Racer X Tested: 2006 450F Shootout

December 9, 2005 11:11am
The competition in professional racing this year may be the closest it’s been in years. Every manufacturer has a 450cc four-stroke and all of the race teams are working feverishly to perfect the relatively new machines.
The 2006 Kawasaki KX450F

The battle between OEMs on the showroom floors of dealerships across the country is just as close. The difference between all of the new 450s seems so insignificant at first glance that you might as well just pick your favorite color.

However, that doesn’t make for a very scientific shootout. So we asked Greg Albertyn, Joe Oehlhof, and Andy Harrington to join me and help choose the best bike. We even had super-photographer (and birthday boy) Simon Cudby ride each bike and grace us with his choice for best 450 of the year. The results were surprising.
The 2006 KTM 450SX-F

Location, Location, Location

It’s not just a real-estate term anymore. We did our test at Competitive Edge Motocross Park in Victorville, CA. The track is fast with sand, hard-pack, and loamy sections. It has big jumps, high-speed braking bumps, and sharp, choppy acceleration bumps that make it a great place for testing the big 450s. The temperature was in the mid-sixties and the elevation is a couple thousand feet above sea level.

Test Riders

Joe Oehlhof

Joe has ridden for several factory-supported race teams during his professional career, including Subway/Coca-Cola Honda, A.M. Leonard KTM, and WBR Suzuki. Joe is consistently one of the top-finishing privateer riders on any given weekend and is just getting back to racing after a serious injury. (Interesting fact: Joe broke his neck at Red Bud in early July and still can’t touch his chin to his shoulder)

The 2006 Suzuki RM-Z450

Regis Andy Harrington
5’ 8” 140 lbs.

Harrington has been a factory KTM rider and a member of the Motoworld Racing team. His career included a few highlights, none of which come to mind just now…. Just kidding. Regis is a great rider, though, and we were glad to have him. He currently works at Ready Filters in the marketing department. (Interesting fact: Andy is the only rider to ever have his bike burst into flames at an AMA Supercross race; he also stunt-doubles for just about any Hollywood movie where a girl rides a motorcycle.)

David Pingree 5’ 7” 160 lbs.

As for myself, I have four 125cc SX main wins to my credit, plus I was the 1995 Prince of Bercy at the Paris Supercross. My last major win came at Anaheim in 2002 as a KTM team member. (Interesting fact: My only championship came from the ’05 MiniMoto SX at the Orleans in Vegas. Hey, it’s still a title.)

Greg Albertyn 5’ 11” 195 lbs.

Albertyn has some serious credentials. He is the 1992 125cc World Motocross Champion, the 1993 and ‘94 250cc World Champion, and the 1999 250 AMA Motocross National Champion. Greg retired several years ago from the Suzuki factory team and runs a successful land-development business now. (Interesting fact: Greg is the only rider to ever hit and kill a deer during a moto at the Motocross des Nations.)

The 2006 Yamaha YZ450F

Simon Cudby

Simon has never raced professionally. He is the proverbial weekend warrior, and he loves the sport of motocross. If he could ride like he shoots pictures, he would give Carmichael fits. But he can’t. (Interesting fact: If you are ever on an ocean cruise and you need your picture taken, Simon is your guy.)

The Setup

Yamaha: Stock jetting. Sag recommended at 95mm to 97mm. We slid the forks up 5mm in the clamps until they were at the first line on the forks. This quickened the steering considerably. Some riders liked it, some didn’t.

Kawasaki: Stock jetting. Sag recommended at 100mm to 102mm. Suggested gearing change to 48 rear sprocket.

Honda: Stock Jetting. Sag recommended at 100mm to 105mm.

Suzuki: Stock jetting. Sag recommended at 105mm to 108mm.

KTM: Stock jetting. Sag recommended at 105mm to 108mm.

The 2006 Honda CRF450R

Our riders spent the day riding each bike, back-to-back, as many times as they needed to. At the end of the day, each rider ranked the bikes from first to fifth, with five points going to first and one point for fifth. The scores were totaled to determine the winner.

Joe Oehlhof

1st – Suzuki (5 pts)
2nd – Kawasaki (4)
3rd – Yamaha (3)
4th – Honda (2)
5th – KTM (1)

Oehlhof is happy to be back on the track. Here he takes the KTM through the paces.
I choose the Suzuki first because it worked so good for me. The motor is strong and controllable. The power is very broad and easy to use. The suspension is much-improved over last year’s bike. The forks are better—they don’t feel harsh like last year’s bike did, and are actually a little on the soft side. The shock is also much better. It doesn’t hop around like last year. I felt like I could aim this bike anywhere I wanted and it would go there. It was totally precise and accurate. The stock bars are a little low for me but the bike is comfortable other than that. The controls are all excellent.

The Kawasaki is second. I felt like the motor was sluggish on the bottom but had really strong mid and top. It over-revs really far. The Kawi handles great in a straight line. It is really stable, especially at speed, but it was harder for me to turn. I had to work to make it change lines or carve tight. The suspension worked really well here today too. The forks were good and the shock was great. I just felt a little more comfortable on the Suzuki but they were very close.

The Yamaha has a good hit on the bottom, but it felt like it went flat on me. The mid and top just weren’t there. I thought the forks were a little soft, and I felt like the shock was little harsh-feeling. But the bike is very stable. I was confident on the Yamaha that I could pin it through the rough stuff and it wouldn’t do anything funny. It also feels really light and maneuverable in the air. I liked that. The ergonomics are good too. It is really easy to slide forward and back on the Yamaha. The motor just didn’t work as well for me, so it is behind the KXF and the RMZ.

Joe was most comfortable on the Suzuki.
The Honda is fourth for me because of the handling. The front end is really nervous. I had no confidence that the front end would go where I wanted. It felt like it wanted to wash out on me all the time. Basically, I love everything about this bike from the triple clamps back; I just didn’t like the way the front end felt at all. The motor is the best of all the bikes. It is so strong and makes power for so long. The shock felt a little stiff. Other than that, everything else is great. The controls are excellent and everything else works awesome.

The KTM doesn’t make enough power down low. It revs out all right but the bottom and mid are both really weak. If you get on this bike after riding the Honda, it feels pretty slow. The forks and shock were surprisingly good. They didn’t do anything funny in the bumps or on the jumps. The KTM feels a little tall or top-heavy to me. I definitely couldn’t ride this bike as hard as the others. I had to take it easy. It has a very comfortable feel, though. The front brake and clutch are awesome.

Andy Harrington

1st – Yamaha (5 pts)
2nd – Kawasaki (4)
3rd – Honda (3)
4th – Suzuki (2)
5th – KTM (1)

Harrington does his best Bubba impression on the Kawasaki.
To me, the Yamaha had the best overall feel. I sat perfect in the seat and did not feel too high or too low; the bars and levers and the complete ergo package were awesome. It had the motor that was tame but pulled all the way through the power band—and didn’t seem to want to stop pulling. Shifting points were very broad. On high-speed bumps and coming into turns, it felt really straight and stable. Turning was a breeze. I could point and shoot it out of corners or slide it easily.

The Kawasaki was a close second. I loved the motor and the way it pulled. It needed to be shifted a little more than the Yamaha because of the four-speed tranny, but at the over-rev limit it didn’t feel like you were robbed of power. It felt extremely light in the turns. This bike, for me, turned the best out of all of them. The front forks had a very plush feel to them. When I first got on the bike it felt like I sat really high up in the saddle and I was really far from the ground. I got used to the feel pretty quick, though.

The Honda is third, but it definitely had the most powerful motor out of the group. The bike felt really skinny and I was able to really hold on with my legs. When I sat in the saddle I felt as though the bars were really tall; like maybe it was suited better for a taller rider. It tracked very straight through the rough in the rear end. The front end felt a little bit “nervous” or fast-feeling. It was a little sketchy coming into the turns. (I think I would need softer springs to fix this.)

The Suzuki is fourth. We could not get the sag set for me (approximately 140 lbs.). I would need softer springs here too. The bike was pretty stiff overall on the track. The ergonomics were very good and it was very comfortable. The Suzuki hits really hard on the bottom, but didn’t seem to pull as hard as the bikes up on top. The shifting points were very critical on this bike. I felt confused a lot of times on if I should shift or try to rev it out.

The KTM finished fifth. The clutch on this bike is really good and easy to pull. The front brake has an awesome feel (including the lever, which is a little fatter than the rest). I like the feel of it. The motor had a good overall power to it. I have no complaints about the engine. The radiator shrouds seem to really be a problem for me. I wear knee braces, and I was constantly hooking my braces on the top of the shrouds in corners. The tank is skinny but the shrouds go wide very abruptly. It took a little while to get used to the ergonomic feel of this bike. Even after I felt I had a good feel, my feet were coming off the pegs, braces hooking on shrouds, and it felt a little harder to stay steady on it. When I wouldn’t be really precise on jump landings, it seemed to take a lot out of me.

I would like to say that the top three bikes were very close for me. If I had to take the bikes how they were to a race, it would be tough to choose between them. I chose them in this order as if I had to leave today and go to a race. With a little more fine-tuning on any of them, I could race any of them.

The Suzuki needed a little more work to be race-ready (or even track-ready) for me. I would need to soften it up for sure. I would also have to get really used to shifting it in the right places for maximum power. The KTM was the furthest off for me, personally. I would definitely need to ride quite a bit to get used to the ergos and some suspension testing would need to be done. I am not really sure what I would need to do, because the front and rear did not seem to work that well together.

David Pingree

1st – Kawasaki (5 pts)
2nd – Yamaha (4)
3rd – Honda (3)
4th – Suzuki (2)
5th – KTM (1)

The Kawasaki gets my nod for best bike in this shootout. It has a great motor that pulls hard from down low and continues to rev. The chassis is incredibly stable on a motocross track. It never wants to swap, kick, or bounce out of a line. The forks worked perfectly. They absorbed any hard landings well and felt really supple and plush on small chop. The bike does have a bigger feel to it when you first get on the track, but you don’t notice it after a few turns. The reason you don’t notice it is because it is so nimble. The KXF can carve an inside line with the best of them, and it jumps comfortably.

In a very close second I have the Yamaha. The YZF does everything good. It has an incredibly smooth motor that makes more power than any bike besides the Honda. The chassis is the most comfortable and maneuverable of the group and the handling is stable and precise. The spring rates are too stiff for me (target weight for a 450 is around 180 lbs.), but even over-sprung the bike tracks straight through bumps. Brakes and controls are comfortable on the Yamaha. The only complaint I had was that I couldn’t get to the clutch adjuster while I was riding.

The Honda finishes an even closer third. Honda has everyone beat in the motor department. The CRF power plant seems more powerful and broader than any of the others. The handing is very quick and precise on the Honda. It is the quickest-moving bike of the bunch, which can be good or bad, depending on what you like. I like how I can change lines coming into a turn at the last minute and it will dart to any line I choose. However, the front end can feel nervous at times and slightly unstable when braking into a sweeping turn.

Simon Cudby shows some vet style on his 40th birthday.
photo: Ping
The Suzuki sits in fourth. While the RMZ is a very comfortable bike, it has a harsh feel on the track. The back end also moves around more than it should. I couldn’t get the rear end to track straight. The motor has a strong hit on the bottom and a decent mid and top. The four-speed tranny is very noticeable, and I caught myself in between gears several times during the day. It is a great bike, but it doesn’t have the motor of the Honda, the handling of the Kawasaki, or the stability of the Yamaha.

The KTM is slightly off the pace in the 450 division. The motor is mellow and easy to ride but not a potent racing power plant. The handling is good on certain types of bumps, but it can still shake around and get loose on choppy, sweeping corners. If you hit anything head-on, the KTM absorbs it nicely. The finishing touches on the KTM are, as always, perfect. The clutch is great. The brakes are great. The pegs are great. The bars and grips are great. The KTM just needs a makeover. Hopefully it will get one next year.

Greg Albertyn

*Greg did not want to rank the bikes because he rode for Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Honda during his long career. Our mistake for not clarifying that before we originally posted this.

Albee's still got it
The KTM is a great bike for the average rider. It corners great and the motor is good but the feel is a bit cramped. The bars feel like they are right in your lap and the radiator shrouds grab your legs when you come in and out of turns. The suspension was too soft for a track like Competitive Edge. It felt like it would be a great off-road bike or trail bike.

The Suzuki is still a great bike. The motor flattens off on top a bit sooner than the others, and I really noticed the four-speed gearbox on this bike as well. I was in between gears through a lot of the turns. The handling was good and the overall feel of the bike is great. In fact, it is probably the most comfortable bike to ride. It is very stable, and it turns better than any other bike. It corners awesome.

I really liked the Yamaha bike but it didn’t stand out anywhere. The Honda motor is slightly better and the Kawasaki handles slightly better. The Yamaha is a great bike, though; it has a very smooth power and it handles very well. While it doesn’t shine anywhere, it also doesn’t do anything bad. There is very little separating these bikes. I did have some trouble adjusting the clutch while I was riding.

On  the Honda, the motor is the best of all the bikes. It has amazing torque and the power is spread out over such a broad span. You couldn’t ask for a better motor. It has a great overall feel and it handles well but it feels a little more “twitchy” than the Kawasaki. It also feels a little bit more rigid where the KXF is very plush.

I was really surprised by the Kawasaki today. The overall feel of the bike is just awesome. It makes great power and it handles incredibly well. The motor prefers to be lugged rather than revved out, but it makes great power from the bottom up through the middle. I did find myself between gears a bit on this bike. I would definitely prefer a five-speed gearbox. The Kawasaki handles the best. It is very stable and very plush.

Greg runs his last national number with pride, as he should
I want to say that the bikes were all very close. You could take any of them and win races on them. The differences we are talking about are very slight, and unless you are really riding the bike hard, you may not even notice them. I was very impressed with all of the new bikes.

Simon’s Picks

1st – Kawasaki – (5)
2nd – Honda – (4)
3rd - Suzuki – (3)
4th – Yamaha – (2)
5th – KTM – (1)

I would honestly be stoked to have any one of these bikes—there is no way that I’m going to ride any of them to their potential. But they are all a blast to ride. I could definitely tell that I was more confident and comfortable on the Kawasaki and the Honda. I don’t know if it was just a feeling or what, but it seemed like I was going faster when I was riding those bikes. The differences are pretty minor, though.

Racer X’s 2006 450 Shootout
December 7, Competitive Edge

1. Kawasaki - 18 points
2. Yamaha - 14 points
3. Honda - 12 points
    Suzuki - 12 points
5. KTM - 4 points