Regardless of their brand loyalties, most die-hard fans acknowledge that the Honda CRF450R is the force in the motocross galaxy. It doesn’t matter whether you see Honda as Sith or Jedi in the struggle for moto supremacy, the CRF450R is the light saber of choice. But after going relatively unchallenged, the CRF is suddenly under attack from all sides, and it looks like the clone wars. In 2006, you won’t be able to stick a magnet to the frame of any Japanese 450, and it is hard to look at an aluminum-framed four-stroke and not think “Honda.”Despite the squadron of alloy-framed rivals Red Leader faces for ’06, we have little doubt simply putting new stickers on the ’05 model would have kept it battling for domination. You do recall that the ’05 model was a full Honda redo? It gained a petite space-age fourth-generation frame, svelte bodywork and a generous performance increase thanks to a new airbox. We didn’t see or even expect the need for major changes to the CRF450R for ’06. But we aren’t Honda.It seems the company wasn’t happy merely winning every important MX shootout in the known universe. Why be content when we magazine floggers still found nice things to say about some of its competitors? Honda will not make it easy for any competitor, so it leaned the 450 engine forward 5 silly millimeters, even though that meant changing nearly every part on the chassis. Suzuki most recently discovered how hard it is to get a clean shot at the CRF. Its targeting computer had acquired the ’04 CRF450R, then Honda moved the target. For ’06, Kawasaki and Yamaha are aiming at a Honda that’s already gone.Shootin’ Roost!It takes a hard look at the ’06 to discover the changes. Even the graphics are the same as the ’05′s. And, hey, a new bike always feels good, even if there are no changes, so we were still looking forward to riding the 450. Really, the only external clue to the revisions is the relocated middle pipe mount. We had only two riders figure out the bike was an ’06 at an open track day.Fortunately, we were spending the day riding, not simply looking. Despite the fact that Honda made no engine changes, the initial impressions center around the warp-factor performance. When the RM-Z450 debuted, we praised the totally connected feeling between the throttle and the ground. The Honda is much more muscular and the rpm build more rapidly under a load, so wheelspin can mar the throttle/ground connection, though much less so than on earlier models. Even with some of the chassis’ weight bias being shifted to the front, the rear hooks up astonishingly well. From very low in the power the 450 generates excellent forward motion. The engine has the perfect quantity of hit to clear jumps or seat-bump obstacles. The carburetion on our bike never hiccuped, and you can trust it to be there in rhythm sections when you need it. It never feels sleepy or generates violent hit or wheelspin.Each gear drops the rpm perfectly into the meat of the power. The clutch engagement is smooth and positive, and while the pull isn’t especially light, it isn’t a hardship. When you work the clutch hard in mud or sand, the lever will exhibit sudden and significant amounts of fade. The clutch doesn’t drag or slip, but the lever goes soft and the engagement point moves close to the bar. You can adjust it back with the quick-adjust on the perch, but if you are not vigilant about it, you can fry the clutch as soon is it cools. You must back off the adjuster as the plates cool.If you haven’t been riding 450s, it will take a bit to acclimate to the power, but as soon as you get used to the ponies, the handling will grab your attention. With the fourth-generation (4G) chassis the CRF has gained a light, positive, stable feel that makes the bike a very nice place to work at going fast. But while the 4G ’05 was amazing in berms and ruts, riders rated other 450s as steering more precisely. Then the RM-Z arrived, and finally there was a bike that could make the CRF’s steering feel vague and clumsy. Even though we rated the Honda higher overall, Big Red wasn’t going to sit still for comments like that.It is amazing that rotating the top of the engine forward 5mm in the chassis affects the chassis manners so noticeably. The ’06 front end has a solid and planted feel entering turns that no CRF450R has ever had. At Glen Helen Raceway Park the difference was a feeling of confidence in the front that let you push harder. At the much tighter Piru Motocross Park and private Ashleyland MX, the 450 nailed lines ’05 CRF250Rs were struggling with. The ’06 rails a berm or a rut as well as any of its predecessors did, but now it can handle the flat turns too. The steering is lighter, and the bike has less of a tendency to stand up on corner exits, especially ones where you get on the gas hard.Honda came close to having its cake and eating it too. Stability at speed is still quite good. The ’06 has slightly less of the long, desert racer feeling of the ’05, and every once in a while the front will twitch. It never escalates to anything we’d call headshake, though.Honda upgraded the suspension settings, and while the difference isn’t huge, it is noticeable. The rear wheel gets amazing hook leaving turns and accelerating hard. Since the rear actually has less weight on it and the engine is unchanged, we have to credit the suspension specs. Oh, it handles bumps and jumps just fine, too. We tried four tracks and never felt we needed to change anything but shock spring preload to accommodate rider weight. It took dry, packed clay with sharp-edged hacky holes for us to realize the suspension isn’t flawless, but none of our other bikes was any better in that stuff. Increasing the compression damping two clicks made the fork more plush on braking bumps.Honda left the ergonomics and riding position alone, which means the CRF is sublimely comfortable, is easy to move around on and has the best seat in motocross. The grips, levers, foot controls and Renthal bar are all as good as production gets. Our bike also started effortlessly hot or cold. The only stalling problems were when the clutch became hot from abuse. We turned up the idle a tad, and that ended any problems.Honda took a very fine motocrosser and turned it into an even better one. What the CRF450R has not done is make life easy for the competition. What it has done is make it much harder to squeeze your dealer for a price break. Ever hear of the law of supply and demand? Honda has the supply, and if you try a ride on the ’06, your adrenal gland will be causing the demand.Opinions
Most of my recent 450 time has been on orange or yellow ones, and I have to say this Honda is pretty amazing. As many times as I have seen one turn of preload or one click on the suspension transform a machine, I’m amazed at the difference leaning the engine forward and revalving the suspension made for the ’06 CRF. It feels totally planted and solid entering turns. I felt comfortable with new jumps and considered some I never had before. The bike accelerates so hard and the chassis is so calm that I felt confident on it. If I did blow the landing, the bottoming resistance took most of the sting out of it. The standing riding position could be a little more stretched out for me, but the major problem is coming up with a bulletproof reason why it should stay in my garage.
Karel Kramer – 6’1″/2O5 lb/NoviceI can’t lie, so I’ll come clean. As much as I like any other bike, the Honda CRF450R has been and continues to be like a works bike for me. I ride it and I don’t want to change a thing. It feels as if all of the controls were put on just for me, the power delivery is my style and the handling—mostly the suspension—is set up perfectly. Last year I didn’t have any problems with the bike whatsoever; this year the red engineers cured ills I didn’t even know existed until I rode the ’05 back to back with the ’06. And the new CRF is just as good, only better. I set the ride height and didn’t change a thing to ride around Glen Helen’s National track. Some bikes have individual characteristics that I like better, but not one has been able to put together a complete package like this. I really hope another bike comes along this year and knocks Honda off this pedestal—only because I want to ride that bike, too!
Jimmy Lewis – 5’1O”/18O lb/Vet Pro