2020 450 Motocross Shootout
We brought the 2020 class of elite 450cc motocrossers into focus to determine the best of the bunch.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIT PALMER
Our 20/20 vision is blurry at best. At least when it comes to this crop of 450cc four-stroke motocross bikes. As always, we maintain that there are no bad bikes in the bunch, and we’re relegated to nit-picking and splitting hairs to come up with a winner among them. And while we’ve had some close shootouts in the past, our 2020 450cc motocross shootout takes close finishes to a new level—our results were all over the board. The overall outcome seemed to change with every ranking from each tester. Among our field of riders, from pro to novice, young whippersnappers to guys who still use words like whippersnappers, there was very little congruency in the pick for the top-three. But don’t worry. After the dust settled on two days of riding, testing, tuning, and ranking at Cahuilla Creek MX and Glen Helen Raceway, we did our dirty deed and crowned a winner in the end (even if it only won by a single point)!
Along the way, we sorted through the strengths and weaknesses of the 2020 field of big-bore weaponry, and we are ready to fill you in on everything you need to know about the latest flagship motocrossers. Though our vision might not be crystal clear when it comes to which is flat-out “best,” you can get all the info you need to find the best fit for you, which is really the point, after all.
2020 450 Motocross Shootout | The Cast
2020 Honda CRF450R
There are not a lot of nuts and bolts changes to the Honda, but the CRF450R did pick up some neat new tricks for 2020. All-new Honda Selectable Torque Control (HSTC) offers three levels of traction control at the push of a handlebar button (with the fourth option of off). Front and rear suspension are revised with updated valving, and the battery has been repositioned lower for more centralized mass—Honda says this also provides smoother air intake. New rear brake-pad material rounds out the changes to the red machine.
2020 KTM 450 SX-F
Consider it a “refinement year” for KTM. After revealing an all-new frame and engine in 2019, the 2020 450 SX-F saw only a few changes, mostly shared with its Husky cousin. Suspension updates include a new piston in the fork, the flatter top said to provide better comfort on the initial stroke. Updated shock settings complement the revised fork. The SX-F comes with two airbox covers, one vented and one sealed so you can tailor the power analog-style. Engine maps 1 and 2 are now more distinct, and the rear sprocket gains a tooth, going from 48 to 49.
2020 Husqvarna FC 450
Like its orange Austrian counterpoint, the Husqvarna receives only light changes for 2020. Suspension gets softer, particularly in the AER48 XACT fork. The plusher setting curbs the harshness from the mid-stroke, according to Husqvarna. The FC 450 now comes with both a vented and sealed airbox cover, the vented unit offering significantly more airflow to the engine. Engine maps 1 and 2 are little more distinct, designed to work with the increased airbox flow. The rear sprocket goes from a 48 to a 49, completing the changes to the 2020.
2020 Kawasaki KX450
After a ground-up redesign in 2019, Kawasaki opted to leave well enough alone with the 2020 KX450, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all. The KX450 nearly won our 450 MX shootout last year, scoring high marks for its excellent A-kit Showa suspension, new slimmer frame, and broad powerband. It was held back in the fit-and-finish department, and some felt the stock suspension settings were a little soft. But Big Green is ready to stack up against the competition again in the second year of its outstanding redesign.
2020 Suzuki RM-Z450
Suzuki’s venerable RM-Z450 has long been a favorite in the handling and cornering, but in recent years it has been at a clear disadvantage in our 450cc MX shootouts, with technology that’s just behind the rest of the class keeping it at the back of a fast-moving pack. Even after a redesign in 2018, returning to the coil-spring Showa fork, the Suzuki still stood at a disadvantage due to its weight and lack of electric start. The RM-Z returns for 2020 in the same trim, only with silver triple clamps (functionally the same as the previous black ones).
2020 Yamaha YZ450F
A rolling YZ gathers no moss… After a total overhaul in 2018 and a host of revisions in 2019 (which landed it at the top of our shootout), Yamaha gave the YZ450F another once-over for 2020, leaving hardly anything is untouched. A more compact head, new high-compression piston, revised ECU, and reworked exhaust are only the beginning. Small changes to the frame and suspension accompany tiny tweaks to things like footpegs and engine mounts. Is the devil in the details? We’ll see if Yamaha’s subtle touches keep the YZ450F at the top of its class.
6th Place | Suzuki RM-Z450
When the competition has advanced as far as having built-in WiFi while you still don’t even have electric start, you’re already behind the curve before the riding even begins. That is the case for the Suzuki RM-Z450. It comes into 2020 with the same platform for the second year in a row. Even a bike as fantastic as the RM-Z, with top-notch handling and excellent suspension, suffers as an overall package when stacked up against the rest of the field. But it’s like the honors student who flunked art class. Sure, it’s GPA is dragged down and it’s not a valedictorian contender, but does that mean it’s an underachiever? Hardly. You just need to ask yourself how important art class is. Can you live without an electric start? If so, take a look at a remarkable platform.
Suzuki maintains that nothing has changed on the RM-Z450, aside from the triple-clamp going from black to silver, but you could have fooled us. Nearly all our testers reported a much better experience with the 2020 RM-Z over the 2019, with one even naming the Showa suspension the best in the field. Perhaps it was because we started from a more familiar place with the Zook (given that it’s the third iteration of the same design). We now know that it likes a lot of sag—110mm, to be exact. Starting from that point rather than ending at that point in our testing allowed more quality time with the RM-Z. Even in the rough afternoon conditions at Glen Helen, the RM-Z was praised as supple and plush by our pro testers, both commenting that the 49mm Showa fork and Showa BFRC shock hold up well without blowing through the stroke.
Handling remains a shining point on the Suzuki, which can hook into inside lines effortlessly, handle deep ruts and maintain good straight-line stability. Although several testers did still report the occasional kicking from the shock, and another tester talked about front-end push that he couldn’t quite tune out (which could have been a simple matter of tire choice). Overall, the Suzuki scored high marks in both suspension and handling, with most of our crew admitting they’d be happy to live with the RM-Z.
The power department is where the Suzuki continues to suffer in the performance comparison. Next to the rest of its class, the RM-Z power is very mellow, lacking the hard-hitting power that our pro testers prefer (and depend on) to explode out of turns. “It didn’t’ have the raw torque to pull me out, like if I’d over-jump into soft stuff,” one tester remarked. “I just feel like it lacked everywhere,” another said.
The Suzuki comes equipped with three different power couplers—perhaps an outdated design, but effective enough if you plan to pick one map and leave it. Even in the most aggressive map, the power simply isn’t up to the level of the rest of the class. That said, our novice and intermediate testers had no problems with the power, commenting that it had a strong midrange, and with a little more shifting, the RM-Z has plenty for boost for their needs.
As an overall package, the Suzuki does plenty of things right, but nothing particularly outstanding. As far as braking power, ergonomics, fit and finish, the Suzuki is on par with the rest of the class. The lack of electric start, the mellow power delivery, and the fact that it tips the scales as the heaviest in the test are what hold it back in our shootout. On the whole, the Suzuki continues to be a great platform, just a few steps behind the others.
- Excellent handling
- User-friendly platform
- Lightest price tag
- Mellow power
- No electric start
- Heaviest in its class
By The Numbers
Actual Weight (full fuel): 252 lbs.
5th Place | Honda CRF450R
In our tangle of feedback from testers, there were few points we all agreed on across the board, but one of those points was the outstanding engine performance of the Honda. The CRF450R motor was a standout in our test, but unfortunately for Big Red, it wasn’t enough to get it on the overall podium in our shootout.
The outstanding motor gained even more fans in this year’s shootout on account of its new engine tuning feature. The CRF now offers three traction control modes (plus “off” as a fourth option) along with three selectable engine maps, leaving 12 combinations for power delivery, and something for everyone, it seemed. The pros, of course, preferred full power and TC off, while the rest of the bunch found their sweet spots, our novice tester enjoying engine map 2 and TC2.
In all cases, the CRF delivered quick-revving torque and excellent traction. In its most aggressive map, power off the bottom is incredibly strong, but still usable in the right hands. “It’s not super explosive; you’re able to ride it without killing yourself,” one pro tester commented. “Out of the corner is when it really wants to pull, and you have to lean forward to keep the front wheel down,” another said, “but it’s not too harsh that it wants to pull your arms off.”
Honda’s new HSTC (Honda Selectable Torque Control) worked well, offering light control, particularly in the flat sweepers. With three levels to choose from, TC1 and TC2 offer very mild intrusion. It’s not until you get to TC3 that the engine character changes more dramatically.
It all amounts to versatility, which is a strong point for an already outstanding motor. But while the performance won praise, the execution (by way of handlebar controls) lacks refinement. Honda’s solution to on-the-fly TC selection was to add yet another flashing button to the handlebar. This sits in glaring contrast to the sleek layout of the Husky/KTM models that neatly display “TC” and the numbers “1” and “2” on a compact handlebar-mounted cluster. On the Honda, you’re trying to remember which button does what and then count how many flashes you saw.
While the engine management features bring a lot to the party for Honda, the chassis is what continues to hold it back in our shootout. Revised suspension valving in both the fork and shock brought positive changes to the CRF450R over last year, but haven’t succeeded in ironing out its finicky behavior on the track.
Our lighter weight riders and novice to intermediate testers got along best with the Honda, but our pro testers reported the most trouble with the CRF’s suspension. The frame carries over from 2019, and as we discovered last year, it seems particularly sensitive to suspension setup. Hit that sweet spot, and the Honda will keep things planted as you erupt out of corners. But find yourself outside that very narrow zone, and you’ll spend the day searching for a happy medium in between blowing through the stroke, and harsh action in the small bumps. The result is a nervous-feeling chassis, particularly at speed, and since speed is what the Honda is best at, it presents a bit of a performance bind. We suspect that a heavier spring and less damping might help even things out.
The Honda could quite easily climb up a few spots in our shootout, and perhaps even reclaim the top spot if they can iron out the chassis quirks. Until then, brandish that beautiful, robust power with caution.
- Outstanding engine
- TC and power modes
- Excellent ergonomics
- Too many flashing lights!
- Finicky handling
- Second-heaviest of the bunch
By The Numbers
Actual Weight (full fuel): 250 lbs.
4th Place | Kawasaki KX450
Kawasaki is another manufacturer who rolled into 2020 on an unchanged platform. The KX450 is identical to last year’s model, which nearly won our shootout. The 2019 runner-up remains a worthy contender in 2020 but didn’t rate quite as high this time. The Kawi was bumped off the overall podium, but only by one point. Actually, it’s worth noting that the top four bikes in our overall tally were only separated by a single point each.
As for engine performance, the Kawasaki was an excellent performer. Power is robust and quick-revving, with a nice linear pull that doesn’t feel too explosive as it has in the past. With a super-wide midrange, this is the bike you can lug around the entire track in third gear (if you’re into that). Even in the aggressive map setting (switchable by way of DFI couplers), its big power remains smooth and linear, letting you build speed in a very controlled manner.
Handling is just as controllable on the KX. Its ability to get leaned over in corners was another strong point. It’s light and flickable going into turns, and once leaned over, the KX holds a line very well with a planted feeling throughout. Several testers commented they could put the Kawi wherever they wanted in the turns. “It never felt like the front was going to tuck,” said one tester. “I was able to jump into hard-pack turns without having to worry about stability.”
Even with its exceptional cornering prowess, the KX remains a rear-wheel-steering bike with what feels like a longer wheelbase. This translates into good straight-line stability, as well, striking a great balance with its agile nature.
The well-rounded stability comes thanks to the Showa suspension package. The 49mm coil-spring fork with A-Kit technology, including super-hard titanium coating on the lower fork tubes, is plush and consistent. While our pros needed to do a little stiffening up before they could really push the KX without any diving or bottoming, the stock settings proved to be very adaptable among our test group. (Since no pro rider runs stock suspension, this is a smart choice by Kawi.) Our vet-expert and novice testers were fans of the KX450 suspension, calling it stable and predictable. It all amounts to a very confidence-inspiring mount that beckons you to push harder and ride longer. And with versatility for added points, that’s pure magic.
So why isn’t it in our top-three? It’s come down to brass tacks here. While the Kawi is great just about everywhere, we didn’t find it the best anywhere. In a four-way dogfight for supremacy, it was held back by a few trivial points.
The fit and finish leave a little to be desired. The hydraulic clutch is nice, as is the beefy 270mm front brake. But the levers feel very thin, “like a school pencil” as one tester put it. Also, Kawasaki is the only manufacturer to still run the 7/8” bar rather than a tapered aluminum handlebar.
Speaking of the bar, several testers commented that the Kawi’s feels taller than others and that the KX would be a good choice for taller riders. Indeed, our smallest tester, at 5’9”, felt the bar was too tall and wasn’t as comfortable.
Despite our nitpicking, the Kawasaki has everything it needs to be a top contender in the category: electric start, a strong motor, a versatile platform, outstanding chassis, and A-Kit suspension. It’s hard to go wrong with that combination. And here’s another fun fact, the KX450 is the only bike of this bunch not to see a price hike in 2020.
- Smooth, linear power
- Versatile A-Kit suspension
- Excellent cornering ability
- Unchanged from 2019
- Fit and finish could be improved
- Handlebar a bit tall
By The Numbers
Actual Weight (full fuel): 245 lbs.
3rd Place | KTM 450 SX-F
The minor changes KTM made to the 2020 450 SX-F proved to have a subtle, yet polarizing effect on our field of testers, with several naming it their favorite, and just as many leaving it out of their top-three picks altogether. Nonetheless, the KTM made it onto our 450 shootout podium in third.
On account of its well-finished platform alone, the KTM deserves to be at the pointy end of the field. It remains a refined package with everything from the grips to the footpegs at an aftermarket level. The handlebar-mounted controls with the TC and engine map switches in a clear and compact interface are a welcome contrast to Honda’s flashing lights. The best hydraulic clutch and most powerful brakes of the group also give bonus points to the KTM, along with the lightest overall weight. But those bonus points add up to a heftier price tag—only outdone by its fellow Austrian counterpart.
The KTM’s potent 449cc engine gets a bit of an analog boost for 2020 with the simple addition of a vented airbox cover. (The SX-F now comes with two airbox covers, stock and vented, meaning you no longer have to hand-drill yours full of holes.) We ran our shootout with the vented unit, allowing the KTM to breathe deeper. The second of two available engine maps also features a more aggressive hit, making the most of the extra airflow. The result is a punch of power across the board, and particularly at the top of the range. But the KTM has not lost its manners.
“The KTM has really smooth power,” one tester commented. “It kind of sneaks up on you; it doesn’t pull that hard, but it gets you going quickly, and you’re going faster than you think.” While it’s not the hardest hitting or most exciting, the velvety pull of the engine makes great power just about everywhere, amounting to a very adaptable range for a variety of testers. “You can either wind it out pretty high or lug it around, and you’ll still have power. Across the board it’s very smooth,” another tester said.
Also scoring high marks for versatility is the WP XACT air-sprung fork, which received some revalving to flatten out some harshness. The ability to tailor the air-spring rate to each tester is a clear advantage in settings such as a shootout, and the Austrian duo took full advantage. The KTM’s suspension was praised by some, but other testers commented that a harsh feeling still remains, particularly on downhill jumps or flat landings. “KTM has continued to improve the settings, but the fork seems to be better in rough conditions than smoother conditions with flat landings,” one tester said.
The WP fork seems to perform best when it stays busy, such as on Glen Helen’s choppy hillsides, where our pro testers marveled at how it sliced through bumps with plush comfort while staying up in the stroke. But on downhill jumps or flat landings, it was less compliant.
Handling was another area where the KTM was hot and cold, with some calling it “predictable in all conditions,” “really balanced,” and “planted,” while others found nagging issues with the front-end behavior. “It felt like I was fighting the KTM to turn,” one pro tester said. “It handled really good going into bumps, sweepers, rollers, but when I sat down, it wanted to push out.”
In the end, the KTM struck a great chord with some but not all of our testers. It’s worth pointing out, again, that all three of our top picks were mixed bags, and the KTM only takes third place by one point.
- Smooth useable power
- Best yet WP air fork
- Excellent fit and finish
- Still a subtle harshness in the fork
By The Numbers
Actual Weight (full fuel): 236 lbs.
2nd Place | Husqvarna FC 450
The FC 450 saw small refinements in the same areas as the KTM for 2020, but with fork valving and shock updates in the opposite direction of its orange counterpart, the Austrian pair has never been more distinct. This distinction yielded some seemingly counter-intuitive results in our shootout, especially given that the Husqvarna came in with the softest suspension of the bunch. Still, it barely edged out the KTM for second in our shootout.
Again the versatility of the WP XACT air-sprung fork came into play, and after working through setup challenges, especially for our pro testers, the FC 450 really began to shine. “They figured it out to where it turned into a different bike,” one pro tester said. “Coming straight off the showroom floor to get it set up for a pro-level rider and not have to revalve it is a big thing.”
The same tester also commented that he was “able to get to a different level of riding” on the Husky over the KTM.
While most riders reached a very comfortable point with the Husky suspension despite its soft initial settings, it wasn’t all praise. Other testers reported a harshness on flat landings similar to that of the KTM fork, a harshness that was supposed to be eliminated entirely with the updated valving. Perhaps it’s only 67% gone since 33% of our testers still noticed it.
In the power department, the Husqvarna also received some tuning changes by way of an updated Map 2 (aggressive) and a vented airbox cover that lets the FC 450 breathe freer. The Husky’s vented airbox cover isn’t quite as open as the KTM’s (so you might still be tempted to take a drill to it), but the changes give a little more oomph to the almost boringly smooth power delivery. With a quiet and dignified characteristic, the Husky pours on power in a graceful manner, in what is a very useable range. The smooth-talking engine goes hand in hand with the supple suspension, which seems to define the role that the Husky is intended to play in the Austrian duo: the distinguished gentleman to the elite competitor.
Still, just enough of our testers felt the Husqvarna had the versatility and the performance to outgun the orange bike. “The power on the Husqvarna is slightly easier to control than the KTM,” said one tester. “The bike is also quieter, which makes it ‘sound’ slower than the KTM, but the speed is definitely there, as I found out when mistiming some corner entries.” Another tester commented that the Husky feels like it has more bottom while the KTM has more top, adding that both Austrian bikes have less engine braking, and more freewheel, which contributes to the smooth power feel.
In the fit and finish department, it doesn’t get much better than this. Along with its choice components such as the ProTaper bar, Magura hydraulic clutch, ODI grips, Brembo brakes, the FC 450 also comes with two choices of airbox covers (vented and standard, like the KTM) and two throttle cams (again, like the KTM) so you can alter the pull at the grip to suit your preference. Add in the switchable maps, two levels of traction control, and fully adjustable airfork suspension, and it amounts to an exceptional overall package that makes it feel like a good bang for your buck. And those bucks had better bang, now that the Husqvarna has stepped over the threshold into the five-digit price range.
- Novice to pro versatility
- Smooth, quiet yet strong power
- Excellent overall handling
- Air fork still a touch harsh on flat landings
- Most expensive!
By The Numbers
Actual Weight (full fuel): 237 lbs.
1st Place | Yamaha YZ450F
Once again, big blue steals the show. The YZ450F is the winner of our 450 shootout, and certainly not because Yamaha cooled their heels after winning last year’s test. The tuning fork team got to work fine-tuning just about every aspect they could think of on the YZ, poring over every detail right down to the footpegs. “When you change one thing, even as small as an engine mount, you have to consider how it affects frequency of the entire chassis,” said Yamaha Tech so-and-so. It seems that’s what Yamaha did, making tiny tweaks everywhere, and we do mean everywhere to the YZ (there’s too much to name here, but find all the details in our 2020 Yamaha YZ450F Ride Review). In the end, Yamaha found the right frequency to stay on top in our 450 shootout, if only by a hair.
While the Austrian duo might win for the most tunable suspension, the YZ wins in the versatility contest in the engine department. Two engine maps, switchable by handlebar control, are only the beginning. The Yamaha features built-in WiFi that can connect to your smartphone, and through the free Yamaha Power Tuner app, you have access to more maps, and the ability to tune your own torque curve. The app also tracks your hours, your YZ’s maintenance schedule, and runs engine diagnostics. You used to have to shell out big money for this type of tuning ability, and now it comes standard with a free app. Well played, Yamaha.
As for its standard form, the Yamaha powerplant is quite a ripper. It joins the Honda and the Kawasaki on the aggressive end of the spectrum but with a smooth and predictable spread of power. And if you’d like a little less hit in one area or a little more snap in another, just pick up your smartphone.
Suspension and handling received high marks from our testers. The Kayaba suspension was updated with firmer damping, front and rear, with efforts made to maintain the initial plushness that the Yamaha is praised for. Indeed, the overall package remains smooth and compliant through the small bumps with excellent action everywhere else, but even those who called the suspension the best in the class admitted it wasn’t by as wide a margin as past years. It seems Yamaha is creeping toward overall stiffer settings on its suspension. This lends to strengths in some areas of handling, but result in the suspension being praised by most instead of all our test riders.
Handling was described as agile and predictable, and despite the wider feel of the Yamaha, it was also called lightweight. Even having 12 pounds over the KTM, the Yamaha has a very light feel, particularly in the air (it goes to show how little the scale number can mean, and how vital engine character can be in the weight feel). “It feels very light and nimble thanks to the updated chassis and motor,” one tester explained. “The Yamaha surprised me,” another said. “I didn’t like how wide it was, but it also felt really agile. It felt the lightest.”
Through turns, particularly the hard pack and flat corners, the YZ continued to shine. “I was able to trust it cutting into ruts and turning in hard,” said one pro tester, adding that he could put it wherever he wanted it in turns.
There was some nitpicking about ergonomics, with some riders pointing to the forward-feeling handlebar and the shorter seat-to-footpeg distance. But with power on tap everywhere, an agile yet stable platform, and the ability to float over small chatter, it’s hard to find fault with the YZ450F. It has managed to stay ahead of the pack, but by a smaller margin than last year. All three of our podium finishers had two number-one picks among our test group, meaning the lines are blurrier than ever at the head of the field. But the good news is that you can’t go wrong with any one of these bikes.
- Excellent KYB suspension
- WiFi and power tuner app
- Power is strong and controllable
- Lightweight feel
- Ergonomics not ideal for some
By The Numbers
Actual Weight (full fuel): 248 lbs.
Eye On Contingency
Imagine how great it would be if your hobby (addiction) could pay for itself. Contingency is a wonderful thing that can help pay for tires, oils, parts, and new gear, and not just for aspiring amateur motocrossers. We’re talking to you, 40+ B off-roader guy. Did you know several manufacturers will gladly throw you a few hundred bucks for your podium finishes? And maybe even another $50 for your Junior Novice kid? Check these links to see what’s up for grabs at motocross and off-road races near you. When it comes to choosing between brands, contingency is something to consider, even for the casual racer!
Power Management Features
Since the advent of fuel injection, the possibilities for engine management are seemingly endless, from customizing torque curves to choosing to holeshot assist and multiple levels of traction control. Each manufacturer seems to have their own distinct features, from their preset functions to their choose-your-own-adventure tools, while some (KTM/Husky) even offer analog solutions to altering the power characteristic of your bike. Here’s a look at what each manufacturer has to offer:
Power Management Features – 2020 450cc MX
||Additional Power Tuning Tools
||Handlebar button (3 maps)
||4 settings (1, 2, 3, off) via handlebar button
||Handlebar switch (2 maps)
||3 settings (1, 2, off) via handlebar switch
||Throttle cams (2) and airbox covers (2)
||DFI couplers (3)
||KX FI Calibration Kit ($699 from Kawasaki Genuine Accessories)
||Handlebar switch (2 maps)
||3 settings (1, 2, off) via handlebar switch
||Throttle cams (2) and airbox covers (2)
||DFI couplers (3)
||Built-in “traction management system” (not switchable)
||Handlebar switch (2 maps)
||Smartphone app (free) connnects via built-in WiFi. FI and ignition map customization via 16-point grid. Suggested maps, maintenance schedule, hour meter, engine diagnostics, etc.