Let’s get something straight: The hottest ticket in motorcycling through the COVID era has been “ADV” or “adventure bikes,” with sales skyrocketing. An ADV bike is kinda sorta a street bike you can ride on dirt roads. They lean toward on-road comfort, with some off-road capability. A BMW GS might be the best poster child of the breed—or the newly updated Kawasaki KLR 650. If you know anything about bikes you know these are comfortable machines for the long haul but, unless you’re super talented, can become a major handful when you hit technical off-roading. The enemy is weight, typically cresting at 440 to 500 pounds. The 289-pound 2022 Honda 450 RL is decidedly not that ADV trendy machine then.
The Honda 450 RL is a barely street legal dirt bike fine tuned for bombing fire roads and more technical tracks than the average rider would ever tackle with a heavier ADV machine. Want fancy ABS and traction control? Fairings and instruments? How about a USB port? Maybe a tachometer? Sorry, the Honda 450 RL gets none of that. Instead, it has an exceptionally rigid frame, a killer engine, awesome brakes, and a suspension to die for—which made it perfect for our test plan.
We took the Honda 450 RL to the Vermont portion of the Backcountry Discovery Route (BDR), a series of roads and trails that exist across the U.S. that are loosely mapped by enthusiasts. The Vermont section is considered one of the more challenging in the nation, and it was made more so by recent tropical storms that left the “Class 4” links (basically snowmobile trails) as saturated and sloppy as a Louisiana bayou.
A snappy engine
Honda gave the 450RL a different tune from its 450cc single than the the 450R you typically see on dirt, but the throttle response is still instantaneous. It’s not quite a two-stroke dirt bike.
While you have to rev past 7,000 RPM to find peak horsepower, the torque curve is relatively flat and fat, meaning you’ll feel that tug from 3,0000 to 7,000 RPM. When we shot into the deepest, sloppiest, muddiest terrain in Vermont, we could happily upshift to second or third (or even fourth) gear and know that at just about any speed we’d have ready pull.
In fact, first gear is so low that for anything shy of a rock wall, we stayed out of that cog entirely, just to avoid having the bike wheelie out from under us.
The downside of all that muscle: This six-speed Honda is geared for more off-road riding than on. Sure, it’s got the snot to rock 70mph, but this engine is far happier bombing rock gardens and mud bogs at 30mph than Interstate at highway speeds.
A dream of a suspension
Because Honda was kind enough to let a few of us test the CRF-450RL, we got to see how the bike performed under different rider weights and body types, from about 5’7” to 6’5” and 150 pounds to well over 200 pounds.
We all loved the Showa suspension. Is it stiff? Well, relatively speaking, yes, but relative to what? Lighter dirt bikes feel more playful, but when compared to typically heavier ADV bikes that hit closer to 400 to 500 pounds, the 450’s dampers felt perfect for cutting tight lines over rocks, roots, and around or right over every obstacle. This bike’s also very predictable on the road. The Honda might be less ideal for melting away miles of highway, but cruising two-laners in rural Vermont never once felt scary or twitchy.
What’s a demerit to the great tune of the fork and shock? The seat height of 37.2 inches puts shorter riders on their tippy toes.
Yep, that suspension affords 12 inches of travel front and rear, and just a tick over 12 inches of ground clearance, which, in addition to excellent internals, is why it feels totally painless and especially nimble.
One reason ADV bikes have grown in popularity is they hit a sweeter (lower) spot between down-the-road view and ride height. Here, we’re closer to the dirt bike bias of the chassis this Honda was built on, which is strictly for churning muck, not blacktop.
Creature comforts (and limits)
Honda had to decide how much street legality to bake into the 450RL, and some of the slickest parts include a very strong aluminum chassis that stretches all the way under the rear fender, so you can strap on saddle bags and do what we did—extend a trip over the course of a week. They also gave this Honda superb brakes that aren’t motocross aggressive, so you’re less likely to get in trouble, but plenty strong and fade-free on the street. That’s smart, as is a heavily under-armored engine.
But there’s almost no wind protection. And engine vibrations at highway speeds are noticeable, and unfortunately made worse by a hard-as-iron seat. We get it: The 450RL is born from Honda’s off-road 450R lineage, but a $10,000 motorcycle like this is pitted against machines that have some creature comfort compromises.
Our biggest gripe in that vein isn’t the seat (you can replace that easily): It’s the puny fuel tank. At two gallons, we were forced to carry extra gas, since running out was something we feared—and did face. A dirt bike with a small tank is normal; a dual-sport bike is supposed to allow travel, hence the full-frame that affords adding saddle bags. A larger tank would increase weight, but if you have to carry gas cans anyway you’ve just added that heft back.
Pick your pleasure
One appeal of the Honda 450 RL is the fact it’s forcing the rider to make a decision at the time of purchase. If you buy a convertible, you’re choosing a louder car for the joy of open-top driving.
The 450RL is that kind of argument: You’re not buying it for the street. This isn’t your cappuccino-fetching ADV softie. It’s not meant for that use or that rider. It’s meant to rip, and leave those ADV wannabes in its roost. And, yes, to rev beautifully and freely, and snake through singletrack with the kind of nimbleness that’ll make you a better rider.
Like that convertible, it wasn’t built for every day—but for that perfect day in the dirt.
[From $9,999; powersports.honda.com]