Top-of-the-line motocross bikes get pretty significant improvements each year, and every few years they undergo a total redo. Honda's first CRF450 was introduced in 2002 to stellar reviews and many "bike of the year" awards, solidifying the validity of the 450cc four-stroke motocross market. It received small upgrades in 2003 and '04 until an all-new frame was introduced in '05. Two years again passed before upgrades to motor and suspension take us to the 2008 CRF450R.Our typical testing involves riding each new year's model with the one we've had from the previous year to help identify the changes. It's often easy to feel how much better the new bike is; other times the changes may take a bit of getting used to. Sometimes the heavily used state of a previous year's test bike makes the new bike feel just that-new and better. For this science experiment of tests we recruited a 2002 and a 2005 CRF450R. Both were largely stock, except for some minor suspension revalving. We had Honda freshen them with new air filters, chains and sprockets. The valves were checked (all were in spec), and new plastic replaced the worn original stuff. We changed the oil and fitted Dunlop 745s to all three bikes.The first step of the test was conducted in front of the radar gun to see if there were any changes in the bikes' speed. It showed the differences were minimal and, surprisingly, both of the older bikes had game on the starting line. When we rode the bikes wide-open like a start, there wasn't any notable difference in the way they pulled. But in the roll-on of third gear, where the throttle position varies, the newer the bike, the quicker it felt like it started to pull, but the radar gun largely called it a tie. Honestly, that 2005 isn't looking so bad to the gun.When we hopped on these bikes and took to the track, the variations really began to show. The first trait that stands out is a combination of weight feel and agility in handling. The '02 feels the heaviest, mostly through the handlebar and whenever you throw the bike from side-to-side. The bike feels longer in a good way and more stable. It also feels a lot more planted and not as loose on the ground. You notice the wider width in the frame rails between your legs in addition to the seat having a little more padding which you sink into more in the turns. The '08, on the other hand, is easily the lightest-feeling. It takes a lot less effort to turn the bar, even with the steering stabilizer set at or near the stiffest setting. The bike doesn't feel as planted or as stable, but it isn't lacking in traction nor does it do anything we'd call unstable. If you go from the '02 to the '08, it definitely takes some getting used to. And the more experienced or higher level the rider was, the more he appreciated what the '08 was doing. As expected, the '05 sat in the middle, a hair closer to the newer bike than the older edition. It felt almost as light when flicking side-to-side but had a slightly more weighty feeling in the handlebar. The motor was sitting between the other two, almost exactly like a bridge.Next we noticed the suspension. For sure, the newer the bike was, the faster the suspension movement felt. This is in a time when the current Hondas are getting beat up for a harsh-feeling front end, yet the '08 was the most supple of the three. Sure, we felt a little feedback through the bar on the newest bike, but you get as much of this, if not more, on the older bikes; it's just a little different. The '02 has a much more "dead" feeling in the suspension, not really springy or active. It absorbs the bumps fairly well, handles the jumps and lets the bike track pretty decently. But the best way to describe the improvements is the speed at which the suspension reacts to whatever the track throws at it. The '02 isn't giving you a quick response (measured in milliseconds, not scientifically, but through feel) on every bump. Through the stiffer frame and with help from compliance in the tires, the bike is doing what it should, but CRFs have definitely gotten better in the last six years. The '05 is a leap in the right direction as the frame got a little more flex built in, and that takes some of the bump feel out of the ride. Then you step up to the '08, and it's a lot better on both ends of the spectrum. It takes the ripples out of the ground more naturally than the others, especially through the rear shock, plus it resists bottoming more. It takes the jolt out of the really hard hits. Yes, the '05 again sits right in the middle here, and since the chassis and suspension components are very similar between it and the '08, the '05 can certainly be modified to work at a very high level.
Of all the comments we received from testers, the most consistent remark about all the bikes was that the '05 was the least easy to set into turns. We suspect this was due to the '02 being so much more sluggish in the handling that riders didn't expect it to turn on a dime while the '05 is so close to the '08 that riders expected a lot, when in reality, especially with Honda pulling in the steering in '08, the '05 just doesn't respond as quickly. Here's where power on these bikes comes into play. The '08 is so responsive that the throttle can be used to help the bike do anything you ask of it. If there's a difference between it and the '05, it isn't in outright power but on how early the power starts, how quickly and crisply it responds and how your right wrist is way more connected to what the rear wheel is doing. Likely the ignition mapping that's tied into knowing what gear the bike is in is doing a great deal of work here, too. As with the suspension, it feels like the motor is running through a lower-speed processor the older the bike is, and it takes just a bit longer (in milliseconds) for it to respond. Then the '02 is a much bigger step back here, some riders calling it "XR-like" in power delivery due to its slower-revving feel and bigger chug with each stroke of the motor. It definitely feels like the '02 has a lot more flywheel mass and inertia spinning around on the crank and flywheel than the other two bikes. But once you get any of these bikes spinning up in the higher rpm, they all make good power, and there isn't a lot of difference in the overall feel other than the newer the bike, the quicker it will rev up. Amazingly the clutch action on all of these bikes was super good, and the feel was the same, ditto for the transmissions. All three started right up, and to the ear the sound output of the mufflers was equal.What it comes down to is six years of time, seven pounds of weight (if the gas tanks are full) and so many little tweaks that the 2002 CRF is a completely different bike than the 2008 that has evolved from it. The 2005 is smack in the middle and definitely a couple of years different than either of its two brothers. Here's the funny thing: There were traits on each of these bikes that riders liked. Lower skill-level riders appreciated the friendly power delivery and the slower and more stable handling feel of the 2002 CRF. In the quest for speed, the 2005 also got a bit more aggressive in the power delivery department, which in 2008 was tamed down just a bit with more mellow first and second gear ignition curves. Surprisingly, some things that seem and look so similar across all the bikes-the brakes, for example, demonstrated a big change. The 2008 has the strongest and touchiest brakes of the bunch, and when jumping between the bikes you feel it even though all the bikes were on fresh pads and working at 100 percent. Hop to the '02 and the stoppers almost seem mushy and don't have the same feel. So as you may suspect, the 2008 is the best of the CRFs but it all depends on what traits you're looking for. The quest to build a more aggressive and higher-performing MX machine may be getting further and further away from the ability range of average riders. Or could it be that the newer bikes are bringing up our riding ability with them?Opinions
It was nice to ride the evolution of one motorcycle. I could actually feel what the Japanese manufacturer was trying to improve when going through each bike. Three years in between bikes is perfect because that's when a lot of changes will be made and usually results in a totally different-feeling motorcycle.The 2002 felt a little top-heavy to me. It corners a little slow. The motor had a strong hit, almost too strong. The fork felt harsh in midstroke, as it didn't like driving hard into braking bumps.On the 2005, the motor felt very strong and easy to use. It pulls so far. There was a lot more suspension balance than the '02, and I could ride much harder around a rough track. Cornering was still a little too slow for me. This bike had a big push in corners that I didn't like.Then there's the 2008. It still has an unbelievable motor that pulls far and comes on really strong and snappy. Cornering has improved, and I could lay it in flat corners really easy. I still had problems with harshness in the fork; it was deflecting on deceleration and on flat landings under acceleration. Still, it's one of the best bikes ever made.
-Kris Keefer/5'11"/175 lb/Pro
All of the engines make the same power, but it's how it's served that makes the difference. The 2002 is smooth and torquey, like you think an XR would feel, but it's still way aggressive compared to that. The '05 steps it up, and the '08 blows them both away. It comes down to the throttle on the new bike doing all the work; you twist it and the new bike responds, but the '02 won't get going on its own by comparison.The '02 CRF feels long, stable and low; you notice it more than the others. When you flick it you feel the bike is heavier. You even get more vibration than the others. You can really feel the steering as it takes a bit more effort. The '05 is also slow-handling compared to the '08, that was the big change. It's light feeling and aggressive. But at the same time you could say it's twitchy when compared to the others, especially the '02.What it comes down to for me is that it's easy to get used to the '08, but hard to go back when you're used to it. And I think the better a rider you are, the more this holds true.
-Jimmy Lewis/5'10"/185 lb/Vet proThe 2002 CRF450 had to be the easiest to ride. Thanks to very plush suspension and a smooth powerband, it was easy to get on and start cruising around on the track, but as you begin getting comfortable and going faster, you start to realize where the other 450s have the edge. The frame is much wider than the newer 450s and it gives the bike a heavier feeling. Even though this makes this bike feel very planted, the suspension is much too soft when you get going fast. I'd definitely recommend this bike for a beginner rider.The 2005 CRF450 had a very stiff front suspension which made cornering a task. When going through ruts the front end just wanted to pop out. On top of having a hard time cornering, the bike would send a harsh hit right through the handlebar to your arms over every bump. But aside from the front suspension, the rear shock was perfect; it couldn't have been set up better. The motor had lots of bottom and mid but didn't seem to pull on the top-end like the '08. With a much skinnier frame than the '02, it was easier to move in the air but still didn't have the same feeling as the '08.The 2008 CRF450 had an amazing powerband. In any gear you could hit the throttle and it would go. From the very bottom to the top it pulled hard. It handled greatly through ruts and berms but had problems with the suspension being too stiff on acceleration and braking bumps. It did, however, work great for flat landings or casing jumps. The ergonomics of this bike just seemed to fit me perfectly. The frame felt the easiest to maneuver, and the bike itself was definitely my favorite of the three.
-Tyler Ruiz/5'10"/190 lb/IntermediateAn oldie but a goody. I don't think anyone knows how spoiled we are until we jump on a six-year-old bike. Six years old or not, the 2002 ripped, with tons of low-end, and it was easy to roll on the throttle. It's a very plush machine yet a little soft on the big hits and is hard to control on deceleration. The way it reacts to bumps makes it hard to keep the momentum flowing through the turns.Strong low to midrange pull on this bike means I rarely had to grab the clutch on the 2005. It felt very smooth, the bike was a little rigid on the acceleration bumps and somewhat choppy on the deceleration. I will admit I do like the fork better on the 2005 than the 2008.I really enjoyed riding the new 450. Its motor has all the low-end snap needed; it's really a torque bike. The bike's overall feel is superb, it's very easy to rip out of the crate and ride. The fork on the 2008 feels like it is up a little high, and I got some deflection on deceleration which makes it hard for me to get the bike to settle into a rut. Once I was in the rut, I felt very cozy and very confident to lean the bike.All in all, I felt that the 2008 Honda is an unbeatable bike this year. After riding these back-to-back, you can really appreciate what the manufacturer does for us through the years, and it makes you appreciate your new bike even more.
-Nick Foster/6'0"/180 lb/Pro****By The Numbers