This could only happen in the motocross world. The technology race among 450 MX bikes is intense beyond reason. Over the past few years these six motorcycles have been the subject of an intense build-up that can’t be justified on a balance sheet or in a corporate boardroom. It’s all about pride. Those who say that large, multi-national companies are only concerned with their bottom lines would be baffled by the endless competition between Honda, Husqvarna, Kawasaki, KTM, Suzuki and Yamaha. The only explanation is to acknowledge that corporations are run by people, and people have passion. KTM and Husqvarna redesigned their bikes from scratch in 2015. Then came Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki in quick succession. Now we have six nearly new motocrossers competing to be on top in a world where the ultimate payoff will be measured as much on motocross tracks across America as in sales numbers. Here’s how we see them.
The aftershock of last year’s big shake-up
Honda rattled the MX world last year with an all-new CRF450R. It had a completely redesigned motor with a downdraft intake, a coil-spring Showa fork and a different way of looking at motorcycle design. Clearly, though, there were factions within Honda that felt the job wasn’t finished. So, one year later, the bike gets electric start and a completely new electrical system. The kick-start lever is gone, although the mount in the case is still there as a reminder of the short-lived 2017 model. A high-tech lithium battery replaces the capacitor that formerly brought life to the EFI system, and Honda made other changes to the power delivery and suspension to effectively make the 2018 model a major reboot in its own right.
The Honda motor is a brute. It’s the most powerful-feeling bike in the comparison, at least from the perspective of pure rider feedback. The motor has a very free feel and responds from the first twist of the throttle. It also revs forever, so you can ride many motocross tracks without using more than two gears. If the power is too aggressive for some tracks, Honda’s map switch gives you an effective way to alter the delivery. The Honda also corners very well. We wouldn’t really say it feels light, but we would say it steers light. Overall manners are excellent. The suspension can be excellent but requires some setup time. The bike responds well to changes in fork height from track to track. It’s a package that only gets better as you push it harder. Oh, yeah, it has electric start.
With e-start, the Honda gained weight this year. It’s now tied for heaviest of the group, which compromises the bike’s biggest asset from last year—its nimble handling. It still handles well, but it was good at disguising its weight before; now, there’s no hiding it. The bike has always been a little twitchy and busy, and that hasn’t gotten any better. The clutch remains weak, fragile and stiff without a good feel. The handlebar is undersized.
Most pros love the Honda. It’s fast, aggressive and a little bit hyperactive. It’s the kind of bike that keeps you on your toes and appeals to riders who want to throw it into turns hard and have the strength to make it behave. Novices might have a harder time keeping it under control.
A legacy that carries on
As most people know, KTM and Husqvarna are owned by the same group and share many parts. By “many,” we mean the entire engine, frame and suspension. That only leaves the bodywork, the subframe/airbox combo, the seat, the muffler and a few components like the rims, the bars and the clutch master cylinder to separate the two brands. Off-road Husqvarna models have more features that set them apart from KTMs, but the respective motocross models are closely related. For 2018 there are a few suspension changes and an upgraded battery for the FC450.
The Husky motor is absolute magic. It’s absurdly powerful on top but has a gentle hit down low that allows you to deal out as much as you need. The power delivery is actually smoother than the KTM’s without sacrificing peak power. If you’re on top of your game, the big power can be found up on top, and the bike will rev stunningly high if you find yourself in a bar-to-bar drag race. The Husky is also very light. It’s 15 pounds lighter than most of the Japanese bikes, and that fact is obvious to anyone, novice or pro. In the suspension department, the FC450’s WP AER 48 fork generates favorable comments and overcomes lingering distrust of air forks. It’s far easier to set up than any other air system, and that allows it to appeal to a broad cross section of riders. The hydraulic clutch is excellent, and the Brembo brakes are very powerful.
Many riders are critical of the fact that Husqvarna hasn’t done more to separate itself from KTM. The Husky’s softer initial power delivery is the biggest difference, and more aggressive riders say that just makes it feel sleepier than the 450SX-F. The multifunction handlebar switch doesn’t offer enough difference between curves to be useful, and no one finds the traction control setting especially helpful. The Husqvarna is the most expensive bike in the comparison.
It’s hard to argue when a bike does everything so well. Compared to the four Japanese bikes, the Husqvarna has a huge advantage in weight, plus it has better brakes and a hydraulic clutch. It gives all that without sacrificing power, suspension or handling.
Kawasaki redesigned this bike two years ago with weight loss and improved handling as the primary goals. The chassis was changed much more than the motor, which dates back to a time before anyone thought that electric start would be a trend in motocross. So, now the KX450F is one of the two that still has a kickstarter. It’s the lightest of the Japanese bikes, due in part to its air fork. While the other Japanese bikes have returned to springs (aside from Yamaha, which never left), Kawasaki is using a Showa SFF fork with three separate air chambers in the right leg.
Without a doubt, handling is the KX450F’s calling card. It doesn’t do anything wrong, and it feels much lighter than any of the Japanese bikes. It is, in fact, around 9 pounds lighter than the Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha, which is easily noticeable. While the KX’s peak power is less than most of the others, it has more low-end power than any of them, and that makes it very easy to ride. The suspension, once you get the fork dialed in, is excellent, and the bike has very neutral ergonomics, which can be further customized with the adjustable footpeg height and handlebar position.
Pros will notice that the KX doesn’t rev out and is down on peak power compared to most of the others. The performance and weight of the Showa Triple Air SFF forks are good, but the fork is very hard to work with. The three air chambers have different values and different functions, and it’s easy to get lost. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, any deviation from the stock settings is risky. The front brake is the weakest in the group. The handlebar is an old-school 7/8-inch unit. The grips are hard, and the muffler is the loudest in the test. The motor frequently pops on decel. It doesn’t have electric start and is still 6 pounds heavier than the KTM and Husky.
The Kawasaki is easy to ride but hard to own. The handling is without flaw, and the torquey motor makes it an absolute pleasure to ride, but it has a number of nagging issues, like the overly complicated fork, the mediocre brakes and the little bars that are hard to overlook. Yes, it’s lighter than the Japanese bikes, but it needs to offer more in exchange for the lack of e-start.
KTM engineers didn’t change much on the 2018 450SX-F, because they didn’t have to. The company already changed almost everyone else’s motorcycles by proving that electric start didn’t have to be heavy and by demonstrating that extreme levels of horsepower could be manageable. The KTM 450SX-F has a single-overhead-cam engine with electric start. It has a diaphragm-spring clutch with hydraulic actuation, and it has a WP AER 48 air fork. It’s the lightest bike in the shootout, albeit only by a 1/2 pound compared to the Husky. The battery is bigger this year, and there are fork-valving changes, but it’s essentially the same bike that won last year’s shootout.
Again, the KTM motor is the beast of the shootout. It has a smooth ramp-up on its way to incredible top-end power. Compared to the Husqvarna, which has a different intake and exhaust, the KTM has a little more hit. The fact that it’s lighter than the Japanese bikes is clear from the very first lap on the bike. It lets you be the boss. Other advantages are clear too. The brakes are powerful, and the clutch action is excellent. In overall handling, the bike is solid and predictable. We’ve said it many times before, but it’s worth repeating: the WP AER 48 fork is the best thing that’s happened to production KTM motocross bikes ever. The fork contributes to the KTM’s good overall handling and weight advantage. If not for the AER 48, air forks would have been a passing fad. Adjustment and maintenance are easy. The quality of the bars, chain and sprockets is excellent.
Regardless of how smooth the motor is, the KTM is still a lot of motorcycle. The map switch does little to mellow out the massive power output. We would love to see a switch that turns the 450SX-F into a 350SX-F for certain tracks. KTM doesn’t offer easy-access EFI tuning tools like Yamaha and Kawasaki. Adjusting the shock preload is somewhat painful. The bike tends to run very hot and will boil over if you let it idle too long on a hot day.
It’s hard to find faults in such a high-quality bike, especially when it’s lighter and faster than just about everything else on the starting line. Not everyone loves the KTM’s layout and handling manners, but even those who aren’t fans admit that it has no weaknesses as an overall package.
At last, a fresh face
On the pro level, Suzuki’s RM-Z450 has always been solid. In 2017 it won two different nationals with two different riders on two different teams. No one else can say that. In the amateur ranks, it’s a different story. The bike had gone stale in the public eye, so it was overdue for a big change. Thus, the redesigned 2018 model is a big attention-getter. The chassis is completely different, with a new frame, a coil-spring Showa fork (similar to the one on the Honda) and a new Showa shock that has both rebound and compression stacks in the reservoir. The motor got new cams, a new piston, a new head and a new throttle body, among other things. It didn’t get electric start, even though it’s in a tie for the dubious honor of being the heaviest bike in the test.
It seems that a bike’s personality is ingrained at the genetic level, so no matter how different it looks from year to year, it has the same fundamental traits. The Suzuki’s strong point was always handling, with major emphasis on cornering. That hasn’t changed. The front wheel tracks through turns, and the Suzuki seems to find more traction than the other bikes. It has more throttle response than last year’s RM-Z. It feels like you installed a pipe and did some engine work to the 2017 model. Suzuki clearly gave more thought to its launch control (S-HAC) than any other manufacturer. It has two modes for different conditions and really works. The Suzuki’s suspension works well, although it’s very touchy. Small changes go a long way. The Suzuki seems to fit most riders well, regardless of size or weight.
The Suzuki is heavy and has little to show for it. The bike feels massive and can demand a lot of strength to manage. And while the power delivery is smooth, the motor doesn’t rev very high. It has considerable flywheel effect and engine braking, making it feel somewhat old-fashioned. The brakes, clutch, levers, grips and rear tire are nothing more than average.
Suzuki gives you all the ingredients to make a great motocross bike. The suspension components are top-notch, and the frame geometry is excellent. The motor obviously can be made to go as fast as you like, but you might have to finish the job. In stock form, the RM-Z450 isn’t a national winner, but it is a solid bike for seniors, vets and novices.
Everything is new
Yamaha didn’t just update a few parts and add an electric starter to the 2018 YZ450F. Everything was redesigned. The idea was to design the bike around the electric starter rather than add one after the fact. That allowed Yamaha to eliminate the structures that would support the kickstarter. The frame was made narrower to combat accusations of bulkiness, but the overall concept hasn’t changed. It still uses the reverse head with the intake in front and the exhaust port in the rear. The seating position was changed dramatically, but the suspension components are upgraded versions of the KYB parts that were used before.
Yamaha came up with the most linear powerband of all time. If it were any smoother, it would make a good locomotive motor. If you want a little more hit, it can be had through any smartphone using the Yamaha Power Tuner app. As usual, Yamaha wins the suspension sweepstakes. The fork is excellent in virtually all situations. So is the rear shock. The YZ is well built; it runs cool, and the air filter stays clean because it’s so high in the chassis. It’s also easier to service this year. Yamaha still has the best clutch of the Japanese models, and the brakes are fairly strong. In both areas, though, the YZ falls short of the Austrian bikes. Compared to last year’s YZ450F, the bike is narrower-feeling and the electric start is nice.
The Yamaha, like every other bike this year, gained weight. It was heavy before, and it’s heavy still, despite the ground-up redesign. It weighs 239 pounds without fuel, but at least it has electric start and a coil-spring fork to show for it. The Yamaha isn’t especially confidence-inspiring in turns. Despite all the progress, it still feels like a big bike. Most riders feel the bike has an odd seating position. The bars are high and the seat is low, so the rider is very cramped in the legs, and it’s a long reach up to the bars. That makes the rider feel like he’s seated in a hole, and it’s difficult to get over the front wheel. Some riders complained about the intake noise.
Between the suspension and the overall quality, the Yamaha has a lot going for it. It will probably be the most reliable bike in the class (again), but it’s disappointingly heavy. It’s certainly not alone there. Even the weight could be overlooked if more riders felt comfortable on it, but the Yamaha’s new layout is wonky and its turning abilities are only slightly improved. It’s a case of changing everything except what needed to be changed.