Common Tread

2019 Honda CRF450L first ride review

Sep 17, 2018

I paused for a moment to take in my surroundings. I was perched on the ledge of narrow single-track trail no more than 24 inches wide just south of Packwood, Washington. On my right, a steep incline reached completely vertical to the menacing-looking clouds above. On my left, the forest opened into a void with nothing but a immediate drop into the abyss below. I only had a few seconds to take it in before the muffled growl of another Honda CRF450L could be heard coming up behind me. I clicked Honda’s newest dual-sport into gear and set off down the trail, trying not to look down.

It was readily apparent in the route Honda had planned for our press ride that they wanted to dispel any doubts that the new CRF450L wasn't up to the challenges it might face on any given ride. They clearly wanted to prove that not only does it look the part of an aggressive off-road machine, but it also delivers. 

When news of the CRF450L first came out, it hit like a rock in a pond, creating ripples across the motorcycle community. Dual-sport sales are up, but riders looking for performance-oriented machines have been limited to options by KTM, Husky, or other lesser known European brands. However, along with the news came a wave of skepticism. A lot of folks were quick to point to the lethargic CRF250L as an example of how this bike could go wrong.

2019 Honda CRF450L
Based on what I have seen, there is a lot of excitement around the new CRF450L. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

But Honda claims the CRF250L was never meant to be a performance-driven machine. Rather, it was intended to be an entry-level bike that would allow riders to dip a toe into the dirt. It was aimed at providing a friendly user experience more than providing a wild ride in the woods. But the new CRF450L is claiming a legacy born from its fellow 450 race-bred machines, a very different lineage. And based on the comments on our first article, a lot of folks want to know just how different.

Welcome the Honda CRF450L

Since we reported our first article on the CRF450L, Honda has provided more detailed information about the bike. My goal with this article is to clear up  those details as well as to provide my initial impressions of riding the bike.

Honda CRF450L Review
I felt this graphic helped to depict the CRF lineup rather well. Honda image.

The engine is built on the same platform as the CRF450 line of motorcycles that includes the CRF450R, CRF450RX, and CRF450X. In Honda’s line, these three models are race-bred bikes, each with a specific purpose in mind, and none of which are street-legal. While the CRF450L shares a lot of the same DNA as its competition-based brothers, it also gets a lot of unique changes.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
While the outside looks the same, the internals of the engine are specific to the CRF450L. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The single-cylinder, 449.7 cc, Unicam engine is identical to the rest of the CRF450 line, save for a few dedicated internal changes. A different camshaft and dedicated ECU is used to shift power lower in the rpm range and to distribute it more evenly. The “L” also gets a heavier crankshaft and a wide-ratio six-speed gearbox, same as the “X” model. The engine is said to weigh 5.5 pounds more than the engine found in the “R.”

Some of these changes were necessary to meet DOT regulations required for on-road use while others were made specifically to enhance the experience of riders looking for a trail-focused dual-sport, not a race bike. That heavier crank allows you to really lug the engine, and that sixth gear will get you up to 91 mph on the street (it is regulated by a governor).

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
The CRF450L was surprisingly smooth on the street. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

“The goal was to create more linear power delivery, not to build a race motor where it’s harder to keep traction to the ground,” racing legend Johnny Campbell told us. Campbell was extensively involved with the testing of this motorcycle during production.

Expect to see peak horsepower numbers somewhere in the mid to high 40s. One engineer said, “around 50” and another representative said “mid 40s.” The official response I got from Colin Miller, Honda's On-Road Media Coordinator, was that while Honda doesn't publish horsepower numbers, "around 45 horsepower" is a safe statement to make. What you need to know is that the power comes on relatively evenly throughout the rev range and delivers a solid mid-range punch before tapering off slightly before the rev limiter.

Like the engine, the suspension is also derived from the other CRF competition models but with different internals. The Showa coil-spring fork features 12.01 inches of travel with lighter springs than the “R” to handle a larger variety of terrain. It has adjustments for compression and rebound damping.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
A close-up look at Honda’s Pro Link system. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The rear Showa shock features 12.36 inches of travel and is mounted to the bike using Honda’s Pro Link system. It also receives a slightly softer spring over the “R” and has adjustments for preload, rebound damping, and both high- and low-speed compression damping.

At 58.9 inches, its wheelbase is nearly identical to that of the “X” and only slightly longer that the 58.3-inch wheelbase of the “R.” The same is true for the steering geometry, with a rake angle of 28 degrees and 20 minutes and a trail of 4.6 inches. The CRF450L feels super planted in a wide variety of terrain, if only slightly slower to steer through some of the tightest single-track.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
From gravel roads to single-track trails, I was surprised by how planted the CRF450L felt, especially considering the Dunlop 606 tires are still DOT-rated. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The CRF450L has over 12 inches of ground clearance and a seat height of 37.1 inches. Yet it doesn’t feel as tall as it looks on paper. As I am six-feet, three-inches, I am not always the best judge of what is uncomfortably tall. So I recruited the opinions of some of the other riders who ranged in height from five-six to five-ten, all of whom shared my thoughts. We even got one of the Honda techs to measure the seat height for us just to make sure it was as tall as Honda claimed it was. The measurement was right on the money.

This bike’s height is a lot friendlier than some of the taller KTMs I’ve ridden, but it might appear intimidating. If you’re coming to off-road riding from the street, practice sliding your butt off the seat to get a better reach to the ground.

Another element aiding the friendly nature of the CRF450L was the amount of thought the engineers put into reducing overall vibration. Dampened sprockets, a urethane-filled swingarm, and plastic engine covers give the bike a rather civilized feel for a big thumper.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
Anyone using the CRF450L in serious off-road conditions will want to replace the stock tires. Our test bikes were outfitted with Dunlop D606 tires. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The tires we rode were not stock. The factory IRC GP21 and GP22 tires were discarded in favor of more aggressive Dunlop D606 Dual Sport rubber. The 606s maintain a DOT rating but have a much bigger bite off-road. Anyone planning on riding this thing in the dirt will want to make a similar move and ditch the stock IRCs.

Service intervals are scheduled at 600 miles for oil changes (1.22 quarts oil) and 1,800 miles for a valve check. Keep in mind that during this ride we tackled 100 decently gnarly miles. So, after six of those rides, you would want to change the oil. Pretty simple. For riders coming from a street background, this might sound a bit aggressive, but it’s actually about average for a dirt bike.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
In stock form, the CRF450L utilizes an odometer instead of an hour meter to track distance traveled. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Unlike other manufacturers, Honda bases all of its maintenance on miles and not hours. This difference is also reflected in the dash as the CRF450L utilizes an odometer and doesn’t have a factory hour meter (our bikes were outfitted with accessory hour meters). The dash includes a fuel light and countdown meter to allow you to know how many miles you have until you’re empty. With the two-gallon tank, you should see a range just shy of 100 miles. Folks were averaging between 45 and 53 miles per gallon.

That being said, Honda acknowledges that certain riders require an extended range. They are already working with IMS on a three-gallon tank designed specifically for this model. The aftermarket tanks for the CRF450R and CRF450X will not fit on the L.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
The beefier aluminum sub-frame contributes to the increase in weight over the other CRF models, but it also allows riders to mount luggage for longer treks. Honda photo.

The claimed wet weight for the CRF450L is 289 pounds wet. That’s roughly 40 pounds heavier than the track-oriented CRF450R. But a lot of that weight can be attributed to making this bike street-legal. Items like all of the emissions systems, an increased capacity radiator, electric fan, AC generator, and a lithium ion battery to run an LED lighting system contribute to the gain. The “L” also receives an aluminum subframe to support the weight of luggage as well as the addition of an extra half gallon of fuel.

It wears that weight well, however. Out on the trail we tackled everything from gravel roads, to two-track, to insanely amazing single-track trails that flowed endlessly through the forests between Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainer. It tackled it all without batting an eye.

Riding the CRF450L

I honestly don’t know what excited me more, getting to be one of the first people in the world to ride the new Honda CRF450L or doing so in the Pacific Northwest. The scenery made it difficult to focus on the bike itself. Even battling rain and fog most of the day, there was no shortage of spectacular views. I am officially jealous of all of the folks who get to ride the PNW on a regular basis.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
Following a gravel fire road to work our way deep into Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The day started off on a gravel logging road that wound itself up into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, deep into the Cascade mountain range. The bike was not nearly as buzzy at highway speeds as I was expecting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a single-cylinder 450, but it’s impressively smooth. I could cruise at 70 mph as long as the rock-hard seat would allow (I would immediately be shopping for a Seat Concepts alternative if I were to buy one of these).

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
Handguards would be a welcome addition to the CRF450L. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

As the road narrowed, and we turned off onto a single-track trail, I immediately noticed the lack of handguards. Normally I am commenting on this as I am picking up a giant ADV bike with broken levers, but in this instance my hands were getting beaten by tree branches. More than once a branch hit my front brake lever and caused a bit of a “disruption.”

The CRF450L features a larger capacity front brake reservoir and a thicker brake rotor to adhere to DOT regulations. Despite the use of rubber hoses, I found the brake feel at the front and rear to be firm and progressive. I was able to get a lot of control from the brakes without locking them up.

However, if you do stall it out with the bike in gear, you have to pull the clutch all the way to the handlebar to get it running again. This didn’t phase me as I am used to riding street-legal dual-sports and adventure bikes with clutch switches, but some of the other riders with a racing background found this to be annoying.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
I felt no noticeable heat while riding the CRF450L, but it would be something to consider if I were to add luggage to the bike. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Despite the lack of handguards, the CRF450L comes stock with a skid plate as well as engine case guards. The case guards are foam backed to help dampen vibration and provide an air gap to help with cooling. That being said, the muffler was extremely hot as this bike is running super lean in order to meet emissions requirements needed to wear a license plate. I imagine there are going to be a lot of modifications out there focused on freeing up the fuel and air on this bike.

I didn’t notice any heat while riding, but this is something to keep in mind if you are planning on using soft luggage during a multi-day trip.

My biggest critique of the power was the “on/off” feel of the throttle in first gear. It was most noticeable on the tight single-track. I was really working to slip the clutch and keep the bike in check. Talking to a few of the guys who were more versed in the world of motocross and racing, they assured me this is typical of modern fuel-injected 450 dirt bikes. They didn’t find it distracting but it’s something to note if you’re coming at this bike from the adventure crowd or an older dual-sport.

After our first photo stop, the pace increased as we transitioned onto an overgrown Jeep trail with plenty of ruts and kickers. A quick snap of the throttle is all it takes to get this bike to stand at attention or go sailing over a water bar. It’s grin-inducing.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
Crack the throttle and the bike snaps to attention. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The second round of single-track was a bit more flowing and not as tight. I really enjoyed getting this bike up into higher gears on the faster terrain. The soil in this particular area is unlike anything I have ever ridden. Our guide, Jesse Felker, who runs the Pacific Northwest Instagram page, explained that it’s not dirt, but rather generations of ash from all of the volcanic activity in the region. When it gets wet, it gets tacky, not slick like mud. The Dunlop 606 tires hooked up well and the bike felt extremely predictable underneath me.

I was afraid the suspension was going to be too soft for a rider of my size at 215 pounds. It almost always is. Talking to the folks from Honda, I was informed the CRF450L is sprung with a 180-pound rider in mind. That being said, I thought it did a damn good job for an out-of-the-box-unit. 

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
There is a lot of room for adjustment on the stock suspension. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Compared to the stock settings Honda had the bikes set up to be a bit more plush. The adjustment for the front fork had the compression backed off one click and the rebound backed off two clicks. The rear shock had the sag set to 110 mm and the compression backed off one click. Even with that in mind, I actually found it to be a little harsh over some of the rougher terrain. At lunch, Jason Abbott, Honda’s Two-Wheel Off-Road Media Coordinator, helped me dial back the rebound damping, which he said would help smooth out the ride.

“A little bit goes a long way,” he told me as he removed one click of rebound from the front fork. “A lot of people think they need to go two or three clicks before they’ll notice anything, but really one click makes a big difference with this suspension.”

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
The CRF450L's suspension is pretty impressive for an out-of-the-box offering. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

He wasn’t wrong. The second half of the day the ride was much smoother, and the bike was less harsh over the rocks and ruts. If I were to make one of these my own, I would eventually want to get it set up with slightly heavier springs for my larger load. But most people will be able to ride this bike in its stock trim and be very pleased with the result.

Wrapping up the day back at camp, the comparisons started flying around as beers were cracked.

How you view the weight of the CRF450L will depend on what you’re currently riding. I think for riders coming from an ADV background, it’ll seem extremely light. I was easily able to navigate roots and ruts and hill climbs that would have gotten me in trouble on my larger mount. But if you’re currently riding a 250 cc two-stroke, you’ll most likely have a much different opinion. Our guide, Jesse, normally rides a 2016 KTM 500 EXC-F Six Days edition (a bike that lost about 10 pounds itself in 2017) and he commented that, in spite of what it says on paper, out on the trail the CRF felt lighter, and was more nimble in the tighter trails, than his bike. 

The competition

I was wrong.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
Trail riders who are currently riding a Yamaha WR250R, Suzuki DR-Z400, or Kawasaki KLR650 and looking for a step up now have something other than a KTM to consider. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

When I first wrote about this bike I said that Honda was going after KTM with this new CRF450L. They’re not. They’re going after everyone who ever wanted a step up in performance over their Yamaha WR250R, Suzuki DR-Z400, or Kawasaki KLR650 and had nowhere else to turn but to KTM.

The CRF450L is lighter than all of those models and at somewhere around 45 ponies, it produces more power as well. For anyone who has ever felt compelled to purchase a KTM due to the lack of Japanese options, the new CRF450L finally offers you an alternative.

For all of the KTM diehards in the audience, let me save you the trouble: This bike is not a KTM. Both the 350 EXC and 500 EXC are lighter and make as much (the 350) if not more (the 500) power than the CRF450L. But it’s important to consider how the bikes deliver their power.

Whereas the 350 likes being revved up a bit more, and the 500 hits harder down low, I feel like the CRF450L kind of splits the difference by focusing on a wider midrange power delivery. The Honda is also one of the smoothest (if not the smoothest) dirt bikes I have ever ridden. For a lot of folks who are looking to ride from home to the trailhead, this is a huge win.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
With a few choice accessories you could easily use the CRF450L as a mini-ADV bike for more off-road-oriented adventures. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

With an MSRP of $10,399, I think the CRF450L will also appeal to folks in the adventure community who want a more capable off-road machine but would like to maintain a small semblance of comfort. Whereas a lot of the other bikes in this market come across as a bit… frantic, the CRF450L is more inviting and less offensive to the unsuspecting newcomer.

One final thing that is going to set this bike apart from the competition is the fact that it comes standard with a one-year factory warranty and the option of adding five years on top of that for a total of six years of protection… unlimited miles… on a dirt bike. And what does the warranty cover? Well, it’s easier to tell you what it excludes: tires, batteries, accessories and expendable maintenance items, such as spark plugs, filters, and lubricants.

I am guessing that is going to be a huge deal to a lot of people.

Conclusion

I approached this review with equal amounts of skepticism and excitement. I was skeptical because Honda was promising a lot, and I was excited to see if they could actually deliver (as well as for the opportunity to finally ride the Pacific Northwest). I would say they showed up in a big way.

This is not a competition CRF, but rather a dual-sport trail bike, built with the DNA of their competition lineup. I think this is an important differentiation to keep in mind.

If you’re coming from the racing world, your first comments will most likely be that you’d like a bit more power and a little less weight. But if that is the case I would direct you to the “R,” “RX” or “X.” Honda has those options. They’re just not this bike.

Honda CRF450L First Ride Review
The CRF450L is a machine that will allow riders to try their hand at a variety of different types of off-road riding. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

This is a street-legal dual-sport for folks who are riding in areas that require a license plate. It can bear the weight of luggage for a multi-day adventure and it can be stripped down to tackle a local enduro or hare scramble. You might not be the first to cross the finish line but winning comes in many forms. For me, the win is just getting out there in the first place to try something new. And this CRF450L is a motorcycle that will allow riders to try their hand at a multitude of types of off-road riding.

Honda built the CRF450L with performance at its core. But in addition, the bike offers up comfort and versatility as well. I think the CRF450L has the potential to be a different type of bike to different people. And because of that, I think there are going to be a lot of people excited about this bike. 

2019 Honda CRF450L
Price (MSRP) $10,399
Engine Type Unicam® OHC, four-valve, liquid-cooled 10-degree single-cylinder four-stroke
Displacement 449.7 cc
Bore x stroke 96.0 mm X 62.1 mm
Transmission Constant-mesh, wide-ratio, 6-speed 
Front suspension 49 mm leading-axle inverted telescopic Showa coil-spring fork, adjustable rebound and compression damping
Rear suspension Pro-Link system; Showa single shock, adjustable preload, rebound and high- and low-speed compression damping
Suspension travel  Front 12.01 inches, rear 12.36 inches
Front brake Two-piston caliper hydraulic; single 260 mm disc
Rear brake Single-piston caliper hydraulic; single 240 mm disc
Tires front/rear IRC GP21 80/100-21; IRC GP22 120/80-18
Steering head angle 28 degrees 20 minutes
Trail 4.6 inches
Wheelbase 58.9 inches
Ground clearance 12.4 inches
Seat height 37.1 inches
Tank capacity 2.01 gallons
Wet weight 289 pounds (claimed)