We’re sure of it now; the off-road motorcycle market has a teenage girl at the wheel, and she’s popping Ritalin, texting her BFF and eating comfort foods while she’s trying to navigate the most difficult economic conditions in years. Those of us who are along for the ride can only hold on while the market accelerates, hits the brakes, turns around and goes backward so rapidly that no one knows which direction we’re actually heading. Just look at the recent history of the 450 electric-start off-road class. Honda stopped making the CRF450R three years ago while KTM developed a new bike. Beta jumped into the market just as Kawasaki and Suzuki left. Then, Yamaha launched an all-new bike. Honda came back, and TM returned to the U.S. market, and then Husky dropped its 450 off-road model. By comparison, Mr. Toad is an old lady.
For 2012, it looks like things might stay still long enough for us to at least take a class picture. We gathered five available bikes that meet the same general description. They are all off-road 450 trail bikes with electric start. We added a sixth, just for kicks—Husqvarna’s TC450 motocrosser is actually much better on the trail than on the track—then we gave them all Dunlop MX71 tires and started riding them into the dirt. Afterward, we found we had learned much about America’s most confusing and diverse class of dirt bikes. Here are roughly 60 facts that come to mind.
What you should know about the return of the X
1. Honda stopped making the CRF450X after 2009 but never dropped it from the line. The truth is, Honda overproduced motorcycles in ’09, and between the bikes on the showroom floors and in the warehouse, there was no need to make more. Now that the backlog is gone, the assembly line has been fired up again. The vehicle ID numbers might say 2012, but the bikes are identical to the 2009 models.
2. The Honda has a carburetor that passes EPA standards without any tricks. That means it’s very clean and quiet, and it’s legal on public lands, particularly in California. The price is that it’s a little lean, but it’s still perfectly rideable without modifications.
3. There’s an air pump located on the motor as part of the emission package. This is an eyesore but does no harm. Leave it on unless you have a proper kit that can remove it. The carb needle is fixed, and the fuel screw is difficult to alter. The Feds run a tight ship.
4. Honda still uses the same basic motor that was introduced in 2002 on the original “R.” The X came in 2005 and was updated in 2008. Many people consider it Honda’s best motor platform ever. But, in stock form, it’s kinda slow—especially compared to the others in this group. Low-end is good, but it doesn’t rev. That can be changed with alterations to the airbox, jetting and pipe, but it will no longer be clean, quiet or legal. When it’s unplugged, the Honda is capable of winning the Baja 1000, and it does so regularly.
5. Everyone likes the Honda’s overall handling and layout. As the old man in this group, the X is a known quantity. It has helped define what a 450 off-road bike should be. It has no headshake, thanks in part to the Honda Progressive Steering Damper System. It feels well-planted in turns and is comfortable. It’s no lightweight, though. It feels heavy, despite the fact that it also feels small and compact.
6. For most riders, the suspension is a good compromise. Honda didn’t skimp on the components; they are top-shelf Showa units. Honda leaned toward the more serious riders with the spring and damping rates, so it can handle whoops easily. It’s not set up for beginners. You could do a lap on a motocross track without feeling out of place.
7. Quality is excellent. The side-access airbox is easy to open, the wheels are strong, the brakes are good, and the gear ratios are perfectly spaced. The Honda has an oddly high price of $8440, even though there are a few cost-cutting measures, like the 7/8-inch Renthal bars and old-world footpegs.
8. Fuel range is nothing to get excited about. The Honda holds just over 2 gallons, which, oddly enough, is typical of all the bikes in this group except the KTM, which holds a half-gallon more. There are several aftermarket tanks available, including some enormous rally tanks. Oddly enough, replacing the tank makes the bike noncompliant for emissions. We have never heard of this creating a problem in the real world.
9. There are about a zillion other aftermarket parts available. These include items like Trail Tech’s high-output lighting coil and MecaSystem’s Rally Fairing. The Honda is probably the most accessorized dirt bike currently available.
10. Overall, the Honda has no detractors. Everyone likes it, but the bike is showing its age in a class of newer, faster hardware.
What you should know about Italian fine art
1. TM is a tiny Italian motorcycle company that is fiercely proud of its products. A small group of people makes almost everything by hand. Not only does TM manufacture the engine and frame, but a surprising number of other components, like the hubs and sprockets. The 2012 model even has a TM-built shock. Our test bike was an early version and didn’t have the shock, but we can hardly complain about the Ohlins in its place.
2. Everything on the bike looks good. The frame appears to be a Honda copy at first, but on closer inspection, you realize it’s much more refined. Whereas the Honda has ugly robot welds under the cradle and around the steering head, every weld is perfect on the TM. Even the brake pedal is well finished. The exception is the motor, which is rough and kind of like an old-world works motor.
3. The motor is a five-speed, fuel-injected DOHC affair. It has kind of a Yamaha look. It does not meet EPA standards and is imported as a “closed-course competition” bike, much like a motocrosser. It is not eligible for a California green sticker. TM is much too small a company to deal with the bureaucracy of the U.S. government. Even so, the bike is reasonably quiet—no louder, anyway, than the KTM.
4. Performance-wise, the bike’s strongest point is its handling. It’s stable and never does anything bad. The rider compartment is big and roomy, making it a particular favorite of big test riders, like Tom Webb. Unfortunately, it’s also heavy. The bike weighs 269 pounds, making it the heftiest in the test.
5. The bike’s weakest point is its gearbox. The motor’s powerband doesn’t match its ratios. First gear is low, second gear is tall, and the motor’s power spread isn’t broad enough to fill the gap. The actual power output is fine; it might even be one of the more powerful bikes, but it doesn’t like to rev.
6. TM’s fuel injection is perfect. Unlike most of the others, it has no lean popping, no coughing and no sputters. We need to point out that it has the advantage of no federal emission standards to get in the way.
7. The suspension is mixed. It’s well-balanced and excellent for a race pace, but the Marzocchi fork is a little harsh on small bumps. The rear is excellent. Later models with the TM-made shock are rumored to be just as good, if not better.
8. All the parts that aren’t made by TM are very good. The rear brake is a Nissin, the front is a Brembo and the hydraulic master cylinder is a Brembo. Our clutch developed a leak, but we know from experience that this is unusual.
9. The TM likes being ridden hard and fast. At slower speeds, it sometimes overheats, and there’s no catch tank.
10. The TM is not a bike for the masses. It’s for the guy who wants race-level performance and has a passion for handmade machinery. It’s very expensive, too, at $9942.
What you should know about Yamaha’s big surprise
1. We didn’t see it coming. Six months ago, Yamaha stunned us with the announcement of its new, fuel-injected off-road bike. All we had been hearing was bad news about the economy, and suddenly Yamaha reinvests and reinvents its WR450F. Good for them.
2. Yamaha already had most of the pieces. The frame came from the YZ250F, and the motor is pretty much the same as the older WR450F, with the exception of its new fuel-injection system. This uses a capacitor to light up the EFI box and the fuel pump, just like the YZ450F. The WR has a battery for the electric starter, but it doesn’t need one to run.
3. In stock form, the WR meets EPA and CARB emission standards. It’s approved for public lands and a California greed sticker—sorry, green sticker. What confuses us is that it comes with a throttle stop that only allows half throttle. Virtually everyone replaces this with the part from the YZ. It also has a pea-shooter-size baffle within another baffle within the exhaust. Again, most customers remove this. With both restrictions removed, the bike is still much quieter than the KTM or the Beta, yet it’s technically no longer legal, while those bikes are. Apparently, Yamaha’s internal standards are much higher than KTM’s, Beta’s or even Honda’s.
4. With those two restrictions gone, the WR motor is fairly strong. It’s faster than the old WR and just a little faster than the Honda, but it’s not in the same league as the KTM, TM or Beta, all of which are much more powerful throughout the powerband. Yamaha did an OK job with the fuel injection. It has a smooth transition from off to on, unlike the jerky YZ motocrosser. It has an occasional lean stumble down low, but you learn to live with it.
5. Yamaha knows the motor is no ball of fire. The company’s accessory group offers a $100 competition kit. This consists of the new throttle stop and a whole new CPU. The CPU has performance settings that bring up the performance level a notch. If you add a race pipe, it’s suddenly in the same league as the KTM power-wise—a stock KTM, that is.
6. The new frame works. It makes the WR feel much thinner, more compact and more agile than the old WR. Big riders might find it cramped, but it’s still a good-handling bike, especially on tight, low-speed trails. The more twisty and difficult the trail, the better the bike behaves. The steering is excellent.
7. At higher speeds, the WR is stable, but the bike’s weight is a factor. It weighs 262 pounds without fuel, and while its laser steering and narrow chassis can cover that up at low speed, there’s no cheating the laws of physics. At a faster pace, the bike’s mass makes braking more difficult and direction changes more physically demanding.
8. The suspension is firm. It’s more race-oriented than that of the older WR. In the past, the WR fork was so soft it would virtually collapse on steep downhills and wallow in whoops. Now, it stays high in its stroke and can handle much rougher terrain. The flip side is that it’s not as cushy and friendly on super-slow trails.
9. The five-speed transmission has a good spread, but the shifting is notchy. The clutch has the stiffest pull of the group.
10. The new WR is a much more serious package than its predecessor. It’s still a little fluffy by KTM standards. The price is impressive for a brand-new model, at $8090, but you’ll have to spend about $400 more to get the most from it. We’re just happy it’s here.
BETA 450RR FACTORY EDITION
What you should know about Beta’s high-end flagship
1. Any Beta is already very exclusive, but the 450RR Factory Edition is even more elite. It gets a long list of upgrades over the “standard” model, headlined by the Marzocchi cartridge fork, a special Sachs shock, a lighter frame, a titanium pipe and some very cool parts. Altogether the parts are said to add $3500 in value. The price is $800 more than the standard RR. The bad news is that it brings the total to $9950.
2. What a beautiful motorcycle.
3. Beta is another small Italian maker. Its engineers are emotionally invested in their products. The motor is Beta’s own creation; it’s not a KTM like many people think. There was a short period where Beta did use KTM motors, but that was years ago. The 450RR motor is a double-overhead-cam, six-speed, electric-start affair that is just as sophisticated as anything on the market. The frame is chromoly steel, but looks nothing like KTM’s.
4. The Beta is also EPA approved. It’s green-sticker legal without any funny business. It uses a good old Keihin FCR carb, and it doesn’t feel at all lean. Its Arrow titanium pipe has a louder bark than the Honda, Yamaha or KTM, but it’s not at all obnoxious.
5. The motor is fantastic in stock form. It’s the fastest bike in its class. It has a very broad powerband, and it runs cleanly and flawlessly. We don’t get it. How could Beta show up and have a motor this good on almost the second day on the job? It has a six-speed gearbox that has no gaps, all the way up to the highest top speed in the group. The Factory Edition has another ignition map available at the flick of a switch, but the difference between the two curves is subtle.
6. This bike handles quite well at any speed, but it begs to be ridden fast and hard. Not surprisingly, the overall feel is a little like the TM. It’s stable and settles into turns easily. It’s very long and narrow, which is good in the fast stuff, but can be a little intimidating on tight, low-speed trails. Even though it’s a little lighter than most of the bikes here, it still can feel big and cumbersome.
7. Despite its big feel, the Beta has a low seat height. It also has somewhat low footpegs, so you have to watch your toes in rough terrain.
8. We’re not entirely on board with the upgraded suspension. Last month, we tested the Beta 498RR with its less-expensive Sachs fork and shock. We don’t feel that the Factory Edition’s stuff is significantly better. The fork is good on whoops but harsh on small bumps, and the rear end is soft, making the bike feel unbalanced. We know that ZipTy Racing can make the cartridge Marzocchi fork work as well as anything on earth, but in stock configuration, the Beta needs some setup attention.
9. All the other Factory Edition parts are awesome. We like the super-wide footpegs and the carbon skid plate. It also has a Supersprox dual-compound rear sprocket. The hydraulic clutch has the easiest pull in the group. Did we say it’s beautiful?
10. Every rider loved the Beta. Even when it came to the price, test riders nodded approvingly, as if $10,000 was perfectly understandable.
What you should know about the “Bike of the Year”
1. When we first tested the W, we proclaimed it “Bike of the Year.” It turned out that the year still had some surprises in store for us, but we’re standing by that statement.
2. This is a mostly new bike for 2012. The frame still uses the no-link PDS rear suspension, but it has been reconfigured with a different shock angle. The motor is the stunning, single-overhead-cam design that became the platform for Ryan Dungey’s Supercross bike. It is simpler and lighter than its predecessor. It also got fuel injection. It has a six-speed gearbox, and it now has an electric fan behind the right radiator. The clutch uses a diaphragm spring rather than conventional coil springs.
3. KTM is very proud that the XC-W is green-sticker legal without any compromises. Contrary to what we once believed, this is more difficult with fuel injection than it was with carburetors. With carburetors, the manufacturer can usually jet the bike lean and expect the customer to find the proper jetting on his own. With EFI, the lean metering is preprogrammed into a CPU that can’t be altered, according to clearly specified EPA regulations. KTM is the only EFI dirt bike maker that has accomplished EPA certification without resorting to throttle stops or the need for a “competition” kit to make the bike run right.
4. An unaltered 450XC-W runs very, very well. Not only that, but it has one of the sweetest off-road motors ever. It might not be as fast as the Beta or the TM, but the power delivery down low is incredibly good. It’s smooth enough to make a first-timer feel at home, but it has fangs too. Just twist the throttle more and it goes. The KTM runs cleanly at any rpm and revs just high enough on top to get serious work done. The gear ratios have no gaps; first is very low and sixth goes as fast as we would care to go.
5. The KTM is the lightest bike in the test. It weighs 248 pounds without fuel, and that fact is obvious from the start. The bike is agile, narrow and you can throw it around like a good old-fashioned two-stroke. At the other end of the spectrum, high-speed stability is good, but perhaps not as bullet-train like as bikes like the TM.
6. The KTM wins the suspension wars. The WP fork and shock might be the cushiest in the group now that Yamaha has gone to the stiff side. That means it has the best ride at slow speeds on tight trails and rocky terrain, but it doesn’t mean the bike is too mushy at a full-tilt race pace. The KTM holds itself up in its travel well, and bottoming is rarely felt, even in deep whoops. You might not want to race the XC-W on a motocross course, but it will go everywhere else.
7. This bike has the most fuel capacity at 2.5 gallons. This combines with excellent fuel economy to give the bike the greatest range in the test. We don’t like to give range numbers, because no two riders get the same results, but the KTM will safely knock out more than 50 miles for almost anyone, going almost any speed.
8. The fan is a great idea. In the past, we almost always boiled KTMs on tough rides. Not this time. All the other bikes did spew steam at one time or another.
9. The detail work is always good on KTMs. We like the easy pull of the hydraulic clutch and the quality of parts like the rims, bars and incredible brakes.
10. We stand by our declaration of the KTM as Bike of the Year. The retail price is $9199, but it’s a very hard bike to find at the dealer level.
What you should know about the misplaced motocrosser
1. It’s weird, but Husqvarna does not offer an off-road 450 for 2012. Between the TE449 dual-sport bike and the non-EPA-compliant TC449 motocrosser, there was enough overlap to cover the missing model.
2. We tested the TC449 last May. It was clear that the motocrosser was actually a very good off-road bike. We took it along on all our testing, although it wasn’t an official entry.
3. The Husky has an unfair advantage in the motor department. It has a full-race muffler and is very fast. The power delivery is actually much better off-road than it is for motocross. On a track, it feels like it needs more hit and more revs. On the trail, it has deep, rich power and smooth delivery. The EFI has an occasional stumble.
4. It hooks up. Despite having more power than the others, it always finds traction and is perfectly controllable.
5. The Husky has an unfair disadvantage in the suspension department. The motocross settings are too stiff off-road.
6. The handling is great for medium-fast trails and broad-sweeping turns. The bike loves high-speed fire roads.
7. Tight trails are not the Husky’s friend. It’s too long and big.
8. Despite not having lights or a kickstand, the Husky is still heavy.
9. The five-speed gearbox has good off-road ratios. The hydraulic, crank-mounted clutch doesn’t fade. The tank, on the other hand, is too small and there are no alternatives.
10. On certain fast trails and roads, the Husky was the best in the group. On super-tight trails it was the worst. With a price of $7999, it would finish in the middle of this group—if it were in this group.
HOW THEY FINISHED
What you should know if you read the rest of the story
We expected the new KTM to win from the outset. KTM has won every 450 off-road shootout since 2000, and the new XC-W is the best one ever. Imagine our surprise when the Beta came out of nowhere and nearly toppled the reigning king. In some situations, the Beta is a better bike. It’s faster, it handles great, and it has components that are as good as or better than those of the KTM. The standard Beta RR is priced identically to the KTM, and the Beta Factory Edition tested here offers great value for its additional $800.
In the end, though, the KTM nibbles the Beta to death by doing better in so many small ways. The KTM is lighter. The KTM holds more fuel and has more range. The KTM starts more easily. The KTM has stronger brakes, and so on. Once again, it emerges as the best overall package.
Next on the list is Yamaha’s new WR. It’s $1000 less expensive than the KTM, and if you spend that money wisely, you can have an incredible bike. We wouldn’t be surprised if some motocross riders started showing up with modified WRs; they probably handle better than the YZ450Fs. In the end, it’s handicapped by excessive weight and Yamaha’s high internal standards. Don’t get us wrong; we like quiet bikes, but we don’t understand why the Yamaha has to be so much quieter than the others.
The TM is a very special machine. We’re not surprised that its price is so high. We’re amazed it could be built at any price. The frame and chassis components are the work of true artists. But in sheer performance, it offers no significant advantages over the others. Plus, it’s an outlaw on public land.
As for the Honda, we’re happy it’s back, but it’s actually more overpriced than the TM. When the bike was first introduced in 2005, it was $6999. Shouldn’t it be amortized by now? We all know it has the potential to win at any level, but potential doesn’t pay the rent.
Next year, all this could change. In fact, we’re almost certain it will. The 450 off-road class will continue to suffer through market-driven mood swings. The bikes will change, and so will the participants. But, we know one thing: we’ll never go into this comparison expecting any one bike to win. Those days are gone.