Real dirt: 2017 Honda CRF450R

Real dirt: 2017 Honda CRF450R

By Dave Willet. Photos courtesy Honda

Honda has always sold lots of its CRF450s. With a well-earned reputation for build quality, reliability and movability, it’s a bike that’s perfect for the masses. Since it went to fuel injection in 2009, it’s never been very fast, but delivered its mellow power in a manageable package. In fact, it often put out less power than a 350 KTM!

Bosses of Honda’s production CRFs said the goal for the bike was to make a machine that was easy to ride, and fun. Well, it was certainly that. Great to ride around on, never threatening to pull your arms out of their sockets. But if you wanted to seriously race the bike, you’d find yourself up against bikes that were much, much faster – especially out of the gate.

At least Honda still had the high moral ground when it came to making a lightweight bike with its mass centralised so it was totally flickable and nimble. Until KTM came in and made bikes with electric starters that were lighter and had their mass even more centralised. To try to make their bikes as light, Honda went to air forks that were super-adjustable, but also super complicated – especially for the everyman rider that bought their bikes.

Air time is fun time on the new CRF

So with a 450 that was the slowest in the class – and let’s face it, no racer ever bought a 450 because they wanted a slow bike – plus complicated suspension, no electric start and handling that was no longer significantly better than its rivals, Honda was starting to lose its sheen. You had to really value the brand. Build quality and reliability to ride red.

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But Honda has unveiled an all-new team in charge of CRF development, and this is their first major project. The 2017 CRF450 is completely new, with a new frame, engine and suspension. The lot. They say they finally listened to what customers wanted – and that was a good handling bike but crucially, one that was fast so they could pull holeshots, have the convenience of electric start and feature top-quality suspension they could just ride with rather than having to fiddle with. In other words, spring forks.

The air forks have been removed and replaced with production versions of the popular 49mm A-kit Showa spring forks, they type many factory-backed teams ran instead of air.

Rear traction is better than ever, great for fast corner exits

The chassis has been altered, is 270g lighter, is still just as stiff where it maters but has less torsional stiffness by 6.8% to dial in that “feel” that riders like. The centre of gravity is lower to by 2.7mm and the wheelbase is shorter by 11mm. The aim was to lower the centre gravity with a lighter frame which makes the bike easier to flick around but offers better rear end traction. And the swingarm is also thinner, shorter and lighter.

The rear shock is also 39mm lower and more centrally-located due to the airbox being changed for a straighter inlet tract for more power. Honda say this is key for throttle response and engine efficiency, claiming 11% more power.

The clutch runs one friction and clutch plate less than the 2016, bike, aimed at helps with ultimate power output and it also makes the engine smaller, for better mass centralisation. The reason the clutch can have fewer plates is because the primary gear rotation is 30% faster. So the crankcase disperses oil quicker around the crank, so there is less friction so a smaller clutch can handle it. The clutch is still cable operated, so it would have been nice to have a fuss-free hydraulic clutch. Maybe next year!

The new CRF encourages you to get creative in the air

So yes, Honda has made lots of changes that are, to many people, long overdue. Lighter, faster, better handling – we’ve heard it all before. We’ve also ridden all-new Hondas in the past that have promised lots yet had loads of teething problems in the first year of production. And when it comes to the new CRF450, it’s known Honda’s Japanese testers didn’t love the bike at first – sometimes shelving it to race their older bikes, much to Honda’s embarrassment. The new 2017 bike has not had an easy birth, made even worse when the factory was hit by an earthquake that affected final production.

So it was with some trepidation that we finally got to ride the new bike. With an all-new machine, the promise of a new ready-to-race attitude after such a long time making mellow, user-friendly bikes, there were a lot of expectations. And so the chance of things not being quite right.

But boy, is it an improvement over the previous model! Is the 2017 CRF450R worth the wait” Hell yeah! It's competitive to race, right out of the crate.

The machine feels awesome and retains Honda’s trademark feel which means it handles like no other 450 on the market. Honda are still focused on mass centralisation which means the bike is designed so the centre of gravity is low, and most of the heavier components are moved as close to the centre of possible.

The handling is pure Honda. The bike just goes where you point it!

What this translates to on the track is that it doesn't feel like a big bike. And that's not because it's slow - trust me, it's not slow! I can't stress enough how good the movability is. It's so good that you quickly take it for granted, as you can get creative with line choice which is fun. And the bike encourages you to scrub!

The most impressive thing was the ability to enter and exit turns with such speed due to the machine feeling so planted and connected to the surface. The chassis changes for improved rear traction without compromising stability work so well. The traction from the rear is unreal.

The spring front forks may be slightly heavier than air forks but the average rider will love them as they are simpler, and totally reliable. I felt they needed a little tweaking by adding a few clicks on the compression and the same on the rebound. The standard settings are in the ballpark and I only adjusted them because of the speed in which the bike allowed me to attack into the turns.

If you're a Honda fan, you'll love the new bike

But this sweet handling won’t be the first thing you'll notice if you buy or test the bike. It will be the power as the bike pulls like a train!

The CRF has so much top end power, it’s just awesome. You really can feel the power stretching out as it's so long, and it’s hard to rev it so long until it hits the rev limiter.

Although the top end is impressive, it’s not where you need to ride the bike – although you can if you really want to. It’s nice to have options! Short shifting up into third and letting the extra torque of the 2017 do all the work is the fastest way around the track, and keeps the suspension settled. The motor loves pulling third gear and the power delivery is strong but manageable.

The new CRF gives you lots of confidence as it's a great package

It feels like there is a direct connection from the throttle to the rear wheel. The response is instant, but not too fierce to make it unrideable. It feels like a direct connection that is responsive but also has a little free movement on the throttle before taking off. The power and torque is impressive, useable and you can rev it or short shift and torque it. That’s a flexible motor that can be ridden from anyone from a GP rider to a clubman racer.

Dave Thorpe put the 2017 bike on his team’s dyno and said the stock power mirrored his fully tuned 2016 race bikes.

tried the three different engine management opinions, controlled by the button above the kill button. The little blue button is the engine management select button, and the screen tells you which mode you’re in. One flash tells you the setting is standard and two is a softer, smoother delivery while three is more aggressive power.

The clutch isn't really needed for powering out of turns now

In the past, I've always just gone full power but this year was different. The three options do give a very different feel so it’s ideal to tweak the bike to your riding style or track conditions. The third, more aggressive option is good as the engine hit and rev is improved. But – and I never thought I’d be saying this about a Honda - I found the standard map was more than adequate! What a difference a year makes.

In terms of build quality, fit of components, how good the brakes are and all the usual top-notch Honda fittings, then nothing has changed. It’s all quality kit that lasts. And although the bike comes standard with a kickstart – which is the spec we rode at the launch in Sardinia – UK models will come stock with the electric start option. It might add a few pounds of weight, but the bike is light anyway and the e-start just makes sense. Stall it on a muddy hill, or lose valuable seconds booting it into life during the heat of a race, and you’ll soon be glad you have the magic button.

Here's what Honda's designers planned for the CRF

Verdict

This is the bike Honda has been promising for years, and it’s finally here. They have listened to what real racers want, and made a CRF that ticks all those boxes. It’s fast and flexible in terms of power, it handles sublimely well and lets you be creative around the track, it comes with a time-saving e-start, it’s light and has forks you don’t need a degree in engineering to keep on top of.

The stock suspension is right in the ballpark – although we’ll be riding the bike more in the UK soon to get a better feeling for what the ideal settings are.

But to take a leaf out of KTM’s book, this is finally a bike that’s ready to race. And ready to race at all levels. You don’t need engine work to get holeshots and class-leading engine performance. And that’s a big change for big red.