From the January 2012 issue

Much of our older content has been stored on the back shelves of our offices... we always have fun looking back at days gone by and we hope you enjoy these little gems as well!

It's getting kind of crowded in the 450 motocross class. For what seems like forever, only the four Japanese companies were actively involved, but KTM has gradually worked its way into the mix and now builds not just one but two models designed to compete in that class. And Husqvarna, once a dominant force in motocross but mostly absent from the sport since the late 1970s, has jumped back into the arena, as well.

This is a good thing; the more contestants there are in any competitive activity, the better the competitors become. But can any of these late entries run bar-to-bar with the Japanese bikes, which have been developed and refined year after year for decades?

450-class motocross static group line-up
The Seven Wonders of the Motocross WorldJeff Allen

Great question. To find the answer, we gathered those seven 2012 450-class motocrossers, rounded up a variety of testers ranging from pros to amateurs and from younger dudes to vets, mounted fresh Dunlop Geomax MX51 rubber on all seven machines and arranged for a technician from each brand to attend. We then headed to a couple of tough Southern California tracks—Glen Helen and Raceway 395—for some long days of testing.

Let the roosting begin.

7th PLACE: HUSQVARNA TC449

husqvarna tc449 static side view
Husqvarna TC449Jeff Allen

With support from its new owner, BMW, Husqvarna is making a serious go at the U.S. market. At this point, though, the company's TC449 can't quite match up against motocrossers that have been at it non-stop for many years, but it's a start. Motocross is a tough racket, and if you want to play, you have to take some hits as you go from zero to full speed.

On the plus side, the TC449 is significantly improved over last year’s model. The seat is lower, the suspension was upgraded and the power has been increased. But it’s still apparent that this motocrosser was derived from Husqvarna’s dual-purpose TE449, which means that on the track, it feels very much like an enduro bike. Its soft suspension blows through the stroke on jump landings and even some take-offs, plus it’s heavy and usually feels like it. Straight-line stability is actually pretty good; the TC is controllable over rollers and stays in line in the chop.

husqvarna tc449 off-road action
Husqvarna TC449Jeff Allen

But forget about turning; the 449 doesn’t like to do that. If it must turn, it handles flat corners better than berms and ruts, and the more sweep the better. When ridden easily, the 449 goes around a track pretty quickly, but no tester felt perfectly comfortable on this bike when trying to push hard and go competitively fast.

This is why the TC449 is more of a bike for a rider who just wants to play at motocross rather than race. It’s also better suited for natural-terrain tracks than it is for the man-made type.

Husqvarna TC449
Price $7999
Dry weight 250 lb.
Fuel capacity 2.1 gal.
Seat height 37.5 in.
Footpeg height 16.6 in.
Ground clearance 13.0 in.
Wheelbase 59.2 in.
Horsepower 46.2 hp @ 8800 rpm

Ups:

  • Better than last year's
  • Largest fuel tank
  • Nostalgia

Downs:

  • Too heavy!
  • Gas cap smacks rider's bottom
  • Doesn't like to turn

6th PLACE: KTM 350 SX-F

ktm 350 sx-f static side view
KTM 350 SX-FJeff Allen

The 350 SX-F is intended to compete against the more-powerful 450cc racebikes, which it has done successfully in a variety of racing disciplines. Nonetheless, in a 450cc-specific comparison test, the 350 cannot pull its weight, literally and figuratively. Because it has a 100cc-smaller engine, one would expect it to be the lightest bike in this test, but it’s not; it’s only four pounds lighter than its 450 SX-F big brother, which also has an electric starter.

Of course, racing isn’t all about numbers. The advantage of the 350 is in its smaller rotational mass, which helps it feel like the lightest bike on the track. It loves to corner and can change direction more easily than any of the 450s.

ktm 350 sx-f off-road action
KTM 350 SX-FJeff Allen

That reduced rotating mass also plays into handling, making the 350 easier to keep going straight when the track gets rough. KTM has also done an excellent job this year with the bike’s suspension settings.

On the Cycle World dyno, the 350 posted some potent horsepower numbers, but they didn't always translate to favorable performance on the track. The smaller engine tended to bog coming out of a sand corner or get whipped when racing up Glen Helen's massive hill. Our age-40-plus testers were the most critical of this bike because it has to be ridden more aggressively than a 450. But despite that, the 350 was voted the most fun to ride!

KTM 350 SX-F
Price $8499
Dry weight 235 lb.
Fuel capacity 1.9 gal.
Seat height 37.3 in.
Footpeg height 16.4 in.
Ground clearance 12.5 in.
Wheelbase 59.0 in.
Horsepower 43.4 hp @ 9200 rpm

Ups:

  • Forever fun
  • Flickable like a 250
  • Ride longer, harder

Downs:

  • Power doesn't compete
  • Rev to ride
  • Heavier than Honda's 450

5th PLACE: KTM 450 SX-F

ktm 450 sx-f static side view
KTM 450 SX-FJeff Allen

There’s a lot to like about the 450 SX-F. If one of these bikes defines “rideable,” this is it. Just about every tester praised the KTM’s comfort, and the electric start and hydraulic clutch help your body work less so you can ride more.

And you’ll want to, because everything about the SX-F is smooth. Though it’s the only carbureted bike here, the motor comes alive with a low-end grunt most of the fuel-injected bikes can’t match, and it continues to pull strong all the way to the top end while maintaining excellent traction. It’s that good.

ktm 450 sx-f off-road action
KTM 450 SX-FJeff Allen

Complementing the engine is a planted, stable—but not perfect—chassis. Its suspension action is smooth but not as compliant and forgiving as those on the Japanese bikes, and the SX-F’s weight seems lower and more rearward, which doesn’t allow it to turn as easily as the others. Plus, rear-wheel tracking is fussy over braking bumps entering corners, often causing an awkward readjustment mid-turn as the bike tries to stand up. Worst case is a missed rut or berm. At least the KTM resumes its smooth demeanor on exit.

Where the 450 SX-F really falls a bit short is when the rider turns up his aggression. If the bike is pushed hard, the suspension then is too soft to allow the rider to maintain a fast enough pace to keep up with most of the other 450s. Good thing that not everyone wants to be—or can be—the local motocross hero.

KTM 450 SX-F
Price $8799
Dry weight 239 lb.
Fuel capacity 1.9 gal.
Seat height 37.3 in.
Footpeg height 16.0 in.
Ground clearance 12.5 in.
Wheelbase 59.0 in.
Horsepower 49.6 hp @ 9000 rpm

Ups:

  • Fun and easy power
  • Electric start
  • Get on and ride

Downs:

  • Last to use a carburetor
  • Most expensive
  • Old man's bike

4th PLACE: HONDA CRF450R

honda crf450r static side view
Honda CRF450RJeff Allen

Potentially, the changes Honda made to the CRF's chassis for 2012 could have made this bike a winner here. Thanks to its plush suspension and unmatched stability, the CRF450R is the top-handling bike in the class; and while it has gained a few pounds over the past couple years, it still is the lightest in this test by 4 pounds (compared to the KTM 350), and it's 8 pounds lighter than the next-lightest 450. That lightness, combined with precise steering, allows the rider to have great control of where the bike is headed; whether aiming for an inside rut or bouncing off the side of the track, the Honda goes anywhere it's pointed. And let's not forget about airtime: The CRF is comfortable in the sky, too.

honda crf450r off-road action
Honda CRF450RJeff Allen

Unfortunately, Honda missed the opportunity for a win by leaving the engine untouched from last year; the CRF’s power character is just plain boring. The bottom-end is bland, and the engine gives the rider the impression that it’s a slow revver. This is good when searching for traction, but there is no excitement when mad-power is desired. Its vague clutch engagement with gorilla pull required at the lever certainly doesn’t help. A plus side to the soft bottom-end is that it can be forgiving when a rider is tired; on the other hand, our goal with this test is not to find the best MX bike for a sissy. Thankfully, in midrange and top-end power, the engine doesn’t disappoint, and it pulls hard up hills and on longer straights.

Honda CRF450R
Price $8440
Dry weight 231 lb.
Fuel capacity 1.5 gal.
Seat height 37.0 in.
Footpeg height 16.4 in.
Ground clearance 13.0 in.
Wheelbase 59.4 in.
Horsepower 48.3 hp @ 8100 rpm

Ups:

  • Improved handling
  • Easy to ride hard
  • Lightweight and feels it

Downs:

  • Dull engine character
  • Worst clutch pull
  • Front brake…ugh

3rd PLACE: YAMAHA YZ450F

yamaha yz450f static side view
Yamaha YZ450FJeff Allen

Yamaha's backward-cylindered YZ450F has been getting a bad rap from the rumor generator, with people calling it ill-handling and unrideable. Ludicrous! These are mere observations made by viewers of professional MX racing, and they're completely false. The YZ-F was named the favorite by two of our testers and got voted second- and third-best by our professional-level guys.

Is it perfect? No, and none of these bikes are. The YZ-F’s suspension is a little soft over big rollers and hard hits, but it’s great for soaking up small chop and nasty holes. The bike corners well, but the front end can be a little light for some riders, causing knifing on corner entry. In addition, the Yamaha likes to be more upright before hammering the throttle open on corner exits.

yamaha yz450f off-road action
Yamaha YZ450FJeff Allen

Still, the YZ-F’s unique top-end design keeps the chassis feeling nimble while its monster motor delivers raw horsepower; this 450 pumps out some serious get-up-and-go. Though it has the most impressive bottom-end torque in the test, it is not as smooth down low as the KTM 450 or linear like on the Suzuki, and the power falls of a little sooner than it does on the others. It has the least engine braking, too, but that’s a positive trait that helps for coasting off jumps, and there is less drag from the rear wheel coming into corners. Overall, the best evidence about the YZ-F’s competence is that our testers kept wanting to ride it.

Yamaha YZ450F
Price $8350
Dry weight 239 lb.
Fuel capacity 1.6 gal.
Seat height 37.5 in.
Footpeg height 16.7 in.
Ground clearance 13.1 in.
Wheelbase 58.6 in.
Horsepower 48.8 hp @ 8900 rpm

Ups:

  • Fly-away fast
  • Pick your color
  • Inexpensive GYTR Power Tuner

Downs:

  • Minimal change for '12
  • Wrongly rumored to be bad
  • Suspension a little soft

2nd PLACE: KAWASAKI KX450F

kawasaki kx450f static side view
Kawasaki KX450FJeff Allen

Thanks to an extensive redesign for 2012, the KX450F has a lot to offer. Its motor is snappy and impressive throughout the entire rpm range, always delivering strong power right off the bottom, through the midrange and even on top. The Launch Control Mode (LCM)—a technology lifted from Kawasaki’s factory bikes—is a real benefit that helps a rider get good, consistent starts. Our only complaint about the engine is that it’s too hard-hitting at times. The KX-F comes with two additional power couplers; but if you wuss out and plug in the soft map, don’t be surprised when you’re not thrilled by the performance.

A new frame betters rider comfort while also improving the bike’s ability to get into a corner. The Kawasaki turns nicely, much like the razor-sharp Suzuki, but the front wheel doesn’t track quite as accurately, causing a little push through the corner. The suspension is compliant in all areas but can be a little busy on small chop.

kawasaki kx450f off-road action
Kawasaki KX450FJeff Allen

Kawasaki boasts about the new KX-F having “adjustability,” and our larger testers made good use of that feature. The handlebars can be moved via their mounts, and the footpegs can be lowered slightly, as well.

Because it is built like a true racebike, the Kawasaki can come across as a little hard-edged. That’s great for riders who are willing and able to push the bike hard; the more aggressively it’s ridden, the better it works. The downfall for mere mortals is that when you’re tired or just cruising, the KX is harder to ride.

Kawasaki KX450F
Price $8399
Dry weight 239 lb.
Fuel capacity 1.6 gal.
Seat height 37.2 in.
Footpeg height 16.5 in.
Ground clearance 13.0 in.
Wheelbase 58.5 in.
Horsepower 49.7 hp @ 8800 rpm

Ups:

  • Color of money
  • Launch Control
  • Adjustability

Downs:

  • The loudest
  • Front end loses feel
  • Wants to be ridden hard, always

1st PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z450

suzuki rm-z450 static side view
Suzuki RM-Z450Jeff Allen

Suzuki's big change on the RM-Z450 for 2012 is…drumroll, please…the color of the seat.

That’s not very impressive, is it? But what is impressive is just about everything the RM-Z does, starting with its fantastic power delivery. The engine pumps out the most horsepower and torque of this group, but it’s always smooth and easily usable with crisp, predictable throttle response, allowing the rider to make the best use of it. Our only knock on the engine is its shifting. The lever engagement is notchy, and you consciously have to use a little brainpower to ensure a clean shift.

But the rider otherwise is kept very comfortable, especially by the chassis. The Suzuki corners like it’s on rails, with the front wheel always maintaining excellent grip without trying to push or knife. Neither does the bike want to dive too low or stand up when blasting through corners; it simply does what the rider asks. Suddenly changing direction is never an issue, either; the chassis quickly and willingly responds to that kind of rider input. Due to that exceptional responsiveness, the RM-Z is not the most stable of these seven in a straight line; but the bike never gets out of hand, instead allowing the rider to develop more and more confidence lap after lap. So, too, is the suspension’s behavior outstanding, even if the fork did prove a bit soft for our heavier testers.

suzuki rm-z450 off-road action
Suzuki RM-Z450Jeff Allen

So, considering that among this group, the RM-Z450 has the most power, the best engine characteristics, the best turning ability and suspension that does the job for fast guys and slowpokes alike, Suzuki has a winner on its hands for 2012.

Truth is, the top five finishers in this comparison are all truly competitive and closely matched; only a little nitpicking, personal preferences and riding styles separate them. It’s just that the bikes that finished second through fifth were up against one badass Suzuki.

Suzuki RM-Z450
Price $8399
Dry weight 241 lb.
Fuel capacity 1.6 gal.
Seat height 36.8 in.
Footpeg height 16.2 in.
Ground clearance 12.2 in.
Wheelbase 59.3 in.
Horsepower 50.8 hp @ 8300 rpm

Ups:

  • Stellar engine pull
  • Rails corners
  • Interchangeable power couplers

Downs:

  • Notchy shifting
  • A little twitchy
  • Dungey gone