In the off-road world, the 450 business has taken a backseat lately to small big-bore 4x4s and the ultra-hot UTV market. However, according to Yamaha, the leader in sport ATV sales, the segment is seeing growth now that the economy is improving. That’s a good thing, because in the sand, on the track or even in the tight woods, there is nothing more fun than sawing the handlebars back and forth at full throttle on a high-performance sport quad. This month we wanted to see how Yamaha’s new YFZ450R would compare to two of the old favorites in the class—the Kawasaki KFX450R and the Honda TRX450R. A few years back, when we compared Yamaha’s YFZ450X to these machines, it didn’t fair so well. A touchy throttle and a heavy clutch were a couple of our test riders’ complaints. In that test, we also featured one Can-Am DS450 model. Can-Am still makes three different versions of their 450, but were unavailable to loan us a unit for this particular test.
It’s been since 2009 when Honda last made any changes to this machine. It’s still carbureted and features an aluminum frame—two items that are not found on any other 450 sport quad. However, that fact doesn’t keep top racers in XC, MX and desert from choosing the Honda as their machine of choice. The heart of the Honda is good. It has an electric-starting, liquid-cooled, SOHC, four-valve engine. It has a ton of power and has proven very reliable. While most racers scrap the stock suspension for more travel, the stock stuff is not that bad. It features dual A-arms up front, with 8.4 inches of travel and compression and rebound adjustments. Out back, an aluminum swingarm is also completely adjustable and moves a bit more at 9.3 inches. Twin-piston calipers handle the stopping chores up front, while the rear only has a single-piston caliper grabbing the rotor.
The Honda is compact. It measures 73.3 inches long and 46.3 inches wide. Our riders all felt a little cramped on the Honda. It’s has narrow handlebars and a stiff thumb throttle when compared to the other two models that are equipped with EFI. The carb doesn’t hinder starting by any means, and on the good side, it allows for the largest gas tank of the group and 2.7 gallons. And during our test, we recorded the highest top speed on the Honda at 73.2 mph. On the downside, the Honda used slightly more fuel during our trail test.
On choppy trails, the Honda is a bit bouncy. The Dunlop tires hook up well but don’t point you exactly where you want to go. You spend more time muscling the narrow bars around than you do with the throttle pegged. Aftermarket handlebars, a slightly wider axle and long-travel A-arms make the Honda worlds better.
This machine is the only 450 of the three with reverse. It has an all-aluminum frame and fuel injection. You can’t get much more modern than this machine. The aluminum frame does transmit some vibration back to the rider, though; the perfect-bend Renthal bars make it hardly noticeable. Power delivery is ultra smooth through the DOHC, liquid-cooled four-stroke. Suspension is handled by steel dual A-arms up front with 8.5 inches of fully adjustable travel. Out back, an aluminum swingarm moves an even 10 inches with complete adjustability. The Kawasaki is also shod with Dunlop tires, but they are mounted on very tough, rolled-edge, rim-lock-equipped (rear only), aluminum wheels. The simple ring on the inside of the rear wheel prevents the wheels from bending when slamming into rocks or during big flat landings.
Overall handling is superb on the KFX. It feels like it has a longer wheelbase than the Honda, but according to the specs, it is about a half an inch shorter. It turns much sharper in the woods and feels stable at high speeds. In wide-open throttle, it tops out at 71.7 mph. The Dunlop tires hook up when you want to go forward and slide when you pitch it into a turn. The reverse gear alone makes it worth considering, no matter what sized trail machine you are interested in.
The Yamaha sits 2 1/2 inches wider than the other two machines. So to see if that was a problem, we took it through the tightest wood trails we have to test it on. In several spots we did have to slow down to squeeze between the trees. And, it was a bummer we didn’t have reverse. However, the plush long-travel suspension more than made up for it everywhere else. That wider stance allows the YFZ to have the most front-wheel travel numbers of the trio at 9.8 inches. Out back, the numbers are even more impressive at an even 11 inches. You can fell the plushness over every bump. And if you can feel the bumps, high- and low-speed compression adjustments can be made, as well as spring preload and rebound. This 2014 DOHC, liquid-cooled, four-stroke 450R is much better than the old X-model, even if it was endorsed by Bill Ballance. Power was not as exciting as the Honda, but just as smooth as the Kawasaki without the vibration through the handlebars. The Yamaha topped out at 72.2 mph. To get there, clutch pull was super light and shifts were buttery smooth. About the only thing that could make this engine better is a reverse gear. We have ridden this quad with an exhaust system, and it is not a mandatory upgrade to have fun in the woods.
Yamaha equipped this machine with their twin-piston calipers, both front and rear, allowing it to stop on a dime and never fade. Maxxis tires are used on the YFZ and will probably end up on the next-generation Honda and Kawasaki 450s.
While the current crop of 450-class machines is somewhat limited these days, there are good choices. The Honda is still proving to be a good product for racers wanting to build a go-fast machine. The Kawasaki does it all and doesn’t really need anything to make it better. Yamaha is the only manufacturer that has made changes to its 450 sport quad and it shows. Although it’s $500–$700 more than the other two, it has shocks that are $1000 better. It’s easy to ride in the woods and can be more easily turned into a track racer. On the good side, Kawasaki and Honda will upgrade their 450s soon and be right back on top, banging bars with the Yamaha YFZ450R. We can’t wait. If you can’t either, stay tuned, because in the coming months we are going to put a few mods on all three of these machines and run them all on the track and in the dunes to see how they compare.