the 2004, the steering is way better. The front end, wherever you put it, it just goes where you want it, it feels nice. It tracks right through the corner. And then in ruts, you just dive right in them and wherever you put the tire it goes.”
Whether talking sportbikes or motocrossers, manufacturers have been putting serious efforts into making their bikes skinnier between the rider’s legs, and the CRF is no exception. Honda made the CRF’s upper frame spars smaller for a narrower feel through its midsection, while the larger box-section downtubes and additional gusseting throughout buy back additional strength. The end result is a stronger overall chassis that is almost identical on the scales to the ’04 model. The dual aluminum radiators now tuck in tighter because Honda has made them narrower; cooling capacity has been retained by building the rads deeper.
The long hours put in by Honda engineers to hone the excellent CRF450R have paid off in a faster, better handling machine.
The overall layout of the CRF pleased the 5-foot-8 Mandahl. “It’s all set up like I run my bike,” he said, adding the bars are positioned a little forward the way he likes them. He also praised the wide footpegs and their location, but the gripper seat initially bothered him. “I’m getting hung up on the sides a little bit by my knees. After a while if it wore down a bit it would be nice.”
Like most young motocrossers, Mikey can be a bit of an exhibitionist. After throwing down some heel-clickers and can-cans, we asked him how the big 450 flies through the air. “It’s really light compared to past 450 4-strokes,” he noted, “but compared to a 125 or 250 2-stroke it’s a little bit heavy. You just have to get used to it.”
The I-5 track doesn’t have many high-g braking zones, but Mikey was nonetheless impressed by the CRF’s brakes. “Like, after you jump a jump and there’s a tight corner right after it, if you just downshift in the air it’ll pretty much slow it down. But if you hit the brakes a little it’ll stop perfect,” he said, adding the 240mm brakes are not overly touchy despite their power. “The brakes are really good.”
Rear-brake draggers will be happy to know about the new brake pad insulators on the rear caliper that help the binder to endure high temperatures.
When discussing 4-stroke motocross bikes, the subject of getting them fired up almost always arises. Honda’s pin-rotation automatic decompression system is one of the best on the market, but Mikey occasionally had difficulty getting the 449cc engine to light.
“It starts way better than past 4-strokes,” Mikey commented, “but I’m a short guy and have to find myself a block to stand on to start it. Other than that, it starts pretty good.”
A couple other small revisions to note: The hot-start and throttle cables have new protective sheaths that will help them better endure the rigors of off-road abuse. And a one-piece seat bolt simplifies airbox access and maintenance.
After wringing the neck of the ’05 CRF450R for a day, we came away impressed that Honda was able to make the best overall package in its class even better. It pains us to say it, but there’s virtually nothing to gripe about. We asked Mikey what he’d change to the CRF if he owned one, to which he furrowed his brow in his search for an answer.
“I’d probably put on a pipe and set up the gearing, and nothing much other than that.”
For a racer, someone always searching for an edge on the competition, that’s high praise indeed. Congratulations, Honda.
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