Kawasaki Motorcycle test
The Honda CRF450, KTM 450SXF, Yamaha YZ450F, KTM 350SXF, Kawasaki KX450F and Suzuki RM-Z450 are all major players in what consumers might well think of as a $8500 crap shoot. It is the MXA wrecking crew’s goal to take the gamble out of buying a 2012 450cc motocross bike. We are going to tell you what we think is the best bike in the 450 lottery, but not even the MXA test riders believe that there is one perfect bike for every person. Even among MXA’s test crew you will find riders choosing to race bikes that they rated poorly in the test surveys and evaluation charts. When asked why, they simply state that they like this particular bike over the one they rated higher because it suits their riding style better.
The MXA wrecking crew has spent the last six months racing (not play riding or practice riding) six of the most serious Open class four-strokes ever made. We don't just spin a few laps on any given bike, but live with them, fix them and race them over a long period of time—and we switched back-and-forth between bikes to make sure that we have total immersion. Here is what we have learned—use it for your own good.
WHICH 450 MAKES THE MOST HORSEPOWER?
Horsepower is an interesting thing. You can have too little and you can have too much, but you can never have enough of the right amount of the perfect power. In the past, bikes recklessly pursued the brass ring of making the most horsepower. They thought that a big number was all that mattered. Not so. Modern engines aren’t about peak horsepower as much as the most manageable powerband. Of the six 450cc motocross bike in the “2012 MXA 450 Shootout,” here is how they rank in power.
Kawasaki KX450F: It is a given that the KX450F would make the most horsepower. It has been at the top of the power lottery for the last several years. What most MXA test riders didn’t think would happen would be that the 2012 KX450F would have unbelievably manageable power also. Thanks to the ability to choose between three different power profiles (electronically) and the addition of the fourth map just for the starts, the KX450F is the best engine made in 2012.
KTM 450SXF: Although the KTM doesn’t make the brute horsepower of the KX450F, it does have the broadest spread of power. The Austrian engine is able to mate a mellow, easy-to-use and tractable low-to-mid transition into a runaway train on the top end. KTM’s power is luxurious as opposed to brutal. It oozes its power into the ground and just keeps going and going. Thanks to its Keihin FCR carburetor, the KTM’s style of power has no competition from the fuel-injected side of the family. This engine isn't impressive at any individual point on its powerband, but instead in the effectiveness and length of the power.
Suzuki RM-Z450: After years of weird and lopsided powerbands the Suzuki RM-Z got all of its ducks in a row in 2010-2012. Although the Suzuki power isn’t brimming with personality it does delivers a good spread of power —especially usable across the middle and into the top end. Unlike some of its fuel-injected brethren, it doesn’t feel jerky off the bottom, but instead lines up its electronic Xs and Os to deliver just the right amount of fuel for the demands of the rider’s right wrist. This is a very good engine. Boring, but good.
Yamaha YZ450F: For 2012 Yamaha made two major changes to the YZ450F: (1) The installed a longer and more restrictive muffler—which killed low-end power and slowed the rev down. (2) They advanced the ignition and richened the fuel mapping to get back what they lost with the longer muffler. Surprise! Yamaha’s hocus-pocus engine tuning actually worked. The 2012 powerband was better than the 2011 power. It came on with a smooth burst off idle, but felt broader and faster than last year’s engine. It made good horsepower—albeit not earth shattering (even if the horsepower numbers were very good).
FIFTH PLACE (TIE)
Honda CRF450: This is an approach-avoidance kind of motocross powerband. On the “avoidance” side of the scale, the 2012 CRF450 is mellow. Very mellow. It produces several horsepower less than the bikes it competes with, and the power it does make is situated below 8500 rpm (everything above that is basically noise). On the “approach” side, the Honda CRF450 is easy to ride, very light and not the least bit scary. The old herky-jerky low-end throttle response of 2009 is gone...in fact most of the rush is gone. All in the all, the CRF450 is a bike that is easy to ride because it is slow. Let's not get too misty about this engine because it is the same engine that was used in 2009, 2010 and 2011—it has gotten some mapping changes here and there, but it's not a new engine.
FIFTH PLACE (TIE)
KTM 350SXF: We loved the 2012 KTM 350SXF, but with one big caveat. We loved it in comparison to the 2011 KTM 350SXF. On the track, it gives up over ten horsepower to even the slowest 450cc motocross bike. Plus, its peak horsepower is at a very high 12,200 rpm. This isn’t a traditional Open class motocrosser. It is Goldilocks’ race bike—not too hot, not too cold, but somewhere in the middle. We could ride this bike fast, but we couldn’t make it go fast by just turning the throttle like we could with a KX450F.
WHICH BIKES HANDLES THE BEST?
Most motorcycle tests gloss over handling because it is very difficult for a rider to tell the minute differences between one bike and another without spending lots of time in the saddle. The MXA wrecking crew is very meticulous when it comes to handling and feel that racing, as opposed to play riding, the bikes pushes the frame geometry and setup to the limits. Once pushed beyond the comfort zone the flaws and superlatives rise to the surface quickly. Of the six 2012 450cc motocross bike in the MXA shootout, here is how they rank in handling.
KTM 350SXF: You don’t need a degree in mechanical engineering to figure out that the KTM 350SXF and the KTM 450SXF share the exact same frame geometry and setup. So, why does the MXA wrecking crew think that the 350SXF handles better than the 450SXF. First, the smoother power, reduced thrust and lower horsepower output allow the seven pound lighter 350 to feel better. It delivers a sensation that it is more than seven pounds lighter and because it isn’t as powerful it is easier to put in the right place at the right time.
KTM 450SXF: Amazingly, five years ago the KTM 450 was finishing dead last in MXA’s handling category. Now, thanks to an aggressive American testing program, specially designed U.S.-based spring rates and steeper geometry, KTM has risen to the top of the heap. This is a well-balanced do-it-all chassis. It corners with innate accuracy, stays straight at speed and doesn’t klink in the middle like the old days. If you aim—it will go there.
Suzuki RM-Z450: A case could easily be made that the Suzuki RM-Z450 is the best handling bike in the 450 class. And there are MXA test riders who feel that the Suzuki’s ability to turn inside any bike on the track is an attribute that cannot be downplayed. For a rider looking for the best turning bike made—look no further than Suzuki. If, however, you want straight line stability, minimal head shake and a solid platform in the rough—look elsewhere. If handling could be graded by only a single aspect of a bike—the Suzuki would win with its one trick chassis. Sadly, cornering is apart and parcel with everything else.
FOURTH PLACE (TIE)
Yamaha YZ450F: When the new reverse-engine chassis was introduced in 2010, most MXA test riders complained about the front end wiggling on the entrance to turns. We fixed the instability with a longer shock link (to lower the rear) and careful adjustment of the fork height. For 2012, the wiggle has been reduced at the factory with new damping settings (front and rear) that achieve a calmer transition in head angle changes under deceleration. We don’t think it is perfect chassis—but it is not objectionable.
FOURTH PLACE (TIE)
Kawasaki KX450F: Kawasaki’s engineers have struggled with the KX450F frame geometry ever since the bike was first released in 2006. Every year there have been major changes to the geometry, rigidity and suspension. And, each year the improvements have only been minor. Not so in 2012. The 2012 Kawasaki KX450F is the best handling Kwacker in the seven-year history of the KX450F. The old-school KX450F’s would stand up in the center of corners and push when they should have been leaning. The new chassis doesn’t have the bad habits of the old bikes. It’s better—not perfect but much better.
Honda CRF450: Every test rider says the same thing after riding the 2012 CRF450. First, they rave about how light it feels. Second, that wonder why the front end is so unhinged on the entrance to turns. Third, they complain about how busy the front geometry is over rough rough. Make no mistake about, it is a busy bike—and we say that with full knowledge that this is the best that the latest generation (2009-2012) has ever been. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is an all-new bike for 2012. It is the same old chassis from 2009. It is better than in 2009 because Honda's engineer got tips from local riders about how to fix it. And, Honda’s engineers made two good moves for the 2012 model year: (1) They finally put in fork springs that are stiff enough to hold the forks higher in their stroke under braking. (2) They changed the rising rate at the shock linkage. Although it might seem like a suspension mod, it pays big dividends in handling by stopping the rear from jacking up under deceleration and getting it lower to begin with. It’s the best of the Honda’s, but not of the rest.
WHICH BIKE HAS THE BEST SUSPENSION?
You might think that decoding the suspension riddle would be hard between these six motocross bikes, but you would be wrong. Why? Because one bike is so superior to the others that it is a no-brainer to choose it as the best suspended bike in the class. It is followed by two bikes that are set-up identically and share the same basic dimension. They don’t need aftermarket springs or any trickery to help them work—but they aren't in the same league as the class leader. The bottom two bikes need stiffer springs front and rear—it’s hard to win a suspension category when your chosen springs don’t hold the bike up in the rough. Of the six 2012 450cc motocross bike in the MXA shootout, here is how they rank in suspension setup.
Yamaha YZ450F: No contest. In stock trim the Yamaha YZ450F has the best all-around suspension of any production bike. And we aren’t talking about a little bit better, or slightly better with a caveat, or better once you change the fork or shock spring. Nope! The Yamaha YZ450F has the best suspension. Period. End of argument.
KTM 350SXF: We wouldn’t have picked the 350SXF suspension last year. It had an iffy shock spring that was too light to handle the loads that a mid-sized Open bike can produce (for some reason KTM sprung it like is was a 250). With a much stiffer shock spring for 2012, the second lightest overall weight, KTM’s WP components, Yamaha-clone rising rate linkage and acceptable damping the KTM 350SXF absorbs everything but Pro speed bumps and jumps. Pros and fast Intermediates will not like it, but everyone else will.
KTM 450SXF: KTM’s WP forks are the best we’ve seen from the Austrians in years (sadly that isn't saying much). The 0.50 kg/mm spring rate is right on the money and the valving is decent (albeit too quick through the midstroke). The only difference between the second place KTM 350SXF and the third place 450SXF are the stiffer 0.50 kg/mm forks spring in the heavier 450’s forks (compared to the 0.48s in the 350SXF). We'd like more midspeed damping and better bottoming control—but for the demographics that buy KTM 450SXF's it is well setup.
Honda CRF450: Honda has always been in the ballpark with their rear shock, and, if anything, it has been too stiff for the weak-kneed front forks that Honda is famous for. For 2012 Honda pulled a switcheroo. They upped the spring rate on the forks (to the 0.49 kg/mm that the MXA wrecking crew has been switching to since 2002) and they altered the rising rate to chnage the initial movement of the rear suspension. Very good moves by Honda—even if they are what Honda owners have been doing for years.
FIFTH PLACE (TIE)
Kawasaki KX450F: It’s not unusual for a bike with the most power, and Kawasaki has power in spades, to have a tougher time getting the suspension to feel as effective as bikes with smoother power deliveries or less pure power. It would have also helped if Kawasaki had spent as much time on the suspension settings for 2012 as they did on the new frame geometry and engine mods. We tend to go stiffer on the fork and shock springs (and run a longer shock linkage).
FIFTH PLACE (TIE)
Suzuki RM-Z450: Last year Suzuki made efforts to make their suspension better—largely because they had a reputation for running minicycle spring rates on their big bikes. The addition of stiffer forks springs (front and rear) was a good step by Suzuki, but they didn’t go far enough. The 2012 Showa forks still need stiffer springs to hold the bike higher in its stroke. Without the proper ride height, the RM-Z450 will feel out of balance and low in the front.
WHICH 450 HAS THE MOST CHANGES FOR 2012?
It should be noted that contrary of public opinion, all of the 2012 bikes have received more than BNG (Bold New Graphics) upgrades for 2012. However, there is a kernel of truth in the nay sayers because some of the bikes have undergone barely noticeable alterations. The Kawasaki KX450F is the king of changes for 2012, but the KTM 350SXF, 450SXF, Yamaha YZ450F and Honda CRF450 have all attempted to resolve previous issues with thoughtful (if minimal) changes. Of the six 2012 450cc motocross bike in the MXA shootout, here is a complete accounting of the mods they made for 2012.
Kawasaki KX450F: Here is a list of 2012 KX450F changes: (1) Black rims. (2) New plastic. (3) A frame that is 4mm narrower at the spars. (4) Smaller 1.6 gallon gas tank. (5) Adjustable footpegs (5mm up or down). (6) New intake cam. (7) Redesigned box-bridge piston. (8) Thinner upper ring. (9) Stiffer clutch springs. (10) Redesigned fuel pump. (11) Shorter head pipe and 60mm shorter muffler. (12) Push-button activated Launch Control. (13) A four-dog gearbox to replace the old three-dog gearbox and a 3mm longer shift lever to compensate for the adjustable footpegs. (14) 2.8mm thicker first gear. (15) Three different plug-in ignition maps.
KTM 350SXF: New mapping leaned out the fuel by 3 percent and advance the ignition timing by two degrees. The new maps were aided by a new air boot and velocity stack. To solve 2011’s electrical issues the wiring harness was upgraded with “marine grade” sheathing and a rubber bootie on the TPS sensor. Other changes include: revalved forks, a stiffer shock spring, reinforced rear fender, repositioned rear brake master cylinder O-ring, SKF fork seals, extra inline fuel filter and Dunlop MX51 tires (front and rear).
KTM 450SXF: The 2012 KTM 450SXF got the Dunlop MX51 tires, reinforced rear fender, SKF forks seals and the repositioned rear master cylinder O-ring from the 350SXF. But the biggest news is the 2012 KTM 450SXF’s diaphragm clutch. It is by far the most creative clutch ever put in a production bike.
Honda CRF450: For 2012 the CRF450’s Kayaba forks have stiffer fork springs, while the Kayaba shock rides on a new rising rate linkage that not only lowers the rear of the CRF450 by 5mm, but changes the rate across the board. The final changes to the 2012 CRF were all-new wider and longer footpegs and Dunlop MX51 tires.
Yamaha YZ450F: Yamaha’s engineer reprogrammed the ignition and fuel maps, lengthen the muffler by 42mm (and reduced the core size by 3mm), used circlips to hold the shift forks to a stiffer shift bar, added black anodized rims, spec’ed Dunlop MX51 tires and revalved the forks and shock.
Suzuki RM-Z450: Suzuki changed almost nothing—save for the BNG, seat cover, fuel pump cover and engine breather hose.
HOW DO THE 2012 450’S RANK IN OTHER AREAS?
Life would be simple and shootouts would be easier if horsepower was all that mattered. MXA could just hand the trophy to Kawasaki and call it a day. Or, maybe the most emphasis should be placed on suspension—in which case, Yamaha is the king of the class. What about handling? If that was the aspect by which bikes were ranked, KTM could just walk away with the gold.
Sadly for the bean counters, shootouts aren’t won by the most powerful bike or the best suspended or the best handling, but by the bike that ties all the pieces together. Of the six 2012 450cc motocross bike in the MXA 450 Shootout, here is how they rank in various categories.
WHICH BIKE WEIGHS THE LEAST?
The Honda CRF450 weighs 231 pounds. It is followed in order by the KTM 350SXF (236 pounds), Yamaha YZ450F (238 pounds), Kawasaki KX450F (242 pounds), KTM 450SXF (243 pounds) and Suzuki RM-Z450 (244 pounds). If those weights sound impressive—remember that the 250cc two-strokes that the 450s replaced on the world stage weighed 218 pounds.
WHICH BIKES HAS THE BEST BRAKES?
No contest. The KTM 350SXF and the KTM 450SXF have no peers. The come stock with the biggest rotors and the best pucker power. Third is the Yamaha, fourth the Honda, fifth the Suzuki and last the Kawasaki.
WHICH BIKE SHIFTS THE BEST?
The KTM 450SXF shifts a hair better than the KTM 350SXF (because it doesn’t rev as high and thus puts less load on the gearbox). The third best shifting bike is the Honda CRF450, but it is way below the consistency of the two Katooms. Fourth is the Yamaha YZ450F (it is a little sticky on the upshift from second to third). Fifth is the Kawasaki KX450F (Kawasaki changed their shift mechanism every year, but it never improves). Last is the Suzuki RM-Z450 (it shifts when you don’t want it to).
WHICH BIKE HAS THE BEST CLUTCH?
No Surprise! The KTM 450SXF has the best clutch. Not only is it hydraulic, but the preload can be changed by spinning an adjustment wheel. The second best clutch is on the KTM 350SXF. It doesn’t get the trick diaphragm clutch of the 450, but it is hydraulic, has a steel basket and can take abuse. Yamaha brings up the middle with a workable clutch. Kawasaki may have added stiffer springs for 2012, but this clutch is still short-lived. The Suzuki RM-Z450 clutch is barely a clutch. And, in last place, is the four-spring clutch of the CRF450—it is almost useless.
WHICH BIKE IS THE MOST RELIABLE?
When it comes to reliability, the Yamaha YZ450F is the best all-around bike. It can take abuse, rack up mega-hours, skip valve adjustments and keep right on ticking. The two KTM’s are second and third. KTM uses quality parts (and the 350SXF has fixed its electrical and TPS gremlins from 2011). The Kawasaki, Suzuki and Honda are in a tie for least reliable.
WHICH BIKE HAS THE BEST TIRES?
Given that the Kawasaki comes with Bridgestone 403/404 tires, we’d rate it number one. The Honda, Yamaha and two KTM’s are spec’ed with Dunlop MX51 tires—they tie for second. The Suzuki comes with an awesome Dunlop D756 on the rear and a gruesome D742 on the front.
WHAT DON’T WE LIKE ABOUT EACH BIKE?
The MXA wrecking crew can tell you exactly what we would change on each of the 2012 450s.
Honda CRF450. The clutch design (give it up Honda). The gearing (too tall). The frame geometry (too twitchy). The top-end power (too flat). Too mellow (it has a very casual powerband).
Kawasaki KX450F. The ergos (too bulky). The brakes (what brakes?). The chain guide and chain buffer (they disappear as you watch). The shock linkage (to lower the chassis).
Yamaha YZ450F. The airbox design (over complicated). The gas tank width (jumbo-sized). The side panels (they break). The top end power (flat on top). The airbox noise (sounds like a vacuum cleaner).
Suzuki RM-Z450. The overheating (you could make coffee on the starting line). The shifting (it does, it doesn’t and what was that!). The clutch (slips on the showroom floor). The weight (the heaviest of the six).
KTM 450SXF. The handlebars (too low). The shock preload ring (too weak). The gas cap (too hard to use).
KTM 350SXF: The 350SXF gearing (too tall). The weight (with less power it needs less weight). The handlebars (too low). The shock preload ring (too weak). The gas cap (too hard to use). The power placement (it needs to come down to wher eit is more usable).
WHAT DO WE LIKE ABOUT EACH BIKE?
The MXA wrecking crew can tell you exactly what we like about each of the 2012 450s.
Honda CRF450. The weight (it is the lightest). The ergos (now that the stinkbug stance is gone it feels the most comfortable). The HPSD steering damper (this geometry needs a steering damper). The changes (Honda made three of the four changes it needed to make).
Kawasaki KX450F. The power (no need to hop this bike up). The electronic aids (you get to choose your own powerband). The Launch Control Mode (it is great for getting holeshots).
Yamaha YZ450F. The suspension (it is better than it was last year and it was the best last year). The reliability (this is the only bike that can last under a Pro for a full season). The GYTR Power Tuner (even a guy whose VCR clock is still flashing 12:00 can use it).
Suzuki RM-Z450. The cornering prowess (if you can only be good at one thing—this is the best one to choose).
KTM 450SXF. The electric starter (never kick again). The hydraulic clutch (it self-adjusts). The diaphragm clutch (smart engineering). The Keihin carb (luscious power delivery). The brakes (impressive).
KTM 350SXF: The handling (it is like a jet fighter). The hydraulic clutch (the steel basket lasts forever). The sound (it has a nice quiet tone). The mid-size power (it’s faster than a 250, but slower than a 450). The shock spring (KTM went to spring that we had to buy last year).
AND THE 2012 450 SHOOTOUT WINNER IS...
Before we tell you who won in 2012, we need to go back one year and tell you where the 2011 bikes ranked just 12 short months ago. The KTM 450SXF was first, Suzuki RM-Z450 second, Yamaha YZ450F third, Kawasaki KX450F fourth, KTM 350SXF fifth and Honda CRF450 sixth.
When you analyze what has transpired on the R&D front since the 2011 MXA 450 Shootout, you don’t need a best friend named Dr. Watson to realize that some bikes made big development moves while others stood pat with what they had. Plain and simple, the brands that made no serious changes cannot expect to move up in the 2012 rankings from their 2011 placings. On the other hand, bikes that made changes that improved the bike have the potential to move forward. Of the six 2012 450cc motocross bike in the MXA Shootout, here is how they rank overall.
SIXTH PLACE: KTM 350SXF
Number six! If you are quizzical about how the almost identical KTM 450SXF could win the 2011 MXA 450 Shootout and finish second in the 2012 version, while the virtual twin KTM 350SXF is stuck back in last place, you can quit scratching your head. The KTM 350SXF makes ten horsepower less than its orange stablemate. The 350SXF isn’t comparable to a 450cc motocross bike in speed, thrust or torque. Yes, it can be ridden to the front of a 450 race, but then so could a 250cc four-stroke. For riders looking for the ultimate expression of moto power—the KTM 350SXF isn’t it. With 100cc less displacement and peak horsepower that hovers above 12,000 — the KTM 350SXF is at a major disadvantage to bikes that are full-size, make as much as 55 horsepower and reach their peak at 8000 rpm. We would love this bike if it weighed ten pounds less than it does now—because that would allow the power-to-weight formula to come to fruition.
Power: Kudos to KTM’s R&D department. They improved the power of the 2012 KTM 350SXF by bringing more power down to where it can be used.
Suspension: Last year we said that if the 350SXF came with the fork and shock from the 450SXF, that it would be a much better bike—well, we got our wish and it is a much better bike.
Handling: The best in the 450 class, but if KTM upped the dispplacement on the 250SXF to 251cc they could say the same thing. The adage that slow bikes handle handle better than fast ones is true.
The word: Truth in advertising. This bike lives up to its billing. It is faster than a 250 and not as brutal as a 450. That’s it. That’s all it ever claimed to be.
FIFTH PLACE: HONDA CRF450
Number five! The MXA wrecking crew gives the Honda R&D department props for what they achieved in 2012—with very little R&D money. Instead of going in circles like they have since 2009, Honda’s engineers took a close look at what their consumers, who are motocross racers, were doing to their bikes. And, then they duplicated that on the 2012 production line. Very smart. It would have worked too—except for the fact that the engine had been toned down too much and the four-spring clutch was never beefed up. We think that the stiffer fork springs, subtler rising-rate linkage and new footpegs are worthwhile addition to the CRF450 package, but they aren’t enough.
Power: The Honda CRF450 is mellow. It makes good horsepower from idle up to 8500 rpm—then it goes flat. Very flat. It is well modulated, very tractable and incredibly easy to ride. In short—it is slow.
Suspension: We have hated Honda’s stinkbug stance, soft front end and harsh rear suspension for a decade. No more. The new fork springs and shock linkage bring the CRF450 up to contemporary standards.
Handling: No description of 2012 CRF450 handling would be complete without the terms oversteer, wiggle, wander and shake being used. You would need perfect suspension and amazing fore/aft balance to calm this chassis down.
The word: Every MXA test rider believes that the 2012 CRF450 has the potential to be the best bike in the class—but not with its useless clutch and weird handling.
FOURTH PLACE: YAMAHA YZ450F
Number four! Yamaha made some significant changes to the YZ450F for 2012. They just weren’t significant enough to move the reverse-engine YZ450F up in the ranks—instead it dropped one spot. That is shame because the 2012 Yamaha YZ450F has unbelievable suspension. An AMA Pro could roll this bike off the showroom floor and take it straight to a National and race it. It wouldn’t be the fastest bike there. It wouldn’t have the best brakes. It wouldn’t be the lightest bike on the track. But, it would have the best suspension. That is something to crow about.
Power: The 2012 powerband is better than the 2011 powerband because Yamaha modulated the burst off the bottom and slow the quick rush into the middle down. Ignition mapping and exhaust pipe changes produced a decent spread of power.
Suspension: Awesome is the only word that applies to Kayaba’s SSS forks and shock. It is the best stuff on the track in any displacement category of any year of any bike ever made.
Handling: The new suspension damping reduced the YZ450F’s tendency to wiggle on the entrance to turns. It’s not in the same league as the KTM or Suzuki—but it isn’t as bad as its lack of street cred hints.
The word: Never underestimate the importance of great suspension. When more powerful engines and quicker turning bikes are bouncing through the whoops, the YZ450F is floating on a cloud. Plus, it is the most reliable bike in the field. Those two pluses pay dividends when you are racing on your own dime.
THIRD PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z450
Number three! In last year’s MXA 450 Shootout the Suzuki RM-Z450 was a close second to the KTM 450SXF, but you didn’t really think that the yellow bike could stay there without ante up in the high stakes game of performance motorcycles. This is last year's bike with some bargain basement decals changes. The 2011 RM-Z450 didn’t win last year and there is no way that the exact same bike is going to win against bikes that have been improved this year. Yet, they were so good last year, that they did hold on to a top-three finish. The RM-Z450 needs several tweaks to make it into the best bike in the class (improved shifting, clutch, cooling and spring rates). It didn’t get them for 2012.
Power: The 2012 RM-Z450’s power is exceptionally manageable off the bottom, builds steadily through the middle and, unlike the dead-on-top RM-Z450’s of 2007 through 2009, it pulls across the top without the dreaded rev limiter pop. The powerband is deliberate, focus and has the third best output of 2012.
Suspension: Suzuki needs to go to stiffer springs to hold the bike higher in its stroke. Without the proper ride height, the RM-Z450 will feel out of balance and low in the front.
Handling: Nothing corners like a Suzuki. The RM-Z450 has more oversteer than any other make (achieved by a very steep head angle) and while that pays dividends in the corners it can get busy in the rough.
The word: The 2012 RM-Z450 is the third best engine in the 450 class, mated to an agile chassis, average suspension and a boatload of shortcomings.
SECOND PLACE: KTM 450SXF
Number two! The MXA wrecking crew was torn between the 2012 KTM 450SXF and the Kawasaki KX450F. The KTM won the MXA 450 Shootout in 2010 and 2011—and, in the minds of a reasonable number of MXA test riders, it should have won in 2012. Why? This is a do-it-all machine. It has electric start, but only weighs one pound more than the KX450F. It has a bulletproof hydraulic clutch, with the only Belleville washer-style spring in production. It is the best handling 450cc bike in the class, although the RM-Z450 earns Brownie points for its turning ability. It has four-way adjustable triple clamps, to allow the bars to be moved in every direction but up. The powerband is expansive, easy-to-use, fast on top and blessed with the kind of feel that only a carb can provide. The rear rising rate suspension is a Yamaha clone, albeit not as good as the YZ450F.
Power: This is the most usable power in the 450 field. It starts off mellow and builds into a crescendo of power that has to be felt to believe.
Suspension: The KTM’s suspension is dialed in to its chosen customer base—which isn’t AMA Pros.
Handling: The 2012 KTM 450SXF has incredible handling. It doesn’t oversteer or understeer—it goes where you point it.
The word: Even with the best powerband, best clutch, best brakes, best overall handling and most creative design, the KTM 450SXF didn’t win in 2012. Perhaps it should have.
FIRST PLACE: KAWASAKI KX450F
Number one. Kawasaki’s win is not all that surprising—if you remember that it won the 2009 MXA 450 Shootout just a few short years ago. What is surprising is that Kawasaki came from fourth place in 2011 to the top of the heap in 2012. How did they do it? Their R&D department has changed the KX450F every year since it was introduced in 2006. They never quit trying to make it better—and this year they succeeded. Kawasaki's 2012 modification didn’t just change the performance of the bike, but also its personality.
Power: In terms of purity of purpose there is nothing like the KX450F engine. It pumps out 55.50 horsepower in such an effective manner that you can’t help but be impressed. Kawasaki wasn’t content to just build the best engine in the class. They wanted to make it the most tunable engine ever. A 2012 KX450F owner can choose between three different powerbands—stock, mellow and aggressive. Plus, Launch Control retards the ignition enough to tamp down wheelspin on the starting line. Good ideas, well implemented.
Suspension: The 2012 KX450F’s suspension is nothing special. Most MXA test riders switch to stiffer fork and shock springs to bring the performance around.
Handling: Even Ryan Villopoto recognized that the 2012 chassis was a giant step-up from the previous 2011 frame. The bike feels thinner, it corners better and doesn’t have the bulky stance of the typical KX450F.
The word: The 2012 KX450F is the best 450cc motocross bike of 2012.