When Honda released first details of the 2019 CRF450L, Honda fans rejoiced as KTM, Beta, and Husqvarna grit their teeth, knowing very well the European domination of the hard-core dual-sport segment is in jeopardy. A glance down the spec sheet and all looked great for Honda and worrisome for the big three. Until nearly the last line of the sheet—289-pound curb weight? Insert record scratch here. Fanboys held their heads and detractors high-fived. How can a combatant for the DS throne weigh in 25 to 30 pounds more than its competition? Online arguments exploded and trolls threw that number around with reckless abandon. All of the speculation and bickering can be put to rest—the CRF450L is a contender, 289 pounds or not.

Built on the bones of Honda's CRF450R motocrosser, the CRF450L branches the farthest off the family tree via the CRF450RX and most closely the CRF450X. All share the same basic architecture: a 449.7cc overhead-cam Unicam engine, twin-spar aluminum perimeter frame, and premium Showa suspension. Journey from the R model through the RX to the X and the frame gets a bit wider in the hips to accommodate a six-speed wide-ratio transmission. The rear wheel morphs into an 18-inch hoop rather than a 19-incher and the tank capacity grows by just a third of gallon to 2.01 gallons. Suspension spring rates and damping settings are tailored for off-road usage.

2019 Honda CRF450L
Built from the bones of the CRF450R motocross bike, the CRF450L is a worthy contender for the dual-sport crown.Drew Ruiz

But don’t underestimate the effort to make the jump from the X to the CRF450L. While the press materials will have you believe the genealogical makeup between Ken Roczen’s MXer and the L is trivial, in fact the amount of work to bring this dual-sport to market is monumental. Larger, more efficient radiators cool an engine that shares about 70 percent of the parts with the R, RX, or X. A three-ring piston and 12.0:1 compression ratio bring street reliability to the CRF450L, while various methods have been employed to tame the decibels emanating from every area on the bike.

LED headlight
The LED headlight is dazzlingly bright, and the turn signals will bend 90 degrees in any direction without breaking.Drew Ruiz

Of course, the muffler is larger and contains a catalytic converter. Plastic cover and skid plates do double duty as protective parts while damping noise from the engine. Rubber-damped sprockets and a sealed chain work with IRC tires and a urethane-injected swingarm to quiet road noise. On top of all that, add emissions equipment such as an air-injection system, charcoal canister, and ratcheting fuel cap. With a final dose of street-focused LED lighting, turn signals, mirrors, license plate bracket, and reflectors along with a longer subframe reaching to the rear of the fender for support of enduro-travel bags, you now can see it’s a marvel Honda kept the CRF450L under 300 pounds.

license plate bracket
It may seem overbuilt and heavy, but the license plate bracket won’t be snapping off at the first sign of a bump.Drew Ruiz
chain and sprocket
Rubber damping keeps the chain and sprocket noise to a minimum.Drew Ruiz

With the tech and spec out of the way the night before, the next morning couldn’t come soon enough as Mother Nature’s water truck went to work on the trails around Packwood, Washington. With just a short press of the electric starter button (no kickstart lever here) the CRF450L fired right up and settled into a fast idle for warm-up with an exhaust tone that is unequivocally friendly to the the EPA and DOT. The ride left promptly at 8 a.m., beginning on the longest stretch of asphalt of the day (or at least it felt like that). Immediately it was striking how smooth the ride was on the road; no tire hop or shake (even on more aggressive Dunlop D606 tires), and the counterbalanced engine purred along. Only the fuzzy images in the rearview gave any hint of vibes.

muffler
Sound levels are pleasant and won’t put you on the radar of any sensitive types.Drew Ruiz
CRF450L
On the road, the CRF450L is smoother than you would expect from a hard-core dual-sport.Drew Ruiz

Once off the pavement and onto the next section of fire road, a hard twist of the throttle found a nice torquey power delivery that surges hard right off idle, builds quickly, but then flattens out on top. Perfect for rear tire control on fast fire roads and two-track. Banging through the first few chuckholes found the 49mm Showa fork to be stiff, almost too stiff. I would hold my judgment until we hit the real-deal single-track.

2019 Honda CRF450L
Fire-roading is too easy for the CRF450L.Drew Ruiz

Ask and you shall receive. Dipping into your first Pacific Northwest single-track trail is nirvana for dirt junkies and the CRF450L was an excellent dance partner on the 2-foot-wide ribbon of the best the Gifford Pinchot National Forest had to offer. Chocolate-cake dirt is littered with square-edge rocks and greasy tree roots, keeping you on guard for the moment the bike deflects on a sharp edge then cuts left or right of the trail and into a tree. That situation never came to pass. Those nearly too stiff suspension settings came into focus and ate up the nastiness with control and composure that is more representative of an off-road racer than a dual-sport.

CRF450L
Single-track is where the CRF450L is at home.Drew Ruiz

Putting the hammer down on single-track finds the power more than adequate. It’s obvious the 13-percent increase in crank inertia helps with rolling through the trails and over obstacles, and the power delivery was as thrilling on the tough stuff as on the fire road. It’s definitely not an RX, but it’s damn good for a dual-sport. One issue that popped up on the tight technical bits was the engagement of the clutch. The friction zone is narrow and is grabby, causing far too many stalls. Even after several adjustments to increase and decrease freeplay, I just couldn’t get a smooth feel.

not R, RX, or X levels
There is plenty of go on tap, not R, RX, or X levels but more than enough to move some dirt.Drew Ruiz

Jamming into and out of corners on the single-track finds the chassis quick to react but not twitchy. It blasts into berms nicely and finishes off wide-open corners without drama. Not once did the chassis go astray without my oafish misdirection. It’s planted, fast, and easy to ride. This is where the tie to Roczen’s CRF450R is closest. Braking is top-shelf, as would be expected from a CRF model, and initial bite is strong with excellent feedback from the front. The rear is less communicative but still gets the job done without locking up too easily. Thicker discs meant for cooler street duty also helped on the trail. No fade or noise was noticed all day.

gas tank
Only while standing do you notice the extra width of the tank and shroud area.Drew Ruiz

Ergonomics are full-on CRF. The only hint that you are on the L is the width of the tank and shroud area, underneath which are the titanium fuel tank (that is lighter than a plastic unit of equal shape and size) and the enlarged radiators with an electric cooling fan. When standing up and getting over the bar you do feel that width a bit. For only 2.01 gallons, I wish it was thinner. Or maybe I wish the tank was larger for the width. Fuel consumption on the LCD dash recorded a 44.1-mpg average, giving me a possible 90-mile range. Take it easy and I imagine you could stretch it to an even hundo.

CRF450L
The CRF450L is more than happy to oblige when asked to lift the front wheel.Drew Ruiz
hand guards
Only one thing missing here: hand guards.Drew Ruiz

After 102 miles of mixed trail and some street, it’s clear Honda has hit the mark with the 2019 CRF450L. Is it a game changer? For dual-sporting, no, but for Honda, absolutely. Kudos to the entire team at Honda for building a dual-sport to compete with the European offerings but in the Honda way. It’s huge for Honda to create a street-legal bike with a trail-to-trail philosophy. Mikio Uchiyama, Large Project Leader for the CRF, was on hand for the launch and was all smiles as I high-fived him and his team on a job well done. The CRF450L may be chubby, but don’t ever try to discount it of because of that one fact. It’s so much more than just a number.