Honda hasn’t gotten everything it can out of the newest generation of CRF450R, which is why it made only small changes to the open-class motocross bike for 2011. Big Red introduced the total revamp in 2009 and has been tweaking it ever since. The fuel-injected motor has little to worry about against the rest of the class, but coming to terms with the chassis has been hit-or-miss for riders of all skill. Honda knows it has a good thing going with its compact design, quick handling and Honda Progressive Steering Damper, but finding the right combination in the suspension department has been difficult, and it’s the top priority for ’11.
Our initial ride took place at Jeremy McGrath’s private ranch in Southern California. This moto oasis has an awesome layout that is fast, safe and features a nice whoop section that bends slightly to the right – a feature that is often poorly constructed or omitted from most tracks. We enlisted the help of a tall and lanky speedster to help shake down the new 450R on a professional level. Though he’s been dabbling, quite successfully, in off-road racing for the past several years, Damon Huffman still knows the business of motocross. He put his championship-winning form to use right away out at MC’s. Next we hit up the soon-to-be-gone Los Angeles County Raceway (LACR) for a faster layout and bigger jumps.
“McGrath’s track was a blast,” says the former 125cc SX champ once he got a chance to ride. “Weaving through giant trees, it had an excellent mix of small and large jumps. The soil was firm, but loose on top, typical southern California intermediate conditions. With the help of the Honda mechanics, it didn’t take much to dial the bike in and make it feel balanced and comfortable.”
Our pro tester had no complaints about balance on the newest generation 450R, which was a major gripe in years past.
Balance in the chassis and suspension is an issue that many riders complained about in 2010, so Big Red installed a new delta linkage and a shorter pull rod to help lower the rear end and give the bike a neutral feel and better rear-wheel traction. The shock has new internal settings to match the new linkage arrangement, and the fork is updated as well. A lighter cartridge cylinder and new damping settings give the CRF a more forgiving front end. Both ends are valved lightly, but both of our testers enjoyed the suspension once they stiffened the clickers.
Stability and confidence between the front and rear suspension components was the number one complaint from out testers last year, and in 2009 for that matter. Our pro rider added four clicks of compression on the Kayaba fork, which was enough to satisfy him on bump absorption and jump landings – keeping in mind that MC’s layout never got a single noteworthy ripple that wasn’t put there by a tractor. Preload was set at 105mm at MC’s and 107mm on the longer, rougher LACR circuit.
“I opened the high speed compression a quarter turn, slowed the rebound two clicks and left the low speed compression alone,” says the former factory racer. “Making these changes helped the bike stay level while braking hard into corners, and it helped the bike feel balanced while jumping and blitzing whoops. It still had the quick-turn feel to it, but I think on the 2011 model you’re going to be able to dial it in to your liking a lot quicker than the previous years.”
Honda also revised its Progressive Steering Damper with a 4mm larger piston. The compact and agile 450 is still as quick-handling as ever, but the front end also stays in control through faster, rougher sections of track. This was most apparent at LACR where we turned the hand-adjustment knob a couple clicks toward the end of the day as things got rougher.
Only small changes grace the 2011 CRF450R, like a new linkage and revised exhaust muffler to help lower sound output.
So what didn’t Huff Daddy like about the new Honda? Not much.
“The clutch feel could be the main downfall of this year’s model,” says the notoriously picky DH. “The pull is too heavy and it disengages to close to the bar, but it’s just a minor setback in comparison to bigger issues of the last two years.”
Conversely, our slower tester enjoyed the clutch action. He agreed that the pull could be lighter, but the actuation is consistent and allows for easy slipping when pulling out of corners. This was a welcome feature considering that the Honda was a little down on bottom-end grunt by his standards. Where Huffman keeps the engine higher in the rpm, our other rider is a bogger, and despite Honda’s claims of a beefier bottom-end, he wanted a 49 or 50-tooth sprocket instead of the standard 48 at both tracks.
On the whole, power delivery is smooth and strong. The midrange power and torque stands out the most, but a new 46mm throttle body is used in conjunction with updated EFI mapping which helps throttle response.
Whether finding the tight inside line or railing the outside berm,
Honda has found a good mix in the handling department.
“It gives the bike a very connected feel from the throttle to the rear tire,” says Huffman of the smaller throttle body. “When you blast out of a corner, initially the power is smooth and controlled, then the mid really starts to pull making grabbing another gear essential and effortless.”
Honda has made sure the fuel injection system is as light as possible, which means there’s no battery. However, starting it is as simple as a few kicks. Just as you’re making a mental appreciation of how easy it is get going, your attention will be pulled away to the exhaust note. Honda made big strides this year in toning down the exhaust output by installing a new muffler. The claimed decibel level is 94 dB, and while we didn’t have our testing equipment on hand to verify, it’s definitely noticeable to the ear that the new pipe is much quieter. It also isn’t as tinny and has a healthier sound, which we liked all around.
In order to match the new muffler, engineers had to redesign the aluminum subframe. While they were at it they engineered the removable aluminum section to be stronger and exhibit different flex characteristics, though neither of our testers could tell a difference.
Honda claims the 450 is the lightest bike in the class this year by eight pounds (though the Yamaha had yet to be released at the time of the introduction). We’ll put that to the test during shootout testing, but there’s no denying that the Honda feels very light and very compact. If there’s one thing the Honda does it’s turn. We’ve come to expect this from the red machines and 2011 is no different. However, both of our riders are at or above the six-foot mark and neither had problems melding into the cockpit. The rider triangle is extremely usable and well-placed, with footpegs and a seat that allow for easy standing/sitting transitions, and handlebars that are perfectly neutral.
“It will give you all the flickability and precision cornering that you can ask for in a 450,” says Huffman, who has spent most of his time in the past year aboard the large-framed Kawasaki KX450F.
Combining smooth, abundant power with a supple ride, comfortable ergonomics and light weight means the Honda is an easy machine to ride – something that can’t be said for all 450s. That means that riders will likely find their lap times at the end of a moto are closer to the ones at the beginning, and that’s the recipe for posting good results. The Kawasaki is a hard-hitting brute and Yamaha was also a handful in 2010. KTM had one of the most applicable engines last year which helped it to a shootout victory. We’re looking forward to seeing how the new Honda mill stacks up this season, because “usable” is a word that quickly comes to mind.
Overall, the new 2011 Honda CRF450 is an awesome machine. Honda didn’t reinvent the wheel with the new model, but it didn’t need to. The 450R is already a solid package but was lacking a little refinement in the chassis. By swapping out the linkage, it looks as though the woes have been lessened. Light valving is fine, especially for lighter or slower riders, but even our lesser-skilled rider went in on the clickers. The good news is that the changes make positive gains, and once dialed in the CRF turns amazingly well and remains willing to smash through nasty braking bumps or wail down tapped-out straights. Stay tuned for the shootout in coming months where we’ll put a wider spectrum of riders up against Honda’s latest open-class warrior.