We finally got a chance to ride the 2021 Honda CRF450R this week, and what a ride it was. We’ve been a little obsessed with this bike since it was announced. Not only is it the most interesting new bike of the season, it’s the most exciting Honda of any kind in years.  The twice pipes are gone, it has a new chassis with new bodywork and–we never thought it would happen–a hydraulic clutch. The Nissin master and slave cylinder are similar to those used by Kawasaki. Interestingly enough, there’s still a path forward for traditionalists who like the feel of an old-fashioned cable. You could, theoretically revert back with some simple machine work. No one who rode the bike would even consider this, but we know there are some die-hards out there who might talk about it.

2021 Honda CRF450R

As far as the exhaust is concerned, Honda didn’t just make a new pipe. The head now uses a centrally located exhaust port leading to a single muffler which, interestingly enough, is still mounted as far forward as the twin muffle were. Remember, that was the justification for twice pipes in the first place.  The frame is new too, 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 450. The Kawasaki used to hold that honor, but the 2021 model gained a little and now weighs in at 235. 

Mark Tilley was the first man on board the 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 then there’s a big surge in the middle. After that, it keeps on revving and revving. If you have the notion to hold it on, it won’t slow down until it’s well past 11,000 rpm. If you want to tone things down, you can always turn to the electronics. The bike has three maps that can be accessed through a handlebar-mounted switch. A little blue light tells you which map you’re in; one flash is standard, two-flashes is the milder map and three is the most aggressive. On top of that, Honda has three levels of traction control with a similar system of flashing lights (green, in this case) to let you know where you are.

MSRP for the 2021 Honda CRF450R is $9599. There will also be a fresh batch of 2020 models for $1000 less.

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.

Traction control is a much more productive way to modify the power delivery. Setting one is subtle and effective. It seems to slow the rapid rpm gain in the middle of the powerband without killing acceleration–that’s exactly what traction control is supposed to do. Settings two and three are fine for level ground, but not at all effective for steep hills where some wheelspin is appropriate. You can always use the clutch to regulate power and acceleration. That’s an option that was never very effective with Honda 450s in the past. The pull was too stiff and the engagement was inconsistent. The new clutch is much, much better. Not only is the pull light, the engagement is always in the exact same place.

The Honda’s clutch hydraulics are similar to those introduced on the Kawasaki KX450.

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 muscle. More conservative riders can stick to the inside and steer their way through a turn. You don’t have to have the throttle open to make the bike work. No matter who you are, though, you might have to put some effort into suspension set-up. The standard settings aren’t a very good starting point. With 105mm of sag, the rear end can blow through the stroke quickly. The first step for most riders will be to increase low-speed compression damping. The standard setting is 12 clicks. We preferred it around 8 clicks. 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 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. We still liked more low-speed compression damping than the original setting–right around eight clicks. Additionally, we found that the stock rebound setting was a little too slow, even with the stiff spring. We liked it best around 10 clicks. As always, rider weight and style affect these settings in a big way. Test for yourself, but our findings might be a shortcut. Once we stiffened up the shock, the fork was excellent. With the rear end of the bike riding higher in the stroke, the front end became cushier and smooth. We started off thinking that we wanted to soften up the stroke but eventually came back to the stock settings.

Honda has abandoned the twice pipes and lost considerable weight.

Honda did an amazing 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.


In case you didn’t already see it on www.dirtbikemagazine.com, a Travis Fant video featuring the first day of riding on the Honda CRF450R is live on our Youtube channel. Click on the image above to check it out.



We still haven’t seen or ridden the 2021 Honda CRF450RWE Works Edition. That bike has a long list of upgrades, including a hand-ported cylinder head, DID DirtStar LT-X rims, a Yoshimura exhaust system, titanium nitride-coated lower fork legs, a Hinson clutch, an RK gold chain, special ECU settings, a Throttle Jockey seat, revalved suspension, HRC decal package and a Twin Air filter. The price will be $12,380. Click on the image above for the tech details of the CRF450RWE as well as the standard edition.


If you still haven’t satisfied your Honda CRF450R fix, you might check out this history of the bike, covering the years between the 2002 introduction of the bike to the last major redesign in 2017. Click on the image above for a little Honda history lesson.


To go back a little farther into the Honda CRF450R vault, Dirt Bike once teamed up with White Bros. and Nicky Hayden to build a very special Honda for flat track. Nicky left us in 2017, but we’ll never let his memory fade. You can check out the whole story by clicking the image above.

See you next week,

–Ron Lawson


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