Looking at the overall performance report card of this year’s 450cc field, we have never had a more evenly matched group of motorcycles. The difference between first and sixth is now measured in inches rather than bike lengths as in years past. Each bike has its strengths and weaknesses, just like every test rider varies in his likes and dislikes. The really amazing thing is how drastically different each manufacturer’s machine is from the others—from the technology used to the way the engineers apply it. For 2016, three manufacturers (Kawasaki, KTM, and Husqvarna) have introduced almost completely new motorcycles from the ground up. On the other hand we have Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki, who made very limited but specific changes, most of them in the handling department. After months of testing at countless tracks, here is what we know.
Looking at things backwards
Yamaha continues to offer the most unique design in the 450cc class. Its engineers are literally doing the complete opposite of the other manufacturers. Six years after the first version of the current model was introduced back in 2010, Yamaha’s intake system is still where everyone’s exhaust is, and Yamaha’s exhaust now wraps around the cylinder in keeping with the principles of mass centralization. For 2016 Yamaha added a launch control system, different EFI mapping and new cam profiles. The engineers also made changes to the clutch boss, water pump impeller and shifting mechanism. They increased stopping power by adding a 270mm front brake rotor. The suspension got new settings, along with a 24mm offset triple clamp, new motor mounts and 5mm-lower footpegs. The frame construction above the swingarm pivot point is slightly different.
At 239 pounds, the YZ450F is the heavyweight of the 450 class, and it’s not thin, either. The tank/airbox/radiator-shroud junction is wider than any other bikes in the class. For smaller riders, this makes the bike feel way bigger than it actually is. Because the intake is located high and near the front of the machine, the sucking sound during acceleration is almost deafening. The front end seems to always be searching for traction when cornering and never really seems to stick.
The Yamaha has huge amounts of power with a smooth delivery that doesn’t feel intimidating, and it’s not hard to fire up. Overall, straight-line stability has been increased compared to the 2015 model. Both the forks and shock provide smooth action, working well on small braking or acceleration bumps and still having good resistance to bottoming on big single hits. We like that we don’t have to check the air every time we get to the track. The 270mm rotor definitely gives the YZ450F some much-needed stopping power. Adjustability is always a plus, and with four different handlebar mounting positions on the triple clamps, it is easy to make smaller and larger riders alike feel comfortable.
To ride the Yamaha well, most riders have to adjust their riding style. If you try to ride the Yamaha like any other machine, it’s like being in a cat fight; you never know what’s going to happen. We found that the YZ450F likes to be steered with the rear wheel. Use the power of the bike to make it go where you want it to, and use the front end to point it in the right direction. The improved straight-line stability provided by the 24mm triple clamps is a big plus, but most of the test riders wanted a more planted feel in the front while cornering.
Same old look
Engineers at Suzuki have an old-school way of thinking: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We kind of agree with this philosophy. All the changes made to the frame, engine and new suspension components on the 2015 model made the bike better than the previous year, but a styling update wouldn’t hurt. For 2016 Suzuki made very minor changes that included new EFI mapping, a lighter front brake caliper from Nissin and updated suspension settings on the forks and shock. The RM-Z450 returns with Suzuki’s S-HAC launch control system, which adjusts power delivery for different types of terrain. Suzuki is the only manufacturer to offer a launch control system that has a setting increasing power to the rear wheel.
The overall styling of the RM-Z450 hasn’t changed in over a decade. This bike looks almost identical to what Ricky Carmichael was racing. Braking power on the RM-Z is weak, and since it is one of the heaviest bikes in the 450 class, trying to stop once you are up to speed is no small feat. Adjustability on the RM-Z is non-existent; the triple clamp is fixed. In a day and age when every other bike offers adjustable bar mounts, the Suzuki is definitely dated. The clutch fades in and out during heavy usage and requires lots of adjustment.
The RM-Z450 starts really easy—usually on the first or second kick—even when it’s hot. The Showa Triple Air forks and frame changes made in 2015 make this bike enjoyable to ride without getting lots of feedback in your hands and upper body. The power is smooth and easy, but still packs a punch when necessary. Hands down, the Suzuki corners better than any other bike in the class. No one can dispute that. We like that the RM-Z450 comes with an O-ring chain. It makes the sprockets last longer. And with the power a 450 makes nowadays, every little bit helps.
When Suzuki made all the changes in 2015, we liked everything they did. And even though Suzuki didn’t make any significant changes for 2016, we still like the bike. The S-HAC system is still one of the best launch control systems on the market, offering settings that are actually noticeably different. The bike is enjoyable to ride, but a little more grunt wouldn’t hurt. It would be nice if Suzuki addressed the lack of braking power and gave the bike a little adjustability to accommodate a wider range of riders. This bike is desperately in need of a styling change. Even if Suzuki did nothing else to next year’s model, making it look different from the way it has for the last decade would be a step in the right direction.
Out with the old, in with the new
True to form, just as in years past, KTM took the mid-year release of the factory edition and made it the 2016 model. This year KTM even made some additional updates. The 2016 model is completely different from the 2015. It has a new frame, engine, airbox, plastics and updates to the WP suspension. KTM also offers a bar-mounted switch that allows the rider to switch between two different EFI maps that are fully programmable on the fly. The 2016 model tips the scales at 227 pounds. That’s a full 10 pounds lighter than the 2015 model.
The KTM 450SX-F seems to be a little unbalanced handling-wise in stock form. The WP 4CS forks are on the soft side and blow through their stroke under hard braking and on jump faces. The shock rides a little high, giving the bike a stink-bug feel. The motor has bark, and for some riders the hit can be hard to handle, making it difficult to ride smoothly. Clutch pull on the Brembo hydraulic system is pretty stiff, even compared to some of the cable-actuated systems.
Shaving off 10 pounds is always a good thing, whether it’s from our love handles or our test bikes. This makes the bike easier to move around in the air and on the ground. The electric start is the favorite feature of the entire Dirt Bike staff. It amazes us that the 450SX-F can have electric start and still be the lightest bike in the class. As always, KTM kills the competition in the braking department with its Brembo-powered system. The no-tools-needed access to the air filter makes filter maintenance easy.
Overall, this motorcycle produces smiles. It has more power than an average human could ever want, adjustability, the strongest brakes in its class (except for the Husky, of course), easy air-filter access and electric start. What more could you want? Well, we don’t mean to sound ungrateful or repetitive, but the 4CS fork continues to be KTM’s weakness on the 450SX-F. Now instead of being too harsh initially, it blows through the stroke like a hot knife through butter. It packs down and then gets harsh. With all the bikes performing so well in the 450 class, this is a major issue.
Complete makeover for last year’s favorite
Kawasaki is probably the one manufacturer that can afford to rest on its laurels for a year or two, but no one informed the engineers at Team Green. For 2016, the KX450F has huge changes to literally every part of the motorcycle. It has a new engine design featuring new cases, piston, head, cams and crankshaft balance drive gear, and it has a more compact throttle body. The cylinder offset has been moved forward 8.5mm. The frame has also been changed; the perimeter spars are now 6mm slimmer and lighter. The subframe has a thicker wall housing for strength and houses an all-new airbox, but still manages to be lighter than the 2015 version. Overall, rigidity has been increased via a new swingarm. But, the engineers didn’t stop there, deciding to give the KX450F a more aggressive look overall with brand-new bodywork and a new gas tank.
After changing so much on this year’s model, it baffles us that Kawasaki’s engineers still haven’t upgraded the handlebars. The 2016 still comes with small-diameter bars. Standard mapping on the KX450F is a little on the lean side, and we experienced popping on deceleration that could be solved with some remapping. The clutch needed constant adjustment during our testing, and the push rod doesn’t oil efficiently, so it can get a little noisy during heavy usage. Chain stretch is almost immediate, and the chain sliders are better than last year but still don’t last very long.
Starting the new engine configuration is relatively easy, and overall power delivery is smoother and easier to manage than on the 2015 version. As we have said before, loosing a few pounds never hurts, and the 2016 KX450F is 7 pounds lighter than last year’s model. It is also 6mm thinner, which is immediately noticeable when you lift the bike off the stand. With the four different handlebar mounting positions, two peg mounting positions, programmable EFI couplers and brand-new handheld EFI calibration kit, the 2016 KX450F is the most adjustable motorcycle in the 450 class.
Kawasaki took one of the Dirt Bike staff’s favorite bikes and made it lighter and slimmer, gave it more usable power and gave it a more aggressive look. For that, we thank them from the bottom of our hearts. It’s not perfect by any means, but neither are we. Depending on where you ride, the popping on deceleration needs to be addressed with new mapping, especially if an aftermarket pipe or slip-on is installed. A couple other areas that need attention include the drive chain, chain-slider rubber and the grips; although we don’t mind the feel, they seem to wear out fast. The one outstanding weak link on the 2016 KX450F is the clutch, or more specifically, the push rod’s oiling system—or lack thereof.
Just like its orange cousin, the Husqvarna FC450 got a complete makeover from the ground up. It is nothing like the 2015 model, and Husky is starting to develop its own identity separate of the KTM, which just happens to come off the same assembly line with similar parts. Husqvarna’s FC450 received a new frame, engine, airbox, plastics and updates to the WP suspension. Husky also offers a bar-mounted switch that allows the rider to switch between two different EFI maps on the fly—one being standard and the other being an aggressive setting in stock trim, but both are fully programmable. With all these changes, the FC450 lost a considerable amount of weight and now is a very slim 228 pounds. That’s over 10 pounds lighter than the 2015 model.
The FC450 definitely has softer settings on the WP 4CS forks in the front and the WP shock than we experienced on the KTM, but it is balanced in its softness. Husky’s rider compartment is slightly wider at the tank seat junction and where the seat joins with the airbox, making it feel larger than it really is.
Although the Husky motor is identical to the KTM, it has a softer power delivery right off bottom and continues throughout the power curve. Test riders felt the softer power delivery made it easier to control and ride for a longer period of time. The Magura hydraulic clutch system has a very pleasant pull with a consistent action, allowing the rider to feel exactly when engagement is made. Suspension felt balanced overall, and, of course, the obvious Brembo brakes are the strongest in the class, electric start is magical, and the no tools needed to access and change the air filter is a nice touch.
Even though the Husky and KTM are built with a lot of the same parts, someone forgot to tell the FC450 it’s supposed to be just like its orange cousin. The Husky version was found by all test riders to be much more rider-friendly with its power and handling. The motor comes on smooth right off bottom and never really produces a hit; it just makes usable power throughout. The FC450 is noticeably softer suspension-wise than the KTM, but as we said before, most riders didn’t mind, because it felt balanced and still processed an ample amount of bottoming resistance without feeling harsh towards the bottom of the stroke. The new Magura hydraulic clutch, electric starter and great Brembo brakes are just a few of the other reasons test riders enjoyed throwing a leg over the FC450.
Diamond in the rough
The CRF450R is another bike that didn’t receive a lot of changes for 2016, but it did get some very targeted updates. Honda focused on handling with the addition of a 5mm-longer Kayaba PSF air fork, and in the rear the Kayaba shock gets a new spring rate, updated settings and an all-new linkage. The CRF450R returns with items you will only see on this machine, which includes the Unicam engine design, dual diamond-shape exhaust and the EFI-mode select button that allows the rider to change between three fully programmable maps on the fly via a handlebar-mounted button.
The CRF450R lacks the raw-power feel of all the other 450s, and in a class where horsepower almost always takes the prize, this is not a plus. Intermediate and pro-level riders experience nervous handling at higher speeds with a disconnected feel from the ground in the front end. Once the motor revs past its midrange power, the top end is flat. Honda is one of the holdouts that refuses to upgrade the standard-size handlebars. When starting the CRF450R, unless we kicked from top dead center all the way through, it was difficult to start.
The Unicam motor produces smooth, easy-to-control power off bottom with a good pull through the midrange. The 5mm-longer Kayaba forks and the new shock spring rate with the redesigned linkage improve overall handling. The mode select button allows riders to change between three different maps with a push of a button that just feels like factory.
With the Honda, it all boils down to how fast you are. Slower riders praise it for almost the same reasons faster riders put it down. The 2016 version is almost identical in every way to the 2015, but the 5mm-longer KYB fork and new rear shock linkage help the overall handling, although it’s not a huge difference. Power is the same, but that’s to be expected since Honda didn’t change anything. The CRF comes off the bottom strong, not making huge amounts of power, but it’s easy to use because it keeps that power through the midrange but goes flat on top, signing off early. Make sure you start at the top and kick all the way through when firing the CRF450R up. Can we get a handlebar upgrade?
HOW THEY STACK UP
As we said in the beginning, every bike in the 450 class can win races; they are all great machines. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and just like every rider has his likes and dislikes, no one motorcycle manufacturer is perfect for everyone. After months of testing, here is how the staff of Dirt Bike magazine ranks the 450 class of 2016.
1) The winner is Team Green! Kawasaki’s KX450F received huge changes, and the entire staff agrees it’s a better bike all around than the 2015 model. With the 7-pound weight loss and slimmer frame design, it handles better and is easier to maneuver in the air. The motor is easy to start, makes great power off bottom, pulls strong through the midrange without having a violent hit and still has good usable top-end revs. Adjustability is still key on the KX450F—being able to accommodate riders from 5-foot-5 and 140 pounds all the way up to 6-foot-4 and 200-plus pounds without making huge changes—and ranks high in our book. The handheld EFI calibration kit is also another bonus for 2016. The KX450F doesn’t do one thing amazing, but it does do everything well, making it top dog in the class. How about a handlebar upgrade for 2017, Team Green?
2) The Husqvarna FC450 makes a huge jump in the 450 shootout standings this year, all the way up to second place. With an all-new design for 2016, the FC450 lost huge amounts of weight (over 10 pounds), improving handling all around, while the new motor is an easy-to-ride powerplant producing smooth power throughout the power curve. Suspension is noticeably softer than its orange cousin, and test riders easily adapted to the balanced feel and felt the FC450 was more forgiving overall. The Magura hydraulic clutch system works well, the Brembo brakes are always strong, the new ODI lock-on grips being standard equipment is a bonus and the electric start is our favorite. Why can’t all the 450s have a magic button? We love that Husqvarna is alive and thriving again and can’t wait to see what’s next.
3) The Orange Brigade has third place sewed up. We know what you are thinking, and yes, you are correct—the Husqvarna FC450 and KTM 450SX-F are pretty close to the same bike, but they do have their differences. To be honest, how different they are even surprised us. The WP 4CS forks up front are soft going through the stroke faster than the shock, giving the bike a slight unbalanced feel, especially on the face of jumps and under hard braking. A couple clicks in on high-speed compression helps but is not a fix at all. KTM’s new motor has horsepower to spare, coming off the bottom better than the 2015 model and hits hard in the midrange, maybe even a little too hard for most riders, and just keeps making lots of power on top. Then there is all the other stuff we love, like ODI lock-on grips, Brembo brakes, electric start, a 10-pound weight loss and so on. KTM is keeping the other manufacturers on their toes, and we are all benefiting from the advancements .
4) “Big Bird” drops a couple spots from last year to finish fourth. Suzuki RM-Z450 made big changes in 2015 and it was all positive, but the 450 class is constantly changing, and the top three went big in 2016. Overall, the RM-Z was well-received by test riders; it corners better than any other 450, has one of the better launch control systems and has decent power everywhere, but it has some areas that need attention. At 238 pounds, it’s one of the heaviest bikes in the class, the clutch needs constant adjustment, and we hate to admit it, but we are ready for Suzuki to give the RM-Z a facelift.
5) The “Big Blue” wrecking crew comes in fifth position. Yamaha’s YZ450F motor produces tons of power right off idle and seems like it doesn’t stop until you let off the throttle. The Kayaba suspension components have the best action in the 450 class, but for some reason test riders commented that Yamaha’s YZ450F overall handling does not reflect how good the individual suspension components really work. The YZ450F gained straight-line stability, but this also makes the bike tougher for most riders to corner—and cornering was not a strong point of the 2015 model. Yamaha’s quick-release Dzus fasteners make air-filter maintenance a breeze, and the four different handlebar mounting options on the top triple clamp are great for a wide range of riders. It can be difficult to mesh with the YZ450F, unless you are willing to meet on its terms and ride how it wants to be ridden.
6) Sixth place belongs to “Big Red.” To the naked eye, Honda’s CRF450R looks relatively unchanged, and unless you really focused on what was changed, it was tough to notice on the track. The Honda is loved by beginners, novices and slower intermediate riders in stock trim due to its easy-to-handle power and predictable handling. Faster riders commented that the motor lacks power, and although the new longer forks helped at increased speeds, handling still felt a bit nervous, with the front end wandering around without ever really feeling planted. The 2016 model is the best handling of Honda’s current chassis design. Honda’s CRF450R clutch still lacks positive feel at the lever and has a slightly harder pull than all the other 450s. We love the mode select button; being able to change between the three maps just by pushing a button is great. The CRF450R is an aftermarket hop-up company’s dream, because with a little attention, this bike rips.