FIRST PLACE: KAWASAKI KX450F
The king returns
The 450 Motocross Shootout is arguably the biggest and most intense head-to-head test of the year. For the third year in a row, Kawasaki takes the win—although this year the war was fierce due to improvements to the Honda’s fork and engine, KTM’s focused updates to their 450 engine, and Yamaha’s brand-new machine.
The Good: It’s the best-starting kicker in the shootout. The ergonomics of the machine are very adjustable (via the triple clamp and footpegs) and favor bigger riders. The bike is fast, though they toned it down just a bit this year with new mapping in the fuel injection that gives the bike instant response right off idle without making it jumpy. It pulls hard through the midrange and top end. Overall, the powerband is broad, very strong, not too heavy on the deceleration, and smartly injected so that flameouts are a rarity. Handling is complemented by the generous layout. Cornering is smooth and planted, and stability is in the upper ranks. The air fork is tied for the plushest in the shootout.
The Bad: The KX got demerits from all testers for the grips, obnoxious sound level, mediocre chain, chainguide and chain slap. Smaller pilots had trouble dealing with the machine’s size and weight. This bike is in a tug of war with the RM-Z for the title of Heftiest in Class. While we’ve come to rely on the KYB air fork’s smooth ride, setting the air pressure is still a hassle. It’s tough to get at the Schrader valves. The clutch pull wasn’t as silky as last year, and in this day and age, why no fat bar?
The Bottom Line: Kawasaki’s KX450F is the overall winner because the package is sound, the power is beautiful, and the handling is focused yet versatile. The big pluses are ease of starting and the green machine’s zest for conquering every track with a smile via its very strong suspension and the ability to scarf on everything from whoops to hack and fifth-gear-wide jumps.
SECOND PLACE: KTM 450SX-F
The fast and the furious
There are only two electric-start machines in the shootout, and both are KTMs. There are also only two machines with steel frames—again, the Austrian mark. KTM, a manufacturer that for years fought the “feels Euro” stamp of non-approval from the media, has turned into a barnstormer with a powerhouse vehicle that is cutting edge and has become a perennial contender in the 450 wars.
The Good: The button! Instant and effortless starting is a priority on a 450. The power! Untapped yank from bottom to top means you never have to search for more. The brakes! The adjustability! The quality components, such as the driveline and cockpit. In the motor department, KTM made many changes, including mapping, a 40mm-shorter muffler with a larger outlet at the muffler end, new final gearing, a lighter cam and a reinforced clutch. It is the hands-down boss in the power wars. It has a great clutch with consistent feel thanks to the hydraulic system, the strongest brakes in the class, and dialable suspension. You can see why this machine always rates first-in-class in versatility.
The Bad: The fork is easy to adjust with the compression clicker on top but is harsh during the initial stroke. The majority of testers noticed a lot of vibration and felt the shock was too linear, making it vague. Cornering was average at best. Lastly, it’s no featherweight and could stand to shed a few pounds.
The Bottom Line: The KTM 450SX-F is a better machine this year but lacks the handling savviness of the KX-F and the feel of the KX-F’s, CRF’s and YZ-F’s suspension. It kills in the power world, though, so if you had to choose one machine to handle every facet of your motocross/GP and play-riding habits, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than the KTM.
THIRD PLACE: HONDA CRF450R
The quiet storm
At first we had mixed feelings about the new CRF450R, as the machine appeared unchanged. Still, the lightest machine in the shootout last year rated very high with our most skilled testers. For 2014, Honda made very focused changes in the fuel-management system (it’s now a dual-squirt design) and the front air fork, which now has a larger cartridge for enhanced midrange damping.
The Good: Honda flat killed the class with the lightest machine at 232 pounds, which is a full 7 pounds less than number two, the YZ450F. In the handling department, the combination of a feathery feel and superb cornering are major pluses. The KYB air fork is much better! Last year it tended to dive too much; this year it stays up better in the stroke, is just as cushy and absorbs hack superbly. This bike is quiet! Kudos to Honda for actually making a difference here, and the good news this year is that the power is up. Last year’s flameouts have vanished courtesy of the dual-squirt fuel injection.
The Bad: The clutch action still stinks, with excessive pull and lack of engagement, and getting at the air forks’ Schrader valves is still a grim task. The front brake is weak (actually the softest in the shootout), and the ergonomics are poor with no adjustability at the triple clamp and a small bar. Long-legged pilots griped about getting caught on the shrouds.
The Bottom Line: Again, Honda won over the more skilled racers who loved it for its light weight, flickability, strong fork manners, easy starting and competitive potential. They feel the power characteristics make this the best MX racer of the bunch. It’s not the fastest, but it is the most rideable!
FOURTH PLACE: YAMAHA YZ450F
This machine was on the receiving end of a complete remake for 2014. Yamaha stuck with the rearward-canted engine, but completely reworked the exhaust, fuel injection, airbox, fuel cell and performance traits of the engine. The ergonomics were sculpted and the KYB suspension honed and refined. Yamaha has really pushed the whole mass-centralization theme in its search for quality, lightweight handling.
The Good: This is a hugely improved machine. Last year, our test riders rated it a solid last. This year, it garnered a strong fourth and nearly made it into the top three. It’s the second lightest at 238 pounds, starts with zero effort, and has an easy clutch pull with good engagement qualities. While the engine lacks the meaty boost of the KX-F and KTM, it’s broad, strong and quiet. Still, it’s the handling and suspension that snagged the best marks. Both suspension ends are excellent, whether in G-outs, hack or fourth-gear jump faces. Cornering is a strong suit, and the ergonomics are adjustable at the clamps. The machine feels light and maneuverable.
The Bad: Although it’s been slimmed down, it still has a top-heavy, wide feel to it. It remains a sweet-spot handler, meaning that if you find the magic zone, the bike sticks and corners. If you get too far forward, however, it dives and whinnies. It tends to run through the power quickly, and the gearbox ratios seem tight from second through fourth, forcing a lot of shifting.
The Bottom Line: The YZ450F has gone back up the food chain with dramatically improved handling manners, the best suspension combo in the shootout, and average cornering traits. It’s not as loud through the airbox, the power is less lurchy and more useable, and there is no doubt that it tops the reliability and durability charts.
FIFTH PLACE: KTM 350SX-F
Less is more, more or less
KTM’s 350 motocrosser is either the brunt of blog controversy or, more important, in the rider’s hands, a weapon, both more rideable and fun than the 450s. The chassis and suspension are shared components. The WP suspension is valved and sprung for the 4-pound-lighter (than the 450) machine. But, the real truth of the matter is that KTM’s 350 line is their biggest-selling engine size, and remember, KTM is a major player.
The Good: The 350 is light, flickable and mid-to-top fast. For some reason, the machine feels 10 pounds lighter than the 450, and because it puts out enough roll-on that flows into a meaty midrange, you can use the lug and chug to navigate corners. Still, the machine puts out nearly the same peak numbers as the 450, and if you can mash it and keep it in the mid to top, the 350 hauls the mail. Suspension still feels abrupt, though the weight and softer power hit enhance the handling package. The hydraulic clutch is superb, and the brakes are nasty strong. If you’re a 250F guy or someone who struggles with arm pump and is thinking about a 450, the 350 is the cat’s meow.
The Bad: In a direct comparison, the softer bottom power of the 350 bothered hard-core 450 racers. They felt that the trade-off on the start wasn’t worth it. Like the 450, the 350 WP fork is harsh, dropping into a wall of damping in initial travel. While the five-speed is dead on for moto, it does stifle the versatile appeal of the machine.
The Bottom Line: While the majority of our testers had nothing but praise for the 350, the actual number who rated it high was small. None were willing to give away the start factor and corner-to-corner appeal of a 450. But our older pilots—the vets, guys who know that they’re going to wear out under the hammering of a ballistic 450—craved the 350’s muscle and ease of riding.
SIXTH PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z450
Hold the line
Suzuki’s RM-Z450, a machine renowned for its cornering alacrity and a motor that seethes with raceable traction, underwent little in the way of changes or updates for 2014. Suzuki modified the mapping to help with starting ease and changed the graphics. All other facets of the machine are the same, like the Showa SFF (Single Function Fork), the engine (a tried-and-true design) and the chassis, which is stiffer than the 2012 model through the swingarm, frame and pivot points.
The Good: The Suzuki is still the best-cornering machine in the shootout by far! It’s a big-boy machine, and it takes an athlete to throw it around, but it sticks hard in the turns and churns out power that is throbby, full of meat and tractable. Power, or lack of it, is not an issue. The clutch pull and feel are among the best. The brakes are strong. The chain is an O-ringer, and the bars are Renthal Fatbars. There are available mapping modules to alter the powerband from stock, to a hard hit or a slick module that tones everything down. Finally, the Bridgestone tires are excellent.
The Bad: Across the board, every tester rated the SFF fork last. It’s harsh, it’s hacky, and it needs a revalve. It’s interesting that the valving out of an RM-Z250 works wonderfully! Starting is better, but it’s still the toughest machine in the shootout to kick over. Power-wise, there were no gripes, but testers noted the heavy deceleration and vibration.
The Bottom Line: Our staff and testers were split. Some were willing to put up with the old feel of the motor, get the suspension revalved, and live with the starting issues. Even the slowest pilot said that the cornering traits were worth the price of admission. The younger racers didn’t feel the same way, stating that the tonnage, harsh fork and big feel had them yearning for a different color