Honda’s CRF450R has always been at the top of the score sheet in every shootout we’ve thrown it into for the past half decade, so we had the same expectations for its finish in this off-road battle. On the track the Honda is light, nimble and confidence inspiring for just about anyone that throws a leg over it. For 2012, Big Red continued refining the CRF with a handful of changes to the suspension and handling in a bid to remain at the top of the heap in the always-competitive 450cc Motocross classification. How did these slight changes pan out for off-road duty?
Before end hitting the trail it’s readily apparent the CRF is the lightest of the bunch and a trip to the MotoUSA scales confirms the assessment, weighing in at 241 pounds with it’s 1.5 gallon tank full of fuel. And that brings us to our first gripe on the Honda. While the lighter weight is always appreciated, the diminutive tank capacity left us stranded more than once while the rest of the group motored on to fetch gas for the poor soul on the CRF. Towards the end of a long ride you were forced to back ‘er down a notch in fear of running out of fuel and bogging when power was needed to save your skin. This took some of the fun out of the Honda.
The Honda CRF450R was one of the best bikes on the tighter single track trails thanks to its quick handling.
Hitting the tighter trails in Ocotillo the Honda was more than capable of leading the pack with it’s planted yet light front end. It absolutely ate up single track and technical rock sections, and when the occasional freeride jump presented itself the CRF was an excellent flier. However, when the speeds hit the top of the taller gears, things got a little intense.
“The only issue that was apparent was the high-speed stability. Most of the off-road riding we did had the Honda very twitchy when giving it the heat in 5th gear,” says our resident maniac Steeves. “This caused me to be more on-guard and gripping harder in fear of swapping out.”
This high-speed twitch went from bothersome in the desert to downright frightening in the dunes where front-end traction is high and speeds are even higher. Fiddling with the steering dampener had little effect on the flighty handling, leading us to believe that additional sag would be more effective in controlling the tendency but with six riders swapping out bikes in the dirt there was no time to dial it in for each rider.
Stiff suspension settings made the 2012 CRF450R one of the most fun bikes to air out in both the dunes and desert.
In the suspension department the Honda was one of the more stiff units in the test, which made it a hoot when sending off the big jumps in the dunes that often needed a GPS to measure the distance covered. When sizing up the biggest hits, the CRF was one of the first machines chosen to give it a go by our high fliers. The trade off in the trail riding, however, meant a rough ride that used a lot more energy to hold on through the whoops and rocks.
“We didn’t always set sag, or dial in the fork and shock every time we swapped bikes. So, there’s always room for improvement but the Kawasaki and Honda felt the stiffest and most moto-inspired of the bunch,” notes the always-wise Ken Hutchison. “This is not optimal for off-road riding, but I have no doubt they can both be dialed in to any rider’s personal preference. Keeping all things equal, it was definitely stiffer than the others.”
Twisting the throttle on the Honda rewards you with a nice spread of power from the SOHC aka Unicam mill. The engine wasn’t the most powerful of the bunch, but at the same time in was no slouch. Off the bottom and into the midrange is where is would give some juice away to the KX and RM-Z, but on top there was enough mojo to satisfy. Overall it was just a step behind the juggernauts of the class.
When out in desert comfort is key while pounding out the miles, and the CRF450R is relatively comfortable. However the smallish size overall seemed to hurt it in the scoring, as most of our riders preferred a larger cockpit for long days in the saddle. As usual all the controls were typical Honda perfection. On the binders the Honda shined, ranking near the top of every rider’s scoresheet.
With just a little more high-speed stability the CRF450R would have scored much higher in this showdown.
When the scores were tallied, to our surprise the Honda finished in fifth place in our very first 450 MX off-road shootout. Being such a track-focused ripper hurt the CRF with its smallish tank and compact rider compartment. But by far the most notable reason the CRF450R didn’t finish higher was the nervous handling when the throttle was put to the stop. Granted if this test was in the woods of North Carolina we may have been singing a different tune, as the Honda is still an amazing handler in every other situation.