It’s that time again when we pit the latest and greatest 450cc four-stroke motocrossers against each other to see which one comes out on top. The last two years, it’s been the same bike, but could we have a new winner this year?
By Ryan Nitzen | Photography by Kit Palmer
Creating the ultimate 450 motocrosser means striking a perfect balance. A balance between raw power and rideability. A balance between compliance and stability. A balance between technological advancement and overall user friendliness. Balance is best, but it’s not exactly an easy thing to achieve. Just ask the five manufacturers that participated in the 2021 Cycle News 450 Shootout.
Our shootout placed an emphasis on just that—balance. The testing crew found itself balanced out into two familiar groups—the fast guys and the not-so-fast guys. And by fast we mean three of our six testers have rightfully earned points at an AMA National. Yeah, like that kind of fast. Our other testers are no slouches either; a grand prix / desert pro, a working-class weekend racer, and a handful of quick vets who aren’t exactly used to getting the blue flag. But it’s easy to see the line drawn in the sand, or should we say in the dirt at Cahuilla Creek and Glen Helen Raceway. These tracks were hand-picked for their perfect mix of natural terrain and man-made obstacles that can easily sift out a machine’s imperfections. Two groups of riders, five brand-new 450 motocross bikes, one winner.
You might notice that the 2021 Suzuki RM-Z450 was not included in this year’s shootout. Suzuki was eager to participate but did not have product available for us to use and could not provide a date when one would be available, so we reluctantly proceeded without it. Last year, we found the RM-Z to be a good-performing machine, but the lack of e-start and it being the heaviest bike in the class at 253 pounds hurt its overall ratings with our testers. The RM-Z finished sixth out of six last year but sees no physical changes for ’21, though it did get a new mobile-device-based engine tuner that we haven’t seen yet. The ’21 RM-Z450 is, however, $400 cheaper than the least-expensive bike in this shootout.
For this shootout, we again rode the bikes exactly how you get them off the showroom floor, including tires, though we spruced ours up a bit in the visual department by fitting them with Decal Works number-plate backers.
Ultimately, each of our test riders rated the bikes first through fifth, then using the common local moto-scoring system (first equals one point, second two points and so on) we came up with a winner. The bike with the lowest combined total score wins. Simple.
Let’s do this.
2021 450 Motocross Shootout | The Contenders
Honda CRF450R ($9599)
Weight (wet): 243 lbs.
The CRF450R is the only bike to see a ground-up redesign in 2021. Big Red gets a new frame and swingarm, revised suspension with striking new bodywork to match. A single-sided exhaust and hydraulic clutch are other updates. The motor is similar to the 2020 model aside from some fine-tuned internals that pair up with the new airbox and exhaust. A handlebar-mounted switch features a standard-, smooth- and aggressive-mapping option along with three levels of Honda’s Selectable Torque Control. Honda hopes these changes will see a new winner of this year’s shootout.
Husqvarna FC 450 ($10,299)
Weight (wet): 236 lbs.
If you think the Husqvarna is just a white KTM, you are mistaken. The second of the Austrian machines does share many qualities with its orange cousin but stands a significant 10mm shorter in stature. The FC 450 does receive the same updated WP Xact suspension as the KTM, however the Husky’s fork cartridges and stanchion tubes are 10mm shorter and are accompanied by a lengthened shock seal head and longer linkage to bring down the rear end. A Magura clutch, carbon-fiber subframe and updated mapping are other standout features of this white stallion.
Kawasaki KX450 ($9399)
Weight (wet): 244 lbs.
The Kawasaki crew has kept the new generation KX450 relatively the same since it’s complete overhaul in 2019. For the ’21 model year, however, the green machine did receive a few significant updates, such as a new coned-disc spring hydraulic clutch, tapered Renthal Fatbar and new plastics. Once again, the KX450 retains its “ergo-fit” controls and coupler map system, coming from the factory with three options: standard (green), smooth (black) and aggressive (white). This is the same bike that took Eli Tomac to the 2020 Supercross Championship: will it be enough to stand atop the Cycle News podium?
KTM 450 SX-F ($10,199)
Weight (wet): 235 lbs.
The KTM 450 SX-F is seemingly unchanged from its 2020 predecessor, but new differences can be seen with the keen eye. New WP Suspension components highlight the revisions for the Austrian brand with the Xact forks featuring an increased air bypass, making it easier for air to pass from chamber to chamber. In short, the WP engineers aimed at a plusher, more consistent feeling in the front end. To complement the front end, the Xact Rear Shock received new low-friction seals. The KTM comes with a hydraulic clutch, traction control and a handlebar-mounted map switch with updated mapping.
Yamaha YZ450F ($9399)
Weight (wet): 249 lbs.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The YZ450F steam-rolled through our 2019 and 2020 shootouts with a number of key revisions that ultimately took this bike to the top step of the podium for its second year in a row. For 2021, the YZ is virtually unchanged other than a sweet set of new graphics atop the all-blue plastics and black fork guards. Yamaha’s reverse engine design and proprietary Power Tuner Smartphone App are unique features for the blue brand that have helped this bike stand out in the past. On the other hand, a three-peat could be difficult without any obvious changes.
VIDEO | 2021 450 Motocross Shootout
5th Place | Honda CRF450R
While it topped the votes as the best-looking bike in the lineup, the Honda finds itself at the back of the pack for our 2021 Shootout. The team at Big Red came in hot with possibly the most anticipated bike of the season but unfortunately still find themselves in the same spot they did a year ago (fifth out of six bikes in the 2020 Shootout).
The fully redesigned CRF knocks off seven pounds from its previous generation and tips the scales at 243 pounds with fuel, the lightest of the Japanese bikes. To accompany these weight savings, the new frame and bodywork provide a well-received slim feeling throughout the rider cockpit. Honda has also re-enlisted the single-exhaust system which eliminates the wide rear end or “hips” that the red ride had in years past due to the dual exhaust mufflers. Our testers were split with their opinions at the controls; gone are the multitude of handlebar buttons, but the consolidated “control panel” did seem a bit bulky.
Out on the track, the CRF is, once again, the most powerful of the bunch. Updates to the engine and exhaust have smoothed out but certainly not stifled the power character of the Honda. The engine intensity is much more linear than it was in 2020, softening the hit and making it easier to control for both groups of testers. However, those extra horses did require some added patience, as some riders noted their difficulties in putting that raw power to the ground.
The Honda also was praised for its tunability. Three power modes and three levels of traction control allow riders to easily tune the bike to their specific needs. A new Nissin hydraulic clutch provided a smooth pull that tamed the power without fading during a moto.
So where does it fall short? The most noticeable fault lies within the ECU. A small yet unmistakable hiccup in the low rpm flustered many of our riders as they applied the throttle through the midpoint and exit of corners. The feeling is similar to riding with a clogged carburetor jet. It tends to skip and cut out in an unpredictable manner that didn’t inspire confidence like the rest of the bikes. In a world of electronics that require the Geek Squad support team, an issue like this can make or break your shootout results.
Second is the suspension. With just two days of testing, nearly all of our riders struggled to find that perfect setting. We liked the overall improvements to the chassis balance as it did not pitch back and forth, which was commonplace for the previous generations. What we wrestled with was the feeling of the suspenders being either too stiff or too soft. The bike tends to ride in a harsh mid-stroke area. If the bike was supple enough to absorb chop, then it would be too soft on jump landings. But when we stiffened it, the bike would deflect or kick through braking bumps. Lowering the forks and increasing compression helped, but valving and springs would need to be addressed to make this bike perform as well as the YZ and KX.
With some of the other bikes we could jump on and go, some without even touching the clickers. For the Honda we would simply need more time with the bike to dial it in perfectly.
We’re not knocking the CRF, in fact we’re impressed with the forward strides that Honda has made with the latest rendition of their 450. We’re hopeful that with a few minor updates in the electronic and suspension departments, the CRF450R will be a true title contender in ’22.
4th Place | Yamaha YZ450F
Uncharacteristically, the Yamaha YZ450F finds itself off the podium after two years in first place. “When we crunched our numbers, the YZF actually tied with the Husqvarna for third, but lost out on a podium spot on a tiebreaker with the Husky earning a higher “moto score.” This comes from, once again, a split decision among our testing group. The Yamaha is unchanged for the new year, save for the new blue plastics and graphics. It is the heaviest machine in the class but 249 pounds on the scale doesn’t feel all that heavy on the track.
By now, we are familiar with the Yamaha’s capable powerband. Riding it back-to-back with the rest of the bikes reminds us just how versatile it is. The motor is strong from the get-go and carries itself through the revs in a timely fashion. It does require more shifting than the KTM and Husqvarna, but this isn’t something we’d knock it for because the power is flat out more exhilarating than the others. The YZ rivals the Honda in its overall output and excitement to ride. The ECU is fine-tuned and features a mapping system with a light-on or light-off feature. A simple push of a button allows riders to switch between two user-uploaded maps on the fly. Again, we are impressed with the entire package of Yamaha’s Power Tuner smartphone app. Blue-bike owners can download a map from the Yamaha website or create their own and upload it directly to their bike without worries of harming the engine. The app itself definitely earned the YZ points in the “reasons I would personally buy this bike” category, especially when the KX requires a $600 ECU tuner to adjust any of the three preset couplers. Buying a new bike is expensive enough, so we applaud the Blue Crew for this one.
KYB suspension components on the YZ have set the standard in the 450 class. The SSS package is plush up top, has strong mid-valving, and holds up well against bottoming. The same can be said for the 2021 model as it is unchanged from the previous model year. The Cycle News team has, and continues to rave about the Yamaha’s suspenders.
This year though, the bike just felt bigger, taller and wider than the rest of the competition. It sits up high and testers noted that it took more effort to get the bike to lean over and get settled into a turn. We turned to Yamaha royalty, Doug Dubach, who happened to be one of our YZ techs for the shootout. With his advice, we raised the fork legs in the triple clamps and ran little more sag to lower the bike down a few millimeters. We were pleased with the results, as it definitely helped the “tall” feeling we were experiencing and allowed us to coax the bike into and through the corners in a much easier manner.
So, an unchanged bike that won last year is now off the podium? As we said, the Yamaha tied with the Husky for third, but fell short only to our low-point system. The Yamaha is an absolute beast of a bike and features some truly state-of-the-art technology. The pegs are some of the widest in the bunch and help with a comfortable rider cockpit, the suspension is top notch, and overall finish of the bike is one of the best. Unfortunately, the YZ450F received no changes while the rest of the hungry field did. This drops it a few notches for this year’s shootout.
3rd Place | Husqvarna FC 450
Take all the good qualities about the KTM, now drop the bike down 10mm. Welcome to riding a 2021 Husqvarna FC 450. This white stallion was revered as being the most “premium feeling” bike in the class and boasts a hefty price tag to match. At an MSRP of $10,299, it is the most expensive bike in the class, $100 more than the KTM. This superior package (and price tag) is credited to the Magura clutch, Brembo brakes and a carbon-fiber subframe. Husky’s FC 450 flip flops positions with the KTM in ’21 and rounds out this year’s shootout podium.
Like the pumpkin, the Husqvarna has a lively powerplant that carries gears with ease. The smooth delivery encourages riders to choose any line on the track and leave it in said gear for the entirety of the section. Second and third gear are so damn versatile on these bikes. As stated before, the Husky received the same mapping adjustment as the KTM, cleaning up map two with a little more oomph. All testers chose the aggressive map two for both days of testing, as it provided a true connected feeling from the throttle to the rear wheel.
In prior years, the Husky has been the more-plush version of the KTM, coming with softer “vet-friendly” suspension settings. Not for ’21. The FC 450 acquired the new WP Xact fork and WP shock and retained the same settings as the KTM. The only catch is the Husky sits lower than the KTM. Yes, the stanchions and cartridges are actually shorter than those found on the KTM. But can 10 mills really be that noticeable out on the track? Yes, it can.
When new-bike season rolls around it seems like every manufacturer claims to “lower the center of gravity” or “consolidate weight distribution.” Well, that’s exactly what the Husqvarna team accomplished. Lowering the bike all together really does centralize the 236 pounds of white-hot fury. Dropping the FC down helps it stay glued to the ground, especially in flat turns. Our testers consistently rated this bike as the best turning bike in the class. Weight the peg, pick a line and execute.
WP’s new air fork works surprisingly well on both of the Austrian bikes. The Husky does ride a bit lower to the ground, but the Xact fork does a phenomenal job of eating up any bump in its way. Finding new lines on the FC 450 is easy. Riders no longer felt like they were riding a “one line” track. Rather they could swing wide, cut down, and miss the main rut completely, without giving up any momentum. Nimble characteristics like these gave us an extremely well-handling machine on our traditional hard-pack West Coast tracks.
Okay Cycle News, so why didn’t this bike take top honors? Well, it falls back on that 10mm difference. Our three pro riders are all shorter in stature, while the average riders are a bit taller. The shorter guys loved the smaller FC, while the taller ones gravitated towards the taller KTM. Nearly all the riders stiffened the suspension a few clicks as the shorter stance felt a bit softer compared to the KTM. One of our taller testers even made mention of feeling his heels hit the dirt on one of the larger jumps at Cahuilla Creek. This split decision between our groups dropped the Husqvarna just two points off the overall victory.
2nd Place | KTM 450 SX-F
The 2021 KTM 450 SX-F finds itself as the bridesmaid this year, moving up one spot from the year before. The orange bike tips the scales as the lightest 450 on the market, weighing in at just 235 pounds. Weight savings on the KTM can be mainly attributed to the WP air forks, as they claim to be three pounds lighter than traditional springs found on the Japanese bikes. Consumers are seemingly impressed with the new hydraulic-clutch options on the KX and CRF, but the Orange Brigade quickly reminded us of their innovations with said technology. The overall craftsmanship of the KTM is easy to see. Brembo brakes, a Brembo hydraulic clutch, lock-on grips, and a clean handlebar-mounted map switch (with traction control) give the pumpkin that race-ready feel that they are known for.
The quick-revving power of the KTM comes on fast and offers a continuous pull high into the rpm range. Both groups of testers noted that this bike could pull gears longer than any of the others (besides the Husqvarna, as they share nearly an identical motor package). The hills of Glen Helen were no match for the KTM as we clicked an easy upshift over the setup roller and let the bike sing in third gear until we reached the summit. The updates to map two made it the preferred choice on both days for both groups. Its aggressive nature gives the bike a responsive and connected engagement that feels clean from the initial roll on and carries through to the throttle stops.
The lightweight anatomy of the KTM aids in its handling ability. With a full tank of fuel, the SX-F is eight pounds lighter than the Honda, the lightest of the Japanese bikes. This reduction in weight is apparent after only a few corners. The bike feels light in every way possible. Paired with a responsive steel frame, the bike is flickable and can be put wherever the rider wants. Many of our guys raved about this lightweight feeling as they went out for their longer motos, saying that they could ride the bike for a longer period of time and feel noticeably less tired as the laps wore on.
And we haven’t even mentioned that new air fork. Once again, our groups were split on this topic. Half of our riders currently ride on WP forks, while the others stick to the tried-and-true coil spring design. At least they did until they rode the new Xact air forks! The WP engineers are really on to something this time, as they’ve been able to get the fork to work well in every area of the track. Stutter bumps, check. Charging down hills, check. The plushness and up-top compliance are things we’ve longed for with the air fork and are greatly impressed with this year’s updates. Our riders also appreciated that the plastic fork clickers can be tuned by hand. Only two of our six testers touched the clickers on the KTM, but it’s a nice feature, nonetheless. We concurred that this is the best rendition of the air fork we have seen to date.
KTM’s 450 SX-F finds itself moving up one spot from last year’s shootout. A new fork, updated mapping, lightweight design and top-notch clutch and brake combo truly propel it onto the podium. They hit the mark when they say, “ready to race,” as this bike is a true race-ready machine in stock form. The KTM was nearly the winner this year, missing the crown by just one point in our overall rankings.
1st Place | Kawasaki KX450
The green machine proves you don’t need a host of new changes to take home the top spot. Kawasaki enters the competition with minimal changes for 2021 but tops the charts, as their bike has really hit its stride in its third year of the current generation. The Kawasaki weighs in at 244 pounds and features a new coned disc-spring hydraulic clutch for the ’21 model year. You’re probably wondering how a bike that was off the podium last year catapulted itself to the top step of the box without a major overhaul. Well, remember that thing we said about balance?
The power of the Kawasaki KX450 is undoubtedly the most rideable in the class. It’s not what we’d call overly exciting or exceedingly fast. Rather it strikes a perfect balance somewhere in between. It’s like cruising in a new car down the freeway. You don’t realize how fast you’re going until you look down at the speedometer, or in our case the stopwatch. The linear powerband of the green machine starts down low with a smooth delivery and a hugely usable mid- to top-end range. Both groups of riders plugged in the aggressive coupler and raved about the functionality of the engine, noting it was the most “connected to the dirt” among the Japanese bikes. The effortless distribution of the engine allowed us to intensely ride lap after lap without fatigue.
While the chassis on the KX does feel a bit long, we found this aided in its overall stability. This was something we welcomed at both of our outdoor test tracks. The bike feels planted in any line you choose and especially loves those fast outsides. But don’t be afraid to dive into those insides. For our faster riders, raising and stiffening the forks reduced the “steer with the rear” feeling that Kawasaki’s are known for. The bike leans over, tracks smoothly, and comfortably stays in line. The chassis design and smooth power delivery work hand in hand to make the bike just plain easy to ride. Simply look, aim and fire away. Just make sure to keep the throttle on.
The Kawasaki continues to shine in the suspension department. While our pro racers looked to stiffen the front end of the bike, the rest of our crew was pleased with the standard Showa components. The versatile DLC-coated suspension was plush enough to absorb braking bumps but maintained poise on bigger hits. The rear shock was praised by all riders for its ability to devour acceleration chop, which, in turn, allowed the bike to drive forward into the next sections of the track.
We docked the Kawasaki last year for minor issues like a tall 7/8-inch handlebar and a fit and finish that left a little to be desired. This year the all-green bike comes standard with a Renthal Fatbar, updated gold graphics, and trick-looking engine hardware to match. We’re still not huge fans of the coupler system anymore, as they seem outdated among the competition. However, we found ourselves satisfied using the aggressive coupler for the majority of our time on both days. The updated hydraulic clutch feels smoother than years past and definitely earns another point in the refinement category.
Overall, the 2021 KX450 was split down the middle as the top pick for three of our “regular” testers and as a unanimous third place for our pro testers. Its ability to do everything well boosts it to the top spot in this year’s test. On our lowest-score-wins system, the green machine barely edged out second place by just one point.
2021 450 Motocross Shootout Summary
A Shootout win is hard to come by. Some years a bike stands heads and shoulders above the rest. This year, it was the bike that was able to do everything well that took home victory. The 2021 Kawasaki KX450 struck the best balance between our two groups of testers. Our faster pro racers put it as a solid third place and our average joes put it on top. When the dust settled after two rigorous days of testing, it was the green machine that earned the lowest score, only one point ahead of second, and two mere points ahead of a tie for third. Finding a balance of power, suspension, ease of use, and technological advancements is what allowed the Kawi to win.
All of our riders praised the KX for its usable power, compliant suspension and updated hydraulic clutch. The bike was comfortable to ride and allowed both groups to turn consistently fast lap times. We’d gladly welcome an updated mapping system (handlebar switch please!), but the effortless ride quality seemed to overshadow that this year. The rest of the pack is always nipping at the heels of the winner, eager to refine their own version of the perfect bike. Until next year, the fate of the 450 class hangs in the balance. CN