2018 Honda CRF450R
After possibly the biggest year for the CRF450R in 2017, next to the first model in 2002, what is Honda going to do to up it? Honestly, it's a bit tough, although it didn't win our '17 Shootout...it did come very, very close. Along with being near the top in basically every media outlets comparison. As with any all-new model, the second year doesn't usually boast very many changes but those changes are very key. For 2018, Honda went after the main complaints, the forks, and tweaked on the balance a bit. This consists of new spring rates front and rear (stiffer), along with some new upper engine brackets. Beyond this, the bike now comes stock here in the US with electric start and the kickstarter removed. If you want more technical specs and verbiage on what's new for '18, head here - First Look: 2018 Honda CRF450R.
So what's these little changes do in the grand scheme of things? Well number one, it's nice to see the other manufacturers taking KTM and Husqvarna seriously when it comes to electric start as a standard piece. Yeah, yeah, yeah...some of you out there say kicking is just fine as it is, but when it's over a 100 degrees out and you're stuck in a situation where you can't quite reach enough to kick the bike over (my short-legged world), you will thank Honda for the "magic" button. A big bonus over or maybe a reward for patience on those who waited instead of getting a '17 model and buying the starter kit is the updated parts the '18 version receives. It uses the same starter motor and harness pieces, but features a smaller battery trey to support a lighter and also smaller lithium-ion battery. This battery is apparently a bit expensive, as it's the same unit the HRC team uses on Ken Roczen and Tim Gajser's machines...it also features better cold-cranking amps and will find its way onto the '18 version of the RX later this year.
As for the suspension, I was honestly a bit skeptical at first...being that I'm in the 150 pound range and the slightly under-sprung '17 model was a bit more enticing to me. Although, I'll be the first to say the '17 needed some work, especially with the forks. So right as I rolled onto the track, the stiffer springs on the '18 model were instantly noticeable as it felt like most of the other stock 450 bikes do for me, like they're just a bit held up in the stroke due to the stiffer springs. After a few laps, I darted back to the truck to soften the fork compression a few clicks, take an extra quarter turn off the rear spring and open the high-speed compression on the shock a quarter turn. These couple tweaks took of some of that initial hold up just enough for me to feel comfortable ramping up my speed a bit. Once I was moving at something closer to my normal pace I noticed the improved balance the chassis had and the improved fork damping. Last year, most of the guys in our crew struggled with finding the perfect balance between initial feel/comfort and bottoming resistance on the CRF450R. Honestly, it was choose between bottoming and feeling comfortable on the little stuff, or taking the initial chatter and having the bottoming resistance needed. With the stiffer springs, new valving and my slight tweaks...I found better hold up to push, plenty of bottoming control and still some comfort initially after the few clicks softer on compression.
Between the stiffer suspension and the more flexible engine mounts (also the same found on the HRC bikes during outdoors this year), there was a nice combination of extra flex allowing the bike to flow through the corners and soak up a little more brunt front braking chop...while the stiffer suspension kept the bike planted. Together this added to the planted feel that the '17 model already had above the previous few models, really throughout every aspect of the corner for me. It wasn't ground breaking, but just a nice add-on in each situation.
As for the engine, which was already vastly improved last year, a small mapping tweak really cleaned up how the base map runs. This mapping tweak eliminated a flat to spike spot that last year's bike had, which could catch you off-guard exiting corners as you rolled off the bottom and the revs climbed. Now it has a more progressive pull from low-to-mid, which might be mistaken as a bit slower as that previous spike made things feel a bit more "punchy" but wasn't really in the right spot. For me personally, I still wish the Honda had more of a punch right off the bottom, kind of in the direction of the Yamaha, as that's what I like from a 450. But as many Honda lovers will attest to, their smooth delivery isn't a bad thing...just a personal preference.