The debut of the 2021 Honda CRF450R should have been a brilliant moment for Honda to bask in the glory of all the engineering know-how and investment that went into the development of a brand-new bike, but that’s not what happened. Final testing was cut short, and the CRF450R arrived unfinished. The important pieces were all in place: the new, lighter chassis;, the hydraulic clutch; the new programming for the traction control; and so on. But, the finishing touches in EFI mapping and suspension settings were missing. Now, the 2022 CRF450R has arrived, and Honda has a second chance to make a first impression.
THE BIKE THE HONDA MEANT TO BUILD
The two most important years in the recent Honda CRF450R timeline were 2017 and 2021. The 2017 model was a radical departure and a huge leap forward, but even it showed signs of stuck-in-the-past thinking. Initially, it showed up without electric start. And, for reasons we still don’t understand, Honda kept its twin mufflers, adding weight without any real benefit. It still had a weak, cable-actuated clutch, which was the single-most common complaint going back almost a decade. It even had a 7/8-inch handlebar, just like a 1968 Honda step-through 50.
Some of those issues were corrected in ensuing years, but 2021 should have been the next big leap forward. Honda gave the bike an entirely new chassis and a mostly new motor. Number one on the hit list was weight. The bike lost 6 pounds to become the lightest of the Japanese 450s. Most of that came from the elimination of the redundant muffler, but that was only the beginning. A centrally located exhaust port is a clue that the bike had a brand-new head. The engine still used a single-overhead cam that operated both finger-followers and rocker arms in a unique configuration that Honda calls the Unicam design. The fuel pump was smaller, and the decompressor was redesigned. Honda also redesigned the airbox with a downward-facing element that could be accessed from the side. To make more room, the battery was relocated outside the airbox. The one change that virtually all Honda fans have been wanting for years was a redesigned clutch, which got a Nissin hydraulic master and slave cylinder. It all was topped off with new bodywork and a new look.
- Engine type Electric-start, four-valve, OHC four-stroke
- Displacement 449cc
- Bore & stroke 96.0mm x 62.1mm
- Fuel delivery 46mm Keihin EFI
- Fuel tank capacity 1.7 gal.
- Transmission 5-speed
- Lighting coil No
- Spark arrestor No
- EPA legal No
- Weight, no fuel 233 lb.
- Wheelbase 58.3”
- Ground clearance 13.2”
- Seat height 38.0”
- Front tire 100/80-21 Dunlop MX33F
- Rear tire 120/80-19 Dunlop MX33
- Front suspension Showa inverted, adj. rebound, comp, 12.2” travel
- Rear suspension Showa, piggyback, adj. preload, comp, rebound, 12.4” travel
- Country of origin Japan
- Price $9699
- Importer powersports.honda.com
THE YEAR THAT FOLLOWED
Honda’s 2021 debut was followed by a mix of fortunes. In the hands of the HRC race team, Ken Roczen had a spectacular year, winning more Supercross and outdoor races than anyone else in the 450 class. Tim Gajser won the MXGP world title and came out of the blocks hard in 2021. Reviews of the production bike, however, were all over the map. Riders loved the power, the cornering and the clutch. They didn’t love the suspension and the mapping. Those simple shortcomings were enough to send the 2021 CRF450R to the bottom of most shootout pecking orders. Subsequently, Honda provided customers with updated mapping.
The 2022 model arrives with both of those issues addressed. The mid-year mapping update is now standard, and there have been suspension valving updates at both ends. The rest of the bike is pretty much the same. That means, for one thing, that it’s incredibly powerful. Once again, the Honda feels like it’s the fastest bike in the 450 class. Last year the Honda measured a peak output of just over 57 horsepower, which was the same as the KTM, Husqvarna and Yamaha. What makes the Honda feel like more of a brute is the fact that it gains 5 horsepower rapidly between 7500 and 8000 rpm, which is prime real estate on the track. Racers find themselves in that zone often, and most learn to love the hard hit. Last year the mapping issues resulted in an intermittent hiccup right before that big surge. That caused many riders to distrust the bike. You never knew if you were going to be catapulted forward or stopped in your tracks. This year that issue is gone. The new mapping is smooth and glitch-fee, so it always launches you forward like a missile.
Do you always want the missile treatment? No, of course not. If traction is good and you’re on top of your game, everything is great. Other times, you need a mellower transition, which is why Honda offers several ways to modulate the power output. There’s a handlebar-mounted switch that offers three maps: standard, mild and wild. On top of that, there are three levels of traction control. And, for the start, there are three levels of launch assist. Last year all three of the maps had issues. Now, all three are usable. Interestingly enough, most riders prefer map one without traction control. All agreed that the bike had almost too much power and too much hit, but they didn’t want it to be mellower. Horsepower, as we all know, is fun.
With a more predictable power delivery that you can actually trust, the Honda turns incredibly well without feeling twitchy or nervous. In a tight turn, the CRF450R can cut to the inside better than anything on two wheels. The one qualifier here is that you have to get the suspension dialed in to your personal tastes before you get to experience that. It’s still a difficult bike to set up. The changes for 2022 are almost invisible. If you ride the ’21 version and the new one back-to-back, you can see what Honda’s test riders were thinking, but they didn’t go far enough. Once again, the bike comes with a 54 N/m spring in the rear, which makes for a plush ride for novices and beginners as long as the track isn’t too rough. More advanced riders don’t necessarily report hard bottoming, but they do find that the rear end blows through the early stages of travel before getting to the big bumps. Then the travel isn’t so plush anymore. Just like last year, we preferred the optional 56 N/m spring, but then started feeling that the front was riding too low. Dropping the fork legs in the clamps to nearly flush and increasing compression damping leveled out the bike.
Within a few testing sessions, we changed direction completely. Instead of trying to find the universal setup, we turned the bike over to Justin Jones for the final two rounds of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series at Fox Raceway and Prairie City. Justin is a 175-pound pro, so naturally he went stiffer. The rear was boosted to 59 N/m, and the fork springs were upped to 0.54 N/m. AHM Professional Services re-valved it specifically for Justin. When it was all over, everyone who rode the bike—experts and amateurs alike—preferred Justin’s setup over stock.
THE FOREST AND THE TREES
Suspension preferences are just that—highly subjective and individualized. Honda engineers still haven’t found the universal setting that pleases everyone, but they did get all the big stuff right. The Honda is still the most comfortable motocross bike on the market. It’s spread out and makes riders of all sizes feel at home. The seat is just soft enough. The clutch has a super-easy pull, and the shifting is flawless. Is it a complete package? Not yet. But, if and when Honda puts it all together at once, there won’t be another 450 motocross bike that’s even close.