Last year the Honda absolutely dominated the 2008 450 shootout. Every single rider in our test chose it as the best bike. With that in mind, we had a few questions heading into this shootout. With an all-new bike, would Honda be even more dominant in 2009? Was the Kawasaki changed enough to win? Were the refinements made by Suzuki, Yamaha and KTM enough to put them at the top? We aimed to find out the answers to these questions at Milestone Motocross Park in Riverside, California.
Our test riders included Micky Dymond, a two-time national motocross champion and Supermoto Unlimited champion. Micky has spent a lifetime riding, racing and testing bikes and his input is invaluable. Buddy Antunez is a five-time Arenacross champion and a great test rider. He has become a regular part of the Racer X Tested crew. Phil Lawrence was one of the most successful privateers in the sport in the 1990’s. “Factory” Phil finished second to McGrath at several supercross rounds in 1996 and ended the series in fourth place. Chad Pederson has as many second place finishes as anyone. He spent a decade on the professional motocross and supercross circuits and then found a home in Arenacross where he racked up a staggering number of wins… and runner up finishes. Finally, Clint Backlund is my mechanic at the Troy Lee Designs Race Team. We’ve never had the opinion of a professional mechanic and since Clint rides well (intermediate level) I thought it would be interesting to get an opinion from the other side of the spanner.
We conducted our test at Milestone Motocross Park and the conditions during the day were as brutal as any national motocross track. It was rutted, rough, choppy, muddy, soft and even had some hard-packed sections. It was the perfect place to run each bike through its paces. We started with some specs from each manufacturer. Often times a millimeter or two of sag setting makes a huge difference in feel, so be sure to set your sag before you begin and again after you have some time on your bike. The following settings are a baseline and may need to be adjusted depending on weight and skill level.
Honda - Recommended sag: 106mm (Ed. Note- Best results included opening the rebound on the forks by six to eight clicks and opening the low speed compression on the shock considerably to lower the rear end)
We let the riders go through every bike and then asked them to explain what they liked and disliked about each motorcycle. If they made changes to address what they didn’t like we found out what those changes were. At the end of the day we asked them to pick the bike they would go out and buy if they were using their own hard-earned money. Here’s what our test riders had to say:
“I started on the Honda and that was my warm-up ride. I did go back and revisit it later. The Honda had the most comfortable seating position and feel when you just sit on it. That’s before you even start it. I’m talking about seat width and height, peg position and bar location. It just has a good feel to it. It did have a little twitchy feeling in the front end out on the track. The forks rode a little low in the stroke. The brakes were great and everything worked well on the bike. The throttle response with the EFI seemed a little more aggressive. It was like that with all the EFI bikes. I guess it’s a good thing but it kind of takes you by surprise at first. By the end of the day I liked the instant response. I guess I’ve just been riding carbureted bikes for too long. The handling on the Honda was okay, but the suspension seemed a little off. The back end is high and the front is low. It does corner great though.
I rode the Kawasaki next and I liked it as well. It had one of the strongest motors out of all the bikes. It came on quickly and pulled hard. The feeling was really good and the balance was good but the front end felt a little weird. It was a bit soft and it didn’t give me the confidence that some of the others did. I wanted more grip with the front wheel and more feeling of where it was and what it was doing. It had a little bit of a skatey feel. The motor was impressive though. You had to really hang on to that thing. It had a nice, light feel to it, which I really liked.
The Yamaha was next and, honestly, I think the Yamaha was the easiest bike to just get on and ride. The suspension felt like it moved a bit more. The travel was looser than the others, which was nice on choppy stuff. The balance was really good, too. It seemed longer, like the wheelbase was longer than the others. It suited the track that we rode really well. The brakes were good and it didn’t have anything that I would complain about. The motor was pretty mellow but it still seemed effective. Maybe it was just the quiet sound that threw me off. I felt good on this bike and it was easy to set into a rhythm on the track. It was the easiest bike to ride.
The Suzuki felt great to me. It seemed very similar to the Honda in the feel of it. I thought they had the EFI working perfectly on this bike. It was smooth and the power was good. I did have some problems with the brakes on the Suzuki; I couldn’t get her stopped when I needed to slow down in tight turns. I felt comfortable right away though and really had fun riding it. The handling was good and the turning characteristics were awesome.
I really thought the KTM was good. The suspension worked well for me even though I’m not a fan of the linkageless rear end. It weighs on my mind thinking about the engineering that is involved in the other bikes versus this setup. But it really worked well. The handling was better than any KTM I had ever ridden before. The motor was incredible and the seating position was comfortable too. It used to be more stinkbug and had some issues with weight centralization but all that is good now. It was slim feeling and really comfortable.
You could buy any of these bikes and have a great motorcycle. In the past there was always a bike that stood out and some that were just terrible. It seems like now you could buy any one of them and you are starting with the same lump of clay. What you do to make the bike suit you and how you set it up are the critical issues now, not what color you buy. Personally, I’m older now and I appreciate all the technical development you see in each bike. The Honda has an incredible feel to it, the most progressive technology and a great history to it. They offer software to adapt the power band to your style. I thought that was really cool. As much as I enjoyed riding all the bikes I would probably go buy a Honda.”
“I rode the Suzuki first. I hadn’t ridden the EFI bikes at all but the power seemed great. The throttle response was instant and it had really controllable power throughout. The bike felt really comfortable to me right away. There wasn’t anything, chassis wise, that needed to be addressed. The RMZ turns great and worked well in ruts, berms and flat turns. The forks did seem a little bit soft for me so we ended up going in a few clicks on the compression. That was the only change I made to this bike all day.
From there I went to the Kawasaki. The engine was great on the KXF. I think it had more mid and top than the Suzuki, but I had a hard time getting it to turn. I slowed down the rebound in the rear and softened up the compression in the forks and that helped a lot. It was still a little twitchy in the middle of the turns for me. My only complaint was that little steering issue. It had one of the best motors and the suspension worked well enough for me going straight.
The Yamaha was instantly comfortable to me when I hopped on. I literally didn’t touch one thing on this bike during the day. It felt like it was totally stable no matter what I was doing. I could turn it really well on flats, charge through rough sections or pick my way through a rut and it did it all effortlessly. The motor was a little soft off the bottom but it actually made the bike easier to ride. There wasn’t a big hit to upset the chassis and that seemed like an advantage for me. It didn’t have quite the same throttle response that the EFI bikes did,but like I said, it wasn’t an issue for me. In fact, I liked the feel of this engine better than all of them.
The Honda was next up for me. The power was about the same as the Suzuki and not quite the same mid as the Kawasaki. They were all really close though. As far as the way it handles, the front end felt good but I couldn’t get the back end to track the way I wanted on the exit of turns. I softened the high-speed compression and it helped some but I still wasn’t super-happy with it. For me, I couldn’t tell much of a difference in the weight between any of them, even though the Honda weighs less. All 450’s seem pretty heavy to me (laughs).
This was the first time I’d ridden the KTM450, and found it surprisingly good. The thing turned well, it stayed underneath me well, it tracked well and it had tons of motor. Next to the Yamaha I was most comfortable with this bike. Even though it doesn’t have EFI the power was right there and you can get as many revs out of it as you want. The KTM doesn’t stop pulling until you turn off the throttle. That makes it great for getting from corner to corner without shifting an extra gear. The suspension worked really well for me. It was a little soft but that was actually a plus at Milestone because it was so stinkin’ rough out there. If we were at a track with big jumps it would have needed to be stiffened up. I did slow down the fork on the KTM a little bit. It wasn’t staying underneath me the way I wanted it to when I landed off jumps. That change helped that problem and that was all I did to that bike.
I liked the Yamaha best. It wasn’t a hands-down difference, but if I had to pick a bike from that day it would be the blue bike. The KTM was really close and so was the Suzuki.”
“I rode the Honda first. I liked how nimble it was, especially in the air. It has a very light feeling to it. It has plenty of grunt, which makes it easy to put it in a tall gear and lug through turns. It turns much better than the 2008. Last year’s bike had a tendency to push and that is gone this year. I did have a problem with it wanting to stand up in ruts. I think the back end was maybe a little high and when it wouldn’t settle into the rut it wanted to stand up. Everything else about it was great. The ergonomics of the bike were perfect. It has a really comfortable feel to it. I liked this bike but there are some issues with the suspension or chassis that make it seem a little stinkbug and I couldn’t get rid of that.
The KTM was next and I was really impressed with how it cornered. It settles down into a rut or a berm and you can just rip around a turn. I really liked that about it. The suspension seemed a little busy for me. It bucked me every once in a while and it seemed the worst when I went off a jump with the throttle off. If I was on the gas it was okay but if I was braking it was really unpredictable. I loved the electric start. I wish every bike came with one of those because it was so nice. The clutch was great and brakes were phenomenal. It didn’t have as much torque but it would rev out really far. I like to lug my bikes so I had to ride this one differently. The gearing seemed like it was spread apart a little. From a mechanic’s standpoint I wish it had a kick-starter. If your battery dies in the middle of nowhere you are screwed.
The Yamaha was good feeling straight out of the box. It handles well and it seemed like it was jetted perfectly. You wouldn’t know that it didn’t have EFI if you didn’t know otherwise. The Yamaha cornered well, handled well and felt comfortable right away for me. I didn’t like the grips, and the power was a little weak on the bottom and top. You have to focus on keeping the bike right in the middle of the powerband to make it work. I’m a bigger guy so that might be some of that problem.
The Suzuki was my next bike and I really liked it. The suspension was excellent on it. I adjusted a couple clickers (stiffer compression front and rear) and it was perfect for me. It cornered great and after a few laps I fell in love with this bike. You can lug it or rev it and it still works. I didn’t have anything to complain about. It was a little loud and maybe had just a little less motor than the Kawasaki but it was the easiest for me to ride. I even went over to the vet track where it was slick and hard to make sure I was getting a good read and I loved it over there too.
The Kawasaki was my final bike and it felt a lot like a 2008 Honda. I left the clickers totally stock and the suspension felt great. They were talking about how easy to start it was but I had a hard time getting it to fire. Once it was going though I really liked it. The motor was really strong. It was kind of loud and I didn’t really like that, but the power was awesome. That was the most impressive thing about the Kawasaki: the engine. It comes on nice and smooth and then keeps building. I liked the Kawi a lot.
If I were buying my own bike it would be the Suzuki. I had so much fun riding that thing. As soon as I got on it I just felt myself mesh with the bike. Honestly though, any one of them would be great bikes to have. I just felt the most at home on the Suzuki."
“The Yamaha was the first bike I rode and it was a great all around bike. It is really stable and handles very well. I don’t think it did anything badly but none of the characteristics stood out above the others either. It wasn’t the worst in any category but it wasn’t the best either. It was a very solid bike. The motor seemed a little weak off the bottom, but the mid and top were good. I think it was deceiving because it was so quiet. I thought it was really slow at first but there was a big table top that I was using as a gauge to test the engines and it got me over it just as good as anything. I think its awesome that their bike is quiet and I wish the rest of the manufacturers would do the same.
The Honda looks light years ahead of the rest when on a stand. Riding it, I could tell the direction that the engineers were trying to go but it still feels like it needs to be refined. It’s like there is some fine-tuning that still needs to be done to make it work right. It is a little bit twitchy in the front and the rear end is up too high. I think the forks were actually packing on me and it helped to open the rebound quite a bit. It was still sitting too low in the stroke for me but that did make an improvement. It was a little bit of a disappointment for me because it looks so good. You’ll be able to tweak that thing and make it incredible but in stock trim there are some handling issues. The motor is great, the EFI works great, the brakes are great… everything else was perfect on it. It feels lighter than last years bike and definitely turns better.
The Suzuki was awesome. When we did the shootout last year the EFI wasn’t working quite right for me. This year it was perfect. It cornered better than any bike and the suspension worked really well. The brakes felt a little weak to me but that was probably the only complaint I had about it. It doesn’t have the motor that some of the other bikes have but it almost made it easier to ride. I felt like I could be more aggressive on it than some of the others. I really enjoyed riding the Suzuki.
The KTM has an incredible motor; it’s unbelievable. You can lug it, rev it or do a little of both. Whenever you need motor it's there for you to get you out of trouble or over a jump or whatever. The suspension was a huge improvement over last year, especially the forks. I had no complaints about the suspension. And the KTM turns really well too. It follows ruts effortlessly and you can spin it around a berm easily. The only negative about it is that it felt like a bigger bike. That didn’t bother me too much because I’m taller but it had a little bit of a heavy feel to it. Still, I thought it was one of the best bikes and, depending on what type of riding you are doing, maybe the best.
The Kawasaki was the last bike I rode and I think they did an excellent job with the EFI. The response and the motor were just perfect. It was almost like riding a good 250 two-stroke. The power came on instantly and then pulled really strong and smooth all the way through. It is the best motor package of all the bikes. It might not have the over rev of the KTM but the response is better and it is really useable. The bike felt light and easy to maneuver. The suspension was a little soft for me but I’m 190 lbs. There were a couple bikes that handled a little bit better but as a whole package I felt like I could ride the Kawasaki the best.
So, I would pick the Kawasaki for me. There were a couple other bikes that were really close but I just felt the most comfortable on the Kawasaki.”
“The Honda had amazing power for any level of rider. It works for a pro and it would work just as good for a novice. It’s like the perfect amount of power and perfect delivery. It does have a little buck to the back shock but slowing down the rebound in the back helped. I also added a little more sag. It corners amazing and handles great. I could ride the Honda faster and for longer than any of the other bikes.
The Kawasaki was next and that was very close to the Honda. I think my riding style just worked a little better on the Honda. It cornered well but I slowed down the rebound in the front and back so it would settle into ruts and berms a little better. That helped me a lot. The power was great on the KXF too. It had great throttle response and plenty of power anywhere you wanted it. Everything else worked really well on the Kawasaki.
The KTM motor is insanely fast. It revs farther than any of the bikes and that makes it really fun to ride. I was just putting it in third gear and leaving it. I had to stiffen the compression on the forks a few clicks so it wouldn’t bottom out on jump landings and slow down the rebound as well. Other than that the suspension worked pretty well. I think it was the best handling KTM I’ve ever ridden, for sure. The brakes are always good on the KTM and the clutch and grips and bars and all that are awesome. The best part was the motor and the electric start. Those made it really fun to ride.
The Yamaha was really quiet, which made it feel a little slow. It made up for that with great handling and cornering though. I actually stiffened the compression in the front and back and that worked for me. I liked riding the Yamaha but I was having some trouble getting over some jumps and feeling like it was a little slow. I’m sure it’s nothing an aftermarket exhaust wouldn’t fix but in stock form it needed more power.
I struggled on the Suzuki. It seems like it just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get it to settle in the corners and it wanted to pop out of ruts. We tried a bunch of stuff but I just never felt really good on it. I did like how sharp it would turn. I could come into bowl turns and just flip it around. The motor needed to be a little better too. It seemed a little soft in the middle and top. The throttle response was good but then right when you needed it to start pulling it was done.
For me the Honda was the best bike. The Kawasaki was a really close second but the Honda just seemed to fit me better.”
“I liked the KTM and I was really having a blast on that bike. The motor is so dang strong that it’s just fun to ride, especially on a big, fast track. I thought it was the best motor of all the bikes. The handling is pretty good. I didn’t have any problems with the suspension. It wasn’t amazing but it actually worked better than I thought it would. I loved the way it turns and the controls and stuff. The brakes and clutch are always good on the KTM.
The Kawasaki was a tough bike for me. I tried a bunch of stuff on it and I just couldn’t make it work for me. I added some sag to get the rear to sit down and I speeded up the rebound but I was just never at home on it. I heard some of the other guys saying they really liked it and I just figured it doesn’t suit my style.
The Suzuki was good. It felt comfortable to me right away. The motor is a little slow. The EFI works good and you can tell it has good response but then it just signs off. The cornering is really good. The brakes didn’t work so good for me. I had to stomp on the rear to make it work and even the front needed more power.
The Yamaha is a good all around bike. I really didn’t have anything to complain about on it. It handled well and turned pretty well. The motor wasn’t the quickest but I think it might have been the easiest to ride. A novice or beginner would love how mellow the motor was. It felt a little tall for me but it didn’t really bother me on the track once I got used to it.
The Honda was awesome. I stiffened the front end to make it sit up a little higher and I ran a little more sag in that to get it to sit down and after that I loved it. The motor is great, it turns better than last years bike and it handles really well. I thought it felt more nimble than the other bikes. I could move it around easier in the air and change lines any time I wanted. I was really impressed with the Honda.
I would choose the Honda if I was buying my own bike. Actually, I think I am buying my own bike, so I will probably be getting one. The KTM was my next favorite and I really liked the Yamaha too, but I was the most at home on the Honda.”