Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F - Comparison Test

The Innovator (Yamaha YZ450F) challenges the Dominator (Honda CRF450R).

Photography by Jeff Allen

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F - Comparison Test

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F - Comparison Test

You’ve gotta hand it to Yamaha: The company sure has a way of changing the direction of motocross. Two of the best examples are the 1975 YZ250, the first production single-shock MXer, and the 1998 YZ400F, the Thumper that paved the way for the four-stroke revolution. Now we have the 2010 YZ450F with its “backward” top-end that has the intake at the front, the exhaust at the back and the cylinder tilted to the rear. This design is unlikely to have the same revolutionary impact on motocross as those other two, but it still might reshape the class in a positive way.

But first, the YZ-F must prove its worth against the bike that has dominated the class for the better part of a decade. For eight consecutive years, Honda’s CRF450R has been voted Best Motocrosser in Cycle World’s annual Ten Best awards. The big CRF received a wholesale redesign just last year and got a few key refinements for 2010. So the question we need to answer here is obvious: Can the Innovator unseat the Dominator?

Let’s start with…starting. I have to praise Honda for improving the CRF’s kick-starting capabilities: one or two kicks and it fires, no problem. But if you forget to first find top dead center on the YZ-F before kicking it through, you could stomp on the lever for a while before making fire.

Once these two fuel-injected engines are running, there’s also a lot of difference in their character. The YZ has a very strong bottom-end punch and pulls hard through the midrange, but the power falls off fast on top. The CRF, on the other hand, is softer off the bottom but progressively gets stronger, pulling hard through the middle revs with a good punch on top. The instant snap that the Yamaha delivers is fun and helps the bike drive off corners, but the drop-off occurs so soon that it requires more frequent gearshifts.One reason for this difference is the bikes’ Keihin throttle bodies. The Yamaha’s is a 44mm unit, a smaller size that benefits lower-rpm performance at the expense of top-end power; the Honda breathes through a 50mm throttle body that helps the top end but at a slight cost of bottom-end grunt.

A cool thing about these two is that both offer a fuel tool that allows the rider to change the injection system’s mapping. This is so, so great for motocross, because riders can now tune the power to better suit track conditions and their personal riding styles. Yamaha’s GYTR tool is more of a plug-and-play unit, whereas the Honda’s HRC tuner must be used in conjunction with a computer. Both get the job done, but the truth is that the stock settings on both bikes are very good.

Although Japanese MXers usually have a similar feel in fit and handling, these two have their own distinct personalities and like to be ridden a bit differently. The Yamaha has the rider sitting more on top of the bike, but you sit more down in the Honda. The CRF has a remarkably low 227-pound dry weight, besting the YZ-F by 10 pounds. But on the track, the Yamaha feels just as light, if not lighter, than the Honda. It corners more sharply and has slightly quicker response to rider input. Evidently, Yamaha’s engineers are on to something with their reversed top-end design that provides better mass centralization.

Perhaps that’s why the Yamaha responds to a slightly different riding technique than the Honda. The YZ can be ridden more comfortably by riders of varying skill levels; the Honda is more of an all-out racebike that wants to be ridden hard to deliver its benefits.

Front-wheel traction between the two gives similar feedback, thanks to good chassis balance and both bikes’ use of the same excellent Dunlop front tire. During corner exits, the Yamaha prefers to be stood up before whacking the throttle open and getting full drive; the Honda can accelerate harder while still cranked over with a good amount of lean angle. And exit bumps do not unsettle the Honda as much as they do the Yamaha.

Braking bumps cause the exact opposite reaction, even though both bikes use KYB suspension all around and their front-to-rear balance is better than average. But the CRF behaves more like a jackhammer coming into bumpy corners, while the YZ absorbs the harshness as though floating over them. Both bikes are predictable, though, and never gave me the feeling that I was about to get tossed to the ground or have one of those “ohhh-boy” moments.

In comfort and ease of rider fore-and-aft mobility on the bike, these two are essentially equal. The shape of the Yamaha’s radiator shrouds (that now double as intake vents) trick the eye into thinking the bike is wider up front, but my quick check with a measuring tape showed that the CRF’s shrouds actually extend out farther than the YZ-F’s.

I just wish these bikes had bigger gas tanks; blue holds 1.6 gallons and red just 1.5. Their manufacturers’ reasoning is that fuel injection makes the bikes more fuel-efficient. Yeah, I know, these are dedicated race machines designed for 20-lap Supercross main events and 30-minute (plus two laps) motocross races. But the latter events even push the envelope so much that most factory teams use larger-capacity, hand-made tanks. So, if you like to compete in 45-minute Grand Prix races, forget it—unless you fit a larger gas tank.

But that has nothing to do with finding a winner here, which wasn’t an easy task. Rider opinions about the CRF and YZ-F varied from one track to another, proof of just how close these two machines really are. As it turned out, one bike was the favorite at more tracks than the other, which meant that naming a winner didn’t exactly force us to split hairs.

And that winner is? The Yamaha YZ450F. It has a fiery, responsive engine that zaps power to the ground more easily; a supple suspension that soaks up braking bumps and other impacts to keep the rider comfortable and in command more often; and quick-response handling that allows the bike to turn on a dime. That combination is hard to beat—and for the first time in nine years, it’s one the CRF450R could not beat.

So, innovation does trump dominance. All it took was a little backward thinking.

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F

Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R

Yamaha YZ450F

Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F

Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R

Honda CRF450R

Honda CRF450R

Yamaha YZ450F

Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F

Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R

Yamaha YZ450F

Honda CRF450R

Honda CRF450R vs. Yamaha YZ450F