2019 Honda CRF450L

First Ride Review

If you’re in the market for a 450cc dirt bike, Honda’s 2019 lineup offers you five options: the CRF450R motocrosser, the pro-level CRF450WE (Works Edition), the CRF450RX for enduro competition, the CRF450X for trail riding and—at last—the highly anticipated CRF450L, a 50-state street-legal dual-sport that’s light enough and powerful enough to satisfy all but the most hardcore of off-road riders. Until now, if you wanted a 450cc “dirt bike with lights” your only choice was European—KTM, Husqvarna or Beta, even Aprilia and BMW dabbled in the class a decade ago. But cutting-edge 450 dual-sports have been conspicuously absent from Japanese lineups.

Of course, Honda is no stranger to dual-sports. Its history stretches back to the early ’60s with legendary bikes like the CL72 Scrambler 250, the Elsinore and various models with XL, NX or XR in their names. More recently, Honda launched the CRF1000L Africa Twin for 2016 and CRF250L Rally for 2017, and the all-new 2019 CRF450L slots right between them.

Our incredibly scenic test ride was based out of Packwood, Washington, in the heart of the Cascade Range and surrounded on all sides by Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Whenever there was a break in the evergreens, we could see snowcapped Mt. Rainer looming to the north. Our route covered nearly 100 miles, and being in the Pacific Northwest, the weather changed as often as the riding conditions. Wet pavement, sloppy gravel-strewn forest roads and gorgeous, canopied single track—all before lunch. These mixed conditions provided a perfect testing environment for the CRF450L.

Throw a boot over the 37.1-inch-high seat, hit the electric start and let the precisely metered PGM-FI filter though the 46mm downdraft throttle body. The exhaust note is restrained, necessary to satisfy noise and emissions regulations. As we started our ride, it was raining and cold; 30 seconds in, I wished the CRF had handguards—a curious omission. As we transitioned from pavement to a dirt forest road, I grabbed more throttle than needed to test traction and power. The back end stepped out in a controllable arc, making it clear that the Honda’s 449cc, liquid-cooled, Unicam SOHC, four-valve single has plenty of kick.

Honda doesn’t provide official figures, but a rep said—unofficially—horsepower is “in the forties.” A high-performance motocross engine modified for the rigors of street use, it has a 12:1 compression ratio, titanium valves, a modified finger rocker arm with a DLC coating and 12 percent more crankshaft inertia than a CRF450R. A gear-driven counterbalancer keeps vibration in check. Revised ECU settings make the power more manageable, less explosive, yet very responsive to small throttle inputs.

A trick titanium tank holds 2 gallons of fuel, and since the CRF450L is street-legal, it has larger radiators with an electric fan, a larger lithium-ion battery and a robust generator to power the LED lights. But since the CRF will also get abused on trails, it has durable plastic bodywork, a skid plate and turn signals that are tough and flexible. A handy digital meter provides basic info: speed, odometer, trip meters, a clock and several fuel consumption metrics (the computer said my average was 46 mpg). To keep noise to a minimum, the CRF not only has a special muffler, it also has special covers on the crankcase, sprockets with rubber dampers and urethane injected into the swingarm. It’s quite stealthy in stock trim.

The CRF450L’s aluminum twin-spar frame is 15mm wider to accommodate the upgraded 6-speed gearbox that’s shared with the CRF450X. Gear changes were effortless and the stock ratios were superb—low or high, I was always able to find the right gear for the situation. Hidden behind plastic, the stout aluminum subframe extends past the end of the exhaust and can be used as an attachment point for carrying gear. One of our ride guides used a 40-liter ADV soft bag system.

MX-caliber suspension made by Showa offers more than 12 inches of travel front and rear, with a 49mm upside-down fork adjustable for rebound and compression and a fully adjustable Pro-Link rear shock, and internal settings were calibrated for trail riding. This isn’t the sort of suspension that’s built to a price or feels like a compromise or will be the first thing owners upgrade; these are high-quality components that soaked up whatever abuse I dished out. And with 12.4 inches of ground clearance, I never bottomed out on the skid plate nor scraped the rear suspension linkage.

Black D.I.D rims—a 21-inch front and 18-inch rear—are normally shod with IRC GP21/22 dual-sport tires (80/100-21 front, 120/80-18 rear), but our test bikes were upgraded to more aggressive Dunlop D606 DOT knobbies, which performed amazingly well in a wide range of conditions. Up front, a 2-piston caliper squeezes a single 260mm disc, and at the rear a 1-piston caliper squeezes a 240mm disc. Braking was excellent and low effort. At a claimed 289 pounds wet, the CRF450L weighs 14 pounds more than its trail-only CRF450X counterpart due to the add-ons to make it street-legal, but it carries its weight well everywhere except in deep whoops. Although not as light as full-on MX/enduro bikes, the CRF450L is lighter than other dual-sports in Honda’s lineup—29 pounds lighter than the CRF250L and CRF250L Rally, and 57 pounds lighter than the CRF250L Rally ABS and XR650L.

Overall, the 2019 Honda CRF450L is confidence inspiring and composed on the trail. It offered great tractability on slimy root- and rock-infested single track and stayed planted on sloppy high-speed fire roads, yet was reasonably quiet and smooth on pavement. The magic of the CRF450L is it’s flexible enough and light enough to appeal to a wide range of riders (as long as they can live with its lofty seat height…such is the price of more than a foot of ground clearance and suspension travel). As an off-road-oriented dual-sport, it’s happiest in the dirt but can be ridden on pavement to connect the trails, or even for commuting or short blasts up the canyon, especially with a set of 17-inch supermoto wheels! With excellent fit and finish and no obvious shortcomings, this is the dual-sport many people have been waiting for.