Another look at the Honda CRF450L

When Mark rode the Honda CRF450L last fall, reader Joel commented, “Thanks for the review Mark, but I think Zac could provide the perspective of a more off road oriented rider. Plus I think it would be nice for him to get to ride something that’s not 20 or 30 years old for a change.”

Errr, thanks for your generous assessment of my offroad capability, Joel, but handing me the keys to the $12,000 Honda CRF450L is like giving a child an anti-tank missile to play with: the chances of it being used correctly are slim. Conversely, the consequences of its misuse are disastrous (and far more likely–Ed.).

But as Joel pointed out, how often do I get to ride new bikes? Not often, so when Honda delivered a CRF450L to my local dealer, I happily grabbed the keys, rolled the machine into the truck, and tore out of the parking lot, laughing like a madman. It’s mine, mine, miiiiiiiine!

For most of my time on the CRF450L, I was either scouting or running parts of the Fundy Adventure Rally.

Hitting the dirt

The next day, I set out on a long street-and-trail ride, about 400 kilometres of scouting the Scavenger route for the Fundy Adventure Rally.

Leaving the driveway, I realized three things immediately:

  1. The seat is an authentic dirt bike saddle, designed for maximum discomfort.
  2. In first gear, the on/off torque delivery means you must handle the throttle with extreme care.
  3. Despite the overall tall dirt bike ergos, I didn’t find the bike intimidating to throw a leg over.

And off I went. It took me about 100 km to get to the trails. I stuck to back roads the whole way. I didn’t much care for the CRF’s road manners at first, but as soon as I was on gravel, the bike got a whole lot more enjoyable.

It’s almost impossible to ride by a gravel pit without making a quick detour for a rip aboard the Honda.

I haven’t ridden all the Japanese dual-sports on the market, but I’ve ridden most of them, some of them in highly modified form. Even with expensive upgrades, most of the duallies from the Big Four have serious shortcomings if you want to ride hard off-road: they’re heavy, their suspension is wimpy, they lack ground clearance, and they have insufficient power delivery at the bottom end, to allow for a better highway cruising speed.

The CRF450L doesn’t suffer from any of these problems — or at least, it doesn’t suffer as much.

Take the suspension, for instance. Standing beside the bike and pushing on it with your hands, you might think it’s too lightly-sprung for a fat gumby North American-sized rider. When I sat on the seat, my 100-kg self ate up a bunch of rear suspension travel, and I figured “Here we go again — Honda’s built another bike that needs a thousand bucks of suspension work out of the box.”

Alas, my team outran the photographer throughout the entire Fundy Rally, so all I have is gas station photos, no exciting action shots …

But that wasn’t the case. Once that initial sag is taken up, the bike’s compression and rebound settings work well at preventing things from getting worse.  On high-speed gravel roads with lots of potholes and exposed stones, I was unable to get the rear end to kick up at any speed, and it mostly stayed in a straight line. The rear tire was planted, and so was the front, no matter what terrain or speed I was on. Close to home, I have a whoops section on which I test dual-sport suspension, and the CRF450L absolutely dominated this area. Same went for sandy hill climbs, and loose, rocky drain descents.

Now, what I didn’t do was MX-style jumps. That’s not this bike’s intention, and I imagine the suspension would fare poorly there (although you can find footage of it on YouTube!). But that’s not the purpose; this is a street-legal enduro bike, made for trails and unpaved roads. As such, it has the best rear suspension of any Japanese dual sport I’ve ridden, far superior to my Yamaha WR250R that always gets much ballyhoo for its shock and fork.

I suspect a more aggressive rider would find fault here, but that’s true of any dual-sport or off-road motorcycle. That’s why suspension gurus like B2 or Accelerated Technologies exist. For numpties like me, the suspension is excellent. And if you know what you’re doing, you can tweak the suspension’s settings with the clickers. As I don’t know what I’m doing, I left them alone.

Somehow, this black plastic exhaust guard became dislodged the first time I rode out on the Honda, and was charred into a wrinkly mess as a result. That’s why it’s missing in all the subsequent photos.

Over the next few days, I ran the CRF over a mixture of back roads, fire roads, ATV trails, a gravel pit, and a bit of two-track.

I did barely any single-track. The bike is compact enough to fit down extremely tight trails, but the on/off power delivery in first gear made really tight woods riding unpleasant. If you accidentally grab a fistful of throttle at the wrong time, you’ll pitch yourself into the weeds. This would even out with some practice, but without a proper metal bash plate or rad guard, I didn’t want to push my luck too far off the beaten trail.

I expect that riders intent on taking this thing through a lot of single track will end up looking carefully at ways to smooth out the power, maybe with a Rekluse auto-clutch. It’s an expensive accessory, but would make first-gear hillclimbs and other technical situations less … hectic.

Tut tut! It would have been nice for Honda to include a real bash guard, because the plastic stocker would likely prove unsatisfactory if you were pushing hard in rough, rocky terrain.

In more open areas though (say, a gravel pit), that low first gear is a treat, because it gives you great take-off speed. Still, I think Honda could have done a bit more refinement with the bike’s gearbox, as I think a wider spread would have been ideal. Sixth gear is happiest around the 100 km/h mark, and the vibration gets miserable once you approach 120 km/h. I didn’t ride the bike on the highway, but sustained triple-digit speeds would have been unpleasant, even though the bike will hit 130, even 140 with not much difficulty. A slightly taller sixth would have been a good idea; as it is, you can hit higher speeds on the bike, but it’s no fun keeping it there (sort of like a real dirt bike!).

The comfort level is about what you’d expect on a dirt bike. As noted above, the seat is miserably hard at first, but it’s not so bad once you’ve spent a couple of full days on the machine. Except for sustained high speeds, the vibration level isn’t bad. I found the handlebars didn’t fit me well when I was standing. A bit of tweaking here, maybe rolling them forward, would probably have served well. The bars are good-quality Renthals, so you’d hate to junk ’em, as happens with most cheap stock Japanese dual-sport bars.

The stock IRC tires are a compromise, maybe the most compromised part of the motorcycle. Full knobbies wouldn’t last long enough for the street, and a more civilized street tire would be useless off-road. From my mixed-use, I got about 2,100 km out of the rear, which isn’t much, but I could have eked another few hundred km if I’d had to. Also, most CRF450L riders would likely see their riding biased more off-road, which would enhance tire life.

Anyway, despite the compromise, I found the stock rubber satisfactory both on-road and off, although I imagine it would have hooked up with far more vigor if I’d aired the tires down a bit.

I took the CRF along many New Brunswick back roads during rally scouting, and also hauled it along on my PEI vacation, where it saw on-pavement use as well as trail running duty. At first, I disliked its pavement manners, but grew to appreciate it the longer I had it.

Street scenes

Although the primary focus of getting the bike was to ride it off-road, I still had to take it on backroads a lot, especially while scouting for the Fundy Rally and then running the event.

While it’s no fun in a high speed straight line, the CRF450L is actually surprisingly enjoyable on a twisty back road, due to its light weight and torquey power delivery. Steering is light, and rambunctious corner exits are easy thanks to the down-low power. I would not want to ride this motorcycle at a sustained speed for long periods of time on the street, but I happily strafed plenty of secondary roads with it; potholed, battered, it didn’t matter. The 450L’s suspension just eats that stuff.

Wrapping up

So who’s this bike for? It’s for someone who wants more offroad capability than the current Japanese offerings, but still wants the reliability of Honda.

KTM/Husqvarna/Beta/SWM don’t have a dealer network as extensive as Honda’s, and rightly or wrongly, they don’t have the reputation for reliability that the Big Four have, especially Honda. Spend the money on a Euro enduro, and you will have more high-end performance, a little less weight, a little better suspension, but you might not have a dealer within a day’s drive. The edges are slightly rounded off with the Honda, when compared to the high-end European machines, but it’s still a far better bike off-road than anything else street-legal from Japan.

It’s a no-brainer: if you want Japanese reliability without the weight and stodginess of the existing Big Four duallie lineup, the CRF450L is for you.

And I found the 450L is still fairly friendly to ride. While the seat is high, and uncomfortable, it’s more approachable than some of the more extreme offerings from the EU. Even with a shortish inseam, I’m able to flat-foot the bike at a stop (just about, anyway).

But you probably won’t use this machine as a lightweight adventure bike. You could, as long as you don’t mind changing the oil every 1,000 km, and putting a new seat on it. But even then, with no passenger pegs and a streamlined subframe, there are few options for attaching luggage; you’d have to look at something from Kriega or Giant Loop, probably, though even those might require a bit of jury rigging.

That’s okay. For the rider who’s only planning on putting out 250 km in a weekend of dual-sport riding, oil changes will be monthly. That’s liveable, if you’re doing it yourself, and the 24,000-km valve service interval is extremely reasonable. Spend 20 minutes dumping the oil every few weeks, and you’re back out on the trails. It’s a formula that will work for many riders, and despite the cost ($11,899, compared to Beta 430 RS at $11,399, SWM RS500R at $9,499 and KTM 500 EXC-F at $13,099), it’s still going to get plenty of interest from riders with an itch for an expensive toy.

9 thoughts on “Another look at the Honda CRF450L”

  1. Excellent review Zac, just what I had hoped for.

    As for the bike, I’m a bit disappointed that it’s really aimed where the KTM’s & Husky’s are. I was hoping for something with slightly less hard edge. More like a 690 Enduro, but as a 450. I like my 690, but it would be nice to have something a bit lighter off road.

    As you noted in another post there are some still lingering in dealerships, and I’m kind of surprised as I expected they would be completely sold out even at $11-12K.

    I didn’t realize that you had purchased a WR250R and had retired the DR350.

    1. Yeah, the DR350 is still around, just haven’t had time to ride it this year (or even more importantly, wrench on it!). The WR is really weak sauce compared to the 350, but a much easier and more comfortable bike to ride. Feels a little less like riding a couch, but still wallows badly when compared to the 450.

      Might take the 350 and try to install a Lectron carburetor this winter. It really is the perfect “rally” bike as long as you put a bigger gas tank on it. It’s just getting to be a real chore to keep it in top mechanical condition. And a big expense; I currently have three duallies registered and insured, and the RF is supposed to be back on the street in the next few days as well. And then there’s an old VT750 Shadow that I have in mind for a project …

      1. Yeah, eventually you’ve got to let go of the old 350. I understand irrational attachment (believe me, I UNDERSTAND!) but at some point when repairs are getting too frequent or expensive then it’s gotta go. Wouldn’t a lectron carb cost more than the 350 is worth? Is the 350 really that much “better: than the Dr650?

        There is a real sense of satisfaction riding a carefully set up and well maintained old boat anchor, especially when you can hang with the guys on the expensive new stuff.

        1. the 350 isn’t really better than the 650 at all, just different. I actually came very close to buying a Kawi KLX400R instead of the WR, and definitely would have bid the 350 goodbye had that happened. I probably should have, the Kawi was better-suited to what I wanted, but the 250 is just so … livable. Cheap to run, cheap to insure. No annoying vibration. It’s just sort of gutless compared to what I’m used to.

        2. Anyway–the only real reason I still have the 350 is that it is perfect for stuff like the Fundy Rally. Can do highway speeds between dirt sections if needed, can easily handle any of the terrain on any of the routes, and if the bike goes off a cliff and down into Caledonia Gorge, well, it doesn’t owe me anything. And the engine and shock both work very well right now, as they’ve both been rebuilt–it’s just that it’s an absolute bugger to start, and the front suspension could use some work. I do have a set of better forks for it, and planned to put them on before my yard and workshop were flooded out the last two years in a row.

  2. I would like to see what is involved and the cost of the “major engine stripdown” at 32K kms as described on the Honda website. My DRZ has that many kms and I will probably double that.

    1. I just spun 1200km, not worried in the least about the 32k km mark,
      Loving the bike.
      Lots of fire roads here on the Sunshine Coast of B.C.
      Its made for this bike.
      I put Dunlop 606’s on, only thing left is a skid plate, and a power commander, or similar to smooth out throttle.
      But very ridable as well in stock form.

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