2009 Honda CRF450R - First Look

Has the best gotten better?

2009 Honda CRF450R - First Look

It's no secret that the CRF450R has been a smashing success for American Honda. It has been "The Bike" since its introduction in 2002, winning a total of seven straight CW Ten Besties. As of late, competing brands have inched their way closer to matching the CRF's coveted performance level but have not been able to defeat it. Even just minor updates in some years have kept this dominant motocrosser a moving target, and for the last couple of seasons we have been asking ourselves how it could be improved.

The answer was to build an all-new platform. So the reinvented CRF450R has an entirely new chassis and engine, with only a handful of parts carried over. Oh, and it just happens to be fuel-injected!

As expected, EFI is rolling its way through the motocross ranks. In 2009, there are now three injected 450-class motocross bikes among the big players. Suzuki's RM-Z450 was the first (equipped last year), this Honda is second and we will have thrown a leg over the injected '09 Kawasaki KX450F by time you read this. The big shocker, though, is that the CRF didn't gain any weight with the transition to EFI. In fact, the CRF's dry weight dropped by a pound compared to last year's bike. Impressive in light of the extra equiment.

Honda's PGM-FI (short for Programmed Fuel-Injection) offers more precise throttle management, increased efficiency and more flexible control over the ignition system than the carburetor/separate ignition used last year. Per normal practice, fuel delivery is calculated using a throttle-position sensor, air-pressure/temperature sensors, with coolant temperature and gear position also monitored. This allows for more flexibility in tuning than with a carb; different fuel/spark maps are used in first and second gear, for example, to reduce wheelspin and improve drive. Throttle-body diameter is 50mm, significantly larger than the 43mm of the Suzuki and Kawasaki systems. Like the other battery-less EFI employed on moto bikes, electrical power to run the system comes from an enlarged AC generator. Two crankshaft position sensors (rather than the previous single unit) determine crank position faster to make kickstarting easier.

Honda claimed the bike would start cold in three kicks. It's true! There was no trouble with stalling or flame-outs, either, no matter engine temperature. But I did stop frequently while doing photo passes, purposely killing the engine, which is when there was some trouble firing up. It typically took four or five kicks, and even the occasional nine! With more time on the bike, however, starting improved to one to three kicks. Was it break-in or me improving my technique? Not sure, but the magic drill is to use the lever's full stroke and no throttle movement whatsoever.

Of course, this new FI is only a fraction of the new platform. The completely redesigned 449cc liquid-cooled Single has been "compacted," to say the least. Height, width and weight have all been reduced. To achieve this, many items were changed, among them the connecting rod, which was shortened 3.5mm, which in turn allowed a shorter cylinder. There are even little flat spots on the bottom of the crank counterweights so when the lighter, redesigned piston reaches Bottom Dead Center, its skirt clears. Similar shrinking treatment was given to the cylinder head, with the cam running in the head directly rather than on a bolt-in mount. Also, the valvetrain is altered to mimic that of the CRF150R, with a four-lobe cam and split twin rockers on the exhaust for a more compact layout. Even the transmission was narrowed (but maintains the same ratios).

How does it all translate to the track? The new injected motor has actually lost some of the previous big-boy bite—no more hard-hitting low-end power. Delivery is very smooth from initial roll-on to the midrange, where it reunites with the strong pull we know and love. A benefit is the ability to lay on the motor harder without worrying so much about wheelspin (less thinking required on the rider's part), and there is still plenty of oomph to get the rider over jumps without much run-up.

A new rev limit of 11,450 rpm (up from 11,270) allows more overrev and a wider power range. Pull lasts that little bit longer and allowed me to hold a gear rather than shift before some jump takeoffs. I also found myself using first gear more than normal because the pull up top is unreal. The smooth power does have its drawbacks, though, as it makes the bike feel slower than the '08 off the very bottom.

Decreasing the exterior dimensions of the powerplant allowed Honda more flexibility for its placement in the new narrower and lighter aluminum frame. A lower center of gravity results from the mill being positioned lower, and it has also been moved closer to the front wheel. Geometry was changed to reduce steering effort, while the swingarm was lengthened .7 inch to improve traction and corner-exit drive.

For strength, the lower frame rails are twice as wide as the old ones, and now have beveled outside edges to maintain cornering clearance. Oval-section aluminum tubing for the subframe replaces the previous square stuff, with the redesign also allowing easier air-filter access.

Turn-in is a lot lighter and there is no tendency toward unwanted tip-in while leaned over mid-corner, unlike with the 2008 version I rode back-to-back. The new bike allows turning to be one seamless, fluid motion, which makes the bike feel much lighter than before. Further, the new steering geometry allows for tighter lines, hugging the inside without a fight, with the Honda Progressive Steering Damper keeping things stable. Turning character is now more like that of the Suzuki 450, which is easy to rail and keep glued to the inside. Tracking on corner exits is superb, with no kicking or bouncing off bumps, just pure acceleration.

Of course, the new suspension has a lot to do with this. In fact, the choice of maker was a shocker, as the engineers abandoned Honda-owned Showa for KYB units front and rear (the steering damper is still made by Showa). The Air-Oil-Separated (AOS) fork grew from 47mm to 48mm diameter, while the KYB shock has a body exclusive to Honda. It is a short, stubby unit that aids exhaust clearance and access to the spring-preload adjusting rings.

On the track, the fork provides improved plushness, with better mid-stroke performance in particular. The old fork's harsh spot that sometimes unsettled the bike is gone. In fact, damping is improved through the entire range. Stability was very good in most conditions including over braking bumps, although we never rode an extremely rough track. Handling was sweet whether pushing hard or cruising at a slower pace. As ever, the Honda works better the harder it is pushed. The CRF imparts a feeling of confidence in the rider, allowing a faster pace. Another improvement has to do with lightweight feel while jumping. It's a big confidence-booster, too, because I simply felt more in control of the bike.

Capping off the new CRF is fresh bodywork. The best part is the ultra-flat seat, though. This was achieved by fitting a smaller fuel tank. Honda claims the EFI is 25 percent more efficient, so fuel capacity could be dropped from 1.9 to 1.5 gallons, with the '09 going just as far as before. In any case, ergonomics feel very natural and the bike is incredibly easy to move back and forth on. Handlebar/footpeg relationship is pleasant (the bar feels slightly higher because the seat is so flat), making the CRF comfy for sitting and standing—all while allowing full control. It is a good place to ride!

The end result of these big, big changes is that the CRF is more agile, has improved handling, better ergos with a robust yet easier-to-use powerplant—all of which elevates the overall package to a surprising degree. In fact, as hard as it is to believe, this bike is a huge step above its predecessor. Without riding all the 2009 MX offerings back-to- back, I can't say it is the best, but I can say the CRF450R is going to be very tough to beat.