2019 Honda crf450l review – first ride

The way around that? A license plate. It gives you the freedom to ride just about anywhere and everywhere, whenever you want, on- or off-road. It gives you full year-round accessibility. While the 250 and 650L have been holding down the Honda dual-sport fort since the early ‘90s, and even after the CRF450 line was introduced in 2003, there’s never really been a solid midsize street-legal option. Sure, some people registered their XR400Rs and early CRF450Xs in the past, but most states have cracked down since (except for Arizona where you can put a license plate on a toaster) and will take the plates away, even if they were “grandfathered in” before new laws took effect, or before the DMV offices got smart.

Fortunately, there’s a new bike on the market, it’s awesome, and it’s the 2019 Honda CRF450L.

Usually, I try to contain my excitement about a new bike, but the all-new 450L just checks too many of my boxes when it comes to a motorcycle, street-legal or not. To get things started, the CRF450L is a direct descendant of the CRF450R motocrosser, so it already comes with a performance-inspired pedigree, though it’s most closely related to the CRF450X trail bike. In short, the 450L is a real dirtbike at heart, and let me explain why that’s a good thing.

It basically comes down to the “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares” logic. Meaning, dual-sport motorcycles all fall somewhere in the spectrum between off-road and street use. Some land in the middle with hopes of handling double-duty, but as a result, do neither well, while others lean to either side. A street-focused dual-sport like the Suzuki DR-Z400 is just that – street-focused. It gets around town nicely and odds are the owner bought it because they liked the look and ruggedness of a road-going dirtbike (nothing wrong with that), but take it to the dirt and you’ll quickly recognize it’s more of a street bike with dirtbike fenders than anything else.

On the other hand, if you get yourself a dual-sport that leans to the off-road side of things, like the CRF450L, you’ll get to experience the possibilities a true dual-purpose motorcycle can offer. Plus, it will ride and handle street duty just fine compared to a street-focused dual-sport (the 450L actually tackles the road with exceptional comfort and handling), but that’s not why you bought a dual-sport in the first place. Few people buy a dual-sport for heavy street use. Rather, they probably bought one with visions of riding down the road and up into the mountains/ hills/ trails/sand pits/whatever your local region offers/etc., but a streetier dual-sport will only get you so far. The 2019 Honda CRF450L will take you wherever you want.

As mentioned before, the 450L is basically the 450X with a DOT headlight, taillight, turn signals, mirrors, and a license plate. The frame, motor, six-speed transmission, and suspension are all virtually the same, save for a few tweaks that prevent the X from being street legal, but it mostly comes down to noise and emissions related differences. To keep road noise levels down and the EPA happy, the CRF450L’s clutch, stator and front sprocket all have an extra cover. Did those covers provide a noticeably quieter engine? I’m not sure, most likely, but they definitely do bring extra bash protection to the table, and we’re all for that – just ask Ryan.

The 450L’s swingarm is also urethane-injected, and both the front and rear sprockets have a rubber gasket on them to further dampen any sort of road noise or chain slap. The combination of these changes definitely made a big difference in the amount of mechanical noise of moving parts you hear, especially while riding on the street. Other differences between the X and L which make the L more user-friendly for the road are full LED lighting, a lightweight lithium-ion battery with increased capacity, and a more powerful AC generator to power electrical components such as a GPS, heated grips or even a phone charger. The CRF450L is a no-bullshit bike.

We rode a 100-mile loop around Packwood, Washington and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which is basically dual-sport heaven, if you ask me, and 80% of it was off-road. From fire roads and single-track to gravel pits and hill climbs, and everything in between, there wasn’t anywhere a regular, non-street-legal dirtbike could go where the CRF450L couldn’t. The 450L can be ridden as aggressively and tortured just as hard as a regular dirtbike. In fact, it can probably take an even heavier beating all while providing a smoother, less tiring ride. It’s beefed up in a lot of the right places.

Based on my experience with the CRF250L Rally, I feared the 450L’s 12.0:1 449.7cc motor would have an embarrassingly neutered and reduced power output and engine character compared to its non-street-legal kin. Thank the motorcycle gods (and Honda engineers) I was wrong. While the L runs out of steam a little earlier and doesn’t pull as strong on the top-end of the RPM range as the R and RX models do, it still hits plenty hard everywhere else, with incredibly linear and usable power. According to our butt dyno, we’d peg the L somewhere in the mid-40s, much more than the rumored 25 hp seen in some places on the Internet – damn trolls, go back to playing Fortnite. The CRF450L’s ECU is of course mapped differently, with tractability and user-friendliness as the main goal. It’s also got a heavier flywheel with a 12% higher crank inertia over the CRF450R, which makes riding the L through slow, technical terrain easy. The L even has dedicated valve timing for smoother power delivery in the tricky stuff.

The CRF450L comes equipped with a 2-gallon titanium fuel tank which means you don’t have to worry too much about range when you inevitably end up way out in the sticks. Paired with the 42 mpg I averaged, that can yield up to over 80 miles per tank. Based on how and where you ride, and how heavy handed you are, your mileage will vary. Some riders in our group averaged up to 55 mpg.

Speaking of the tight, tricky stuff, the 450L also has larger-capacity radiators with higher heat-exchange efficiency and dual electric fans to prevent overheating when conditions get extra brutal. Very rarely did the CRF450L’s motor leave me wanting more power. Like I mentioned, it doesn’t have the overrev the R and RX models do, but fortunately with its six-speed transmission, there’s always another gear just a click away. It seems Honda engineers did their homework when it came to spacing out the gear ratios, because first (while not quite a granny gear) really allowed you to comfortably lug the bike through whatever tough spot you might find yourself in without the fear of stalling, and sixth let you wring the bike out to an electronically-limited – but still impressive – 90 mph.

While a dirtbike or dual-sport isn’t the motorcycle I’d prefer to be going that fast on, the CRF450L does it with zero drama. It’s crazy how solid and stable it felt on the road, thanks in part to its 28-degree rake (one more degree over the R). Even hustling it through curvier sections of wet asphalt (on Dunlop D606 knobbies no less), the L felt super planted, and it tracked predictably too. It was, dare I say, confidence inspiring. That term gets thrown around a lot in motorcycling, especially when it comes to entry-level machines. By no means is the CRF450L an entry-level motorcycle, because even the most experienced riders (like Johnny Campbell for example) can get on it and rip, but given how smoothly it makes its power and how forgiving the chassis and suspension are, a newer rider could easily throw a leg over and ride this thing.

Honda is marketing the CRF450L as a “trail-to-trail” machine with the ability to legally ride the road in between, and with its true dirtbike DNA, it’s off-road where it really shines brightest. The 49mm Showa suspension and rear shock are the same as what’s found on the R and RX models, but their internals, of course, are tuned a little differently for the trail. The L’s lugs are also altered, positioning the front axle just a little further forward, which is mostly designed for added on-road stability, but I can’t say they negatively impacted off-road handling at all. The suspension worked great for my 6-foot-1 180-lb. frame. The only adjustment I made was slowing down the rear shock’s rebound a few clicks. Sharp hits at higher speeds would sometimes make the bike want to buck a little, but the adjustment eliminated that feeling, allowing me to charge the trail even harder with more confidence.

So how does the CRF450L compare to a KTM 450 or 500 EXC-F, or a Husqvarna FE 450 or 501? These European dual-sports lean heavily on the off-road/hardcore dirtbike-with-a-license plate end of the spectrum, placing performance above anything else. That’s great, but it comes with a price. As good as they are in the dirt, they don’t handle street duty nearly as well as the Honda, and overall they just lack the same level of refinement that Big Red is known for. The Honda will require an oil change every 600 miles, and a valve inspection every 1,800. That’s three times less often than its European counterparts, which means more time riding and less time wrenching.

Overall, Honda knocked it out of the park with the 2019 CRF450L. Is it a KTM or Husky killer, not quite. I don’t think it was ever necessarily meant to be, but it seems that all the years of waiting for a Japanese manufacturer to build a 450cc dual-sport was worth it. We can’t wait to see how the rest of the Big Four respond. The best part of it all, though, is that, at its core, the CRF450L is a CRF450R hiding behind a headlight and turn signals. Many of course will modify it to truly awaken the beast that lies within. Or you could just leave it alone, and it will shred just the same. The 2019 Honda CRF450L is the midsize dual-sport we’ve all been waiting for, whether we knew it or not.