Where do you begin about the 2019 Honda CRF450L? You can start with the dearth of 450cc dual-sport motorcycles for the American market, for one. You can talk about Honda’s new 450cc dirt bike lineup, which has spawned five separate models for the 2019 model year.

We of course have to mention the domination of the market by a certain European manufacturer, which prefers the color orange. And naturally, we should give a nod to the resurgence of the American off-road scene, and how Big Red wants to be part of that growing movement.

The truth is, all of these points are realities when it comes to the new Honda CRF450L – a dirt bike that is street-legal from the factory, for all 50 states of the Union. The United States is the target market for the 2019 Honda CRF450L, and for good reason. Honda sees a real opportunity for a 450cc dual-sport in the USA, one that can slot in between the woefully old Suzuki DRZ-400S and the “race bike with lights” KTM 450 EXC-F (sold in the US only as its kitted-out “Six Days” variant).

Among the first in the world to ride the 2019 Honda CRF450L, American Honda brought Asphalt & Rubber out to our own backyard, and let us loose on the CRF450L in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Providing a mix of gravel roads, single-track, double-track, and proper street use, we spent over 100 miles getting to see how well the Honda CRF450L plays on both the dirt and asphalt. In short? Very, very well.

Honda’s Dirt Bike DNA

Before we get into the ride, we’ve got some homework to do first. Honda has completely revamped its 450cc dirt bike lineup for the 2019 model year, which tells a great deal of the story behind the CRF450L motorcycle.

Starting first with the venerable Honda CRF450R dirt bike (the class leading MX bike in the USA, by the way) Big Red built two motocross variations, with the Honda CRF450RWE being the full-on race bike for the track, while the CRF450R is a more approachable (thought still potent) consumer version.

From there, Honda built the CRF450RX – a true race enduro, which takes the MX bike and tweaks it with an 18″ rear wheel, kickstand, and larger fuel tank.  Co-developed with the CRF450R, the CRF450RX has subtle changes from its MX of kin (see what I did there?)…and that’s the point.

For the typical trail rider though, the venerable Japanese brand has created a separate model, the Honda CRF450X. Adding into the mix a wide-ratio six-speed gearbox,  the single-cylinder 449cc engine becomes slightly wider, to accommodate the extra cog in the gearbox, which means a slightly wider frame and geometry as well. The MX born motor is given a more user-friendly tune, along with three piston rings, which means less power, but also more reasonable servicing intervals.

Taking things to the street, the final model is the one that concerns us most today, the Honda CRF450L. Basically the CRF450X with a license plate, Honda tells us that the CRF450L model gains only 5.5 lbs from its trail-only CRF450X counterpart.

Getting Techie

Because of this lineage that Honda has set out for its off-road models, the CRF450L traces many of its elements all the way back up the family tree to the CRF450R. For instance, the fully adjustable Showa suspension is essentially right off the MX race bike, with essentially only different springs and suspension settings (the forks lugs are different, to accommodate the wheel-speed sensor, just to be accurate). 

The Honda CRF450L also gets the two-gallon titanium fuel tank, which is from the CRF450X – which is actually 2.01 gallons, but who is counting, right? This means a 289 lbs curb weight when full of fuel, which is a good 34 lbs heavier than its KTM 450 EXC-F Six Days counterpart (the Suzuki DRZ-400S weighs 317 lbs, mind you). But while KTM has kept its dual-sport as basically a street-legal race bike, Honda’s focus has been on refinement.

Take for instance the rear swingarm on the Honda CRF450L, which has a urethane coating to reduce vibrations back to the rider. The rear sprocket too has a bead of urethane, to help chain lash and drivetrain vibrations.

These are just some of the many pieces that Honda has focused on to reduce vehicle noise and vibration. Big Red is willing to let the CRF450RX compete with bikes like the KTM, whereas the CRF450L has been built with real-world everyday use in mind.

Adding to that notion are the engine covers, which have been specially designed to reduce sound, while increase protection to the engine cases. The aluminum rear subframe is beefy too, and extends all the way to the end of the tail section, with ample luggage-carrying capacity in mind.

Crash-proof LED lights have been installed, which are designed to bend, not break, in a tip-over (for science, our group tested these on multiple occasions). The front brake rotor has been thickened for longer life and protection against warping when used at highway speeds. The single-can exhaust is quiet, and easily passes EPA and Euro4 noise restrictions. The list goes on.

On-Road Manners

If you will allow me to start a dirt bike review by talking about the machine’s on-road capability first – the publication  is called Asphalt & Rubber, after all – it is important to understand that the 2019 Honda CRF450L is designed to be a street bike.

This means that the Honda CRF450L is subject to the EPA and Euro4 standards, it comes with a one-year warranty (extendable up to an additional five years), and it is subject to all the lemon laws that the United States provides its consumers. To put it frankly, this means Honda is building the CRF450L to a different standard than the rest of its 450cc models.

To frame that in practical terms, the Honda CRF450L has its first valve inspection at 1,600 miles, whereas at the same distance the KTM 450 EXC-F would be on its third valve inspection, and halfway to a full engine rebuild, if we are obeying the maintenance schedules recommended by both brands.

There is neither good nor bad in that comparison, but it shows you the intent that Honda has with this bike. Instead of chasing race bike level performance characteristics, there is a certain level of refinement, reliability, and usability that Honda is choosing to focus on with its CRF450L offering.

This all being said, it was still surprising how well behaved the Honda CRF450L was on-road. The 45hp (or so, since American Honda doesn’t actually quote power figures for its models) from the mid-sized thumper is enough to get you to highway speeds, and the wide-ratio six-speed gearbox means that the freeway miles don’t come with excessive engine-revving and handlebar buzzing.

For our efforts, we saw 85 mph on the speedometer, with 90 mph perhaps being possible at sea level. The bike is stable at that speed, though it takes a while to get north of 65 mph. On the other end of the spectrum, the brakes have good power at the levers, but lack a bit of feel in the modulation of that power. One colleague coined the term “whiskey braking” during our ride, which adequately summarizes the complaint.

Moving on, the mirrors are functional, which also means that they are excellent at hitting tree branches (we’ll get to that in the next section though), and the rest of the controls are nice, but not too nice. It’s still a dirt bike, after all.

To that vein, the LCD dash is basic in design, though positively high-tech in the off-road realm. One feature we liked was the fuel -usage meter, which isn’t a gas gauge per se, but instead reads out how much fuel has been consumed on the trip.

This is handy by itself, but its value will really shine if/when an owner adds a larger aftermarket tank, since this form of measuring fuel isn’t fuel tank dependent. The nerds at Honda are clever, indeed.

The bar for street use is quite low for any dirt bike, but the Honda CRF450L feels almost refined…almost. Not everything is roses, of course, and there were some universal complaints about the 2019 Honda CRF450L from our group of journalists.

For instances, I am now a firm believer that more comfortable seats have been made out of wood, than what Honda is providing on the CRF450L. Also, there is still some buzz in the bars and pegs through the rev range, not a worrying amount, but enough that owners will want to address it if they want to keep the feeling in their finger tips and toes. An aftermarket seat, some rubber mounts or bar-end weights, and the biggest complaints on the 2019 Honda CRF450L package are solved.

At the end of our eight-hour ride, a Honda rep asked me for my critique on the CRF450L, specifically as a street bike. In response, I joked that while the CRF450L was quite good for what it is, it’s still the worst street bike I had ever ridden. As a cheeky street-focused motorcycle journalist, I would be remiss for not pointing out the decade or so of progress that the dirt sector lags behind the street segment.

Rudimentary traction control systems are still considered bleeding edge in the off-road world, as are ride-by-wire throttle control setups. ABS is non-existent, and you can forget about fancy accoutrements like an inertial measurement units (IMU), TFT dashes, infotainment systems, and so forth.

I can’t blame dirt bike manufacturers too much for this, however. You are far more likely to hear would-be buyers expressing interest for a kickstarter or the return of carburetors, rather than some piece of technology like ABS. Brands like Honda are pushed by the market, and so far it would be hard to say that the dirt bike market is pushing for these technology pieces, but I say give it time. 

For now, the 2019 Honda CRF450L passes for one of the most well-mannered on-road dirt bikes ever built for the market. It might not have the highway-chewing capabilities of a full-born ADV bike, but Honda has created a machine that is more than capable of making a pleasant street ride between trailheads, and that is the whole raison d’être of this particular motorcycle.

 Of course, what you really want to know is how the 2019 Honda CRF450L does in the muck. So, let’s get to it.

Getting Dirty with It

The Honda CRF450L might be a street bike by title, but it is a dirt bike in all other practical senses. Its usefulness will be measured by one trail at a time, and its life will be spent almost entirely on the trail, or so the thinking goes. This makes the true measure for the CRF450L its off-road capability. Don’t worry, those on-road manners haven’t dulled this dual-sport too much.

If there is a single shining feature of the Honda CRF450L, it is its engine. The 450cc thumper may not lead the horsepower spec-sheet shootouts, but the engine is smooth like butter, and makes traction everywhere. Pick a gear…any gear…point the front wheel where you want to go, turn the throttle, and watch the Honda CRF450L do its thing. It’s so rideable, that even this asphalt junky looks like a pro (Photoshop helps too).

Hooking up on the ash-ladden dirt around Mt. Rainer, the power delivery of the Honda CRF450L was the talk of the table during our midday lunch. The engine is difficult to stall, the clutch modulates well, the fuel injection is perfect, and the torque is tabletop linear. If we come back to the concept of refinement for just a moment, the Honda CRF450L is the most practical 450cc-class dual sport on the market. It simply just works.

This feat is more impressive when you consider all the homologation requirements that come with making a street bike. As such, you won’t notice much of an exhaust note, with the combustion chamber well-muffled from the factory. There is some value on the trail for not having to hear the blaring of an exhaust can though, and there’s enough of a note to key you into where the engine is in the rev range.

Moving to the chassis, on the gravel roads, the extra rake (28° 20′) in the headstock helps give the CRF450L some front-end manners. Slides are controllable, and you get good feedback from the front-end on open sections of road or track. This gives up some turning ability in the single-track of the woods, however, but not enough that you would complain about it.

Honda’s engineers have balanced these needs quite well. Riders looking for something more aggressive can of course choose from the CRF450X (28° 06′) or CRF450RX (27° 25′), but for a machine that has to go on-road as well as in the dirt, Honda’s compromise here seems well-founded, to our sensibilities and hopes for the segment.

For being 289 lbs all fueled up, many would accuse the Honda CRF450L of being too heavy for tight single-track riding, and indeed this was my main concern when swinging a leg over the machine for our press launch. How gnarly of a ride would Honda give us then for this dual-sport? I was pleasantly surprised.

The trails of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest provide quite the spectrum in difficulty, and American Honda didn’t hold us back in exploring this Pacific Northwest Wonderland. To its credit, the Honda CRF450L was up to any task we gave it, and part of the reason for this is how the CRF450L carries its weight, which is low and centralized.

Side-to-side transitions were easy. I found the bike planted in the terrain, and nimble enough through the turns – Honda’s aluminum twin-spar frame gives good feedback to the rider, which helps raise the riding confidence. After a couple turns on the trail, the Honda CRF450L felt just like home.

This is interesting, because as I learned from talking to the Honda engineers, my 6’2″ / 220lbs frame is not quite the same spec as Honda’s test rider’s (no one should be surprised by this), which meant the suspension would benefit from some stiffer springs for my riding. Truthfully, a couple turns of rebound damping was all I really desired, something that is easy to when you have fully adjustable Showa pieces beneath you.

This of course means that the Honda CRF450L can be easily adapted to any sort of riding terrain with basic tools, though if you are so inclined to take your suspension to a tuner, they should find the internals very familiar, especially if they have ever worked on a CRF450R.

Looking for complaints in the dirt, my only major gripe was  with the low-speed throttle inputs. Under 10 mph, and in 1st gear, the on/off rolling of the throttle can be snatchy in delivery. This throttle setup is fine if you need to wake up the front-end, especially over an obstacle, but for subtle low-speed velocity changes, it is easy to get out of shape. A few miles per hour faster, and this subtle issue goes away.

This is the part where I make a joke about how a ride-by-wire throttle would make this sort of tuning incredibly easy, but with your standard cable-controlled throttle body, a fix would mean a very subtle change to the throttle cam, which would of course come with its own consequences. The dirt bike sector will catch up with us street guys eventually. Insert winky face here.

Yeah Ok, But Would You Buy It?

As it happens, this author finds himself in the market for a dual-sport, which made riding at the 2019 Honda CRF450L press launch part test ride as well.

Walking up to the machine, you can see the well-executed  fit and finish that Honda has given this dirt bike. The graphics on the fairings are molded into the plastic, they aren’t decals. It is a subtle difference, but an eye-catching one. The switchgear is “average” by most standards, though probably an approving “functional” in dirt bike terms.

The dash is utilitarian, but still well-thought out. Regular A&R readers should by now know how much of an emphasis a dash makes on my riding impression. Overall, the quality of the bike is high, and what you would expect from Honda.

In the market, the Honda CRF450L sits right between the KTM and Suzuki, both in terms of performance and price. The Honda exceeds the offerings from these other brands when it comes to refinement and overall usability, however, and I think for the dual-sport rider that carries considerable value.

Walking away from the machine, there was little more that I desired. I wouldn’t want more horsepower, and certainly not at the cost of the CRF450L’s ample powerband. A new seat, some taller handlebars, and a full tank of gas is the only thing that a Honda CRF450L lacks, from this author’s perspective, though I heard similar notions from my colleagues.

With the CRF450L, Honda has done a remarkable job making a motorcycle that caters to the specific needs and desires of dual-sport riders. The Japanese brand can do this because it has five models in the 450cc class, which means that each of those bikes can excel at one particular task, rather than having to be a jack of all trades.

The Honda CRF450L brings real-world power, on-street manners, and all-day usability to the off-road market, without compromising on what trail riders want. That’s a powerful combination, and one that rises the 2019 Honda CRF450L to the top of our list, even with a price tag of $10,400 – though I would wager a $9,999 price tag would have brought in more than $400-worth of value for price sensitive buyers.

In comparison, the KTM 450 EXC-F Six Days lives at the pointier end of the dual-sport stick, which tickles our go-fast leanings, but it does so with the requirement of more frequent service intervals. The $1,300 price premium over the Honda doesn’t help either with the KTM’s total cost of ownership argument, which by the way starts at an MSRP of $11,700.

Conversely, the Suzuki DRZ-400S at $6,750 is a downright bargain compared to its Japanese counterpart, and while I have always enjoyed the DRZ, the platform is certainly showing its age. 

Interestingly enough, the Alta Redshift EXR should be mentioned in this conversation, and while it promises some eye-catching performance specs, it does so with the limits that come with any electric motorcycle (namely range), and with a $12,500 price tag (note too, the total cost of ownership helps defray the sticker price).

I have enjoyed the half-day rides I have had on Alta’s dirt bikes – the electric motor seems to hook up everywhere, and the bikes are checkers-level easy to ride. For a whole-day adventure though, especially one that doesn’t include a loop back to the truck, the Alta’s range limits aren’t practical…yet.

Ultimately, the choice will come down to the specific needs of the rider, as the match between price and features is well-balanced in this category. For the rider looking for a turn-key machine that promises weekend after weekend of dual-sport riding adventures, the Honda CRF450L shines. That’s where our money would go.

Photos of the 2019 Honda CRF450L Dual-Sport:

Photos: © 2018 Drew Ruiz / American Honda – All Rights Reserved