Written by Lukas Eddy
Photos by Drew Ruiz
Top line: 289 lbs wet with an emissions tuned 450X motor and some blinkers? This is supposed to beat KTM EXCs? (Skip to Bottom Line for summary)
Starting with the basics: the 2019 Honda CRF450L dual-sport bike we tested had two wheels, a motor, one seat, some lights and blinkers, and a few other essentials. Those essentials are what will set it apart from the KTMs and Huskies that it will be competing with. More on that later. I say “competing” because street-legal dirt bikes are in a different class from older dual-sports like the KLR and DR-Z and XR650L.
Let’s skip journalistic analogies and get to the point. This will not beat the EXCs in terms of pure off-road performance. At least not without costly upgrades to uncork the motor and save weight. The 450L is a modern, refined piece of equipment that lacks the fiery, uncompromised character of true street-legal dirt bikes. This is good for those who want to buy and ride with minimal fuss, because there is now an option with a huge dealer base that’s not KTM/Husky.
Everybody wants to know about the power. 25 horsepower?? No. More than that. The engineers said it’s in the mid-40s, but they couldn’t tell us an exact number. Desert racers will probably want more power from this emissions-tuned 449cc Unicam motor, but woods riding and casual singletrack doesn’t really need more goose.
It’s got the same bore/stroke as the 450X motor with a different cam, so low end grunt isn’t wild but it also doesn't have a hard hit of power in the midrange. It’s pretty linear and controllable, with the exception of some jerkiness at 1/8th throttle. This jerky mapping is likely a result of the strict emissions requirements. The motor does fire up easily, at least once it’s been warmed up by the Honda guys.
Some people get a little freaked out by the 600-mile oil change interval. Here’s the thing: you ride 100 miles of singletrack every weekend for 6-8 hours, that puts you at 36-48 hours per oil change. That’s a little long for dirt bike oil change intervals. How about street miles? Ride 55-60 mph all day long and you’re still looking at 10-11 hours per oil change, which is reasonable.
What about the 1,800 mile valve check intervals? Again, ride 100 miles of singletrack for 6-8 hours and that’s still 100-150 hours between valve clearance checks. Honestly it would be nice to see these come with hour meters and have maintenance intervals measured in hours.
With the full length subframe it’ll be easy to attach luggage for backcountry camping trips. We only spent ~110 miles on this bike (Honda, wanna give me a “test” bike for a year or two?) but it should be fine for long days. The narrow, hard dirt bike seat is rough on your rear end though.
Engine noise is low and vibrations are surprisingly low – in part because of rubber dampened sprockets and urethane-filled swingarm.
Speaking of comforts and features, the instrument gauge is nice and simple. It will tell you basic information, but what’s nice is instant mpg readout and fuel consumption for Trip A and B. It measures this off the pump, meaning if you install a bigger tank it’ll still accurately read fuel consumption allowing you to judge your range after resetting at gas stops. Honda said IMS is working on a bigger tank, which is nice because the stock tank only gets you 100 miles if you ride easy.
Suspension: please note that I did absolutely nothing to adjust rebound and compression damping at either end, and didn’t touch the shock preload. The forks felt slightly rigid on the choppier washboard sections of gravel, but overall were predictable and did what they had to do. We didn’t have fast aggressive whoops or anything to really push the rear shock, but it felt controlled and didn’t have the harsh rebound sometimes found in stock bikes. I’m no Johnny Campbell, but neither the fork nor shock bottomed out for me. Honda said it’s sprung for a 170-180 lb rider.
Remember what I mentioned about the “essentials” and “buy and ride” convenience? The 450L comes with 50-state street-legal everything, plus a skid plate, front rotor guard, rear rotor/caliper guards, clutch cover guard, and stator cover guard. All you really need to buy are some bark busters and more dirt-oriented tires (we tested the bike with Dunlop D606 front and rear).
Because this bike isn’t meant to be a street bike, all I’ll say is that it’s quite smooth for a dirt bike. It’s got perfectly reasonable street handling characteristics for a 289 lb motorcycle on 21” and 18” wheels. Supermoto conversions should work well with the rubber dampened sprockets and other vibration-reducing features.
A favorite topic of mine: lighting. The stock LED headlight appears bright to the eyes, but we wheeled one bike out into the dark to test the beams. I’m spoiled by good headlights, so I’d consider them good enough to get you outta the woods at night, but you absolutely won’t be desert racing after sunset.
Would I buy this bike? If I lived in California or somewhere it was hard to plate a dirt bike, then yes. Or if I didn’t want to fuss with making a dirt bike street legal. But in states where it’s simple to plate a dirt bike, you might be willing to spend the time/money buying street legal equipment for the 450X model in order to save some weight and have slightly better engine performance.
This is a well thought out, pleasant dual-sport that hopefully opens the way for other manufacturers to follow suit. It’s not a WR250R or CRF250L with ridiculous power to weight ratios. It’s not “Ready to Race” performance either, but it doesn’t need to be. The weight and power are better from the showroom than old carbureted dual-sports, meaning those dinosaurs might finally get phased out as more manufacturers get on this awesome bandwagon.
Bottom line: the CRF450L is a properly dirt-oriented dual-sport with compromises in the right areas to actually compete against European counterparts.
Thanks to Jonnum Media, American Honda Motor Co., and PNW Dual Sport for this event.
Jonnum Media: https://jonnummedia.com/
American Honda Motor Co: http://powersports.honda.com/
PNW Dual Sport: https://www.pnwdualsport.com/