Big changes are in play for the 2017 season. The Husqvarna FC450 and the KTM 450SX-F each received a game-changing improvement on the heels of last year’s game-changing improvement. Then came the H bomb—Honda dropped its new CRF450R on us. It’s the most improved bike of the decade. Now it’s time to draw the big picture, figure out where the Honda fits in and how the changes in KTM and Husqvarna affect the grand pecking order.
We tested all six bikes at Glen Helen, Milestone and Cahuilla Creek. They were prepped by factory technicians and shod in new tires. For this shootout, we opted to use the originally equipped rubber rather than a unified spec tire. All six bikes had intermediate tires from Dunlop and Bridgestone. Here are the strong and weak points of each bike revealed after weeks of testing.
The missing piece of the puzzle
Honda was late to the party in 2017 for several reasons. The 450 was scheduled for a major redesign, but an earthquake devastated the factory during the final prototype phase of testing. So, the new Honda came into this shootout a virtual unknown; we had only a few days of individual testing on the bike before it lined up against the others. It’s an all-new bike, but the key points are that it has a new layout and draws air into the engine over the top shock mount, a Showa coil spring fork and an electric-starter option (although our bike was kick-start only). The Honda motor still uses a single overhead cam, but the design is more complicated, with both finger followers and rocker arms under the valve cover.
STRONG POINTS: The new Honda has all of the good handling traits of the older CRF450R without any of the bad ones. It still feels very light and agile, just like it did before, but with a much more secure, well-planted feel. The front end doesn’t wander coming into turns, and it lets you pick a line early and follow through without surprises. It was said that last year’s Honda felt light only because it was under-powered. That’s definitely not the case here. The new motor is very strong on the bottom and in the middle. Throttle response is excellent, and the bike comes off the gate particularly well. Honda’s “Ultimate Holeshot” ad campaign might sound a little hokey, but it has a foundation in reality. The suspension is plush at both ends, and the coil-spring fork is a big hit with virtually everyone. Honda lost enough weight in other areas that the switch to springs didn’t cost anything. The bike weighs 235 pounds without fuel. Also, the handlebar-mounted map switch is a useful tool for different track conditions. The three modes make a big difference.
WEAK POINTS: There are a few shortcomings on our wish list for the bike. The power is greatly improved, but still not in the same league as the Yamaha, KTM or Husky on top. It’s still more than enough for novice riders, but pros want more. Same goes for the suspension settings. The Honda is cushy and great at lower speeds, but the faster you go, the more it seems under-sprung. The clickers are very sensitive, so it’s easy to make stop-gap changes at the track. The clutch is better but not good enough. It has a vague feel and a slightly stiff pull. The handlebar is undersized, and the chain needs to be loose and sloppy or it will wear out the chain and sprocket prematurely
BOTTOM LINE: Honda did a fantastic job on the new bike. It’s better in every way. Still, expectations were high for this bike, and it’s hard to live up to vivid imaginations. It will need aftermarket attention for top-level riders in order to bring the power and suspension up to the pro needs. It’s still not the fastest, not the lightest and doesn’t have the best suspension.
Two legacies combine
For some people, the name Husqvarna means something. It’s the brand that brought motocross to America, and there’s legend, legacy and lifestyle that come in the package. From a purely objective standpoint, however, the similarities between the Husky FC450 and the KTM 450SX-F far outweigh the differences. The motors are identical, with electric start, a single overhead cam head, a hydraulic clutch and a new traction control mode. Both bikes got a new air fork, which is the most important news since the merger of the two brands. The Husky is separated by a different airbox, bodywork, handlebars, muffler, clutch master cylinder and a handful of other changes.
STRONG POINTS: The motor in the FC450 is incredible. It makes power everywhere. The delivery is excellent, with a smooth build-up and a high rev ceiling. It makes so much power on top that most riders don’t even go there; you have to be on top of your game to hold on. There are two maps available through the handlebar switch, and map 2 is said to be the most aggressive, although some novices like it because it makes the power peak come later. The same switch also can be used to activate traction control, but most riders didn’t find that useful on our test tracks. In bad conditions, it’s a legitimate option. The biggest improvement for this bike is the switch to the WP AER 48 air fork. It’s a great fork—not just great for an air fork. That was the single biggest sore point for the bike in the past. The bike is 225 pounds without fuel. That’s 10 pounds lighter than the new Honda! Not to pile on, but the Husky comes with electric start. Next on the list of strong points is the performance of the brakes. The Brembo front and rear brakes are extremely powerful and still easy to modulate. There were a few riders who liked the Husqvarna’s bodywork better than the KTM’s, saying it was easier to hold on with your knees. Some also said they liked the shape of the Husky’s Magura clutch lever better and that the exhaust note was quieter, although these are small differences in anyone’s book.
WEAK POINTS: The Husqvarna is the most expensive bike in the shootout, if only by a slim margin over the KTM. Most of the differences between the two bikes remain cosmetic, and the Husqvarna camp is still challenged to break away from KTM in true performance. The bike is excellent in most areas, but there are some points that could use attention. It runs hot in the summer, the rear suspension is merely good and we’ve seen occasional issues with wheel failure.
BOTTOM LINE: What an incredible motorcycle! It’s fast, light and has electric start. The suspension is finally on the level it needs to be. Husqvarna is only held back by its parent company. It seems most of the differences between it and the KTM are of a non-performance nature. Will KTM ever risk being upstaged by Husky?
The second act of a big show
Japanese R&D departments never stop working. When last year’s all-new KX450F was unveiled, the test riders and engineers were already working on the 2017 model. They don’t have the luxury of waiting to see if the new bike is a hit or a flop. Luckily, the Kawasaki was a very good bike, and the changes it needed were simple refinements. Some things probably didn’t make it on the bike in time for the 2016 release date. The 2017 KX mostly got suspension changes. The rear linkage was reconfigured and the shock was re-valved. The bike still has the Showa Triple Air fork, but it, too, was altered internally and the air valves were repositioned. The engine mapping was changed, and the bike got in-mold graphics so the stickers can’t peel off the shrouds.
STRONG POINTS: Kawasaki is doing its best to make the 450-class-friendly. The KX450F is a very easy bike to ride on every level. The power delivery is smooth, the motor is perfectly mapped and it never does anything surprising. Last year there was too much engine popping on deceleration. This year that’s all but gone. The bike also remains reasonably light. It’s 231 pounds without fuel, which makes it the lightest of the Japanese models. Beyond that, it’s an agile-feeling bike because the frame was made narrower through the midsection last year, and that gave it an overall feeling of being easy to toss around. The suspension is solid and doesn’t have any real shortcomings once you have the fork settings dialed in. We love the fact that the footpeg and handlebar locations can be altered to suit the rider. Kawasaki had the original launch control, and it still works well.
WEAK POINTS: In terms of outright power, the Kawasaki is at the bottom of the pile. Admittedly, this is a very over-powered bike and only a very high-level pro would call the KX450F slow, but it’s not able to match the KTM, Husky or Yamaha in sheer acceleration. Likewise, we can’t say that the fork under-performs on the track, but there’s a growing resistance to this particular air fork because of its complexity. There are three air chambers that all require different settings. Why? The WP has only one air chamber and works better. Kawasaki also sticks with its 7/8-inch handlebar as if it’s still 1989. The clutch wears quickly and the chain is very stretchy. The electronic couplers that Kawasaki provides to change maps make only subtle changes and are not as easy to use as the handlebar switches on most of the other bikes.
BOTTOM LINE: Everyone likes the Kawasaki, which is why it won our shootout last year. It’s a fun bike without glaring faults. But, the 450 class is in hyper-evolution right now. Three of the other bikes in this comparison saw dramatic change, while Kawasaki made only slight refinements, and that pause was enough for the KX to lose its edge.
Engineers set free
It seems that KTM gave its engineering department a blank check to do anything it wants. Last year’s 450SX-F came with an all-new motor that put the bike way out front in power. At the same time, the weight was reduced until it was the lightest in class. Throughout all this, it retained features like electric start and a hydraulic clutch—features that the Japanese makers just can’t seem to match. The cherry on top of it all came in 2017. KTM gave all its race bikes a completely new fork, addressing the most common complaint. The new WP AER 48 is the first of a new generation of products from WP that’s heavily influenced by KTM rather than the old guard of designers from the original Dutch company. Very few part numbers on the entire bike have been carried over for more than two years.
STRONG POINTS: KTM comes out on top in two vital stats: it’s the lightest bike and the most powerful bike. In both columns it’s only a hair better than the Husqvarna FC450, but significantly ahead of the Japanese bikes. The new fork is a win-win deal. It helped bring the weight down to 224 pounds without fuel and made for a dramatic improvement in suspension performance. If you’ve been paying attention to past tests, you know that we’ve been very slow to embrace air forks. They might be attractive for production costs and weight loss, but they’ve shown no advantage in performance. The new WP fork is the exception. It’s worlds ahead of the 4CS fork it replaces. With the front end sorted out, KTM’s other strong points take center stage. It’s an extremely powerful bike with more peak power and midrange than any of the others. On the bottom, too, it’s just as powerful as anything else, meaning it has no weak points or compromises anywhere along the way. That also means that the power delivery is even and progressive with no dips or spikes all the way up. In overall handling the bike is reasonably stable and acceptably agile. And then all the components are first-rate. The Brembo brakes are outstanding; the bars, levers, chain and sprockets are good; and don’t forget about the hydraulic clutch and electric start.
WEAK POINTS: Most of the things that riders complain about on the KTM are personal preference or tiny details. We would like to see a more decisive change in the ignition maps. The battery is cold-blooded and the engine runs hot in the summer. We don’t like the preload adjuster on the shock. Some things are hard to work on; we hate changing the pipe, for instance. Perhaps the biggest reason that people shy away from KTMs is the price. It’s $500 more than the Japanese bikes. But, the starter alone justifies that.
BOTTOM LINE: KTM seems to have an advantage at the factory level, identifying weak points and correcting them very quickly. As a result, the 450SX-F has steadily climbed the ladder of success by every measurement—from pro racing to local sales. In the past, KTM has won many off-road shootouts. It’s finally time for that success to expand into the MX world.
Suzuki has an interesting problem. The RM-Z450 is successful at the highest level of pro racing. It won the 450 national championship with devastating clarity in 2016. The bike remains a favorite among the best riders in the world, and the JGR team will be Suzuki-mounted in 2017. Yet, no one seems to connect that performance with the quality of the production Suzuki RM-Z450. How come? Is there a huge difference between the production bike and the works bike? Is it a failure of communication? Do people even know Roczen rode a Suzuki in 2016? It might be a little of all those things, but the fact remains that the Suzuki appears to have changed very little since 2008. In some of those years it was unchanged, but as recently as 2016 there were big updates. For 2017 the bike has only cosmetic alterations. It still has the Showa Triple Air fork, a DOHC motor and a very sophisticated dual-mode launch control system.
STRONG POINTS: The first point on the list of Suzuki’s strengths is a familiar song. It turns well. This has been the RM-Z’s trump card for a very long time. The reason that riders come back year after year with that verdict is because the bike combines three or four different strengths. It isn’t about frame geometry, suspension or power delivery alone. It’s a little bit of everything. The Suzuki allows a rider to coast around the turn with the throttle closed and the clutch in. Or, he can power his way through under full throttle. Other bikes like it one way or the other, whereas the Suzuki has the balance to appeal to everyone. That brings up the bike’s other strong points. The rear suspension is excellent, and the power is smooth and even. The RM-Z is one of very few bikes to come with Bridgestone tires (M404/403), and virtually all the riders praised the choice.
WEAK POINTS: We had more difficulty making the Suzuki’s fork work this year than we have in the past. The Showa Triple Air is unchanged, but always had a harsh feel no matter what adjustments were made. Perhaps that’s a reflection of a rising tide in the suspension world rather than any shortcoming of this particular fork. The power delivery is a little unnoteworthy. The Suzuki doesn’t have any strong zone that lets it stand out from the others. The bike uses an electronic coupler system similar to Kawasaki’s in order to tailor the power to different conditions. It would be nice to see real dramatic changes in the different settings rather than slight variations of the same thing. The clutch fades with heavy use, the bars are fixed in one position and the brakes are the weakest in the shootout. At 238 pounds without fuel, the RM-Z is no feather.
BOTTOM LINE: The Suzuki has dedicated fans in the Dirt Bike test rider corps. They come back faithfully, year after year, praising the bike’s ability to stick to the inside line. Even the motor has its followers. Half the bikes in this class, they say, make too much power. The Suzuki doesn’t wear you down, yet it’s still a legitimate 450 and can get up and go when it has to. All that adds up to a bike that might be the best choice for a novice or beginner.
Still strong years after the big tilt
Mass centralization was the battle cry when Yamaha gave the motocross world a different slant back in 2010, and the company has been refining the concept ever since then. That was when the top end of the YZ450F was tilted rearward and the head turned around to place the exhaust in the rear and the intake in front. All the heaviest parts of the motor were shifted towards the center to make the bike more manageable. Since then, the bike’s extremely unconventional layout has more or less become wallpaper in a class where big changes come frequently. There was a big redesign for the YZ back in 2014, but for 2017, the bike returns with a few somewhat invisible changes—things like different tires, a new countershaft oil seal, recessed Dzus fasteners and so forth.
STRONG POINTS: The Yamaha has horsepower oozing out of every pore. When you ride the bike, that fact hits you first and hits you hard. On the dyno, it still doesn’t outperform the KTM or Husky, but you would never know that from the instrumentation in your throttle hand. The power down low is merely average, but in the upper reaches of the rpm scale the Yamaha really takes off. When the other bikes have peaked and start tapering off, the Yamaha keeps going and going. Another area where the Yamaha stands out is in suspension. The KYB SSS coil-spring fork has become the official king of motocross suspension. It’s the one that all the air forks use as a benchmark to emulate. The rear suspension might also be the best in the bunch. Yamaha has a reputation for having the most reliable motor in the class, and we’ve even noticed that the air filter takes longer to get dirty.
WEAK POINTS: All that power can be intimidating to some. When you hear people say that modern 450s are too powerful, the YZ450F is the one they are thinking of. That’s because the motor doesn’t really stand out until you get in the upper half of the powerband. The aggressive power combines with an overall feel that’s big and bulky to make the bike demanding to ride. The YZ is no feather at 238 pounds. Despite all that talk of mass centralization, the bike feels heavy and wide. Some riders also complain that the front wheel doesn’t feel planted. It usually finds traction once you open the throttle, but that takes faith.
BOTTOM LINE: Some aspects of the Yamaha are very pro-oriented. The power and suspension are what champions are made of. For the average man, though, the YZ is a bear. It’s a motorcycle that demands that you try harder and doesn’t tolerate weakness.