Honda’s new CRF450L motorcycle straddles the road and dirt, but may struggle to find riders
For years, dual-sport riders have dreamed of the perfect dual-sport motorcycle, the just-right Goldilocks bike that would be as capable in the dirt as it is on the street, and conquer the mountain trails and city traffic with equal ease.
Most offerings lean too heavily one way or the other. This light, nimble one is very good off-road but uncomfortable on the street. This solid, stable one is great on the street but clumsy in the dirt.
With the 2019 CRF450L, Honda has split the difference right down the middle and built a 50-50 machine that, unique among dual-sport motorcycles, is capable in exactly equal parts of riding the street and tackling the rough stuff.
But it’s such an equitable blend of pretty good street bike and pretty good dirt bike that it may not be the right bike for anyone.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Honda motorcycles over the years, making room in my garage for the 250R motocross bike, the 250X and 450X trail bikes, and the 650L dual-sport bike. I’ve ridden and reviewed the newer CRF250L and the CRF1000L Africa Twin. They were all Honda-solid, Honda-dependable and a little bit Honda-dull. The Japanese giant is not a risk taker. It builds bikes that perform well and run forever but don’t push the envelope in terms of performance or styling.
The 450L fits right in. Stylistically, it can get in line for the Honda family portrait, between the 250s and the 650s, next to its 450X brother, and look just right. Do you like Honda red? Good. That’s the only color the 450L comes in.
It is built largely from 450X parts, and it shares that bike’s engine, frame, chassis, suspension, fuel-injection system and other elements, though it is fitted with a fan and a catalytic converter.
It shares the 450X’s seat height of more than 37 inches, but has a 1-inch longer swing arm and a slightly lower ground clearance. Despite the added weight of the converter, LED lights, turn signals, horn and other aspects that make it street legal, at 289 pounds fully fueled it is only 14 pounds heavier than its trail-bike sibling.
Its on-road performance is surprisingly good. Though it comes stock with knobby tires and a dirt-bike narrow seat, the 450L skipped nimbly along the pavement and was very well-mannered on canyon roads and even on the highway. Its six-speed gearbox allowed me to climb to 60 mph quickly and cruise at speeds above that comfortably. And Honda has made a smart move in extending the metal part of the frame all the way to the license plate, which will allow a longer-distance rider to attach saddlebags or other luggage.
Its off-road performance was a bigger surprise. On the open desert, it was a rocket, its long-travel, adjustable Showa suspension eating up everything in its path. On hill climbs, it was a tractor, its low-revving four-stroke engine chugging up slopes composed of sand and loose rock.
The bike showed its weight on the skinny single tracks. There, it felt slower to turn and harder to manage than the 250X and 450X trail bikes, but not much. While it might be challenged by more technical trails strewn with roots, rocks and fallen trees, it tackled everything I undertook with aplomb.
Honda does not release horsepower or torque numbers, but shop owners and other experts I queried set those figures at about 42 and 35, respectively. Those aren’t race-track levels, but I had no problem getting the 450L’s 289 pounds to come off the line quickly, come off the ground easily and loft the front wheel effortlessly with a twist of the throttle.
On the freeway I wondered why Honda wasn’t offering an optional windscreen. On the dirt I really wondered why the 450L wasn’t equipped with brush guards to protect my hands. (Aftermarket companies are beginning to offer such things, but Honda does not.) This seemed a curious omission for a machine that’s clearly meant to be ridden off-road.
Honda is selling the 450L as a “trail to trail” motorcycle, allowing the dual-sport rider to go adventuring freely. Unlike the X bikes, it’s street legal and can be ridden on the roads and highways. That creates easier access to OHV parks, national parks, trail systems and other riding areas that would otherwise require a pickup truck or trailer to enjoy.
The company has priced the 450L at $10,399. That’s not a lot more than the $9,799 that Honda gets for its non-street-legal 450X. A rider who wants a plated 450X that can be capably ridden on the roads and freeways will be very happy with this new offering, and that price.
But it’s also not a lot less than KTM and Husqvarna get for their similarly equipped dual-sport bikes. A rider who was hoping for a bike equal in off-road capability to the 500 EXC-F or FE 450, at a lower MSRP and from a company known for its rock-solid dependability, will be disappointed.
Honda was accused of being too late to the adventure-bike game because it waited so long to introduce its Africa Twin. Has the company waited too long to make an impact on the dual-sport market?
It’s too soon to say, since the 450L has been on the market for only a couple of months. But I hope it succeeds. This is a solid motorcycle and deserves to find its place in the dual-sport world.
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