Having ridden Honda's CRF250 and CRF450 across the 42 Traverse, you might think I'd be dead keen to tackle the launch of the newly updated models. Except I rode the X trail-bike versions across the Tongariro tracks, and these are the hairy-chested competition-focused motocrossers, the CRF250R and 450R.
Hence the presence of former world MX2 champion Ben Townley - a Honda brand ambassador who will race a CRF450R at selected events, including the famous beach race at November's Burt Munro Challenge - and Cody Cooper, who will defend his national MX1 title aboard a Honda.
So it was experts only at the Taupo launch, where attendees were greeted by a CRF250R featuring chassis and engine upgrades designed to reflect the bigger bike. The aluminium twin-beam frame stays much the same, but a new lower cradle carries the engine and ancillaries, to better centralise weight and cut heft - the 250R now tipping the scale at 105.2kg.
The 250 also features a set of new-generation Showa air forks, lighter than the steel springs, and like the revised engine management system, able to deliver greater on-the-spot tuning. The 450 uses KYB steel-sprung self-lubricating forks with high- and low-speed damping adjusters on both sides, and an altered rear KYB piggyback-reservoir shock with low- and high-speed compression adjusters, accessed near the compression adjusters for ease.
These may be race-focused bikes but they'll also be used on the trail, and not always by folk as skilled as Cooper and Townley. Hence the Engine Mode Select button - a feature increasingly popular on road bikes, but new to MX. It has three settings to alter engine mapping from smooth to aggressive, accessed via the right handlebar (there is no holeshot mode). Honda says mode one is the most balanced, mode two is designed for slippery conditions and the third mode is for hard-out aggression.
Both CRFs get larger front wave discs which our tame tester said work really well, aluminium rims, top-spec Dunlop MX52 tyres and changes to the graphics.
There's been a bit of work done to the 450's 449cc engine too, including a new cylinder head and revised exhaust port, all aimed at improving power delivery and boosting the top end a tad, while other changes include new exhausts and mufflers and additional transmission tuning.
Our tame expert's first impression was that these bikes are beautifully made, "the best build and finish by some margin", and likely to work well for more than just the country's top competitors - though the Taupo event was very much focused on the Townley-developed track, which tended to highlight a narrower range of skills than a rider also wanting to tackle enduro or trail would require.
"Ben had set up a Speedcross track, which is like a short-circuit supercross track that's not too extreme, to get people enthused on supercross - which is great for keen young guys but a mixed blessing for testing, as the conditions are limited.
"It's tight, with two open corners, two tight corners and jumps, so it doesn't give a good all-round picture of what the bikes are like", mainly because it couldn't deliver feedback on response in open country or especially tight conditions, where you might want to weave the bike between obstacles. The surface was pumice - somewhat like riding in sand - "so a bit single-focus".
Rider feedback suggested the engines are very user-friendly even in aggressive mode: the 250 feels light and handles nicely, with the 111kg 450 feeling less light in the steering, as you might expect from the different steering head angles. "It steers well, but perhaps a whisker slower than Honda tradition."
Again, this impression was garnered on just this track.
While the Suzuki that launched earlier the same week fits only a launch control, the Honda's set-up alters power characteristics for the whole track. That's useful for a first-time 450 rider, says our tester.
But a racer - the buyer these bikes are aimed at - would likely select the aggressive mode and stick to it for anything but especially slippery going. Throttle response felt a tad flatter than the Suzuki, albeit deceptive, apparently charging across ground quicker than it felt. Both bikes felt rideable, tractable, and if a whisker less thrilling than they could be, such characteristics will suit a wider range of buyers.
If you want to be picky, a tester at Taupo commented these Hondas almost do everything too well. "Super-nice to ride, goes well, everything works, but not especially exciting."
That said, most testers liked the Hondas on this track. And despite their evolution, they retail at the same price as last year's models - at $13,499 for the CRF250R and $13,999 for the 450R.