RATING THE 2021 450 MX BIKES SO FAR: THE WRAP

The 2021 450 MX shootout is underway–sort of. We have already tested the Honda CR450R, the Husqvarna FC450, the Kawasaki KX450, the KTM 450SX-F and the Yamaha YZ450F. Unfortunately, we will have to wait for a full house. The Suzuki RM-Z450 and the GasGasMC450 have yet to arrive. It will be the biggest shootout that I’ve been involved with in a very long time–although I vaguely remember doing an eight-bike comparison in 1983. Or maybe that was my father.  But just in case you need a quick summery of the bikes tested so far, here’s the short form:

HONDA CRF450R

2021 Honda CRF450R

We’ve been a little obsessed with this bike since it was announced. The twice pipes are gone, it has a new chassis with new bodywork and–we never thought it would happen–a hydraulic clutch.  The head now uses a centrally located exhaust port leading to a single muffler.  The frame is new and Honda says it’s lighter by over 2 pounds.  We put our test bike on the scale already and found it weighs 333 pounds without fuel. That makes it the lightest of the Japanese 450s.

2021 Honda CRF450R

On the track, the Honda is crazy fast.  We will be stunned if it’s not the most powerful of all the 2021 450s. Things start getting exciting pretty early, and after that, it keeps on revving and revving. It can be intimidating. Map two is supposed to be the beginner-friendly option, but oddly enough, it isn’t much help. It kills the low-end torque and creates a hole that’s hard to climb out of. On top of that, a low-end hiccup that’s barely noticeable in map one becomes more pronounced. In map three, the hiccup is still there, but the motor is so much more responsive down low that you get past it quickly. In general, most riders still prefer map one. You learn to work around the hiccup. The new clutch is much, much better. Not only is the pull light, the engagement is always in the exact same place.

Mark Tilley was the first man on board the 2021 Honda CRF450R.

The CRF450R is still a quick-handling bike with a light touch and a responsive feel.  Aggressive riders can dive into the corner with the throttle on and cut to the inside with very little effort. More conservative riders can stick to the inside and steer their way through a turn.  No matter who you are, though, you might have to put some effort into suspension set-up. The standard set-up is a little unbalanced. We had several test riders who weighed between 170 and 190 pounds, and all of them agreed that the best solution was to increase the rear spring rate. The shock comes with a 54 N/mm spring and we installed a 56, which is Honda’s optional stiff spring. It made the bike settle down immediately.

Honda did a good job with this bike, especially considering that Covid-19 hit just when they were finalizing things like suspension settings and mapping. It’s clear that it needs a little more fine-tuning, but those are all things that the final buyer can address. We’re actually looking forward to that process. The Honda is already great, and we can’t wait to see how much better it can be. MSRP for the 2021 Honda CRF450R is $9599. There will also be a fresh batch of 2020 models for $1000 less.

HONDA CRF450R RATINGS
SUSPENSION 3 out of 5 stars
HANDLING 2 out of 5 stars
PEAK POWER  5 out of 5 stars
LOW END POWER 3 out of 5 stars
COMFORT   5 out of 5 stars
PRICE: $9599
WEIGHT WITHOUT FUEL: 233 lb.

HUSQVARNA FC450

2021 Husqvarna FC450

Husqvarna is continuing to follow a different evolutionary path from KTM. We began to see some hints of that last year; the Husky’s power delivery was a little milder and the suspension was a little cushier, apparently aimed at a more mature rider. That makes sense–Husqvarna is a legacy brand that might mean something more to vet and senior riders. The price is higher and the image is different, even though the FC450 shares most of its parts with the KTM 450SX-F.

For 2021, the Husky’s biggest change is in the suspension department. We already saw a redesign of the Xact AER 48 air fork with the inclusion of a mid-valve; that came with the 2020 ½ Rockstar Edition. Now the suspension travel and overall height of the bike have been reduced by 10mm. This is a change that doesn’t come on the 2021 KTM 450SX-F. To do this, KTM shortened the cartridge and the fork tube up front, then changed the shock head and the linkage in the rear. The idea was to give it a lower center of gravity and make it a little easier to ride. The Husqvarna already had a number of other differences, including a different airbox and a screen in the muffler to make the power smoother. Other changes between KTM and Husky are simply to engage different sources; the clutch hydraulics are Magura rather than Brembo, the handlebar is Pro Taper rather than Neken and the rims are DID rather than Excel. For 2021, the bike can have smartphone connectivity for altering the mapping and power delivery. Unlike the Yamaha system, you have to pay extra for a transmitter, but it’s still an improvement over what Husky offered in the past.

On the track the Husky once again has a very smooth, linear power delivery. It’s still a fast motorcycle, but as 450s go, it’s not especially demanding. The changes in suspension, as far as we are concerned, are excellent. We already were pleased with the changes to the front fork valving on the Rockstar Edition; that alone was the biggest single improvement that has come since the introduction of the air fork. The pneumatic spring has never been a shortcoming with WP. Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki all had issues with their air forks that WP avoided. The WP’s problems were related to harshness on square edges and slap landings. Those are mostly gone now. The decrease in travel and overall height was met with overwhelming positive feedback by our test riders. Sean Lipanovich, in particular, was a big fan. That’s not surprising; he’s kinda short. Actually, real short. But even Mark Tilley, who is over 6 feet tall said the bike cornered much more willingly. Now, the Husky is one of the easiest bikes to ride of all the 450s. 

HUSQVARNA FC450 RATINGS
SUSPENSION 5 out of 5 stars
HANDLING 4 out of 5 stars
PEAK POWER  4 out of 5 stars
LOW-END POWER  4 out of 5 stars
COMFORT 4 out of 5 stars
PRICE: $10,299
WEIGHT WITHOUT FUEL: 224 lb.

KAWASAKI KX450

2021 Kawasaki KX450

This version of the Kawasaki KX450 has a fairly short history. It was completely and totally new in 2019, getting a new frame and motor with electric start and a hydraulic clutch. It was unchanged in 2020 and now it has three significant changes for 2021. The clutch was redesigned, using a cupped disc spring instead of coil springs. This is similar to the design KTM uses, which they call the DDS clutch. Kawasaki also gave the piston a dry lube coating. And finally, Kawasaki stepped up to a Renthal Fatbar handlebar.

First of all, the clutch has a different feel. It already had a very light pull. For 90% of the world, that’s great, but the one drawback is that when you have an easy pull, you tend to overuse the clutch. Kawasakis have never had especially durable clutches, so that could lead to a short life-span for the plates. For the record, Mark Tilley has half of a season on his original 2020 Kawasaki clutch–it’s still going strong. Still, the new clutch should be more durable. The initial pull is about the same as the previous one, but it gets easier as it progresses. The engagement, on the other hand, is sharper. You know when it’s locked–there’s less feeling of vagueness.  As a side note, not everyone likes the feel of hydraulics. When Ryan Villopoto went to Europe in his last season of racing, he started off with a hydraulic clutch, then returned to a cable system. We have to say that he’s the exception to the rule, though. Virtually everyone else likes the feel of a hydraulic clutch.

Handling and power are still excellent.  On our scale, the 2021 model weighs 235 pounds without fuel. It still has a more stable, well-planted feel than virtually any other 450. That’s what we loved about the 2019/2020 version and why it won our last two 450 shootouts. It isn’t the fastest bike in the class. It’s actually one of the slowest, according to the dyno. But you don’t walk away thinking about it in those terms. It’s super smooth and easy to ride. It revs out cleanly without a sudden rev-limiter shut down. Suspension is also a strong point.  It’s the overall package that made the Kawasaki our favorite 450 motocross bike last year and the year before. The power works with the suspension and the handling to make it an easy bike to ride. In the past, we have accused the bike of being the reincarnation of the legendary 2008 Honda CRF450R. That’s probably not accurate or fair. The Kawasaki is its own bike with its own personality. It can be a legend in its own right.

KAWASAKI KX450 RATINGS
SUSPENSION  4 out of 5 stars
HANDLING 5 out of 5 stars
PEAK POWER 3 out of 5 stars
LOW-END POWER 5 out of 5 stars
COMFORT  5 out of 5 stars
PRICE: $9399
WEIGHT WITHOUT FUEL: 235 lb.

KTM 450SX-F

2021 KTM 450SX-F

There are two things worth knowing about the new 450SX: the front suspension has major changes and now KTM has its own smartphone app for changing EFI settings. If you have a 2020 ½ Factory Edition, you already have those features–for the most part. The Smartphone app isn’t yet available in the U.S. If you are familiar with Yamaha’s Power Tuner, you already know what to expect. The biggest difference is that the KTM doesn’t come with the transmitter pre-installed. You have to buy it separately, whereas every Yamaha sold already has that hardwired in place.

After riding the 2021 Husqvarna FC450,  we thought we knew what to expect. The differences turned out to be bigger than we anticipated. They both have WP Xact air forks and WP shocks, but the KTM didn’t get the 10mm reduction in travel.  The new fork did get a bunch of other changes, including a trampoline-style mid valve, a different bottoming system (neoprene instead of hydraulic) and compression clicker that needs no screwdriver. Most suspension tuners say that the mid-valve is a game-changer for WP and long overdue. All this was first previewed on the Factory Edition, although the production 2021 model has still more valving changes, simply because WP engineers have had more testing time since the Factory Edition was introduced.

If you paid attention to all the 2020 shootouts that popped up virtually everywhere, they mostly said the same things about the KTM, even though the ultimate ranking varied from one to the other. The common element was that suspension was the bike’s biggest shortcoming. It wasn’t like the old days where the KTM was virtually disqualified by having an archaic fork and shock; it simply wasn’t as comfortable as the Japanese 450. It’s going to be a new story in 2021. KTM has closed the gap. The fork is excellent.

All of the other things we love about the KTM are still in play. It has a super-wide powerband and a smooth delivery. We tested it with the vented airbox cover in place, whereas our Husky still has the unvented cover, so we can’t do any apples-to-apples comparisons yet, but it seems to be playing out the same way it did last year. The KTM has more hit and the vented airbox cover exaggerates that difference. We love the fact that the Husky is developing its own, independent personality, and the lower seat height fits that new image perfectly.  The MSRP of the KTM 450SX-F went up $100 for 2021; now $10,199.

KTM 450SX-F RATINGS
SUSPENSION 5 out of 5 stars
HANDLING 4 out of 5 stars
PEAK POWER  4 out of 5 stars
LOW-END POWER 5 out of 5 stars
COMFORT 4 out of 5 stars
PRICE: $10,199
WEIGHT WITHOUT FUEL: 223 lb.

YAMAHA YZ450F

 For 2021, there are absolutely no mechanical changes for the YZ450F. That’s never happened before. The fact is that the YZ450F has come a long way. It was a good place to take a rest. In case you aren’t up to speed on your YZ history, 2018 was the last really big year. That was a total remake for the frame and motor. Only the overall design philosophy remained. Yamaha also introduced the Power Tuner smartphone app, which allows riders to remap the EFI system quickly through a wifi connection. It’s clear that Yamaha was ahead of the game on this. KTM, Husqvarna and Suzuki all are going to a similar system for 2021. In those cases, you have to purchase a transmitter separately. Yamaha’s is included with the bike. The 2021 YZ450F has a KYB shock and a coil spring KYB fork, just like it has from the beginning. There have been valving and design changes along the way, but Yamaha was the only Japanese company that wasn’t distracted during the era of air forks.

The Yamaha probably has the best overall motor of the bunch.  In terms of absolute horsepower it’s very close to the Honda, but considerably smoother and easier to manage–so much so that it’s a little boring. After a brief period of lurchiness at the very bottom, it pulls harder and harder in a very linear way. On top, it revs higher and farther than any other 450. It’s predictable, tractable and fast. Most of the popular maps that are passed between YZ cult members are aimed at providing a little more of a hit somewhere in the powerband. The Honda, KTM and Husky motors all have a little excitement in the middle. They might not be any more effective, but they might be more fun.

It’s almost a knee jerk reaction to praise the YZ450F suspension. It’s been at the top of the MX world for a very, very long time, and it’s as good as ever. The most remarkable aspect of it is that everyone likes it. Even if you fall outside the average weight and skill level, chances are you will pull off the track happy. If not, you can make it work with a few clicks. Riders generally like the bike with 106mm of race sag in the rear and just a little less compression damping front and rear. 

The main area where the YZ450F doesn’t shine as brightly is in agility. It feels like a big, long, heavy bike. At 239 pounds the Yamaha is still 16 pounds heavier than a KTM 450SX-F and 6 pounds heavier than the new Honda. It also has a slow-steering feel that some riders like, others don’t. Add it all up and the Yamaha has very little cut-and-thrust in its portfolio of tricks. It likes sweeping lines and power-on cornering.

YAMAHA YZ450 RATINGS
SUSPENSION 5 out of 5 stars
HANDLING  3 out of 5 stars
PEAK POWER  5 out of 5 stars
LOW-END POWER 5 out of 5 stars
COMFORT 4 out of 5 stars
PRICE: $9399
WEIGHT WITHOUT FUEL: 239 lb.

This is not a shootout by any means. We have at least another month before the others arrive,  and we intend to use every minute to learn more about these machines. As of now, we can’t say which will be our favorite, even among the ones we’ve tested. Stay tuned.

–Ron Lawson

 

 

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