2019 Honda CRF450L
I don’t know if there is a word or phrase that perfectly sums up the feeling of waiting for something so long that you forget about it, then it finally shows up and you are sort of in shock that it actually happened... But I do know the feeling. It happened when, at the beginning of the year, Honda announced the full line of CRF models for 2019 and a fully street legal CRF450L was included. For core motocross riders, it might not be earth shattering, but for every other kind of dirt bike rider in the world, it is like the heavens opened and we heard angels singing answers to our prayers.
OK, a little dramatic. But to be straight up, KTM has had a lock on the barely-legal, “dirt bike with a license plate” since the mid 2000s with their 520 and 450 EXC models. These were basically their off-road only, big-bore four-strokes that were very popular trail machines. At the time, the words “dual sport” left a pretty unsavory taste in the mouth of any true off-road rider. It meant a bike that came from the street and tried to play in the dirt or a pretty mellow trail bike that was much heavier, much more comfort-based than any real off-road only machine. Also, at that time Husqvarna had their TE models that were also street legal dirt bikes that did well for what they were.
This micro history lesson is to give the historical context that for more than 15 years, dirt bike riders have wanted a full-blown dirt bike with a license plate from a Japanese manufacture, and have had to just be patient. Not to take anything away from XRs, KLRs, DR/Zs, or WR/XTs which are all good bikes in the the dual sport world but none would be confused for a moto bike or single track slayer.
The fact that the CRF450L is based on the 2019 CRF450R is incredible. Japanese manufactures are extremely conservative and if a bike is street legal, it falls into the realm of gnarly durability. The CRF-Rs and CRF-Xs and now RXs are all performance-focused competition machines. On their list of priorities, performance comes above all else. That’s why their maintenance intervals are so short. But for all Honda’s street models, including the XR650L, performance is still important yet durability and safety are bumped way up. This is why it has taken a so long for Honda, or any Japanese manufacture, to make a bike like this.
I want to start with the area of the bike I like the most, the suspension. Honda did right by moto and off-road riders by keeping a very performance-based suspension set up to the CRF450L. Dual sports, even the EXC-Fs, can come stock with very comfort based settings and springs that make faster, more aggressive riders re-spring the fork and shock right away. Not so with the Honda. The fork is the same outer tubes as the R version, but features off-road specific internals; the same with the fully adjustable shock.
At first I felt like the fork was a little too stiff. I was getting some deflection off of tree roots and rocks, and overall, the front end felt too active, like their was also too much rebound. At the lunch stop for the day we went softer on the fork compression and stiffer on the rebound which helped get the fork more planted and predictable. I had no issues with the shock and it gave excellent traction and feel of the trail. Overall, the CRF450L’s suspension gives the bike a lively, playful feel makes you want to jump from rocks to roots to bumps, and lets you charge harder down the single track.
While the suspension was somewhat close to the R as far as performance goes, the L’s motor is a few steps further away. I expected a little bit more from a powerplant that is, according to Honda, 70 percent the same as the R motor. That being said, they had to do a lot to make this bike street legal and pass Honda’s own internal durability standards. It has dedicated valve timing, higher crank inertia (12 percent over the R), a 12.0:1 compression ratio, three-ring piston design, dedicated ECU settings, and an emissions-meeting single sided exhaust.
And don’t get me wrong, I liked the power and the base character of the CRF450R is still tucked in the power delivery. But overall, it is much smoother, more linear, and tamer version of the R. Which is a good thing for most dual-sporting. Honda’s motocrosser is a beast and one of the most exciting and barky motors in the 450 category. Trying to ride that on tight single track would be frustrating and exhausting.
On the L, you can still tell you are on a 450 and it is pretty easy to break the back end loose at will, just with the throttle. I’m not sure where the “25 horsepower” rumor came from on the internet but it is just not true. While Honda doesn’t publish HP numbers, my butt dyno says it isn’t far off from the R or RX, it just makes the power differently and takes a little more time to get into the meat. The bottom end has OK torque and is sort of sneaky fast, since the bike is so quiet. But it really likes to be ridden more in the top of the bottom-end and mid range. It doesn’t rev out super far, but it doesn’t need to. The usable, yet still exciting power in the mid worked great in all gears and at my vet intermediate trail pace.
Speaking of gears, the six-speed transmission is one of my other favorite parts of the bike. On other dual-sport bikes, it seems that there is always a big gap somewhere between the low-speed trail-riding gears and the much taller street gears. On the XR650, if I remember correctly, first and second gear are very low and close together, then there is a massive jump to third that just doesn’t work well for medium pace off-road riding. The CRF450L however, has very even gear spacing from first (low enough to ride at a walking pace through any kind of super tight stuff) to sixth (went 86 mph on the highway without screaming its head off, but it was also hard to hear since the muffler is so quiet).
I can say that, even though the front end is stretched out a little bit with different fork lugs putting the front axle a little farther forward, the CRF450L retains a lot of the fantastic agile handling traits of the R version… Up to a point. When ripping down a trail with tight sections and flowing sections, the bike responds immediately to quick line changes and dodging trees, rocks, and roots. Little kinks in the trail and quick climbs and descents are all a blast. But when you have to get the bike to slow down to pull a tight 180 that’s when the bike feels heavier than the R, and other off-road only bikes.
There is just more mass to pivot. It doesn’t turn slow, necessarily, it just takes more rider input and effort than, say, a bike without a license plate. The stability is way better than the CRF450R, which I found to be very agile, yet twitchy in some cases. The CRF450L is rock solid on dirt roads, and we rode some super slick, gravel roads that would be hard to get traction on any bike. Sidenote, we didn’t ride the bike with the stock IRC GP21/22 tires. Instead we were on Dunlop 606s which are a little more aggressive than the stockers but still more street oriented than a off-road only knobby.
After all the performance parts, there are a lot of things that are unique to the CRF450L in the CRF lineup. To keep the sound down Honda came up with a myriad of individual features that add up to a positively stealthy bike. First, there are rubber sound dampers on the front and rear sprockets that virtually eliminate chain noise. Then there are full engine case covers that do offer protection but are mainly to muffle internal engine noise. Lastly, the swingarm is filled with urethane to also deaden the overall sound emitted from the bike.
While any dirt bike can support some light luggage and small electronics, the CRF450L is ready for way more than that. The aluminum subframe extends all the way to the end of the rear fender making for a super legit luggage support system. Also, the AC generator and high capacity lithium-ion battery are ready for GPS systems, extra lights, phone chargers, heated grips, a coffee maker, mini fridge… Maybe not the last two, but you get the point.
The tank is titanium just like the R, RX, and X but is 2.1 gallons, which isn’t massive but should get you a fair bit of riding. We rode around 100 miles and filled the bikes up at lunch. Even with a little faux pas (my bike wasn’t filled all the way in the morning and my fuel light came on 12 miles into the ride) we put about 2 liters (half a gallon) into it and I made it to lunch just fine.
FINAL THOUGHTS AFTER ONE EPIC DAY
To only have seven hours with an all-new machine is a bit of a bummer. There is a lot to unpack, tryout, and digest in a short amount of time. The main takeaways for me are the performanced-based suspension, the very minimal sound output, the usable but meaty power, and the dual-sport extras that you don’t see on other plated dirt bikes.
Could you race this bike? Depends on the race, but the 289 pound claimed wet weight sort of answers that question. That being said, you can race any bike if you are good and tough enough (Scott Summers comes to mind). Do I want one in my garage? Abso-freakin’-lutely! To be able to ride a real dirt bike from the garage in California isn’t very easy and your options were limited. Now, there is another option from team Red. We aren’t sure if Vital will get a long term test bike but if you see a CRF450L on local MX track, it just might be us.