One prong of KTM’s recent attack on the off-road motorcycle market is standard fare—they started getting wins and championships at the highest levels of motocross and supercross. That’s how the big brands have done it for years. There’s another part of the effort, and this one was uniquely KTM: The brand has always been able to focus on the super-niche, building numerous variations of the same high-end platform to fit a wider variety of riders, especially off-road riders.
Where the Japanese brands have basically put the primary R&D focus on motocross bikes of two displacements (125/250 back in the two-stroke days, 250/450 in modern times), KTM not only kept the two-stroke flame alive, but also pumped out a variety of off-road racers aimed at different groups. In some seasons, KTM will produce four versions of each bike—a motocrosser, a closed-course off-roader (same exhaust as the MX bikes but with off-road suspension and a bigger tank), a sticker-legal off-road bike (quiet muffler and emissions equipment for legal riding in California state land), and a dual sport (street legal, off-road focused).
The Japanese brands rarely swim in these waters. If they do make off-road bikes, they generally fit the sticker-legal off-road mold. These bikes are quiet and virtually unbreakable (I’ve heard legendary stories of Japanese internal standards for off-road durability), but they’re always slower, heavier, and softer than KTM’s closed-course off-road offerings. If a Japanese brand goes a step further and builds a dual-sport, it waters down the performance and pumps up the weight even further.
KTM, meanwhile, skirts the edges. They build motocross bikes for the woods and dirt bikes for the street, nearly. This leads to big sales, because while local motocross racing is experiencing a drop in rider entries, off-road series are blowing up, and KTM (and Husqvarna) are all over those markets.
Honda isn’t sitting around watching anymore. The 2019 bikes, announced today, show a real target on KTM’s business.
A few years back, Honda finally went into the closed-course off-road arena by developing a CRF450R in GNCC racing and then releasing the off-road racing production model CRF450RX. It’s the motocross bike with revised suspension and a few off-road add-ons—just like KTM’s XC–F line. Heck, for some riders, the slightly softer off-road suspension makes for a better motocross bike, too. Yamaha, by the way, has responded to this market with a closed-course off-road bike of its own. Forget the mega-mufflers—these are race bikes.
Honda has doubled down on the off-road game this year. They still offer the mega-quiet, sticker-legal off-road CRF450X, but the 2019 model is redesigned and based on the latest CRF450R motocross platform. Following last year’s redesign of the CRF250R motocross bike, Honda has released the 2019 CRF250RX, which is—you guessed it—a closed-course off-road version of the 250F. Honda now has closed-course off-road racers in both displacement classes—a huge leap for the brand. Traditionally, off-road bikes from Japan were as much trail riders as race winners. That stereotype is long gone.
The craziest move of all? This new 2019 CRF450L. This is a street-legal dual sport based on the latest 450 motocross bike. I don’t believe a Japanese brand has ever made a dual sport with real roots to its latest motocross machine—not ever. Honda dual sports were always based on big XR trail bikes. This is a game-changer. Throw some #94s on there and you’ve got a Ken Roczen lookalike with a license plate.
Speaking of that, Honda has taken one more page from the KTM playbook with the new Works Edition CRF450R. This is Honda’s answer to KTM’s Factory Edition machines, basically taking the regular motocross 450 and adding some sweet bits (in this case, Roczen-looking graphics and seat, along with Yoshimura mufflers, a hand-ported head, and other trickery). The bike costs about $2,000 more than the regular CRF450R, but KTM’s Factory Edition machines have proven there’s an audience for the brand diehards.
Of course, every few years, KTM uses the Factory Edition platform to debut the next-generation bike one year in advance (it’s doing that in 2018, in fact). Will Honda someday use the Works Edition to debut the next line of CRFs in plain sight? Maybe. It’s pretty clear that right now, Honda is willing to take risks it never did before. All hail the spirit of competition!