Honda XR400 in the Algerian Sahara

Additional pix by Dan W, Dave K and Robin W.
For the full story on our tour read this.


Having had a couple of XR400s on previous desert tours, I’ve long wanted to try one for myself and finally got a MY 2000 model in late 2017. I rode it up and down the road, got some man-caving mates to fix a few things up, then loaded it into a van bound for Germany and Algeria.
Even if they’d have made easier work of it, I couldn’t bring myself to splash out at least twice as much for a KTM and the like. There’s very little in this old category but the XR was a safe, undemanding choice which I was pretty sure wouldn’t disappoint me on the sort of riding I was expecting.

Quick stats
• Produced from 1996-2004
• Air-cooled, dry-sump, RFVC, 5-speed
• 34hp @ 6500rpm
• 116kg dry
• 36.6” / 930mm claimed seat height
• 9.5 litre tank (~150km range)
• Disc brakes and 18/21-inch wheels
• Go from around £2000 used in the UK

tik • Light
• Easy kick starting
• Enough power
• Great suspension, all things considered
• Looks great if you’re of a certain age

cros • Tall seat height
• Unimpressive, carb-era economy
• Kick only
• Dry-sump oil-level checking faffery
• Was never a contender as a good travel bike (skimpy subframe)
• No modern version exits

Some other bikes I considered were:

Has the button but 15-20kg heavier, more trail bike less dirt bike and finding a decent one with few owners and that’s not covered in naff Monster stickers is tricky.

Husaberg FE450  husaberg450
Liked the unusual engine and good reputation of later models but obscure = hard to sell on and anyway, it’s a hardcore enduro racer.

KTM 500 EXC`
Less frantic than a 450, lighter than a 690 and easy to sell on, but efi ones cost thousands and anyway ‘KTM relaxed’ ≠ XT500.

Unchanged since 2008 and said to be the ‘softest’ of the Jap 450 enduros but carb’d and rare in the UK. But again, softest is all relative.

Better suspension than a CRF-L but it’s still only a 250. I’ve had enough 250s for the moment.

xr4 - 1

My XR showed 8550km (5300m) on the clock and looked in good nick. It had a small rack, bashplate and an OK front tyre so not much needed adding of fixing for a fortnight in the desert: a new Mitas E09 on the back with Slime in the tubes and self-tapers through the rims to stop tyre creep.
New wheel bearings (old ones rusted right up – jet wash victims, I guess) plus fatter pegs and a Trail Tech temperature gauge. Air- or water-cooled, I’m a believer in closely monitoring actual engine temps in the desert. I also got TTR-Simon (on the tour) to add my old Barkbuster Storms and Rox risers, plus a disc of HDPE (chopping board plastic) melted and bolted under the side stand foot – a light and simple way of doing it.

Before flying out to Algeria I had a thought that my kick-only XR might take a lot of starting after being transported across the freezing Alps, the salty Med and half the dusty, arid Sahara. But came the day in Illizi I nearly fell off the seat when it lit up first kick and proceeded to do so throughout the rest of the trip, whether baking hot or freezing cold.

Once geared up, leaving Illizi we were thrown in the deep end with a short but sandy ride to our first dune camp. Those new to sand or who’d not ridden it for ages – like me – were a bit startled but eventually remembered what to do: gun it and hold on. The XR felt light, well sprung and reasonably responsive (this was on road pressures), though not enough to make me want to blast up wayside dunes for the hell of it. Most of us felt the same way; there was plenty of rugged riding ahead.
FYI, the other bikes on the tour were a CRF250L (DNF); two BMW XChallenges (1 DNF; injury), two KTM 690s, Husaberg 450, two bored-out 315-cc Yamaha TTR250s, KTM 350 EXC, Husqvarna TE300 2T, XR250R and an old KTM 640 Adventure. All of these bikes appeared to cope as well with the riding and, like the XR, none of them needed anything more than the slightest attention. Read the full ride report on advrider.

Fast forward a few days and my XR had impressed me and saved my arse many times; most commonly when I was certain I was about to go over the bars following an unexpected drop-off, trench or general gnarliness. I thank the light weight – it really is the answer to so many issues on the dirt – and the Showa forks on whatever setting the bike came with. The rebuilt rear Showa shock also did a great job without any meddling. It goes to show that good quality suspension on a light bike works well over a broad spectrum – or how easily pleased I am.

The XR is relatively short and tall and George (who followed us in the pickup over the tour) observed that the Jap bikes (XRs and TTRs) appeared relatively less stable compared to the generally racier European bikes. My XR does look short and high alongside a long-swingarmed 690 and I can’t say it rode the sand seas like an ocean liner, nor trickled through grassy tussocks like a Montesa. That may have caused fatigue and palm blisters after a few days, but the relative skittishness never made me to crash outright.

Version 2

Dave (690 fan) and I have an ongoing banter about why I should get ‘the best trail bike ever’. While the 690 KTM does appear to give you your cake (lightness, economy, power, tough build) so you can eat it; I still find it and the similar Husky 701 I rode in Morocco too full-on, narrow-saddled and vibey; still more enduro racer than trail bike. A quick spin on Rob’s 690 (left) didn’t change my mind and anyway, for the use I’d give it, with the attention it needs and my lack of secure parking/well-lit workshop space, such a bike would be an extravagance.

Kick-starting may be old school but the only time my XR took some starting was after it fell over long enough to drain the carb. Soon enough I learned to just keep kicking away whereupon it eventually coughed then fired up. This can be awkward (on a dune) or just plain tiring after a couple of minutes, so a button would be great. It can be done on an XR by fitting a motor (or crankcase?) from a Honda TRX400 quad – try and find one of those on ebay in good nick. TTR-Simon is currently engaged in such a project; he’s also producing a 350 barrel kit for the electric TTR 250s. Neither job’s an easy solution, but both these bikes – one too small cc, the other unbuttoned – comes with the great suspension and to make it worthwhile – possibly.

A couple of days in, looping some loops I smelled burning oil which turned out to be my bike. Dave (690 and ex-XR400) said the ‘RFVC‘ radial valve set-up tends to ovalise the valve guides due to non-inline forces. Sounds plausible and as the motor never started rattling as long as I kept the oil level up, I was sure it would complete the ride. The strain on the motor and transmission when hauling me over deep, soft sand or up a dune slope is not what I’m used to in the desert, but I never felt the XR needed to be nailed WFO to get the job done. That’s why we like 400-450s over 250s.

I’m guessing RFVC was an over-complicated way of optimising power by improving gas flow with the biggest possible valves. I was also told I might have released more power by easily removing the baffle, but I doubt it would’ve made a noticeable improvement – just a lot more noise which is often mistaken for the same thing.

Though I forgot to consider it before departure, the 14/45 gearing on my XR turned out to be spot on for what we were doing; ie: on the low side. On the road, 90kph and once or twice 100 felt like enough and the close-ratio, 5-speed box never bogged (the XR250’s gearing was a lot wider). The chain was feeling the strain too, and needed two clicks during the 1600-km trip; what a pleasure those old school snail cams are to use. Low and close gearing also meant the clutch was never under strain.

Fuel consumption was pretty poor by my recent standards – down to just 100km to a tank or 150 to dry (45mpg). I bet the bigger efi 650s and 690s were doing much better – small engines aren’t always more efficient when you take into account power-sapping terrain or high-speed roads. I didn’t pull the spark plug but the bike did feel like it may have been running rich, even if starting and carburation were spot on. Better to leave it that way in the desert, even at the cost of mpg as the engine runs a little cooler.

Measured off the cylinder head, that temp gauge was handy for reading overnight ambients down to zero. On the road the bike ran in the 80s °C and up to 120 when pushed hard on slow dirt, heating briefly up another 10C or more when stopped or ticking over after a hard run. Though I didn’t like doing it, switching off after a couple of minutes seemed best as ticking-over saw the temps climb and climb, even with a breeze. Turned off, it only rose for a few minutes then dropped away quickly. I seemed to be the only one pre-occupied about cool running, but for an old, air-cooled engine I’m sure it’s important. Mechanic Simon (who knows XR4s and engines more than me – since diagnosed light glazing on my XR’s bore which will hone out with new rings and a lapping of the valve seats with new seals. As he says: ‘I think when stationary the engine should be off unless there’s a strong breeze. Combustion chamber temp should not rise further with no source of heat, but the temperature [spike] will move towards the outside of the engine as the temperature gradient changes (imagine it like a wave [of heat] radiating from the plug to the fins) which is why the sensor [briefly] records a continued rise.

The rear Mitas E09 (non Dakar; 1 less ply and a bit lighter) wore very well, (right: after 1000 miles), but on the sands 1 bar / 15psi was still too hard for this stiff tyre on a light  bike, even with my weight. On the last day on sand I tried 12psi (~0.8 bar) and noticed less squirreling when pulling away and improved traction elsewhere. Tough as a Michelin Desert but less than half price, I’d use one again for similar riding. I had no punctures (nor did anyone else on this trip).

xr4 - 30

So thumbs up for the classic XR4; one of the best trail bikes of its day and still with nothing newer taking its place, including the so-called 450L. I’m pretty sure that motor-wise, it was a better ride than the slightly heavier WR250R I used last year.
The other day I put out a daring Twitter: ”Like’ if you want to see a modern XR400 such as a CRF450L’. I got the most responses to anything I’ve ever posted. Let’s hope that bike might come one of these years, while not weighing a ton. (It did, but it wasnt).

xr4 - 14

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