If you could build the perfect motocross bike, what would it be? Well, since Honda essentially started from a clean slate when designing and testing the 2009 CRF450R, perfection is what its engineers were striving for.Honda sought to build “the aerial battle weapon,” those words straight from the mouth of the project leader for the bike, Yuichi Kato. His 360-degree design philosophy looked at the big picture of modern motocross: trying to achieve 250cc two-stroke-like handling with the better control and stronger acceleration of the 450cc four-stroke power. From the beginning they knew they were working with some new elements-like programmed fuel injection-as well as incorporating improvements that the previous bikes needed to fix the poor air filter access. Yes, it may have taken seven years, but they knew they had to fix that airbox.The Honda CRF450R was redesigned from the engine outward with mass centralization in mind, a theme playing everywhere this season. Every current technique for shortening and thinning the engine came into play. The cam is built lower into the head, the connecting rod is shortened and the crank has been milled to allow the piston skirt to clear it. Millimeters were cut and shaved off of gears and shafts, and extra weight was eliminated from parts like the clutch which now uses four springs instead of six. About the only engine part that bulked up was the ignition and its electrical power-producing department. It now boasts a fully wound stator that sends a claimed 100 watts of power to a regulator/rectifier. That power is sent to the capacitor, the fuel pump, the ECU and the ignition.The rest of the bike was carefully constructed around the motor, so the crank center could be lower and closer to the front wheel. The shorter motor allowed the smaller fuel tank (and its internal fuel pump) to sit lower and let the seat extend farther up and more flatly across the bike. The design of the exhaust was integrated into the machine, exiting on the left side and getting a good portion of its length along the front of the frame, allowing the muffler to start earlier and stay more compact in relation to the center of gravity of the bike. New seamless styling blends the sidepanels and shrouds with a look introduced by Italian and Austrian brands a few years ago and now in vogue. But this style is functional, too: less stuff for mud to stick to. There are hundreds of little tweaks to axle sizes and lengths; there’s a slightly longer swingarm, new brake rotors and a more-flat gas cap. Change on this ’09 CRF really encompasses everything. Even so, most discussion boils down to one thing: EFI.A batteryless EFI bike takes about three kicks to start when cold. This is required to get enough electricity to the computer parts. After this initial charge it should only take one kick to get it running. But you have to learn how to kick this CRF. Just like every four-stroke has some sort of starting procedure, so does the ’09 CRF450R. It seems long smooth kicks work, finding TDC doesn’t hurt either. And it likes to be in neutral.For us, 70 percent of the time the CRF was a first-kick starter, and in our daylong riding impression our bike never got cold, so you’ll have to read the full test (up on DirtRider.com) for cold-starting reports. But what we did learn is that making sure the idle is properly set (around 1800 rpm) and knowing that you can clean out the bike (slow kicks through the stroke with wide-open throttle) if it isn’t starting easily will get this CRF to fire right back up. After she’s running, you really get to the FI goodness.The fuel injection on the CRF is unbelievably responsive to throttle input, and light on the wrist to boot. So much so that you wonder how the electronic pulses are so good at replacing jets, even if you don’t understand how it works. When you ride it you should just forget that the bike is fuel injected because you can’t really tell. It runs just like a perfectly carbureted bike does, but the throttle response is insane; like a factory bike except you won’t need a factory mechanic tuning on it after every session to keep its throttle response that good. FI resists bogging or hesitation on hard jump landings and doesn’t seem to care about the bike kicking or bucking. It gives one-to-one control from your wrist to the rear wheel, and the Honda system can even be tuned with a kit we’ll be evaluating during our full test.While its performance is impressive, it’s also worth noting that FI is more efficient since nothing spills out of the nonexistent carb vent tubes, promoting an almost 25 percent efficiency gain right there. We can attest you’ll get the same run time or range out of the 1.5-gallon tank as the old 1.9-gallon one, maybe more.
As much as FI is the rage discussion topic, it does not steal the show. That, my friends, is the duty of the weight feel of the bike. Just sitting on the new CRF you get the sensation it has been shrunk. But when riding it you realize this is more than just a cosmetic overhaul: The whole bike is easier to move around on. I wouldn’t say it’s as light feeling as a 250cc two-stroke or 250cc four-stroke, mostly because the power will always come into play and make this a big bike, but for the most part this is the easiest to maneuver and lightest-feeling 450cc bike I’ve ever ridden. It is even spectacularly good at staying light when the rpm start getting up there. The bike doesn’t get much heavier when screaming, and this was very noticeable when jumping on the throttle. Actually, anytime you got the bike in the air it was very apparent the CRF was easier to throw around and point where you wanted. So much so that it took noticeably less body input to get the machine to do what I wanted, which took some getting used to. And it is thin. Very thin. But with just enough thickness to give your knees, ankles and thighs something to grab on to when the bike starts pulling.The handling takes a big step forward if you like an aggressive and precise-feeling bike, too. Good thing Honda took the baby step with its CRF-Rs last year with the pulled-in triple clamp offset and steering dampers, because the 2009 takes another step in that lighter steering feel and, again, uses the damper to get away with it. Going from a 2007 to a 2009 will be a huge step, especially in the front-end feel. Truthfully, you don’t notice the damper doing anything, but you can tune it to get the steering and handling you’d like. It can be compared to trimming an aircraft to get level flight and the right amount of glide. Without this control you’d constantly be fighting the steering, but once set, it lets you, for lack of a better term, put the bike on auto-pilot. Yes, turning is more aggressive than ever, and it puts more demand on the Dunlop front tire and makes tire pressure a pretty big deal. I suspect different tires will make gigantic differences as well.Please don’t forget the ultra-important ride height. We were low by just 2-3mm, and it made the suspension harsh. My best setting was around 106mm of sag on the loamy Lake Whitney, Texas, red dirt. I suspect back home, on the harder SoCal tracks, I’ll be able to get closer to 100mm to put more weight on the front end. 105mm is recommended.With the all-new KYB suspension Honda found a way to get the plushness back that Red seemed to have lost, especially over the last few years, mostly in the fork. Noticeable in back-to-back riding with other bikes, the old CRF was definitely stiffer than the other marques. Now that stiff feeling, or harshness, is pretty much eliminated, especially in comparison to the 2008. The suspension is balanced, and it has a newfound control of the stroke that was totally obvious when hitting any curblike bump. It handles bottoming really well, often making a clank but not transmitting it to the rider. I even stiffened up the compression a bit on both ends to level the bike better in the turns. And when watching all the different ability levels of other magazine guys and even under our own Karel Kramer, the CRF acted very balanced and rode with a level chassis stance-the wheels moving and doing all the work underneath. This is a definite improvement on the CRF-R for riders of all skill levels.Sure, we must go back to the motor and its 450cc of power. Is it faster? For sure it feels that way on top. The bike got smoother on the bottom and through the midrange when you’re riding it on the track like you should on a motocross bike. But riding around in the pits, especially if you are in third gear (since the bike has gear-specific ignition curves, like last year), the cracks of the throttle are explosive. So if you really lug the bike on the track, you might feel it is hitting even harder than before. The motor has a little less of a chug or torque feel, but it revs quicker and faster to a top-end that pulls long and hard even if the info only says it is about 180 rpm more to the rev-limiter. So yes, it is faster, and yes, it seemed easier to ride. Honda looked at lap times as well while keeping this motor exciting.This is not an off-road bike, and it will stall pretty easily due to a lack of flywheel effect, always when the throttle is closed. Once opened, even just a little, the FI has a way of making incredible torque, but having extra inertia to keep things spinning wasn’t in the design goals of this motocrosser. A tall first gear, stiff suspension and, yes, a loud muffler. You can ride it anyplace you want, but it isn’t an X.