Honda jumps into the middleweight dual-sport category with a bike born from a purpose-built race bike.
On one side of the motorcycle market, vintage scramblers continue to swell in popularity. The Scrambler Ducati line is constantly expanding; in recent days, Triumph teased an updated Street Scrambler with a bigger engine and longer-travel suspension; independent build shops are pumping out handfuls of knobby tire-clad go-anywhere bikes. In another corner of the market, where modern styling still rules, the middleweight adventure motorcycle and dual sports populations are getting love and energy from their respective brands more and more. This is no coincidence: both bike types seem to have little in common, but their ability to go from the street to the trails all in the same ride makes them close kindred spirits. Now Honda is leaning into the dual sport category with the all-new CRF450L — using one of its successful race dirtbikes as a foundation.
The Good: The CRF450L inherited the nimble, agile traits from the more hardcore 450 RX trail bike, but is softened up for road use and longer rides.
Watch Out For: Honda held back on extras and add-ons like handguards and a larger tank but is working directly with aftermarket companies for both. They might not be from the factory, but if you want the extra hand protection and a longer range than 100-ish miles, you’ll have to wait.
Who It’s For: Off-road enthusiasts and riders currently on a 250cc dual sport or smaller dirt bike and looking to move up. The CRF450L also fits the bill for a seasoned street rider toying with the idea of off-roading for the first time and adventure riders looking to complement their big bike with a small one.
Alternatives: The middle weight adventure bike and dual sport categories are getting more attention these days, but until now KTM has generally ruled the roost. The Honda finds itself in the KTM’s price region but closer to the Suzuki on power. What you get from the Honda is legendary reliability and approachability.• KTM 500 EXC-F ($11,199)• Suzuki DRZ400S ($6,749)
• Alta Redshift EXR ($12,500)
Verdict: The CRF450L’s race bike genetics make it a serious and competent off-roader. But, regardless of the additions and factory modifications to make it road-legal, you won’t want to be in the saddle on-road for too long — especially if you wear yourself out with trail riding. Think of the CRF450L as a high-performance overlander, but more of a day tripper and not a Long Way Down type of bike.
One of the main reasons Scramblers are in the midst of a second wave is their ability to blend all-purpose utility and timeless looks, making them an attractive and approachable option for new riders. It’s hard to argue against the appeal: you get the style in town and capabilities when the road ends and the dirt and exploration begins. A modern dual sport like the CRF450L was built to live in the same environments as the scrambler, except that the 450L puts all of its energy into its off-road skillset.
Using the purpose-built off-road trails bike, the CRF450X, which itself is based on the 450R race dirtbike, Honda set to work refining key components and adding small mechanical details that translate to big changes on the road. The most noticeable additions are the turn signals, mirrors and license plate bracket to make it road-legal, but it takes more than that to make a dirt bike bearable on the road for an entire day.
Where the race bike’s throttle is more of an on-off switch, with incredibly short gearing for explosive acceleration, the CRF450L adapts to more civilized life. Throttle response on the 450L was tuned for a smoother powerband, not just for around town, but also for single-track riding out in the wild where smooth inputs can make or break a rider’s day. Gearing is longer for less frequent shifts; service intervals are every couple hundred miles and little additions — like rubber cushioning around the front and rear sprockets and a silicon-filled swing arm — dull mechanical noise and vibrations. All of which translates to a bike that’s happy to zip around town, though because of its aggressive off-road roots, the 450L is more at home off-road, hitting trails all day. Unlike a scrambler or a big adventure bike on which you can spend long highway stretches for multiple days in a row (with a few trail rides in between), that same aggressive nature makes a day on the CRF450L about as much as you can take.
It was only my second time singletrack riding, and the trails under Mount Rainier, outside Packwood, Washington definitely make for a steep learning curve. Rocky, rutted inclines littered with exposed roots lay in wait to stop you dead in your track and put you on your side. It’s off-roading, and falls are bound to happen — trees catch handlebars, boulders shift under wheels and sometimes you accidentally grab more throttle right when you need less. The bike isn’t hard to handle; here, it’s the terrain. If anything, the bike saved me more times than I saved the bike.
On long sweeping fire roads and two-track trails, the CRF450L was a riot to sling into turns on loose gravel, hang the back wheel out and power on to next stretch. Regardless of the surface, the Honda felt stable and even, which inspired a little confidence even when the trails narrowed and steepened through the dense forests. Out on the road in between the trails is where the CRF450L and most other aggressive dual sports lose the argument. The Honda handled the sweeping State Park roads just fine, getting up to speed and not feeling like the engine was out of breath. But at the end of the day, the CRF450L is born from a purpose-built off-road race machine. The suspension may be softer, it may have mirrors and blinkers, but it still feels like you have wooden 2×4 for a seat and the knobby tires limit how fast you can really go on the pavement; the two-gallon fuel tank keeps a tight leash on how far you can go before refueling anxiety kicks in.
Purpose-built dual sports like the 450L are the Ying to the scramblers’ Yang. Both embody the spirit of adventure, exploration and everyday usability, but they land at opposite ends of the spectrum. Where scramblers lean more towards style than substance, dual sports are all about substance. And in the case of the Honda CRF450L, built using an off-road race bike as its foundation, it unquestionably has the performance chops to tackle some of the roughest trails the Pacific Northwest has to offer. You’ll just have to make a big sacrifice on comfort.
Key Specs: 2019 Honda CRF450L
Engine: 449cc single-cylinder Four-strokeTransmission: six speedHorsepower: ~40-45 (Honda doesn’t give exact figures for the US market)Weight: 289 lbs
Fuel Capacity: 2.01 gallons