During a dealer meeting a few years back, Honda execs promised its dealers they were going to see serious, class-leading performance machines as well as an enduring commitment to development in the coming years. Since that meeting, Honda introduced a turbocharged four-stroke watercraft; made every other factory effort at building a four-stroke GP roadrace bike look stupid against its V5; built a cruiser with two cylinders of 900cc each; and introduced the CRF450R. Nowhere has Honda lived up to its promise to dominate a class more than it has with the CRF450R four-stroke. This bike has taken tracks and showrooms by storm. Sales have been exceptionally strong, with dealers generally getting full retail for every bike they could obtain. And two years in the limelight hasn’t dimmed the love. We’re talking about a bike that won Dirt Rider’s 2003 250cc-class comparison of the seven top motocrossers, then earned our pick as bike of the year for an unprecedented second year in a row. It is a bike that put Nathan Ramsey on the map with the big boys and allowed Larry Ward to reinvent himself. And that’s only in moto. The CRF is the backbone of the U.S. supermoto wave and the best thing to happen to American TT and short track in decades.The ’02 model was really good. The only issue we had with the ’03 version was the fight over who would get to ride it for the year. Had Honda chosen to go with only bold new graphics for ’04, there would still be hard feelings from every staff member who didn’t end up with the bike in his garage.At Honda, complacency is harder to find than reality on television. However, with the CRF450R, genuine improvements were pretty difficult to hunt up. Honda managed to massage a number of components and find seemingly small changes to make, but those small changes add up to the next big thing! It was nice to have a stock ’03 CRF450R on hand for comparison. Frankly, our lasting impressions of the ’03 are so strong that we might have made the mistake of finding the ’04 is merely a mild improvement. Our back-to-back comparison ride illustrated a more shocking contrast between the two bikes. What hit us first was the ergonomics. The Renthal bar and nonslip seat are subtle but clearly noticeable improvements to an already comfortable platform. The ’02 model was a bit scrunchy between the seat and footpegs for NBA types, but now the seat is sweet and the reach to the pegs perfect. Honda still dwarfs all others when it comes to making a seat foam that treats your butt like a king. The seat is so good that it makes the suspension feel great for sit-down corner exits.As soon as you start moving, though, the silky power delivery is so sweet you’d think the engine was consuming whipped cream rather than exploding old dinosaurs. Right off idle the power rolls on softly (probably somewhat due to the lighter ignition), but in a good way. In the mid-rpm range the more urgent pull testifies to the higher compression. The midrange is strong and snappy with all the hit you could want. In questionable traction, a bit of throttle control is like an American Express card–don’t travel without it. Some slippery jump approaches were cause for thought, but since the Honda is a four-stroke, you can control wheelspin for the drive you need.Several test riders experienced with these bikes claimed the high-rpm ceiling surpasses the ’03′s. We doubt the ’04 actually revs higher than the ’03 (that is rarely the case with higher compression but possible since the piston is lighter), but with the taller gearing (two less teeth on the rear sprocket than the ’03 has) it feels that way. The pull on top requires a little discretion. Being pointed in the right direction is prudent, since the scenery grows blurry in an eye-blink when you hold the throttle at the stop. That isn’t a criticism. Having all the boost you want to grab starts and clear jumps is pure luxury. The fact that you get said boost in a package more civil than a 500cc–or even some 250cc two-strokes–is better than free hot fudge on your ice cream.Shifting can be a chink in the armor of a big-bore four-stroke, but the CRF has a light and crisp feel, and the clutch is light with a smooth engagement. The friction point never requires excess thought. It is neither frustratingly narrow nor annoyingly wide. Nothing in the lower end handicaps the power production in the top-end.Some riders commented that the CRF brakes and turns into corners more like a two-stroke than other four-strokes. Even though Yamaha’s YZ450F was lighter than the CRF, it didn’t actually feel lighter. The CRF felt light before, but the loss of 3 pounds and reduction in ignition flywheel mass allow it to feel even lighter; the same can’t be said for any other big-bore four-stroke. Also, stalling is par for any of the new-age, light-flywheel four-strokes when you become tired or lose focus. We feared that subtracting flywheel mass from a bike that already felt light-flywheeled would cause problems, but the ’04 turned out to be less stall-prone.The CRF feels quite at home in the air, too. It doesn’t matter whether the jump is low-speed and technical, requires a midair turn or is merely a high-speed floater, the bike is a happy and able partner.Every motorcycle is comprised of assemblies such as the shock, the fork, the brakes, the frame and so forth. The CRF doesn’t feel like the sum of parts but rather a whole unit, since its different subsets work in such harmony. Every rider agreed that he could ride this bike forever without getting tired. You’d almost think Honda has homogenized a machine, but the engine guarantees that the overall flavor is far from plain vanilla. Nothing about this bike will shrink the outpouring of moto-love the model has established in a short two years. The only bad news is there are plenty of good reasons to buy the ’04–even if you have a perfectly good ’03!Opinions
Race-ready is how I would describe the 2004 CRF450R. Honda added a Renthal bar, a quick-adjust clutch and a gripper seat cover to a super-fast and plush ride. You can literally slap some numbers on the panels and race this bike. I owned and raced the ’03 CRF450R this year, and after one quick lap on the ’04, I felt more comfortable than I had on my own bike all year. The power is more responsive yet still very smooth. The suspension is more balanced, and bottoming is nonexistent. I could turn the ’04 much better, and the motor makes correcting mistakes much easier. The bike is so fast, smooth and easy to ride that I felt I could ride it for hours without fatigue. Two years in a row, Honda has made a great bike better.
Brad Daugherty/6’0″/165 lb/IntermediateThe 2004 CRF is a little better across the board. The motor is still super-smooth and still responsive off the bottom. The mid to top-end is where you really notice the difference between the ’03 and ’04 models. The ’04 CRF keeps pulling hard through third and fourth gears. The great thing about this motor is it is fun and easy to ride without getting tired too quickly. The suspension is also improved over last year’s model. The front end wanted to dive on the ’03 model, but the ’04 wants to stick, not push. I set the sag at 102mm, and the rear end worked really well. All in all, the CRF is a very well-balanced, fun motorcycle that is going to be hard to beat. The other manufacturers better have their game face on come shootout time!
Kris Keefer/5’11″/170 lb/ProHonda made a truly impressive improvement on a bike I felt was already close to perfect. To me, the suspension plushness was more impressive than the engine, but the power is awesome. The ’04 CRF450R is a sleek, light and sublimely effective and fun moto weapon. If my powers of persuasion were as good as the Honda’s, I still don’t think I could talk editor Ken into relinquishing the CRF to my garage. Rats!
Karel Kramer/6’1″/200 lb/Novice