This is a year of refinement for most of the manufacturers. The Honda CRF450R, Husqvarna FC450, Kawasaki KX450, KTM 450SX and Suzuki RM-Z450 are either slightly updated or unchanged. Only the Yamaha YZ450F has major changes, and even it could pass for last year’s model at a glance.
To find out if the 2020 collection of updates are enough to change the pecking order in the 450 class, we started from scratch, testing all six bikes as if we had never seen them before. We installed Dunlop MX33 tires on all of them, then rode five different tracks with 10 different test riders. When it was all over, we learned that all of the bikes are competitive, but they aren’t all the same. It’s fair to say that for every rider, there is one right 450 motocross bike—and five others.
Soft science for hard riders
Honda did most of its development for the 2020 CRF450R on a computer screen. The hardware is mostly unchanged; it still has a single-overhead-cam motor with a mixture of rocker arms and finger-followers. It still has an intake that arches over the top shock mount to feed the Keihin 46mm throttle body, and it still has a Showa coil-spring fork. Last year it got a less rigid frame and lost the provision for a kickstarter once and for all. The most significant changes for 2020 are all programming related. The formula has changed on all three of the user-selectable maps. Additionally, there is now a traction-control mode with three different levels. When you add in the three levels of launch control, it’s apparent that the Honda can morph its personality in a multitude of ways.
Power has been the Honda’s trump card for a long time, and that hasn’t changed. This year the bike might feel even faster. We have to give credit to the men in front of those computer screens, though, because the bike is still reasonably manageable. More power, apparently, doesn’t always make a bike harder to control. Another strong point for the CRF450R is comfort and layout. Honda nails it in the ergonomic department, year after year. The bars, seat and pegs combine to make almost any rider comfortable. Also, as a rule, faster, more aggressive riders praise the CRF’s handling. It’s very responsive and steers quickly. If all that is too much, more conservative riders can tone down the bike’s personality with the electronic options. The front suspension is excellent for all levels.
The Honda is still a hard-edged, pro-level bike. Between the power and the quick handling, the bike can be nervous; and, despite all the progress on the electronic front, it’s still intimidating for older or less-experienced riders. The bike’s weight also contributes to this. It’s 239 pounds without fuel, and when you factor in the power and the quick handling, it can be a lot of motorcycle. As usual, the clutch is a weak point with vague engagement and a stiff pull. The rear suspension is very active and also takes some getting used to.
Honda made amazing progress with its mapping changes, somehow making the bike faster and no more difficult to control. It still suffers from some of the same faults that have been evident for years, namely a weak clutch, too much weight and a pro-level disposition.
The quest for identity continues
KTM’s takeover was the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to Husqvarna. The Husky 450 motocross bike benefited from some of the best engineering in the motorcycle world and improved in every conceivable way overnight. At the same time, it became a sidekick to the KTM 450, which shares most of the major components and comes out of the same factory. The 2020 FC450 represents a small step towards Husqvarna having its own identity. Husqvarna is now doing its own testing for final suspension tuning with the goal of attracting a different customer. When you add that to the preexisting differences in components from Magura, Pro Taper and D.I.D, the 2020 FC450 is continuing a slow shift out of Big Brother’s shadow.
The Husqvarna still has a freakishly smooth motor. It doesn’t feel particularly fast, even though it clearly is. This year Husqvarna engineers combated complaints that it was too sleepy down low by providing each bike with an extra airbox cover with vents. This is designed to work with map two on the handlebar-mounted switch. With the new maps and the improved airflow, the bike is slightly snappier, but not so much so that it is hard to handle. When you ride the Husky, it’s immediately apparent that it’s a very light bike. That’s a bonus everywhere; it accelerates faster, gets better traction, turns better, stops more quickly and is less intimidating than the Japanese bikes, most of which are around 15 pounds heavier. Other factors on the good side of the balance sheet are the excellent brakes and the hydraulic clutch.
Last year the frame was stiffened in an attempt to improve the bike for elite, pro-level riders. It resulted in a stiff ride. This year’s softer suspension settings mitigate that somewhat, but the Husky still has a harsh feel. The WP XACT 48 air fork is a marvel of simplicity and weight savings, but performance-wise, it’s no match for some of the latest coil-spring forks coming out of Japan. Husqvarna has made some progress with its electronic options. You can more readily tell the difference between map one, map two and traction control, but more diverse options would be better.
The big changes for 2019 weren’t all improvements, and the 2020 Husky could have used a little more attention in several areas, particularly comfort and suspension. It remains a great motorcycle assembled with very high-quality parts, but the world of 450 motocross bikes is very competitive, and manufacturers can rarely afford to stay still for even one year.
The honeymoon continues
Kawasaki proved us wrong last year. We were beginning to think that Japanese motorcycle companies could no longer react to market changes in a timely manner. Then the 2019 KX450 came out and blew us away. Not only did it have a new motor with electric start, it had the only hydraulic clutch on a Japanese motocross bike and had significant improvements everywhere. It was the lightest of the 450s from Japan and one of the best-handling motocross bikes ever. Now the 2020 model has arrived without a single mechanical change. We’re not sure if that’s cockiness or confidence.
The Kawasaki handles flawlessly. It kind of reminds us of that classic feel of a 2008 Honda CRF450F, only we know that no bike in that era had suspension or power like the new Kawasaki. The KX combines the stability and the lightweight feel of the Euro bikes with the suspension and turning ability of the Japanese bikes. It is perfectly predictable and well-mannered. The motor has more low-end power than anything else in the class, making it both easy to ride and snappy. The suspension is well balanced and aimed at intermediate and high-level novices. The hydraulic clutch has an excellent feel, and the brakes are strong. The KX is the only bike with adjustable footpeg height.
The Kawasaki has excellent power way down low, but it happens almost too early to be useful for more advanced riders. As the revs climb, the KX falls off and peak power is unexceptional. The KX doesn’t scream, so you’re forced to shift early. Detailing on the Kawasaki is also weak. Most riders don’t like the levers, the grips or the 7/8-inch bars. Of the three maps available, the most popular is the one offered by the soft-terrain (white) coupler, but the system of changing maps is clumsy and old fashioned compared to most of the other bikes’ systems.
We liked the 2019 KX450, so naturally we like the 2020 version. Kawasaki’s approach to the engineering and production of the KX450 is aggressive, but the bike feels somewhat conservative on the track. It handles, in our collective opinion, the way a motocross bike should handle. The bottomless torque, plush suspension and hydraulic clutch all just sweeten the deal.
A temporary ceasefire from Austria
After what seemed like a non-stop barrage of engine redesigns and big rethinks, the 2020 KTM 450SX-F arrives with very few changes. It still has a single-overhead-cam valve train with old-school rocker arms. It still has a hydraulically actuated diaphragm-spring clutch, a steel frame, WP suspension with an XACT 48 air fork and all the other things that are distinctly KTM. The 2019 KTM 450SX-F sports a new, more compact head, a stiffer frame and new bodywork. Like the Husqvarna FC450, it was criticized for feeling a little soft down low and for feeling a little harsh on the track. KTM dealt with that by developing new suspension settings, new mapping and by giving each 2020 buyer an extra airbox cover with vents to offer more flow. After trying both airbox covers, we settled on the vented one combined with map two and performed most of our testing in that configuration.
The KTM is a cut above the Japanese bikes in terms of quality components. The various parts—from the clutch to the brakes to the bars to the levers—are all of extremely high quality. In terms of on-the-track performance, the 450SX-F’s biggest asset is its smooth power delivery. The motor has such a gradual hit many riders assume it’s not very fast. It is, but it doesn’t yank. It pulls. It’s also the lightest bike in the group, coming in at 223 pounds without fuel. Even the Husqvarna is a half pound heavier. Most of the others are around 17 pounds more. That allows the KTM to handle better in most situations. It has very stable overall geometry, but the light weight allows it to turn well, too.
Some riders still want a harder hit down low. It isn’t that they’re thrill seekers, but they use the extra snap to initiate a turn. We like the fact that the bike comes with the vented airbox cover, but the difference isn’t that big. We weren’t especially fond of the stiffer frame that arrived in 2019, and it’s still there. It gives the 450 a less forgiving nature despite the newest suspension settings. The KTM’s fork is good but not great compared to those of the Japanese bikes.
KTM has more influence in modern motocross design than any other company. This goes beyond its relationship with Husqvarna; it seems like Japanese manufacturers are, one by one, waiting to see what KTM does next. The 450SX-F remains a cutting-edge motocross bike, but this year it’s a mix of a pro-only chassis and an amateur-oriented motor.
The flight of the purist
The Suzuki RM-Z450 is a bit of a throwback to the previous decade. Many riders love it for that reason. There’s a growing number of skeptics who insist that the bikes of the late ’00s handled better than modern bikes. Two years ago Suzuki redesigned the RM-Z and took a chance by leaving off electric start. It returned to a coil-spring Showa fork and what Showa calls a Balance Free Rear Cushion, where the valve stack is no longer located in the shock piston. Aside from that, the Suzuki offers technology that hasn’t changed much since 2008. It just benefits from 12 years of evolution.
With the Suzuki, you know exactly what you’re getting. There’s nothing experimental or untested. The bike’s strongest asset remains overall handling, as it has for years. It turns with very little rider effort, goes where it’s pointed and is reasonably stable. The motor is smooth and fast enough for everyone short of a legitimate pro. It’s the only bike in the group that will start after six months of storage because it has no battery that can die. The brakes are decent, and the clutch has a light pull. The benefit of going unchanged is the price. The Suzuki is the least expensive in the test, coming in $1000 less than the KTM.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the RM-Z is the only one in the test without electric start. That would be fine if it were also the lightest, but it’s not. It’s the heaviest, if only by one pound. And even though Suzuki banks on its overall handling, it still isn’t the best in that department. The shock and the fork are unbalanced, causing the rear end to load and unload erratically in turns, spoiling what is still good steering geometry.
The Suzuki can be made into a great motocross bike for novices and even top pros. The JGR team proves it week in and week out. But, the stock package has an unfinished feel, as if the project were called off halfway through the testing process. Going with the Suzuki still isn’t a bad decision if you plan smart modifications and budget accordingly.
Dial it up, tune it in and wick it up
Yamaha was the only manufacturer to reinvest heavily in its 450 motocross bike for 2020. The YZ450F might not look that different, but it has changes in the frame construction, a new head, new motor mounts, new brakes and a long list of smaller changes. The overall configuration is the same. It still has a reverse cylinder head with the exhaust exiting the rear and the air filter on top. The defining innovation for Yamaha came in 2018 when the YZ got a Mikuni fuel-injection system that incorporated Wi-Fi connectivity to any smart phone. This allows you to change mapping easily at the track to virtually anything you dream up. A handlebar-mounted switch allows you to swap between any two maps on the fly.
The Yamaha has the best motor ever offered in a production motocross bike. It has a ton of power and is completely manageable. It’s rare that you can combine the best of all worlds, but the YZ450F appeals to both pros and beginners. Yamaha did such a good job with the stock power delivery that the bike’s most innovative technological feature is rendered irrelevant. There’s no need to change maps with the Yamaha Power Tuner because the one in the bike is so good. The Yamaha also trumps the other bikes in suspension yet again. In a field where excellence is the norm, the YZ’s KYB shock and fork stand out as exceptional. The Yamaha’s other strong points are its clutch feel and its established reliability.
The YZ proves that no two riders have the exact same style. Some still feel the bike doesn’t turn well; others feel it’s fine, if perhaps a little clumsy. Everyone agrees that the bike feels heavy and handles better with the throttle at least partly open when you enter turns. The YZ also has odd ergonomics, with a low seat and tall bars. Yamaha addressed this somewhat with a slightly stiffer seat and repositioned bars for 2020, but it still takes some adjustment. The brakes are okay but not great. The intake noise can be distracting.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Yamaha was once a divisive, controversial motocross bike. The 2020 model has won over many of its detractors with strong points that are overwhelming and undeniable. The old complaints can still be heard, but they grow fainter each year. It has the best motor and the best suspension in the 450 class. That goes a long way.
THE FINISH LINE
Stacking up the 2020 450 MX contenders
There are no unanimous winners anymore. When you poll test riders, don’t expect everyone to agree on the final outcome. Those days are over. Test riders do, however, agree on the facts. All our test riders said the same things and made the same comments about the strong points and weak points of each bike. They all loved the Yamaha’s motor, the Kawasaki’s handling, the Honda’s sheer power, the smooth nature of the Husky and KTM, and even the potential of the Suzuki. Only in the final ranking do they disagree.
Does that mean there’s no point to a modern shootout? Just the opposite. The riders feel the same things but have different priorities and come to different conclusions based on their personal needs. For us, there was just enough common ground to establish an overall winner. For you, it’s just a matter of determining your own personal priority list.
FIRST PLACE: KAWASAKI KX450
The Kawasaki wins the Dirt Bike 450 MX Shootout for the second year in a row. We’re still impressed that Kawasaki could break the mold of Japan’s motocross bikes and come up with something this bold. The KX450 has excellent low-end power and great suspension. It’s light and handles flawlessly. It’s only a matter of time before the other Japanese manufacturers realize they can do this, too—but it hasn’t happened yet.
SECOND PLACE: YAMAHA YZ450F
Yamaha climbs to second place in the final tally on the strength of a truly phenomenal motor. It makes so much power that it should be intimidating, yet everyone loves it. We can’t imagine that Justin Barcia and Arron Plessinger could want anything more. When you factor in Yamaha’s universally loved suspension, the bike comes within a hair of being this year’s winner.
THIRD PLACE: KTM 450SX-F
The KTM might not have won this year, but it had no real detractors. No rider placed it lower than third in the standings. It remains the lightest and probably the best-engineered bike in the class. Its motor is smooth, its handling is excellent and it’s the right bike for many conditions. KTM is still the biggest mover and shaker in motocross today.
FOURTH PLACE: HUSQVARNA FC450
Despite all the efforts to separate the two brands, we still find the KTM and Husqvarna finishing back to back in every shootout. Face it, when two bikes share most of the same parts, they are going to be more alike than different. We still believe there are reasons to choose the Husky over the KTM, particularly for older riders and those with an appreciation of the Husky legacy.
FIFTH PLACE: HONDA CRF450R
The Honda is a magnificent machine that radiates power just sitting in the garage. It’s a great pro-level motocross bike, but it’s also the most narrowly focused. This year Honda engineers found more power without making the bike any more intimidating. That’s amazing.
SIXTH PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z450
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Suzuki finished in sixth. That’s where it was last year, and it has no changes. It will, however, surprise anyone who rides the bike on its own. It remains a very effective motocross weapon when judged on its own merits, and the price makes it an option for those who know how to bring out the beast.