In the 450 class, there are at least four makers who have arrived at nearly the same formula for an off-road 450. Honda, Husqvarna, KTM and Yamaha all have bikes that are based on their respective motocross bikes but with certain concessions to give them broader appeal. None of them is technically an off-road bike in the eyes of the government. None meet the emission or noise requirements that such a designation demands. Those rules have become so oppressive that the benefit of being able to ride on certain public lands has been sacrificed at the altar of performance. For those areas all four manufacturers offer another model, whether it’s a dual-sport bike or a dedicated off-road bike. These four are full-blooded racers at heart. We gathered them to see how well they perform at that task, and then set out to discover what else they can and can’t do. After the bikes were tested on tracks with a heavy motocross influence, everything was reset to zero, and the bikes were tested as trail bikes. What follows is a short review of each bike. For those who want to skip directly to the off-road 450 shootout conclusion, click here.
An electric-start twin to the most anticipated MX bike of the year
Honda shook up the MX world with the release of the 2017 CRF450RX. One of the reasons it took so long was because the ground quite literally shook last April at the factory when an earthquake postponed production. Another reason: Honda was developing two new bikes at the same time. The off-road version would come with electric start and have serious concessions for going beyond the motocross track. The CRF450RX (“X” being the universal denotation for cross-country) got a plastic fuel tank measuring 2.23 gallons, an 18-inch rear wheel, softer spring and damping rates in the Showa fork and shock, a softer power delivery, a kickstand, a skid plate, and, of course, electric start with a kick-starter back-up. It did not get handguards or different gear ratios, although the rear sprocket is one tooth larger.
ON THE TRACK
The kind of off-road racing found out west makes demands similar to those of MX. WORCS and Big 6 courses typically have motocross elements mixed with off-road sections. The Honda RX is an excellent motocross bike, and that translates well to these types of western GPs. The power is very, very responsive. There are three EFI maps available at the push of a button. The aggressive map (number three) is similar to the standard map on the MX bike. That makes the delivery very sharp. The mild map (number two) is dramatically smoother, and standard (number one) is somewhere between. For fast sections, one or three is best, while two is meant for slow, first-gear sections. Switching from one map to another while you ride is possible but not practical. The Honda’s strongest point is steering. It feels agile and easy to toss around. The fuel tank is large across the top, but that’s more of a visual distraction than anything else. The bike only feels heavy on steep hills or when you’re braking in a hurry. At 246 pounds without fuel, it’s pretty porky compared to the KTM and Husky. Another strong point is the coil-spring fork. It might be a little soft for full-fledged motocross, but it’s about perfect for the cross-platform racing that this bike is truly made for.
ON THE TRAIL
When you ride the Honda on tight trails, you shouldn’t bother with anything but the mild EFI map. It tames the hyper-responsive motor significantly and make it less likely to stall. Even so, the Honda is a difficult bike to handle in slow sections. It has a lot of power and a hair trigger. Making it more difficult is the clutch, which doesn’t have the greatest pull or a very consistent engagement. Remember all those rumors that the new Honda was going to have a hydraulic clutch? If only. Also on the wish list is a lower first gear, which would offer more security in really tight stuff. Once you have enough space to open up and use second or third, the Honda’s character changes for the better. The suspension, in particular, is pretty darn good. The front end is every bit as good as the Yamaha’s, which has been the gold standard in off-road suspension.
Overall, the Honda is more at home on the track than on the trail, despite being the only bike to have a map switch that really does something useful. The dramatic change in power delivery between maps is an essential feature, but the vague clutch, the tight gear ratios and the overall weight are more of a handicap on the trail than on a racecourse.
Carrying a big legacy
It’s sometimes interesting how you can start with the same ingredients and produce such different results. The Husky FX450 is about 85 percent the same bike as the KTM 450XC-F, but there are real differences in the way they work. The FX line is new to Husqvarna. Like all the other bikes in this test, it’s a motocross bike with softer suspension, an 18-inch rear wheel and a kickstand. Because it has the WP AER 48 air fork, most of the change in suspension is simply a reduction in recommended pressure. The FX is to be set at 10.0 bar (145 psi), whereas the FC450 is 10.8 (156 psi). The valving is said to be lighter on the FX, although the clicker settings are the same. The rear shock spring is 4.5 N/m on both the FX and FC, but, again, the valving is lighter on the FX. The Husky goes a little further into the off-road world with its larger tank (2.3 gallons versus 1.8) and handguards. This year the left side of the bar has a map switch and traction control.
ON THE TRACK
When we compared the 450 motocross bikes, the Husky was at a slight disadvantage compared to its orange brother because it had a milder power delivery. This is actually an advantage here. The bike has plenty of power for the more wide-open sections. Only a pro MX rider would have the nerve to say he could use more—and he would probably be lying. When you drop the revs for slower, more technical sections, the power is smooth and well behaved. It has a map switch, too, but we wouldn’t really say that either setting is better or worse. They’re just a little different. Map two has a later hit. Traction control is only advantageous on super-dry, hard-pack surfaces. Even there, most riders preferred to create their own traction control with their right wrists. As far as the suspension goes, the FX feels very similar to the MX version, although that’s probably because we liked lower pressure better on both bikes. We went down to 140 psi in the fork for most of our testing.
ON THE TRAIL
Much to our surprise, the Husky has the best power delivery of all four bikes. Down low it’s easy to meter out just the right amount of output regardless of map position or traction-control setting. The Husky doesn’t feel like it’s on the brink of stalling unless you’re going really, really slow. And, even then, the hydraulic clutch is light and consistent, so you can stretch that tall first gear down to walking speed without too much risk. The Husky is amazingly light at 227 pounds without fuel, but it’s still a lot of bike for small trails and doesn’t like going too slow for too long. It will eventually overheat—unless you get it in the open and stretch its legs. We like the fact that it has handguards. It doesn’t have a skid plate or a kick-start lever.
When we wrote about the Husky FX450 back in November, it was in a stand-alone test where we wondered if trail riders might misunderstand this bike completely. It’s still a motocross bike at heart, and real trail riders generally don’t need a bike this aggressive. But, the same can be said of all these bikes, and the Husky is probably the easiest to manage. It’s interesting to note that of all the KTM and Husky factory riders in the GNCC series, only Josh Strang has elected to ride a full-size 450—this 450. Yes, he’s a bear, but he’s smarter than the average bear.
The bike that started it all
This whole class was inspired by the KTM 450XC-F over 10 years ago. Back in 2006, KTM saw the future and realized that trail bikes were going to be restricted and regulated, and there was room for a closed-course competition off-road bike. Now, others have followed the XC formula, and riders more or less know what to expect. The XC is fundamentally a motocross bike with an 18-inch rear wheel, a larger tank, a kickstand and handguards, just like the Husqvarna FX450, which comes out of the same factory. The KTM differs from the Husky in a number of ways. The KTM’s muffler is louder and less restrictive. It has a more traditional airbox, which is separate from the subframe. The handlebar is different, and the clutch master cylinder is a Magura. All of the bodywork is different, and there are further differences in spokes, rims and, we’re sure, items that we haven’t even noticed yet.
ON THE TRACK
KTM won our 450 MX shootout with good reason. It was the fastest, the lightest and the most improved bike of the year. Almost all of the improvements were a result of the switch to the WP Aer 48 air fork. It transformed the bike from a beast into a sweetheart. In this test, the fork is an even bigger advantage because it can go from off-road mode into full-Supercross mode with a change in air pressure. The Honda and Yamaha forks, as versatile and well liked as they are, can’t do it all. There are still riders who hate the added maintenance of air forks (many on staff here), but the fact remains that the KTM and Husky have an advantage in full-tilt motocross sections, assuming the fork is set up properly. The KTM is also the fastest of these four, although only holding a slight edge over the Husky. The XC is tied for the lightest (227 pounds without fuel), and it has the same outstanding brakes as the FX450. As a racer, the 450XC-F is every bit as good as the motocross version of the bike, which, as we previously stated, is the best in the world.
ON THE TRAIL
If the KTM has a slight advantage over the Husky in peak power, it gives all that away in power delivery. The KTM is a little harsher and a little harder to regulate at low rpm, but it’s still remarkably good considering that we’re dealing with over 50 horsepower. It’s just interesting that two bikes that are so similar mechanically can be so different when it comes to low-speed manners. Oddly enough, the KTM seems to vibrate less, although there’s no mechanical reason for this that we can figure out. Compared to the other two bikes, the KTM is a little more manageable on the trail. The Honda is easier to stall, and the Yamaha hits harder. The KTM also has an advantage in weight, brakes and clutch action over the two Japanese bikes. There’s no getting around the fact that the two Euro bikes are about 20 pounds lighter apiece. Like the Husky, the KTM will boil over if you spend too much time in the tight stuff.
Even though the KTM and Husky have different power characteristics, they’re still more alike than they are different. Both are great motocross bikes that work well on the trail. It seems that smooth power, light weight, good brakes and a good clutch are assets no matter where you ride.
True off-road credentials
Of these four makers, Yamaha put the most effort into making a legitimate off-road bike. The YZ450FX has a long list of part numbers to prove it’s not the same bike as the YZ450F motocross bike. Most of those are in the gearbox. It has a true wide-ratio transmission with a granny first gear. Like all the others, it has softer suspension than the MX bike, an 18-inch rear wheel and a kickstand. Like the Honda, it got an electric starter to complete the transformation. For 2017 Yamaha removed the kick-start lever to save a little weight. It doesn’t have handguards, but it does have a skid plate. The only item that the Yamaha lacks, compared to the others, is a larger fuel tank. It has the same tank as the MX bike, but at least it’s a large MX tank that holds 2 gallons. As on the MX bike, the tank is located under the seat and the airbox is up top. It also has Yamaha’s signature rearward-tilted top end with the exhaust in the rear.
ON THE TRACK
The Yamaha has the hardest-hitting powerband, and most riders felt it made the most power. This might not show on the dyno charts, but the fact remains that the YZ450FX is a very powerful machine. If you have a wide-open track with steep, soft hills, it’s difficult not to smile. The bike will go as fast and as hard as you ask it to. The bike’s designers didn’t give it a map switch, but Yamaha does offer the handheld GYTR Power Tuner, which allows you to tailor the power output as you please. The standard map is milder than that of the MX bike but still very aggressive. The off-road gearbox doesn’t help much on the MX sections of a GP course. In fact, you have to be careful not to click it into first by accident—that’s like throwing out a parachute! Suspension-wise, the Yamaha has long been outstanding. The KYB fork and shock are a little softer than those of the YZ450F and work well for just about everyone. Pros might complain that the bike is too soft for big jumps and high speeds, and that’s where you pay the price for having coil-spring forks. You can’t just add a few pounds of pressure. Still, most riders say the Yamaha fork is their favorite of this group, even if they might have to modify it for a specific application.
ON THE TRAIL
The YZ450FX’s gearbox generated much heated debate among DB test riders. The bottom line is that if you’re trying to maintain a good pace, you don’t use first gear very often, even on tight trails. It’s more of a just-in-case feature. Second gear, which is a little taller than first on the others, is where you’ll spend most of your time. If you’re a desert racer, the gearbox can be a big advantage. You can re-gear the bike for 90 mph and still handle tight, slow trails with ease. And, if you’re a casual trail rider, you’ll use first frequently and never worry about stalling. The problem is that the aggressive power delivery is even harder to deal with in such a low gear. The Yamaha’s clutch is excellent, and even when you abuse it, the bike rarely overheats. The real issue with the Yamaha on the trail is the weight. It’s the heaviest at 251 pounds without fuel, and doesn’t disguise that fact well. It’s a big, heavy, fast bike, and that doesn’t usually mix well with technical trails.
Yamaha doesn’t have to make the YZ450FX into a fluffy trail bike, because the company offers the WR450F. That’s the same motorcycle but with official off-road certification and a much milder personality. Offering the WR leaves Yamaha free to make the YZ450FX a bit of a fire-breather. The best part about the FX is that Yamaha did the hard work. Anyone can tune a motor, re-valve suspension or bolt on an aftermarket fuel tank, but only a manufacturer can design a wide-ratio gearbox.
For the conclusion to the 2017 off-road 450 shootout, click here.
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