2004 HONDA CRF450

Honda isn’t taking the four-stroke movement lightly. When they first released the original 2002 CRF450, it had all the fixings of a great bike, but was missing a dash of low-end grunt, a pinch of reliability and a smidgen of accuracy. For ’03 Honda’s engineers changed the cam, redesigned the frailest pieces (air box, chain buffer and radiator wing) and, most of all, they steepened the head angle to sharpen the handling. Good fixes.

But were the mods good enough that Honda could sit pat with the 2004 CRF450? Sitting pat would free up some cash for the much delayed CRF250 project. To sit or not, that was the question.

In Honda’s eyes they couldn’t start taking profits now. They had cataloged the charms of the Yamaha YZ450F and they didn’t like what they saw. The YZ-F hit harder, revved freer and, with its four-speed tranny, pulled farther. There was work to be done at the Honda factory.

Thus the 2004 Honda CRF450 isn’t a Xerox of the ?03. It had its gun sights recalibrated. The target? Shoot down the YZ450F.

Q: WHAT DID HONDA DO TO THE ?04 CRF450 ENGINE?

A: This may sound like blasphemy, but so be it. Honda’s engineers “Yamaha-ized” the CRF engine. Say what? While YZ450F critics said that it hits too hard, revs too rapidly and stays in every gear too long, Honda’s engineers saw the YZ-F’s hit, rev and breadth as pluses. And, in our opinion, they developed a program to make the 2004 CRF450 engine more like the YZ-F engine.

Q: WHAT WERE THE KEY INGREDIENTS OF HONDA’S ENGINE R&D PROGRAM?

A: The CRF test engineers wanted what Yamaha had and they set out to get it with a three-part plan.

(1) Hit. The compression ratio on the ?04 CRF450 was increased to 12:1. More compression translates into more punch, a harder hit and better bottom to mid.

(2) Rev. Honda shaved 130 grams off the flywheel and 5 grams off the piston. With a quarter pound knocked off the drivetrain, the ?04 CRF450 would turn over quicker, rev faster and zing more than chug.

(3) Breadth. For most uses a five-speed tranny is better than a four-speed, but Yamaha’s combination of abrupt power and quick rev made its four-speed cog box a thing of beauty. Less shifting equaled less thinking-which made the YZ450F as close to an automatic transmission bike as any motocrosser has ever got. Honda had five, but subconsciously they wanted four. But, four wasn’t in the budget. The solution? Honda geared the Honda two teeth taller. The swap from a 50-tooth rear to a 48 made the CRF think it was a four-speed (with an overdrive in reserve). And, in a nutshell, that is how Honda’s engineers Yamaha-ized the CRF450 engine.

Q: DID HONDA FIX THE MOST COMMON SQUAWKS?

A: They gave it the old college try. Here are MXA’s personal squawks and what Honda did about them for ?04.

Clutch jangle: Honda worked on the perch and clutch lever pivot bolt to stop the clutch lever from impersonating a bobble head doll.

Clutch adjustment: Tired of Yamaha getting all the kudos for its on-the-fly clutch adjustment, the ?04 CRF gets a star adjuster (and they added a reach adjuster for riders with small hands).

Rear brake overheating: It’s still hot back there.

Air box congestion: It’s still tight in there.

Handlebars: Honda’s steel handlebars had a nice bend, but most riders switched to aftermarket aluminum bars. No more! For ?04 Honda has aluminum Renthal 971s. Nice bars and a money saver.

Tire choice: We loved Dunlop’s K490/K695 tire combo, but that was back when George Bush was the President (and we aren’t talking about W). We believe that Honda’s engineers stuck with the old school rubber because it was light (which looked good on the spec sheet). For ?04 the CRF450 gets a Dunlop 742 front and 756 rear, which will work best in intermediate dirt.

Q: HOW DOES THE 2004 CRF450 REALLY RUN?

A: We loved this engine. At first we were alarmed by the mods Honda made, fearing that they would take the pleasant and manageable CRF powerband and turn it into a fire-breathing Yamaha clone. Not so! It’s true that Honda’s changes made the CRF450 more Yamaha-like, but thankfully the CRF kept its unique personality.

The increased compression, which should have pumped up the hit off the bottom, isn’t very noticeable because of the tall gearing. But you can feel the extra surge in transition across the middle thanks to the lighter flywheel. By combining tall gearing with a lightened drivetrain, the CRF450 engine has become more electrified. And, we mean electrified in two ways: (1) The powerband is smoother, less chuggy, broader and easier to use than last year. It’s almost electric. (2) The casual bottom-end, which will take some getting used to, is highlighted by an amped up midrange, long pull in the meat of the powerband and plentiful top. The midrange delivers a jolt of power.

It’s very different than last year, but better in almost every way.

Q: IS IT A FIVE-SPEED OR A PSEUDO FOUR-SPEED?

A: The MXA test riders were most conflicted about the 48-tooth rear sprocket. At first, all the riders hated the gearing. They said it was “too sluggish,” “too mellow,” “too casual” and “too tall.” Every pro rider opted to gear it down (last year the CRF450 came with a 50-tooth rear sprocket). Adding a bigger rear sprocket punched up the throttle response off idle and made the pros happy, but it was too much power for the Novices and Intermediates.

The taller CRF gearing requires a new mindset. Test riders began to glide in and roll the throttle on sooner. The result? Faster lap times, less fatigue and a lot less shifting. Because of the taller gearing several thing happened: (1) We used first gear more than last year. (2) We used fifth gear less than last year. (3) We could still start in second gear, but it carried farther off the line (which was a big plus). (4) We made about 25 percent less shifts per lap than last year. Each gear was longer, which meant that we didn’t have to upshift on most short straights (although we had to carry more speed into turns and berms to avoid downshifting).

If you have a gun-and-run style, gear the 2004 CRF450 back to where it was in 2003 (with a 50-tooth sprocket). That will turn it back into a five-speed. Most hard-core riders will want to gear it down. But before you add a tooth or two, spend some time with the new gearing. With practice you will go faster with less effort-and you’ll have the benefits of a four-speed without the disadvantages.

Q: WHAT ABOUT THAT SHOWA SUSPENSION?

A: Honda deserves beaucoup credit for what they have achieved in three short years. They were, and had been, the laughing stock of motorcycle suspension since 1987 (when they had their last really good set of forks). But Honda had a reversal of fortune starting in 2002. They went from stinkeroo to pretty dang good. Gone is the dreaded “mid-stroke harshness” and in its place are overly soft, but very plush, forks and a fairly well dialed-in shock.

Our only complaint, and it has been the same since the CRF450’s inception, is that the suspension package is out of balance. The front end drops in consecutive bumps and bangs around. It’s choppy instead of fluid. It needs stiffer fork springs to keep the front end from dropping into its stroke. A simple spring rate change will lift the front enough that you can charge sections that the stockers flinch from.

The rear suspension, which feels high and harsh in comparison to the front forks, is actually well dialed in. Fix the forks before you worry about the shock. It’s good as is.

Q: WHAT DID WE HATE?

A: The hate list:

(1) Air box: There is a new air filter cage for ?04, but not much room to maneuver.

(2) Rear brake: Honda pioneered mini brake pads in a weight saving effort. They are light, but they tend to overheat, chirp and fade.

(3) Radiators: Is it just us, or are the CRF radiators made out of tin foil? We can turn the rectangular radiators into trapezoids with our knees.

(4) Clutch: It’s adequate, but not great. Unfortunately, the taller gearing puts a premium on judicious clutch use. Proceed with caution.

Q: WHAT DID WE LIKE?

A: The like list:

(1) Engine: Honda has made great strides with their 450cc engine. The engine package keeps the essence of what made it a CRF and added some of the YZ-F’s broad-based charms.

(2) Muffler. It’s moved 50mm farther forward and has an enclosed end cap. Thanks to the new gearing and dead air space at the front of the muffler, the CRF450 has a unique exhaust note.

(3) Saddle: We liked the gripper material down the centerline.

(4) Clutch lever: Kudos to Honda on the new clutch perch. The on-the-fly adjuster could be larger (and not hidden under the hot start trigger), but the lever jangles less and the reach adjuster is sweet.

(5) Ignition cover: It’s magnesium this year. It’s a small thing, but all of the small things add up a three pound weight savings over 2003.

Q: WHAT DO WE REALLY THINK?

A: Kudos to Honda. They took a two-year-old bike and improved it so much that it puts the old bike to shame. Should you sell your ?03 to get an ?04? That depends on how much work you put into your ?03. If you invested in triple clamps, pipe, springs, clutch lever and enough carbon fiber to build an F117, stand pat. That said, the 2004 is faster, more reliable and better outfitted.

The 2004 CRF450 is better because, dare we say it, it went to school on the YZ450F. And, we’ll give the CRF an A+ for doing its homework.

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