450 SHOOTOUT - PART 1 - THE SOHC BIKES

Take three 2011MY SOHC 450s, a field and find out which is best they said. Read on and find out the verdict... Part 2 - The DOHC Bikes. Coming soon...

It just goes to show you shouldn’t make assumptions about bikes. Who would’ve predicted that the Berg 450 would make the LEAST power of these three! Not us - that’s for sure. We always have a little wager on the results of the dyno, and going on existing form all of us were backing the CRF450X Honda to come home last in this particular three horse race (it’s the oldest here by far). But in fact it was the youngest of the two Austrian colts that brought up the rear - though in fairness we did accurately predict the winner in the 4.00pm RUST dyno stakes: the 450KTM… by a (cylinder) head.

It’s not often we begin a test report like this - on the dyno results - but as this was part ONE of our SuperTest 450s, a shootout between as many 450s as we can muster, we figured we’d start by taking along the single-cam 450s to the dyno before riding them. Part 2 will be the twin-cams.

Should the design of cylinder head - ie single-cam or twin-cam - influence your buying decision when it comes to choosing a new 450? Chances are you’d be more concerned with other factors - brand, price, desirability, test reports, dealer proximity and availability. But when you think about it the test report will be affected by whether the bike has a SOHC or DOHC motor, as this generally has a bearing on the bike’s rideability.

Broadly speaking twin-cam bikes tend to produce revvier power, higher up the range, as the design of cylinder head - with one camshaft operating the inlet valves and one the exhaust valves - means that each camshaft only has one job to do and thus its design and positioning in the head is less compromised. In small capacity bikes, 250 thumpers for instance, you need this revviness and the additional power it can deliver in order to maximise their limited performance potential. But 450 thumpers are different beasts, they already punch out sufficient performance thanks to their greater displacement. The rest comes down to rideability.

It was significant that when the newest of these machines was designed - the Husaberg FE450 - the Berg engineers chose to utilise a single-cam set-up. Sacrificing all-out power for greater rideabaility. Experience has taught them that this configuration of engine offers better tractability in slippery off-road conditions. Rumour has it that KTM’s forthcoming 450MX bike (currently under development) will be a single-cam design (to improve its rideability), replacing the powerful twin-cammer they have now!

Of course it’s not quite as cut and dried as that - otherwise no-one would bother making a DOHC dirt bike motor. Twin-cam engines CAN make good driveable power (witness the new Suzuki RMX, and bikes like the old DR-Z400 and Gas Gas EC450FSE were noted for their healthy midrange), but that’s an argument for next month. For this test we are dealing with the UK’s three top-selling single-cam 450s.

So what did the dyno reveal? Well first of all that there’s not a whole lot to choose between them. Power-wise these three bikes all make approximately 38-40hp at the rear wheel on enduro rubber, that’s a real-world 44hp on a smooth tyre. That’s more than enough stomp. It was the KTM which ran out eventual winner, but only right at the top (between 8-10,000rpm), where it has a small 2hp advantage over the other two. Is that significant…? Only when you’re revving it mercilessly. By then it’s well past its torque peak which occurs on all these machines between 6-7000rpm. And would you believe it’s the Honda which peaks highest - though its torque curve is shorter and steeper than both Berg and KTM.

And you can feel it when riding the CRF; the Honda’s midrange delivery is bountiful but at the same time more brutal and abrupt, and less easy to finesse in slippery going. Ultimately this makes the CRF slightly harder to control than either of the others. Honda fans however, can take solace in the fact that the CRF eclipses the much newer Husaberg in terms of both power AND torque. Though not by very much!

Diversity Challenge

Three bikes… three different approaches to building a 450. Both KTM and Berg use a steel frame, though the Husaberg’s is anything but conventional in shape and design. The KTM has a traditional frame with an alloy subframe to support the rear, whereas the Husaberg’s subframe is a specially strengthened polymer plastic.

The Honda of course, has an alloy twin-beam chassis with an alloy sub-frame, but its side-stand is steel unlike both Austrian bikes which sport ALLOY side-stands. The CRF like the KTM is carb-fed, whereas the Husaberg has electronic fuel injection. Neither CRF nor EXC has the Husaberg’s ‘high-crank’ engine, three-piece fuel tank nor high air-filter design. But the Berg and KTM both come fully equipped for road and track, whilst the Honda comes with nowt besides an old-fashioned (cable driven) odometer. It does however have a linkage to operate its rear suspension, where both Austrian machines use a link-less PDS system.

So which do you think would be lightest? Would it be the alloy-framed CRF with its lack of road-going accessories, or the ultra-modern FE450? Well surprisingly it’s neither, because the KTM’s the lightest here and by some margin. Even more surprising is that the Berg runs out heaviest - though not by very much. Nevertheless there’s a bit of a pattern emerging, with the KTM being both the lightest and most powerful of this bunch while the newer Berg is the heaviest and least powerful. The Honda of course sits in-between…

Global Positioning

You wouldn’t expect modern tackle like this to offer a compromised riding position and fortunately none of ‘em do. Fuel tanks are all genuinely narrow, footpegs are wide and supportive, and radiators tucked well out of the way of the leading leg. Nevertheless it’s the Berg which scores highest marks thanks to its ‘mini’ front tank, narrow seat and greater emphasis on keeping the perch flat and the (rider’s) weight forward.

Next it’s the KTM which shares the Berg’s same braceless bars - but for some reason they always feel slightly lower-set on the KTM, taller riders will probably want to opt for a set of aftermarket risers. Nevertheless the nose-down-bum-up riding position is one you very quickly adapt to (especially if you ride an MTB or a trialler), and one which confers enormous confidence in the front end. How things have changed in that regard during the past decade.

Finally it’s the Honda that brings up the rear: it doesn’t have braceless bars and its fuel tank is fractionally broader and more obtrusive, but it does offer a slightly more comfortable and wider saddle on which to rest your butt. It feels slightly taller too which may well suit some riders, and its riding position is not quite so forward-biased as the European offerings - though the difference is probably only a matter of millimetres, I suspect.

One thing you notice straight away is the Honda’s relatively heavy clutch and throttle actions - especially when compared with the Husaberg’s featherweight controls. This no-doubt contributing to the impression of bulk that the Honda confers. By contrast the Berg has both a lightweight hydraulic clutch and - thanks to EFi - an ultra-light throttle, which makes the controls easier to operate than an iPod… and night-and-day different to the CRF’s. In between sits the KTM - it shares the same lightweight clutch feel as the Berg, though twisting the throttle requires slightly more effort thanks to a conventional carb cable, but it’s by no means as heavy as the Honda’s slightly sluggish twistgrip.

Starting them all is merely a matter of punching a button and waiting for the motor to settle into a steady idle - though again it’s the Berg which scores highest marks here, since EFi obviates the need for choke or even a fuel tap.

Getting underway there’s another immediate difference as the Husaberg’s fuel-injected motor gives the engine a flat droning sound and offers an instant hit to the power delivery. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, because although the response is fantastic when you want it (tweak the throttle and the motor barks immediately), it also gives an instant mini-hit to the power when you don’t always need it.

It’s not difficult to ride once underway (the effect isn’t felt when throttling off for instance), but it does just make the smooth application of power slightly harder to achieve as the motor begins to pick up revs the second you start to turn the throttle.

And whilst there are certainly times you can use this to your advantage (snapping up the front over puddles etc), there are also times - especially when conditions are extremely slippery - where the EFi feels like it’s almost working against you.

It’s certainly more noticeable in treacherous conditions as we found riding the course of the opening round of the 2011 BSEC in Wales in February. One particular hill had a sharp left turn at the bottom and ran alongside a fence (so there was no cutting the corner); it had a really slippery beginning to it, and trying to finesse the Berg’s bottom-end power simply caused the tyre to spin.

Not that the other bikes didn’t get stuck here too - they did - but there was something about the Berg that made it much less inclined to hook up, and my guess is that’s all down to the EFi. You see unlike with a carbed bike where you can dial-in less than 1000rpm say, then ever-so-gently ease out the clutch to bring the revs down lower as you feel the biting point. The Berg feels like it has a minimum number of revs below which the EFi won’t allow it to go. I’m not saying this IS the case, I’m saying this is the way it FEELS to the rider, so that as you ease out the clutch, the motor begins pulling and instead of feeling for grip the wheel starts to spin.

The following day we were on a really greasy hill, covered in wet clay and leaf mould - you know the type of hill where you struggle to even stand - and once again the Berg was the first to get stuck after we stopped to take photos. I hopped off and began pushing, but the Husaberg’s tyre resolutely refused to bite, whereas the KTM had no difficulty in pulling away from a standing start.

Trouble is you encounter these types of conditions so infrequently (unless you happen to live in a particularly slippery soil area I guess), that for most of the time you won’t ever need to worry about it. And in fairness the FE450 is such a blast to ride most of the time that I wouldn’t let it put you off owning one, it’s just something we felt worth mentioning.

So how did the other two compare in this area? Well the Honda is carb-fed so the motor allows you to trickle it down to almost nothing before pulling away again. Except……. Except that the Honda has a slight tendency to cough/stall at low revs/high loadings and a clutch that’s harder to modulate. Certainly it was the most stall-prone bike of these three.

By contrast the KTM was an absolute joy to ride in these conditions. Its engine is just SO tractable and mellow low down that it really doesn’t feel like a 450 at all. In fact I couldn’t believe how soft the 450EXC’s engine felt at the bottom-end. If you’ve ever owned one of the old KTM 450s powered by the forerunner of this engine (the RFS) then forget everything you know, this motor is utterly different - much softer and smoother in its delivery low down, then forceful and urgent in the midrange before heading into a potent top-end. It really does offer everything… except low weight I guess. There’s no getting over the fact that at times 450s feel lardy in the extreme.

Bump and Grind

But if I was impressed by the KTM’s engine, it was nothing compared to how blown away I was by the suspension. At first our riding was kinda’ low-speed stuff: second and third gear climbs, lots of muddy ruts, whoops, puddles etc, and although there was a bit of fast fire-roads, well you don’t really need good suspension to tackle fire-roads.

Through all this the KTM never put a wheel wrong it soaked up the low-speed bumps with such suppleness and lack of deflection that it made me worry what the suspension was going to feel like once the bumps got bigger and the hits got harder.

But the following day I got chance to test the bike on some open-hill terrain. Hard through the gears the moorland track I was riding headed up a bumpy hill and down the other side. It was a blind crest so I throttled back to third then opened her up down the other side. Coming down the hill there was a series of unevenly spaced bumps which combined with the compression effect as the hill levelled out were sure to put a strain on any suspension.

But the KTM was more than up to it. The first time I came down on a slightly trailing throttle, the second time under power, and the third time whilst giving it everything. Incredibly the KTM didn’t flinch, it just soaked up the hits and carried on oblivious. No deflection, no shimmying and no danger of bottoming out.

Let me put this into some sort of context for you - for years we used to complain about KTM suspension feeling overly harsh, too firmly sprung, only operating across a narrow range of (high) speeds and without the plushness you got with a proper linkage-based system. Then about five or so years ago we stopped complaining, KTM had evolved their PDS system and improved the damping on the forks so it worked across a broader range, now it felt no worse than most suspension systems out there. But since then they’ve carried on improving matters and developing their suspension to the point where I’ve no hesitation in stating that the suspension fitted to our 450EXC test bike was the best I’ve ridden in ages.

Alongside the pliable KTM, the Berg felt overly firm. This year the FE450 has the closed-cartridge forks first seen on last year’s FX model, and while I concede they may well be better for racing, particularly on hard-pack courses, for the most part they feel a bit too stiff for a Welsh winter. We softened it off seven clicks on the front and two on the rear and it felt much better. Not as plush as the KTM, but more like a firm version of it.

And here’s a turn-up for the books, the CRF, the only bike here with a linkage, couldn’t match the other two for suppleness of its suspension. There was nothing actually wrong with the CRF’s springers, in fact they worked well on the hard-pack fireroads, but once into the ruts of a Welsh forest or when trying to ride over those peculiar tussocks of grass you get up on moorland, well they felt choppy by comparison. Sure they worked, and the bike never bottomed, but there’s no doubt more of the jarring got through to the rider than on either of the other two. 

Handle With Care

When it came to outright handling, for me there was only one winner. Let’s discount the Honda straight away; normally an excellent turner (Honda chassis are legendary for being stable, yet quick through turns), sadly our CRF-X lacked any sort of stability in this going (despite the in-built steering damper). Was it the tall seat, the stiffer springs, the brusqueness of the engine, or the fact that ours had a well-worn rear tyre that caused it to wag its tail like an over-excited puppy?

Could have been any of those factors or a combination thereof, but whatever the reason for it, the Honda was the hardest bike to power cleanly through the dirt, the slowest across country and the one which demanded the most input from its rider. Barni summed it up when he said that the CRF feels like it’s from a previous generation of dirt bikes. And in a sense it is.

If you already own a CRF450X and the handling suits you fine, then fair enough. On its own it feels perfectly okay - reasonably neutral and easy to ride. It’s only when you hop off it and onto one of the other two and then ride the same terrain over, that you begin to realise how much easier it can be on an alternative machine.

There are some people that attribute this to the bike’s alloy chassis. No doubt when Honda first switched to using aluminium for their frame material it took them a good few goes to get it right. Early bikes felt too stiff and unforgiving and that may or may not be part of the problem here. More likely I suspect is that Honda has done their usual trick of launching a good machine and then failed to keep it evolving with subtle chassis tweaks over the years.

The Husaberg however feels bang up to date. Moreover it has that innovative high-crank engine which deceives you into thinking you’re riding something smaller, so that it feels lighter to ride and slightly more agile than it ought to.

Until you’ve ridden one it’s difficult to get across the difference in sensation. I can only liken it to riding a bike of slightly smaller capacity - it feels slightly easier to chuck around and change direction. The principal is that by raising the crank upwards (the main force of inertia in an engine) much closer to the bike’s centre of balance, you effectively ‘feel’  the weight less.

Of course this has a beneficial effect when it comes to switching direction and fast turning, but arguably a negative one during slow-speed feet-up riding, where you want a nice low centre of gravity. At times (such as in long ruts) the Berg can feel less planted then you necessarily want.

Of course there’s no such problems with the KTM which holds its weight low down making it easy to ride through ruts and adding to its stability on faster going. Throw in that oh-so-supple suspension that absorbs everything in its path rather than trying to deflect you off into the scenery and you have a recipe for a great all-rounder. For the most part it was difficult to split the Berg and the KTM, they both have a modern, agile and sprightly feel about their handling, but it was clear that the Berg wanted to dart and flick about whereas the KTM felt more planted.

In a race setting or if the going had been drier it’d probably be the Berg that gets our vote, but in this kind of terrain the KTM never faltered, it instilled the rider with the utmost confidence and felt the most secure.

Sports Package

There’s no getting away from the fact that 450 thumpers are big, burly bikes to heave around in the depths of winter. Out on an easy trail they feel sprightly enough with plenty in reserve for when the track (or road) opens up. But throw in a few long ruts, a bog or two, some tricky root-snagged uphills or a timeclock and I’m willing to bet you’ll be straight on your mobile to the dealer asking about trade-in prices on a 300 two-stroke.

Nevertheless if you’ve set your heart on a 450 thumper and it’s one of these three SOHC models you’re considering then which should you choose? Well each of them offers a lovely broad powerband, oodles of torque and for the most part, decent suspension and neutral handling. After that there are other factors to consider.

Naturally enough the CRF-X offers traditional Honda values such as quality build, reliability and decent return-on-investment. At the moment Honda is discounting the CRF450X by £1080, so that a new one can be had for just £5195 (When new in 2011). It’s a solid saving on a sound investment and worth considering if you’re a fan of the red bikes. At that price you can’t go wrong, because although the Honda can’t quite match the other two for dynamics, it has a punchier motor and built-in longevity and at the newly discounted price it’s exceptional value too.

If you fancy more of a sporting bet, the Husaberg is the one I’d choose. It looks, feels, goes and handles in a different way to most other 450s, with a precision to its steering you won’t find in any other bike - KTM included. Build quality is excellent, as is the specification - while the design offers some unique advantages such as additional ground clearance, raised air-filter for deep water crossings, large fuel tank and ‘carburetion’ you’ll never have to adjust.

On the other hand it’s the dearest bike here and the snappy power delivery takes a bit of getting used to. As an all-round machine it’s bettered by the KTM which has a broader appeal and is slightly easier to ride. Nevertheless the FE450 is loved by everyone that rides it. If I was going to race a 450 then this would be the bike I’d choose.

So we come to the 450EXC - universally acclaimed and with good reason… It’s bloody good. It’s the lightest yet also the most powerful. The most powerful yet also the easiest to ride. The easiest to ride yet also the best equipped. The best equipped yet not the most expensive. Not the most expensive yet offers some of the best residuals. How much more do you want?

But it wasn’t any of those factors that garnered it first place in this test, because what won it for me was despite the horrendous conditions, the wind, the rain and the cold the KTM never failed to put a smile on my face. It’s that sort of bike!

Thanks to: Jonty Edmunds and the BSEC for letting us ride their course, Mick Extance at The Mick Extance Off-Road Experience for the load of the Honda. Mick's enduro, MX, trials and desert training courses are run throughout the year and all around the country. You'll find more details by visiting www.mickextanceoffroad.com 

Missing in Action

Aprilia RXV450

It may have two cams but there’s only one per head in the V-twin 450. Yet if you think single cylinder DOHC 450s can be too revvy and powerful, then the Aprilia takes things to a whole new level - it’s a world away from the thudding drive of a SOHC single.

The power is so smooth and fast-building that the RXV is a serious handful in slippery conditions… and even in the dry if you don’t treat it with reverence! Yes it looks fantastic, especially with those slash-cut underseat pipes of the early machines, and yes the chassis is very stable, well suspended and particularly well braked. It’s also quite possibly the best sounding production bike ever. But the aural delight isn’t enough to elevate the RXV above ‘curio’ status, and as anything other than a plaything on which to occasionally scare yourself witless it really isn’t that great.

Sherco 4.5i

The 450 was Sherco’s first stab at an enduro bike and proved a great ride, with excellent suspension and class-leading brakes. The SOHC motor was a pretty shameless copy of the last generation ‘RFS’ KTM enduro lump (albeit running fuel injection) and though perhaps didn’t quite have the outright oomph of its Austrian doppelganger it was a great clubman machine.

Over the years the bike has undergone numerous modifications, mainly to address reliability and build quality issues, and the 2011 model features a new cam and reworked frame geometry. However, aside from last year’s front-end cosmetic upgrade, the bike still very much resembles the original 2004 machine. And thankfully, after some dubious black/silver bodywork, they’ve gone back to the blue colourscheme too…

Second Opinion

Starting the test aboard the Honda, I fully expected to be treated to an easy-going, well-mannered ride which would help me blow off a few winter cobwebs and gently break-in the day’s riding. How wrong I was.

To my mind, the Honda exhibited all of those traits which 450 critics use as ammunition to shoot down any notion that owning an E2 thumper is a good idea, and why you should choose something lighter and less powerful instead. It felt big, hard to reign in and something of a handful. The power was too abrupt and the heavy throttle made dialling-in just the right amount of revs a tricky business. On the fireroads it was a blast - quite literally - but the 450X didn’t do ‘finesse’, and technical riding proved that.

One section of the course ran down a hillside of tussocky grass, where the flora did a fine job of concealing some ten-year-old enduro ruts ‘n’ holes. It was the kind of terrain where you had to really think about your riding, rather than shifting your weight back and giving it a big handful. I set myself the challenge of crossing it feet-up.

But that was never gonna happen. Not only was the snappy power hard to modulate, making precise placement of both wheels very tricky, but the heavy clutch meant that the bike leapt forward far too readily. Or it stalled.

Things didn’t improve on the twisting singletrack which ran through the conifer plantations, as the front-end felt too heavy and imprecise (something which can probably be attributed to the standard fitment steering damper) and it pushed into turns too. In short, it was hard work.

The CRF does, however, have some plus points, notably the strong Nissin brakes, high-barred riding position and decent sidestand. That’s not a long enough list to make me think about parting with £6275 (or even the £5195 with the discounts) for one, though.

Swapping from the Honda to the KTM was a revelation - ‘it feels a generation on’ was the comment I made at the time. Whereas before I blundered along tracks with all the grace of Ann Widdecombe at a salsa lesson, the EXC could really dance.

The front-end felt light, though never as if it was going to wash-out, and the suspension was equally as good on sharp whoopy bumps as it was on greasy hillclimbs. But whilst I could rhapsodize for ages about the slick gearshift, super-light clutch, and effortless handling, it was the power delivery which really shone through.

There’s not a hint of stutter or step in the power, providing fantastic drive no matter how slick the conditions. And when you’re winding between trees, firing up a steep ascent, or scooting along a bumpy wall-lined trail that predictability is very reassuring.

Conversely, riding the Husaberg focuses the mind. It’s firmer and tauter than the other two, and despite being the least powerful of the trio, thanks to the fuel injection propulsion is instantaneous. For wet Welsh going this probably makes the FE450 sound like something of a liability but I absolutely loved riding it. And the reason for that is the way that it handles.

Just tootling along in a straight line and pivoting the bike with your knees you can feel how it wants to turn. And when you do start throwing it at some corners it tips in with such little effort that you’d never think it was a 450 four-stroke. Ridden back-to-back with a ‘conventional’ engined bike you can really feel how the high crank design of the Berg enhances its manoeuvrability.

The closed cartridge forks are clearly set-up for race-pace rather than leisurely trail ride, and required a few clicks less compression damping to aid front-end feel. Once there, or thereabouts, the action was still quite firm though there was none of that ‘skatey’ feeling you can get from firm suspension in slippery conditions, and they really started to come into their own the faster you rode.

So whilst it might not have the all-round user-friendliness of the KTM, when it comes to really attacking an enduro course the Berg is the SOHC 450 for me. Though I reserve the right to opt for the orange bike when energy levels are flagging and the course is as heavy as a WWI battlefield! Barni

Click on this link to read about the pick of the 2011 DOHC bikes available and to find out which, in our opinion is the bike to go for... https://www.rustsports.com/metal/450-shootout-part-2-the-dohc-bikes_4568.html

 

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