2009 450 Off-Road Shootout - Dirt Rider Magazine

Shootouts can sometimes be like finding a better flavor of ice cream. But with off-road comparisons and bikes from all over the world with very strange and unique differences, at least there is more variety than chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. With one all-new brand into off-road, two all-new bikes and then some very familiar faces, Dirt Rider was chomping at the bit to get this comparison going, so much so we beat the punch to our 2009 Torture Test, throwing the doors wide open for that foray.So we took the new bikes, grouped them together with the unchanged-for-2009 machines and went riding. We rode a lot. Many places and with different faces. Our experiences with the familiar bikes led us to do some specific modifications to allow them to better compete with the newest and latest offerings. Some of the changes, like the suspension valving, were done to complement what we'd be doing with these bikes and in reality could provide an advantage to any off-road 450. Other options like slipper clutches, automatic clutches, steering dampers, exhaust systems, steel clutch baskets, skid plates, oversize rotors and tire changes were in some cases specific to bikes that needed a little push or prod in a particular direction, but are items that could work on any bike and help it, if that modification offered what the rider was looking for.So we were off to the mountains and the deserts, across the valleys and on top of the hills to see if we could crown a new champion in the 2009 450cc off-road wars.BMW G450
What Were They Thinking?

This is one of the most anticipated 450cc enduro bikes, especially if you are a streetbike rider or a former World Enduro champion looking for a new and lucrative ride in 2009. Revolutionary in design, the bike could be considered more nonstandard than the Husaberg. With its crankshaft-mounted clutch, swingarm-pivot-centered countershaft sprocket and underseat gas tank, BMW looked to be reinventing the wheel, or at least trying to turn the wheel on its side. Did we need that?The Facts
* The motor makes plenty of power and good power at that, especially with the "racing" ECU setting enabled. It has solid chug right off the bottom and a smooth pull that resists stalling. A little slower revving than most of the others, it finished with a powerful top-end surge. But all that is cursed by running through a gearbox designed to pass street sound tests with gaps wide enough for two shifts. We tried to get sprockets to change this, but none were available in time. Same with the optional "racing" exhaust system, rumored to make the power even better.* The chassis layout is a breath of fresh air to larger and taller riders and it's the thinnest and slimmest bike in the test. A little stretched out for our smaller guys, it also bulged noticeably at the rear sidepanels when getting back in aggressive riding.* The suspension has to be the absolute worst suspension we've ridden in recent history. There is a harshness-especially in the fork-that finally breaks free and then proceeds to blow through the stroke and bottom. The shock is a little better but not much. It was so bad we took it apart to make sure something wasn't broken only to find low-quality tolerances in the fork as well as a shim setting that matched and explained the performance.* The rear fender broke in the cold, then broke again when we were lifting the bike. Then the lower mud flap broke off of it. This with all the heavy street stuff removed! We're still waiting on a replacement. We'd go to a dealer but they don't sell these bikes in California. Parts, two months after the bike's release, are an issue.* So it's street-legal, which is great for access to trails, but you wouldn't want to have to sit your butt on this seat for more than 10 miles (it is a plank). Plus, the bike vibrates as much as any in the test. Stock tires are junk. The rear brake is grabby. The steering is heavy feeling and the fender odd-looking to the rider. How much gas do I have left?The Verdict
We're not sure how BMW screwed the pooch this badly with a bike that seemed to have so much promise. Fixing the suspension, getting some sprockets and hopefully obtaining a new rear fender might make some huge, huge differences, and we are planning to let you know as we're keeping this bike as a Long Haul and trying to fix it. That is, if BMW doesn't come and take it away after reading this!

Honda CRF450X
The Gladiator

Tasked with appealing to the masses, meeting a quirky balance of durability, emission and performance standards and carrying the CRF badge high and mighty, Honda's off-road 450 has a heavy burden to bear. In trying to meet all those goals it makes some riders happy while angering others. Welcome to Big Red country.The Facts
* The CRF-X is very close to the last generation ('05-'08) CRF-R in so many ways, yet so far away in others. The good things it carries with that chassis layout are universally well-liked handling and an aggressive nature that screams race while truthfully being trail subtle.* The best part about the Honda is that you can just buy it and ride it; it needs no monkey business with jets, wires or restrictors. Don't even think of messing with the muffler; it is quiet and decently light. If the backfiring bothers you, plug up the air injection system.* The worst thing about the CRF motor is that it's tuned pretty snappy to be as powerful as it needs to be. We find by making it smoother, it is easier to ride and faster, too-think traction. We had our best luck by installing a Hinson steel clutch basket, an Adige slipper clutch (which reduces lever effort by a perceived 70 percent), and an NCYS needle in the third position. The result: the same power level but now buttery smooth, more like a KTM, really.* Honda gets a big thumbs-up for going a little more aggressive on the suspension settings. Being stiffer lets the bike pull a more rounded duty sheet, even the MX track. But at the same time it can be a little rough on the true sit-down trail rider. The steering feel is a bit on the heavy side when compared to the others but can be tuned effectively with the stock steering damper. We had ours modded by Pro Circuit for even better control.* Gas range is as much of a sore spot as the new tank is loved for being thin. Don't plan on much more than 40 miles before going dry. And there isn't a solution in the aftermarket that's still thin. We got an '07 tank and shrouds to get us back up to 55-plus miles. We also replaced the thin stock skid plate with a beefy Acerbis one. Good call!* The stock brakes are really good, but since this off-roader is a little heavier than its similarly equipped MX brothers, we put a Braking oversize kit on the front for even more stopping power and better control. It really worked.* Durability on this bike is proven, especially with a diet of fresh oil and clean air filters. We put 215 hours on our 2005 CRF and it was still tight.The Verdict
The CRF450X is basically unchanged and remains a solid player in this stacked field. Honda loyalists still love it, others are attracted to it and everyone who rode ours ranked it highly. It does little wrong and has that amazing Honda polish that makes it very attractive.

Husaberg FE450
Revolution Done Right

What do you get when you add ingenious engineering, a company built on true passion for riding and the manufacturing clout of a Big Five bike company? The KTM-built Husaberg FE line, that's what. Easily the biggest mover-and-shaker in the 450 off-road segment, the radically new Husaberg series of enduro-specific motorcycles are here to kick roost on traditional dirt bike conceptions. It's not the newest newcomer to the group (that's the BMW), but this Husaberg is truly like nothing else. Every rider who rides a new-generation Husaberg is blown away by more than one thing.The Facts
* Throttle and engine response come first since we usually shake hands before we dance. Husaberg greets you with perfectly tuned power and response for immediate, controlled, strong and fun performance. The bike's closed-loop EFI calibration is absolutely perfect and is now the benchmark to which all future binary-jetted bikes will be judged.* Along with superb injection tuning, the engine's power is also potent. Talk about tractable and strong delivery! Wow! It all starts with the connection between throttle and response and continues with the most-usable spread of power we've experienced on a stock bike. It will quite literally lug two or three gears up on the shifter down low and perform just as impressively when the pace gets up to the upper midrange. The delivery to the ground might be the best part as the connection from your wrist to the knobbies is a direct link.* Transmission gaps and overall gearing handle super-tight to moderately fast riding-a versatile spread for sure. In wide-open spaces it suffers a bit.* WP's current fork and shock setup are installed, and their performance matches the '09 KTM bikes in supple-yet-controlled action from slow to go. There is a negative facet with the 'Berg in that you have to remove the subframe and tank to change rear spring preload (or remove the shock), and the rear spring is soft for riders above the 180-pound level. But the suspension, even when max-cranked on the shock, is still wildly better than any Husaberg from the past. It has even handled some motocross days just for fun.* This bike moves, handles and reacts as close to a middleweight two-stroke as any bike you'll find in the 450 class. Its mass centralization and reduction of weight out of center (thanks to the gnarly degrees of its slanted cylinder and higher, more centrally placed crank) lets it flick, lean, duck and dive with less effort than any other four-stroke.* The bike weighs in at 267 pounds (tank full)-second lightest next to the KTM-but rides and works like a 200-pound bike. Yet it feels the heaviest when you push it into your truck or throw it on a stand-strange!* While it's a close cousin to the KTM, this bike's frame and ergonomic geometry are way more compact. Bigger riders (taller than six feet) will be tight on the bike and require more room via bar risers, taller seats and likely stiffer suspension valving. Or they just won't get along with it.* The brakes, clutch and other components are as blessed as the Orange bike's.* You can use Torx bits or regular sockets for almost every chassis bolt on this bike! Air-filter maintenance is tool-free.* This bike was tested completely stock, other than hand guards, and as such it's missing the necessary night-riding equipment (headlight). But that's it.* We will like it a lot less if the battery ever goes dead. No kickstarter! It hasn't happened, but we're just saying.The Verdict
This bike is a winner. It can easily win the hearts of a lot of traditional enduro bike owners in the United States. It shines with an unbelievable package of true enduro performance. It will work well from the desert of the West to the chunky, rock-infested, root-infected trails of the East. It has low weight, high ground clearance, superb technical riding capability, insane bottom-end torque, completely controllable power and radiator shrouds shaped like Viking axe blades. 'Nuff said.

Husqvarna TE450E
The Ghost Of XR

This Husqvarna is overshadowed by the more race-oriented bikes in this shootout, but there's a lot to be said for Husky's take on the 450. With an emphasis on comfort and stability over precise control and agility, the Husky is a perfect bike for the rider who misses the friendly nature of the now-extinct Honda XR400, wants a fully modern ride with fuel injection and good suspension and always longed for a license plate. Big Red gave up on the fun trailbike, so little red stepped in. If you're chasing smiles more than trophies, this is one exotic you might find very easy to live with.The Facts
* The Husqvarna gives a long and low sensation, almost a "Euro feel" to the handling but with very standard (Japanese-bike-like) ergonomics. The slower steering and planted ride take a short bit to get used to, but once familiar the bike has a very friendly feel to its handling that will have you looking for corners and zigzagging through trees even when there's a go-straight option.* The suspension is on the softer side. Lighter and less aggressive riders will get along great here; heavier or faster guys will need some new springs. The action is always plush, especially considering that this is the heaviest bike in our shootout.* The motor is pleasant, which is high insult in racing circles. This is not a fire-breathing 450. It can't match the response of the other bikes in this test, but it makes that 450cc of ponies relatively easy to corral. Slower to rev, not snappy but happy to grab traction when others are spinning make it easier to control.* Our Husky came corked up for sound with an air filter cage of solid plastic with a small air channel that forced incoming air through two sharp, right angles. The optional filter cage is a must for stronger power. The optional Arrow muffler added more noise than power; we went back to stock but with the catalyst removed, yet it was still loud. Especially to the sound meter. We did plug the oxygen sensor and, in doing so, activated a "racier" map in the ECU with a jumper wire. With it geared to the moon, you need to add a few teeth to the rear sprocket for anything technical, but then the close-ratio gearbox does not have the legs of the other bikes.* This bike vibrates. The majority of riders found this annoying.* If you were riding big bikes in the early '80s, getting back on a Husqvarna presents its own thrill. And if you've been riding that long, maybe you're wise enough to see the charms of this bike.The Verdict
For the majority of trail riding most guys do, this is a great machine. Why punish yourself with race bike edge when you can likely have more fun, for longer, on this bike? Plus, the Husky has a license plate and the "I can save money on gas riding it to work" justification to get the wife to give the green light to buy. Yes, you read the shootouts, but do you have the final say on what you purchase?Kawasaki KLX450R
Teddy Bear

A relatively new entrant to the 450cc off-road market, Kawasaki's KLX450R has steadily placed itself as a legitimate contender in its class. Having been raced everywhere from the wide-open deserts of the Hare & Hound series to the technical arena-based EnduroCross courses, the smooth, steady KLX has proven that it belongs. Yet we've always favored it as our trail riding buddy.The Facts
* If you want smooth, strong power, the KLX450 is where it's at. Plenty of low-to-mid torque and perfect gearing characterize this bike's long-pulling powerplant, and the stock jetting gives the machine a comparatively uncorked feeling in relation to others in its segment. While it doesn't have the best off-idle snap and can be extremely cold-blooded when starting, the KLX450R's motor is still more than capable off-road. The Leo Vince exhaust we ran loses some pounds and helps the power considerably.

* Don't be fooled by the 275-pound weigh in: The Kawasaki is a heavy-feeling bike. Specifically, the machine feels top- and front-heavy, a problem that influences the cornering tremendously. Although the KLX has a light steering feel, it also has a tendency to oversteer and knife in corners, requiring a ton of muscle to get back on track.* We put a Scotts steering stabilizer on the Kawasaki because, well, just because we like them. Steering stabilizers help almost any bike, and the amazing adjustability of the Scotts makes fine-tuning it to any condition a snap. It made our KLX an arrow in the desert and tamed the roots, ruts and rocks in the tight trails. The other bikes were jealous...* The Kawasaki has good stock suspension with a slightly soft feel. The bike is plush in the rocks, but for anything aggressive or fast it needs help. Race Tech increased the range of our KLX's abilities, not making it too stiff but letting the bike attack more aggressively and with confidence. It felt like the progressive nature of both shock and fork were increased.* To make the bike even more trail-friendly we installed a Rekluse Z-Start Pro auto-clutch. Most testers found that this was an improvement for tricky, crawly sections of tough trail and made ordinary riding brainless in a clutchless sort of way, something we've found on almost any bike we're tried it on. Others feel that a manual clutch was needed to better modulate the bike's power.* Ergonomically, the KLX450R felt cramped for our biggest testers, but the seat is soft and comfortable for everyone. The easy access airbox cover and the seamless sidepanels and shrouds with a gas tank range that is better than most here are all bonuses on this machine. The stock headlight is weak-it shines more to the sides and up than out-but it will get you home after dark.The Verdict
With the KLX450R, the conclusion is fairly clear-cut: It sits heavy on the trail-riding side where it is excellent. Modifications can make it into anything you'd need. Many riders will choose the Kawasaki as the top 450 because of its smooth motor and big comfort, while others just cannot overlook the weighty feel. No matter what category you fit into, consider this: Our 2008 Long Haul KLX450 weathered over 150 hours of abuse and did everything we asked of it.KTM 450 XC-W
The Standard (And A High One At That!)

This bike has been our all-around favorite for quite some time, and every year it gets better and better with well-thought-out upgrades; 2009 is no different. It is easily capable of any riding task and is a clear favorite for faster or desert applications. Gone are the days where a KTM is unique or hard to locate. KTMs and dealers who sell them, plus huge aftermarket support, are everywhere.The Facts
* The KTM was universally praised and rarely snubbed for any reason and is the safest choice if you want a high-performance off-road bike. It is as fast as any bike here, the lightest of the bunch, even while boasting one of the biggest fuel tanks. It is equipped with everything you need to go ride an enduro and is only missing lights for the serious rider.* The new-in-'08 single-cam engine has every base covered with its separate transmission and motor oil cavities, kick- and electric starting, simple-to-work-on design and proven durability. It has a very smooth power delivery that, with aggressive throttle use, can be as nasty or as tame as you need. It is only topped by the Husaberg in the control versus power department due to the FE's incredible fuel injection. Just wait till KTM gets this!

* Not the lightest feeling bike here-that is now the Husaberg, too-the KTM is very close. Its steering is less aggressive and more riders felt comfortable, especially larger riders, with the layout and the handling. The suspension made all the same leaps and bounds in performance as all KTMs this year, and it could easily be the best suspension of the bunch. It is not the most stable bike here-the Husky and KLX are-but you won't find riders complaining about KTM headshake, either. It walks the middle ground with an aggressive side most riders prefer.* The brakes are insanely strong and with good feel, the clutch takes mad abuse. Our only complaints center around the engine being easier to boil over (since it has no coolant catch tank) and the clutch's pull being a little stiff, but that is splitting hairs. Some riders thought the bike was wide in the tank area.* We tested our KTM pretty much stock. We rerouted the oil breather out of the intake tract and richened up the needle one clip position. For a bike to need so little and give so much the MSRP starts looking like a great deal.The Verdict
This is the safe choice for best bike here, especially if you have any racing in your blood. It will trail ride as good as any, considering its performance capabilities, and it does it without any fuss. It is ready to ride and race.

Yamaha WR450F

Traditional Japanese enduro performance is the standard operating procedure of the WR450. It's a retooled motocross chassis, motor and frame with the addition of off-road goodies like headlights, wide-ratio transmission and an 18-incher out back. Traditionally, this has been a valuable workhorse in the American off-road family. Its valve train is legendary in its durability, and the entire component lineup is tried and tested.The Facts
* There is a great motor inside the WR. The power comes on smooth as silk and spreads like butter into a plentiful top-end. The gear ratios are spot-on and the carburetion on the bike is as close to perfect as brass tapers and holes in metal can get. We removed the smallest insert out of the exhaust and opened up the airbox but left the stock jetting. We also disconnected the gray wire. The biggest complaint was the WR doesn't deliver as much torque feel down low as other bikes. But it is zippy. And really quiet.* The WR has a bit of a dead feel in its stock suspension that is a jack-of-all-trades setting. But with the Factory Connection revalve on the KYB components, the change is dramatic. Just this fork and shock mod elevated this bike into the top two for many of our testers. It noticeably lightened the feel of the Yamaha and elevated the perceived ground clearance for some. Plusher than stock without getting wallowy and handling the aggressive riding a lot better, a great modification for sure.* Handling is predictable and stable at higher speeds. Turning issues arise for some testers who like bikes to turn brainlessly. But again, the suspension seemed to be helping greatly over the stocker.* We traded the stock battery for an E-Batt that dropped a couple of highly placed pounds. It started the bike fine and was totally worth the drop in weight; now we want E-Batts on all our bikes!* As far as Japanese bikes are concerned, running a high-capacity tank is less obtrusive on the Yamaha than other brands. Stock, we are pleased with the range. Clutch pull gets props as well and the positive engagement is nice.The Verdict
The WR might have surprised as many testers as the Husaberg. Its suspension modifications were the golden ticket and allowed the bike's potential to really shine. We talk a lot about Yamaha durability and it's because we experience it, especially in the WRs, almost every year. For a comfortable ride you can't go wrong and the versatility is a big plus.

Lots of flavors to satisfy plenty of tastes.

All of the bikes were friendly to the sound meter except the Husky, and it was awful. It does not sound as loud as it tested, but it would not be that easy to quiet, either. We also added about $1000 of aftermarket goodies to the three Japanese bikes, which would put the total price in line with the other bikes. We had no mechanical issues with any of the bikes during our testing.The BMW comes with a three-year/36,000-mile warranty, the Husky and Kawasaki have six-month ones while the KTM, Husaberg and Yamaha have 30-day warranties.The Victor
It was close for some, no contest for others and the first time in a long time that any bike gave the KTM a true run for its money. But the Husaberg did just that. Don't get too bogged down thinking that this is just a blue KTM made in the same factory by the same people who make the KTM with a lot of the same parts. Look at this Husaberg for redefining the way a four-stoke can handle and deliver power: it sets standards in fuel-injection tuning and mass centralization that others will be chasing. Sure, it is a little weird, is running with a lot of unproven technologies in the durability department and is not the most widely available bike on the market (it might just be sold out already!). But if you can ride one, do it. Or don't because it will change the way you think off-road bikes can work.

Test riders compare notes while the fleet waits for more trail time.