According to the cliche committee, “You never get a second chance at a first impression.” We disagree. The 2021 Honda CRF450R motocross bike was a victim of supercharged expectations. It looked to have everything perfect, but when it was finally revealed, it was virtually impossible to live up to the hype. Honda’s final testing period was cut short by COVID, and the bike arrived with flaws. The off-road version of the bike, on the other hand, benefited from all that. The CRF450RX arrived later, and the people at Honda were well aware of what went wrong the first time around. As it turns out, the RX is everything the R should have been.
THE RX FORMULA
Honda’s idea for the CRF450RX isn’t that different from the concept for the KTM 450XC-F, the Kawasaki KX450X and the other closed-course off-road bikes. It’s essentially the same motorcycle as the MX version but with a number of concessions that direct it to off-road racing. You probably know the list by heart by now.
Softer suspension: The RX has a 5.0 N/m spring in the rear and different valving. The MX bike has a 5.4. In front, the springs are 0.48 N/m as opposed to 0.50.
Mapping: The RX has three maps that can be selected through the use of a handlebar switch. None of them are the same as those of the MX bike, although number three is the most aggressive and closely mimics number one on the CRF450R. As a side note, our test bike had the latest mapping update from Honda. If you have an RX, you can get the update through any Honda dealer. The RX also has three levels of traction control, all of which are different from those of the MX bike. Like the MX bike, it also has three tiers of launch control.
Fuel capacity: The off-road bike carries 2.1 gallons in a plastic fuel tank. The MX bike has 1.7 in a titanium tank.
Wheels and tires: The RX has an 18-inch rear wheel in back. Both ends have Dunlop AT81 tires.
Goodies: You get new handguards, an O-ring chain and lower final gearing (50-tooth rear sprocket vs. 49). The gearbox itself is identical on the two models.
You don’t get a spark arrester, a quiet muffler or California green-sticker certification.
NEW TO YOU
Of course, virtually nothing is the same compared to last year’s CRF450RX. This is a major model change, and off-road guys get the new stuff in the same year as the motocross crowd. The biggest news in the motor department is the new head with the center-port exhaust. This leads to a single exhaust system. No more twice pipes. The intake was rethought with more volume between the filter and the throttle body along with re-angled injectors. The motor also gets a new clutch with a larger surface area and—at last—hydraulic actuation. There’s a Nissin master cylinder on the handlebar connected to a Nissin slave on the left side of the case.
The frame was redesigned with most of the dimensions altered slightly; the head angle is more relaxed, and the swingarm and wheelbase are shorter, although the distance between the swingarm pivot and the front axle is actually greater. All of the bodywork is changed and narrower, especially in the rear where there used to be two pipes. Honda owners will rejoice that graphics will be much easier to install on the flatter number plates.
At both ends, the suspension components are still Showa and are similar in design to last year’s RX. This year, Honda put much more distance between the R and the RX in terms of setup. Previously, the off-road settings and the motocross settings were more similar. Now, the off-road settings are softer still.
THE X FACTOR
As we often repeat, true off-road guys should know what they’re getting into when they ride a closed-course competition bike. The RX, like all others in this category, isn’t a soft and cuddly teddy bear on the trail. It’s a tiger. The Honda makes a ton of horsepower, and it isn’t especially gentle. If you take it to tight, technical trails and ride at low rpm, the motor is lurchy and prone to flaming out. It overheats quickly and has too much power for almost everyone. Now that the standard disclaimer is out of the way, we can talk about where the Honda really excels—everywhere else. If you give it a little wide-open space, the RX stretches its legs and delivers a concentrated, highly distilled yee-haw. When you put nearly 60 horsepower in an off-road bike, that’s what happens. Its preferred environments are GP tracks, motocross-style off-road courses, open desert and the occasional two-tracker. None of that should come as any surprise. This is how the RX has been since its introduction. The difference is that it’s more manageable than before. Where the power delivery used to be intimidatingly steep right in the middle, it’s all much more spread out and manageable now. It still makes as much power as ever on top—maybe more—but getting there isn’t quite as difficult.
The 2021 R-model quickly became notorious for having a hiccup that could choose the most inopportune moment to rear its ugly head, making an already abrupt power delivery even worse. That has been corrected on the latest update for the RX. Now, the power is smooth and linear once you get going. As we mentioned earlier, it can cough and die if you really drag it down in the Rs, but no more so than any other racing-oriented 450. The three maps aren’t much different in this respect. All have the same overall feel, but maps one and two have a milder hit in the middle than map three, which is the most aggressive and will probably be the choice for those who ride motocross. The Honda also has three levels of traction control, which is a little mysterious. Often, you can’t tell any difference between settings one, two and three. Other times, it seems to kick in dramatically. It’s not bad for rocks and gravel. For sandy hill climbs, on the other hand, it’s overbearing, as if you’re dragging the rear brake.
One big factor that makes the bike more manageable off-road and, in fact, everywhere, is the new clutch. This is a huge improvement. The previous generation clutch was a big handicap for Honda riders and has been since 2009. It had a hard pull, an inconsistent feel and would wear out quickly. New game. The hydraulic clutch has one of the lightest pulls in the 450 class, and it never fades, no matter how badly it’s abused.
We’re guessing there will be a number of motocross guys who purchase RXs simply because they give you more fuel capacity and because everyone likes to have a kickstand sometimes. The only issue they might have is soft suspension settings. Last year, the RX wasn’t far from the R in terms of setup. Now it’s softer, which means it’s great for light whoops and sweeping, third-gear runs through rocky, off-road trail trash. Once you transition to a track, the bike can be overwhelmed by big jumps and high speeds. If you remember, one of the criticisms we had of the 2021 motocross bike was that it was too soft, particularly in the rear. The RX’s rear shock spring is two steps softer. It’s always difficult for a manufacturer to guess where an off-road bike might spend most of its time. In the case of the RX, the motor cries out for a track, whereas the suspension is most suited for off-road.
Either way, the bike’s overall handling is superb. Hondas always turn well and handle light. In this case, it [is] pretty light. On our scale, it’s 238 pounds without fuel. That’s the same as last year’s motocross bike, despite having a kickstand, handguards and all those other things that usually add up to about 10 pounds. In this case, the RX is only 5 pounds heavier than the current R. It’s also super narrow and agile. The overall handling is just a little bit slower and calmer than it was. It’s still a Honda, love it or not. If you like the overall feel that the bike has had since its introduction in 2017, you’ll like this one. If you’ve never been on the Honda bandwagon, you still might like it. It’s more aggressive than a Yamaha or Kawasaki, but things happen just a little slower and with more warning. For GP racing out west, most riders will probably use a steering damper, which isn’t news at all; but, you can get by without one, which was a tall order before.
A NEW BAG O’ TRICKS
Not that long ago, Honda was stubborn about sticking with features that no one liked. The twice pipes and 7/8-inch handlebars come to mind. This bike is much more in tune with features that people want and need. The new handguards are excellent and much more durable than the majority of aftermarket ones. The chain is a high-quality O-ring with a riveted master link. The rims are D.I.D Dirt Stars. The filter can be accessed quickly and changed easily. There are no hidden lowballs to pick on. Overall, the 2021 CRF450RX has two advantages that its motocross sibling didn’t. First, the expectations were considerably lower. Then, it over-elivered in performance. That’s always a happy result.