Ready or not, new bike season is here, and Honda has finally unveiled a new generation of its flagship CRF450R, the first complete overhaul since 2017. The ’18, ’19, and ’20 models all received several improvements, but the ’21 gets a ground-up revamp.
By Ryan Nitzen | Photography by Kit Palmer
At first glance, the 2021 model sports an eye-catching new look with sleek body panels and a fierce all-red color scheme. An updated frame and single exhaust system are also clearly visible. Some claim it’s an eerily similar look to its trendsetting European competitors; others welcome these daring new revisions. The engineers insist their latest generation is “lighter, faster and razor-sharp” compared to its predecessor.
Honda welcomed us to the unforgiving terrain of Glen Helen Raceway for our first laps on this new red ride. But before we open it up on the track, let’s dive into the list of updates.
2021 Honda CRF450R Review | What’s Up?
This red rocket flaunts several notable changes inside and out for the new model year. For starters, the new CRF450R has returned to a single-sided exhaust system, last seen nine years ago on the 2012 model. Losing the bulky dual exhaust helped drop 2.7 pounds and aided in overall cockpit mobility. The cylinder head has been retuned to balance out this change, and the decompressor counterweight has been moved from the right side of the camshaft to the left for improved stability and power delivery. The intake and exhaust ports have also been adjusted for smoother torque in the low RPM ranges. We’ll tell you now; the new streamlined exhaust system provides a much more pleasant octave while riding. We know that’s a small detail, but something we much appreciate after spinning many laps on the ’19 and ’20 models. Lastly, a Nissin hydraulic clutch with an eight-plate and stiffer clutch springs come standard on the ’21 CRF450R.
A new frame design offers narrower spars that shed an extra pound and a half in the process. New bodywork and mounting points complete the exterior with a bold blood-red livery. The redesigned airbox allows for more airflow and is paired with an updated air filter, easily accessible through the left number plate. The battery has also moved from the airbox to behind the cylinder for lower, more centralized mass. Honda has also ditched the black coatings on the clutch and ignition covers, areas that tend to see severe scuffing after just a few rides.
The Honda crew continually emphasized that this bike was designed with the rider and mechanic in mind. Some of the exterior updates include fewer bolts, all eight-millimeters, to secure the bodywork; the air filter is more easily accessible, and the sight glass on the engine eliminates guesswork while changing the oil. It’s always a welcome change to see ease-of-maintenance in mind on an elite-level race bike.
2021 Honda CRF450R Review | All Aboard
Jumping aboard the new CRF, you will immediately notice the slimmer cockpit (thanks to that new frame and shrouds) and a consolidated control panel mounted to the Renthal Fatbars. The electronics are now housed in one cluster rather than the multitude of buttons from the previous model year. A blue “M” for mode, a green “T” for HSTC (traction control), and a red kill button are conveniently labeled and easily accessed from the rider’s left hand. Yes, this bike carries over the handlebar-mounted maps with three modes—standard, smooth and aggressive. The three-mode HSTC (Honda Selectable Torque Control) again finds itself equipped on the ’21 model after being introduced last year. Three HRC Launch Control settings are also available, with RPM settings designed for advanced, intermediate, and novice riders. There are more switches and settings than most riders are probably used to, but we assure you it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Simply hold the select button for three seconds while in neutral, and the color-coded display will flash once, twice, or three times to indicate which mode you’re in. Find a setting you like, and it’s off to the races, literally.
The topography of Glen Helen impatiently sifts out any imperfection, giving design flaws nowhere to hide. We fired it up and rolled out the new hydraulic clutch, eager to tear down the start straight on arguably the most anticipated bike of the 2021 model year.
Power is the first thing that comes to mind—raw, usable power. RPMs and speed climbed in conjunction down the long straight without that desperate need to shift. The length of the powerband is impressive, as is its ability to produce power high in the RPM range without signing off prematurely near the top. I found myself leaving the Honda in second and third gear for the entirety of the track, satisfied with the spread of power in every section. The 2020 predecessor was undoubtedly powerful, but the engine was nearly unrideable in most cases. It hit like a professional boxer and was difficult to control late in the moto, forcing the rider to be on his A-game at all times. This year’s bike retains that same horsepower but comes in a more refined package. The gear ratios feel longer and are paired with a smooth roll-on that’s fast and incredibly rider-friendly. An overall connected delivery and improved rideability from bottom to redline are refreshing take-homes from Big Red.
Honda hit the target when it said, “razor-sharp cornering.” More like a bullseye. The updated chassis and swingarm work harmoniously with the 49mm Showa coil-spring fork and Showa rear shock for an effortless cornering experience. Riders will undoubtedly notice the bike’s overall weight-savings when turning or maneuvering the bike side to side. Three pounds might not sound like much on paper, but reducing overall mass provides a much nimbler feeling than last year’s model. The transition from a jump or straight-away to the initial turn-in of a corner feels extremely easy on this CRF. No hesitation, no hiccups, no coaxing the bike into a specific line. Just point, aim and shoot. Gone is the extreme feeling of the front end diving or the rear end squatting. Instead, the bike rides with a planted prowess that inspires confidence all around the racetrack. Glen Helen’s testing grounds offer a variety of turns—from the wide-open banks of Talladega to the hairpin 180s at the bottom of the hills—all of which were sliced and diced with the Honda’s new scalpel-sharp turning precision.
Throughout the day, we played with the assortment of electronic settings this bike has to offer. After starting the day on map one, I switched to maps two and three, only to return to my trusty map one. With the previous-generation Honda, I found that map two (smooth) was my sweet spot as it calmed down the powerband’s vicious Tyson-like punch. For the new 2021, my favored map two just wasn’t enough for the horsepower-eating hills of Glen Helen. Map three, on the other hand, was too much for my liking. The standard map one provided the right amount of power and rideability that allowed me to find the edge of fast, yet comfortably in control.
Moving on to the HSTC. I’m personally a fan of traction control on these modern-day 450s. Admittedly some of it might be a mental game, but the idea that the bike is working with you to not step out of line gives me that much more of an edge on the track. I didn’t find the HSTC system necessary during my initial loamy laps at the Glen but turned it on as the track wore out and roughened up. I deemed it especially useful in off-camber turns or areas that were overly wet or dried out. Riders looking for any extra advantage will find solace in the HSTC package.
It isn’t easy to pick apart the new Honda CRF450R. After clocking in some serious hours on the previous generation, it’s safe to say the new ’21 makes up for everything the ’20 lacked. Think of it as a refined engine package in an all-new chassis. User-friendly chassis, plush suspension and streamlined electronics are all paired with a strong powerplant that will undoubtedly make the 2021 CRF450R a title contender in this year’s 450 shootout.CN
2021 Honda CRF 450R Specifications
||4-stroke, liquid-cooled, single
||Unicam OHC, 4-valve, 38mm intake, titanium; 31mm exhaust, steel
|Bore x Stroke:
||96.0 x 62.1mm
||Programmed fuel-injection system (PGM-FI); 46mm throttle body
||DCDI, fully transistorized
||Selectable traction control (HSTC), HRC Launch Control
||Selectable engine modes
||5-speed, constant mesh
||Multi-plate wet, hydraulically actuated (6 springs, 8 plates)
||#520 chain; 13T/49T
||49mm fully adjustable leading-axle inverted telescopic Showa coil-spring fork
||Pro-Link system; fully adjustable Showa single shock
||2-piston caliper, single 260mm disc
||1-piston caliper, single 240mm disc
||Dunlop Geomax MX33 80/100-21 in.
||Dunlop Geomax MX33 120/80-19 in.
|Weight (curb, claimed):