Over a three-year period, all the manufacturers have taken turns redesigning their flagship motocrossers, going far deeper than the usual cosmetics and fluff. Now everyone is present, up to date and ready to rock. No manufacturer has something better waiting in the back room.
We gathered all six contestants and took them to four different tracks, starting with Porterville MX and moving on to Milestone, Glen Helen and Cahuilla Creek. In the process, we learned about the differences, the improvements and the pecking order of motocross for 2019.
More than meets the eye
Honda upstaged the 2019 CRF450R with another CRF450R—the Works Edition—which was the focus of all the attention at new-model release time. The standard edition is the model included here, and it got a significant number of changes in its own right that snuck under the radar. The frame and swingarm have been redesigned to offer more flex than before, plus the engine cases are new and have lost the kickstarter provision. The bike also got launch control and a long list of detail changes. It keeps the layout that was introduced in 2017, with the intake that goes over the top of the shock, a coil-spring fork and an SOHC motor with both rocker arms and finger-followers.
Just as before, the Honda is a pro rider’s dream, with a ton of power and an aggressive delivery. A handlebar-mounted switch lets you choose between three different states of tune. All of them are fast, all are aggressive, and they do make a difference. Novices like setting two; pros like one or three. The bike is very responsive and quick-handling. Again, this plays out well for pros and experts who love the way the Honda dives into turns. The bike has a plush, comfortable ride with suspension that is excellent overall and a more compliant frame for 2019. The new launch control is effective and has three different levels for different conditions. Everyone likes the Honda’s overall layout. The Renthal Fatbar is a big hit too.
For novices, the Honda is a lot of motorcycle. The quick handling makes the bike busy, and you have to stay on top of the situation. The fact that it’s heavy doesn’t help. The Honda weighs 239 pounds without fuel, as measured on our scale. Low-end power delivery is erratic; the bike doesn’t like to hold steady rpm down low. That means that riders use the clutch more than usual, and it has a hard pull and inconsistent engagement. If any bike could use hydraulic clutch actuation, this is it.
There are Honda riders who absolutely love the bike for its aggressive nature, but even they admit there’s room for improvement. If you’re a fast, tough guy, it’s hard to do much better.
Jason Anderson’s breakthrough
When Husqvarna introduced the Rockstar Edition prior to the 2018 Supercross season, it was clear that the bike was catering to the Jason Andersons of the world. It even had his number on it. Now, the 2019 standard edition is here and it has the same slant. The frame is stiffer, and the motor, with its new head, is faster than ever. Husqvarna also gave the bike new bodywork that is narrower across the front. Under it all, the bike is still very similar to the KTM 450SX-F, which rolls out of the same factory. The biggest differences between the two are the bodywork, the subframe and airbox; the Magura clutch master cylinder; the Renthal handlebar; and the Dirt Star rims.
If you’ve been paying attention to recent Husky history, you probably know that the FC450 is incredibly fast and very light. In both respects, it beats most of its Japanese rivals easily. The FC450 weighs 223 pounds without fuel. That’s 16 or 17 pounds lighter than anything else, aside from its next of kin in orange. You notice that immediately when you get on the bike. In the power department, it gained ground compared to last year, and it was already insanely fast. The best thing about the Husky motor is that despite being so powerful, it is very smooth. The output is easy to regulate. Other strong points include the narrow feel, the excellent clutch and the powerful Brembo brakes. The Husky is a little quieter than most of the others, including the KTM.
For 2019, the additional frame rigidity translates to a harsher feel on small bumps. The Husky is already a bit cruel, with a stiff seat and suspension that isn’t overly plush. Performance-wise, there’s nothing wrong with the WP shock and the AER 48 air fork, but comfort isn’t the bike’s strong point. If you reduce air pressure in the fork, it dives too much, and if you reduce compression damping in the rear, it rides too low.
The Husqvarna is an amazing feat of engineering without any substantive faults. It’s light, fast and has high-quality parts everywhere. The bonus is that it’s as good for beginners as for pros.
The status-quo wrecker
New bikes come and go all the time. The 2019 Kawasaki KX450 goes beyond just being another redesign. It reflects a different philosophy for a Japanese company. It’s as if the Kawasaki engineers looked at a modern KTM and said, “What’s so hard about that?” The result is a bike with a bunch of firsts for Kawasaki and for Japan. The KX450 has a new DOHC motor with a valve train that uses finger-followers between the cams and the valves, which is a design that has only been seen on 250 MX bikes so far. The clutch has hydraulic actuation with Nissin hydraulic components. The motor has electric start, and the old Showa triple air fork is gone, replaced with a coil-spring Showa that has a titanium-nitride coating on the lower tubes.
The Kawasaki has a fun, lively motor that revs easily and builds power quickly. It’s very smooth and easy to control, almost like a great big 250. As far as weight is concerned, the Kawasaki is in the middle. It weighs 233 pounds without fuel, which is light in comparison to the other Japanese 450s but still 10 pounds heavier than the Austrian duo. This bike feels lighter than it really is. Part of that might be due to the brakes, which are much stronger than ever before. The front Nissin is every bit as powerful as the Brembos that have been the class leader for years. Kawasaki has also closed the gap in the clutch department. The new hydraulic clutch is excellent. Finally, the suspension is plush and compliant. The old air fork could be made to work with a lot of testing, but life is too short for that.
If you’re looking for the most powerful bike in the 450 ranks, keep looking. The Kawasaki has all the power that any ordinary person could want, but it doesn’t match the dyno-braking numbers of some of the others. Like the Honda, the Kawasaki is busy. The front can feel divey. The rear is always moving, and it hunts around in loose soil. And even though we say the bike handles like a 250, small riders complain that it’s a very big motorcycle. It’s now the only bike with a small, old-school handlebar.
Kawasaki has proven that Japanese bikes don’t have to be heavy and that they can compete with the newest technology from Europe. The KX450 is a bike that everyone likes and everyone can ride well.
The reigning champion gets a makeover
KTM is on a roll. For years the 450SX-F has been the lightest, most powerful bike in the class. Not that long ago it was the only one with electric start and a hydraulic clutch too. Now, center stage is getting crowded with new bikes that have similar technology. In response, KTM did what it always does. The 2019 450SX-F is lighter and faster yet. The motor has a new, more compact head. The frame has been redesigned with more rigidity. The bodywork is new, and there are dozens of other changes. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it has similar changes to the 2019 Husqvarna FC450.
Right up front the KTM is a very fast bike. If you put all six bikes in a drag race, the KTM won’t lose. It has excellent low-end power and a screaming peak. Of course, dyno numbers are never the deciding factor in a 450 shootout, but the KTM’s power delivery is very linear and easy to manage. In handling, the KTM might also get the crown. It weighs 222 pounds without fuel. It lost weight compared to last year. It’s a little lighter than the Husky, and it’s even lighter than the 2018 1/2 Factory Edition. Light weight gives a bike an advantage in almost every regard. It takes very little effort to bend the bike into turns, and it also seems more stable in a straight line. Acceleration and braking also benefit from the weight loss. On that subject, the brakes are excellent, the hydraulic clutch is the class standard and the overall quality is excellent.
We fell in love with the WP AER 48 air fork when it first arrived because it was dramatically better than the previous KTM fork. Now, the class average has risen so high that suspension has to be considered a weak point for the KTM. The fork does all the things a fork should do, but it lacks comfort on small chop. When you make air and damping adjustments to deal with that, there are consequences elsewhere. The increase in frame rigidity might also contribute to the harshness. The KTM’s electronic features, such as dual maps and traction control, make slight changes in performance, but they are too subtle to be truly useful.
KTM has pushed the bar higher and higher in motocross over the last six years or so. Now that KTM has shown the rest of the world how to do it, the rest of the field has nearly caught up. Still, it’s hard to beat a bike that has such big advantages in weight and power.
The privateer’s choice in 450 motocross
For a company that doesn’t have an in-house factory team, there sure are a lot of Suzukis out front in pro motocross. That’s because the RM-Z450 is a proven commodity. It has long been considered the standard in handling at any level. Last year Suzuki made its biggest change in years. Although Suzuki claimed the RM-Z450 was “all new,” the bike turned out to be a continuation of the existing model in most ways. It looked different and had a new frame and a coil-spring fork, but it behaved much as it had for years. For 2019 it has minor changes, including a softer rear shock, but it is still the only bike in the 450 class without electric start.
The Suzuki is a bike for the purist. It has a smooth, linear power delivery without any hiccups or glitches. Suzuki still uses a system where you switch color-coded electric couplers to alter the power delivery. Most riders preferred the white or aggressive one to jazz up the power delivery somewhat. In handling, the Suzuki is still a very stable, predictable bike that never dances or does anything surprising. It turns very well once you have the suspension set up properly for your weight. The suspension itself is also very good at dealing with braking bumps and hard landings. In general, the rougher the track, the better the Suzuki handles.
The weakest aspect of the Suzuki is that it doesn’t excel anywhere. The days when it was the best-cornering bike on the track are gone. It simply weighs too much. The RM-Z450 is 240 pounds, making it the heaviest bike in the shootout despite being the only one without electric start. In order to make it turn well, the rear suspension setting has to be just right. The bike has a rear-end-high feel that makes you think it will handle better with more sag in the rear. Too much sag makes it handle oddly, so the window of adjustment is very narrow. In sheer power, the Suzuki is decent but not exceptional.
We know why pro teams love this bike so much. It’s like a blank slate. You can make it into anything you want, and you know the end result can be similar to the bikes that James Stewart, Chad Reed and Ryan Dungey rode and loved. It’s not a pro-class winner in stock form, but it is a very solid performer with unlimited potential.
The age of tech comes to motocross
Yamaha loves being different. When the reverse-head YZ450F first arrived in 2010, it was a bit of a mind-blower. Last year the bike was re-conceived, and everything was changed except the reverse-head concept. The mind-blower for the new bike was the Power Tuner app. The app allows you to tune the EFI mapping with a smartphone. The bike also got a new electric-start motor, a new frame and the latest incarnation of the KYB coil-spring fork—the one that single-handedly ended the air-fork era for Japanese bikes. The 2019 YZ arrives with very few changes beyond what came last year. The front wheel is more rigidly mounted, the suspension is stiffer and the seat foam is harder.
Yamaha has the best-running motor in the 450 class. It’s simply flawless in the way it develops power from low rpm up. Whereas the other bikes have surges and gaps, the Yamaha runs with unnatural perfection. You never get the feeling that you might stall, and it’s the only bike that you feel you could ride without ever using the clutch. On top of that, it makes wicked power. Is it the most powerful? We don’t care one way or another. The Yamaha is very fast. The Power Tuner app is no gimmick, either. If you want more snap, there are a number of formulas that will give it to you. Using the app is actually kind of fun. Once again, Yamaha comes into the fight with the best fork and great overall suspension. To be clear, all the bikes have good suspension this year, but the Yamaha’s is the best.
There’s vast disagreement among test riders when it comes to the YZ’s ability to turn. Let’s just say it is peculiar and you have to adjust to it. Most riders say it’s big and heavy. It certainly is heavy at 239 pounds without fuel, but in most other dimensions it’s within a few millimeters of the other bikes. The one area where it falls outside of the standard deviation is the relationship between the pegs, the seat and the handlebar. The set is low and the handlebar is tall, so many riders feel like they can’t get over the front of the bike, and that gives the front end a vague feel. This complaint is much less common in 2019. Complaints about loud intake noise, however, are still rampant.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Yamaha is the most high-tech bike in the group. It’s also the most offbeat and sparks the most disagreement. In suspension and motor manners, though, the Yamaha is unanimously at the top of the pecking order. Click here for the conclusion of the 2019 450 MX Shootout.