2022 Honda 450 RL: Street-legal motocross

Let’s be clear: the hottest motorcycle ticket in the age of COVID has been “ADVs” or “adventure bikes,” with sales skyrocketing. An ADV bike is sort of a street bike that you can ride on dirt roads. They lean towards on-road comfort, with some off-road capability. A BMW GS might be the best poster of the breed – or the recently updated Kawasaki KLR 650. If you know anything about bikes, you know they’re comfortable machines for the long haul but, unless you’re super talented, can become a major handful when hitting technical off-road. The enemy is weight, usually reaching 440 to 500 pounds. The 2022 Honda RL 289-pound 450 is decidedly not that ADV-fashion machine then.

The Honda 450 RL is a barely street-legal dirt bike, fine-tuned to bombard fire roads and more technical trails than the average rider would ever tackle with a heavier ADV machine. Want sophisticated 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 stiff frame, killer engine, awesome brakes and suspension to die for, which made it perfect for our test plane.

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 United States and are loosely mapped by enthusiasts. The Vermont section is considered one of the toughest in the country, and it’s been made even tougher by recent tropical storms that have left the “Class 4” routes (essentially snowmobile trails) so saturated and sloppy. than a Louisiana bayou.

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A lively engine

Honda made the 450RL look different from its 450cc single than the 450R you typically see on the dirt, but the throttle response is still instantaneous. It’s not quite a two-stroke off-road bike.

While you have to rev past 7,000 rpm to find peak power, the torque curve is relatively flat and fat, meaning you’ll feel that tug from 3,0000 to 7,000 rpm. When we pulled through the deepest, sloppiest, muddiest terrain in Vermont, we could happily shift into second or third (or even fourth) gear and know that at almost any what speed, we would have traction ready.

In fact, first gear is so low that for anything not near a rock face, we stayed completely out of that cog, just to keep the bike from rolling out from under us.

The downside to all that muscle: This six-speed Honda is built for more off-road riding than on-road. Sure, it has the snot to topple over at 70 mph, but this engine is much happier bombing rock gardens and bogs at 30 mph than the Interstate at highway speeds.

Side profile of red dirt bike against desert landscape
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A dream of suspension

Because Honda was kind enough to let a few of us test the CRF-450RL, we got to see how the bike handled under different weights and body types, from around 5’7” to 6’5 ” and 150 pounds to well over 200 pounds.

We all loved the Showa suspension. Is it steep? Well, relatively speaking, yes, but compared to what? Lighter dirt bikes feel more playful, but compared to the generally heavier ADV bikes that hit closer to 400-500 pounds, the 450’s shocks were great for cutting tight lines over rocks, roots and around or just over every obstacle. This bike is also very predictable on the road. The Honda may be less ideal for melting freeway miles, but two-lane cruising in rural Vermont was never scary or edgy.

What’s a downside to the great air of the fork and shock? The 37.2-inch seat height puts shorter riders on their toes.

Yes, this suspension offers 12 inches of travel front and rear, and just a tick over 12 inches of ground clearance, which along with some great internals is why it is completely painless and particularly agile.

One of the reasons ADV bikes have grown in popularity is that they hit a sweeter (lower) point between 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 meant for churning mud, not tarmac.

Man riding a red dirt bike up a steep hill
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Creature comfort (and limits)

Honda had to decide how street-legal to fit into the 450RL, and some of the slickest parts include a very strong aluminum chassis that extends all the way below the rear fender, so you can strap on saddlebags and do what we did – extend a trip over a week. They also gave this Honda some great brakes that aren’t aggressive for motocross, so you’re less likely to get in trouble, but much more powerful and fade-free on the street. It’s smart, just like a heavily under-shielded motor.

But there is almost no wind protection. And engine vibrations at highway speeds are noticeable, and unfortunately made worse by a rock-hard seat. We get it: The 450RL was born out of Honda’s off-road 450R lineage, but a $10,000 bike like this is pitted against machines that have compromises on creature comforts.

Our biggest complaint in this vein isn’t the seat (you can easily replace it): it’s the puny fuel tank. At two gallons, we were forced to carry extra gas, as the shortage was something we feared and faced. A dirt bike with a small tank is normal; a dual-sport bike is supposed to allow movement, hence the complete frame that allows you to add panniers. A bigger tank would increase the weight, but if you still have to carry gas cans, you just added that weight.

Choose your pleasure

One of the appeals of the Honda 450 RL is the fact that it forces the rider to make a decision at the time of purchase. If you buy a convertible, you choose a louder car for open-air driving pleasure.

The 450RL is that kind of argument: you don’t buy it for the street. Not your cappuccino-fetching ADV softie. It is not intended for this use or this driver. It’s meant to rip and leave those ADV wannabes in its perch. And, yes, to turn beautifully and freely, and weave through singletrack with the kind of agility that will make you a better rider.

Like this convertible, it wasn’t built for every day, but for that perfect day in the dirt.

[From $9,999; powersports.honda.com]

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