2021 450 MOTOCROSS SHOOTOUT

We have a record crop of bikes, so we took our time to make sure we gave each of them a fair and full evaluation. That includes a newcomer to the motocross world: The GasGas MC450F. We have also included the unchanged Suzuki RM-Z450 thanks to the support of Simi Valley Cycles. Those two will be going heads up against the brand new Honda CRF450R, the Husqvarna FC450, the Kawasaki KX450, the KTM 450SX-F and the Yamaha YZ450F. We equipped all seven motorcycles with brand-new Dunlop MX33 tires and tested them on four different tracks including Cal City MX. So thanks for waiting and let’s get to it.

GASGAS MC450F

GasGas has traditionally been a company associated with trials bikes and off-road racing, but all that changed last year when Pierer Mobility–the parent company of KTM–acquired controlling interest there. That’s how the 2021 MC450F came into being. It’s the first real motocross bike carrying the GasGas name. Critics accuse it of being another KTM clone, but that’s not accurate. It does use a great number of KTM parts,  but it’s aimed at a very different buyer. The MC450F sells for $9399, which is $800 less than the KTM and $900 less than the Husky.  In order to do that, it has no map switch, and comes with Maxxis tires (which we changed for our Dunlop MX33 control tire after the initial test). It also has differences in the exhaust, handlebar, triple-clamp, swingarm and rims.

Not to add fuel to the flames, but on the track, the GasGas has a very distinct KTM flavor. That means it’s very light, very fast and very smooth. On our scale, it’s the exact same weight as a KTM 450SX-F, at 223 pounds without fuel, which is one of its greatest assets. It’s a very easy bike to ride, by 450 standards. The power is even a little smoother than the KTM’s. On the track, the biggest difference between the GasGas and the KTM is suspension. The GasGas is much cushier. Part of that is due the the rear spring rate (which is softer than t KTM’s) and part is due to valving. Otherwise, it’s very similar to the KTM’s. The WP XACT 48 air fork has the latest upgrades to the midvalve and bottoming.  If you are a particularly sensitive rider, you might also pick out the the GasGas’s forged triple-clamp is flexier, which can be felt under big G-loads and at speed. As far as power, the GasGas is a little tamer feeling than the KTM. If you want more snap, you can always vent the airbox. install the KTM map switch and maybe go to an aftermarket exhaust.  Overall, we consider the GasGas a great addition to the motocross world. We’ll never understand those who criticize KTM for its history of saving distressed manufacturers. 

HONDA CRF450R

The arrival of the 2021 Honda CRF450R is huge news. The twice pipes are gone, it has a new chassis with new bodywork and–we never thought it would happen–a hydraulic clutch.  The head now uses a centrally located exhaust port leading to a single muffler.  The frame is new and Honda says it’s lighter by over 2 pounds.  We put our test bike on the scale already and found it weighs 333 pounds without fuel. That makes it the lightest of the Japanese 450s.

On the track, the Honda is crazy fast.  It feels like it’s the most powerful of all the 2021 450s. It starts off strong at low revs and then keeps on revving and revving. Pros will love it, but there is an issue with the power delivery that should be dealt with. There’s a hiccup down low that can catch you off guard. It’s a momentary hesitation at initial throttle opening. Map two is supposed to be the beginner-friendly option, but oddly enough, it isn’t much help. It kills the low-end torque and creates a hole that’s hard to climb out of. On top of that, the hiccup is more pronounced. In map three, the problem is still there, but the motor is so much more responsive down low that you get past it quickly. In general, most riders still prefer map one. You learn to work around the issue. The new clutch is much, much better. Not only is the pull light, the engagement is always in the exact same place.

The CRF450R is still a quick-handling bike with a light touch and a responsive feel.  Aggressive riders can dive into the corners with the throttle on and cut to the inside with very little effort. More conservative riders can stick to the inside and steer their way through a turn.  No matter who you are, though, you might have to put some effort into suspension set-up. The standard set-up is a little unbalanced. We had several test riders who weighed between 170 and 190 pounds, and all of them agreed that the best solution was to increase the rear spring rate. 

Honda did a decent job with this bike, especially considering that Covid-19 hit just when they were finalizing things like suspension settings and mapping. It’s clear that it’s unfinished, and there are rumors that Honda will offer an updated map at the dealer level. The Honda is already good, and we can’t wait to see how much better it can be. MSRP for the 2021 Honda CRF450R is $9599. There will also be a fresh batch of 2020 models for $1000 less.

HUSQVARNA FC450

Husqvarna is continuing to follow a different evolutionary path from KTM. We began to see some hints of that last year; the Husky’s power delivery was a little milder and the suspension was a little cushier, apparently aimed at a more mature rider. That makes sense–Husqvarna is a legacy brand that might mean something more to vet and senior riders. The price is higher and the image is different, even though the FC450 shares most of its parts with the KTM 450SX-F.

For 2021, the Husky’s biggest change is in the suspension department. The XACT AER 48 air fork was redesigned with a mid-valve and the suspension travel and overall height of the bike have been reduced by 10mm. This is a change that doesn’t come on the 2021 KTM 450SX-F. To do this, WP shortened the cartridge and the fork tube up front, then changed the shock head and the linkage in the rear. The idea was to give it a lower center of gravity and make it a little easier to ride. The Husqvarna already had a number of other differences, including a different airbox. Other changes between KTM and Husky are simply to engage different sources; the clutch hydraulics are Magura rather than Brembo, the handlebar is Pro Taper rather than Neken and the rims are DID rather than Excel. For 2021, the bike can have smartphone connectivity for altering the mapping and power delivery. Unlike the Yamaha system, you have to pay extra for a transmitter. On the track the Husky once again has a very smooth, linear power delivery. It’s still a fast motorcycle, but as 450s go, it’s not especially demanding. The changes in suspension, as far as we are concerned, are excellent. We already were pleased with the changes to the front fork valving on the Rockstar Edition; that alone was the biggest single improvement that has come since the introduction of the air fork. The decrease in travel and overall height was met with overwhelming positive feedback by our test riders. Sean Lipanovich, in particular, was a big fan. That’s not surprising; he’s kinda short. Actually, real short. But even Mark Tilley, who is over 6 feet tall said the bike cornered more easily willingly. Now, the Husky is one of the easiest bikes to ride of all the 450s. On our scale, the Husky is 224 pounds without fuel. The price is $10,299.

KAWASAKI KX450

The Kawasaki KX450 was completely and totally new in 2019, getting a new frame and motor with electric start and a hydraulic clutch. It was unchanged in 2020 and now it has three significant changes for 2021. The clutch was redesigned, using a cupped disc spring instead of coil springs. This is similar to the design KTM uses, which they call the DDS clutch. Kawasaki also gave the piston a dry lube coating. And finally, Kawasaki stepped up to a Renthal Fatbar handlebar.

First of all, the clutch has a different feel. It already had a very light pull. For 90 percent of the world, that’s great, but the one drawback is that when you have an easy pull, you tend to overuse the clutch. Kawasakis have never had especially durable clutches, so that could lead to a short life-span for the plates. For the record, Mark Tilley has half of a season on his original 2020 Kawasaki clutch–it’s still going strong. Still, the new clutch should be more durable. The initial pull is about the same as the previous one, but it gets easier as it progresses. The engagement, on the other hand, is sharper. You know when it’s locked–there’s less feeling of vagueness.  As a side note, not everyone likes the feel of hydraulics. When Ryan Villopoto went to Europe in his last season of racing, he started off with a hydraulic clutch, then returned to a cable system. We have to say that he’s the exception to the rule, though. Virtually everyone else likes the feel of a hydraulic clutch.

Handling and power are still excellent.  On our scale, the 2021 model weighs 235 pounds without fuel. It still has a more stable, well-planted feel than virtually any other 450. That’s what we loved about the 2019/2020 version and why it won our last two 450 shootouts. It isn’t the fastest bike in the class. It’s actually one of the slowest, according to the dyno. But you don’t walk away thinking about it in those terms. It’s super smooth and easy to ride. It revs out cleanly without a sudden rev-limiter shut down. Suspension is also a strong point.  It’s the overall package that made the Kawasaki our favorite 450 motocross bike last year and the year before. The power works with the suspension and the handling to make it an easy bike to ride. The Kawasaki sells for $9399.

KTM 450SX-F

The new 450SX-F has very few changes, but it’s still a vastly improved motorcycle. That’s because the front suspension has major changes that allow it to compare much more favorably with the coil spring forks from Showa and KYB. KTM didn’t get the 10mm reduction in travel that we saw on the Husqvarna FC450, but it did get a bunch of other changes, including a trampoline-style mid valve, a different bottoming system and a rebound clicker that needs no screwdriver. Most suspension tuners say that the mid-valve is a game-changer for WP and long overdue. All this was first previewed on the Factory Edition, although the production 2021 model has still more valving changes, simply because WP engineers have had more testing time since the Factory Edition was introduced.

If you paid attention to our 2020 shootout, the bottom line for the KTM  was that suspension was the bike’s biggest shortcoming. It wasn’t terrible by any means, but the KTM simply wasn’t as comfortable as the Japanese 450s. WP has closed the gap. On small chop and sharp edges, in particular, the new design delivers a much better feel than you could ever achieve with the old set-up. There are still riders who will never quite warm up to air forks. It has to do with feedback and feel. Bikes like the Yamaha and Kawasaki give you  a more direct connection to the track and allow you to search out those last little bits of traction.

All of the other things we love about the KTM are still in play. It weighs 223 pounds without fuel. Last year that made it the lightest production 450. But now it’s tied with the GasGas for that honor. It has a super-wide powerband with a smooth delivery and it revs to infinity. We tested it with the vented airbox cover in place, whereas our Husky and GasGas have unvented covers. The KTM has more hit and the vented airbox cover exaggerates that difference.  Earlier in the year, KTM announced that it would offer a Smartphone app for engine tuning, similar to the Yamaha Power Tuner. It isn’t yet available, but it will require the purchase of a transmitter. The Yamaha, incidentally, has the transmitter pre-installed. The MSRP of the KTM 450SX-F went up $100 for 2021; now $10,199.

SUZUKI RM-Z450

Earlier in the year, Suzuki announced the separation of the Marine and Motorcycle divisions. That, and the end of Suzuki’s involvement with Joe Gibbs Racing sparked dark rumors about Suzuki’s future in the motocross world. Apparently, there’s no reason for pessimism, Suzuki is enjoying a great year in sales and has announced a full 2021 line up that includes motocross bikes. 

Unfortunately, Covid 19 has delayed delivery of those bikes, so we were forced to use a 2020 RM-Z450 provided by Simi Valley Cycles. The RM-Z450 is completely unchanged for 2021 aside from graphics. It now provides a legitimate alternative for the purist who doesn’t want to pay for a battery or electric start. The RM-Z450 has the lowest suggested retail price in the group. The last major change for the bike came back in 2018, when it got a new chassis and ditched the air fork. 

For the average rider, the Suzuki’s power delivery is awesome. It’s smooth and fast enough for 99.9 percent of American riders. For the remainder, we know there’s more power to be had, simply because of the bike’s record in the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series where it pulled a disproportional number of holeshots. For us, we wouldn’t change anything about the motor. It’s a sweetheart. 

We still feel that the RM-Z is one of the best handling bikes in the 450 class because it drops into turns so effortlessly. That hasn’t changed in years. We will say, however, that the rest of the motocross world has figured out some of Suzuki’s magic. Kawasaki, Honda and KTM all have developed bikes that turn well and weigh less. The Suzuki is a big boy. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have to carry around an electric starter, it weighs 239 pounds without fuel. For 2021, Suzuki has joined the Smartphone club. There’s an app that allows you to modify the spark advance as well as EFI mapping at the track, after you install a transmitter and hook it up to a battery. The MSRP of the 2021 Suzuki RM-Z450 is $8999.

YAMAHA YZ450F

 For 2021, there are absolutely no mechanical changes for the YZ450F. That’s never happened before, but we’re okay with it. In case you aren’t up to speed on your YZ history, 2018 was the last really big year. That was a total remake for the frame and motor. Yamaha also introduced the Power Tuner smartphone app at that time. It’s clear that Yamaha was ahead of the game on this. KTM, Husqvarna and Suzuki all are going to a similar system for 2021. In those cases, you have to purchase a transmitter separately. Yamaha’s is included with the bike. 

All things considered, the Yamaha probably has the best overall motor of the bunch.  In terms of absolute horsepower it’s very close to the Honda, but considerably smoother and easier to manage–so much so that it’s a little boring. After a brief period of lurchiness at the very bottom, it pulls harder and harder in a very linear way. On top, it revs higher than any other 450. It’s predictable, tractable and fast. Most of the popular maps that are passed between YZ cult members are aimed at providing a little more of a hit somewhere in the powerband. The Honda, KTM and Husky motors all have a little excitement in the middle. 

It’s almost a knee jerk reaction to praise the YZ450F suspension. It’s been at the top of the MX world for a very, very long time, and it’s as good as ever. The most remarkable part is that everyone likes it. Even if you fall outside the average weight and skill level, chances are you’ll pull off the track happy. If not, you can make it work with a few clicks. Riders generally like the bike with 106mm of race sag in the rear and just a little less compression damping front and rear. 

The main area where the YZ450F doesn’t shine as brightly is in agility. It feels like a big, long, heavy bike. At 239 pounds, the Yamaha is still 16 pounds heavier than a KTM 450SX-F and 6 pounds heavier than the new Honda. It also has a slow-steering feel that some riders like, others don’t. Add it all up and the Yamaha has very little cut-and-thrust in its bag of tricks. It likes sweeping lines and power-on cornering. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the Yamaha is $9399.

CONCLUSION

2021 Kawasaki KX450

FIRST PLACE: KAWASAKI KX450

In the end, we weren’t especially surprised that the Kawasaki KX450 emerged as the top pick. It was our favorite 450 motocrosser in 2020 and it only got better. It still handles predictably, it still has excellent suspension and it still has a sweet power delivery that anyone can appreciate. Now, it just combines all that with a lighter clutch pull and more refinement. 

2021 Yamaha YZ450F

SECOND PLACE: YAMAHA YZ450F

We noticed that the YZ450F fell out of favor with some riders who loved it last year. It appears that people really do form opinions based on pro racing results, and it was common knowledge that the Yamaha Factory team struggled last year. Still, our test riders are a consistent group of professionals who still see the Yamaha for what it is: a great motorcycle for the average rider. There are still a number of riders who can’t come to terms with the YZ’s handling manners and intake noise.

2021 KTM 450SX-F

THIRD PLACE: KTM 450SX-F

KTM has an incredible piece of engineering here and everyone knows it. The 450SX-F is so much lighter than the Japanese bikes that it seems like they must be cheating. It also has excellent handling and smooth, plentiful power. If there’s any one area that the KTM doesn’t shine as brightly it’s in comfort and suspension. Even here, the 2021 model is greatly improved over last year.

2021 Husqvarna FC450

FOURTH PLACE: HUSQVARNA FC450

We’ve heard it time after time: The Husky is nothing but a white KTM. We don’t agree. Company executives are clearly aiming the FC450 at a more mature rider in a number of ways. Still, we feel that the two bikes aren’t different enough. In performance and effectiveness, they are near equals, and we  certainly can’t let another brand  finish between them in good conscience.

2021 GasGas MC450F

FIFTH PLACE: GASGAS MC450F

In terms of value, it could be argued that the GasGas should finish in front of the KTM and Husqvarna. Its performance is nearly identical for less money. Still, we aren’t in the business of telling you how much money you should spend on a motocross bike. That’s for you to figure out. We can say that the GasGas is slightly–very slightly–less competitive than those two in stock form.

2020 Suzuki RM-Z450

SIXTH PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z450

For some reason, riders came into this test expecting very little of the Suzuki. It’s unchanged and it lacks electric start, but that doesn’t mean anything on the track. The RM-Z450 is still a sweet, good-handling motorcycle that virtually everyone enjoys.  By the same token, we would love to see Suzuki get back into the game by losing weight and maybe rethinking the stock suspension set-up.

2021 Honda CRF450R

SEVENTH PLACE: HONDA CRF450R

How could the newest, most extensively changed bike of the year finish in seventh place? Because it’s the newest, most extensively change bike of the wrong year. When a bike undergoes a redesign this extensive, the development team needs every last second to come up with the final settings. Honda’s R&D team was robbed of that time, so the bike arrives with obvious flaws. To see how the 2021 motocross 450s compared on the FMF dyno click here.

 

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