Review: 2013 Honda CRF450X
If you follow off-road racing at all, you probably already know that Honda has been the dominant two-wheeled force on the Baja Peninsula for almost two decades. Big Red has actually been unbeaten in the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 for the past 16 years.
Honda’s XR-based dirt bikes earned many of those Baja victories, but Honda retired its venerable XR650 factory machine and changed to the CRF450X back in 2006, and it has continued to maintain that high level of success. The 2013 CRF450X is an off-road version of the motocross CRF450R bike that was first introduced in 2005. (Note: There are no major changes to the 2014 Honda CRF450X.)
The 450X’s strong points include a user-friendly Open-class engine, excellent suspension quality and ultra-stable handling at speed, making it a solid platform for everything from weekend play riding in stock form to Baja-winning performance when properly set up.
The CR450X uses a version of Honda’s compact Unicam single overhead cam four-valve cylinder head, which was introduced on the CRF450R and has even been used on some of Honda’s streetbikes. The design not only saves weight over a bulkier dual overhead camshaft head, but it also permits a narrow valve angle, effectively flattening the combustion chamber to facilitate ignition flame propagation and reduce the chance of detonation even with the X’s 12.0:1 compression ratio. Also, since less space is taken up in the cylinder head, the camshaft sits lower in the head for a lower center of gravity.
But the CRF450X does differ from the motocross machine in other ways. The X model still uses an old-school Keihin 40mm flat-slide carburetor rather than the more high-tech fuel-injection system found on the 450R, but Honda engineers have narrowed the performance gap between the 450X’s carb and the 450R’s fuel injection by incorporating an EFI-style throttle position sensor to enhance the 450X’s throttle response. Another obvious change is that the 450X’s ignition system is designed with a coil to power its headlight and taillight. Further separating itself from its motocross-bred sibling, the 450X uses a more off-road friendly, wide-ratio five-speed transmission to cover everything from tight, single-track trails to wide-open desert terrain. The 450X also adds the convenience of electric starting, although it still has a standard kickstarter as a backup.
It didn’t take much time on our favorite desert fire roads and singletrack trails to gain an appreciation for the CRF450X’s engine performance. While the racers in our test crew wanted a little more snap in the powerband, experienced and novice trail riders alike appreciated the 450X’s smooth power delivery. Make no mistake, the 450X engine is plenty strong, and its TPS-controlled carburetion delivers crisp throttle response, but trail riders will appreciate how the engine churns seamlessly from its low-end grunt into a top-end rush with no hitches along the way. The user-friendly CRF450X motor delivers a predictable chug, chug, chug down low that’s much more likely to endear itself to a wider range of customers, from weekend play riders to novice off-road racers, especially in rough or tight sections. It’s also noteworthy that the X motor also meets current California Air Resources Board (CARB) and EPA off-road emissions standards, so its performance potential is probably choked up a bit in stock form.
Clutch action is also light and linear on the 450X, although the abundance of low-end means that you’ll probably never have to hammer it. Its five-speed transmission also shifts buttery smooth, a quality for which Hondas is well renowned.
The CRF450X’s aluminum perimeter chassis delivers freight train-style stability, but its steering response isn’t as light as we anticipated, and that came as a bit of surprise considering that its wheelbase checks in at 58.3”, almost half an inch shorter than the motocross-based CRF450R. The 450X’s rake is nearly identical at 27.1-degrees, and its 4.3-inch trail is .27 of an inch shorter than the 450R’s. Those numbers suggest that the 450X should be able to carve turns as quickly, if not quicker than the 450R, but the extra fuel carried in the X’s 1.9-gallon fuel tank (the R carries 1.6 gallons fully fueled) and additional off-road and emissions equipment add up to a significant 26.3-pound weight penalty over the motocrosser. Compounding the issue are the 450X’s 13.6-inch ground clearance and 27.9-inch seat height, .6 of an inch more and .5 of an inch taller than the 450R’s, which means that the 450X’s cg is also higher.
Honda’s Progressive Steering Damper (HPSD) enhances to the CRF450X’s high-speed stability when the going gets rough however. The HPSD is designed to act like a rising-rate suspension and increase damping force as the steering deflects further from its center line (straight ahead). But the HPSD is also noticeable when negotiating brushy single-track sections where quick turns are required to swing the handlebars back and forth between thick branches.
The CRF450X doesn’t share the CRF450R’s new-fangled air-spring forks and instead sticks with the proven and reliable inverted 47mm Showa cartridge fork that offers 16-position rebound and 16-position compression-damping adjustability to tailor its 12.4-inches of front wheel travel. The rear suspension’s 12.4 inches of travel are managed by Honda’s trademark Pro-Link rising rate linkage with a Showa single shock that features adjustable spring-preload, 17-position rebound-damping adjustability, and compression-damping adjustments separated into low-speed (13 positions) and high-speed (3.5 turns).
Slamming through rough off-road sections at high velocity endeared us to the CRF450X’s suspension, which delivers plenty of bump cushioning while also featuring excellent low-speed sensitivity in stutter bumps or rocky sections. Some of our testers even attempted several huge motocross-style jumps with multiple g-force landings on the 450X, and the fork and shock took the punishment without bottoming.
The 450X’s single 240mm front disc features a Nissin twin-piston caliper that delivers plenty of braking power with a linear feel, and its 240mm rear disc likewise exhibits a good feel and easy modulation without any undesirable tendency to lock up the rear wheel. Of course, having good tires also helps, and the CR450X’s 80/100-21 front and 110/100-18 rear Dunlop tires deliver plenty of bite on everything from hard pack to soft sand with excellent durability.
Out on the trail, the 450X’s slim seat and narrow aluminum perimeter chassis help to hide the 267-lb. weight of the overall package, and its quality Renthal handlebar offers plenty of leverage in any terrain. While the seat is narrow, it is well padded, and the overall seating position is very comfortable for longer off-road excursions. We’d have no trouble spending a full day on the 450X’s saddle.
While the CRF450X sports exceptional attention to detail—for instance, we especially liked the trap door in the left side panel, which makes removing the air filter for easy servicing a snap—we would like to see it come with a few more off-road-specific amenities than just lights and a spark arrestor. All good off-road motorcycles need handguards to ward off bashed fingers from flying debris or when threading between trees on tight wooded trails. Also, a rear fender-mounted tool bag, such as the one that was delivered on generations of big XR’s would be an easy upgrade. What else would we change? Assuming it could be done without raising the X’s cg, a fuel tank with more capacity than the X’s current 1.9-gallon tank would be a great way to extend our off-road riding fun. Of course, most of the items on our wish-list are already addressed by aftermarket suppliers.
But none of its minor shortcomings would stop us from buying and riding the heck out of the Honda CRF450X. Its engine power, suspension and chassis are adaptable to a wide variety of off-road terrain and rider experience, and its list price of $8440 is a bargain when you take into account Honda’s reputation for quality and reliability. True, the CRF450X might not be the best choice in stock form for wannabe racers, but when properly modified, its racing legacy speaks for itself. In any case, it’s worthy of consideration if you’re looking for a great Open-class dirt bike to spend time riding across the desert or through the woods.