Last year, bike shootouts were either nonexistent or late and incomplete. Some manufacturers were late to the game, and most publications that moved ahead with their shootout plans did so without all the manufacturers represented. We decided to wait, and that makes the 2011 450 matchup even more significant, because it seems like we really haven’t had a good back-to-back comparison in a couple years.
Our testing staff for this event was one of the most eclectic we’ve ever had. Representing the 1980s were Jeff Ward and Micky Dymond. Wardy, one of the most successful racers ever, won every single title you could win in this sport—the only rider to do so. He also won multiple MXoNs, two Supermoto titles, and two X Games gold medals. His two-wheel career, in my opinion, is unrivaled. He went on to nearly win the Indy 500 … twice. And last year he finished second in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Truck series by two points. It won’t be long before he adds that to his list, is my guess.
Micky is a two-time 125 national motocross champion and Supermoto champion, and his story is certainly more complex than Jeff’s. He’s easily one of the most interesting riders from that era, and he has very entertaining stories from his wilder days.
Our riders from the late 1990s were Carey Hart, Phil Lawrence, and Chad Pederson. Carey has become a household name, going back to an early Gravity Games where he kicked down the door on a little trick we call the backflip. He didn’t ride out of it, but it was close enough that other riders accepted the trick’s feasibility and marched forward with it. He coined a trick called the Hart Attack, started a wildly successful tattoo shop and race team, and married a rock star.
Phil Lawrence is a former supercross winner and top privateer. In his prime, he beat many of the sport’s best straight-up. I remember watching him pass Jeff Stanton and beat him one year at the Gainesville national. He narrowly lost a 125 SX title in 1993 to Jimmy Gaddis, and today he runs a successful lot-sweeping company. And he married my wife’s sister.
Chad Pederson was known as the fastest man from Iowa until Justin Brayton came along. Still, Chad has a supercross win to his credit, which Justin is still chasing. Chad is also near the top of the all-time win list in AMA Arenacross. He finished runner-up several times before parking his bike and starting up a Godfather’s Pizza franchise in Waseca, Minnesota.
We held our test at Competitive Edge Motocross Park in Victorville, California. The track is one of the best in the state and has every key component of a national-caliber track. Each rider was given the instructions to ride each bike for as long as necessary and report on what they liked and disliked about each machine. At the end of the day, I would record their thoughts and close with one final question: If you were going out to buy your own bike, which brand would it be? The following is what they said, word for word.
Kawasaki: I started out on the Kawasaki, and I actually came back and rode it again at the end of the day. I liked the feel of the bike; it had really great straight-line stability. It also had a very light feel to it, which I like. The front end seemed like it had a tendency to push in tighter corners. I thought maybe it was just me the first time I rode it, but it still had that characteristic when I rode it again. The motor also seemed like it went flat a little sooner than some of the other bikes. Overall, it was a great bike, but it didn’t do any one thing really great or really bad.
Honda: I rode the Honda next, and I really liked the comfort and feel of it. For whatever reason, a Honda just feels like a good fit as soon as you sit on it. Nothing seems out of place or out of reach. It almost felt like a 250F the way it handled, and it corners great in all types of turns. I did feel like the power went a little flat on top with the Honda.
KTM: The KTM 350 really surprised me. I felt like I could ride it like a 250F, you know? I loved the top end; it seemed like you could rev that thing to the moon. The brakes on the KTMs are awesome too. They are as good as any brakes on a factory bike. I did find that if I made a mistake, I had to work a little harder to correct it. I couldn’t be lazy like I could on a 450. The bigger motors have an advantage that way, in that they can pull you out of trouble.
Suzuki: I really liked the Suzuki. That bike is so balanced in corners and down straights. The most impressive thing was how planted the back end of the bike was. I found it difficult to even break the back end loose when I came out of a corner; all the power just gets to the ground. The engine was great too. It has a smooth character, but it pulls way up on top. I honestly didn’t have anything bad to say about this bike when I got off it.
KTM 450: I rode the KTM 450 next. I was surprised with the motor on this bike. Man, this thing is an animal! It is totally smooth, but it pulls so strong, and way further than the other bikes. It has the best engine of the group. Again, there are really good brakes on the KTM, and I also like the hydraulic clutch and the electric start. There were a lot of good points on the KTMs. However, I did feel like I sat a little high in the seat on this bike. Maybe I just needed taller bars. Other than that, I really liked this bike.
Yamaha: I got on the Yamaha next. The motor was smooth and strong. It turned well and had a predictable ride to it. One thing I really liked was that it seemed like it was set up a little stiffer or more aggressive than the other bikes. I felt like I could hit stuff a little harder and it soaked it up. The sound on the Yamaha was definitely something I would have to get used to. It’s really distracting at first. The only real complaint was that it felt a little heavy when I would enter a turn and try to set it into a rut or berm.
Conclusion:I would have to say the winner in this group is the Suzuki, but man, the KTMs really impressed me too.
Suzuki: The Suzuki had the strongest motor of the group, and it was really tractable power. It’s the best 450 motor I’ve ridden. It accelerates hard but in a very smooth and controllable way. The bike handles really well and doesn’t do anything bad or unpredictable. It was nice. And the general feel of the bike is good, like your sitting position, pegs, and handlebar placement and all that. The only bad thing, I guess for some, is that it is very quick-reacting and it could have a nervous feel if you weren’t used to it.
Honda: The Honda had a very smooth engine and it was easy to open the throttle up and ride it hard. I really liked the feel of this bike as well as the handling, suspension, and balance. I was super-comfortable on the Honda. I guess the one downside here is the motor. If you were a pro or intermediate rider you would definitely want a little more. I’m sure it’s easily fixed with a few things, but that’s my impression in stock form.
Kawasaki: The Kawasaki has good power and pulls hard over a very long powerband. The position and feel was great, and that is something that has always been really important to me. It used to be tough to find a bike that felt good stock, but now it seems like all of them are very close. I also thought this bike felt very light and easy to move around and change directions. The one thing I didn’t like was that the front end seems a little sketchy; I never had good grip with the front end.
Yamaha: The Yamaha makes great power, and it revs like a twin-cylinder bike. It’s very stable and well-balanced. The Yamaha feels like it’s a little bigger than the other bikes. If you are a bigger guy, you’ll probably love that, and if you are short, you will probably notice it and not like it. Also, the engine was a little lazy right off the bottom for me.
KTM: The KTMs were both really good for me. The 450 has great power and it’s really smooth and easy to use. The bike handles well and has a good general feel to it. It’s really stable at high speed but maybe just a little tougher to turn than the other bikes. I noticed that the balance of the bike seems to be tipped toward the rear.
The 350 was a blast. The power is really good as long as you keep your momentum up. It’s really light-feeling and easy to ride. You definitely feel like you can push the limits more on this bike and stay in control. The handling is great and the bike seems very balanced and comfortable. The only downside is the torque right off the bottom. There were a couple times where I made a mistake or came out of a tight, deep turn and I wanted more power.
Conclusion:The best bike for me is the Suzuki. However, the cost of the bikes could totally change my mind, because they were all so close. Seriously, being on one brand or the other probably isn’t going to change your results on the weekend. I was surprised that each bike had very similar characteristics; I guess over the years all the companies have taken from each other and now they are all very close.
KTM: I started on the KTMs and really liked them. The 450 turns like a champ. There is tons of traction and it goes wherever you put it. The suspension is plush and the front brake is amazing. I didn’t like the feel of the motor. I wanted more hit, and it always felt like it wanted to stall when I was in the air. It’s like there’s a lot of engine braking or something.
Yamaha: The Yamaha looks bitchin’. I love the aesthetics of the bike. I didn’t really like the motor. It was flat and inconsistent for me. I really had a hard time with the shifting too. The sound of the air being pulled in the intake reminded me of a duck—it was tough to get used to that sound. I struggled with the bar bend and the forks kept deflecting on me in the chop and had a harsh feeling.
Kawasaki: The Kawasaki’s geometry is amazing. I felt like the harder I pushed this bike, the better it felt. And I never lost control of the bike when I pushed it, which was cool. The motor was smooth but had a good hit when you got on it. I loved the stability on fast sections and in the air. The biggest complaint I have about the Kawasaki is that if I want to ride one, I’ll have to buy it!
Honda: The Honda has great geometry and power delivery. The brakes work amazing. It’s very comfortable in the air and through rough sections; it’s super predictable. It’s an amazing bike. The suspension changes they made this year are very good, and the throttle response is awesome. It seems like the linkage geometry still needs a little tweaking.
Suzuki: The Suzuki has an amazing motor and chassis. Even with the great motor, it tracks perfectly out of corners under heavy acceleration. Brakes have a great feel and stopping power. The bike felt light and easy to move around in the air. It was one of the more consistent-feeling bikes off of jumps. This was one of my favorite bikes, for sure. The only thing I can beat up on it about is the bars, because it’s not the bend I run!
KTM 350: The KTM 350 is a lighter version of the 450. It’s really easy to throw around but not as small as a 250F. You can rev this thing to the moon, too. It’s incredible how well this thing turns. Anywhere you put it, the bike sticks. It’s fun because you can be really aggressive with it and not get in trouble like a 450. And when the track gets rough, it seems like it’s easier to hang onto. The brakes are amazing and the front end has a great feel to it under braking. The main thing I didn’t like about it is that it reminds you when you make a mistake exiting a turn; it doesn’t have the grunt to just pull you out of it. It also has kind of a slippery feel to it. I had a hard time gripping it with my knees.
Conclusion:All the bikes were extremely close, and it’s great that all the bikes are so strong overall. My top three were Suzuki, Honda, and Kawi. I would be happy with all three, but my purchase would be Honda.
Yamaha: The Yamaha was a really good all-around bike. It didn’t stand out or shine in one area, but it didn’t really have any spots where it was terrible, either. The suspension was really good for me. I could push it a little harder and feel like it wasn’t going to bottom out or anything. The motor was good but I felt like it could be a little broader. I think it hit really well on the bottom, but I wanted it to carry up top longer. Overall, I liked the bike, though. The brakes, bars, and finish are all quality.
Kawasaki: The Kawasaki had a great motor with tons of useable power. The handling was good; it wasn’t the best suspension, but it was okay. I was getting too much movement out of it and it made the bike feel a little unstable compared to some of the others.
Suzuki: The Suzuki was really impressive. The components are great and the attention to detail was really good. The brakes were especially good. The motor was one of the best in the class, and the Suzuki cornered like it was on rails. The suspension was second best, in my opinion, to the Honda. The only complaint I had was that the forks seemed a little soft for me. I tried turning in the compression clickers but it made them really harsh-feeling. If the forks were fixed, this might be the bike of the year.
KTM: The KTMs were both really good and very different. The 350 handles great, and it’s easy to turn and move around. You have to ride it more aggressively, but that’s what makes it so fun. This is a good all-around bike.
The KTM 450 has the best motor in the class. There is so much power in that thing. It feels like some of the parts don’t work together on the 450, like the front end and the back end are two separate pieces instead of a solid unit. I don’t know if that sounds dumb, but it’s the only way I can describe it. The brakes are still the best on the KTM, and I love the electric start. I get spoiled, and I hate kicking the other bikes after riding the KTMs.
Honda: The Honda is just such a solid package. The motor is pretty good, though definitely not as strong as the KTM or the Suzuki. But the rest of the bike is just awesome. The handling is perfect. It never does anything unexpected. The brakes are good and bike is really comfortable.
Conclusion:This is a really good group of bikes, but I would have to choose the Honda if I was buying one. It was the best all-around package for me.
Honda: I started on the Honda, and honestly I thought this would be my favorite bike after I got off it. The motor was really smooth and strong and it had a good pull right in the middle of the powerband where I like it. The brakes are good on it and the suspension was almost perfect for me. The best thing was the comfort of the cockpit. I could just hop on it and right away it felt like a race bike to me. I didn’t have any complaints about the Honda.
Suzuki: Then I rode the Suzuki. I was blown away with how good this bike was. Like I said, I didn’t think a bike could be better than the Honda, but the Suzuki was. The motor was still very useable, but it was faster. The way this bike corners is amazing. Even on slick surfaces, I could carve a line around a turn and the back end wouldn’t jump out. The suspension was good, the brakes were great, and everything felt really comfortable to me. I got a little bit of twitching from the front end sometimes, but that was the only bad quality about this bike for me.
KTM: The KTM 450 was the hardest bike for me to go fast on. The motor is a rocket, but the problem is getting it to change directions. I got a lot of vibration in the handlebars. I felt like it was a little twitchy-feeling in the corners. You have to make small movements or the bike overreacts. It was a little unpredictable in rough sections, too. I didn’t care for the 450 too much.
I really liked the 350. I was surprised by how different the two bikes feel, considering how much is the same between the two. The motor felt good on this bike—a little soft coming out of tight corners, but good. You could ride it harder, kind of like a 250F, but it’s much faster than that. The suspension was good and the 350 really turns well. I could throw it into corners and make direction changes really easily with it. The only thing I didn’t like was the vibration that I got in the bars. It was the same between the 450 and the 350.
Yamaha: The Yamaha was one of the best bikes, engine-wise. The thing really has some power! I think it was close to the Suzuki in suspension, and the bike tracked really well when I accelerated out of corners. That is something that I really like in a bike. The throttle response is instant and seemed like it might be a little too aggressive. They do have software to change the power curve really easily, according to Tim [Olson] and the guys at Yamaha, so that would be an easy fix. The one thing I didn’t like was the shifting on the Yamaha. I couldn’t get the bike into neutral, and on the track I missed a couple shifts because I couldn’t get it to shift.
Kawasaki: The Kawasaki has great low-to-mid power. I wanted the engine to rev a little longer, but you could make it work if you shifted it quicker. The suspension and handling were awesome on the Kawi; I think it ranked right up there with the best in the class. It was stable at speed and held a line really well around turns. I liked riding this bike. Like the Yamaha, I felt like the throttle response was a little too abrupt in some corners. It almost needs to be mellowed out down low and spread up to the top a little bit. Other than that, I didn’t have much to complain about.
Conclusion: There were three or four that were pretty dang close, but the Suzuki is the bike I would choose if I was buying one. It just made me feel so confident when I was riding it, and I felt like I could push harder and still have control. It was fun to ride!
KTM: I started on the KTMs. I hadn’t ridden the 350 yet, and it was exactly what I thought it would be. It’s more like riding a really fast 250F than a slow 450 … and that is a good thing. It turns well, and it is really easy to throw around. As the track got rougher, I could still push hard on this bike. I could feel a couple spots where I wanted more power, and I thought the starts would be a killer. Bryce Vallee and I lined up side-by-side with the Kawasaki and the KTM 350 and did about six starts. The 350 was quicker in all but one of them. That was shocking. This is a great bike, and Alessi’s season last year was not indicative of what this bike is capable of.
The KTM 450 is fun to ride but I wouldn’t want to race it. The motor is so awesome, as long as the track is smooth and there are no corners ... ever. I couldn’t get it to turn unless I had a rut or a berm, and even then it took some work. There is a noticeable disconnect between the front and rear portions of this bike, too. I’m not sure what the fix is, but the bike doesn’t feel like a solid unit. Still, both KTMs have class-leading brakes, and I love the hydraulic clutch. And the electric start.
Suzuki: The Suzuki was up next for me, and I was blown away. The motor was super quick and light feeling. It had power everywhere and as much of it as you wanted. To me, it was the most potent/useable engine setup in the group. The brakes were also a close second to KTM, and the controls and seating position are perfect. The stability of the chassis was unreal. You could literally drop the throttle exiting a turn and the back end follows the front end around in perfect form. It was shocking, really. The suspension itself was good. I did get a little bit of nervousness from the front end, so I went softer with the clickers. It helped, but I think I could have gotten it better if I had more time with it. That was the bike’s only weak area, and it really didn’t bother me. I still felt more comfortable and more confident on this bike than any other.
Kawasaki: The Kawasaki is definitely improved over the past couple years. It used to have a big, tall, and long feeling, like it needed a suit from that store that sells to fat guys and basketball players. But it feels sized down and comfortable this year. The motor is good and handling, overall, was good. I didn’t find anything to complain about riding the Kawi but there wasn’t anything about it that really stood out either. It was a good, solid bike for sure.
Yamaha: The Yamaha had an awesome engine, but it might be slightly abrupt in stock trim. They have different EFI settings that smooth out the power, and for some, that might be a better starting point. Still, there is a ton of power to work with. I was convinced there was a large bullfrog stuck under the seat when I first jumped on the bike. It definitely takes some time to get used to the noise of sucking air. The suspension was good on the Yamaha. It can be pushed hard and doesn’t respond by bottoming out or deflecting. It is a fatter-feeling bike around the shrouds and seat, something that I didn’t care for. And while I didn’t have a problem on the track, I did have trouble finding neutral with the tranny when I went back to the truck. I liked the Yamaha, it just seems like I need to spend some time with it to get it dialed in for me.
Honda: The Honda is a really solid package this year. The changes they made to the linkage dramatically helped the handling and the ride of the bike. The engine is predictable, smooth, and useable. I wanted a little more out of it. It probably wouldn’t affect lap times, but on a start next to the Suzuki or KTM, I think it would struggle. The handling is predictable, stable, and solid. The best thing about the Honda is that it just fits right when you sit on it. My only complaints about this bike are the slightly anemic power (which would still be fine for most) and a slightly weak front brake.
Conclusion: All things being equal in regards to price, dealer support, et cetera, I would pick the Suzuki in 2011. Whatever they did to figure out the cornering and handling characteristics and the engine setup, they nailed it. Yellow Magic is back!