You can frequently argue about which street bike is the most significant new machine in any given year. Within the off-road world, however, there is no question that Honda’s 2002 CRF450R is the most significant motorcycle introduced in the 2002 model year. Finally, a Japanese manufacturer has responded to Yamaha’s YZ400F/426F series — bikes that revolutionized motocross racing here in the United States. While smaller, European manufacturers have developed their own four-stroke motcross machines (some of which pre-dated Yamaha, such as Husaberg, for example), Big Red is the first Japanese manufacturer (besides Yamaha) to enter this market.
We talked extensively about the engineering that went into the CRF450R in an earlier article, and we were anxious to ride the machine. Honda was nice enough to meet MD at Lake Elsinore Motocross Park. Editor Dirck Edge rode the bike, along with expert desert racer (and long-time Honda CR250 owner) Brian Pinard of Temecula Motorsports. This is not an in-depth review of the CRF450R, but merely a riding impression. A more in-depth analysis will follow later, after we have had more time on a production machine. By the way, dealers in the United States should begin receiving production CRF450Rs next week.
First, the look and feel of the CRF450R is very much like the two-stroke CR250R. Indeed, the 450 engine looks like it was stuffed inside the slim, third-generation two-stroke aluminum frame. Sitting on the bike, it feels physically smaller and lighter than Yamaha’s YZ426F, for instance.
Starting the bike is a snap. No four-stroke ritual. Just sit on the bike and kick it like a two-stroke. It starts right up. In fact, the lever pressure is lighter than a 250 two-stroke — somewhere between a 125 and a 250 two-stroke. This results from Honda’s automatic decompression system (something that makes Honda’s huge XR650 easy to start, for instance). Even while hot, the bike starts on the first or second kick, and Honda provides a “hot start” lever above the clutch that aids hot starting. Basically, as far as we can tell at this point, starting this bike is a non-issue, hot or cold.
When we first rode the bike, we were expecting a huge hit of power that had to be respected. Don’t get us wrong, this bike is very, very fast and powerful, but it is so smooth that it is less intimidating to ride than your typical two-stroke 250. The breadth of the powerband is massive, and the power delivery is seamless.
Riding the bike on a relatively tight track, corners could be exited in second or third gear, with what seemed like the same results — strong, controllable acceleration. The smooth power delivery was clearly deceiving — acceleration was better than a 250cc two-stroke, and we were over-jumping obstacles that a healthy 250 might barely clear. All this, while it felt like you were working less than you would while riding a 250.
The 450 does feel heavier than a 250 two-stroke, but not by much. Again, the size and the feel of the bike is very much like a 250. This feel is contributed to by a lack of significant engine braking — certainly less engine braking than you would expect from a typical four-stroke, and more like the engine braking you would find from a two-stroke machine. This allowed virtually no adjustment time switching from a 250 two-stroke (which we rode the same day) to the 450. No concern about chopping the throttle on a jump face, for instance, and jumps could be approached virtually the same way as they were approached on a two-stroke.
Honda has some excellent suspension on their motocrossers this year, and the 450 features the same fork as the CR250 with heavier springs and slightly different valving. Dirck and Brian both weigh in the 200-210 pound range, and the stock spring rates were on the light side for both riders, but the suspension, although riding lower than it would with higher spring rates, felt smooth and well-valved. In our next report, we will ride the bike with heavier spring rates front and rear.
Needless to say, our first impression of the CRF450R is very positive. More details in our follow-up report.