Never mind that Honda hasn’t won an important championship since R.C. left the fold. Never mind that the CRF450R hasn’t changed that much in four years. Never mind that Suzuki has fuel injection, Kawasaki has James Stewart and Yamaha has a new National Championship. The Honda CRF450R will continue to be the most important dirt bike on the planet in 2008, just like it was in 2007, 2006 and on and on.
 Why is the CRF such a force in the dirt bike world? Two factors come into play. First, Honda is Honda. It has the dealers, the marketing and the name to sell a million grapefruits if it wanted. Two, the CRF450R is stinkin’ good. In an industry where no one agrees on anything, there’s an eerie consensus regarding the Honda 450. It’s virtually everyone’s favorite motorcycle. It’s not just motocrosser riders, either. Off-road guys like it for desert, enduros, hare scrambles and just play riding.  As far back as anyone here at DB remembers, there’s never been a phenomenon like the CRF450R.

 Chances are that even Honda doesn’t know the exact ingredients for the CRF magic. All the engineers can do each year is make conservative changes and hope to stay on top. Honda could have had fuel injection for 2008, but if it flopped the CRF spell could have been broken. Best to let Suzuki experiment. 
 The HPSD system is enough risk-taking for this year. That’s the new steering damper that mounts vertically behind the front number plate. Kevin Windham, Andrew Short and the rest of the Honda factory guys have been riding with it for some time. As we pointed out in last month’s preview, the Honda damper is brilliant in its simplicity. When the bike is going straight forward, the little shock absorber is fully compressed. Anytime the bars are turned away from center, the shock extends. By having more damping on the extension stroke than on compression, the bike can have kind of a self-centering tendency. Steering on the new bike will also be affected by a different triple clamp offset (22mm versus last year’s 24).
 Next on the list of safe changes was linking the gear position to the ignition. Now the Honda has three different ignition advance maps; one for first gear, another for second and another for third through fifth. We consider this sort of an off-road rider’s concession.  On a motocross track you hardly ever dip into first gear. If you do, it’s in the tightest turns where horsepower is less important than manageability. But first gear might be used for an extended period in an off-road situation where smooth, progressive power is more important than belching out 50 horsepower as quickly as possible. So it makes sense that the ignition mapping for the lower gears should be mellower. The motor also got  a higher rev limiter, a lighter counterbalancer, a tapered head pipe and a slippery molybdenum coating on the clutch basket.
 Suspension is almost always the object of year-to-year change for all the dirt bike makers. Honda couldn’t break tradition and to be honest, the 2007 CRF had competition in the suspension department. The fork was stiffened for 2008, with 0.47 kg/mm springs. The fork cartridge rods are a half millimeter larger, the pistons have a new shape and the valving is different. The shock also has new valving.

 So how much risk did Honda undertake with those few changes? Even riders who hate the very idea of steering dampers will be okay with this one. The HPSD system is super conservative. It isn’t even designed to do the same thing as aftermarket dampers like the Scott’s or the GPR. Those serve two purposes; to keep the bike stable at very high speeds and to keep the bike straight in rocks. Off-road riders have to have them; motocrosser riders, not so much. They usually complain that a bike with a damper feels heavy and does strange things in the air.
 The Honda damper does not make the bike feel heavy and or do strange things anywhere. It has such a slight effect on the feel of the bike that, at first, most riders wonder why Honda bothered. You can go from one extreme to another on the little damper’s adjustment knob and half the test riders can’t even tell a difference. It’s only when you take the damper off completely that the true effect of the device becomes clear. Suddenly, the bike likes dancing. The most noticeable situation is during arcing turns at slight lean angles. Without the damper, the front end reacts to little chop, making you hold on tighter and concentrate on keeping the bars still. The bike just tracks better with the damper.
 Now for the key question: did the change in the offset create the problem just so that the steering damper could solve it? We don’t think so. The reduction in offset results in an increase in trail. That doesn’t always result in a twitchier front end. It [can], but we’ve messed with 2mm changes in the Honda’s offset in the past and found it simply caused superficial changes in steering feedback. The new Honda feels more stable in turns but not any clumsier. It corners as well as it ever did, which is very good.
 More sensitive riders said there was a handling difference when the damper’s adjuster was turned all the way in. In sharp corners where the bars are turned the most, they reported a draggy feel. That went away with as little as four clicks from the stiffest position. Honda says there are 14 positions that actually have an effect on damping. After that, production tolerances might leave as many as five or six ineffective clicks. We left it around seven clicks out for lack of imagination. So will the HPSD hurt the aftermarket steering damper business? No. For off-road racing, there’s no reason not to put a Scott’s on the 2008 Honda [and] leave the HPSD in place.

 Off-road guys will probably find that the gear position sensor is a much bigger deal. Our 2007 Honda CRF450R had flame-out issues that we never solved. It was fine on a motocross track, but when we rode it in first gear for extended periods, we always lived in fear of the dreaded cough-and-die. We tried different leak jets, slow jets and fuel screw settings to no avail; we just figured that the carburetor, which was bigger for 2007, messed up the bike’s off-road rideability. Now we realize it had more to do with the ignition. With different ignition maps for first and second gear, flame-outs are almost eliminated.  The CRF is still a four-stroke, so you certainly can stall it if you try, but we’re back to a pre-2007 flame-out factor.
 On a real motocross track, CRF flame-outs have always been rare in this day  and age of four-stroke savvy riders. The new ignition makes very little difference there. But if you ride a 2007 and a 2008 Honda back to back, you’ll noticed that the older bike feels throbbier and raspier in the lower gears. There’s no real downside to the new set up.
 Those two changes are the only things that really set the new bike apart from the old one. The suspension changes are minimal. The front end doesn’t really feel stiffer, but oddly enough, the back end feels softer. In the past we have always stuck to a 100mm of sag in the rear end, but the new bike seemed more balanced with 90 to 95mm. At any rate, the Honda has excellent suspension. For riders of average ability who weigh between 160 and 190 pounds, we wouldn’t bother changing anything. It’s the extreme ends of the CRF market who need to re-spring and re-valve. Pro motocrossers need stiffer suspension to deal with big jumps and off-road guys need softer stuff to deal with rocks. But interestingly enough, both segments could get away with the stocker if they had to. Not many bikes are like that.

 The magic is still there. Outside the differences we’ve touched on, the 2008 CRF450R works just like a 2007 CRF. That means it’s the standard for the motocross world. All other bikes are measured in terms of how they compare to the Honda for good reason. The motor, for example, is almost perfect. It still makes as much horsepower as ever–only the Kawasaki and the KTM produced more last year and neither was as good on the track. Many riders would say all the 450s make more power than you need. We don’t buy that. Sure you might not need 50 horsepower to turn your fastest lap, but horsepower is fun. We like having lots even if it’s bad for us. What makes the Honda so amazing is that it gives us all that power and still is manageable for novices. The bike’s broad spread makes it easy to click it up a gear and motor around the track without yanking your arms out.
 In terms of civility the Honda is as good as, or better than, any four-stroke in the world. If you can start any four-stroke, you can start the Honda. Even when it gets really hot–and it can get hot if you’re hard on the clutch–the starting drill doesn’t change much. The hot start is only necessary if it doesn’t light on the first or second stab and when its cold, it rarely even needs choke. Other things we love about the Honda: Rebuilding it is cheaper than any other four-stroke because it only has one cam. The brakes are excellent, the clutch has a good feel, the seat is just the right density and the ergos are spot-on.
 The things we don’t love about the Honda haven’t changed in a while. We still don’t like changing the two oil compartments even though we like the idea from an engineering standpoint. We don’t like trying to wiggle out  the air filter element without dropping muck into the motor. We hate trying to rejet the bike, even though other four-strokes are worse.
 All those are things we have come to get used to in the four-stroke age. The Honda remains as good as ever–better, even. We’re still waiting for 2008 to play out, but we don’t think the age of the CRF is even close to ending.

* Great motor in every way
* Simple (for a four-stroke)
* Stable in turns
* Excellent suspension

* Small 7/8th bars
* Painful jet, oil and filter changes
* Costs more than most other 450s
* Loud

* Running weight, no fuel…228 lb.
* Suggested retail price…$7199 ($7399 in black)
* Distributor/manufacturer:
American Honda Motor Corp.,
(310) 783-2000


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