Suddenly there are seven. Once upon a time there was little movement in the world of electric-start, 450cc trail bikes. Honda, Yamaha and KTM had bikes, then Kawasaki joined in. Now, with the revitalization of Husaberg and Husqvarna, plus the entry of Beta, the off-road world has more serious players than ever.
And why not? With bad economic news dragging down the racing world, it only makes sense that riders would turn to the trail. And for the first time ever, we're seeing enduro bikes at the absolute leading edge of technology. Crazy motor layouts, closed loop EFI, automatic clutches; all are hitting the off-road world before trickling up to motocross.
But there's a problem. The off-road world is too big. No single bike can possibly be as good in the mountains as it is in the woods or the desert. That's why we dragged these seven bikes all over the place, to expose them to as many types of riding as possible. Along the way, we discovered that each has a specialty, an environment where it really excels. Here's how it played out.
Okay, the Honda is a player everywhere, from tight trails to rocky canyons. But where it really excels is in the desert. No wonder the Honda racing team was happy to abandon the XR650R Baja bomber. The 450X is a worthy replacement. And when you consider that the original 450R motocrosser has been replaced by an uncertain new model, the X has even more appeal. Now it's the only place to get that original motor.
For 2009 the bike received little attention after a mild remake in 2008. At that time it got a steering damper and some geometry changes, as well as attention to carburetion.
You gotta love a bike that runs great as delivered with no fussing, rejetting or airbox modifications. With the super-quiet stock muffler the Honda makes decent power, especially off the bottom. In fact, the X motor has excellent torque, and you can drag it down to zero rpm without issue.
But what really makes the X work in wide open spaces is its handling. It's the most stable bike of the bunch. Is that due to the small steering damper located behind the headlight? Not entirely. The suspension and geometry also get some credit. The Honda is a little more firm than the other Japanese bikes. It's certainly not MX stiff, but it can take big hits better than most off-road bikes.
The smaller the rider, the less enamored he'll be with the Honda on tight trails. It's a big bike and doesn't feel especially light. The steering is heavy and requires more muscle than some of the others. And of course, you have to pay for the lack of noise someplace. The X's power fades as the revs climb compared to some. It lacks handguards and has an old-world 7/8" handlebar.
You can make the Honda into anything you want it to be. Everyone knows how to get more out of the motor, and that makes it an incredibly versatile bike. If there's a universal dirt bike, this is it.
PRICE: $7499 WEIGHT: 259 lb.
WICKED IN THE WOODS:
When it comes to going fast on tight off-road trails, the KTM 450XCW rules. The "W" has the engine with the single overhead cam and the six-speed gearbox, as opposed to the other 450XC in KTM's line, which has a five-speed version of the motocross motor. The W's motor is still very, very powerful, it has a kickstarter in addition to the button, and it keeps its engine oil separate from gearbox oil, much like the Honda.
The KTM is a bike that you can ride fast or slow. It has power on top and on bottom and it rarely coughs or stalls. In fact, it probably as the best overall motor in the entire group. It has a very modern-feeling bark as opposed to the slow-revving, old-world power delivery of most of the other bikes. With a full-race muffler, the KTM motor could easily be competitive in motocross.
The chassis also is set up for riding hard. The suspension is firmer than that of the Japanese 450s, but still reasonably compliant on rocks. This is KTM's best year for overall suspension performance in recent memory.
KTM also scores very high in overall quality. It has Renthal oversize bars, a hydraulic clutch, a good O-ring chain, decent handguards and good tires.
The KTM requires mild fussing in the carburetion department. The needle must be raised two positions, and the crank vent hose should be rerouted. That requires that you find a way to plug the hole in the back of the carb.
In really tight woods, the 450's motor can be a handful for non-racers. You can disconnect a wire under the tank to make the ignition curve miler, or you can get a Bauer handlebar switch to flick back and forth. KTM also offers the same bike in a 400.
While the stock exhaust certainly isn't noisy, it seems that way compared to the Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha, which are super quiet. Remember, you can always make a bike louder, but it will probably never be as quiet as it is when it's stock.
The 450XCW is an incredible bike. It's fast, fun and well-made. There's a reason why KTM dominates the off-road market in the U.S.
PRICE: $8698 WEIGHT: 251 lb.
Yamaha is a funny company. It has a history of coming out with ground-breaking motorcycles, then letting the momentum die after a few years of neglect. The WR450F is one of those cases. When it got and a new aluminum frame and a mostly-new motor in 2007, it looked like Yamaha might be taking the off-road market more serious than ever before. But since then the bike has gone unchanged. It still has a lot going for it as the most cushy and comfortable 450cc trail bike you can buy.
The Yamaha's suspension is beyond plush. It's downright pillowy. That makes the bike a real rock hound. Any trail that's slow and covered with rocks, roots and trail debris is Yamaha country. The WR doesn't deflect and sucks up the junk without complaint. On top of the cushy suspension, the WR feels thin and light. Even though its dry weight is nothing special, most riders reported that the Yamaha was very easy to throw around. It's just a touch smaller than the other bikes in every dimension.
The motor is torquey, super smooth and quiet as tested. That adds even more to the WR's status as an easy-going bike that's fun to spend long hours riding. It also has a surprising number of high-quality features, like the Pro Taper handlebar and an off/on switch.
The Yamaha comes stock with a throttle stop that only allows half throttle and an exhaust inner baffle that goes way overboard. The others don't need those items to pass EPA. Yet if you modify the bike you technically are not complying with the law in many areas. You become an outlaw just to be on par with the Honda and Kawasaki. In the past, jetting the WR has been difficult, although that wasn't the case this year. It might be luck of the draw or perhaps an undisclosed carburetion change.
As you might expect, that soft suspension makes the WR wallow at speed. Even on slow rocky trails the soft set up can be a problem because it reduces ground clearance.
When get a WR, you're only getting started. You can build it into whatever you like--it has all the potential in the world. But in stock form it's limited by noise overkill and by super soft suspension.
PRICE: $7499 WEIGHT: 257 lb.
It's easy to design something new and different. It's harder to make it work. But everyone agrees, the Husaberg FE450 with its crazy engine layout works brilliantly, especially in extreme enduro sections along the lines of Erzberg and Last Man Standing. Husaberg is a Swedish company that is actually owned by KTM, but the Swedes are in charge of coming up with new ideas. So they decided to locate the crank in the exact center of the motorcycle. In theory, that should make it feel lighter and handle better. The Husaberg also has the first closed-loop fuel injection system that we've seen on a full dirt bike.
We always believed that electronic fuel injection would be the answer. The Husaberg proves we were right. The motor runs flawlessly at all levels. You can do everything wrong: wrong gear, wrong rpm, lots of throttle, no throttle, whatever. The Husaberg's injection system figures out what you're trying to do and fixes it. It won't stall even when you try to pop the clutch and kill it. That makes the bike phenomenal at low speed in difficult conditions.
In those same sections the 'Berg has the advantage of fairly high footpegs and rear suspension that stays up in the stroke. That gives you a lot of ground clearance. And another factor is the bike's super light, agile feel. Is that because of the gyroscopic effect of having the crank in the center of the bike? Maybe so. All we know is that the Husberg can climb rocky canyons like a trials bike.
The Husaberg is also pretty fast. It might not have a much power as its KTM blood relative (which shares many of the same top end parts), but it's close.
The 'Berg is a little hyperactive in the front end. The steering is fast and in loose dirt it often feels like the front tire isn't getting a good bite. This could be due to the engine configuration, which gives it a rear-wheel-heavy weight bias. The front suspension also seems softer than the rear, which gives the bike a nose-down pitch.
Some riders also complain that the seating position is tight between the high pegs and the low seat. The tape measure doesn't really bear this out, but it might have more to do with how far forward the rider sits in order to make the front wheel stick.
Working on the Husaberg is a bit ugly. The shock is so buried that you can't even adjust the preload. It's reasonably quiet but lacks a spark arrester. Oh, yeah, it's crazy expensive.
The Husaberg made believers out of skeptics. Everyone who rode it came away impressed with its ability to handle ugly, nasty stuff . We don't know if the 70-degree engine configuration will be the wave of the future, but we wouldn't mind if it were.
PRICE: $9498 WEIGHT: 251 lb.
THE SECRET IDENTITY:
Kawasaki did it first. Before Honda dialed in the CRF450X, Kawasaki proved that an off-road 450 could be quiet, meet emission standards and still run right without modification. When the KLX first came out we were blown away that it didn't have crazy lean jetting and throttle stops. The next stage in our KLX indoctrination was our experience with Destry Abbott's KLX. With just a sprinkling of KX parts and Pro Circuit engine work it was the best 450 we had ever ridden. Since then other bikes have joined the ready-to-ride ranks, but the KLX still holds it own.
One comment we kept hearing was that the KLX was "Honda-like." That's wrong. The Honda is Kawasaki-like. The KLX runs clean and sweet, it's quiet and there's still no rejetting or airbox cutting required, just like always. The Kawasaki is a gentle bike with a very smooth power delivery and the second plushest suspension (after the Yamaha). It also has fairly light steering for a big bike.
Our experience with a number of projects like Destry's bike and our L.A. Sleeve KLX400 taught us how versatile the Kawasaki is. It has a lot of KX and that means it can run as fast as the bike that won every single National Motocross of 2008. If you want it to.
No one dislikes the KLX, but very few riders fall in love with it, either. It's a little plain. Part of the reason is the power, which might be a little too mild in stock form. The Honda and Yamaha have more low end and virtually everything has more top end.
Kawasaki's attention to detail isn't great. The seat foam breaks down quickly, the 7/8 inch handlebar is wimpy and there are no handguards.
In stock form the Kawasaki isn't great at any one thing, but it's pretty good at everything. Like many of these machines, you can always make it into more of a racer, but you can't always make a race bike into a trail bike this good.
PRICE: $7499 WEIGHT: 258 lb.
Husqvarna suddenly popped back on to the mainstream radar screen with a big flashing red blip. BMW injected life into the 106-year-old-company and now they are back with bikes, financing, dealers and all the ingredients for success.
The TXC450 is the only dedicated racer in this group. It was designed specifically for venues like GNCC races, but it still meets off-road requirements in all 50 states. Barely. The TXC differs from the company's dual-sport TE in several ways: it's carbureted, not fuel injected, it has more aggressive suspension, it's in a hotter state of tune and it has no lights.
Power. Husky has lots of it. The motor has old-world, throbbing torque that makes it the king of the hillclimbers. You don't realize how powerful the bike is until you put it under a big load, open the throttle and let it do its stuff.
The Husqvarna's overall handling is good, thanks mostly to a super well-planted front end. The front wheel goes where its pointed despite leading what feels like a long train of a bike. And the Husqvarna has surprising number of pleasing details. When you push the button it starts more quickly than any of the other bikes, it has an absolutely beautiful titanium muffler and a light-pulling hydraulic clutch.
The Marzocchi fork deflects easily and dives excessively, which negatively affects what otherwise would be a good suspension package. Handling is odd; the bike feels long and big, but not tall or heavy. The motor vibrates more than any of the others, and our test bike didn't like altitude. The higher it climbed in the mountains, the more it coughed and spit. As beautiful as that muffler is, we have to point out that it is the loudest of the group, even with the spark-arrester/baffle inserted. We know that the bike is supposed to be a racer, but we would really like to have a kickstand. And the gas tank is an ill-fitting plastic mess.
Husqvarna is definitely a player. You feel like you could roll it out of the truck and race it anywhere, from an MX to a national enduro. If it only had a better fork.
BETA 450RR AUTO
Talk about a wild card. When Beta offered to put the 450 Auto into our shootout, we couldn't resist. It starts off being the most off-beat bike of the bunch, then goes to the outer frontier of odd with the standard-equipment Rekluse clutch.
For the record, Beta is an Italian company that has long had a partnership with KTM. In the past, Beta manufactured all of KTM's 50s and 65s. Now it's time for payback, and KTM is making motors for Beta's dual-sport and enduro bikes. This bike has the long-loved 450RFC six-speed motor with a Marzocchi fork and a Sachs shock (with linkage). The automatic clutch is an option.
Of course, the clutch is a strong point. We're big fans of the Rekluse, as long as it's set up properly in a bike with good carburetion. The KTM motor runs smooth and strong, so the Rekluse works like it's supposed to. It's very difficult to stall the bike, and if you want to use the clutch manually, you can as long as the revs aren't too high. In slow, rocky, uphill trails the Rekluse slips the clutch more skillfully than a human hand can, so the bike can be like cheating. As for the motor itself, we never quite understood why it was discontinued in KTM's line up. It's still really good. Compared to the new motor, it revs slower and doesn't have quite as much power, but it's no slouch.
The Beta also is a very compact, agile machine. It's narrow and easy to toss around. The Brembo brakes are strong and overall finish is excellent.
In case you aren't familiar with the Rekluse, you have to know it has certain traits. If you stall while hillclimbing, the bike will shoot backwards down the hill. It's also awkward in downhill sections or neutral-throttle situations when the clutch doesn't know if it wants to be engaged or not. But remember, the Rekluse in an option on this bike.
As for the rest of the bike, its biggest flaw is the front end. It steers imprecisely and the Marzocchi fork deflects easily. The rear suspension seems disproportionately stiff as does the seat.
With or without the Rekluse, the Beta is for the rider who wants to be different from the masses. It has the appeal of an exotic specialty bike without the shortcomings, like parts availablity and a lack of tech information. It has one of the most common and successful motors wrapped up in a wild and sexy package. And it's pretty darn good.
PRICE: $8499 WEIGHT: 257 lb.
So here we are with seven different bikes that have seven slightly different missions. But that's okay. America is a very big place and there's room for a lot more than seven different types of off-road bikes.
But just because each of these bikes excels in a different area, don't think we can't choose a winner. One bike was a clear favorite. The KTM 450XCW can do it all. From the smooth, powerful motor to the balanced suspension and the nearly trouble-free design, KTM proves once again that the Austrian company stands head and shoulders above everyone else when it comes to off-road savvy. Frankly, it's an easy winner.
Two other bikes deserve a place on the podium. The Husaberg is a great motorcycle. Weird, but great. It's truly phenomenal in tight, trials-like sections. It's only flaws are its price and the fact that there will only be a handful of them built, world-wide. Conversely, the Honda CRF450X is worth of note because there will be so many of them in the world. This is a blue-chip motorcycle with good performance, great support and a wealth of knowledge to be had. Some other motorcycles are good for a date or two, the Honda is the type of bike you can marry.