INSIDE THE 2009 HONDA CRF450 TEST
When a consumer decides to plunk down over eight grand on a product, it is in his best interest to try to learn as much as possible about his intended purchase. And so it is with the 2009 Honda CRF450. The all-new Honda has become the most eagerly anticipated and ballyhooed new model release in years. One of the inherent problems that consumers face with a bike that has so much buzz is that it achieves folklore status before it is even ridden. Word of mouth, fueled by rumor, hope and exaggeration, elevates a machine made of metal and plastic to the epic proportions of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
The MXA wrecking crew is naturally suspicious of any product that is “too good to be true.” We approached the 2009 Honda CRF450 just as we would any other test bike—with a fervent desire to tell the consumer exactly what he will be getting for his eight large. We think that you will be surprised by the depth of this test and the clarity of its analysis. We also think that this test will lay to rest the myth, and expose the true performance of the machine.
Q: WHAT DID HONDA CHANGE ON THE 2009 CRF450?
A: Let’s make this easier by listing what Honda didn’t change from the 2008 model to the 2009 model: the hubs, handlebars and brakes are hold-overs.
Q: WHY IS EVERYONE GETTING MISTY ABOUT FUEL INJECTION?
A: Although most people would be tempted to say fuel injection is the most important change on the 2009 CRF450, the MXA wrecking crew isn’t as enamored by EFI as the rest of the moto world. On a pure race bike, fuel injection is not better than well-jetted carburetion. EFI doesn’t hit as hard in the middle, make as much horsepower on top, or deliver excess fuel (when excess fuel is called for). It is just another way to get gasoline into the combustion chamber.
The plus of fuel injection is that it is hands-off. There is no need to re-jet for altitude, temperature or humidity—because there are no jets.
Q: IF EFI ISN’T A BIG DEAL, WHAT IS?
A: The new Honda chassis.
Q: WHAT’S SO UNIQUE ABOUT THE NEW CRF450 CHASSIS?
A: Most CRF450 owners are too young to remember the handling traits of the pre-’94 CR’s. Suffice it to say that the 1994-2008 Hondas are mere shadows of the turning prowess of the 1993 model. In fact, during his whole time at Team Honda (1993-1996), Jeremy McGrath only raced a 1993 Honda CR250. He hated the ’94, ’95 and ’96 frames and rather than race them, SuperMac made Honda update the cosmetics on his 1993 bike to look like the new models. Then, when the 1997 aluminum-framed CR250 was introduced, Jeremy knew the jig was up. He wouldn’t be able to race his trusty but rusty 1993 model in 1997. And Jeremy did not like the 1997 CR250’s handling. He was spot-on in his assessment. The first aluminum frame bike handled worse than any previous Honda. In the end, Jeremy didn’t have to deal with it because he left Honda without having to throw a leg over the 1997 aluminum frame.
How does this pertain to the 2009 Honda CRF450? According to Jeremy McGrath, “It handles just like my 1993 model.”
Q: WHAT DID HONDA DO TO THE 2009 CRF450 CHASSIS?
A: An incredible number of changes went into the 2009 frame. Here is the list:
(1) The engine is completely redesigned to lower its overall height and position the crankshaft closer to the front wheel. This front axle to crankshaft measurement is called the “front center,” and the shorter the front center the more agile the chassis at turn-in. For 2009, the CRF450’s front center has been reduced by 15mm.
(2) The swingarm is 18mm longer than in 2008 (which moves the weight bias forward).
(3) The 2009 twin-spar frame is 14 ounces lighter than the 2008 frame. The spar’s cross section has been reduced from 70mm by 27mm to 66mm by 26mm.
(4) The steering tube has been moved back 10mm.
(5) Fork offset has been reduced from 22mm to 20mm (fork offset in 2007 was 24mm). Trail is now 114.2mm (4.5 inches). Last year it was 111.4 mm (4.3 inches).
(6) The frame’s head angle has been steepened from 26.76 degrees to 26.52 degrees.
(7) The new radiator shrouds are narrower to aid rider movement, and the seat base has been lowered to reduce overall height (without reducing the thickness of the seat foam).
Q: WHAT DO ALL THOSE FRAME NUMBERS MEAN?
A: Think about it for a second. The front wheel is 15mm closer to the engine, while the rear wheel is 18mm farther away. The weight bias has been moved forward and the head angle is steeper. Trail has been increased and the seat height reduced. The overall weight has been lowered and the width at the rider’s knees is narrower.
We don’t know about your cognitive powers, but that is a completely different Honda from what we have known since the great 1993 chassis was neutered in the name of stability. We’ll get to how it performs as we move along.
Q: HOW NEW IS THE 2009 ENGINE DESIGN?
A: Totally new. It shares nothing with the previous design...and we mean nothing!
Valve train: Say goodbye to Honda’s innovative forked Unicam valve actuation system. The 2009 Honda uses a conventional four-lobe camshaft and individual rocker arms.
Connecting rod: While the stroke remains the same, the connecting rod is 3.5mm shorter (105.6 to 102.1mm). This changes the side force on the cylinder wall, allowing a quicker turnover to the 11,450 rpm rev limiter. The bore-and-stroke is 96mm by 62.1mm.
Crankshaft journals: Honda’s engineers relocated the crankshaft main journal cradles (inside the flywheels) to allow the big-end diameter to be reduced from 34mm to 33mm. Additionally, the crankshaft cutaway eliminates piston skirt contact at bottom dead center (BDC).
Head: The cylinder head’s combustion chamber is shorter yet has a larger volume squish area for better flame propagation. The overall dimensions of the head are greatly reduced. The camshaft sits lower in the head and the cam sprocket is now press-fit to the camshaft.
Valves: Lightweight titanium intake valves and redesigned valve springs reduce overall engine height and permit higher rpm. The intake valve stem diameters have been reduced from 5.5 to 5.0mm.
Exhaust: The exhaust system exits the left side of the head instead of the right side and snakes around the downtube. The head pipe length is 1106mm (it was 976mm). The tuned length of the pipe was 1361mm, but is now 1477mm.
Sight glass: A dipstick on the left side of the engine replaces the previous sight glass.
Q: HOW DOES HONDA’S FUEL INJECTION DIFFER FROM SUZUKI’S AND KAWASAKI’S?
A: Very little (except in throttle body size). All three use Keihin throttle bodies with 12-port injectors, magneto/capacitor charging systems and a handful of sensors to provide info to the ECU. As similar as they are, they do have unique features.
(1) The CRF450’s throttle body is 50mm (Kawasaki and Suzuki have 43mm throttle bodies).
(2) Honda and Kawasaki use 50 psi fuel line pressure (Suzuki uses 42 psi).
(3) Honda’s fuel injection system’s sensors monitor throttle position, intake air temperature, coolant temperature, intake air pressure and gear position. Suzuki monitors the same things, plus it has a tip-over angle sensor. Kawasaki monitors everything that Suzuki tracks, plus it has a crank position sensor.
(4) Honda and Kawasaki both offer optional software and plug-in programmers for around $350 that allow the fuel injection system to be altered.
(5) All three bikes have their fuel pumps in the gas tank, but Honda and Kawasaki use rotationally molded plastic gas tanks, while Suzuki uses an aluminum tank. Fuel capacity on the Honda is 1.5 gallons (1.8 on the KX450F and 1.6 on the RM-Z450).
Q: WHAT ABOUT THE JETTING?
A: There is no jetting. The only thing a rider has control over is a 50-click idle adjustment screw that changes the air mixture slightly (it doubles as the choke knob). It is set at 1800 rpm.
Q: DOES THE CRF450’S EFI SYSTEM SUFFER FROM FLAME-OUT?
A: Yes, but it is manageable by turning the idle up. Flame-out is when the engine quits suddenly at low rpm. We first noticed flame-out on last year’s fuel-injected Suzuki RM-Z450. Fuel injection does not seem to handle throttle chop as efficiently as a carb. The easiest solution to flame-out is to turn the EFI’s idle screw two or three clicks counterclockwise. This will pick up the idle speed.
Q: HOW MUCH HORSEPOWER DOES THE CRF450 MAKE?
A: It makes 50.25 horsepower. How does that compare to other 450’s? Well, it has more power than the YZ450F (49.5) and less than the Suzuki RM-Z450 (51.4). On the other end of the spectrum, it is three-and-one-half horses down to the KTM 450SXF (53.98). It isn't very powerful incomparison to the major players in horsepower--Kawasaki and KTM.
Q: WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF THE 2009 CRF450’S POWERBAND?
A: The throttle response is awesome. At the very instant of rotating the throttle, the CRF450 jumps forward. It almost lurches into action. The bike seems to want you to blip the throttle, play with power settings, and meter the delivery to suit the terrain. From low-to-mid it was a blast to ride. Its best surge came very low in the rpm range. For some test riders it was too jerky off the bottom, but faster test riders rarely cared about response in the first 1/8th turn.
Q: WHAT IS THE WORST PART OF THE 2009 CRF450’S POWERBAND?
A: The 2009 CRF450 is flat on top. It doesn’t sign off like the Suzuki RM-Z450; instead it hangs from 8200 rpm until the rev limiter kicks in at 11,300 rpm. What does that mean? Once the CRF450 reaches 8200 rpm, where it makes its peak horsepower, it stays at that horsepower for the next 3000 rpm. This is the flattest top-end powerband we have ever ridden.
Amazingly, that long flat section isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s not a trait that we would put at the top of our wish list. We can live with it because it hangs at peak, as opposed to hanging somewhere over the top.
Q: IS THE 2009 CRF450 FASTER THAN THE 2008 CRF450?
A: No. It’s quicker and more responsive off the bottom. The 2009 CRF450 jumps to attention with more power and torque from 5000 rpm to 7200 rpm. It’s very strong from low to mid. However, after 7200 rpm, the 2008 CRF450 engine leaves the 2009 mill in its dust. At peak horsepower the 2008 bike pumps out over two horsepower more than the 2009 model (and holds that advantage across the meat of the powerband, from 7200 to 10,000 rpm).
Head-to-head with a talented rider in the saddle, the 2008 CRF450 is faster and has better situated power for Intermediate-and-up racers.
Q: WHAT IS THE MOST ACCURATE ASSESSMENT OF THE 2009 CRF450 POWERBAND?
A: It has the greatest two-thirds of a powerband ever made. Most test riders felt that they could go faster, longer and with more ease on the 2008 Honda CRF450 engine. Why? The incredibly focused power of the 2009 model is too aggressive off idle and too flat on top.
Q: HOW IS THE GEARING?
A: It is confusing. The transmission is new, but the gear ratios are unchanged. Yet something is amiss. With the stock 13/48 gearing (3.692 ratio) the CRF450 seemed to have big gaps between the upper gears, which made the flat top end feel listless. When we added a 49-tooth rear sprocket (3.769 ratio), the power was more focused into the sweet spot and the flat top end could be handled by shifting to the next tallest gear without any lag. Unfortunately for fast riders, adding a tooth to the rear made the snappy, abrupt and quick pickup off idle even more pronounced. In the end we went whole hog and swapped the countershaft and rear sprocket for a 14/52 (3.714 ratio). This setup was like Baby Bear’s porridge for pro riders; it got us across the flat top end sooner, closed up the gaps between gears and didn’t tire out the rider with arm-wrenching jolts. We think Vet and Novice rider should go with the 49.
Q: HOW DID THE 2009 CRF450 HANDLE?
A: The short answer is that it didn’t handle very well. Blasphemy! Heresy! Oh, the humanity! To put it bluntly, the 2009 CRF450 chassis is confused. Let us list the ways:
(1) As it rolls off the showroom floor, the CRF450 sits at a stinkbug stance (front down and rear up).
(2) The forks are too soft, which aggravates the steep 26.52-degree head angle by making it excessively steep when the forks dive under hard braking.
(3) The rear sits so high that the only way to bring the chassis into balance is to set the race sag at extreme levels (in an effort to bring the rear end down).
(4) Jeremy McGrath is right that the 2009 CRF450 turns better, but under certain situations it turns too well. Oversteer is not a plus.
(5) The quick fix for the CRF450 is to slide the forks down into the triple clamps until the fork caps are partially inside the clamps and set the race sag at 110 to 120mm. This achieves a flatter profile by raising the front and lowering the rear, but does so by compromising the frame geometry.
Q: WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO IMPROVE THE HANDLING?
A: Every Honda owner needs to work on the forks. If you thought that the wholesale swap from Showa to Kayaba was going to be manna from heaven, think again. The Kayaba forks aren’t doing the CRF450 any favors. They are undersprung. Seriously undersprung. And while every test rider admired their ability to resist bottoming, they despised the front end’s tendency to dive through most its travel under braking. It is hard to make a chassis perform the way it was designed to perform when the forks ride so low in their stroke. The front end hangs down when the bike is in motion.
Job one is to get stiff enough springs in the Kayaba forks to keep the front high enough to compensate for the stinkbug stance. Once this is achieved, setting the race sag at ridiculously low heights won’t be required to manage the fore/aft relationship. It should be noted that every time a rider lowers his race sag from 100mm to 105mm to 110mm to 115mm, he is kicking the head angle out. Thus, the 2009 CRF450’s new head angle can be erased by 10mm of extra sag.
It is a must to fix the forks first. Only then will the rest of the chassis come around.
Q: WHAT WAS OUR BEST FORK SETTING?
A: The 48mm inverted Kayaba Air-Oil-Separate (AOS) forks offer 16 clicks of rebound and 18 clicks of compression damping adjustability. And we used all they had to offer. In a futile effort to lessen the diving, we were reduced to turning the compression in as far as common sense would allow. One of the surprises of the forks is that while they are under-sprung and under-damped (especially in the midstroke region) they never really bottom. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t too soft and too quick, just that the bottoming cones are amazing. The forks have a very fluid feel to them. They want to work, but the setup hampers their efforts.
For hardcore racing, these are MXA’s recommended 2009 Honda CRF450 fork settings:
Spring rate: 0.48 kg/mm (0.46 stock)
Oil height: 350cc
Compression: Four clicks out (13 stock)
Rebound: Eight clicks out
Fork leg height: As far down as humanly possible.
Notes: On smooth tracks the forks are at their best. In these situations we felt the need to turn the rebound in to about six clicks out. On rough tracks, we turned the rebound out and compression in as far as we dared. If you go stiffer on the spring you will need to adjust the clickers, because the forks aren't damped well for stiff springs.
Q: WHAT WAS OUR BEST SHOCK SETTING?
A: It was obvious to us that the setup for the CRF450 in showroom stock condition would be much different than what it should be in race condition. As it rolls off of the showroom floor, the stock shock needs to have the race sag set as low as possible. This is not done to make the shock work better, since eating up valuable travel and slackening the head angle are not worthy goals. It is done to bring the front and rear suspension into harmony. To compensate for the soft forks, the rear has to be lowered. If you don’t lower the sag, the rear end will overpower the front end and aggravate the teeter-totter effect even more grievously.
Once you get the forks to ride higher in the stroke (with stiffer springs), you can bring the race sag back up closer to 100mm, which will regain the lost travel and return the head angle to its correct number. For hardcore racing, these are MXA’s recommended 2009 CRF450 shock settings (for the stock setup).
Spring rate: 5.4 kg/mm
Race sag: 115mm
High-compression: Two turns out (1-1/2 stock)
Low-compression: 11 clicks out
Rebound: 15 clicks out (14 stock)
Notes: There are no rising rate changes on the 2009 shock linkage. Although it is totally new, it maintains all the previous rates, but it is affected by the 18mm longer swingarm, which puts more leverage on the shock.
Q: WHAT DID WE HATE?
A: The hate list:
(1) Spark plug. We admire Honda’s efforts to downsize the components to save weight, but the 10mm “C” spark plug looks like it came out of a toy. It works fine. This is the third plug size currently in use in motocross.
(2) Radiator shrouds. We broke them. Our knees, especially with knee braces, would crack the plastic on both sides. Several test riders got their knee braces caught under the shrouds, locking them to the bike.
(3) Left side panel. This is a first for us, but the small size of the left side panel wouldn’t block roost in deep berms. Dirt would fly straight up and land in our pants.
(4) Starting. The Honda starts, but it isn’t an easy starter. It needs a full kick to light the fire...and we mean from the very top.
(5) Sound. We expected that the new exhaust system, which includes a resonance chamber that is hidden in the front part of the muffler body, would be quieter than 97dB. The AMA limit for 2009 is 94db, and the CRF450 isn’t close.
(6) Oil window. Removing the oil window from the CRF is a mistake. With so little oil in the engine, because of Honda’s dual-chamber lubrication system, making it harder for the rider to check the oil level will result in more bikes blowing up. We want the window back.
(7) Transmission. We don’t think the new low-to-mid powerband is in sync with the old gearbox ratios.
(8) Wiring harness. In our opinion, the fuel injection wiring shouldn’t be hanging out in the breeze. It is going to be compromised at mud races.
(9) Shifting. There has been some type of dimensional change in the relationship of the footpeg to the shift lever (although nothing was revealed by measurements). Test riders complained about stiff shifting and said that they thought that they weren’t getting as much boot under the shifter as on the 2008 model.
(10) Clutch. Last year’s clutch used six springs; this year’s clutch uses four springs. We don’t understand the change (except from a weight-savings point of view). From a mechanical point of view, six equally spaced light clutch springs should provide more equal pressure across the surface than four stiffer springs that are spaced farther part. The four-spring clutch will not last as long as the previous six-spring 2008 clutch. Our only clutch-related riding problem was that when the clutch starts to slip, the chance of flame-out goes way up because the engine can’t be disengaged fully in tight turns. At the first sign of slippage, replace the clutch plates. We switched to a Hinson six-spring clutch to cure the problems.
(11) Kayaba. From 2002 until 2007, the MXA crew felt that Showa had put their star-crossed past behind them. The harsh and spiky 2008 Showa forks proved that your past always comes back to haunt you. For that reason we applaud Honda’s bravery in switching to Kayaba components. Why is it brave? Because Honda owns Showa. Unfortunately, the 2009 forks aren’t the saving grace we thought they would be.
Q: WHAT DID WE LIKE?
A: The like list:
(1) Airbox. Finally, Honda did something about that dank, dark and claustrophobic thing they call an airbox. The 2009 airbox not only has room to reach in and grab the air filter, but it has high-tech features like a built-in velocity stack and an incredible air filter (with sealing lips).
(2) Subframe. If you look closely at the aluminum tubing on the CRF450 subframe, you will find that it is flat on one side. The flat surface faces in the best possible direction to narrow the bike’s profile (which means that the flat is on the inside of the left side and outside of the right side).
(3) Gas tank tether. To make the CRF450 easier to work on, the gas tank has tethers that allow it to hang from the frame when working on the bike (since removing it completely would mean disconnecting the high-pressure fuel lines).
(4) Shock body. Thanks to a short and fat piggyback and careful routing of the exhaust system, the shock reservoir is about as far away from exhaust pipe heat as possible. Good engineering.
(5) Frame tab. Look closely at the sides of the frame, where the subframe and side panels meet the twin-spars, and you will see small tabs cast into the CRF450 frame. During testing, test riders hooked their boots on the front edge of the side panels, so Honda went back the foundry and added the cast-in tabs on both sides of the frame to stop that from happening. Nice.
(6) Weight. Suddenly, the manufacturers are reporting the bike’s weight as “curb weight” (with a full tank of gas). This makes sense from a practical standpoint, but doesn’t mesh with the last 40 years of weighing bikes (tank empty). Honda’s reported curb weight is 234.8 pounds. We weighed our CRF450 the AMA way and it came in at 226.5 pounds (about two pounds less than in 2008).
(7) Programmer. Honda offers a calibration tool to alter EFI fuel delivery as well as ignition timing over a wide range of settings. If you feel comfortable with a laptop, the HRC PGM-FI Setting Tool retails for $349. We tested every setting and only like one that retarded the ignition at very low rpm. It eliminated the jerky on-off feel.
(8) Hand hold. Honda double-walled the rear fender so that your hand has a nice comfy place to grab hold of. Very considerate of them.
(9) HPSD. Even with the new 20mm offset triple clamps, the CRF450 is still steering damper equipped. After much consideration, we use it on the 2009 CRF45- to calm down the oversteer.
(10) Maintenance. It wasn't designed to be worked on. If you ever take the subframe off, you will have a major headache getting the airbox back on. The clamp is totally inaccessible.
Q: WHAT DO WE REALLY THINK?
A: We think that Honda has built a terrific machine for 2009. It bristles with innovative ideas. But there is an old theorem put forth by sociologist Thorstein Veblen called "the penalty of taking the lead" that addresses the 2009 Honda CRF450 succinctly (even though Veblen died in 1929). Under Veblen’s theory, the person, corporation or nation that is the first to innovate totally new concepts puts itself at a disadvantage because the leader must make all the mistakes first. The followers benefit by having a data-base of errors to avoid.
The 2009 Honda CRF450 has taken the lead—the penalty is that it has flaws.