FXR Racing: Honda MX Bike History: The 2000's
By:
Tony Blazier

For part four of our Honda motocross odyssey, we are going to take a look back at the red machines from the decade of Facebook and Wall Street bailouts.

If you missed any of the previous installments, just click on the links below.

For Honda MX Bike History Part 1: The 1970s click HERE

For Honda MX Bike History Part 2: The 1980s click HERE

For Honda MX Bike History Part 3: The 1990s click HERE

Even though the pace of motocross innovation had slowed somewhat by the 2000s, the significance of those changes was every bit as dramatic as decades past. At the start of the new millennium, only one Japanese manufacturer even offered a four-stroke motocross machine and everyone but Honda was still using steel for their frames. By the end of the decade, every one of the Big Four had transitioned to alloy frames and the two-stroke as a viable motocross racer was all but a memory (sigh). Ultra-rigid frames, fuel injection and sophisticated electronics allowed riders to ride faster and jump farther than ever before. Much like the switch to two-stroke had been four decades before, the switch back to four-strokes was swift and virtually universal. 

For Honda, the 2000s were a decade of success and transition. Late to the four-stroke party, they jumped in with both feet in 2002 and quickly dominated the sales charts with their revolutionary CRF450R. By 2008, they had returned to their roots and transitioned their entire motocross line away from two-strokes. The company that had once refused to build a two-stroke was back where they had started 35 years before.  

2000 Honda CR80R and CR80R Expert: Better engineering through Bold New Graphics

At the start of the decade, Honda was coming off three tough years.  Since the shocking departure of Jeremy McGrath at the end of 1996, they had failed to win a single Motocross or Supercross title in America. They had also seen the initial fervor for their radical alloy-framed CR250R morph into grumbling discontent nearly overnight. In virtually every meaningful way, the new aluminum-framed CRs were a step back from the bikes they replaced. They were harsh, heavy-feeling and just plain exhausting to ride. If you were fast and aggressive (Ezra Lusk), they could be made to work, but if you were more mortal (everyone else), they beat you to death.  

Knowing that their first generation bike had met with mixed reviews, Honda set about making things right with generation two. By most estimates, the main issue with the first alloy-framed CRs was their absurd rigidity. Initially, durability concerns had led Honda to err on the side of caution when building the frame for the ’97 CR. Every frame section and weld was beefed up and the result was a frame that didn’t snap in half, but also didn’t work very well. It handled poorly, transmitted a ton of vibration and gave the bike a dead feel. 

2000 Honda CR125R and CR250R: Take two for the aluminum revolution

For 2000, Honda set about dialing down the rigidity and feeding a little feel back into the chassis of the CR125R and CR250R. To do that, both bikes received all-new frames that were slimmer, lower and leaner. The new frames retained the twin-spar construction of ‘99, but featured narrower frame spars, a reconfigured steering head and a switch to a single down-tube for the front section of the frame. This also meant a swap back to dual radiators from the massive single one used on the previous models.  The new frames featured revised geometry, as well as new swingarms and reconfigured Pro-Link linkages. Lastly, both the 125 and 250 received totally redesigned bodywork with new graphics and a switch in color to a less deep red Honda coined “Explosion Red”.  

2000 Honda CR125R: Nipped, tucked and still in need of more juice

In the motor department, the CR250R soldiered on into 2000 with only minor changes. The Composite Racing Valve (CRV) was extended downward in the cylinder to better seal against the exhaust port and the exhaust sub-ports were reshaped for less turbulence. In the carb, a new triple-tapered needle was added and a new airbox boosted volume by 35%. Lastly, a new expansion chamber was spec’d to work with the new porting and mount up to the redesigned frame.

On the 125, the motor changes were far more extensive for 2000. After a decade in use, the HPP system was finally retired in favor of a new flapper-style valve Honda called the “Revolutionary Control” (RC) valve. This new design was smaller and less complicated than the outgoing HPP and according to Honda, offered improved exhaust valve control. In order to accommodate the new RC valve, Honda spec’d an all-new cylinder, head and expansion chamber as well. On the intake side, a new 36mm Mikuni TMX flat-slide carburetor was bolted on and mounted to the same larger airbox the 250 enjoyed. The bottom end of the motor remained largely unchanged from ‘99, with the exception of an additional plate for the clutch (up to eight from seven). Unfortunately, the transmission also retained its controversial five-speed configuration. 

2000 Honda CR250R: A better bike in every way but one

With both the CR125R and CR250R, Honda made major strides in 2000. The new frames were significant improvements over the outgoing designs. Both bikes felt lighter, turned better and fed less vibration to your hands. The addition of rubber mounts for the bars on the CR125R helped take some of the bite out of the chassis and new suspension settings improved action front and rear. The bikes were still far stiffer than anything else in their classes and the suspension was still only mediocre, but at least they no longer vibrated your hands numb and pounded your backside to a pulp after ten minutes in the saddle. Great? No. Better? Yes. 

On the 125, the switch to the RC valve aided midrange power, but did not really do much to cure the bike’s narrow power spread. There was still very little thrust at the extremes and the bike pulled hard, but only for a short duration. Compared to the ’99, it was faster, but not really any easier to ride. 

On the 250, it was more of the same as the bike ran basically the same as the year before. The minor motor changes yielded a small improvement to the midrange power, but the older CR250R’s endless revs were still missing in action. It was potent and punchy, but a far cry from the omnipotent days of the early nineties.

2000 Honda CR500R: Look, Explosion Red!  

Overall, both the 125 and 250 were significantly improved machines. They still lacked the power characteristics to wrest the top spots away from Yamaha, but at least they were no longer the cabooses of the class. The new chassis changes yielded real-world improvements and the bikes were at least competitive against the best in the class. After the black eyes of the year before, that was a major step in the right direction. 

2001 Honda CR80R: Swapping the CR logo to the seat was worth .653 horsepower

After the major redesigns of 2000, refinement was the name of the game in 2001. Both the CR80R and CR500R received bold updates that moved the Honda logo from the radiator shroud to the seat. Aside from these earth-shattering improvements, the two CRs with motors dating back to the Reagan era pressed on unfettered by the march of time.  

In the 125 class, the CR received a surprising amount of updates for a virtually all-new machine. A new frame was added that kept most of the design intact, but slacked the head angle a half-degree. A new 1mm shorter shock was also added and paired with a revised Pro-Link linkage and a stiffer spring for improved bottoming resistance. In the motor, top-end power was the goal and Honda made several changes to free up its strangled upper hook.  First, they reshaped all the ports, then they enlarged the intake boot, replaced the reed-valve and added two small holes to the RC valve flappers. They also added 8 percent more mass to the flywheel and increased the stroke of the power valve governor for more fluid operation. Finally, a new pipe was added and a new exhaust manifold was bolted on that featured an O-ring for better sealing. 

2001 Honda CR125R: Body by Bowflex, motor by Toro

On the 250, the majority of changes were aimed at bringing back the CR’s legendary top-end pull. After two years of midrange-only deuce-and-a-halves, it was time to bring the CR back to its roots. Reshaped porting, a revised ignition, a new reed-valve and a switch to a Mikuni TMX for the carburetion all aimed to stretch the CR’s powerband for 2001. In order to improve breathing, Honda enlarged the air inlets on the side panels by 20% and bolted on a new expansion chamber to improve scavenging. 

Unlike the 125, Honda chose to keep the 250 chassis changes minimal for 2001. Overall geometry was the same as 2000 and the only real change was the availability of a new 20” front wheel. The 20” front was a trick the Factory team had used to take the bite out of the aluminum frame and bolting it up offered a little bit of cushion to the front end. In addition to the new front hoop option, the 250 received stiffer springs front and rear and a new high-flow piston for the shock. 

2001 Honda CR250R: Return of the Motor Company 

On the track, both the 125 and 250 benefited greatly from the off-season changes. With stiffer springs and valving, both bikes did a better job of absorbing the track than 2000. There was still a hint of harshness on slap-down landings, but in general, they offered the best Honda suspension packages in over a decade. Of the two motors, the 250 was the most improved, with a much wider powerband and stronger pull. There was still less torque than the YZ or KX, but the CR was as fast as anything in the class from the midrange on up. Really, its only motor issue was jetting, a task made immensely more difficult by its finicky new Mikuni carb.

2001 Honda CR500R: A legend rides off into the sunset

In the 125 division, the CR continued to be hampered by its underpowered motor and the many changes for 2001 did very little to alleviate this deficiency. The powerband continued to be one of the narrowest in the class and the CR required a go-for-broke approach to keep at full-boil. There was very little torque off idle, a decent midrange hit and an unspectacular top-end pull. It carried its power a little farther than 2000, but not enough to make any real difference in the horsepower rankings.  On hard pack, it worked well enough, but put it in deep loam and the CR had a hard time keeping up with anything other than the KX. After 15 years, three power valve designs and several Band-Aid fixes, it had become pretty obvious the motor that had once dominated small-bore racing was overdue for retirement.

2002 Honda CR80R Expert: Better engineering through logo swapping 

Much like 1973, 2002 stands as a watershed year in Honda motocross history. The 2002 season saw Honda retire the beloved, but oft neglected, CR500R in favor of a return to their roots.  Its replacement, the all-new CR450R, marked Honda’s first attempt at a four-stroke motocross machine since the original XR75. Using an all-new single-cam design Honda coined “Unicam”, the new CRF motor was lighter, more compact and maybe most importantly, far easier to start than Yamaha’s often finicky YZ426F. There was no frustrating starting drill to learn and far less of the dreaded “cough and die” syndrome that made the four-strokes so infuriating at times. It was as easy to start as any two-stroke 250 and with its relatively light compression braking, less of an adjustment for riders raised on the smokers. 

Compared to Yamaha’s fire-breathing YZ426F and KTM’s thundering 520SX, the new Honda was actually pretty mellow. It was torquey and smooth, but not really all that fast for an Open bike. The bike had instant response and a solid pull from low to mid, but there was not a lot of top-end power. It ran much more like an ultra-powerful XR400R than a racy and rev-happy YZ426F. Even though it was down somewhat on power, the bike remained competitive based on its ease of use, snappy response and twenty-pound weight advantage.   

2002 Honda CR125R: The bike that beat Bubba

The rest of the bike was as new as the motor and the CRF featured an all-new twin-spar alloy chassis, revised suspension and sleek new bodywork. The new frame built on feedback from the first two iterations of Honda’s alloy design and was even slimmer and more compliant than the gen-two designs had been. The new fork and shock were a huge improvement and for the first time in nearly two decades, a Honda was actually in the conversation for best suspension of the year. 

About the only complaints people had with the CRF were a slight push in the front end and a propensity to boil over the rear brake. The bike used a tiny new rear brake reservoir to save weight and its meager fluid capacity could be an issue for habitual brake-draggers. The front-end push was less defined, and some riders had a problem with this, while others didn’t. Either way, once MXA proclaimed it gospel, dozens of aftermarket clamps showed up to address this apparent “problem”.  

While the CRF450R was certainly the focus of most of the press attention in 2002, it was not the only all-new machine in the Honda stable. Both the 125 and 250 received their own versions of the new third-generation alloy frame and swoopy bodywork. In the case of the 250, there was also an all-new case-reed motor that used a high-tech electrically-operated version of the 125’s RC valve. Both the 125 and 250 were significantly lighter than before (eleven pounds on the 125 and seven on the 250) and offered much-improved ergonomics with a flatter seat and narrower midsection. 

2002 Honda CR250R: Third time is a charm for Honda’s alloy experiment

The new motor used on the 250 was by far the biggest design departure for the Honda deuce-and-a-half since the arrival of the ATAC in 1984. The case-reed configuration typically improved top-end power, but at the expense of low-end response. This worked fine in the rev-it-to-the-moon 125 class, but had met with mixed results in the 250 division. The new power valve system used a digitally controlled servo motor to open and close the new RC valve. This had been used on Honda’s works bikes for some time, but had never made it to production.

On paper, the new motor looked like a sure-fire winner. It was lighter, more compact and more powerful than the old CRV mill. Dyno reports showed it dusting off the old motor and even besting Yamaha’s class-leading YZ250 with ease. Unfortunately, however, a dyno curve does not a great motocross engine make. In the real world, the new motor felt lethargic and sleepy. It was smooth and electric, but slow to rev and just not much fun. There was none of the meaty blast of the old engine, just a slow-building wave of forward thrust. Once on the pipe it was fast, but it was in no hurry to get there. 

While the motor left a lot of people cold, the rest of the bike was a winner. It was feather light, handled well and for once, was well-suspended. The forks were actually plush (yes, you read that right) and the shock moved up and down without rattling your fillings loose. Both the spring rates and damping were spot on and overall, it was the best suspension package ever offered on a Honda 250. The bike was sleek, sexy and very competitive, but most riders still preferred the awesome power and overall excellence of Yamaha’s YZ250 over the high-tech, but less-exciting CR.

 2002 Honda CRF450R: Late to the party, but the belle of the ball

After paying for an all-new 250 motor and a completely new CRF450R, there were just not enough funds in the budget for a new 125 motor in 2002. The CR125R got all the chassis and suspension upgrades of the other two, but had to suffer through one more year in the power penalty box. The new airbox offered better breathing and there was a smidge more top-end power, but overall, it was the same basic midrange-only mill that had been frustrating riders since 1998. It was completely gutless down low, mildly spunky in the middle and wheezy on top. On hard dirt it felt ok, but in tacky soil it bogged down and required inhumane levels of clutch abuse to get back on the pipe.

Other than the anemic motor, the 2002 CR125R was pure magic. The suspension was as good as anything in the class and the new chassis was light, agile and accurate. The brakes were powerful, the quality of components was top-notch and the seat comfort was without equal. The overall durability of the bike was the best in the class and the CR stayed looking good long after the other brands looked clapped-out. If it had had the motor of the Yamaha or KTM it would have been unbeatable, but without the firepower to run at the front, it was destined to spend another year at the back of the pack.  

2003 Honda CR85R Expert: A bump in displacement and fresh looks for the red mini

In 2001, Kawasaki started the trend toward taking mini motors up to the 85cc class limit. While 5cc did not sound like a lot, it amounted to fairly substantial gain on such a small motor. In 2002, both Suzuki and Yamaha jumped on the big-bore bandwagon, leaving Honda as the only Japanese mini making due with a measly 80cc (79.4cc technically). For 2003, Honda dialed up a list of improvements aimed at keeping their red minis competitive in the buzz bomb ranks. First up was a bump in displacement to 84.7cc. This added a little bit of much-needed torque and brought the CRs in line with their rivals. In order to handle the new power, third gear and fifth gear were beefed up and a new stronger countershaft was added. A new frame maintained the 2002’s geometry, but featured bracing at strategic locations. Both the 37mm inverted Showa forks and Pro-Link rears featured revised damping to suit the stronger frames and more-powerful motors. Last up was all-new bodywork that made the CR85R and CR85R Expert look more like their big brothers.

On the track, both minis were excellent performers. The new motors still lacked the power valve and beefy low-end of the RM85 and KX85, but made up for it with an ear-splitting top-end shriek. Once on the pipe, the Hondas could run with anyone, but the lack of low-end torque and incredibly hard hit made the bikes a handful. Novices found the pipey and abrupt nature of the motors intimidating, but expert mini pilots loved its top-end wail. 

Like the motors, the suspension on both Honda 85s was skewed toward the faster end of the spectrum. They could handle riders up to 150 pounds and took big leaps in stride. The fit, finish and overall quality of the bikes were excellent and the new bodywork made them more comfortable than ever. Demanding, but rewarding to ride, the new CR85Rs were up to the challenge if you were. 

2003 Honda CR125R: A deep breathing program for the asthmatic of the class

Unfortunately for the Honda faithful, there would be no such horsepower improvements in the 125 class. With the basis for the current motor design dating back to Micky Dymond’s second 125 title in the late eighties, there was just not a lot that could be done to squeeze more power out of the gray-haired old girl. Fancy-pants ignitions, flapper valves and reed stuffers turned out to just be Band-Aids on a terminal patient. 

 For 2003, Honda once again tried to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse with a list of well-intentioned improvements. Figuring the problem with the motor was a lack of fresh air, Honda went about hogging out the intake to improve breathing. Freer-flowing vent holes in the side panels, a higher-volume airboot for the intake and a larger reed valve opened up the inbound side of the equation. These improvements fed air to a new Mikuni carb that was bumped up in size from 36 to 38mm. Inside the engine, larger ports, a revised head and a reshaped RC valve all aimed to broaden power. Complementing the internal mods were a new expansion chamber and silencer to help get out all that spent air and fuel out more efficiently. 

Much like the 250 the year before, Honda’s engine improvements yielded impressive gains on the dyno charts that did not translate to the track. The CR continued to offer a very narrow spread of power and very little torque. At 7000rpm, it offered literally half the torque of any other 125. It was hollow down low and required a ton of clutch fanning to get going. In the midrange, it was mildly perky, but that only lasted a few hundred rpm before the powerband plummeted southward. Even with all its new motor work, the top end was still basically non-existent. At peak, the CR gave up almost five horsepower to the best 125s in the class and you might as well forget about comparing it to Yamaha’s YZ250F four-stroke. It was the same old story for a bike who’s sales had plummeted 40% since 2000. With an all-new CRF250R on the horizon and Honda making a lot of noise about the future of two-stokes, it was not looking good for the bike that kickstarted the 125 class thirty years before.

2003 Honda CR250R: Lovely, but still a little slow on the giddy-up

In 2002, the CR250R received rave reviews for its handling, suspension, fit, feel and overall engineering. The one area that did not get a rave was its new high-tech motor. The case-reed RC mill pumped out a slow-building and listless delivery that posted great peak power figures, but garnered little affection. Even worse, the carburetion was wonky, the works-style power valve constantly went out of adjustment and the airbox leaked. It was 80% awesome and 20% disappointing. 

For 2003, Honda tried to punch up the lazy motor by giving the 250 the same intake improvements as the 125. The hogged-out intake and more opened up side panels were paired with a better sealing airbox and a new eight-pedal reed valve. The 250 maintained the persnickety Mikuni carburetor and electric RC valve, but added new porting and a redesigned expansion chamber for a more aggressive delivery.

In addition to the motor upgrades, the chassis got a few improvements aimed at improving handling and ergonomics. The swingarm pivot was moved up slightly and the frame’s crossmember and head stay were redesigned to increase weight on the front wheel and dial in a bit more flex. To improve ergonomics, the frame spars were also narrowed slightly and both the seat and subframe were modified to provide a less cramped riding environment. Lastly, new valving for the forks and shock were paired with a stiffer rear spring to improve suspension performance. 

Unfortunately, much like the 125, all those changes added up to very little real-world improvement. The power continued to be sluggish, unresponsive and uninspired. The bike was smooth and reasonably fast, but boring to ride. The carburetion was still a problem and what worked one week was completely wrong the next. Once again, the rest of the bike was excellent, but the motor continued to be the weak link in an otherwise cutting-edge package.

2003 Honda CRF450R: Better handling for the darling of the Open class

In 2002, the CRF450R had proved the most-popular machine in motocross. The new four-stroke Honda was literally everywhere and seas of red thumpers proliferated tracks from coast-to-coast. Its light weight, ease of use, and Honda reputation for quality quickly overcame rider’s fears about the quirks and complications of racing a four-stroke. Even with all its commercial and critical success, however, the CRF was not perfect.

Some people did not like its steering feel (particularly compared to the razor-sharp Yamaha YZF), while others found fault with its lack of a massive hit and mediocre top-end power. Reliability wise, it was very good for an all-new machine, but there were some issues. The seal between the air filter and airbox was problematic and it was not uncommon to suck dirt if unattended (PC Racing offered a kit to rectify this). There were also problems with the chain guide and slider (junk), radiator shrouds (too flexy), and rear brake (switch to Motul fluid and don’t drag it). With its relatively small oil capacity, it was also critical to keep an eye on the oil level and check the valve clearance at regular intervals.  For the most part, however, it was an excellent and trouble-free motorcycle. 

For 2003, Honda looked to address these few concerns with a list of small, but important improvements. First up was a new linkage and longer shock that repositioned the pivot point and raised the rear to place more weight on the front tire. The frame was also altered to steepen the head angle 1 degree and the wheelbase was shortened .9 inches.  A new seat raised the riding compartment 7mm and new bar mounts moved the bars forward 3mm to provide better leverage in turns. On the motor side, Honda spec’d a new cam, reprogrammed ignition and revised pipe to boost low-end power and punch up the midrange. Lastly, front suspension travel was increased 10mm to match the longer shock and new damping was installed to better handle the new weight bias. 

On the track, the darling of the 450 class was an even better machine for 2003. The geometry changes tightened up the steering and the motor changes bumped up torque and boosted the top end. It was still nowhere near as potent as Yamaha’s tire-shredding new YZ450F, but many people preferred the CRF’s easy-to-ride power over the Yamaha’s insane hit. The five-speed tranny also made it more versatile than the MX-focused four-speed in the new YZF. For hardcore horsepower loonies, the YZF was a good choice, but for the majority of riders, the CRF was a better bike. 

2004 Honda CR125R: A fancy-pants power valve yields familiar results

In 2001, Yamaha had become the first manufacturer to field a motocross-ready 250 four-stroke. Perhaps even more groundbreaking than the YZ400F had been, the new YZ250F shattered people’s expectations about what a small-bore four-stroke could do. With its relatively light weight, excellent handling and stratospheric 13,500 rpm red line, the YZ250F was a whole new type of motocross machine.

When the YZ250F was announced in 2000, none of the other Big Four manufacturers even had a bike to compete with the YZ400F/YZ426F, much less a 250 version. The paradigm shift that was the YZ250F completely changed the industry (many would say for the worse) and left all the manufacturers besides Yamaha scrambling to catch up.   

For 2004, both Honda and Suzuki/Kawasaki finally got in the 250F game with thumpers of their own. In the case of Kawasaki and Suzuki, their entry was a unique joint venture that tried to leverage the strengths of both companies to develop a competitive racer. In the case of Honda, their contribution was an all-new machine that built on what they had learned with the CRF450R and tried to translate that into a lighter, smaller and more aggressive package.

2004 Honda CR250R: Look, traction nibbies for the seat

The all-new CRF250R used a scaled-down version of the unique Unicam motor found on the CRF450R. With the two intake and two exhaust valves actuated by a single cam, Honda was able to both save weight and lower the motor’s center of gravity. The new motor also kept the separate oil chambers and lightweight slipper-style piston of the 450. The frame was also all-new and featured yet another trimming of the frame spars in search of more flex and better feel. New bodywork front-to-back improved ergonomics and provided even more comfort, while new Renthal 971 alloy bars finally eliminated the need to immediately round-file the steel stockers. Suspension was handled by Showa front and rear and the 250F used the same 47mm twin-chamber forks found on the larger 450. 

 On the track, the new CRF250R ran and handled very much like the scaled-down CRF450R that it was. The power was pleasant and responsive, but not awe-inspiring. It was less torquey than the Kawa-zuki twins and not as rev-happy as the YZ250F. Like its 450 stable mate, it did its best work in the midrange and put out a solid and easy-to-use style of power. If revved, the 249cc mill tapered off and screaming it was not the hot setup. In terms of outright power, it was less potent than the Yamaha, which continued to get eye-popping power from its little five-valve mill. Overall, the CRF’s power plant was competitive, but not a standout. 

As to the rest of the bike, it was the class of the field in 2004. The handling, suspension, fit and feel were all top-notch and a cut above the other bikes. The Kawa-zuki twins suffered from cranky handling traits and the new Yamaha was lighter for ‘04, but still top-heavy feeling compared to the low and lean Honda. Things like seat comfort (the best), build quality (flawless), brakes (the strongest) and detailing (no junk here) all made the new Honda feel like a winner.  Much like its two-stroke stable mates, it was a great overall bike, held back slightly by an unexceptional motor.  

2004 Honda CRF250R: Finally some competition for Yamaha’s 125 killer

While the CRF250R received an all-new fourth-generation frame in 2004, the CRF450R had to make do with the third-generation chassis for one more year. The big-bore Honda also missed out on the high-zoot new plastic and flatter rider compartment of the 250F. What it did get was a nice list of modest improvements looking to build on its already stellar reputation. 

First up on that list was a lighter and higher-compression piston for the motor. This was to quicken throttle response and try to punch up the mellow CRF’s smooth powerband. The flywheel was also lightened and a new map was programmed into the ignition to sharpen power and give the CRF more of a YZF-style feel. Complementing the motor changes was a new exhaust system that was lighter and repositioned 50mm forward for better mass centralization. Lastly, revised gearing was bolted on that subtracted two teeth from the rear to give the bike a longer pull in each gear.

While the engine changes for ‘04 were not ground-breaking, the results were impressive. The motor was snappier and freer-revving, with a solid pull from bottom to top. It was still smooth and easy-to-ride, but far less “chuggy” than in the past. The new gearing was less successful and many riders chose to bolt the larger 50-tooth of 2003 back on. With the stock tall gearing, the bike pulled farther in each gear, but felt sluggish out of turns. In order to really feel the increased torque for 2004, it was best to gear it back down and use the five-speed transmission to its fullest. 

As in 2003, the rest of the bike was mostly excellent, with a few small frustrations. During the offseason, it dropped three pounds (yeah), but the puny rear brake continued to boil over if abused (boo).  The new Renthal 7/8 alloy bars and non-slip seat cover were appreciated, but the air filter remained an exercise in cramming five-pounds of filter into three-pounds of hole. The new on-the-fly clutch perch and lever finally got rid of the annoying jangle in the lever, but the Bonneville gearing and increased power put an undo strain on the once bulletproof clutch. The forks, while still incredibly plush, were a bit too soft for hard chargers and out of balance with the stiff rear shock.

Overall, however, it was still the same fantastic motorcycle than had taken the world by storm the two previous seasons. The minor motor changes pumped up the excitement (once the gearing was swapped) and the weight savings and mass centralization tweaks gave the bike a light and easy feel on the ground and in the air. It was still less powerful than the YZ450F, but better handling and far easier to ride. 

2004 Honda CR450R: A diet and some motor tweaks equal another winner

On the two-stroke side of things, changes were focused around the CR125R’s motor for 2004. Although a completely new motor was not in the cards, a redesigned power valve and cylinder were. For 2004, the 125 received the 250’s controversial electronically controlled RC valve and an all-new top end. In addition to the new motor parts, the 125’s Mikuni carburetor got an upgrade with the addition of a throttle position sensor to improve response. The rest of the bike was largely unchanged, with the 125 also receiving the seat, handlebar and clutch perch upgrades found on the four-strokes. 

On the 250 side, the CR received new porting, a redesigned reed valve and a throttle position sensor for the carb. There were also some minor suspension setting changes and a larger intake boot for the airbox. In addition to the motor and suspension enhancements, the 250 received the same component upgrades found on the other full-size CR/CRF models. 

With both the 125 and 250, the good news was both bikes performed better for 2004. The redesigned 125 motor was snappier in the midrange and pulled better on top. Low-end was still DOA, but at least it no longer felt like the piston was in backwards. Unfortunately, the bad news was that it was still far slower than its classmates. Even with its performance upgrades, the CR lagged behind the others in excitement and outright power. It was light, excellent handling and no longer a complete joke, but still too slow to be much of a threat to anyone on a Yamaha. 

In the 250 class, the CR was also improved with a bit more midrange and an awesome top-end pull. Where it continued to suffer was on the low-end, where the bike lacked the snappy response of the RM or YZ. Even with all the changes to the porting and carburetion, the case-reed RC mill continued to be soft off the bottom and slow to respond. Once on the pipe it was plenty fast, but out of turns, the CR was left going whaaaaaa, while the YZ and RM were going braaaaappppp! It was certainly competitive, as Ricky Carmichael had proven the two years previous, but to make it work, you were going to need RC’s ability to lock your right wrist and keep it pinned.  

2005 Honda CR125R: Finally…it’s fast

Remember 2004, when Honda reinvented the CR125R motor for the umpteenth time in seven years? The top end was totally redesigned and the red tiddler was given the Buck Rogers electro-servo RC valve of the 250. It was a major injection of cash and technology to a bike that had lagged behind its competition for almost a decade. Unfortunately, however, this tech-injection had tuned out to not be wholly successful.  The Honda tiddler was better, but still not good enough. 

For 2005, Honda once again went back to the drawing board and scrapped the electronic power valve of 2004 in favor of a return to a mechanical governor for the 125. It retained the flapper-style RC valve, but added yet another new cylinder and head. The intake tract and reed valve were also redesigned (for the 345th time) and paired with a new crank and redesigned piston. 

At the time, it was pretty amazing that Honda was still willing to spend so much engineering capital on the CR125R. It was no secret that the two-stroke was under a death watch by 2005 and the poor CR125R had been taking it on the chin for several years at this point. Every year, they threw the kitchen sink at the red tiddler, and every year, it got smoked by the competition yet again. 

Well, for once, all that hard work actually paid off. The new motor actually got out of its own way and pumped out competitive power for the first time since 1997 (competitive against other 125s at least). It was still no rocket off the line, but the low-end power was improved and the bike was easier to get out of turns.  The CR’s best power continued to be found in the midrange and once on the pipe, it was as fast as anything else in the class. Top-end power continued to be mediocre and it was best to snap off a shift rather than try to stretch out that last gear. If you could keep it in the sweet spot, the CR was fast, but if you flubbed a shift, the other bikes were going to roost on by. 

As it had been since the 2002 redesign, the rest of the bike was excellent. Handling, suspension, brakes and quality were at or near the top of the class. The previous three years, it had been a motor away from the top spot and finished at the back of the pack in spite of its overall excellence. For 2005, the motor was finally in the running and the CR125R leapfrogged all the way from last to second in the overall standings. It was not as easy to ride as the YZ125 and not as outright fast as the KTM, but overall, it was a very competitive package.  

2005 Honda CR250R: More tweaks for the red deuce-and-a-half

Surprisingly, the CR125R was not the only Honda two-stroke to receive some significant updates for 2005. In yet another attempt to turn their case-reed screamer into a torquer, Honda once again dialed up an all-new cylinder for the CR250R. Unlike the 125, the 250 retained the electric RC valve, but offered a new one-piece flapper and new housing that improved sealing. The new cylinder featured revised porting, a reshaped head and a lighter piston to boost bottom and midrange power. Honda also altered the angle of the intake and narrowed the reed valve for better flow characteristics. In the transmission, Honda updated the fork shaft, shift fork and shift drum for smoother action. Lastly, a new pipe was stamped that offered increased volume for beefier low-to-mid power. 

On the 250, all these changed added up to an improved, but not really different CR250R.  Low-end was increased, but not enough to write home to Japan about. It picked up better off the bottom and climbed on to the powerband a bit faster, but still lacked the quick-revving feel of the competition. The midrange, however, continued to be excellent and the CR ripped once the RC valve snapped open. Top-end was decent, but most of the juice was to be found in the midrange. It was still not as responsive as the old CRV motor, but closer than at any time since the switch to case-reed in 2002. 

2005 Honda CRF250R:  A diet and some motor refinements for 2005

In 2004, Honda’s CRF250R proved a massive success. Light, excellent handling and well-suspended, the smaller CRF was the perfect complement to its runaway hit of a big brother. Its only real faults were a power deficit to the YZ250F and some first-year reliability gremlins. On some CRFs, the bottom of the cylinder skirt was known to crack and break off, causing a costly and catastrophic failure. It was also vital to stay on top of valve adjustments and watch the oil level like a hawk. The CRF’s small oil capacity left little room for error and the red 250F showed a penchant for eating crude.  

In order to address these issues, Honda redesigned the CRF’s cylinder and head for 2005. The skirt of the cylinder was made longer to prevent cracking at the base and new porting was added to the head to improve breathing. A new hotter cam was cut and placed in between the CRF’s titanium and steel valves and a new exhaust was stamped to increase flow and lower weight. A new silencer was also bolted on and repositioned farther forward for better mass centralization. 

To further save weight, the hubs, swingarm and right engine cover were trimmed, tucked and shaved to drop a few precious ounces. The new engine cover also featured redesigned oil passages to allow better flow to the clutch and transmission for improved durability.  Even things like the spark plug tube were put on a diet for 2005 and the result was a full two pounds of weight savings over 2004.

On the track, the new CRF250R was a slightly more potent version of the novice-friendly 2004. It pulled smoothly from down low and offered a decent amount of torque out of turns.  It was not as punchy as the KXF/RMZ and about on par with the YZF. As in 2004, it did its best work in the midrange, with a strong surge and mild hit. Top-end was decent, but nowhere near as strong as the endlessly-pulling Yamaha. 

The handling and suspension continued to be excellent and the CRF topped the class in both categories.  The Showa forks and shock did a great job of taming the track and the CRF offered the best combination of turning prowess and high-speed stability. It handled the best, stopped the fastest and offered the most comfort, but lacked the engine pizzazz of the Yamaha. For most people short of an AMA pro, that was more than good enough in 2005. 

2005 Honda CRF450R: The beginning of the glory years

After dominating the sales charts for three years, it was finally time to give the CRF450R a makeover in 2005. The Honda flagship adopted a version of the CRF250R’s fourth-generation alloy frame and new bodywork. The new frame was lower at the steering head, narrower through the middle and more compact overall. Overall geometry was tighter, with a shorter wheelbase, new fork offset and repositioned front axle. The 449cc motor was largely a carryover, but there was new ignition mapping, a larger airbox and a new exhaust to boost power for ‘05. Internally, the transmission received new shift drums, shift forks and shift fork shafts for more-precise shifting.   In addition to being more compact overall, the new bike was a full 3 1/2 pounds lighter than 2004. 

The end result of this redesign was a nearly perfect racing motorcycle. The new freer-flowing airbox and ignition map worked miracles on the CRF’s mellow personality and transformed it from smooth and chugging, to snappy and snarling. Throttle response was instant and the bike positively leaped out of turns. It pulled like a freight train from the first crack of the throttle and never stopped pulling. The CRF could be a bit of a handful for novices, but those above the beginner class loved its luscious vibes. With its five-speed gearbox and broad power, the CRF was also the most flexible bike in the class.  It could be lugged, revved or finessed with equal effectiveness. The new tranny clicked off positive shifts and the 40mm FCR carb never hiccupped, belched or burbled. 

Just like the motor, Honda nailed the handing with the 2005 CRF450R. The new frame gave the bike a slimmer profile and the new bodywork provided a flatter layout to aid movement. The front-end push that had sent riders in search of clamps and links the three previous years was completely absent and the big Honda shredded the turns. Amazingly, the bike was also stable and showed none of the nasty headshake that had been a hallmark of Hondas for decades. At 231 pounds, it was also the lightest bike in the class and felt every bit of it. The suspension, handling, fit and feel of the CRF were the class standard in 2005. Even the brakes were improved, with new insulators on the pads that finally appeased pedal-draggers. 

Overall, the new CRF450R was by far the most complete package Honda had ever offered. Two-stroke or four, no other CR/CRF had ever captured its combination of power, handling and suspension excellence. It romped, it stomped, and it stopped on a dime and gave you back a nickel in change. In 2005, Honda nailed the magic formula and nothing else was even close.

2006 Honda CR125R: Decal engineering

In 2006, Honda’s two-stroke development finally entered the time capsule people had been predicting for half a decade. The CR85R, CR125R and CR250R were exactly the same bikes that had been offered for sale the year before. For the first time since 1977, there was no reed-massaging, case-stuffing or power valve rejiggering in store for the bikes that put Honda on the motocross map. Even the Bold New Graphics were not particularly bold. Oh well, at least they were still for sale.

On the four-stroke side of things, Honda dialed up a doozy of a marketing coup in 2006 by…wait for it…adding an extra muffler to the back of the CRF250R. Amazingly, this apparently superfluous extra muffler generated more buzz than Kawasaki’s all-new KX250F or the remake of Miami Vice in 2006. In press literature, Honda waxed on poetically about roll, pitch and yaw, stating that the new exhaust would lessen these figures by 2 percent, 18 percent and 28 percent respectively. To the average consumer, this sounded like so much mumbo jumbo, but there was no denying the curb appeal of those sexy dual pipes. 

2006 Honda CR250R: Bold New…oh forget it

 

Conventional wisdom at the time was that Honda made the move to combat the sound issues tied to the rise of four-strokes, but the twin pipes turned out to actually be 1dB louder than the old single pipe had been. For their part, Honda never made any claims about lowering sound output and stuck to their roll, pitch and yaw spiel like a politician running for re-election. 

Fancy pipes aside, the CRF250R received some pretty significant motor changes for 2006. In 2004 and 2005, the CRF250R had been competitive, but at a motor disadvantage to Yamaha’s high-revving YZ250F. For 2006, Honda dug into their Unicam motor in an effort to extract a few precious ponies. 

First up on the list of upgrades was a new piston that bumped the compression up from 12.5:1 to 12.9:1. The new piston also featured a thinner ring for reduced friction and a new dome shape for cleaner combustion. The head was also reshaped and fitted with new valve seats for increased durability (early CRFs suffered from premature valve wear under hard use). A new cam was installed to punch up the low end and a new 40mm (up from 37mm) FCR Keihin carb was bolted on to broaden the powerband. Finishing off the power package was a new map for the ignition that was designed to work with the new higher-compression motor. 

2006 Honda CRF250R: Look, two pipes!

 

Amazingly, with all those motor changes, the 2006 CRF250R ran pretty much just like the 2005 version had. There was a slight bump up in torque, but nothing worth selling your 450 over. The midrange was strong, but the top-end continued to be mediocre. The new big-bore carb did very little to pump up the revs, but it did give the bike an irritating bog that was liable to send you over the bars if you carelessly wacked the throttle open. This was a major annoyance on the early Yamaha four-strokes and something the CRFs had avoided up until this point. Fiddling with the jetting helped, but it never really went away 100 percent.

As to the dual exhaust, it made no real discernible difference. The bike was no faster, quieter or less prone to pitching, rolling or yawing than the year before. It did look amazing, and that may have been the point all along. As they say, “the first bite is with the eye,” and there was no denying that the trick factor helped sell a few more CRFs in 2006.

Overall, the 2006 CRF250R was a solid package. The suspension was good (although the new Kayaba SSS forks on the Yamaha were better), it was light, handled well and stopped with authority. The motor was still pedestrian and the dual pipes were a bit of a fugazi, but they did make the bike stand out in a crowded field of 250 four-strokes. As long as outright power was not your priority, it was a good choice; if holeshots were your thing, however, there were better choices. 

2006 Honda CRF450R: Still the master blaster of the 450 class

In the 450 class, things were getting crowded as well in 2006. After nearly a decade of dragging their heels, Kawasaki finally unveiled their first Open class thumper, the KX450F. Using a twin-spar alloy chassis similar to the CRF’s, the all-new KXF looked very much like a green Honda. With the addition of the RM-Z450 in 2005, that brought the number of legitimate 450 contenders to five (not counting oddballs like Husqvarna and TM). 

In order to fend off this increased competition, Honda took their already amazing ’05 CRF450R and made some small improvements for 2006. In order to give the bike an even lighter feel, the engineers lowered the motor 5mm and tilted it slightly forward. The radiators were also lowered 5mm (a modification shared with the ‘06 CRF250R) and a new exhaust system was designed that further centralized mass. Both the hubs and forks were modified to save weight and a new subframe was bolted on that repositioned the airbox 7.5mm forward. While the motor received no performance upgrades, new valve seat material (borrowed from the off-road CRF450X) was added to the head to increase durability and a new water-pump impeller was installed to extend seal life. 

On the track, the 2006 CRF450R was basically the same machine that had been the darling of the motocross industry the year before. The new weight distribution made a subtle difference to steering feel, but you needed to be Kevin Windham to tell the difference. It was not as razor-sharp as the RMZ, but more precise than the KXF, YZF or KTM.  Up front, new valving for the forks provided a slightly plusher feel, but fast guys were likely to want stiffer fork springs.  Out back, the Showa shock was excellent at big hits, but a bit choppy on breaking bumps. It was still certainly raceable, but the new Yamaha outpaced the CRF in both areas. 

The one area where the competition was not able to catch up in 2006 was the motor. There, the CRF continued to dominate with the broadest pull and most power. The new Yamaha gave it a good run for its money, but the CRF came out ahead once again. It was hard-hitting, broad, and blisteringly fast. The CRF450R was no longer the king in all categories, but for hardcore racers, it was hard to beat. 

2007 Honda CR85R, CR125R and CR250R: RIP old friends 

In 1973, Honda entered the two-stroke market and changed the sport forever. Thirty-five years later, they left that market for good. After more than three decades, the bikes that helped kickstart motocross in America were being put out to pasture. The 2007 season would be the last for the CR85R, CR85R Expert, CR125R and CR250R. All four bikes would get one last set of Bold New Graphics and then ride off into the sunset. The incredible popularity of four-strokes, combined with economic pressures and environmental concerns, led Honda’s management to proclaim that the 2007 season would be their two-stroke model’s last. Sad news though this was, it was easy to understand their reasoning. 

At the time, all the big four seemed to all be moving in that direction and Honda appeared to be just the first domino in a chain that would see the two-stroke disappear from tracks nationwide. The EPA, a slowing global economy and the fickle tastes of the buying public all seemed to be conspiring to retire the motor that had dominated the sport for four decades. Thankfully, that has not happened (thank you KTM and Yamaha), but in 2007, it looked like a fait accompli.

2007 Honda CRF150R and CRF150R Expert: The start of a revolution that never happened

With the retirement of the CR85R and CR85R Expert looming, Honda needed a new mini machine to fill out the lineup and since the new corporate edict was “no more two-strokes,” that machine would need to be a quadra-stroke. Considering rumors had been flying around about a 150cc four-stroke ever since Yamaha debuted the YZ250F in 2001, this was far from a surprise.  If anything, the surprise was that no one else had attempted it. 

Dubbed the CRF150R, Honda’s latest four-stroke used a scaled-down version of the Unicam design seen on the CRF250R and CRF450R. The new 149cc single shared the single-overhead-cam configuration and four-valve head of its larger siblings, but used a new roller rocker arm to actuate the valves instead of the forked rollers of the larger CRFs. The new 150R also shared the lightweight slipper-style piston and industry-standard Keihin FCR flat-slide carburetor of the larger bikes. 

Where the smaller CRF differed from the larger bikes, was in the chassis.  There, Honda chose to stick with steel instead of aluminum for the frame’s construction. The new 150 used a similar frame and the same 37mm inverted Showa forks and Pro-Link rear as the CR85R. As with the CR85R, there was a big-wheeled version that replaced the 17-inch front and 14-inch wheels with 19-inch and 16-inch alternatives.

On the track, the new CRF150R’s main advantage over the 85cc two-strokes was in the broadness of its power. It pulled from a lower point on the curve and continued that power over a broader range. It was not night-and-day more powerful than the 85, just smoother and far easier to ride. Because of this advantage, the AMA decreed that the 150 was not eligible for the 85 class and would have to stick to the Super Mini division. There, it would face larger displacement two-strokes that would have a better chance at leveling the playing field. This was the type of move that should have been done by the AMA a decade before, when the original YZ400F showed up. If it had been, maybe the 125 and 250 class would not have morphed into the 250F and 450F division. Hindsight aside, the proof would certainly seem to be in the pudding as the 85 two-stroke class is still alive and well and no other manufacturer has followed Honda in making a 150 four-stroke. A decade later, it is still the lone thumper in the class.

2007 Honda CRF250R: Kicking the crap out of roll, pitch and yaw since 2006

For 2007, Honda chose to stick with refinements on their two main bread winners. Both the CRF250R and CRF450R received some minor motor tweaks and chassis adjustments aimed at improving the performance of the two best-selling machines in motocross. The CRF250R received a new cam, revised porting and new accelerator pump for the carburetor. The CRF450R marched into 2007 with a larger carb (41mm vs. 40mm in 2006), slightly smaller exhaust valve and a revised engine decompression system. Both bikes also adopted a new front brake master cylinder (15 percent more power), beefed-up clutch baskets (improved durability), and revised damping for the forks (less bumpiness).  

On the track, both bikes were improved, but not a quantum leap over 2006. The CRF250R offered a bit more throttle response, but the bog was not completely exorcised. Land off a jump and whack the throttle open, and you still had a 10 percent chance the CRF would hiccup instead of powering forward. The Kawasaki was faster and the Yamaha was better suspended, but the Honda still proved to be a competitive package (plus it had dual pipes…DUAL PIPES people). 

In 2005 and 2006, the CRF450R was the powerhouse of the class. It was explosive and immediate in the way only an Open class machine can be. It was so abrupt, in fact, that some people thought the bike was too powerful and actually wanted less snap from the 449cc Unicam mill. To that end, Honda tried to actually smooth out their powerhouse for 2007. The new carb and revised valvetrain gave the CRF a bit less hit off idle and a smoother transition into the midrange. It was still massively powerful, but slightly friendlier. On the dyno, the new KTM 450SX-F outpaced it, but in the real world, nothing was as hooked-up, churning and pulling forward as the CRF. 

2007 Honda CRF450R: A monster motor and solid chassis equal the best 450 in motocross

While the motor was nearly perfect, the rest of the bike was not as much of an advantage as it had been in previous years. Compared to the Yamaha, the suspension was a bit harsh, and compared to the Suzuki, its turning was only pedestrian. The brakes, once the envy of the industry, were also starting to seem downright average compared to the works-bike-powerful Brembo binders found on the KTM. Even with all these shortcomings, however, it was still the best overall 450 package in motocross. 

2008 Honda CRF250R: For $200 extra, you could get one of 500 Black Bart editions in 2008

For 2008, Honda once again chose to make incremental improvements to their stable of four-stoke racers. With the two-strokes retired, it was up to the CRF150R, CRF250R and CRF450R to uphold Honda’s motocross honor. All three bikes looked virtually the same, with exception of two special editions that blacked out the bodywork and wheels on the 250 and 450. They were available in limited numbers (Honda only produced 500 of each) and cost an additional $200 over the base CRFs.

After being all-new in 2007, the 150 twins soldiered on into 2008 with only a slight update in graphics (but no special edition). On the 250 side, Honda dialed up more power by installing a higher compression piston (13.1:1 vs 12.9:1), lightening up the valve train, porting the head, and installing a new cam. They also shaved some weight off the counterbalancer and installed a new ignition map that bumped the redline up from 13,370 to 13,500. 

On the 450, Honda’s motor changes were even more minimal for 2008. The 450 received the same counterbalancer diet as the 250, a tapered head pipe and a new ignition. While that was not much of an update, the ignition change was worth noting. The new CDI box was paired with a gear-position sensor and the two combined offered three separate maps based on gear position. There was a separate map installed for first, second, and third through fifth. 

On the chassis side, they stole a little trickery from the off-road world and added a steering damper to both the 250 and 450. Coined the Honda Progressive Steering Damper (HPSD), this little unit had been a trick of the Factory team since the days of Ricky Carmichael.  Stashed behind the front number plate, the HPSD was designed to reduce the kind of lock-to-lock swaps that were common to bikes with ultra-aggressive steering geometry. While the CRFs had not been particularly prone to this, other changes Honda had in store for 2008 would make the HPSD a necessity. 

Since the introduction of the CRF450R in 2002 and CRF250R in 2004, some riders had grumbled about the turning of the Honda four-strokes. Early models exhibited a push at turn-in that annoyed riders who had become accustomed to the amazing front wheel traction exhibited by Yamaha’s YZF. The CRFs were great all-around handlers, which nicely straddled the line between turning and stability, but no one was going to mistake them for an RM125. For 2008, Honda chose to mess with success and do what savvy riders (and the Factory team) had been doing for years and pull in the CRF’s front geometry. 

Both the 250 and 450 received new clamps that decreased the fork offset from 24mm to 22mm. This increased trail, put more weight on the front wheel, and in theory, improved steering response. Normally, this could also have made the bikes twitchy at speed, but this is where the HPSD came in. The new offset was designed to sharpen the turning, while the new steering damper was installed to calm any instability. It was an interesting solution to a problem that had haunted motocross engineers for decades. 

2008 Honda CRF450R: One damn fine motorcycle

On the track, both bikes exhibited a different feel than 2007. Not necessarily better, just different. The turn-in was slightly improved, but the CRF was not transformed into a Suzuki. The new steering damper also took some getting used to and if you dialed up too much resistance, the HPSD could give the front end a sluggish feel. Some riders felt it made the bikes feel heavy and even advocated taking it off, but then the bikes felt unsettled at speed. The key was to play with the settings and find the right amount of resistance.  Once set properly, most riders got used to the new feel.  With it dialed in, the front end was less prone to being knocked off its line mid-corner and less likely to get a wobble at speed. Overall, it was a promising idea that some people liked and some people didn’t. 

In the motor department, the changes for ’08 were more effective. On the 250, the new high-compression piston and revised valvetrain really woke up the previously sleepy CRF motor. The new bike pulled hard off the bottom and ripped through the midrange. Top end was not awe-inspiring, but the rest of the powerband was world class. It was torquey, broad and faster than any 250F to ever come from the Honda stable. On top, the KTM pulled ahead, but from corner-to-corner, the CRF romped. The stupid bog was still there, but jetting it properly made it slightly less annoying. 

On the 450, the motor changes were geared less at making more power and more at making better power. In 2008, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Honda all made attempts at detuning their 450s. Perhaps remembering the fate of the 500s two decades earlier, they feared turning buyers away with bikes too powerful for the average rider to handle. All three made less power than 2007 and offered easier-to-ride powerbands. Of the three, the Honda was the least detuned, with only one less pony at peak, but a much smoother delivery. The 2008 CRF450R was still very responsive, but now the motor revved a tiny bit slower. It was actually more akin to the early CRF450R motors that picked up slower and were not as eager to blast through the powerband. This more-metered delivery made it easier to get traction and less intimidating. Lug it, rev it or pin it to the stops, the mighty CRF was up to the task. In 2008, this was the nearly perfect 450 powerband.

As in 2007, rest of the bike was not necessarily the best in every area, but it came together the best as a whole. New stiffer fork springs and a 0.5mm increase in cartridge rod size firmed up the forks over 2007, but many riders below the pro class found them too stiff. The brakes got new rotors and an excellent feel, but they still lacked the bite of the KTM’s Brembos. Overall handling was still very good, with a great combination of turning and stability, but not everyone loved the HPSD. The 2008 CRF450R was a world-beating motor, housed in a solid chassis, with decent suspension. It was not plush and its motor demanded respect, but for hardcore racing, there was not a better bike available in 2008.

2009 Honda CRF150R: Black Bart gets a little brother

In 2009, the biggest news in the Honda camp was the inclusion of the CRF150R in the blackout movement. Just kidding, although the 150 did get its own special edition for 2009 that added black plastic and fancy graphics. Other than that, the thumper twins soldiered on into 2009 unchanged. 

In reality, the big (and I mean mega huge) news was the retirement of the most popular machine in motocross. The bike that many considered the best motocross machine ever built was laid to rest, and in its place resided a totally redesigned CRF450R. This new bike shared only three parts with the outgoing model: hubs, handlebars and brakes. Other than that, this was a totally new CRF. 

In 2008, Suzuki had been the first manufacturer to stick fuel injection on their 450 machine. The new RMZ was snappy and responsive, but not particularly fast. Even worse, it was badly overweight. The heavy-duty tank, fuel pump and brawnier ignition needed to power the EFI added ten pounds to the RMZ. In order to combat the weight gain inherent in the switch to fuel injection, Honda put the new CRF on a major diet program. The new chassis, motor and bodywork were all shaved, trimmed and miniaturized in an effort to make the bike lighter and more compact. 

The geometry of the new frame was also completely different and Honda went all-out to put more weight on the front wheel. The new motor was lower and moved forward, resulting in the motor being 15mm closer to the front wheel. The swingarm was 18mm longer, further placing more weight on the front. The steering stem was also moved back 10mm and a new 20mm offset clamp were installed to further steepen the front geometry.  The HPSD remained, but offered revised damping to work with the redesigned chassis. The new frame was also lighter (by 14 ounces) and thinner through the middle (1mm) than the outgoing chassis. All the bodywork was new as well and it offered an avante-garde look and trimmed down proportions. The overall pilot compartment was thinner, shorter and more compact, with narrower shrouds and a lower seat height. 

2009 Honda CRF250R: A beefed-up motor equals the best of the first-generation CRF250Rs

 

In the motor department, the 450’s mill was all-new for the first time since 2002. While it maintained the Unicam design of its predecessor, none of the internal or external workings were the same. The head, valvetrain, cylinder, rod, and lower cases were all new. Internally, the new CRF still used its unique dual-sump lubrication system and five-speed transmission. Externally, the new motor was smaller in nearly every dimension. Virtually every part was examined in the search for lighter weight and better mass-centralization. Even the clutch was lightened, swapping out its six-spring basket for a new four-spring arrangement. 

Finishing off the motor package was an all-new fuel injection system that replaced the Keihin FCR carburetor that had been the staple of four-strokes since their return to motocross in 1998. The new Keihin EFI system on the CRF used a 50mm throttle body and twelve-port injector to deliver fuel to the motor. The new system monitored throttle position, intake temperature, coolant temperature, air intake pressure and gear position to optimize fuel delivery. In order to save weight, the system used a plastic fuel pump and high-capacity ignition that avoided the need for a battery.  

Last up on the list of changes was a switch back to Kayaba for the suspension duties. Over the years, Honda had swapped back and forth regularly between Showa and KYB on their bikes, but the CRF450 had been steadfastly on Showa since its introduction in 2002.  The new 48mm Kayaba Air-Oil-Separate (AOS) forks used an exclusive outer tube design tapered specifically to work with the flex characteristics of the new fifth-generation frame. The KYB shock was also all-new and featured a unique integrated reservoir to accommodate the CRFs new frame and exhaust. 

While all of this was certainly impressive, the only real question that mattered was “is the new CRF450R a better bike?” To that, the answer was most certainly “no.” The weight savings and packaging innovations certainly yielded an impressive design exercise, but in virtually every quantifiable way, the 2009 Honda CRF450R was a worse bike than the one it replaced.  The new fuel-injected motor was incredibly responsive off idle, but far slower overall than the old carbureted one.  The throttle response bordered on jerky and the bike refused to pull past the midrange. From low-to mid, it was decently fast, but pick on an ’08 CRF and you were going to be left sucking its vapor trail. The new four-spring clutch was also suspect and hammering it was not advisable. 

The new chassis was likewise less than well received. It felt short in the front and tall in the rear. This “stinkbug” stance only exacerbated the stubby feeling and the bike was a bit of a handful. The front felt really close and the bike was prone to oversteer at turn-in. It also tended to stand up mid-corner, a trait no one enjoyed.  The bike felt short, twitchy and unbalanced overall.  The overly soft KYB forks did not help matters, and a switch to stiffer springs was advisable. Even with this swap, however, the CRF was no handling champ. 

On the bright side, it was light for a 450, beautiful to look at, and certainly trick. The power was decent for novices, but anyone with above-average skill was not going to be happy with its choked-off powerband. The new geometry and small feel were an acquired taste and some riders liked it, but most found it cramped and twitchy. Overall, it was a hard pill to swallow for a fan base that thought they knew what they were getting from Honda’s big 450. It was a 450, which felt like a 250, with the power of a 400. If you liked that sort of thing, then great, but if you were hoping for a more-refined version of the 2008 CRF, you were going to be sadly disappointed.

2009 Honda CRF450R: A flawed first effort

While the CRF450R was hoisted with its own petard in 2009, the CRF250R got to ride along mostly under the radar. The smaller thumper entered 2009 with only minor changes aimed at further beefing up its powerband.  In that vein, Honda spec’d a new head and a longer exhaust header. The 250F also received new four-dog transmission gears and a revised shift drum for more positive shifting. The brake rotors were also revised with six mounting points instead of four and a larger 240mm disc for the rear. Lastly, the handgrips were redesigned to offer 3mm more contact patch for your hands and a new white fender was bolted on to better match the not-so-bold new graphics. 

For 2009, the CRF250R avoided the potholes and land mines the CRF450R blundered into and came out smelling like a rose. The minor motor changes yielded impressive improvements and the CRF was even more potent for 2009. Both the low-end and top-end were improved over 2008 and the bike maintained the strong midrange it had exhibited since 2004. The power was both broad and snappy, with the longest overall pull in the class. It was not as outright fast on top as the KTM and KXF, but its power spread was wider. The shifting and clutch were also solid and the CRF could take a lot of abuse as long as you watched the oil level and kept on top of valve maintenance. In the power category, its only weakness was the same annoying bog it had exhibited since the move to the 40mm carb in 2006. Unfortunately, the CRF250R would need to wait one more year for fuel injection to finally exorcize this demon. 

As to the rest of the bike, it was virtually identical to 2008 and better for it. It suffered none of the odd handling quirks of the 450 and most riders loved its do-it-all versatility. It was not going to dive underneath an RMZ, but neither was it going swap you off on a fifth-gear straight. The suspension was good (but not great), the motor was strong and the chassis handled well. It was a solid overall package that lacked the flash of its sexy big brother, but made up for it by being a much better bike. 

 

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