Want a new 450cc motocross bike and need some help deciding which one to get? Got a certain new model in mind and afraid it might not be your cup of tea? That’s why we’re here, to give you all the information and insight you need to pick the best bike for you. Welcome to Vital MX’s 2018 450 Shootout.
As always, you’ll get to examine our test rider’s comments on each of the six bikes from our days of testing. Our goal is to give you clarity on the bikes and aspects they agree on; and shine a spotlight on where they disagree to show you how each model against different riding styles, weights, and overall opinions. Every rider is required to spend an equal amount of time on each bike before being allowed to revisit bikes they needed more time on to help narrow down their results and give clarity. Also, each rider is tasked with answering one simple question. “Which bike would you take home or to the track to race the next day with the adjustments available off the showroom floor?”
For this year’s 450 Shootout we visited three different tracks in Southern California; Pala Raceway, Milestone MX, and Zaca Station. These three tracks were chosen because of their range of terrain, size, and jump style. Zaca Station features constant elevation changes, flowing fast corners, a bit of sand, some tighter ruts in the trees, and it gets chop going each and every way on the track. Milestone MX is your typical modern day motocross track. It’s been on flat property, everything is man-made, features a lot of obstacle into tight corners. There you’re constantly accelerating, jumping, and then braking hard into each corner. Pala Raceway was the site we shot the majority of our photos and video at, and also where we broke in the bikes. It’s also known for having held two outdoor nationals in the past. For anyone who watched those races, they’ll remember that this track features huge obstacles, wide-open straightaways, and deep braking bumps. Beyond this, we continued working with LITPro to keep track of our laps and data for each day. The riders can use this data to help with gauging their performance, but it’s complicated to feature here. Check back next week for a smaller piece on the site with that data. Oh, did we mention that we racked up over 1000 laps of recorded testing?
Many of you who have read a Vital MX Shootout prior will recognize the majority of names on our tester list from the past editions. Each of these riders are selected because of their ability to give feedback, their honest nature, plus being in decent enough shape to pound out laps in the summer of Southern California for a few days on end (with a nice high of 112 degrees at Milestone during our second day). As you can see by the past bikes the riders have ridden/owned, most of them have had quite the range of brands and models. Heck, even a few of them bought new bikes last year based off their thoughts from the ’17 450 Shootout. Now that’s some honest opinion right there!
If you’re looking for a refresher on what’s new with each model, you can find the technical info by hitting the specs links, and our initial ride comments in our First Impressions (except for the Husqvarna, which we did not ride prior to the 2018 Shootout). They’re listed in order by MSRP, from most expensive to least expensive.
Dyno Comparison Charts
Below you’ll find two charts, the first being a horsepower overlay from all the models and second you’ll see an overlay chart for all the torque figures. All the dyno figures are produced from bikes in their standard engine mapping, but some models in this test produce more power or different curves in the optional maps. All dyno services were provided by Race Tech in Corona, California…the same dyno we’ve used the past two years for our shootouts.
2018 450 Horsepower Comparison Overlay
2018 450 Torque Comparison Overlay
These weights were also collected at Race Tech, using a scale that recorded front and rear bias of each bike, along with the total weight. Dry weights are done with the motorcycles ready to ride, minus fuel in the tanks. Wet weights on the other hand are ready to ride with a full tank of fuel. Our version of a “full tank” was to fill each bike until the fuel was at the brim of the tank, then place the cap on. That’s as full as they get.
|Suzuki RM-Z450||239 lbs.||114 lbs.||125 lbs.||249 lbs.||120 lbs.||129 lbs.|
|Yamaha YZ450F||238 lbs.||115 lbs.||123 lbs.||248 lbs.||120 lbs.||128 lbs.|
|Honda CRF450R||237 lbs.||116 lbs.||121 lbs.||248 lbs.||121 lbs.||127 lbs.|
|Kawasaki KX450F||228 lbs.||109 lbs.||119 lbs.||240 lbs.||115 lbs.||125 lbs.|
|Husqvarna FC 450||224 lbs.||108 lbs.||116 lbs.||234 lbs.||115 lbs.||119 lbs.|
|KTM 450 SX-F||223 lbs.||107 lbs.||116 lbs.||233 lbs.||114 lbs.||119 lbs.|
Below you’ll find the results for each bike, listed from last to first place. With each overall result, you’ll also find the personal scores of each test rider added up, which reflects that model’s finishing position. Each rider ranks the bikes from first to sixth, then we add up these scores and the lowest total number wins. It’s simple but effective, allowing you a quick view into how each bike landed where they did. Once you get past the shock and awe of the results, you can scroll down a bit more to find each rider’s individual results, along with their personal rankings and write-ups about each bike. Giving each rider their own voice and allowing you to see where we all agreed, and disagreed over the 2018 fleet.
Here you’ll find our video edition for those that want to just sit back and listen to roughly ten minutes of quick results and insight from our own head of testing, Michael Lindsay. If you have the time however, we strongly recommend you keep scrolling to see the scores of each bike and each of our seven test rider’s thoughts.
Also, if you want to discuss the results with us, drop us a comment below the article or join our larger QNA discussion in the forum. You can find that here: Forum QNA – 2018 Vital MX 450 Shootout
Sixth Place – Suzuki RM-Z450
Scores: 6 – 6 – 6 – 5 – 6 – 5 – 5 = 39
Fifth Place – Kawasaki KX450F
Scores: 5 – 5 – 5 – 6 – 3 – 4 – 6 = 34
Fourth Place – Yamaha YZ450F
Scores: 4 – 2 – 4 – 4 – 5 – 2 – 3 = 24
Third Place – Husqvarna FC 450
Scores: 1 – 4 – 1 – 1 – 2 – 6 – 4 = 19
Second Place – KTM 450 SX-F
Scores: 3 – 3 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 3 – 1 = 16
First Place – Honda CRF450R
Scores: 2 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1 – 2 = 15
Test Rider Opinions
Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z450
This is not how I expected to kick off this list, but alas…the first visually new Suzuki RM-Z450 we’ve gotten in ten years is in last place. Did it improve? Yes. Just not enough. First thoughts when climbing aboard the RM-Z is that Suzuki finally went to a stock handlebar that’s close to what everyone else runs, not the super-wide and weird sweep they’ve had in prior years. The ergos are good, the frame spars feel a bit thinner between your knees, and the stiffness of the seat is comfortable. What was a bit off, was the height at the rear of the seat, as it feels a bit taller at the standard 105mm of sag than previous models. That was something I wasn’t stoked on.
Once out on the track it’s obvious what Suzuki changed (and didn’t change) on the 2018. The frame is thinner and the bodywork seemed to be more comfortable to grip between your knees. Overall stance felt better to me, and more aggressive on the new machine. However, the engine feels very similar when first cruising around, as the majority of it is the same as the ’17. Low-to-mid performance is nearly identical to the previous model, with the gains all seeming to be up top. Where the RM-Z isn’t usually a revver, the new model actually has some zing up top. Down low it has a little snap and bark to it, but it rolls into a fairly calm mid-range and finishes out decently strong. The RM-Z still holds an old-school thumper feel in regards to how much inertia the engine produces, especially when off the throttle. Because of this, the Suzuki feels quite heavy under braking as the engine tugs you around a bit; and the higher RPM I was at when I chopped the throttle, the more it stood out on this bike. Overall, the engine is improved over the previous model, but just average when compared to the other 450s in the test.
The Suzuki faithful will be excited when it comes to handling, as the chassis retains the planted and aggressive stance it has towards ruts and cornering. The new bars made it easier to get forward on the bike, and the new spring forks have a much better feel when pushed deep into deep corners. That makes the RM-Z a blast to throw into ruts and seeing how well it can lay in and attack through the exit. While the chassis feedback is good, that doesn’t quite mean the handling is completely on point as the shock is my source of concern for 2018. As I mentioned in my First Impression on the RM-Z at JGR’s facility, the BFRC (Balance Free Rear-Cushion) shock has a very free feel. The tighter the tracks we rode, it wasn’t as big of a issue. Tracks that go “turn, jump, land, brake, turn, repeat” it worked out pretty decently, as you can keep the shock constantly loaded. Now on wider, sweeping tracks with fewer obstacles and more constant chop, the shock’s free feel becomes irritating. Why? It never stays settled. As soon as you have to chop the throttle, or the rate of momentum slows (say once you’ve been in third gear for a bit) the shock doesn’t have enough load to keep it down and it climbs high in the stroke. This unsettles the chassis, and without the rear squatted, it tends to wallow around and step out when you hit anything. Then when braking, the combination of the unloaded shock and taller rear area of the seat ends with me getting kicked in the butt and throwing my weight forward, putting too much load on the forks.
My quick fix was to run a few millimeters less sag to add squat, and slow down the rebound to keep things down but then stiffen it with compression as the shock is a bit on the soft side (there’s only compression on this shock, no high and low-speed adjusters). This made things work more “normally” and get the bike to drive forward again, but in turn it lost a lot of its comfort and beat my back up a bit. I’ve been spoiled enough to ride some “works” version of the BFRC and they work pretty decently and don’t feel quite as active, and I feel this production version has a lot of room for improvement. Sadly, this problem overshadows the improvements up front. In my opinion the new Showa spring fork is better than what Honda brought last year with the same Showa unit, but the unbalance of the bike puts too much work on the forks at times.
Then there’s the weight. It’s heavy and feels like it when you ride it. Throwing it around wears you more than the other models and the inertia from the engine may add to its planted feel, but it takes more to work it through the chop. Yes, the Honda and Yamaha are in this bike’s weight range, but they really don’t feel it (especially the Honda), and both of those bikes introduced electric start this year!
So where are we at with the new RM-Z? Positives…it’s thinner, has spring forks, still turns absolutely amazing, and makes more top-end power. Negatives…the shock and the weight. Suzuki went from having a great shock that was near kit level and swapped it for something that needs more development time. Considering how conservative Suzuki has been on the rest of the bike, being the first to bring this shock to production surprises me, and not in a good way. Basically, the RM-Z went from having a great shock and not-so-great forks, to great forks and a blah shock for ’18. In the end, it generally is an improvement over the previous model, but considering how long we’ve waited for this bike, it just feels kind of old on arrival.
Fifth Place: Kawasaki KX450F
How does the basically unchanged KX450F beat the new RM-Z? Simple, it’s still a solid package. Not amazing in any particular area, but pretty good to decent across the board. I personally have spent more laps on Kawasaki KX450Fs over the years than any other 450, so to say I’m immediately comfortable with the ergos and nuances of the bike is an understatment. In stock trim the KX is comfortable for your smaller-to-mid-sized rider, and with some adjustments of the bars and pegs, it’s pretty quick to open up for those with a larger build. For me, roll back the bars a bit and I’m pretty happy. As for the engine, Kawasaki was the king of power a few years back, but that’s slowly going away. They’ve slowly improved it, and in this field it feels like it’s lacking in pull from mid-to-top but has quite a snappy low-end that pulls good into the mid-range. It makes the KX fun to slide around with the rear and makes you feel like you’re being more aggressive with the throttle compared to the other bikes.
As for the KXF’s suspension, the shock really supports that rear end steer as it squats down nicely but not too deep in the stroke. It’s just enough to drive forward and make the bike feel planted under power, but leave enough stroke to keep comfort when the rear tire contacts something on the track. Up front, the KX has had what’s probably the best setting that a Showa TAC fork has come with, but compared to the new “kit-like” Showa spring forks and the ol’ KYBs aboard the Yamaha, it’s just an uphill battle for the Kawi. The air settings we started with this year were a bit softer than what I’ve run the past two years but were noticeably better, allowing the work Kawasaki did a few years ago on the new chassis to shine through. Does it carve in like the Suzuki? No. Can it change directions quickly like the Honda or KTM/Husky? Also a no. But it does offer enough feedback and traction to modestly throw it into some pretty tricky situations and come out unscathed. It still prefers that rear steer, but the front is an option when the situation requires. As for the action, it’s just okay, nothing special. It works but isn’t as plush as the KYBs on the Yamaha and it doesn’t have the bottoming resistance of some of the other bikes. It’s a little give or take, the softer pressure settings offered better traction and more initial comfort, but gave away just a tad bit on the far end of the stroke.
As for the overall feel on the track, it’s easy to ride off the back and be aggressive. It’s also fairly light and is much more playful than say the Yamaha or Suzuki, and for me it’s around the same to throw around as the Honda. But the KTM and Husky definitely have it beat in the light weight department. It’s stable, as you’d expect from the Kawasaki and I just had to be careful not to go too soft on the fork, or I’d end up with a bit of headshake as the front would be a bit too low in the stroke. As long as I kept the fork settings correct, the bike maintained very good balance and as I mentioned before, it promotes being aggressive. The brakes are decent, strong but not as manageable as the Brembos. The KXF has great power in this department, but the front is just a bit too grabby at times in hardpack. Overall, I don’t have as much to say about the Kawasaki because it didn’t change and it’s just an overall decent bike. Its aggressive nature and rear steer abilities stand out a bit, while the rest of the package is just okay in some sense. And as you’ll see as a common theme here, electric start rules. Kawi, please add that for ’19…thank you!
Fourth Place: Yamaha YZ450F
I’ll admit, it pains me to place the YZ450F in fourth, as that’s the same spot where I placed it last year. But I really enjoy this version so much more. I would definitely stand as someone who hasn’t been a big fan of this bike since the overhaul in 2010, and while the ’14 and later generation was better, it still didn’t give me the warm fuzzies. Right off the bat, the ’18 felt so much better as soon as I swung of my leg over the seat. They’ve done a fantastic job of making the fuel tank and shrouds thinner, somewhere around 16 millimeters leaner at the widest portion of the shroud. Instead of bowing out and then in like last year’s model, this year’s follows a much more tradition line. In other words, the shroud starts skinny and gets wider at the tips. Not where it starts skinny, get really wide way too quickly, and then actually get thinner at the front. This was mostly accomplished by rolling the radiators forward and using that new empty space to fill with the shrouds and air inlets. Beyond that, the seat is a few millimeters lower in the center, and even lower the farther back you get. The downside is the height of the new handlebar. The bar mounts are now five millimeters taller and combined with the lower seat, I felt like I was sitting up far too straight.
Once I pressed the magic button, I was off. Based on previous experience riding this bike before the Vital MX 450 Shootout I knew what to expect, but tried to just spend a bit more time adapting to the bike. With the thinner setup, this definitely took one thing off the list to get used to, but the Yamaha still holds a unique feel to it that’s unlike any other bike in the field. It feels long due to the expanded area to move around on the seat, and even with the bike cutting down on its width, the soft and wide nature of the seat itself makes the bike still feel a bit bigger than some of the other brands. That, combined with the upright riding posture of the bars, gave me an impression that the bike was a bit like a couch. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a big improvement, but that part stands out a little. The lowered seat height was definitely a positive for me, especially at the rear where I could now get back on the bike without feeling like it was going to kick me in the butt under braking or in some rollers.
“I kept pushing because it didn’t shake but eventually that energy would go somewhere…”
While I labeled the bike a couch, that’s both a compliment and a slight dig. A dig towards the ergos but the couch could also could be considered a compliment for how this baby rides. Yamaha already has a great reputation for how the well-tuned KYB suspension performs on the track, but I’ll say it, they’ve hit a new high mark. Both front and rear, but especially front, this suspension is so comfortable! It eats up everything you throw at it and more. For the forks, I found they were a bit too plush at times, under heavy braking it would dive a bit but oddly enough it wouldn’t shake the bars. Instead I found something a bit different, a build of energy that would cause the front tire to actually wander under these loads, making it a bit more difficult to aim at the entrances of ruts. To remedy this I simply sped up the rebound, allowing the fork to recover more between bumps and ride higher in the stroke under these loads. It was really necessary as when the bike had that much pressure on the front and got low, I kept pushing because it didn’t shake but eventually that energy would go somewhere, causing the front to basically flex and disperse the energy to the side. Just keeping the fork higher in the stroke got me away from this sensation and back on track. As for the rear, no real complaints, I just opened up the high speed to get the bike to squat a bit more under acceleration, and a little less rebound, depending on the track, to keep it squatted and tracking.
Has Yamaha cured the complaints about their previous chassis? Yes and no for me. By that I mean this is the best Yamaha YZ450F I’ve had for corner turn-in. It flows great into the corners, offers good feedback, and feels planted so I trust it. Where it isn’t quite cured is corner exit. Middle is great, as the improved entrance and size allows me to settle the bike in and carve through the center…butby the time you get to the exit and the tractor-like power kicks in, the bike still stands up a little and can push. Not as bad as before, but enough that I tended to rear steer the bike on exits a bit more and not rely on the front as much. Overall, it’s a big step in the right direction as that improved turn-in ability was great appreciated.
Lastly, there’s the way that the engine makes power. For many, the engine is the highlight of the YZ450F. The power is fantastic, but I’m not the biggest fan of the gearing. The YZ450F puts out a ton of torque and horsepower, especially in the mid-range. But Yamaha seems to keep in check a bit with their gearing, choosing to spread the power out by going smaller with the rear sprocket. This makes the bike ridiculously easy to ride for how much bark it has, and makes it so you’re not shifting often. Instead relying on the super-wide spread of power and focusing on your lines to haul the mail. This is good and benefits a lot of riders, but for me, second gear is just too low in the RPMs in many tight corners, and third in wider sections. I tend to use way more clutch than I’d like to keep it up in the RPMs a little, instead of just rolling on the power without clutch as I’d prefer. Yamaha opted to put a very aggressive map in for me with the phone wifi app (that thing is awesome!) and it was better, but still not the same as a gearing change that would have solved my complaints. I’d do the age-old up a tooth or two to use second more effectively, and manage the hit with throttle control, while allowing me to use third more on jump landings. I tend to shift from second to third when I jump, and on the YZF it just felt a little lethargic when I would do this and land on the throttle in third. On any other bike I was in the meat of their powerbands in this situation, but in the Yamaha I was just a bit too low in the RPMs.
To cap it off, I love the direction the new Yamaha has gone and I commend them for trimming weight while adding electric start. The wifi app to tune the bike is amazing and easy to use, and the suspension is so confidence-inspiring. The Yamaha offers its own version of fun in the rough as it eats up anything its path. This generation of YZ450F is my favorite so far, but for my taste, it just needs a bit more work. Stuff we don’t include in our methodology for this shootout…but stuff I would consider easily changed if I got the bike. I think this one can come back with a vengeance in ’19 with some more revisions.
Third Place: KTM 450 SX-F
Pumpkin time! You know, I was just looking at KTM’s first electric start motocross bike (’08), and two things stood out. It’s taken a long time for the others to smarten up and do the same, and wow, the KTM has come a long ways. Power was something they’ve never had a problem with, but chassis and suspension was a different story. Well, just a few minutes on the new KTM reveals something…Yamaha and Honda are very competitive in their own ways with power, but KTM has responded with what I think is the best chassis/handling balance of them all. I always feel as if the aluminum-framed bikes jump back and forth across the fine line of turning versus stability, and for me the KTM is right on the money, straddling between the two. This bike has more front end grip and feedback (and I mean that in a good way) than any other bike. But it matches that with stability in the rough that perfectly balances it out.
Brembo brakes? Check. Multiple engine maps, launch control, and traction control? Check. Electric start. Check. Lightest weight 450? Check! That’s a lot of solid points going for the Katoom. For anyone that thinks the weight or lack thereof isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, go ride this and the Suzuki for 30 minute motos each and come talk to me. The weight may not be as noticeable to some in the first lap or two (it still is for me) but it pays dividends over the long run of a good moto. The KTM is easier to ride fast over a longer period of time, and that’s not because the engine is mellow…cause it isn’t. KTM throws out some impressive horsepower numbers across the board and it receives a lot of praise in that department. In the standard map it feels like they’ve calmed things down a bit, more like the Husqvarna, while map two is darn aggressive. I prefer the aggressive map a bit more because of the way the powerband builds, coming on very progressively but not too much. The first map is a bit too mellow and where the KTM revs a bit quicker than the Husky, it comes alive when it slips into the mid-range, and it caught me off guard just a bit. Because of that, I stayed away from map one and stuck with the more “aggressive map” because oddly enough, to me it was easier to ride. Or at least in a way that made me more comfortable.
The AER fork is back for the second year in a row, swaying even a good portion of the air fork naysayers. Where the AER excels is the simple tuning with one air valve, one compression clicker and one rebound adjuster. The fact that the positive and negative air chambers self-balance every time the fork tops out makes sure that they keep a consistent pressure. This goes a long ways to getting past adjusting your pressure all the time to change the fork’s feel, to finding a pressure that works, sticking with it, and moving to clickers to tweak it. It has good initial feel, great bottoming resistance and is well-planted. Not as comfortable as the Yamaha’s KYBs, but it works. As for the WP shock, it’s definitely more active than most of the field, except for the BFRC on the Suzuki, which is out there. Because of this, it settles the rear tire back down between chop a bit quicker and keeps the bike tracking under throttle. However, it doesn’t settle down quite as much as some of the other bikes when trying to pivot out of the corners hard. It takes a little adjusting to get there and make that part work if you’re looking to steer the bike that way.
“…it just doesn’t feel different like KTMs used to.”
Out on the track the chassis and suspension come together to offer a very sharp package. Sharp like a surgeon with a scalpel…very precise, and it just feels like a race bike as I can really plan, pick, and choose where I’m going. It’s also a race bike in the sense that it’s just a tad stiff at times from a flex standpoint, and I became a bit more aware of this after riding the Husky. The ergos are very aggressive but comfortable, and it just doesn’t feel different like KTMs used to. All the numbers are similar to the other bikes, so stuff like seat heights, pegs, etc. don’t feel “off”. On the KTM I do struggle a bit more with how my legs grip the sidepanels and shrouds, where I have a bit more grip on the Husky.
Overall, the KTM is living up to the old saying they hold “Ready to Race” as this thing really is a race bike out of the box. Within this top three however, little things matter, and in this case that’s where the race bike is just slightly not my favorite. You’ll probably figure out more of what I’m getting at during my first two bikes. I value the fun in generally riding the bike and I also think about the competitiveness of the machine. I can be very, very competitive on the KTM but at times it’s just a bit too sharp for my overall riding. The Honda is more playful and fun, while the Husqvarna lands somewhere in the middle. I feel little things on the KTM that makes me want them to be just a percent calmer. The aggressive engine map is a bit too much at times, while the standard one has that weird build of power I didn’t prefer. The Brembo hydraulic clutch is a bit too stabby or on-off for my taste, making it a bit harder to control that power at times. As I mentioned before, I think this chassis is outstanding, but the Husqvarna uses that same package with a bit more comfort. In the end, it was so hard to decide whether the KTM got second or third. It’s tough to explain, but I had this crazy-long pro and cons sheet going, and finally settled with the KTM in third…no easy choice.
Second Place: Honda CRF450R
Whoa, wait a second, I haven’t split the KTM and Husky in results since 2015, and that might take some explaining…which I’ll get to at the bottom of this section. But for now let’s focus on why the red machine put a huge smile on my face. Last year Honda finally made the right steps by going back to a lot of things that made their 2008 model so good, kept some things that were great about the newer generation, and topped if off with an engine that was beyond anything they’ve had before. For me however, it was held back by soft forks and a slight lack of balance.
I quite like the feel of the CRFs these days, they got a tad bit more “race” feeling in ’17 and the ergos fit me a bit better than the ’16 and prior. Previously I felt like I was too upright on the bike and couldn’t get into an aggressive stance. On the newer model I feel like I can crouch down, get forward in the corners, get in the attack position while standing up with much ease. It’s not as aggressive as the KTM or Husky in this sense, but a good balance between comfort and race. Even though the CRF has dual exhausts, the taper of the cans have kept the sidepanels in fairly tight. Honestly, I notice the exhausts on the Yamaha and Suzuki much more when I move back rearward and my legs have to deal with that area of the motorcycle. Now I will admit, while I’m so excited to get electric start, the weight penalty Honda paid really worried me. Between the inclusion of spring forks last year, and E-Start this year, she’s definitely put on some weight. The weight added this year is double last year’s gains, but is hard to even discern due to the placement. Even though it’s in the same range as the Yamaha and Suzuki, it honestly feels like it weighs as much as the Kawasaki once out on the track. Not as feathery as the KTM and Husqvarna’s true lightweight feel, but the Honda is very, very playful in the air and on the ground.
One of the points that stands out most is the way the bike changes direction. While the KTM and Husqvarna felt very precise, making me always dive to the inside for the shortest line…the Honda gave me a bit of freedom I really enjoyed. The balanced feel of the chassis, ergos, and the ability to quickly change direction prompted me to dive all over on the track. This is the bike I redirected and modified my lines with the most, and it wasn’t because I was struggling, I was having too much fun using every inch of the track. The engine also supported these decisions, as it has a good combination of initial snap, great mid-range pull, and more top than Honda has ever exhibited in their 450s. Last year I was critical of the initial roll-on of the CRF, and since then they’ve taken it back to the computer, doing quite a bit of work to the ECU. It’s quite a bit snappier this year, and while there’s not as much initial bark as say the Kawasaki or Yamaha (when in the right gear) it’s just enough to satisfy me out of the box. This extra snap aids the Honda in changing direction when needed, sort of like the Kawasaki, being able to rear steer it. I do feel like the Honda does this a bit better than the Husky or KTM. While those two are better for me in straight front end traction by a bit, the Honda ranks higher for me when it comes to riding it with the back of the bike.
As for the suspension, Honda did a great job of combatting the main complaint about last year’s fork…that it was too soft. It might sound strange coming from one of the smaller guys in the test, but I did enjoy the stiffer springs in this year’s model. Why? The bike balance is much-improved and now I can simply go a few clicks softer on compression, giving me a much more progressive fork than last year. Shock action was improved as well, and I think that aided to the rear steer efforts I talked about above, as it has a similar action of the Kawasaski where it squats down just right for me…albeit with a bit more comfort than the KXF. Speaking of comfort, although Honda went stiffer in ways and more aggressive with ECU settings, the bike retains comfort in key places. I’ll give the nod to the different engine mounts, which were actually developed with the HRC race team. They flex more and seem to work as intended.
“What would I like to see change? That’s tough…”
There’s a lot of good to talk about here, so why second in the standings? That was tough, but while the Honda provided the most fun, it’s not the best at any one thing. Does it have the best forks? Not quite. Best shock? Pretty close. Best engine? Once again, close, but not quite. It came darn close to winning on my list because it’s just a tick off being the best in all the above categories. This is one well-rounded motorcycle. What would I like to see change? That’s tough, I love the characteristics of this bike. Maybe just a bit more tweaking with the power, and some trimming some weight. Yes, I said the Honda doesn’t feel heavy, but it does feel heavier than the KTM or Husky…and I’d like it to get closer to them in that regards.
Wait, I promised to explain how the Honda split the KTM and Husky in the results. It took some thought, but I selected the bikes based in the order I would purchase. The Husqvarna (which you’ll read next) tickled my fancy the most this year, just by a hair over the Honda. Partially because of how amazing both are…but in different ways. After some hard thought I decided that if I wasn’t buying the Husqvarna, it was because I wanted the feelings I got from the Honda, and not quite the couple things about the KTM that feel “less” than the Husky. It might sound slightly odd, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
First Place: Husqvarna FC 450
First again, at least on my list! The 2018 Husqvarna FC 450 was the only bike here that I actually didn’t ride prior to the Vital MX 450 Shootout. So while I’d already experienced the tweaks, revisions, and new releases from the other brands, I experienced this one in the moment…and it provided some darn good moments. From the time I got on board the bike, I loved everything about the Husqvarna’s ergos. There’s the flat-but-skinny seat profile, the low bars, and the way my legs contacted the sidepanels (personally a better fit for me than the KTM in this regard). All is well in the Husky world, especially with Brembo brakes, electric start and the Magura hydraulic clutch. I’ve actually never been much of a fan of hydro clutches due to their on-off nature, but the Magura unit found on the Husky made me reconsider, as it has more of a progresive nature and is the most “cable-like” one I’ve tried.
The power on the Husqvarna is huge, but so manageable at the same time. It has a lot of torque off the bottom but doesn’t quite bark, building consistently into what feels like the strongest overrev in the group. Considering I’ve talked a lot about snap in other bikes, why do I like the FC if it doesn’t bark off the bottom? Simply put, just a tap of the clutch will quickly wake it up,or it can be just as calm as I need. This works a bit better on the Husky because of the Magura clutch actuation, versus the Brembo unit on the KTM which is a bit too on/off and makes it harder to control and use that bark accurately. I will admit the first (standard) map is too calm for my taste, so I ran the Husky in the aggressive map at all times and it offered just what I was looking for. The amount of power the Husky produces at all RPMs really keeps me grinning as I can ride the bike in a few different ways and get good results. Whether I want to ride high gear, smooth, focus on my lines…or if I want to go agro, rev it out and brake deep/wild into corners, it has the engine, chassis, brakes, and feel to back these moments up.
As for the chassis, the Husqvarna is like a ballet dancer…precise but still smooth. While I called the KTM surgeon-like, I did because surgeons are precise but not smooth or gentle at times, ever seen an orthopedic surgeon at work on TV? There’s a reason why you’re often sore after they work on you. What I’m saying is that the Husky has the precise nature of the KTM, but with a bit more comfort where needed. This is the same reason I gave the white bike the nod over the orange last year, and it’s true again this year. The Husqvarna, like the KTM, has the most insane front tire traction. When the setup is right, I feel like the bike will go wherever the front tire is pointed without question. This makes the Husqvarna able to go tighter and into lines I would normally struggle to find with other machines, and it’ll do it lap after lap. As for rear traction, it’s so planted! This bike accelerates like a monster because that power goes into the ground and stays there, but because of this…it’s not the easiest to rear slide in some places. Even with a healthy tap of the clutch, sometimes it won’t squirt around a berm as easy as I’d like; but it’s hard to complain when I can just ride the edge and carve the berm on the throttle, in such a fast and smooth manner.
When it comes to the suspension, it wants to be ridden hard. Both ends are well-balanced and work in unison for me. While it offers a bit more flex in the chassis than the KTM, it still likes being pushed. It’s not as comfortable as the Yamaha, but it feels more planted, ready to take what I throw at it. The AER fork is the best production air fork I’ve tried, it’s easy to tune, has good initial feel, and good bottoming resistance. It doesn’t match the KYBs on the Yamaha for comfort, but it does the job a racer needs. Out back, the WP shock is similar. It’s not the most comfortable, but it does the job in the rough and keeps the bike driving forward. Partially as it’s a tad bit more active than others, it settles down in between chop better and drives forward.
In closing, the Husqvarna reigns as the winner in my eyes because it’s the bike I’d want to take to any race. I feel like it’s ready to do the job on any surface and condition. Although the Honda did give me the most pure joy of riding…the Husqvarna offered its own joy, the joy of knowing I can go faster.
Height: 6′ 2″ / Weight: 190 lbs.
Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z450
There’s always a lot more excitement when you get to ride a brand-new bike. Suzuki made numerous changes this year to their veteran RM-Z450, and it’s definitely better than last year, but unfortunately not enough to bump it up on my preference list. For instance, the motor is a definite improvement. Off the bottom it feels the same as the prior model, but starts to ramp up a bit more and ends on a much better note up top. The gains were definitely focused on top and they were a notable improvement. I tried the different power couplers, the white/aggressive coupler was my favorite as it added a bit of bark down low, but also gave up a little bit of the gains up top. But for my size, the extra bottom was a must. Due to the new chassis, the 2018 Suzuki feels more nimble and thinner than previous years. It weighs the same, but with the stronger motor accompanied with the thinner profile, it makes it feel more nimble at times. This was a step in the right direction, making the bike feel more like its modern competitors in terms of thinning down between the legs.
When hearing about all the changes, I was concerned that the RMZ-450 would lose its ability to corner with a new frame, swingarm, and suspension. To my surprise, the Suzuki still corners amazingly well and it wants to go inside the inside line, all the time. The overall balance and improved ergonomics are comfortable and very confidence-inspiring. Personally, I think the new bike is a bit easier to move about on and place your weight in different places. On my first outing, I felt at the standard settings the bike was a bit too tall in the rear, and would oversteer quite a bit when cornering. I came back in and we ran the bike with few millimeters less sag to improve the overall balance and calm down the cornering characteristics. Even though I’m a fan of air forks, I think Suzuki made the right decision by going back to the spring fork, as their previous setup wasn’t really working year-after-year. The SFF TACs on the bike previously were a big point of contention for many of the riders, and this change should put interested riders at ease. Although, the new forks were soft for my liking and even a few clicks stiffer wasn’t quite solving it…I definitely would require stiffer springs. But I did feel that the action was a lot better than prior models, much suppler initially and more progressive. Although the new shock had many of the other test riders a bit fed up, at my weight I found it to work all right. Also, while it was nice to see Suzuki join the larger front brake crowd, it would’ve been nice to see them join the E-Start club.
Fifth Place: Kawasaki KX450F
Kawasaki made the fewest changes this year…maybe graphics? So honestly, it ended up in the same spot for me as it did last year. The motor is very smooth, but strong at the same time. It comes on a little softer right off the bottom but then has a big hit as it rolls through the bottom and into the mid-range before pulling okay through the top end. This type of power is predictable, easy to ride, and confidence-inspiring. You really feel like you can push with the way the Kawasaki makes power. However, my next focus was also my area of complaint with the Kawasaki…namely the front forks. I did feel that we got them working better for me this year than last year, due to spending more time with different air pressures before going after the clickers. While the TAC forks have a lot of adjustability, finding the right setup could take a lot of experimentation. Even in our case with a technician on hand, it took more time than the other bikes in the test. On the other hand, the shock seemed to work really well out of the box. We set the sag at 104mm and went in a couple clicks on compression. At my size, I just needed a little more hold up and the compression changes seemed to get me in the ballpark.
Overall, the shock had a good plush feel on acceleration and braking bumps, but still had good bottoming resistance on big landings and g-outs. The chassis is comfortable with a good seat-to-tank transition. Although I’m on the taller side, I found the Kawasaki easy to adapt to, mostly because it feels a little longer on top and I was comfortable running the bike a bit taller. Although comfortable, it didn’t feel like it was as easy to lay into the corners as the other bikes…it feels as if you need to set up for the turn sooner than I normally would. The Kawasaki does a lot of things well, just nothing great in my opinion. Also, all the other brands but Kawasaki and Suzuki have gone to electric start, I never thought that it was that important…but when you ride all the bikes back-to-back you definitely miss it on the bikes that don’t have it. It’s becoming a must-have.
Fourth Place: Husqvarna FC 450
Like the KTM, the Husqvarna comes stock with a lot of bonus features and goodies for your extra dollar. Including the long-time standard electric start, along with the Magura hydraulic clutch, Brembo brakes, and traction control that’s pretty noticeable. The AER forks are also interesting in their own right as they’re easier to adjust than most air forks and have better performance than most. I set the air pressure a little higher than stock, 11.2 Bar, and backed out the compression clicker on the front a couple clicks to gain the bottoming resistance I needed, while keeping the initial comfort of the stock setting. In the rear, we set the sag at 105mm, and went in a couple clicks on low-speed and backed out the high-speed a quarter turn. This held the shock up more for my weight in the braking chop, but kept it squatted well enough when on the throttle. As for handling, it does it all well and I really don’t have any complaints in this department.
“….easily beating all the Japanese brands in both power and usability.”
The Husqvarna took fourth behind the KTM solely based on the difference in power characteristics. The Husky is very smooth from bottom to top, whereas the KTM has a snappier characteristic. Although max horsepower feels very similar between the two, the Husky has a slightly corked up feel that lacks the hit that I prefer. I was told the main difference between the two brands is that the KTM has a less obstructed exhaust (for sound) and a freer-flowing airbox…it’s quite noticeable. I tried both engine maps and once I tried the more aggressive map two, I left it there the rest of the time. While it was an improvement, it still wasn’t as frisky as KTM. Both the KTM and Husqvarna have the best brakes, easily beating all the Japanese brands in both power and usability. Some people prefer the smoother Husqvarna powerband over the hard-hitting KTM one, but I don’t carry my speed through the corners as well…so I need the hit to get me over the next jump. The bottom line is, these two are really close but each ones suits a different person just a bit better than the other.
Third Place: KTM 450 SX-F
The KTM’s a great bike right off of the showroom floor, and this year I really struggled the most picking between the Yamaha and the KTM for second and third. Even with just minor changes the bike has a lot of positives, such as being the lightest in class even with electric start. Also, the simple to adjust AER air fork (because I like air forks) and although similar in design to Showa TAC forks, you’d swear it was 100% different based on setup and feel. The air forks were the focus of some changes in 2018 and they felt slightly better than last year, plus I had experience from last year to aid in the setup. I ran a bit more pressure than standard, about 11.2 bar, and went out one-to-two clicks on compression. This allowed for a bit stiffer feel later in the stroke while still keeping the initial working well. In the rear I would definitely need a heavier spring, but we set the sag at 105mm and it worked okay with stiffer low-speed and high-speed compression.
“…you can feel it kick in and upset the bike a bit.”
Of course, the KTM 450 SX-F still comes with many bonus features including the hydraulic clutch, top-notch Brembo brakes…as well as traction control at the touch of a button. As for the motor, it’s very strong from bottom to top, and definitely doesn’t leave you needing more. It’s everything I could ask for and really covers the whole RPM range where I need it. The traction control is a very nice feature, especially in slippery conditions…I do like the way it kicks in on cornering but does take getting use to when jumping in some situations. If you go off a takeoff not fully pinned and lean into it, thus sliding and spinning the rear tire, you can feel it kick in and upset the bike a bit. Personally, I would probably only use it in very muddy conditions where this wouldn’t be a concern. During my time on the track I tried both maps (at the touch of a button). In loamy conditions I preferred the aggressive map two, and when the track got harder or as traction lessened I switched to map one. For my style, I actually found swapping back and forth in certain conditions to be quite useful. I’m definitely nitpicking to find fault with the KTM as it does very well in all categories. Ranking six awesome 450s is tough, and selecting the top three was even harder. In the end, I found myself wanting to ride the Yamaha more than the KTM based off of fun factor, so I rated them based off of that.
Second Place: Yamaha YZ450F
Yamaha made a lot of changes in 2018, and even though I’m a bigger guy, I feel the most important change Yamaha could’ve made was to slim things down. Right off the bat, it was clear they’d put a lot of effort into trimming off the excess girth and it was really noticeable. The bike is just so much slimmer from the shrouds to the side panels, but I still wish they could have still done more. There’s a spot or two that still feels a tad bigger to me, but I’m just nitpicking here. Overall, this change was a huge factor in bringing this bike up from fourth on my list last year, to second in 2018…especially with the Husky and KTM being so good in their own right. The only reason it didn’t make it to first, was that it still isn’t as nimble-feeling as the Honda. On a fast outdoor style national track this wasn’t as big of an issue, but on tighter more technical tracks, or even just being able to throw it around in the air it was a lot more apparent. On the flip though, the Yamaha is a very comfortable bike to ride and gets better on rough high-speed tracks.
The Yamaha continues to have a super-strong motor, a little soft on the bottom but makes plenty of power all the way to the top. It definitely produces a very broad powerband, but many times I felt like it would benefit from one tooth up on the rear sprocket. Personally, I found second and third gear to be a little tall and either more bottom end grunt or a little tighter gearing would have helped. Also new for 2018, The Yamaha comes with an ECU programmer as a phone app. While adjusting the power with a phone helped me get a little more in certain places, it wasn’t enough to make up for the gearing change I would’ve preferred.
The chassis and suspension still have a very balanced and stable feel, while the changes to the chassis itself really improved front end traction. This was the second-largest change I noticed on the bike, as it made the bike lay in and initiate corners better. I can’t say the Yamaha corners as tight as the Honda, KTM/Husky, or Suzuki, but it’s quite a bit better than last year. Of all the bikes in stock form, I felt most comfortable hitting bigger jumps on the Yamaha. Although I would definitely need heavier springs front and rear, just going in on clickers made the bike very comfortable to ride, and gave me the confidence to hit anything on it. In the end, I had the sag around 102mm, went two clicks stiffer on the low-speed for the shock and four clicks stiffer for compression on the forks. All in all, the YZ450F is an awesome bike and would be my second choice to ride or own in 2018.
First Place: Honda CRF450R
Every year it seems to get tougher and tougher to pick the best 450. I believe you can make any bike suit your size and riding style. But after you have the opportunity to try them all, some just definitely suit your style more then others. In a lot of cases, it becomes nitpicking at the small details to make your choice. The hardest part is rating the bikes as they are out of the box, versus what you would buy based on potential of what you could do to them. This year, however, the Honda takes the top spot in both of those cases. While the 2018 Honda didn’t have as many changes as the 2017 model, the changes that were made were all in the positive direction and really refined their package. Although the hard parts of the engine didn’t change this year, the ECU changes offered a surprising increase and I would’ve swore there was more going on. I’m not sure on the dyno, but it was felt where it’s most important…on the track.
Beyond that, Honda increased the spring rates both front and rear, and even though I would still need stiffer springs, it was a lot better stock for all of us it seemed. Especially in the sense of the bike balance, which I played with a lot this year at the different tracks we rode. For instance, we set the sag at 107mm, but played with the fork height for the different track conditions. At Milestone I ran them 5mm above the top triple clamp and for Zaca with the bigger elevation changes and higher speeds, we slid them down to 3mm to help with stability. Albeit small changes, the Honda seemed very sensitive and each change was a marked improvement on those track. The other change in ’18, which was to help with more flex in the chassis, was the change to the upper motor mounts. I felt it was an improvement, as the whole bike was stiffer, but yet so compliant. I noticed them so much that at the conclusion of the shootout, I ordered a set for my personal ’17.
The bike has very good ergonomics (the seat to bar positioning), which made it very easy to move around on even at my size. Honestly, the newest Honda is a bit easier to get around on even if you’re taller than the average guy. Also, with the addition of electric start this year, I was told the Honda had made its way up the weight list a bit. This seemed very deceiving because the bike still feels very light and nimble, and not really different in that sense from ’17. The CRF450R carries the weight down low and in the center, so it doesn’t feel that much different from say the KTM or Husqvarna when you roll out. Although Honda made those mapping changes and map one (standard) was improved, I still preferred map three (aggressive) the most for the initial snap of the throttle. Outside of needing stiffer springs for my size, the other thing on my to do list would be adding a tooth to the rear sprocket to up the punch just a bit more. I love the current stock power range, I just need a little extra, and closing up the gearbox just a bit would be worth it for me. Other than that, I can’t really complain, that’s why this one is the winner!
Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z450
The Suzuki 450 is easily the bike in this class that’s been overdue for a total makeover, and finally in 2018 it received one…sorta. Even with the redesign, it was instantly obvious that the bike still turns amazingly well, which is highlighted the most when the ruts are deepest and the turns are the tightest. I found that if I were slightly off balance or off the ideal line while entering a rutted corner, the bike would settle in just fine and instilled great front end confidence/traction in these sections. They’ve also done a great job making the cockpit of the bike very neutral, allowing me to move easily from the front to back of the bike. Last year’s model wasn’t as friendly for me, whereas the 2018 the RM-Z almost promotes a forward seating position, further making the turning experience exceptional. Along with the improved cockpit design and continued turning prowess, the RM-Z has thinned up, making it feel even more like a whole new machine.
“…but it was still apparent the bike would often unsettle while going through choppy sections”
Now, if all these changes have been made for ’18, why is the Suzuki holding down the last spot in my lineup? Well, in this situation, I feel that sometimes when manufacturers introduce an entirely new bike they tend to either hit it out of the park, or need to fine-tune a few areas of the bike to really leverage all the new improvements. With a whole new fork and shock introduced to the yellow rig this year, the bike felt to me like it was having issues finding good balance, especially as the track got rougher. The new BFRC rear shock has a very bouncy feeling, with the rebound setup on the shock feeling overly aggressive. After some adjustments, I was able to lessen the feedback, but it was still apparent the bike would often unsettle while going through choppy sections, or anytime the rear wheel was unweighted. On the good side, the Suzuki has a great fork now since it’s fairly similar to the one that adorns the CRF…but with the bike un-balanced in sections, I was still experiencing some front end chatter when transitioning from throttle to braking. Surprisingly, the RM-Z felt the heaviest to me in the class even though on the scale it isn’t quite the highest number. Though the bike is newly designed, it still has some remnants of the “solid” feel that you might experience on an older 450 chassis. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but I personally prefer a more playful-feeling bike when it comes to changing lines or moving around on the track. I wouldn’t be surprised if with some time to iron out a few kinks in the setup, the bike could leap up a spot or two, but it just wasn’t quite refined enough for me in its first year to place it above some of the other stellar machines in the pack. Lastly, with all the huge revisions on this bike, I don’t understand why they didn’t include electric start…with most the bikes having it now, I wince every time I have to pull out a kickstarter and go to work.
Fifth Place: Kawasaki KX450F
Last year I had some concerns with the KX-F and my ability to get it planted in slippery flat corners. This year, despite the bike being basically identical to 2017, we were able to get the bike dialed in drastically better. The power this year is solid, but I feel that the bikes that are ranked ahead of the green machine have more to offer when you hammer down on the throttle. With me being fairly light for a 450, I don’t mind the smooth and less aggressive power delivery simply because the bike has no problem getting me up to speed at the drop of a hat. Beyond that, the chassis is stable in all areas of the track, even when things got rough at the end of the days. Speaking of the chassis, I also feel that the KX-F has a very strong and balanced feel to it, where I’m never concerned with the bike making me nervous or catching me off guard. Historically, the Kawasakis are rear steer machines and I honestly didn’t feel that it was as noticeable this year than in previous years due to the setup we ran.
Here are a few things that pushed the Kawi back to fifth place in my rankings. The bike feels really tall to me, in regards to where you are on the chassis overall while sitting or standing on the bike. When I was on the track, it made it difficult to feel like I was riding in the lines on the bike since I felt like I was perched on top of this bike more so than any other brand this year. This might have had a small affect on the bike having a tendency to stand up a bit early upon exiting corners. When I wanted to lay more into a corner I had to fight the bike more than the others and adjust my style a bit. Also, just like the Suzuki, I would really like to see every bike with electric start standard for this next year as you don’t realize how much you enjoy having it until it’s not there.
Fourth Place: Yamaha YZ450F
Fourth place is where things start to get interesting for me. Honestly, the top four bikes are in a class of their own, with it being difficult to rank these because they have totally different styles and ways to apply them. When we do these shootouts, we are asked to evaluate the bikes on the premise that if we had to get up the next day and pick a bike off the showroom floor (with the adjustments available) to go line up at a local race, which bike would we pick? Now, I feel that there are two bikes in the top four that are precision race machines and I also think that there are two bikes in that group that are just as competitive, but have more of a fun flare to them that might suit someone who really wants a huge smile while riding. The YZF is definitely a blast to ride this year and though I had to make a few tweaks to get myself rolling…the bike left me wanting to spin more laps and push it where it excels.
First thing I noticed when I sat on the YZF was how soft the seat was, as most of the bikes have a fairly firm seat but the Yamaha felt more couch-like. And as you can guess, the new design has really slimmed up the bike tremendously and this year you don’t feel like you’re sitting on top of the bike, as with the previous model. Beyond thinning the bike up, they also changed the taper of the seat, making it much easier to move on the bike and getting up on the front as you go into the corners. With this and the improved chassis, the bike felt quite planted entering the corners and with the smooth roll-on power…it pulls effortlessly through the corners and onto the exits. The grunt is there, but at the same time it’s so easy to roll it on, like when exiting a corner right onto a jump face where you can roll out easy and use the extra grunt to pop over the obstacle at the last second. With the new ergos the bike was quite a bit more playful than the past model, which I enjoyed with my style of riding.
The coolest feature on the YZ-F is the ability to adjust mapping via wifi. We were able to swap maps within seconds of connecting after a moto, and dialing in the power deliver exactly to my desires was easier than I expected. While the bike became more fun to ride with each lap, there were still a few things that could have helped bump it up in the rankings. Now I did have a few issues with the bike feeling a little washy in the front and rear end as the track dried out. It was a bit difficult for me to feel comfortable on long, flat dry sections that were constantly turning or angled. With a few adjustments on the clickers, the bike became much more planted up front, but the back was still a bit too skatey for me upon exit, even on most of the bermed corners. It was predictable, but I would still prefer the rear end to be more planted and track better as I came out of corners. All-in-all, the Yamaha has a very competitive and amazing package this year but like I mentioned previously, the top four here are so close in rankings that it’s splitting hairs putting them in front of one another. With a noticeable negative, this pushes the Yamaha to the rear of the top pack in my eyes.
Third Place: KTM 450 SX-F
Last year, KTM made leaps and bounds in improvements from the 4CS setup to the introduction of the AER, and this year the AER fork feels more dialed in, and moves to an even better level. The KTM is a very well-designed race machine and I personally love the steel frame design. This helps give the bike a forgiving feel when necessary, while the design itself still provides a perfect amount of rigidity for the rider. There were areas on the track that the traction on a couple of the other bikes caused a concern for me, while the KTM had no issues biting into the lines whether there was a rut or a flat silty section. The fit and finish is still top-notch on the KTM and the cockpit is so comfortable for me. The bike itself feels fairly compact, but everything seems to be in the right place at my size for comfort. Honestly, my only concern with the KTM was the strong bottom end power delivery, especially as I would get a bit tired on the track. I had to be more aware of just how much roll on I gave the orange machine or else that front wheel would be floating off the ground. Even with the smoother engine map available, it just wasn’t quite what I was looking for and the traction control just kept it from spinning.
Other than that, I really enjoy the Brembo hydraulic clutch but I still feel that the Magura (Husky) “feel” of the clutch is more progressive than the Brembo. This makes the KTM clutch feel a bit more trigger-like, which also compounds with the explosive roll on power, making it a bit much for me on certain areas…like out of tight rutted corners with good traction. In the end, the KTM really follows the brand’s tagline of “Ready to Race”.
Second Place: Honda CRF450R
Honda delivered an amazingly fun, forgiving, and powerful bike in 2017, and this year they only improved upon an already killer package. I enjoyed the Honda so much at last year’s shootout, that I went out and bought one myself four days later (my first new bike in a LONG time). Though the bike was great, last year there was room for improvement and this year they nailed it with a much-improved spring rate setup on the chassis, plus the swap in engine mounts. The fork no longer bonks at the bottom when I overjumped obstacles or pushed through into the faces of jumps. Now the bike had a very smooth hold up in the front end that keeps the suspension right where I wanted it to be in the stroke, which made the CRF the most front end inspiring bike for me this year.
I felt like I could pick up the front end with a blip of the throttle and let it set down in rough chop, off-camber braking bumps, or into a rut without the slightest hesitation. It was the best up front at soaking up the bumps, but I still had a couple adjustments with the rear. As I’d go through a section the bike would start to feel a bit tall in the rear end. With the increased spring rates on the front and rear I would expect this to likely happen since I don’t weigh as much as maybe an ideal 450 rider for a stock bike. There’s now electric start standard on the CRF450 which is awesome and preferred by me on all the bikes. The Honda feels a bit larger in size than the KTM/Husky but it hasn’t lost any of its playfulness and I still have the most fun, hands down, on the red bike this year. I wouldn’t mind seeing just a bit more overrev in the power, but in the same instance I was able to ride the Honda in pretty much third gear almost everywhere. The smooth roll on and very strong low/mid to mid pull had me smiling every lap on the bike! This year the Honda isn’t the number one pick for me based on having to line up at the track to race, but if I were wanting the most fun for the money I think I would still have to pick the red machine for the smile factor.
First Place: Husqvarna FC 450
This year, the white bike did everything right in my opinion. This is another bike that feels like a precision race machine to me, and the best way for me to describe this bike’s characteristics would be that it’s most like a scalpel would be to a surgeon, as a race bike should be to a racer. That may sound odd, but it’s true. This bike goes exactly where you want it, when you want it to, while even saving you and making you look great when you make a mistake. The suspension is amazingly plush and progressive in all the ways I would want it to be. Honestly, the bike felt so good to me that it was almost boring at times because there aren’t any little nuances that stood out to me that would irritate me or give the bike a noticeable flaw. Which left me with one thing to do, push!
Surprisingly, the rear end felt a bit better than the KTM and I would assume that has something to do with the composite subframe. I felt that the rear of the bike was always providing forward motion in the most smooth and non-confrontational way possible. I know that since the airbox is slightly different than the KTM too, that the Husky has a bit more of a smooth roll on power that I prefer with an overrev of a what resembles more of a 350. Now comparing the CRF and the Husky was no easy task…as it was very interesting to me that I was taking drastically different types of lines when on the Honda versus the Husky. The Husky made me feel more methodical in my line choice and actually felt slower while I was making up time on laps. The Honda was a bit more spontaneous and fun in sections of the track where the Husky was mellow and exactly where you would think it should be.
Of course the cool techy features on the Husky include the map selections, the traction control setting and the e-start. I actually really enjoyed running the bike on the more aggressive map setting (map two) with the TC on, as it offered the most punch but control when things got out of hand. This was especially helpful as the track got rough and dry towards the end of the days. I also like how light the clutch pull is while still having some resemblance of a “progressive engagement” for a hydraulic clutch, Magura really did a wonderful job on this design. The only thing that I messed with after setting sag on this machine was running the forks pressure at 11.2 bar, which is up just a bit from stock. Other than that, the bike was impeccable as is and I really didn’t have any complaints with it. If you’re looking for a new 450 this year, I would feel that any of the top four bikes would be amazing in stock form off the floor, but the Husky would be especially competitive and easy to adapt to if you were loading up the truck to go race in the morning.
Sixth Place: Kawasaki KX450F
The Kawasaki has great bottom end power and snap, which was great in the bottom three gears, but they all felt like they went flat too quickly. I felt like in this bottom range they could’ve all pulled a bit longer. Because of this I spent most of my time in third to fourth gear, and even fifth quite a bit on the faster tracks. With the way the Kawasaki made so much snap off the bottom, it made fourth quite usable. The rider compartment was comfortable to me. The bars and seat height were good overall, not super-aggressive, not too upright; although the seat to peg height felt just a little long for my preference.
Sadly, suspension is the reason why this bike is last on my list. The initial feel of the fork and shock are great, giving me early confidence in the bike as it was also quite nimble and easy to throw around or be aggressive with. Through the faster and roughest sections though, it felt like it would blow through that comfortable initial stroke too quickly and get into some deep mid-stroke harshness. It was hard to figure out where to go from there, as it wasn’t a clear-cut issue for me. In some sections the fork felt too soft and went deep into the stroke, but any stiffer and it didn’t work as well at low speeds. It mostly affected me getting into rutted corners, as the Kawasaki chassis actually works quite well when you get into them and rail them, it’s just getting through the chop on entrance that became a challenge. In the end, I was just a bit more cautious on my line choice and had to back it down in these areas.
In the end, more power, especially in the higher RPMs and some solid improvements with the forks would really help the Kawasaki on my list. The chassis is pretty good; ergos and weight are fine, just power and forks for me bring it down.
Fifth Place: Suzuki RM-Z450
The Suzuki has a great and smooth gearbox. How do I know this? I spent a lot of time shifting. First and second gear were stronger in power than I expected, but also very short and not very usable, even on the tighter tracks we visited. So instead, I spent most of my cornering time in third gear, which was okay, but not as strong so some of the other bikes in the test. Because of this I’d wind out third earlier and go to fourth on most tracks, and even get into fifth in the fastest sections. Through each gear the pull was consistent, but not as strong as I’d like. The new chassis was better, but I still feel as the actual frame spars are a bit wider than some of the other bikes in the test. It felt more nimble than the past Suzuki, but not as nimble as say the KTM, Honda, or Husky. As for the rider compartment, I had a bit more room when standing on this bike than some others, but the bar bend was just a little low for my tastes.
The new Showa spring forks are vastly improved over the air forks Suzuki previously had. They were initially much plusher and followed the ground a lot better, although they were almost too progressive and ramped up a bit too quickly late in the stroke. Also, the forks felt just a little on the dead side, needing just a bit quicker rebound to free them up and get them out of deeper/ramped up area of the stroke. The quickness of the rear shock also played a part into this as the bike tended to place a lot of weight on the front, unsettling the bike a bit and causing it to knife or slide when entering corners aggressively. Overall though, the Suzuki was able to keep its quick handling nature and the ease it offers when railing ruts and while it had some improved power, it just isn’t as powerful as most of the bikes we rode. The imbalance caused by the shock was the primary reason it fell back in my ranking.
Fourth Place: Yamaha YZ450F
The Yamaha’s engine is quite the tractor, really, with first and second gear coming on strong but feeling slightly heavy and slow-revving initially. Second gear especially takes a bit of time to get all the way through before shifting up. As for third, it’s prime, making great power but revving out quicker than second and making a quick grab to fourth. At the top end, fifth wasn’t really usable even on the fastest tracks. As for the overall spread of power, although strong, the actual gearing maybe feels a bit lost or in-between in some sections.
Overall the new YZ is definitely thinner. The front bodywork and radiator shrouds feel much more normal in size, while the frame width is okay. Not as thin as a couple of bikes, but not as bad as the previous generation Yamaha 450. As for the rider compartment, it definitely felt a bit tall. Even with the new, lower seat height…the gap between the seat and my feet felt a little more stretched than the other bikes, and the tall bars/bar mounts had me a bit too upright in the saddle. It’s comfortable to cruise around on, but a bit harder to feel aggressive on.
“This bike works best when it’s rough, and I mean really rough.”
On the track this bike works best when it’s rough, and I mean really rough. The KYB suspension is so smooth, great on chatter bumps, big breaking chop, and even the occasional pothole at high speed. While feeling a bit soft, both ends matched well…so it felt well-balanced as both the fork and shock worked through their strokes. While this was a positive for the YZ, it was also a bit of a negative as it was one of the bikes I didn’t feel as comfortable pushing on. Why? It’s almost too plush and doesn’t offer enough feedback entering and exiting some of the corners. Honestly, it ends up feeling a bit vague at times, comfortable…but vague, almost like I’m floating into the corners instead of driving into them. It definitely corners much better than the previous Yamaha, it was just a bit hard for me to trust it, especially when I tried to push the pace.
Overall, the Yamaha is improved and has the most comfortable suspension in the test. It really does corner better and is thinner but still needs a bit of work for me. I’d like the suspension to be a bit stiffer and find some more “feel” in the bike. The rider compartment is just a bit too upright and while the dimension between the new shrouds are much thinner, I found my legs getting a bit caught on them somewhere when I had it up high in the tighter corners.
Third Place: Honda CRF450R
The Honda’s engine was initially a bit deceiving, as first and second gears were a bit smooth and had that “mellow” Honda feel…but click into third gear and it’s like hitting a turbo button. It punches hard, pulls hard and just keeps going as it revs out. You can effectively use that gear and set yourself up strongly as you move into fourth. Overall, the balance of power between second and third can be used effectively, as second gear is torquey enough to punch you from tight corner to corner when needed, but not so much that it rips your arms off. But on the flipside, you can use third gear to destroy berms while railing the outside. My only complaint about the engine was that I wish second gear pulled just a bit longer before you clicked third in a few places as it seemed a bit rushed at times.
The Honda chassis feels quite narrow and nimble, it also soaks ups the chop and bumps…flexing a bit more than the ’17 model…but not quite as much as the KTM or Husky. The forks were slightly stiff initially but plush through the mid-stroke with good bottoming resistance. This setup was good for me to push the pace with, but I’d go a bit softer when playing around to gain back a little bit of initial plushness if needed. As for the shock, it was plush all the way through the stroke but at the same time held a great balance with the fork and chassis. This really helped the bike when laying down the power across rough acceleration chop. As for the rider compartment, the handlebars are slightly taller than some of the other bikes, not as tall as the Yamaha, though, which didn’t make it feel as aggressive but offered a bit more comfort.
On the track the bike was easy to rip any line on. The Honda really offers the ability to change lines quickly and aim almost anywhere. It can rail the outside in third or even fourth gear, do a bit of rear steering…or it can quickly dive inside into tight, rutted corners without much problem at all. The difference in power between second and third gears allowed me to really work the bike in all the corners. In the tight ruts, the slightly calmer nature of second made it easy to keep the bike laid over, while third gear’s hit was really perfect on the outsides. I was also a bit surprised how stable the Honda was on the downhills and in rough straightaways, as I thought it would be twitchier considering how nimble and quickly it changes directions. Even though the Honda checks in on the heavy side, it really doesn’t feel like it on the track. No, it’s not as light as the KTM or Husky, but it’s also not that far off. So why third in my standings? For me, the next two bikes are just a bit more race-ready out of the box, but the Honda is fairly close.
Second Place: KTM 450 SX-F
The KTM, like many EFI 450s, comes on hard initially but smooths out as the RPMs build. But it holds a unique blend by pulling deep into those high RPM ranges. Although second gear was usable, it was fairly brutal at times, although very useful when punching from tight corner to tight corner…especially if you were trying to cut under someone and outrace them into the next corner. The rest of the time, third gear was my primary home in the corners as it made the punch more manageable and I could also really rev out the gear if needed. Although, the KTM really seemed to rip in the upper mid-range, so a well timed shift to fourth was also extremely effective.
As for the frame and overall chassis, it had a slightly softer feel than most other bikes, although not quite as comfortable in this sense as the Husqvarna. The chassis and setup is also well-balanced, loving both tight and long/sweeping corners. For me, I felt a bit more comfortable on the outside on the KTM due to its planted nature and big power, as the KTM knows how to put that hit to the ground. Although the great brakes and chassis give it the ability to dive deep inside as well, the harder hit of the engine took a decent amount of work on the tighter exits. At my size, I had to be very careful with throttle control and power management in these spots.
When first heading out, I found the forks to be just a bit soft in the initial part of the stroke so my first change was to bump up the air pressure a bit for more hold up. Actually, the whole stroke was a little soft overall, but it was mostly the initial I was aiming to change. With this tweak the fork was very effective, offering great feedback and bottoming resistance, although it wasn’t quite as plush as the KYBs on the Yamaha. While not as plush, their initial feel does offer more feedback to the rider (in a good way) and gave me a bit more confidence to push the KTM. As for the shock, it felt a little more held up than the average bike in low-speed sections, but squatted well and used the stroke effectively at high speed. The mid to bottom stroke of the shock is plush however and has plenty of bottoming resistance.
Overall, I loved the rider compartment on the KTM. The seat to peg height was perfect for me, a bit compact but not too much. The controls, brakes, hydraulic clutch and bar sweep were spot-on and very aggressive. The KTM begged to be pushed harder, but at the same time, I had to be conservative with the throttle. So riding the KTM was a combination of pushing at the right times but being mindful enough to be calm in other spots of the track. In the end, the KTM places second behind the Husqvarna due to the white bike having the majority of the positives of the KTM, plus a few of its own that makes it a bit easier to use in the long run.
First Place: Husqvarna FC 450
Honestly, the Husqvarna initially reminds me of a 250F because of the way it makes power. It starts off crisp but light on the hit, then builds into a huge mid-range and continues to pull well through the top. Don’t get me wrong, it makes healthy 450 power, just the way it builds reminds me of a 250F…but on steroids. Once you rev out second gear, each shift makes it feel like more of a 450 though as third and fourth pull more and more like a tractor down low, putting the power to the ground. With this spread of power, second and third were usable all over, fourth was great for when you wanted it to pull from the bottom, but fifth wasn’t very usable at the tracks we visited. Overall I loved the power because I could be aggressive when I wanted to and smooth when needed.
The rider compartment was very comfortable for my size, with the seat to peg height feeling a tad bit more compact and giving me a little extra room when standing up through braking chop. The bars and seat taper made it easier for me to get around on the bike, very race-like and good for an aggressive stance. As for the actual chassis, it has a noticeably softer feel than the other bikes we tested, even the KTM by a bit. The later in the day it got, the more this was a benefit in the nastiest and roughest sections as it just took a little bit less out of you from each jolt. I was also glad the chassis offered a bit more flex than the KTM as the forks are initially a little stiff in the stroke. This allowed me to get a bit more feel from the front tire across the bumps, while the chassis took away some grunt from the blows. The mid-stroke was quite smooth, working and using it effectively and had plenty of bottoming resistance for my liking. Overall, the chassis is well-balanced, the bike tracks straight whether heavy or light on the throttle and I didn’t get a any sensations of headshake, even when deeper in the stroke on the fork.
Lastly, the brakes are outstanding, neither too mushy or grabby. Just a nice balance of power and control. In the end, the only thing I’d consider changing is the gearing just a bit to get into fourth a bit quicker on the faster/more wide open tracks I tend to ride. But other than that, the Husky is ready to rip out of the box and thus is my top pick for the year.
Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z450
I loved this bike. They went to work on revising and improving everything; but, here I am rating it sixth. The chassis feels narrower and the bike even seems lighter when jumping and changing direction. The forks are as good as anything in the KYB/Showa “Spring Collection.” But I couldn’t get a feel for, or figure out the shock. It’s just weird, and it feels like it’s hunting between the compression and rebound circuits. The bike is really, really nice and very “improved”…everywhere…except for the shock. But let’s talk about the good stuff, heck, the great stuff…
The engine is a true success story. It still has that famous Suzuki torque and now they’ve gone and added some top-end power to go with the strong bottom-to-mid pull. The gearbox works with the engine in superb harmony whether you’re using the grunt or the revs. It’s always willing to pull the next gear. The shifts are always on the money and the clutch felt perfect. The throttle response is crisp and you get really clean pull thru the entire rev range. They’ve actually kept the old power (read: great torque) and added the kind of top end power you had to pay some engine tuner to give you on the ’17. This bike seemed quite happy on pump gas and the motor just goes about it’s business easily and with no fuss. This may be the ultimate engine package for a novice. It’s truly the easiest to ride around a tricky track. The distribution of power is that good and it ALWAYS pulls. It does all of this without the burden of trying to hang on thru some massive “hit.” Those of you with a turbo diesel know what I mean. For us older guys, it has some actual “Thumper Power” in it.
The bodywork and ergonomics are all-new. You can get quite a bit farther forward on this year’s RM-Z, and that difference makes it feel a little bit quicker on turn-in due to the fact that you’re right on top of the tank when you scoot up. This is a bit deceiving, because it still turns like a ‘Zook! For the uninitiated, that means it carves beautifully and it’s very confidence-inspiring when you throw it into a tricky turn. It changes direction just as easily as a Suzuki should and now it does it even quicker if you move waaaaay up on the seat. This is another aspect of the bike that says, “Perfect Novice Bike” to me: it’s really easy to get around a very difficult track on this thing due to this new chassis combined with the new engine package.
“A couple clicks of compression or rebound make a real difference.”
The forks are as good as any modern spring fork I’ve tried. That’s a bold statement when you consider the excellent forks on the Yamaha and Honda. Suzuki tossed the Showa TACs and put their new springer fork on the front. This fork assembly works, it’s easy to adjust, and the fact that its inner workings are based in “A kit” stuff is obvious. It’s that good. A couple clicks of compression or rebound make a real difference. If you weigh over 160 pounds and go fast, you’re probably going to re-spring the fork. It’s not terribly soft, it’s just that it gets down into the stroke too easily with a heavier rider and that induces a slight bit of harshness.
Then there’s the shock. It’s not like it’s terrible, but it just isn’t as good as the old shock. It often spends too little time staying planted down in mid-to-full travel and it will come back at you too easily when you’re in rollers or chop as if the rebound just seems to “let go”. It feels a bit springy in those situations, which takes away from an otherwise great chassis. You can add rebound, but you’re gonna be way up into the settings to get it to feel almost normal, and then it seems to stay down in the stroke for too long! Spring rate and compression work together and don’t seem to be part of the “feel” problem. It’s just that the back never seems planted in fast and rough sections if you aren’t REALLY on the gas. It reminds me of what it was like when we got on the very first Pro-Link Hondas or Full-Floater Suzukis: it’s just different and harder to dial in. (For you kids: we had to learn to ride and work with the first single shock/linkage bikes back in the early ’80s. Yes, I’m that old). There’s no “high-speed” compression. There’s just a single adjuster and I used it in quarter-turn adjustments. That makes a difference, but…I really wanted to go after the high-speed like I would have done on the old shock. In the end, it may be simply about getting familiar with the new setup. As of this test, it’s the hardest rear system to get dialed, and that’s how we ended up here, in 6th, with an excellent bike equipped with a quirky shock. When I combine this shock situation with a slightly heavier feel than the others and no “button”…? I wonder where this bike would be with a good shock re-valve…?
Fifth Place: Yamaha YZ450F
I have to hand it to Yamaha, they know how to do some serious revising every few years. This time they must have been very focused on “balance”. This bike does everything really well and some things are outright excellent. The new engine rips right off the bottom and keeps going thru a mid-range that’s made for Supercross! The chassis feels very neutral and more (here’s that word, again) balanced than any version of the blue 450 since its conception in 2010.
This new model feels slimmer and more consistent thru the mid-section (the back-to-front transition of the bike isn’t an exercise in bowing your knees in-n-out like the old bike). It feels lighter…which means it handled like a lighter bike. That’s a really good thing when we’re talking about a bike that’s had an electric starter and all the accompanying hardware. The new bodywork seems to have fewer seams and protrusions to snag your boots, pants or braces, too. From the new bars to the new seat, it all seemed to fit well and contribute to an all around better/lighter feel.
As usual, the KYB spring fork is a benchmark for how to make forks that work for regular humans. This year, the rear suspension is right there, too. I’m going to have to use that word again: balance. That’s the only word to explain how the front and back of this all new Yamaha work in unison. Easy to set up and fine-tune. Easy to make it right for you. This chassis is revised to the point that when you get on this YZ-F, you’re just getting on another bike that doesn’t feel “different” like the previous versions did.
Then we get to the really surprising part: the engine makes power right off the bottom and thrusts into a mid-range that usually comes from a good engine builder. This engine package was purpose-built to accelerate. It seems to me that it signs off a little earlier than the old engine, but no matter, this thing rips. There is a fly in the ointment, as delivered, though: there are gaps in the gearbox. It sure seemed like I had to nail the shifts from second to third, and third to fourth just right to keep it accelerating the way it should. We’re talking about those kind of focused shifts like you’d pull on a 125. No kidding. That’s probably as simple to fix as Sir Jody’s “add a tooth” remedy; but, we’re talking stock bikes here and this one needs some different sprockets.
There’s a lot of new on this bike and it’s all very well thought out. You do a few laps, make a few adjustments, track the data on your phone. (Yes, there’s an app for your new YZ-F!) The chassis and the engine are well-sorted and better than the old bike. There’s that gearing issue and it’s still “different” looking, but I like this look. This bike is excellent and was just a few ticks away from greatness; or, was that “a few teeth away”? It’s one of those bikes that makes you want to ride fast. However, when you ride it fast it takes a bit of energy to keep it on the pipe (from gear to gear) and there’s some focus required…all of that can tire you out a bit quicker. On the other hand, if you want a real race bike? This might be your choice.
Fourth Place: Honda CRF450R
The 2018 Honda is a finely-tuned and adjusted version of the 2017 model. That’s exactly what we should expect. It does virtually everything, chassis-wise, better than the ’17. The new engine hangers have it almost “RX compliant” when things get shaky and rough. The new spring rates provide for much smoother fork action, improve the turn-in and give it the ability to get it into tighter lines versus the ’17. This chassis feels great and the bike is almost as forgiving in the choppy stuff as the RX. That last point is really interesting to me. Why? Because the Honda seems to be the most “steel-like” in its chassis feel when you compare it to the other aluminum frames. That says a lot about how much time and resources went into how this bike feels.
Moving around on the CRF is very easy. The bike’s bodywork and frame are smooth and narrow. Everything on this bike has the typical excellent fit and finish you expect from Honda! That point is almost passé when we talk about Hondas, but it’s true. Things like chain guides, fasteners and all the little hardware and components on the Honda seem to be of high quality and often last longer than other brands. The factory look of this beauty is also typical Honda. Maybe it’s a the red color, but, these bikes always look great. The ergos are very neutral and the bike seems to make it possible for anyone to just get on it and “go”. It doesn’t beat you up and it doesn’t take a lot of energy to get the bike to go where you want it to. So, all the refinement to the chassis is a hit. Someone in the chassis settings department deserves a raise.
Then there’s the motor. We got electric start this year with a very cool battery. Nice. There are some new maps, the kickstarter is gone (Some ol’ school types are likely grumbling!) and those two mufflers are still there hiding behind the sideplates. This motor is very electric feeling and it doesn’t hesitate to give you exactly what your right wrist commanded , but…it doesn’t do anything exciting. It seems a bit “vanilla” compared to some of the other engines. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that it seems like it’s not as quick as some of the other powerplants and this shows up in the sand or deep dirt at places like Zaca Station. It took more effort to get it over some of the bigger jumps versus a few of the other bikes and it actually seemed heavy in slow-speed sections, or when changing lines mid-turn. In this sense it reminded me of the Suzuki. It does most things really good and a few things great. It just seems to take a bit more focused effort, for me, than some of the other bikes do when I want to go fast. On the other-hand, choppy turns and kickers in ruts didn’t bother this bike one bit. It allows you to go right over that stuff with minimal fuss. Part of that is due to the motor that just pulls smoothly. Odd, I’m actually complaining about near perfect power delivery for a long day at the track…? I feel like I expected more “bottom”, more early torque to deal with the heavy feel in the slow sections & all the while the lack of it may be why the bike is so easy to ride for long sessions…and it is. Still, I can’t convey enough just how easy it is to get around the track on this bike. It’s just that I could do it faster on other bikes and with a little less effort when I was trying to go as fast.
Let me explain a few things I’m trying to point out about the Honda…
1. The point I tried hint at, earlier: it felt a little bit cumbersome in slower turns and that surprised me. I started categorizing it and the Suzuki together once I realized that…and…that’s when the Honda started to slide down the ladder. It’s really that simple. This bike IS better than its predecessor, but like me, it needs to go on a diet and get stronger.
2. About the categorizing the CRF-R and the RM-Z together: as I said about the RM-Z, the CRF-R is REALLY EASY to just “get around the track” and doesn’t require as much overall effort as some of the other so-called “faster bikes” for a novice rider. It’s when I’m really trying to get a fast lap in that I realize it’s taking more out of me than a few of the other bikes.
In the end, I’d really like to see Honda live up to that HRC badge that’s on the triple clamps and take the overall mass of this CRF as seriously as they do mass centralization. This bike is really, really good and just needs a few little fixes to be the best.
Third Place: Kawasaki KX450F
The Kawasaki fans out there will tell you that there’s no real changes to the KX-F for 2018. Maybe not hardware changes, but they’ve changed how they set up the fork and the shock. We’re talking air pressure, some clicks here and some clicks there in the fork. We’re also talking ride height/spring settings and more clicks in and out on the rear, too. This changed EVERYTHING about how the KX-F felt to me. Compared to the ’17? The bike felt entirely different, entirely better, entirely right…for me. Just by simply figuring out how to set the bike up with the tools in the average tool box, the Kawasaki techs have this bike feeling sooooo much better. No more quirky-jerky step-outs on jump launches. No more harsh and stiff front end that over leverages the rear suspension. Yes, it was that much better. Last year I loved the ergonomics, but I hated how the bike worked out on the race track. When you started out way back in the ’80s as a Team Green rider, like I did, you’re super disappointed when you can’t make a Kawasaki work. That’s exactly what happened to me last year. But, this year? I put in some of my fastest laps and best turns on the green machine.
“Testing AGAIN and adjusting AGAIN makes all the difference.”
If the 2018 KX-F taught me anything, it was this: testing and adjusting and testing AGAIN and adjusting AGAIN makes all the difference. That’s what Kawasaki did. They sent some riders out testing for many, many hours and they found the right settings. Settings that are considerably different and more compliant than what they had on the ’17. I learned all of this from a conversation with Mike Chavez, the Kawasaki tech. I think they may have even scooted the rear wheel back just a tad bit more than last year, too. It would seem that there was plenty of “time well spent” over at Team Green.
The chassis and bodywork are a good fit for me with a width and transition from front to back that are near perfect. I was able to hold onto the frame with my knees in the old school way that the ’06-’15 KX-Fs allowed, yet the bike was way lighter and narrower feeling than those old scooters. Just like I’ve said about some other bikes in this test, everything on the green bike falls into place and it was another easy bike to just get on and go. The first thing I noticed? It felt lighter than the other Japanese bikes. It turned lighter. It jumped lighter. It was way too easy to bomb it over jumps and place it EXACTLY where I wanted it on the landing. It felt really good, especially at Zaca Station. It was a flyer in the loamy stuff.
The fork is the same TAC as last year; but, with much better settings. There’s still a slight bit of harshness in choppy turn entrances when compared to the other forks in this test, but nothing near as bad as my previous experiences with TACs. Not even close! It was like a completely new fork had been put on the ’18. The shock? I’ve always liked how the rear of the Kawasaki has worked, that’s why I was sooooo disappointed last year. This year? The green machine has a rear shock that does its job well and tracks predictably. It soaked up whatever I threw at it and often handled the big g-outs better than most of the other bikes.
The engine is still a barker and seemed better sorted than last year. Is this ’17 versus ’18 comparison getting old? Well, the engine seemed friendlier than last year, too. No more popping or lean spots that make bad noises this year. It pulled from gear to gear as well as any bike in the test and I found myself spending less time shifting on this bike, too. That’s a good thing.
The motor and the chassis are working in harmony on the Kawasaki. The bike felt really light. There’s no springs in the fork. There may be a message here that reads, “Less is More!” I was able to pull two of my fastest segment times and some of my fastest laps on the KX-F. That tells me that it really works for me. So, there it is, the tale of a bike that was seventh last year and it’s made its way to third this year. All because of some simple adjustments.
Second Place: Husqvarna FC 450
This bike is like an good old friend. You get on it and it helps you do your thing. It’s still the most forgiving bike out there. It’s always compliant and almost plush; yet, it’s very racy when it needs to be. It’s light and it’s skinny. It’s always planted, but never feels heavy or lethargic. Everything works together and makes you feel like the bike is reading your thoughts as you do your laps. The layout is unchanged and everything seems about the same as last year. If there’s one bike in this test that seems ready to do anything from a track day to a hare scramble, it’s this bike.
When you look at this bike and all the goodies on it, well, the Husky obviously has the best components in the test. Let’s start with D.I.D. Dirt Star rims, a carbon-fiber composite subframe, hand guards that actually work, electric start, hydraulic clutch, Brembo brakes with Galfer rotors and more. All the other bikes in this test sell for less money and I’m sure many will make that point, but you need to go back and look at all those parts and features I just listed. The value is here on the FC 450 and this bike just looks really nice and clean.
“The Husky has its own suspension settings, swingarm, bodywork, subframe and engine settings. All of that adds up to…”
This chassis is shared with its orange brother, yet it feels a bit different. The Husky has its own suspension settings, swingarm, bodywork, subframe and engine settings. All of that adds up to a bike that’s a bit more forgiving and easier on the rider. I rode the FC bike back-to-back with its sibling and it proved itself out as the easier one to do laps on. The Husky does feel a little bit more reserved on turn-in and is a bit more planted. What I like best about the FC is that it seems to be a little more relaxed while still delivering good fast lap times.
The FC’s engine makes just as much power as the fastest bikes in this test, BUT…it delivers its power with a bit more smoothness and control than almost all of the other bikes in the shootout. That makes for plenty of confidence in off-camber situations or when traction isn’t easy to find. The power gives you an opportunity to leave this bike in gear and let it pull longer than most of the other bikes. The word tractable comes to mind. There’s a catch to all of this controllable power: it takes a little more time accelerating than some of the other bikes. You can rev it to overcome this, but that takes a bit more of an attack mentality. That’s all fine except that when you ride the Husky that way it starts to want some changes to your near perfect chassis settings that were allowing you to do all those long sessions full of consistent (read ‘smooth’) laps. No worries, this motor does things its own way and that’s why I refer to it as the “go anywhere” bike. It really is that smooth.
In the big picture, this was last year’s winner for me. It’s still one of my absolute favorite motocross bikes ever made. In fact, it’s good for so much more than just MX. It’s very smooth, balanced and extremely forgiving when things are getting tough, but it’s not the fastest.
First Place: KTM 450 SX-F
Remember Cool Hand Luke? I’m reminded of that line, “…which is the way he want’s it! Well, he gets it!” This year, KTM gets it. It seems to me that the KTM folks didn’t like some of those shootouts last year where they took second to Husqvarna. So, they set out to remedy the issues that were costing those few precious points when the editors were adding up all the scores. They’re getting all those points back this year. The 2018 SX-F has subtle little changes to the suspension and they may have even snuck in a few little chassis adjustments/changes. No matter, because whatever they did, It worked!
The bike still feels like the same slim European supermodel that it’s been since the first Factory Edition of this generation showed up in the Fall of 2014. This bike and its Swedish brother are so slim that sometimes you have to adjust to how thin they are. They’re entirely different when it comes to squeezing them with your legs. The frame guards come into play when I ride these bikes fast and I’m having to figure out how to get a good grip on them with my knees and ankles. Yes, the Austrian bikes are so that skinny that I’ve learned to squeeze them with my ankles. My A-Stars have wear marks on the ankles these days!
This year, the chassis feels a bit calmer, and the term “nervous” doesn’t even come into play as it did last year. This thing puts its head down and just goes to work. For me, it was hands-down the fastest race bike in this test. Let’s be clear: I’m saying that when you want to simply go fast, this is your bike. It’s a very focused and purpose-built motocross weapon. I was surprised at how seriously improved it was over last years model, and I even like it considerably more than the last Factory Services bike I rode. It’s THAT good! When we talk about the suspension on the new bike, we’re talking about ALL of it. The fork and the shock can be addressed in one line: firm and plush all at the same time. The fork is exceptionally compliant over all the big stuff and all the little choppy bumps, too. Again, WP’s AER system should end all the “anti-air” craziness that I see on the web. This fork works.
The shock? It’s happy whether you’re crushing it at 100% or just taking a cruise lap. The back of the bike seems to stay where you want it a whole lot better than the ’17 did. Last year the bike hunted around on me when I was on the throttle exiting turns in chop and kickers, but now that’s all gone. It didn’t do anything I didn’t ask it to do. It goes where it’s pointed at and it tracks like a bloodhound.
Power was typical KTM: Plenty of it whenever I wanted it. The delivery of the power seemed better and also smoother. Not slower, just smoother. Just like the Husky, the gear ratios were spot-on, and the ability to pull from gear-to-gear was accomplished without a thought. The KTM had more of an early hit than the Husky, but not in a bad way. This was a hit that was totally manageable. I tried both power settings and the TC function (Traction Control). It all works and those options fulfill their purpose. This engine was tuned to win races. Period. There’s a caveat to all of that, though! There’s a lot of power in this thing and it takes energy to manage it.
There’s a bit of focused mental effort involved in riding this bike due to how it virtually commands you to ride aggressively and faster. Honestly, it empowers you. This bike makes you ride faster and makes you want to get up and attack. Yes, it’s the bike that Dungey, Cairoli, and Herlings have all ridden to the top of the podium and that will rub off on you. It’s in this bike’s DNA. The way the engine and chassis worked together was amazing. I had terms like ‘balance’ and ‘equilibrium’ going thru my head the entire time we were testing all these bikes. The KTM delivered on those words in a strictly motocross sense. This is bike really is Race Ready.
Sixth Place: Husqvarna FC 450
Honestly, even though the Husky is last on my list, it started off very well as it was extremely comfortable when I first sat on it. I love the flatter seat and the cockpit feels nice initially, which matches up to the overall fantastic fit and finish on the bike. As for the motor, the Husqvarna had good power all over and was very easy to ride. It has a lot of torque, but comes on very mellow, building into a long pull through the top of the range. Most of this 450’s pull is definitely found towards the top of the RPM range. Even in the aggressive map, it was easy to manage the power. For me, personally, I like a motor that is a little snappier-feeling and the Husky felt more like a tractor to me…just not my cup of tea.
The overall comfort of the bike was matched by an extremely light and easy to maneuver package, on both the ground and in the air. Some may think their weight loss isn’t that big of a deal, but it’s pretty noticeable. Beyond this, there are also the excellent brakes, hydraulic clutch and electric start at this light weight. So how did this bike end up at the bottom of my list? I’m not a huge fan of any air forks and I struggled trying to get the fork to feel good in the middle of the stroke, as it just felt a bit harsh. After my initial excitement with the comfort on the bike, I slowly lost this feeling due to the my struggles with the suspension. It felt like the Husky was all over the place when the track got choppy, with the smooth power being the thing that saved me in a few situations. The front end didn’t want to stay in the ruts or through turns, and the rear was bouncing around on me a bit as I tried to get into the corners. The Husky has a lot going for it and while the mellow power isn’t my thing, it would probably suit a lot of guys. If I could spend more time dialing in the suspension I would consider rating it higher.
Fifth Place: Suzuki RM-Z450
The new Suzuki is one awesome bike to look at. After years and years of staring at the same old bike, I love seeing the redesign and the new lines! One of the best-looking ’18 bikes for sure. Sitting on the bike brought some familiarity, but also a surprise as the frame is definitely a bit skinnier than the previous model. Out on the track there’s also some familiar feelings, as the bike gets in a rut and stays there. The new Suzuki inspired a lot of the same confidence in ruts that I got from the previous model, and reminded me why the RM-Z holds that reputation. As for the the motor, it makes really linear power and is smooth across the range. Nothing special, a little snappier off the bottom than the Husky for me, but more mellow through the rest of the range. The new forks and shock were pretty good, although I did need to stiffen the forks up a bit for my liking and to keep things balanced out. Straight up, I love the spring fork on this bike and am so glad the TAC is gone as it struggled on this machine.
Now the downside, I will say that the Suzuki feels like the heaviest bike when riding it. Although the chassis feels more nimble initially, it doesn’t quite match that feeling on the track. Also I think that they blew it this year by designing a new bike and not having electric start as a standard option. Now that the majority of the bikes have it, I feel really annoyed kicking over the bikes that don’t have the button. In the end, the Suzuki is a good all-around bike, but I don’t feel like it shines in any particular area. For me it wasn’t that bad anywhere, just not exciting or a stand out.
Fourth Place: Kawasaki KX450F
I’ve been a fan of the Kawasaki for the past few years and was my personal machine up until I recently switched brands. I feel like the KXF offers a solid overall package, and part of the reason I chose them before was the initial comfort for my height when I first swung a leg over it. I really love the feel of the cockpit, as everything just seems to be in the right place for me. The motor also matches my personality, as it’s snappy and has some bark to it right off the bottom, right where I wanted it. It doesn’t pull as hard late as the others do, but the initial and mid-range work for me. The handling on this bike is also pretty amazing. It feels light and easily maneuverable in the air, plus it handles well through ruts and flat turns. Some bikes do a bit better in certain spots, but the KXF offers a consistency in a range of corners that bring out a bit of extra confidence. Whether it was smooth or rough, early or late in the day, I could push on this bike and that keeps things fun.
“…the lack of the electric start being the biggest drawback.”
The KXF seems to be a little behind on the fit and finish of the bike when compared to a few of the other manufacturers. Notably the lack of the electric start being the biggest drawback. But for me, the biggest disappointment with the KXF is the fork. It’s the worst air fork on the 2018 bikes (there are only three) and worse than the spring options. What made up for the front end was a shock that I was entirely comfortable with. So even after a few adjustments to the fork to get it decent, the shock is what got me around the track. If the Kawasaki had a spring fork and electric start, we would be in business.
Third Place: KTM 450 SX-F
The KTM is an amazing bike, and another I’ve owned in recent years. It looks great and the components it comes with match the look! It’s really no wonder why KTM sticks with the “Ready to Race” tagline with its great brakes, hydro clutch, electric start, tool-less airbox, and more. Sitting on the bike is super comfortable and rolling out onto the track it sets you in a bit more of a race “stance” then some of the other bikes on the list. Handling is something the KTM does pretty darn perfectly, in almost any situation. Whether it’s railing the outside under power, cutting down early, feeding the front into ruts, power out as the rut drops away, etc…it does it all well.
The motor is the other standout and is very well-balanced. It’s a bit snappy, then pulling consistently through the mid-range and screaming up top. In the base map I was still looking for a bit more snap off the bottom, so I swapped to the aggressive map, which helped, but I could still have used just a bit more. Between the engine and chassis the bike really felt race ready, but one thing held me back just a bit, the air fork. While the WP AER is good for an air fork, it’s still not on par with a spring fork for what I’m looking for in feel. The action is pretty good, with just a hint of mid-stroke harshness, but otherwise felt great everywhere else. The shock was pretty good, as well, but I felt it had a harsh spike on some of the larger “G-outs” or curb-like sections, like it needed a bit more high-speed damping to handle them. Between the engine, chassis, extremely light feel, electronics, and more…it was close to the win, just the forks keep me rethinking things a bit.
Second Place: Yamaha YZ450F
I’ll start off by saying that I think the new Yamaha is one of the least attractive bikes in the shootout, and in my eyes that means something. As for my initial thoughts on the bike, I kind of thought I was sitting on a couch…the seat was low and the bars were tall, sitting me upright like I was watching TV. That being said, I initially thought I wouldn’t like the bike, but immediately as I started riding it all of those thoughts disappeared. Honestly, this bike blew me away at how good it was considering my initial impressions.
Where does it start? Power for days! There’s no shortage of power anywhere across the powerband, and there always seems to be some more to spare. For me, this felt like the strongest motor of the group, which the YZF is well known for…but still surprising how true it was. But, this isn’t the highlight, as that spot was reserved for the suspension department. Why? This bike has the best stock suspension setup that I’ve ever ridden. I wish every bike could feel this good initially, more people would ride stock bikes! The forks were a little soft my first outing, but a few clicks in on compression and it was right where it needed to be. No harshness, plenty of bottoming resistance, good initial feel…everything was on point. Another surprise was how well the new YZF corners, although it wasn’t as easy to just switch lines quickly as the Honda. The only downsides to this bike were; It still feels a little big to me, not huge but something about the bike feels longer or wider than other models. Also, it’s not the heaviest bike but it still had a heavier feel than some of the competition, especially in the air. Lastly, as I mentioned before, I didn’t care for the cockpit ergonomics. I also think the seat foam may be a little soft contributing to that wide couch feel. A few times, as I landed from jumps or hit big bumps while seated, I felt like my butt could feel the upper subframe rails as I compressed through the foam. All-in-all, this bike is really good and a big improvement in my eyes. The suspension is so spot-on and made me feel like I could charge around the rough track with no problems.
First Place: Honda CRF450R
For me, the Honda is the best bike out there this year! Right away the ergos are great, a nice blend of race and comfort, from how I sit on the bike, to how it feels between the legs. Out on the track, this bike was the easiest bike to hop on and feel comfortable. It was very obvious to me that my speed came up the fastest on this bike as it took the least adjusting to. As for the handling, it corners amazingly well, but the ability to change lines or direction on the bike instantly was what really stood out to me. With this, I could really work the bike in the rough and try new lines through the day with ease. Even though the ’18 model gained some weight and is near the top of the scales, it really doesn’t feel heavy.
“The addition of the E-start was awesome and although it added a few pounds”
Once it’s off the stand, it’s smooth sailing on the track, easy to throw into the corners and off the jumps. The motor is quite fast and pretty snappy, not as broad as the Yamaha but had enough snap to keep me happy and a great mid-range, with more up top than any previous generation Honda. As for the suspension, the shock is really good with their standard settings and while the forks this year are much better than the ’17…they still weren’t quite as comfortable as the Yamaha. With a few tweaks they were close, but still not the KYBs on that YZ. Lastly, the addition of the E-start was awesome and although it added a few pounds, their placement made it so they weren’t really noticeable on the track. The only thing I would improve on the bike would be the fork stiffness in stock trim…it’s better than ’17, but for me I would prefer a little more stiffness overall. Other than that, this bike is the best bike for me in 2018.
Sixth Place: Kawasaki KX450F
First off, the 2018 KX 450 is a great bike, and it was hard for me to place it in last, especially since I’ve spent a lot of time on Kawasakis in the past. I’ve always felt instantly comfortable on them, and this bike was no exception. The KX rewards commitment and felt best when I was aggressive and committed early with the power, trusting it to turn with power. However, this didn’t mean that the bike had all the power I was looking for, as I could clearly feel on some sections it just didn’t lay down the straight-line grunt as some of the other bikes. I was actually able to back this up with data from LITPro, showing that the KX averaged my lowest top speed in many sections. Speaking of power, the bike tended to detonate a little with the stock coupler in the hot weather we rode in, but a switch of maps with the Kawasaki EFI tuning tool resolved this.
Initially, the Showa SFF Air-Tac fork was a soft on landings and wallowed in the stroke but after adding a couple of clicks of compression, it helped the hold-up and balance of the bike. As for the rear shock, it was a little vague and dead on deceleration when pushing hard into the bumps. I also felt the rear end would sit a little low in the stroke on the higher speed downhills, causing a lightness in the front and shade of instability. Of course, a major downside is the lack of electric start, which the majority of the bikes in the field have and it definitely effects my opinion of the bike. Overall the KXF is a good bike, it inspired confidence with its very useable power, and begged to be ridden hard. However, it wasn’t the most comfortable and is lacking some of the features that the other bikes now have.
Fifth Place: Suzuki RM-Z450
Jumping onto the Suzuki was initially exciting, as I’ve not ridden one since having my own in 2012. Since then, I’ve steered away from them as they’ve struggled with their suspension (notably the forks). Now the 2018 bike is a good step forward from the previous years, mostly thanks to its return to Showa dual spring forks. Honestly, the majority of the new changes were a positive over the previous generation. My LITPro data put the Suzuki in second and third in my lap times on the two days of the shootout, so the speed was there when I settled in on the machine.
The power felt very tractable on the flat turns but tended to lack a little overrev initially, but switching to the richer coupler between sessions helped with the overrev but at a cost of a little bit of bottom. Overall it was a give/take situation to get what power I was looking for. As for the suspension, the new forks are a step in the right direction, but they had a little harshness initially. I mostly solved this by going a few clicks softer on the compression to free up the initial travel of the fork. Out back, the shock didn’t feel like it tracked well at high speeds and gave a little bit of a twitchy feeling. The rear was lifting a little and causing the bike to unbalance a bit. Lastly, the RM-Z felt like it was a bit heavier than some of the other bikes and wasn’t quite as easy to throw about, especially in the air. Overall, I feel like each change over the previous model was warranted, but the twitchy feel I experienced due to the new shock and the lack of E-Start hurts its overall position.
Fourth Place: Husqvarna FC 450
Placing the Husqvarna FC 450 fourth place in this shootout was a tough call, especially as it was the bike I managed my fastest lap on during the second day of the shootout. I really did like the way the bike performed and handled, it was also one of the easiest to ride with the most mellow but expansive power. The chassis has a great balance of characteristics, as it corners well, but felt stable as can be on high speed bumps. Beyond that, the bike gets top marks for the hydraulic clutch, amazing brakes, and fairly comfortable ergonomics.
“I had to ride it higher in the RPMs…”
Now how did the Husky end up fourth? For my riding style, it just lacked a little bit of the snap off the bottom that I’d look for in a race bike and I had to ride it higher in the RPMs than some of the other bikes to get the same performance. It’s easy to ride, but I just prefer that hit that the other 450s offer out of the box. In my opinion, the Husky is the perfect bike for the vet rider that wants an all-around great 450, that’s easy to ride fast consistent laps. It’s honestly quite comfortable and just easy to ride when the going gets tough. With some small power-related tweaks, this would be a great race bike and right at the front of my list.
Third Place: Yamaha YZ450F
I’ve actually spent quite a lot of time riding the 2017 Yamaha 450 since the beginning of the year, so I was really looking forward to getting on the all-new 2018 and seeing how much it had really changed. First impressions, just from sitting on the bike, was how much narrower and more comfortable it was just when on the stand. Also immediately noticeable were the electric start and Wi-Fi mapping, which gave me quite a bit to be excited about when we got rolling. The highlight of the YZF continues to be the motor, and it’s really quite lovely to ride. Very strong off the bottom and it pulled strong all the way through the range, right to the top. The large amount of torque, but ease of riding from this engine really appeals to me as it feels like the most spread powerband in the group.
“A testament to YZ’s easy-to-ride nature…”
The suspension was as you’d expect from the KYBs aboard a Yamaha; they’re very good, predictable, and stable on the bumps at the very beginning of the day, continuing so as the track gets blown-out and rougher at the end. Initially, I did struggle a little to get the YZ to turn into the tight lines, but raising the forks a little in the clamps and setting more weight onto the front really helped the new chassis shine. Although something stood out; I wasn’t a big fan of the stock handlebars. They felt a little too high, so this contributed to the higher feeling from the front end and my struggle to get my weight forward. A testament to YZ’s easy-to-ride nature was the fact of how consistent my laptimes were on it at the end of the day…all within a second on the roughest outings. In the end, I really enjoyed riding the Yamaha and the changes to the 2018 bike were all positive in my eyes…which is why it makes it into my top three.
Second Place: Honda CRF450R
Right before the ’18 Shootout kicked off, I actually had the opportunity to spend a day aboard the 2017 version of the CRF450R, so I had a bit of familiarity to go off of and an idea of what to look for in the small changes on the ’18 version. Right away, I noticed the stiffer suspension settings, engine mounts, and revised ECU mapping within my first laps aboard the bike. Beyond that, the addition of the electric start was greatly appreciated. ECU changes may sound minor, but the ’18 model has notably better throttle response, which gives it a bit more punch from the crack of the throttle than before. This bottom hit was much more to my liking and pulled well through the mid-range and into the top end of the range…much better than the previous generation Hondas. What really drew me to the the Honda was the feeling in the air. While the bike is on the heavier end of the scale, it doesn’t feel like it once it’s off the stand. Out on the track it felt super-light and nimble, easy to throw around, and gave a lot of confidence.
The bike is aggressive in the right places but also easy to put laps down, as I was able to set my fastest lap on day one of testing on the Honda. The only real negative I noticed was a little bit of a twitch under hard braking from the front end when entering corners. I wasn’t so keen on this but a few tweaks to the suspension helped, and with a bit more time I’m sure I could’ve improved it further. Honestly, it’s difficult to put the Honda in second place as I had so much fun riding this bike (putting the biggest smile on my face) and throwing it around off jumps.
First Place: KTM 450 SX-F
Initially, I wasn’t sure what I would think of the KTM, but in every department the bike was really quite great. The power on this bike is really what you’d expect out of a race bike, as it was easy to roll on, picked up great off the bottom, without ever needing a touch of the clutch, all while pulling into an extremely strong over-rev. That made it an overall powerful package. The chassis was equally impressive, inspiring confidence to cut inside turns…rolling it on in a new line that hadn’t even been used. Or, alternatively, throwing the bike outside of the turn, into the soft berms, as the bike was predictable and easy to control even in these situations.
Suspension was good, feeling progressive and more solid on big hits than some of the softer bikes. That inspired me to push harder in the bigger bumps, although I decided to go a couple of clicks softer on compression, to give the forks a little more supple feeling on corner entrance. That gave me the best of both worlds and gave the front end a bit more of a planted feel. Now honestly, I couldn’t find a problem in the rear shock, it took big hits and tracked very well on the small chop exiting the turns. I didn’t have any real need to muck around with adjustments, as it was predictable and did what I was looking for. As for the ECU settings, I really liked map two without traction control for loamy conditions, which I used the majority of the time, and map one for slippery hardpack with the traction control on. The adjustability of these maps is a nice feature and if used properly really offers a lot to the rider. Overall, out the crate, the KTM is a fantastic bike and felt like something I could go race competitively on straight away in all conditions. Thus it made it to the clear number one on my list.
Similar to our 2017 Shootout, the Honda, KTM, and Husqvarna are fairly well regarded overall…with their finishing positions coming right down to the wire. Albeit this year, in a slightly different order. The KTM defends it second place finish, while Honda’s CRF jumps from third to first, and the Husky being relegated to third. Unlike last year, the Yamaha gained some serious praise and while it didn’t finish on the podium overall, it came much closer with a solid fourth. Coming home in fifth is solid for the Kawasaki considering it’s a bit longer in the tooth and didn’t receive any updates in ’18. The biggest surprise of the Shootout however belongs to the bike at the end of the list, the Suzuki. After so many years the RM-Z450 was updated and while many of these upgrades were positive, it needs some more time to get things ironed out before coming back to the fight next year.
Hopefully we’ve given you the insight you’re looking for one the 2018 450s, and if you’re looking at purchasing one of these bikes for yourself, you’ve now got the tools to make a more informed decision. As usual, we’ll be back in year’s time to give you all of our test rider’s thoughts on the 2019 450 models, along with any other shootout we perform. Any thoughts or suggestion on the format? Or maybe a question about the actual results of this test? Drop us a note in the comment section below or join our discussion on on the forum in a special QNA dedicated to the Shootout and its results. You can head here: Forum QNA – 2018 Vital MX 450 Shootout
Article by Michael Lindsay and GuyB // Photos by Max Mandell, Preston Jordan, Steve “GuyB” Giberson, and Chelsea Curtis // Video shot and edited by Jacob Johnson