Let’s get this straight right off the top: The Honda CRF450L is a competition-level dirt bike with a headlight and signals and mirrors – almost the absolute least it needs to be road-legal.
Do not buy one if you want a cool urban commuter bike, because the new CRF is far too peaky for that. It likes to be kept on the boil, and that’s not a good idea in the city. Besides, the aggressive knobbie tires are all wrong for the city, and you won’t look cool with any other kind of rubber on the wheels.
Do not buy one if you’re much shorter than me. I’m almost six feet tall, with a 32-inch inseam, and both my feet were on tippie-toes when I sat on the bike and placed them on the ground. If you are vertically-challenged, you’ll need to be adept at the one-cheek shuffle. More on that later.
Do not buy one if you want any sort of adventure-tourer. There’s no room for luggage on this bike, and nor should there be. And after all …
Do not buy one if you need to travel any kind of distance. This bike is good for a half-hour on the road, tops, before things start getting uncomfortable. The seat is as wide as four of my fingers and is really not designed for sitting on. It feels like the bike is a credit card, and your ass is the swiping machine.
Thinking of credit cards, do not buy one if you’re poor and an incompetent mechanic. The highly-strung engine needs frequent servicing to stay in tune – like, an oil and filter change every 1,000 kilometres, and valve adjustment every 3,000 kilometres.
And above all, do not buy one if you’re new to motorcycles. It’s not so much because it’s a high-powered machine that can power-wheelie in the first four gears and it’ll be downright dangerous, but because you just won’t enjoy it. The engine is too peaky and never lets you relax. You don’t pause to potter – you kaa-pow!! everywhere. Do yourself a favour and buy a CRF250L instead. Nobody will think any less of you and you’ll have far more fun, and much more money left over.
But if you’re an experienced rider who lives just a short hop from the trails, or the quarry, or pretty much anywhere off-road that allows motorcycles, and you have $11,899 to spend on a motorcycle, then take a moment to consider the CRF450L. It still may not be for you, but it’s fun to find out, right?
What is it?
The road home from Honda Canada is a 150-kilometre ride for me, and it didn’t take long to start squirming on the seat. This bike is athletic, with absolutely nothing extra to distract from its purpose. As said above, there’s a headlight and taillight, signals, mirrors and a licence plate. The speedometer has minimal information. Other than that, it’s all engine and suspension, with a tiny gas tank and a non-conforming seat.
Actually, it’s not really accurate that this is a competition dirt bike with just lights and a plate. Honda did a lot to make the CRF450L not only road-legal but slightly more road-friendly. There’s an extra gear, for a start, so you have a top speed of around 150 km/h in sixth, and the cogs allow for a smooth response in lower revs. For a road bike, it’s peaky as hell, but remember that its off-road-only sibling, the CRF450R, is peaky as hell times two. The R is also 19 kg lighter when it’s ready to race.
Part of the extra weight in the L comes from additional sound muffling in the exhaust and around the engine itself, such as some foam at the front sprocket and in the swingarm. Honda went to a lot of trouble to keep the extra weight well-balanced: the additional litre of fuel in the titanium tank, for example, is contained down low, where it should be.
The 7.6-litre gas tank still isn’t going to take you very far – about 150 km before you’re in trouble. I saw an average consumption of 5.4 L/100 km of Premium fuel, which is impressive for harsh use but a challenge on the road. There’s no gas gauge, and only an odometer and small warning light that lets you know when you’re soon to be scuppered. In practice, I filled up every 100 km and was fine. Also in practice, if you plan a day on the trails and there’s no gas station nearby when it’s time to ride home, you’ll want to strap a can of gas to the rear of the seat and leave it somewhere safe while you’re in the bush.
How does it ride?
On that highway ride home, headed east from Toronto, I pulled over for fuel at the service station beside the 401, then ducked down to the power-line trails near Newtonville. This is a popular area for dirt bikes – I tried to make it through last year on the BMW Scrambler and failed miserably, mostly thanks to the Beemer’s non-knobby tires and hefty weight.
This time around, the 450L had no trouble at all. The stock IRC GP-21 and GP-22 tires that had felt a bit skittery on the asphalt dug into the sand on the hills and berms, though in official testing, Honda swaps those tires for even more aggressive Dunlops. I didn’t push the bike too hard, though. For one thing, I was quite alone and probably would be for hours, if not days; for another, I didn’t want to break the mirrors or signals, or scratch up my street helmet. But I did want to get the dirt bike dirty. It’s embarrassing to ride a bike like this with no mud or scrapes.
If I’d dropped the Honda on the trail, the mirrors would be the first things to go – an owner would probably want to remove them and either tie them onto the back of the seat or just leave them with the spare tank of gas, or at home. The indicators are rubber-mounted and will bend pretty much as far as you can twist them; they remove easily at the front, but not at the back.
It took a while to get into the swing of things on the trails, thanks to the sheer power of the engine. Crack the throttle in the right gear and it’ll take you out of the gully to Heaven; crack it in the wrong gear and it’ll take you to L.
Sorry – couldn’t resist that.
Taking it easy
I really enjoyed riding the CRF450L. My butt didn’t like it, but it helped get me in shape. There are many trails and unimproved roads near where I live and it let me explore places I’d not dared before.
I weigh a bit over 200 lbs [Just a bit? – Ed.] and the bike’s super-duper Showa suspension had no problem coping with that. There’s 12 inches of travel at both front and back and I didn’t need to make any adjustments to keep everything straight and true on asphalt, gravel, sand or mud.
I didn’t push too hard and I didn’t try racing anyone, because I didn’t want to damage the bike. I also didn’t want to damage me. Just as I’m not proficient enough to ride a race bike anywhere near its limits on a track, I just don’t have the ability or experience to go at much more than six or seven tenths on the 450L.
Some cynics who’ve ridden with me might say it’s more like one tenth, but at least I didn’t damage the bike. Just as well at nearly 12 grand before taxes. To compare, a CRF250L is less than half that price, and the better-equipped CRF250 Rally is $6,499. If you’re not out for speed, you’ll probably have a lot more fun on those smaller bikes anyway.
About that seat…
Yes, this is a very tall bike, with a saddle that’s a lofty 940 mm (37 inches) above the ground. Once you’re seated, everything sinks on the shocks but as mentioned, it’ll still be a reach for anyone less than six feet tall. There’s 31.5 cm (12.4 inches) of ground clearance though, which is plenty, and once you’re off and running, there’s little reason to put your feet down.
On the trail, of course, you’ll spend much of your time standing on the pegs and this is where you’ll notice the peakiness of the engine as it adjusts to every twitch of your right hand. Apparently, response is softened for the L over the more-raw R but it’s still very noticeable; throttle control in the dirt while clinging on for dear life is a talent that must be learned and doesn’t come easily.
Switching from the road to the dirt is almost seamless and certainly a relief. Your butt is already clenched from the narrow seat, and just puckers all the more when upright. Like any off-road bike, a rough ride is a good workout for pretty much the entire body, whether you’re on asphalt or sand.
Why do you want one?
When I finally returned the CRF450L to Honda Canada, I took a different route back through the Ganaraska Forest. Fuel was a concern because I’d not filled up since before leaving and, because I took the pretty route to the Forest, there were no gas stations along the way.
Even so, I headed into the trees and followed my nose as best I could to stay headed north-west. I wanted to come out on the sandy road that defeated me earlier in the summer, when I was riding my Harley and trusted my GPS for directions. This time, I stopped frequently and checked the route through the woods on my iPhone.
The 450L is a bike intended for trail use. It’s not supposed to fly through the air like a moto-crosser, nor climb rocks like a trail bike. It’s not supposed to follow the Trans-Canada Highway for very far, but it’ll fly along the Trans-Canada Adventure Trail all day long if you can find gas along the way. All night too – the headlight is surprisingly effective. Too bad it doesn’t have brush guards to protect your hands, though. And a gas gauge while you’re at it.
It’s certainly not supposed to carry passengers. There are no passenger footpegs, and when I asked my long-suffering wife if she’d like to come along for a ride on the back, she took one look at the seat and withered me with her eyes. It was a joke!
So why would you want to buy one? Because the good trails are not so far away, and you’d like to ride there without having to invest in a truck or a trailer and hitch. And because when you get there, you want to be King of the Hill.
Just remember, though: if you do turn up on a CRF450L, other riders are going to want to be impressed with your ability. If you know what you’re doing, the big Honda will make you shine, but if you’re not ready for it, it will show you up for the wannabe poser you are. Better get some scratches on it right quick.
2018 Honda CRF450L Key Specs
Engine: Liquid-cooled single cylinder four stroke
Curb weight: 131 kg
Power: 45 hp (est.)
Wheelbase: 1,495 mm
Length: 2,181 mm
Seat height: 940 mm
Brakes: Front: 260 mm wave-pattern disc with dual-piston caliper; Rear: 240 mm wave-pattern disc with single-piston caliper.
Front suspension: 49mm fully-adjustable leading-axle inverted telescopic Showa coil-spring fork.
Rear suspension: Pro-Link system; fully-adjustable Showa single shock.
Tires: Front: 80/100-21; Rear: 120/80-18