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HONDA CRF450L

This was not intended to be a gentle trail bike. It’s bred from Honda’s apex predator, the CRF450R motocrosser, only made street legal. So it has attitude – that is if you buy anywhere other than in Europe. In Europe, given Euro4 it’s an altogether different animal…
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Of course this isn’t the bike we were expecting. With a designation of CRF450L, we were thinking we’d essentially be getting a CRF250L trail bike with a bigger engine. Hopefully with a 450cc version of the CRF250 Rally to follow as well. But this is not that big brother to the cheapish, gentle, super-reliable, world-circling trailie we all know and love. It’s not even the old CRF450X enduro given a facelift, or face-drop perhaps. Instead it’s an allnew formula. A motocrosser detuned, then given a few major modifications to become fully road-legal. It’s not a competition enduro bike, it’s not a soft trail bike. And it’s not cheap. We are, to all intents, confounded…
We should never pre-judge though. Experience tells us this – the proof is always in the riding, and credit to this new machine, in the riding it’s very good indeed, even when rolling along on some decidedly iffy road-trail tyres, and even when mullered by EU legislation. This is actually a very good motorcycle, we just need to adjust our idea of what’s what in the dirt bike world, and then hopefully we’ll get it. Hopefully.

A NEW (OLD) FORMULA

Yes, it’s quite some bike, this CRF450L. It’s based on the latest CRF450R motocrosser, which is a good start point seeing that we’re talking a fast, super-light absolute cutting edge racing motorcycle. That’s a long way from the CRF250L’s starting point, which has an engine from the CBR250 commuter road bike fitted into a modest steel frame with decidedly modest suspension. The nearest comparable to the CRF450L is then probably Suzuki’s RMX450Z, which came to us in 2010 as an enduro then disappeared before re-emerging quite recently, as a semi-legal trail bike, available only to certain markets. That bike, too, was/is based on a motocrosser and similarly is burdened with all manner of restrictions to be made even semi street legal.

So here’s the skinny on this new CRF450L. The motor starts out as a 56hp CRF450R but, by way of emissionsatisfying restrictions, then servicelife extending modifications, not to mention the addition of a sixth gear, plus a catalytic converter in the exhaust, this top line number is brought down to about 40hp. Still, not bad, gotta be very happy with that. We would be, but that only applies if you’re living outside of the EU. Here in Europe the latest Euro4 regs require the application of even further restrictions, which beat the proverbial shit out of this motor, so that it makes just 25hp in EU-compliant form – not that much more than the CRF250L. Ouch. That really is one big ouch.
That dastardly power-restriction thankfully doesn’t stop all the fun though as Honda have countered the power-robbing with a decent dollop of torque to compensate, so the EU CRF450L hits a very early torque peak of 23 ft-lb (32Nm) at just 3500rpm. So no question the EU and the ROW motors must feel dramatically different to each other, we only wish we could ride the ROW bike… 

     Also part of the modifications is the substantially longer engine maintenance intervals, with the first engine strip-down set at 30,000km. That’s okay, although we’d dread the cost of a complete rebuild, but Honda have put the oil, oil filter and air filter change intervals at an altogether more frequent 1000km repeat. Now that might niggle slightly, albeit it’s understandable given this engine – being race bred, where less is more – doesn’t hold a great oil capacity. So the oil change is both simple, quick and doesn’t call for masses of the black stuff. It is what it is. Chassis-wise, this is mostly the same frame as you’ll see in the R, except we understand the addition of the sixth gear and noise-deadening outer cases made for a wider engine and so a slightly wider frame at the rear engine mount. Honda also mention that ‘the chassis geometry is specially selected for responsiveness’ which sounds like double-speak for the change of rake and trail plus further mods to aid both rigidity and flexibility (don’t you wish they’d make their minds up?). Then there’s a heavier sub frame, after all that exhaust weighs some. 


     The suspension units are also lifted directly from the R, then modified to suit trail work. And that swingarm, it’s a longer unit, which combined with the geometry change makes the L-model 18mm longer than the R. As well the 19” rim has been swapped to a trail-friendly 18”. Tyres are a hybrid road-trail job that worked well enough in loam, but not so well on clay – but again this all about meeting homologation standards.
So while retaining a fair percentage of the motocrosser’s DNA the CRF450L has been thoroughly road legalized – that’s a cool lightweight LED light up front, while conversely something of a suspension bridge construction under the rear mudguard to carry the licence plate. It’s like a fatter, bespectacled brother to the R – but yes, you can see (and feel) the shared DNA and yes, it can handle itself when the going gets tough.

AN INTERESTING RIDE

That king-size muffler certainly kills the noise, this 450 is almost whisper quiet, and that quiet nature comes through in the ride, too. With just 25hp to play with understandably there’s no vicious kick as you’ll get from a 450 enduro, but it’s not entirely lacking either – the extra torque takes care of that. In fact the engine in its EU-tune is really something of an enigma, if Honda hadn’t declared the capacity you’d be hard-put to call it, it’s more 350 than 450. And if you were to characterize the power delivery, well it feels like a trials bike – it has capability, the torque means it can take on fair hill climbs no issues, and on the road we rung it out to a top speed of around 80mph (60mph would be a comfortable cruise), but for us Europeans it’s mostly about the low rev.And so riding through tight, loamy West Country woods was about the best terrain for this tune of the bike. In this going – chasing our guide Dave Thorpe who was going a fair lick (as he should being a threetime 500cc motocross world champion) – the CRF450L was in its element. In any case, in these conditions any more power would probably have overcome the OEM tyres’ capability.
     The handling was good. That should be a given in that this is the seventh generation of alloy beam frame for the CRF range. Honda have pretty much perfected this tech and so you get great stability and predictability as a given. In the R you also get flickability and keen direction changes, but being a stretched-R with a low seat and long swing arm the L is not the sharpest cornering bike you’ll meet – but then it’s not bad either and you can boss it around easily. And despite hauling a heft of some 131kg (289lb) with a full tank (that’s 7.6 litres) it feels remarkably nimble, you don’t feel that weight.
     The ergonomics are good too. It’s far from cramped and while the Renthal bars are a low bend, you don’t feel overly leant forward. The sub-frame probably pulls a trick or two of its own as the seat height is lowish at around 940mm (37.1”) and this helps when it comes to that super-neat trail technique known as paddling. With the exception of the bulge in the side panel to accommodate that dustbin of a silencer (which Honda have done well to accommodate) the feeling is of a slim light dirt bike. Which is all to the good especially when compared to the old school ergos on some trail bikes (aka dual sports) in this market segment.
     The suspension is quality through and through. The ride feels plush – working well enough in the woods – but is apparently working well in faster terrain too, and being the quality Showa mxbased kit it is, chances are you can adjust it to a fair degree. The brakes were good too. Not eye-popping strong but up to the job.
     The only slight niggle that was encountered was a tendency to stall at very low revs, to the point you’d be inclined to lift the tickover and fan the clutch a little more. Or as I suggested to myself – just ride faster.
      So despite riding on just 25hp the CRF450L didn’t feel all that underpowered. Certainly it easily had the capability to take on some serious climbs and could be wound out to some decent speeds. It just doesn’t have that enduro 450 grunt that you might find elsewhere. But let’s not forget, it’s not an enduro, and if you’re looking for that, well, Honda has a CRF450RX waiting for you. As it goes, by some good fortune (or more likely clever design), the CRF450L does then work well as a trail bike despite the EU restrictions, the gentle power meaning you can exploit the chassis all the more. Just remember to ride on torque not on revs.

TRAIL TO TRAIL

There’s no doubt this bike must make more sense in its 40hp guise. It would then be something of an ultra trail bike (okay, dual sport) and quite likely given the geometry you could picture it making a very good rally bike (once you’d swapped out the exhaust and removed various road legalizing items (thereby shedding many kilos). Yeah, it could just be a seriously potent longdistance racer (sounds like a project for those based Stateside).
      Here in Europe, Honda are valiantly marketing this bike as a trail-totrail option, getting you from one off-road section to the next without getting your collar felt (meaning police ‘interference’). Struggling for an appropriate description they plumped for ‘mx-based strong off-road, road legal machine’. While not the most succinct of descriptions, it is indeed that.
      Only there’s one more snag – as if all the emissions-restrictions weren’t handicap enough – the CRF450L is also quite an expensive buy. Pushing nearly £10,000 is tantamount to making it a rich man’s toy. Trail riders in the UK, for instance, have loved the CRF250L because it’s come in at a sub £5k ticket while offering Honda reliability and build quality plus maximum versatility – commute, world tour, trail ride, it does it all (at its own pace). We can’t see those buyers even sniffing at the CRF450L given its narrower focus and vastly higher ticket. However, if Honda were, one day, to make a true CRF450L (in the same vein as the CRF250L, at a similar budget-conscious price) then those buyers would no doubt upgrade in an instant.

LOOKING FOR A HOME

Yeah, the CRF450L is actually a great bike, we really enjoyed riding it and you can feel the potential, it’s just sitting in something of a no mans land given conventional thinking. It’s neither a trail bike (as we know them) nor an enduro. And given the EU-strangling it’s struggling all the more to define its market positioning. In the US, with 40hp on tap it sits neatly at the racy end of the dual sport category (where enduro meets adventure) and given the power to match the focus it’s set to carve itself a very nicely defined niche (kind of an XR400 for the modern era). So while even in the US the CRF450L is substantially more expensive than the competition, that upshift in performance pretty much justifies the ticket.      

Honda has built a great bike. It rides well, you really can’t complain about the design and the execution – it’s all top shelf. But for the EU, you need to come into this purchase eyes-wide open. This is not an enduro and it’s not your average trail bike either. And do try to forget that 25hp stat. This is a very amenable, torquey, capable er, ‘mx-based strong off-road, road legal machine’ – yeah, I can’t call it any better than Honda! 

HONDA’S AIM  
To build a 450 with appeal to both experienced and less experienced riders
Make it a proper CRF – 70% of the parts are said to be common with the CRF450R. Make it fully legal.

THE MOTOR
It’s the 449.7cc Unicam motor from the CRF450R, with a lowered 12.0:1 compression ratio, and with revised crank inertia (+12%) and different ECU settings it’s retuned for low-rev torque and strong power up to 6000rpm as typically found in trail bikes (this isn’t a high-rev racer). Max power in the EU is now 24.7hp at 7500rpm while peak torque is 23 lb-ft at 3500rpm. The gearbox is now a six-speed unit while the engine features plastic outer covers to reduce noise (and add a bit of protection). The radiators are larger than on the R and there’s a fan to keep the cool on slow hot rides. There’s a catalytic converter in that big muffler.

THE CHASSIS
The frame starts out as that used in the CRF450R, but the pivot plate is modified to allow more rigidity for trails while the head pipe is reshaped for more flexibility. The steering is relaxed to 28º30’ with 122mm trail, while the swingarm is lengthened by 8mm to 577mm, thus increasing the wheelbase from 1482 to 1500mm. Wheels are by DID and that’s a traditional 21”/18” combo. The 260/240mm brake discs are 0.5mm thicker to cope with protracted on-road braking scenarios.

2019 HONDA CRF450L SPECIFICATIONS

Engine: liquid cooled Uni-cam four-valve single cylinder four-stroke Displacement: 449cc Bore & stroke: 96.0 x 62.1mm Max Power: 18.4kW (25bhp) @ 7500rpm Max Torque: 32Nm (23lb.ft) @ 3500rpm Fueling: EFI Starter: Electric Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, wet multiplate clutch Frame: aluminium beam frame Front suspension: 49mm Showa USD forks Rear suspension: Showa monoshock with Prolink system Tyres: 80/100-21, 120/80-18 Brakes: Front disc 260mm twin-piston caliper, Rear disc 240mm Seat height: 940mm Wheelbase: 1500mm Weight: 130.8kg (with oil and petrol) Fuel capacity: 7.6 l Contact: www.honda.co.uk (.eu) UK price: £9469 EU price: €10,699 US price: $10,399.

THE LEGALIZING
The fuel tank is fabricated in Titanium and increased to 7.6-litres. Lighting is full LED including flexi-mounted indicators. To keep noise down the swingarm is urethane injected and there are rubber dampers on both sprockets as well as the chain slider. The speedo is a fully digital affair that offers speedo, odo, two trips, average and instant fuel consumption, a read out on fuel used, plus a clock. For added peace of mind a fuel warning light comes on when you’re down to your last 2.4-litres (half-gallon approx.).




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