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The most anticipated motocross bike of the year is finally here and I actually get to speak openly about it! Hallelujah! The 2021 CRF450R looks nothing like last year’s model and on the track it’s quite a bit different as well. Instead of going over all the change points in this article, you can do yourself a favor and just click here to see what Honda changed on the 2021 model: https://powersports.honda.com/off-road/competition/crf450r. Basically the only parts you will be able to reuse from the 2020 is the front wheel, footpegs, handlebars and grips. Everything else has been massaged or completely revamped. Here is the meat and potatoes of what you can expect to feel from the 2021 Honda CRF450R out on the track.
Engine: The problem with last year’s CRF450R was that it had too much power in low speed areas of the track. It came on too hard and was tough to manage unless you were riding deep sand all the time. The 2021 CRF450R’s engine character comes on smoother and lasts longer than the 2020 version. I am able to use second gear without the herky/jerky feel coming through area 2 (middle) of corners. When I roll my throttle on there is less reaction to the chassis which is a welcomed attribute for 2021. I have to retrain my brain that the 2021 Honda’s second gear is much more usable than a Yamaha or Kawasaki. Pulling power in each gear is similar to a KTM 450 SX-F in where it’s very precise putting the power to the ground, but still has enough torque to get you over an obstacle immediately out of corners. It has a sneaky fast engine character, similar to a KTM 450 SX-F.
If you were looking for a more controlled Honda engine without as much excitement down low, this is your year! The 2021 Honda CRF450R pleases less skilled riders more because of how non-violent its hit is in Map One. Boom, there it is! That’s right I said it, in map one! Map one is controlled, long and linear, but map three is more peppy with more rpm response. I used map three a lot at Glen Helen because although it did hit harder, it actually didn’t upset the chassis as much as I thought it would through corners. I was able to use third gear in a couple corners in map three, that I wasn’t able to manage in map one. Map two, although much smoother down low through tighter corners, was super connected to the rear wheel, but gave the CRF450R a heavier side to side feeling.
On my test bike, the ECU setting on map one was a little rich/dirty feeling in a certain area of the RPM (5000-6000RPM). This upset my rear wheel connection some in certain corners, but not all riders or media outlets felt that once I asked around. However, it’s something to look for when breaking in your new CRF450R.
Chassis: To me this is the most important area Honda needed to get better in for 2021. The 2020 Honda was stiff and rigid to ride when the track got harder or rougher. Honda’s 2021 slogan is “razor sharp cornering”, but I don’t know if that was a great marketing slogan for Honda in 2021. I mean we already know the Honda corners great, do we really need a better cornering Honda? The good news is although it does corner better, it actually goes in a straight line better as well! No, the chassis isn’t as compliant as a Kawasaki, but it is a much better/softer feel around the track than in previous years I can remember. When the track gets square edgy and hard, the 2021 CRF450R now allows the rider to ride through some of those bumps rather than weave around them. Losing 4-5 pounds on a 450 is a big deal, don’t let anyone tell you different. Where do you feel the weight loss of the new Honda? In corners! There’s that slogan again… “Razor Sharp Cornering”. Leaning into a corner is much easier than the 2020 and cornering stability is also up from last year. Where the Honda can still use some help would be through longer corners with ruts. The balance of the bike can still be front end heavy so oversteer is apparent in those longer corners of any track. In order to balance that out you can drop the fork down to 2mm in the clamp and that will help bring cornering stability up more without sacrificing lean in feel.
Suspension: Plain and simple the Showa fork and shock have better action and plushness in 2021, but to me is still on the soft side for a 170 pound fast rider. You will have to increase fork compression dampening a few clicks as well as open up the rebound dampening one click. Doing this helps keep the CRF450R from pitching on de-cel and keep the balance of the bike happy. Shock sag is set to a normal 105mm and also stiffening the low speed compression does help the Honda’s chassis happy on throttle coming out of corners. Once these clickers are set, I feel like the Honda is the happiest it has ever been. The 49mm Showa fork has good lean angle, on throttle, front end feel and less harshness in the mid stroke than 2020. Again, dropping the fork down from 5mm (stock) to 2-3mm in the clamp helps increase stability. Although not as finicky as the 2020 (track toughness), the Honda does like to be up in the stroke a little higher. I do feel like most aggressive or heavier riders could benefit from going up one spring rate on the fork/shock.
Track Toughness: This is what you guys want to know! Is the 2021 CRF450R have more track toughness than the 2020? A resounding YES! When the track changed for the worse (on our test day), our morning settings on the 2021 CRF450R didn’t go to shit. This is great news for Honda buyers! Now does that mean its track toughness is better than others? That is something I will find out in the coming weeks as I ride this at more tracks with other machines.
Same/Same But Different: The 2021 CRF450R’s ergonomics feel as good if not better than last year as the flatter seat profile puts you on top of the bike more rather than in it, like the 2020. The Honda’s one exhaust note is now much quieter and pleasant to the ears when Barcia’ing your way around the track. The brakes on the Honda are the best in the Japanese category as well as the new hydraulic clutch. The new Honda Nissin hydraulic system has a longer/more linear engagement than the Kawasaki and will not fade under heavy abuse. The new clutch feel as well as durability alone is worth a lot to me. I couldn’t stand the slipping that I would get with the 2020, but the 2021 has more positivity to the rear wheel with no dragging.
So What Do I Really Think? With the Honda weighing in at 244 pounds full of fuel it feels like it’s almost as light as a KTM 450 SX-F in areas of the track. The connective feel that I get from the rear wheel (once passed that dirty feeling down low) allows me to roll the throttle on harder and be more aggressive which I couldn’t do last year. The 2020 CRF450R gave me glimpses of hope and fun around the track, with disappointment mixed in. The 2021 Honda CRF450R gives me more fun around the track without the disappointment. Yes, it’s a better Honda CRF450R in almost every way!