This week was dominated by the release of the 2017 Honda CRF450R. The North American press introduction to the bike took place at Monster Mountain MX, near Montgomery, Alabama. It was grass-roots time for the extended Dirt Bike staff. Our video guy Travis Fant considers Monster Mountain his favorite track. He drove out from California and got to visit his mom and dad in Pensacola. Jared Hicks is a long-time test rider for Dirt Bike, and he recently moved back home to Alabama. He actually lived on site at Monster Mountain for a period in his life. As for me, I went to middle school not 20 miles away. So while the rest of the press was riding a new bike in foreign territory, it was a legitimate test on familiar dirt for Dirt Bike.
The bike has been the most eagerly awaited machine of the new season. In the 450 class, Honda kind of let itself go in recent years. The old 450 had mediocre power, was twitchy and had an air fork that no one was particularly pleased with. This new bike was seen as a reversal of recent trends and a return to the path of the legendary CRF450R of 2005 to 2008. In fact most of the development team for the new bike worked on the earlier CRF.
Technically, the bike has the same general concept and layout as the previous model, including the single overhead motor, which uses Honda’s Unicam design. But all the parts are new and heavily tweaked. The cam no longer directly actuates the intake valves, but rather uses finger followers, much like those of a KTM. The valves still have legitimate rocker arms on the exhaust side, although they are more compact. The valve angle is much tighter and the most unusual aspect of the motor is that the intake port and intake boot come straighter onto the motor because the air filter is positioned above the top shock mount. Honda moved the shock down, which had the side benefit of lowering the center of gravity.
The crank, piston, clutch and cases are all new, of course, and the motor has the built-in capability of electric start. Our test bike didn’t have that, but the bike that Ken Roczen raced at the Monster Energy Cup did. The chassis is new, with different geometry and different layout. The footpegs are relocated more rearward compared to the old bike. For most people, the biggest news of all is the return to a coil-spring fork.
We got a chance to ride the new bike back to back with the old one. Everything is different, but what you notice first and foremost is power. The new bike is a rocket. The motor actually feels very Yamaha-like, although it revs more freely. Honda has a handlebar switch that allows you to choose three different power deliveries. We actually like the mild delivery best for Monster Mountain. Traction was unnaturally good, and the new Honda is very aggressive. It was actually difficult to keep the front end down in the turns on the standard map, and the aggressive one made things even more difficult. Usually they say the mild map is best for low-traction situations, but in this case, it made the bike easier to turn. No matter which map you chose, the Honda has great peak power. It is right in the same category as the 2017 KTM 450SX.
The new bike has handling manners that are distinctly Honda. If you’re a fan, you’ll feel right at home–it feels light, agile and turns with very little effort. To be frank, we’ve been on the fence for some time with the CRF450R’s handling traits–we liked the light feel, but didn’t like the way in wandered in turns. The new bike is much more stable. Honda even did away with the HPSD steering damper and you don’t miss it. It might not feel quite as nimble as the previous bike, but that’s mostly because the cockpit is much more roomy and spread out. You get used to that fast, although Travis, who has the shortest arms, said it was a very long reach to the bars. Honda still offers no way to move the bar mount location. And, by the way, the bars are still old-school ⅞ in diameter.
The suspension is a big improvement. The air fork had an unsettled feel in turns, and now the bike stays put without any pogoing up and down. It is, to be fair, a little on the soft side, but even with the traction, speed and jumps at Monster Mountain, we had no bottoming, at least that we could feel. A close look are the dust on the tubes revealed that we were using all the travel available. Honda reports that the new bike weighs no more than the old one, despite the addition of coil-springs
There were some things that we weren’t crazy about. The motor has an erratic feel just above idle. It’s never an issue on the track, but sometimes it’s difficult to just ride through the pits at a steady throttle. If you were to take the CRF450R off-road, it would be a major problem. The Honda engineers said that the off-road version of the bike has different mapping and a very different feel. We would also like to have seen a little more attention paid to the clutch. Last year’s CRF450R has a weak clutch with a stiff pull and a vague engagement. This one is better, but not perfect.
The same bike we rode in Alabama is to be shipped back to California for further testing. We can’t wait.
See you next time,