Not a single category of motorcycles sees fiercer competition between manufacturers year in and year out than the pinnacle of dirt performance that are 450cc motocross bikes. Not a model year passes without a change in the rankings or in the models themselves. Life cycle for a motocross model is considered long at three years, even with continual refinements that are significant. Big and small changes can move a brand from the middle of the pack to the front.

For 2019, Cycle World's dirt-only sister publication, Dirt Rider, has assembled the six major players in the motocross market and put them to the test to see which model comes out on top. Husqvarna, Kawasaki, and KTM come into the year with all-new models while Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha have updated their machines. In such a hard-fought class all new doesn't always translate into the best on the track, but for 2019 it does.

Sixth Place: 2019 Suzuki RM-Z450

Suzuki's RM-Z450 was all-new for 2018 and received praise from the Dirt Rider testing team for its always excellent cornering ability. Unfortunately a motocross track is more than just corners, and even with revised suspension settings, a comfortable cockpit, and a torquey powerplant the RM-Z was relegated to the bottom of the charts.

The RM-Z450 is a good motocross bike in a segment filled with greats.

RM-Z450
The RM-Z450’s cornering prowess has not diminished for 2019.Jeff Allen
RM-Z450
Although the ergonomics were rated highly, the RM-Z450 feels long and rigid.Jeff Allen

Fifth Place: 2019 KTM 450 SX-F

Last year the KTM 450 SX-F finished second in the shootout, and with massive updates that basically make it a new model, it was expected to be a front-runner again. This year it is a case of the gains not being as big as some losses. A stiffer frame, a narrow chassis, and updated suspension setting were all seen as improvements from 2018, but a more mellow bottom-end power delivery made it feel a bit heavy on the track. This is despite being the lightest on the scales at 234 pounds. Also, other machines have made bigger leaps in performance for 2019.

The 2019 450 SX-F is an improvement over last year’s model in most areas, but the bottom-end power left something to be desired.

KTM 450
The KTM is one of the best handling bikes in its class with quick direction changes and stability in a straight line.Jeff Allen
KTM 450 SX-F
A mellow bottom-end hurt the overall ranking of the 2019 KTM 450 SX-FJeff Allen

Fourth Place: 2019 Husqvarna FC 450

For 2019 the Husqvarna FC450 gets sharper styling matched to improved suspension settings, a stiffer chassis, and a more compact cylinder head. While it stepped up significantly from a softer and wider 2018, the new model shares the same low-end character as its orange sibling, the 450 SX-F. Just like the KTM, a lack of bottom-end power feeling gave the Husky a heavy feel coming out of corners and accelerating down straights. For the first year, however, it did finish above the KTM.

The Husqvarna is one of the best-handling bikes in the class. It’s very neutral, balanced, corners well, and has good stability.

Husqvarna FC 450
Overall, the WP suspension on the Husqvarna is good and continues to improve from year to year.Jeff Allen
FC450
With more bottom-end thrust the 2019 Husqvarna FC450 would have ranked much higher in this shootout.Jeff Allen

Third Place: 2019 Yamaha YZ450F

Last year the Yamaha YZ450F was all new, but that didn’t mean the Tuning Fork company was going to take it easy this year. Numerous updates including stiffer compression damping, more rigid front and rear axles, and an updated electric starter system with less parasitic drag further bolster the YZ450F’s powerful and user-friendly engine. That engine matched to the most stable and predictable chassis in the class has the Yamaha breathing down the necks of Honda and Kawasaki. If not for a wide fuel tank and radiator area that make for the least agreeable ergonomics, the YZ450F may have grabbed the silver or gold for 2019; as it is, bronze is entirely respectable considering the high level of performance in this class.

On the track, the YZ450F engine is both powerful and aggressive with heaps of bottom-end power, a strong midrange, and decent top-end.

YZ450F
Low-end grunt makes it easy to lug the bike in corners, reducing shifting.Jeff Allen
Yamaha YZ450F
Out of all six bikes, the YZ450F has the plushest and most-forgiving suspension with the most race-ready settings.Jeff Allen

Second Place: 2019 Honda CRF450R

Since it's redesign in 2017, the Honda CRF450R has been a front-runner in Dirt Rider shootouts. The CRF saw updates just a year later in 2018 resulting in shootout win. For 2019, more changes from Honda keep the red machine near the top of the heap. A new cylinder head, HRC launch control, and updated engine model selection options give the Honda an aggressive and exciting character. A plush initial-stroke suspension feel with a stiffness that ramps up quickly received praise in the tester team's notes and comments. This new chassis sharpness brought excellent handling, but on the other side of the coin, the chassis was more difficult to ride than some of the other bikes as the track deteriorated. This put it behind the latest winner of Dirt Rider's shootout, the 2019 Kawasaki KX450.

On the track, the Honda engine is aggressive and exciting. It has the lightest-feeling engine character, almost two-stroke-like in how quickly it revs, making it fun and playful.

Honda CRF450R
The harder you push the better the Honda CRF450R’s suspension works.Jeff Allen
CRF450R
As the track gets rougher the CRF450R becomes harder to ride.Jeff Allen

First Place: 2019 Kawasaki KX450

Kawasaki's KX450 is all new for 2019, and it made a huge difference in this year's shootout rankings, jumping up from a fourth-place finish last year to the win this year. An all-new engine with electric start, the first hydraulic clutch on a Japanese motocrosser, and a completely revised chassis brought the Kawasaki from a middle-of-the-pack lump to a convincing winner. The new powerplant has loads of torque that revs freely to a top-end surge with enough over-rev to allow the rider to carry a gear longer before shifting. A 49mm Showa coil-spring fork matched to an all-new Showa shock gives the KX a balanced chassis that stays planted on rough tracks. Narrow and roomy, the rider area also garnered high marks from nearly all testers. In the end only the large muffler and tall stock bars were cited as misses on the 2019 KX450F. And for that it is the 2019 Dirt Rider 450 Motocross Shootout winner.

Kawasaki’s efforts with its latest-generation KX450 paid off with a big win in the 2019 450 MX Shootout.

Kawasaki KX450
The 2019 Kawasaki KX450 is all new and the winner of the Dirt Rider 450 Motocross Shootout.Jeff Allen
2019 Kawasaki KX450
A narrow yet roomy cockpit allows the rider to move around easily on the 2019 Kawasaki KX450.Jeff Allen

In the end, Kawasaki reaped the rewards for an all-new model while KTM and Husqvarna saw diminished returns as they lost some bark in the engine department and the other manufactures closed the gap with lighter-feeling, better-handling machines. Honda and Yamaha refined and polished current designs for better performance and handling. Suzuki still struggles with being found at the bottom of the pile, but even the smallest issues can have big consequences in a field as stacked as this.

To read the entire shootout in detail click here.