2019 450 Motocross Shootout | Bike Reviews | Features
The bar has been raised once again, but who gets the chocolates for 2019? Find out in our 2019 450 Motocross shootout.
THIS FEATURE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN ADB ISSUE #471 – DECEMBER 2018 WORDS: LEE HOGAN / PICS: JOHN PEARSON
It’s a great time to be riding a 450, with Euro brands Husqvarna and KTM at the top of their game, Japanese heavyweights Honda and Yamaha refining their proven open-class weapons, Suzuki putting the finishing touches to its latest MX1 steed (which was introduced in 2018) and Kawasaki coming out with a totally new model.
The European manufacturers have basically had it all their own way in recent years when it comes to shootout results but for 2019 the Japanese manufacturers are well and truly back in the game.
It is the norm in the premier class that the bikes from these six manufacturers are reasonably close in the rankings after being put through their paces.
But this shootout was by far the closest that we have seen in a long time. There are some amazing machines here that make it easier than ever to negotiate your way around a rough and technical motocross track, while using less energy and having a heck of a lot more fun.
Our venue for this shootout was the soft and sandy Larbert circuit less than an hour’s drive from Canberra. When you think of Larbert, you generally think of Lawson Bopping as he and his father play a huge role in the facility. And “Boppo” knows how to wheel a motorcycle around his home track.
For a number of years ADB has had an extremely fair and unbiased way of scoring the bikes in its shootouts. We start off with each of the manufacturers being represented by a particular rider. And when it comes time to score the bikes the riders allocate scores in multiple categories for each machine except for the brand that they represent. The scores are split into three categories, comprising Motor, Suspension/Steering and Ergos/Brakes with each rider giving a score out of 10 for each category.
The RM-Z450 received a huge update for 2018 that included replacing the 49mm Showa SFF-Air TAC fork with a spring/cartridge unit from the same company. It is essentially the same fork as the ones on the 2019 Honda CRF450R and KX450.
We also saw a totally revamped motor, a redesigned chassis, a total refresh of the plastics and ergonomics which resulted in a slimmer and flatter profile, and a revolutionary rear shock from Showa complete with a BFRC (Balance Free Resistance Chamber).
Unfortunately for Suzuki it missed the mark slightly, with a motor that left you wanting more and a chassis that was fidgety to set up and on the stiff side at best.
For 2019, the RM-Z is relatively unchanged, but Suzuki did switch from a 54Nm rear spring to a 56Nm one, with damping altered to suit, while leaving the fork springs the same. This made it quite difficult for the test riders to set-up their rear sag. The new spring rate is just too stiff.
It also created a lack of balance from front to rear. I spent quite a bit of time testing the three ignition couplers to find which one would liven the motor up for me and, after going back and forth a few times, I settled on the standard one, as it seemed to give me the most amount of bottom-end, mid-range and top.
The biggest compliments on the RM-Z450 were for the ergonomics and how comfortable the bike felt to sit on. The motor is smooth and rider friendly, while the suspension will take some work, whether you’re a light or heavy rider, purely to get the balance sorted.
I liked the handlebar on this bike and the ergos overall felt nice. But straight away I felt that the bike was quite unpredictable and not very well balanced, especially in the rear. The fact that it’s now the only bike without electric start surprised me and Suzuki really needs to address that, I feel.
It turns quite well but the shock was kicking me off the small bumps coming into the corners. No electric start is a bit of a bummer and the fact that you can’t map it like some of the other bikes is a small negative. It’s not terrible, you could win races on it but it just feels a bit outdated compared to the other bikes. Which sounds weird because it is basically a new machine.
I didn’t feel comfortable at all on this bike. The motor is one of its strongest points, being fairly smooth and easy to ride, but its main strength is the ergos. Unfortunately, Suzuki went in the wrong direction with the shock spring, which has made the bike really unbalanced. It’s the only bike without an electric start. They seem to be getting left behind a bit with technology.
They say the only thing harder than winning is backing up. Being the victor in last year’s shootout, the Husqvarna FC450 had the target well and truly on its back. For 2019, the Husky 450 received basically all the same changes as KTM made to the 450SX-F, including redesigned bodywork, a more rigid frame, updated damping in the WP AER 48 fork, a lighter swingarm with an additional 5mm of axle adjustment, lighter cylinder head, new lithium-ion battery, redesigned radiators and a new Pankl transmission, but the FC also got a simplified carbon-composite subframe.
Most people assume that the KTM and Husqvarna will feel almost identical. In reality, they feel quite different. The new handlebar on the FC450 received some negative feedback from our testers and some found it difficult to adapt to the feel of the AER 48 fork (I personally don’t mind the feel of this one).
But, other than that, the Husqvarna worked well on all parts of the track. It has smooth, tractable power that pulls right through the range. But the power certainly doesn’t blow your hair back like some of its competitors.
The suspension is very well balanced and the rear end tracks exceptionally well under acceleration. The bike definitely feels lighter on the track than the 2018 model, but the motor has lost a little bit of its fire. In an attempt to smooth out the power delivery to keep the majority of the population happy, it seems Husqvarna may have taken the shine off an impressive and potent engine.
I didn’t feel too comfortable on the Husqvarna. Mainly because of the low handlebar set up, but that’s an easy fix. The seat was also super hard so I felt like I couldn’t get forward when I wanted to. I was sitting in the middle to the back of the bike.
While the traction control didn’t suit me in the sand it is definitely a handy feature to have once you get onto the slick hardpack. I couldn’t get completely comfortable on the Husky and the strange handlebar bend made me feel a little cramped on the bike.
To be honest, I couldn’t notice a huge difference between the Husky and KTM. But the carbon polyamide subframe on the Husqvarna was quite noticeable when hanging off the back of the bike through the sandy whoops section. I also found the Husky to have a bit more grunt than the KTM, particularly off the bottom.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the air fork because I just didn’t feel like I could push too hard into corners.
KTM 450 SX-F
After finishing runner UP in the last 450 shootout, KTM has given this machine a massive overhaul. Well over half of the bike is new, with some of the major changes including redesigned plastics, a more rigid frame, revised damping on the WP 48 AER fork, lighter swingarm with additional axle adjustment, a lighter cylinder head, new lithium-ion battery, redesigned radiators and new four-speed transmission.
Despite all these changes, the bike still feels quite similar to the 2018 model, just a bit slimmer, a tad lighter and a little smoother in the power delivery.
The motor feels like an automatic, in the sense that you don’t need to change gears as often on this bike compared to any of the other machines, thanks to the four-speed ’box. I would prefer to go up one or two teeth on the rear sprocket and change a bit more often, just to be able to unleash a bit more horsepower.
In the last few years KTM has gone to great lengths to smooth out its absolute weapon of a 450 engine. I can’t help but feel that it needs to bring back a bit of the brute horsepower that we saw in 2015.
The brakes are, once again, superb and the little things like the footpegs and gearlever do exactly what they claim to do, which is prevent dirt from clogging them up. Overall, the suspension works well, the whole bike is balanced and the ergos are nice and comfortable.
Just when everyone has become scared of air forks, KTM seems to have got them right. The WP AER 48 works nicely and is smooth and predictable. I have a hard time coming up with something negative to say about the KTM. If I really have to be picky, then I would have liked to change the gearing slightly.
The KTM was really smooth and I felt that you’d notice the nice tractable power a bit more on a choppy, hardpack track. The hydraulic clutch and super strong brakes on the KTM are always a standout. The air fork had a bit of a dead feeling to it. I haven’t had much experience with air forks and they didn’t give me the same feedback as I was getting from some of the other bikes. And, to be honest, I expected a bit more from the KTM engine.
The KTM feels very light. The two ignition maps and the traction control are great features. You can really customise this bike quiet easily. The motor doesn’t feel very strong off the bottom, though. It has a decent mid-range but you have to rev it to get the most out of it.
It was 2017 when we first saw the current-shape Honda CRF450R with its flat/aggressive profile, optional electric start, potent motor and agile chassis fitted with a new Showa 49mm spring-cartridge fork. For 2018, electric start became standard and the Honda engineers made everything a little plusher in the suspension and chassis department. And while the 2019 model looks almost identical, other than some nice looking and much stronger black DID rims and a completely different header pipe, there are actually plenty of changes, including a refined chassis that has more torsional rigidity, a new swingarm, new fuel injection system, new footpegs, new Nissin front brake caliper and new launch control setting.
The first thing you notice when you ride this Honda is a huge increase in bottom-end and mid-range power. And we are talking night and day over the 2018. Overall the Honda has one of the most potent motors for 2019 and with the extra bottom-end torque it’s still smooth and easy to ride.
Most of our test riders commented on how agile the Honda was in the turns and found that the fork worked best when the compression damping was wound in quite a way from stock.
Riders like myself and Lawson Bopping ended up at five clicks out from firmest while some of the lighter riders were around eight to 10 clicks out.
Once you firmed up the fork, the Honda suspension was nice and balanced with a rear end that tracked exceptionally well out of corners. Most of our test riders commented on how much stronger the Honda’s front brake was with the new caliper.
The Honda doesn’t necessarily have the best suspension or engine but, as a package, it is a bike that is easy and effortless to ride. The fork was a little on the soft side. I had to stiffen it right up to get it to hold up.
I felt like it was the best turning bike. It was really comfortable for me. I liked the footpegs and standing position also. The main thing I didn’t like about the Honda was how restricted it was. Particularly with the stock mufflers. The power still felt super strong, I just couldn’t wrap my head around how quiet it was.
I really liked the Honda. It’s got a really strong motor but is still controlled and wasn’t a handful on the track. It felt slim and easy to move around on. I also liked the top triple-clamp on the new model as it has the choice of two holes that allowed me to move the handlebar forward. The fork was a little bit soft to start with so I went a few clicks harder and it was great.
I really liked the Honda. It’s super stable. The balance was exceptional and it had a very nice power delivery. The power’s super strong and nice and smooth right through the range. The new front caliper was a big improvement. I struggled to find any negatives with the new Honda and had fun all day on this bike.
Just like Honda, Yamaha has chosen to make small refinements to its YZ450F for 2019, rather than a massive overhaul, and it has paid dividends. The small changes include updated suspension settings, redesigned fork lugs, redesigned front and rear wheel spacers, an updated starter system and firmer seat foam.
On the track it’s plain to see that these rather small changes have really made an impact. For 2018 the Yamaha’s softer suspension valving, combined with extremely soft seat foam, could really create a wallowing effect with the bike, particularly when seated and charging through high-speed turns.
The 2019 model still has the potent and aggressive motor that loves pulling a taller gear. It just seems to be a lot more predictable thanks to the firmer suspension and seat foam. The chassis is still on the rigid side but I have to say that the firmer suspension has given a slightly plusher feel to the chassis.
The smart phone tuning app is fantastic and the test riders had a ball playing around with it until they found a map that suited them. The handlebar bend is very high, which can take some getting used to, but other than that we had very little in the way of negatives with the new YZ-F.
The power of the Yamaha is incredible. The torque is so strong that it is hard to match and the suspension, while being sprung quite stiffly, is still smooth. The only negative I had with the Yamaha was that it still feels like a big bike.
This Yamaha was better than the 2018 in my opinion. They haven’t made huge changes but it definitely feels better. The motor is, for sure, the fastest 450 out there so if you want brute horsepower then this is the bike. Also, to be able to remap your bike with your phone is quite cool. I felt cramped on this bike because the footpegs are high and the seat is too scooped out, which creates a bit of an issue when you have long legs. And with the motor being so fast it can become a handful.
I could feel the changes that Yamaha has made with the front end straight away. It seems to have helped in flat corners particularly. The power is really strong, as we expect from a Yamaha 450 these days. Being a small guy it still feels like a big bike to me, particularly through the tank and front end. You need to treat this bike with a bit more respect than some of the others.
It’s not very often that a manufacturer will launch a completely revamped model and have it land at the top of the pile in a shootout. But that is exactly what Kawasaki has done with its KX450. Besides the obvious big changes, including the addition of a hydraulic clutch and electric start, there is basically not a part on this bike that carried over from the ’18.
It is the slimmest and flattest bike of the bunch, with new plastics and a seat that has the most level profile I’ve ever come across.
The new motor includes finger-follower valve actuation from Kawasaki’s superbike and a downdraft intake, while a Showa 49mm spring-cartridge fork replaces the unpopular SFF-Air. The Kawasaki also features adjustable footpegs that can be lowered by 5mm.
Out on the track this is one impressive machine. The suspension is extremely balanced whether you’re charging or just cruising. The engine doesn’t produce the most power, but the enormous bottom-end torque combined with a very strong mid-range means that you can ride this bike a gear higher everywhere and the motor is just so predictable and fun to use.
The chassis is firm and precise when you need it in the corners but still has enough flex to absorb the straight-line bumps while being nice and stable.
The electric start never missed a beat and fired the green machine to life immediately every time. The brakes are super strong and the Nissin hydraulic clutch worked flawlessly, no matter how much abuse we gave it. Overall a well deserved winner.
The whole bike has received major improvements for 2019. The engine is strong, with improved power, and the suspension and chassis handle better than ever. My only negative about the Kawasaki would be that the cheap handlebar and handgrips look bad on such a great bike.
I couldn’t really knock the Kawasaki too much. It was so cumfy, nimble and it turned awesome. The suspension held up really well and I could almost race it in stock trim. I honestly don’t have any negatives.
Right from the moment you sit on this bike it feels balanced. Nice and narrow between the legs. The electric start worked great. And riding the bike is an absolute pleasure. Very smooth power delivery. The balance of the new fork and chassis is amazing, particularly coming into corners. The fork was a tiny bit on the soft side and you could feel the motor wanted to keep pulling but was just held back slightly. Perhaps a new muffler would help to fix this a tad.
Winner! Kawasaki KX450
TOMAC’S TOP TOY
After finishing a distant fourth in our 2018 shootout, Kawasaki has bounced back with a vengeance with a new, well-rounded 450 that does everything it’s supposed to do on the track. It is fast yet easy to ride, turns well, jumps well and starts first push of the button. And the hydraulic clutch is superb.
Yamaha ironed out some of the small bugs on the YZ450F and this has made a huge difference to the package. The motor is phenomenal and with the smart phone app you can tune the bike and manipulate the power curve to exactly how you like it. The only thing stopping the Yamaha from challenging the green machine for overall honours is a slightly rigid chassis and ergos that take a little getting used to.
Rounding out an all-Japanese top three, the Honda CRF450R is greatly improved, with an incredible engine that now has great bottom-end torque to add to an already strong mid-range and top-end. The bike is agile and turns on a dime, but was let down slightly by a soft fork. Otherwise it might have been further up the list.
FOR THE FULL FEATURE INCLUDING LAP TIMES AND FURTHER INFO ON EACH BIKE, CHECK OUT ISSUE #471 OF ADB