THE HONDA CRF450 THAT ST. CHRISTOPHER WOULD APPROVE OF
The new-age 2019-2020 Honda CRF450 is the fastest production 450 four-stroke to ever hit showroom floors. It has massive power that blows the doors off the blue, green, orange, white and yellow competition when motoring down the long Glen Helen start straight heading to the massively banked Talladega first corner. The 2020 Honda CRF450’s 59.74 ponies offer a massive grunt of power at the twist of the throttle without a flick of the clutch. If that doesn’t get your heart racing, imagine being the rider who is wide open down a high-speed straight using all your might to keep the bike from coming off the rails. The 2020 CRF450 might be the fastest bike on the track, but power in the 450 class doesn’t reign supreme; handling does. And, the Honda CRF450’s Achilles heel is that its handling can’t keep up with its potent engine.
THE CRF450 WAS THE FIRST PRODUCTION 450 MOTOCROSS BIKE TO BREAK THE 60-HORSE BARRIER. FOR COMPARISON, THE 2015 HONDA MADE 53.03 HORSEPOWER. THE “SLOWER IS BETTER” PHILOSOPHY WAS OLD NEWS.
MXA test riders have a love/hate relationship with the CRF450. The faster riders break their lap records on it, but can only hold full tilt for a lap or two before their St. Christopher medals hit the eject button. It may seem cruel to say, but the 2020 CRF450 is best ridden at 80 percent; any harder than that and you better be ready for quirky things to happen. MXA’s test riders have put in countless hours on the red rocket, trying to figure out how to get the best out of it. Here is what we came up with to tame the red beast.
There was a time when Honda’s R&D department understood that there was such thing as “too fast.” From 2009 through 2016, the CRF450s were better mannered than their 2017-and-up brethren. Why? During this eight-year period, Honda’s engineers detuned the CRF450’s power output, focusing on making the engines more ridable by making them slower. The “slower is better” philosophy led them to produce engines that were as much as 5-horsepower weaker than their competition. There is no doubt that the CRF450 engines could have been so much better than they were, especially on the top-end, but the CRF450 philosophy of the time was to make them mellow. Honda’s engineers believed that a little less power would calm the beast that dwells inside the twin-spar Delta Box aluminum frame.
But there was a changing of the guard in the CRF R&D department starting in 2018, and by 2019, the CRF450 was making 60.21 horses. The CRF450 was the first production 450 motocross bike to break the 60-horse barrier. For comparison, the 2015 Honda made 53.03 horsepower. The “slower is better” philosophy was old news.
So was the fabled Honda CRF450 twitch, but it was old news that still reared its ugly head on fast and rough straights in 2020. Test riders said that the bike was great at turn in, awesomely fast in a straight line and left the impression that things were going grandly—until it twitched. We don’t hesitate to say that this frame can’t handle a lot of power. Make no mistake about it, the combination of the Honda’s high-horsepower, ultra-stiff frame and soft forks results in a Saint Christopher medal-worthy ride. The CRF450 is best at turn-in, where it can carve a tight inside line like it’s on a roller-coaster track. But, as much as we liked the 2020 CRF450 on the entrance of turns, we were afraid, very afraid, when exiting a turn into choppy acceleration bumps. The rougher the track and the faster the rider, the more the frame was out of its element.
We loved the things that the 2020 Honda CRF450 did well, but it was getting hard to find test riders who were willing to race the CRF450 if any other brand was available on race day. We needed help, serious help. So, we entrusted our CRF450 engine to tuner Chad Braun. You may not be familiar with his name, but Chad owns XPR Motorsports. Chad built the engine that Justin Brayton used when he won the Daytona Supercross. XPR Motorsports builds all the engines for the MotoConcepts team. Every time you see Justin Hill and Malcolm Stewart pulling holeshots and winning heat races, it is Chad Braun behind the curtain pulling the switches.
When talking through our goals to make the CRF450 a more manageable bike without diminishing its mojo, XPR only had one suggestion—use a Vortex ignition ($699.99) and let them remap it (mapping costs $249.99). XPR had countless maps to choose from in its database. We had Chad put three maps in our Vortex ignition. Map 1 was Malcolm Stewart’s personal favorite. Map 2 was the map that Justin Brayton used when he won Daytona, and Map 3 was developed for the average Vet rider. The only other thing XPR suggested was to use its custom clutch arm. We knew we had to throw the CRF450’s weak judder-spring clutch in the trash and replace it with a bulletproof Hinson clutch anyway, so we were intrigued to find out what the custom clutch arm would accomplish.
We don’t want to rub it in, but we will anyway. Mitch Payton asked Jody if we wanted Chad Reed’s custom-made titanium Pro Circuit exhaust pipes off his Supercross CRF450. Neither Chad nor Mitch had any use for them, as Chad had jumped to KTM. Chad wanted ridiculously short mufflers. Without asking why, Mitch reduced the size of the cans, which forced him to re-tune the rest of the exhaust to regain the correctly tuned length. Why did Chad want such short mufflers? Sometimes Chad is just Chad. Mitch knew that the short mufflers would never pass the Supercross sound test, but they would be lighter—and what weight there was would be moved forward to improve mass centralization. Chad raced with the short pipes and managed to pass sound somehow. We bolted them on our CRF450 project bike in honor of Chad Reed.
DID WE MENTION MXA’S CRF450 HAD OVER 30 HOURS ON IT BEFORE WE STARTED THE PROJECT? THAT ISN’T MUCH FOR MXA TEST BIKES THAT
ARE RACED EVERY WEEKEND, BUT IT HAD BEEN HARD TO GET MXA
TEST RIDERS TO AGREE TO RACE IT A SECOND TIME.
han a pound lighter than stock, made with top-tier materials, and offers five points of adjustment. As for the Showa forks, MX Tech doesn’t hand-build its own forks, but it might as well. MX Tech takes the guts out of the CRF450’s Showa forks and uses its own dual-cartridge, dual-spring, MXT Carbon system ($1200).
The stock CRF450 suspension components are nothing special. We had tried everything under the sun to dial the Showa forks in, but nothing made the bike stable at speed. We decided to take a totally different approach to our CRF450 suspension. We enlisted the help of the boys at MX Tech. They suggested their very own MXT National shock ($2400). We had great success with this shock in the past and wanted to try our luck with it on the ill-handling CRF450. The shock is more than a pound lighter than stock, made with top-tier materials, and offers five points of adjustment. As for the Showa forks, MX Tech doesn’t hand build its own forks, but it might as well. MX Tech takes the guts out of the CRF450’s Showa forks and uses its own dual-cartridge, dual-spring, MXT Carbon system ($1200).
Did we mention MXA’s CRF450 had over 30 hours on it before we started the project? That isn’t much for MXA test bikes that are raced every weekend, but it had been hard to get MXA test riders to agree to race it a second time. The bottom line is the CRF450 scared away our test riders due to the mixture of potent power and scary handling. With only 30 hours on our project bike, it was still due for a facelift to update some worn-out parts and make it look presentable again for the camera. We went to Faster USA to Cerakote the stock hubs and lace them up to Excel rims. TM Designworks took care of the chain guides. ProX got us a new chain. Bud Racing sent us its trick titanium footpegs, and STI got us a set of its updated Tech 2 Pro tires. For the plastic, Acerbis dialed us in with all new plastic, while Backyard Designs and Moto Seat completed the design of the bike.
Out of the gate, our project CF450 felt stiff when we sat on it. Our initial thought was MX Tech went too stiff on the valving. The Pro Circuit mufflers roared with excitement with a blip of the throttle. We set the XPR-tuned Vortex ignition to Malcolm Stewart’s favorite map. We were shocked. The power output was cool, calm and collected with the Stewart map. It didn’t grunt out of corners like normal; it glided through them without a flick of the clutch. The CRF450’s overly aggressive power was blended into a broad, easy-to-ride powerband that lit the afterburners the more it was revved. The Stewart map was the easiest of the three maps we tested. The low-end power was perky. The wheels tracked accurately, and the broad spread of power minimized mistakes. Testers were pleased with the MX Tech suspension, but the track was still smooth, and you could feel that the suspension components were still breaking in.
The next map on MXA’s list was Justin Brayton’s Daytona-winning map. The power delivery had fireworks going off in the midrange, and it pulled harder through the gears. It offered less low-end power than the Stewart map, although if test riders kept their momentum up, they could keep the rpm in the meat of the barky power. Every MXA test rider liked this style of power, but said it got them tired quicker. The Hinson clutch got a workout with the Brayton map, not by feathering it, but to keep the front end down from the hard hit. The added clutch use allowed us to get good use out of the XPR clutch arm. It delivered a softer and smoother pull than the stock clutch arm. This is a map that you would think a 450 Supercross winner would run, as the power came on with authority.
As the suspension broke in, testers noticed that the MX-Tech MXT Carbon forks held up well in the stroke. They stayed high under a load and never felt too stiff. This hold up, as well as lowering the sag to 110mm, allowed the geometry of the bike to ride higher in the front, which took a load off the front end, helping minimize the normal head shake. The National shock handled exceptionally well on the majority of the big Glen Helen track, save for the big square-edge bumps or kickers while under a load. Brayton’s powerful map did make for more fore and aft movement due to the power surges, but the National shock was much improved over the stock components. This feeling was similar to the stock Showa shock.
We were a bit surprised by the Vet map. The best way to describe the power is somewhere between the mild Stewart map and explosive Brayton map. It came on strong but didn’t offer the midrange gusto of the Brayton map. It was smooth yet powerful. By this time it was mid day at Glen Helen on a Pro day. The track was rough and beat up. We fixed the square-edge issue by going out on the National shock’s high-speed compression. This also lowered the rear under power, which helped the balance of the bike even more. The biggest problem we faced as the track got rougher was one that we always complained about on the stock 2020 Honda CRF450.
The suspension settings that worked early in the day no longer worked. The test riders were getting tossed around on the rough track. We took a chance and went way softer fore and aft. We were nervous that the suspension would bottom with this change, but we were pleasantly surprised with the outcome. The much softer settings on the MX Tech components made the chop feel like we were riding on clouds. Even under a big load, the softer forks absorbed the rough chop without bottoming out. The only issue we had was the forks were now riding lower in the stroke, and the bike started to shake at speed again. We band-aided this by going further out on the shock’s high-speed compression, which lowered the rear. We were successfully getting rid of the dreaded head shake by bringing the CRF450’s balance out of balance. But, the low rear end was the Saint Christopher fix to the handling trait that we feared the most.
It was interesting that each Vortex map was the favorite of at least one MXA test rider—although the majority favored the powerful, smooth and connected Stewart map. The story here is that each map had a use. They were unique enough that riders noticed the differences and similar enough that all of them were suitable for the same track for different riders and purposes.
The MX Tech suspension was impressive. They did all that was possible with a chassis where a change to one end of the bike had a negative effect on other end. On tight, twisty tracks with mellow bumps, the Honda felt great. Then two hours later for the second moto, it felt like it was possessed. We chased setup at every race but never had it stay the same. The MX Tech National shock and its vast adjustability gave the CRF450 the ammo to keep up with the changes—if you knew what to do. One thing is for sure—MX Tech hit the nail on the head with its fork mods.
WE WERE SUCCESSFUL GETTING RID OF THE DREADED HEAD SHAKE
BY BRINGING THE CRF450’S BALANCE OUT OF BALANCE. BUT,
THE LOW REAR END WAS THE SAINT CHRISTOPHER FIX TO
THE HANDLING TRAIT THAT WE FEARED THE MOST.
In the final analysis, we felt that XPR Motorsports’ mapping smoothed out the power, making it powerful yet easy to ride and calming down the chassis. The MX Tech components cured our suspension woes by metering out the shake at speed. We admit it took some time to find our happy place with the MX Tech suspension, as the adjustments are almost limitless. If you have issues with your MX Tech setup, just give them a call. They always go above and beyond to find a setting that works for you. Money well spent.
The real question, after spending lots of time dialing in our 2020 Honda CRF450, was whether or not any of our test riders would volunteer to race it the next weekend. They all said, “Yes.”
PROJECT CRF450 SUPPLIER LIST
Pro Circuit: www.procircuit.com
MX Tech: www.mx-tech.com
Twin Air: www.twinair.com
XPR Motorsports: www.xprmotorsportsparts.com
Bud Racing: www.budracing-usa.com
FCP Racing: www.fcpracing.com
Backyard Designs: www.backyarddesignusa.com
Moto Seat: www.motoseat.com