This 2021 Honda CRF450RL review is a bit different from our usual new-motorcycle reviews. It requires a bit of background, so stick with us for a few minutes—or just skip over five paragraphs, and we’ll get right to the riding.The marketing of Honda’s flagship dual-sport bike, introduced in 2018, has been a tough one. Originally named the CRF450L, the off-road-focused motorcycle fit into a difficult niche for doctrinaire off-roaders to understand. For the uninitiated, the seriously dirt-ready CRF450L model name put it in the same category as the beginner-friendly CRF250L. To separate the 450 from the 250, the big bike gets a new name this year—the 2021 Honda CRF450RL. Well, Honda tried, but the new name perpetuates another marketing challenge.
The knock against the CRF450L was that it was not “Ready To Race”, as KTM promotes its dual-sport bikes—well, okay, all KTMs get that tagline. Regardless, hard-core off-road dual-sport purists felt that the Honda CRF450L was not as close to the CRF450RX off-road racebike as the KTM 500 EXC-F is to its 450 XC-F racer. While the purists were correct, it didn’t mean the Honda CRF450L was bad and the KTM 500 EXC-F was good. The reality is that they represent two approaches to dual-sport riding, with the KTM designed for someone who wants racing performance with street-legal accouterments.With KTM/Husqvarna staking out the best off-road performer position, along with the comparable Beta RR-S lineup, Honda did something a little bit different. The reality is that the 2021 Honda CRF450RL, like the L before it, is more closely based on the Honda CRF450X high-performance off-road trail bike, not the RX racer. Honda went for durability, comfort, and ease-of-use over absolute performance. The CRF450RL is a dual-sport motorcycle that is still very much like the CRF450X—a satisfying motorcycle for the serious trail rider, though not someone who intends to ride at race pace with it in stock, or near-stock, trim.When the 2018 Honda CRF450L debuted, I asked Honda representatives why they used a name that would conflate it with the differently focused CRF250L. I never got an answer—just shrugs. It took three years, but someone with pull agreed with me and updated the name.However, I think CRF450RL still gets the name wrong. The L is much closer to the CRF450X, not the R or RX models, and the name should reflect that. This bike should be called the 2021 Honda CRF450XL. Not only would it have a model name that fits in better with the rest of the CRF450 line, but it also would have tipped a cap to the legendary Honda XL dual-sport motorcycles of the 1970s and ’80s, starting with the truly iconic 1972 Honda XL250 Motosport. Although that’s a missed opportunity, it’s not going to stop me from enjoying the 2021 Honda CRF450RL as a dual-sport motorcycle with a precise niche. So, let’s go riding, and I’ll stop complaining about model names—I promise!In addition to the new name, the 2021 Honda CRF450RL does get a functional update this year—handguards are now stock. Oh, and the price dropped $400—nice. While these two changes typically aren’t enough for a new bike review, we remembered that we had never tested the CRF450L in fully stock condition. Previously, we went with more dirt-oriented tires. This time, the CRF450RL is in showroom trim, right down to the IRC GP tires—the same tires used on the CRF250R, amusingly enough.The 2021 Honda CRF450RL retains its crown as a civilized off-road-focused dual-sport motorcycle. That’s not to say that it isn’t aggressive, because it is. The Unicam thumper has a snappy throttle response that is wholly satisfying, whether you’re on a dirt road or fast single-track. The motor pulls good from about 3000 to 10,000 rpm, with the sweet spot right in the middle. There’s tons of overrev, which can save you from shifting when it’s not convenient to do so. The powerband is as sweet as it gets for a dual-sport motorcycle, and Honda built in enough throttle response to satisfy the soul and lift the front wheel on the trail, as needed.All is not perfect with the CRF450RL motor, however. It has an unnerving tendency to stall off idle when riding the most technical trails, despite putting out good low-rpm power. With the bike weighing in at nearly 300 pounds with the two-gallon tank filled and sporting a seat height over 37 inches, things can get awkward quickly, unless you’re safely over six feet tall. It’s a problem that reared its head multiple times, and resulted in a broken brake lever far from home. On the upside, the notch in the lever left enough of a nub to safely ride the motorcycle at a reduced pace.There are fixes out there, such as the Vortex ECU, though it is for closed-course competition only, blah, blah, bah. If you go with the Vortex, you will have the flexibility to install a different exhaust system or slip-on muffler for less weight, additional power, and a bit more overrev.For those who ride on dirt roads and fast trails, the stalling problem will likely never be an issue. They will marvel at how the motor spins up in a speedily linear manner, even though it puts out plenty of vibes. Still, the Vortex unit benefits the open-terrain folks, as it lets you wind the motor up higher. Plus, there’s more power everywhere—just what everyone wants.As a dual-sport guy who likes to ride to the trails from my house, the 2021 Honda CRF450RL keeps me closer to home than I might like. While it will do 65 mph with no problem, it’s not a pleasant experience on the open highway. Again, the engine is not shy about the vibration it puts out, and the longer you’re at freeway speeds, the more unappealing the idea is. I would love an RL with a wider-ratio transmission, from a lower 1st gear to a higher 6th cog—the motor’s broad powerband could handle it.On paved backroads, the CRF450RL is great fun. The streetier IRC tires get predictable grip, so you can confidently rip through canyons once you learn where the limits are. Of course, most people will replace the IRCs pretty quickly and maybe complain about the street manners with knobbies. Regardless, the suspension, motor, and geometry make for a fun canyon bike. If Honda wants to make a CRF450M supermoto variant, they have my implicit approval.Urban dwellers who want something a bit different might want to consider the CRF450RL. Here in LA, there are some undocumented trails around town, and the CRF450RL is a fantastic way to explore them. The only thing that might hold back the city folks from getting the RL is the seat height. The upside of that is that the perch gives you a commanding view of urban traffic. Certainly, you’re going to look cool in the city on a serious dual-sport bike.Back on the trails, the 2021 Honda CRF450RL handles itself quite well, even with stock tires. The rear gets enough traction if you’re smart with your throttle hand. You can’t be aggressive with the front end in the dirt as much as you can with a true knobby, so keep your enthusiasm in check. It’s not like you have to go slow, but riding at 100 percent will exceed the IRCs’ limits.Braking on the CRF450RL works well on the street and dirt. The feel is good at the lever, and the braking power at the front end is linear. The rear brake isn’t overly touchy on the dirt, even with the dual-sport rubber. You probably won’t find yourself using the rear brake much on the street.I can put the CRF450RL’s 291 pounds where I want it most of the time. The chassis is a good one, and the motor is manageable. Hillclimbs are fun, provided there’s enough traction, but downhills can get a little sketchy with the IRCs. The more smoothly you ride, the less aware you are of the 450’s poundage.Out on the single-track trails, the RL’s plush suspension doesn’t beat you up, and its softness helps find traction. If you like, you can have the Showas revalved and resprung for your height, weight, and riding style. For me, the stock suspension units’ adjustability is more than enough, and I don’t need a dual-sport bike that can skip whoops.It’s worth mentioning that an inspection of the new-this-year handguards after a ride on a particularly overgrown single-track revealed that they did their job. The guards were scratched up, and my Alpinestars gloves untouched. Every off-road motorcycle should come with hand protection.Just as the “serious” dual-sport bikes from Europe can be modified for more performance, so, too, can the CRF450RL. There is CRF450RX performance lurking in the engine and chassis, and a bit of creativity can drop about 20 pounds from the RL’s weight, which will mean it’s still about 20 pounds heavier than the Euros. However, that weight translates to increased durability for the Honda—your call.The maintenance schedule on the 2021 CRF450RL is a bit more daunting than you might expect from a street-legal Honda. The manual calls for an oil change every 600 miles and checking the valve clearance every 1800 miles. The piston, valves, crank, and crank bearing are all due for replacement at 20,000 miles. Anecdotally from owners, these numbers are pessimistic.Basic maintenance requires a bit of effort. You have to remove the seat (two 10mm hex-head bolts) and airbox lid (two 8mm hex-head bolts) to get to the air filter. For oil and oil filter changes, the skid plate and sound-deadening left engine cover have to be pulled off—you can get by with only reinstalling the skid plate. Oddly, the process for completing either of these jobs is absent from the owner’s manual.Being happy with a motorcycle is not about complaining that someone built a motorcycle you don’t want. The “street legal racer” crowd will want to pass over the CRF450RL. However, in the real world of dual sport riding, you’re rarely riding at a true race-pace. While the RL is noticeably heavier than its Euro competitors, the 450’s propensity to stall in tight quarters is more of a problem than the additional weight. For many riders who are honest with themselves about their dual-sporting needs, the 2021 Honda CRF450RL strikes the right balance between performance, reliability, durability, and comfort.Photography by Kelly CallanRIDING STYLE
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