The CBR250R gets dirty

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Ridden a Honda CBR250R yet? You should, it’ll utterly change the way you think about size. It matters, yes, but not in the way you think. By being smaller, lighter and simpler than most other modern motorcycles, it recaptures a purity of experience and purpose others have been lacking. In short, it’s clean, simple fun. In an era of excess, it’s welcome counterpoint. Equipped with the same engine and priced similarly low, this new Honda CRF250L promises to take that appeal off-road. Can it? I spent most of yesterday riding it in the mountains above Santa Barbara, California to find out.

From CBR to CRF

Ride the two bikes back to back and you’d be hard pressed to tell they use virtually identical 249cc single-cylinder motors. Where the CBR is all mid-range and top-end, the CRF is all bottom and mid.

That’s reflected in the numbers. Where the CBR makes 26bhp and 17lb/ft, the CRF lags behind on power (23bhp), but surprisingly, loses a pound-foot too. That’s surprising, because torque is the overriding impression kicked out by the engine, allowing you to be lazy with gearshifts and drive up climbs or out of corners virtually from idle. That’s a neat trick for such a tiny engine.

The CRF doesn’t feel slower on the road than the CBR either. A lot of that is probably down to weight. Where the CBR weighs 357lbs (wet), the CRF is just 317. 40lbs is a big difference on bikes of this size.

What’s also surprising is how little Honda changed inside the motor to make it feel so different. Cam profiles are changed, the throttle body is a hair smaller and the exhaust diameter shrinks while length grows, that’s it.

The CRF then houses that motor in a steel cradle frame fitted with USD forks, a Pro-Link monoshock and an aluminum swingarm.

Seat height is 34.7 inches, which may sound tall for you small folk, but the entire package is pencil thin and the weight is carried both low and centrally, making it utterly simple and natural to hold it up with merely the point of a toe.


The first time I sat on a CRF250L, at Laguna Seca, I was able to bottom the preload-adjustable rear suspension by heavily bouncing my 172lbs on the seat. Not a positive sign. But, riding it through rocky fire roads in the Los Padres National Forest yesterday, it didn’t bottom once. The 9.8 inches of travel through the non-adjustable, 43mm USD forks and 9.4 inches at the rear was instead soft, but well-damped and positively plush.

The biggest limitation, at least for this novice dirt rider, was instead the tires. Understandably biased towards road safety in stock form, the dual sport tires are limited in their ability to really grab the dry, loose gravel, rocks and shale. More experienced riders were able to develop confidence in the front despite that and were carrying some impressive speeds, but even scooting all the way forward above the 2.0-gallon gas tank had my front sliding instead of gripping.

Still, the CRF otherwise provided an easy, confidence-inspiring ride. I was free to make mistakes and pick bad lines and the little Honda would just walk me out. Climbs that should probably have been taken at the top of 2nd gear could instead still be made at the bottom of 3rd, the engine wouldn’t bog or cut out no matter how ham-fisted I was.

Basically, it’s the easy, fun, un-intimidating experience you’d think it would be. More aggressive tires and you could really fly on this thing.


And this is where that tire compromise pays off. Riding along the kind of single-lane mountain roads that’d be scary as hell on a big sportsbike, which would be unable to get out of 1st gear, you can simply fly on the little CRF. The tires grip all the way to their edges, the long-travel, plush suspension provides excellent feedback and simply soaks up huge bumps There’s just a ton of fun to be had.

Steering is predictably lightning fast, but also very stable. Feel through the brakes is excellent, leading to some very late, impressively heavy trail braking and the wide bars mean you can just flick it side to side without even trying.

On these roads, the only thing faster would be a full-on supermoto, but one of those would take considerably more skill to ride, where this knobby equipped Honda is the picture of simple operation.

When things straighten out, it’ll reach an indicated top speed of 86mph, which is feels impressively smooth and relaxed. There’s no wobble or instability at that speed.

A 7-hour day showed not a single sign of discomfort. Not a tight leg muscle or sore ass or stiff arms; nothing.

The Competition

The big rival here is going to be the WR250R. We’ll make this simple: the Honda CRF250L is 100 percent as capable as the Yamaha WR250R and costs $2,000 less. Yeah…

Sure, the Yamaha makes a staggering 28bhp to the Honda’s 23, but you have to really work the WR to find that performance where the CRF does all the work for you. The Honda 250’s torque defies its capacity and makes the bike easy, fun and capable.

Surely there’s something wrong with it?

Other than those tires being a little too road-focussed when you’re not on the road, I only had two problems with the CRF:

1. At 6’ 2”, the bike was just a tad too small for me to stand on comfortably. Taller bars would help, sure, but the only place you can grip with your knees when you’re tall like me is from the gas gap forwards. That’s not much real estate. Stomp Grip will help.

2. The bike lacks crash protection and the radiator pokes quite far outside the frame, protected only by a thin piece of plastic. I’d want bars on that before I handed the bike to a complete n00b.

Big Red

CBR250R, NC700X and now the CRF250L. What we’re seeing here is a major return to form from a brand that once defined the idea of affordable, fun, friendly motorcycles. No components on any of these bikes are terribly innovative and their overall concepts are convention defined. Instead of more power or lighter weight or better handling or carbon gew gaws, what all these bikes do is work with an overall cohesion that elevates them far above their relatively humble spec sheets.

Pick any three of those bikes and, no matter what your skill level, no matter what kind of riding you like to do, no matter how small or fat or tall or tiny you happen to be, you’ll have an absolute blast riding them, you’ll be comfortable doing so, you’ll get great fuel economy and you’ll be able to afford to buy them.

TL;DR: Every bit as good as the competition for $2,000 cheaper. Dual sport motorcycling distilled to its versatile, awesome essence. $4,500, 74mpg.

  • JaySD

    @Wes Is the CRF250L fuel injected? And does it have the 26,000 mile valve check of the WR250R?

    • Wes Siler

      Yup, it does have fuel-injection. Valve checks are 16k on the CBR250, so I’m assuming they’re the same here.

  • 10/10ths

    Great machine for the real world.

  • Coreyvwc

    I really like the cheap and easy aspect of the design philosophy, but I just don’t understand why it has to look cheap also. Graphic design and color really cost nothing when occompanied by mass production. The shit looking red plastic and silver everything don’t need to be that way.

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1200]

      One clear advantage — when you dump this thing for the first time, not a single tear will be shed. Most owners will look forward to the battle scars that add to the vintage Honda trail bike aesthetic.

      Perhaps another advantage is that professional thieves will pass it by.

    • fasterfaster

      actually the crf has some of the nicest plastics and best fit and finish I’ve seen on a dual sport at any price, and the pretty decent tasteful industrial design. If you don’t like the decals, peel them off. It’s a dirt bike. Big ups to Honda. This is the gas bike I’m most excited about this year.

      • Coreyvwc

        I’m sure the fit and finish is phenomenal, it is a honda product after all. My gripe is that it looks SO SO DATED and cheap. Plus we all know those red plastics will be a delightful shade of pink after a year or two of riding…

  • JaySD

    It looks shorter/smaller than the WR250R as well, which is probably a good thing in general as the WR250R was a pretty tall bike

  • Your_Mom

    I would like to see a CB version. Just a plain standard bike for the street.

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1200]

      Or too bad Honda doesn’t sell their trellis-framed L-twin 250 naked here in the States.

      • BMW11GS

        that is an awesome looking bike! What a gem.

      • Troy R

        Wow nice! I could imagine it with a cbr250r engine, it would be the little brother of the venerable 919/599 (oh how I’d wish they’d bring them back)

      • Jesse

        That’s a stunner. I would hand those out like candy to new riders.

      • Scott Pargett

        Whoa, can’t believe I never knew honda made that bike. Imagine if they made a 400cc model in the US.

  • Pete

    So, how does 23hp/16tq vs the CBR’s 26/17 constitute a “reflection in the numbers” of bottom end/midrange? And how does 16 ft/lbs “defy its capacity”?

    • Wes Siler

      It feels far torquier than it is.

      • Patrick from Astoria

        Wish we could see a dyno chart. Probably would show plenty of area under the curve down low into the midrange to match your perceptions of the super-usability even if the absolute number isn’t trucklike.

        • Coreyvwc

          Final drive gearing changes can do wonderous things…

          • Pete

            Uhhhh…yeah…I don’t think you guys understand the meaning of ‘reflected in the numbers’.

            • Ben W

              Agreed. The numbers in this article don’t reflect the advantage the CRF has. If a provided dyno chart (or reference) showed higher torque low/mid, then “reflected in the numbers” would be an appropriate statement.

  • Bruce Steever

    Good to see Honda coming back to being… well, Honda.

    Also: love the TL;DR postscript.

  • Campisi

    I probably would have bought this instead of a CBR 250 were it available a year ago. A supermotard variant with the CBR’s engine tuning would be a real blast.

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1200]

      Like this?

      • Jesse

        That moto would be bad for my license. I’m making grabby-hands at the screen.

      • Campisi

        You torment me with forbidden knowledge, sir.

      • Chris Davis

        I want that bike!

  • 10/10ths

    Hell yeah like that!

  • wwalkersd

    Compulsive proofreader’s note: “Pick any three of those bikes…” Didn’t you mean “Pick any of those three bikes”?

    The bike sounds like a ball. I’ve been thinking about something smaller and lighters than my DL1000, and you’ve just complicated my decision process. I wish more dealers did test rides.

  • BMW11GS

    Weird question, but does it have ABS like its street brethren?

    • Troy R

      I didn’t see an ABS option when I was looking through all of the specs on the Honda USA website. I’m guessing no, at least for now.

      • BMW11GS

        Ah lazy research on my part. I am just wondering if these will have to meet the mandatory Euro ABS spec soon? That would be a fantastic add as long as they get are switchable.

  • R.Sallee (Ninja 250)

    I’d like an explanation from Yamaha as to why the WR250 is so damn expensive. (Because I want one.)

    • Sean Smith

      Because it’s not a 320lb steel framed beginner bike.

      • Joe
    • Wes Siler

      Yamaha uses more expensive components to achieve an identical result to Honda. You can go “OMG, Steel!!” all you want, but the bike is fucking good no matter what material its frame is made from.

      • Sean Smith

        Learn how to ride dirt then tell everyone that. They feel the same to you because you’re too scared (and lack the skills) to jump and slide, things the Yamaha does well and can be tuned for, and so you fail to see any advantage.

        • BMW11GS

          So it can do 90% of those things that you are ascribing to the WR250 and for most that is enough, right? Sounds like a compromise many people will be willing to make. Also steel is easier to weld and bend back than some of these aluminum frames in the occurrence of a mishap. An advantage for this segment, I think so.

        • ike6116

          The bloom is off the rose on you two’s bromance eh?

  • Sangjun

    I’m new to the dual sport segment. How does the KLX250 stack up against the CRF250 and WR250?

  • Jeremy

    How does this compare to the ktm freeride 350? Any word on when that gets released stateside?

    • Wes Siler

      Heavier and less powerful, but actually in dealers at a good price.

      • Scott-jay

        KTM web-site spec’s 222 lbs for Freeride.
        List price: $9,699.

        • Wes Siler

          There you go. Sounds awesome, wish I could afford one.

          • BMW11GS

            2 for 1 deal!

    • stickfigure

      The maintenance intervals for the Freeride are measured in hours. For the CRF and WR, thousands of miles.

      The KTM is basically a trail bike with plates. If you used it as a daily rider you’d have to change the oil twice a week and rebuild the top end every other month. These bikes are not comparable.

      • Sean Smith

        …Actually, they totally are. Yeah, that site’s hokey, but it’s all there. 23hp means the motor will go for a long long time. I’m gonna guess 15,000 valve adjustments. And every last component on the bike will be KTM nice.

  • stickfigure

    I’d like to know how the CRF compares to the WR if you really push the suspension in the dirt. Given what upgrades cost, it’s not hard to imagine a $2k difference in performance. Lack of adjustability on the CRF does not bode well.

    • BMW11GS

      I think the aftermarket will come up with cartridge and spring kits pretty quickly and wonder if you can bolt some of the more spendy suspension from Honda’s higher end motocross bikes.

  • John

    Who is snapping the photos these days?

    • Sean Smith

      Whoever Honda hired for the CRF250L press launch in Santa Barbara. Wes is not so good about giving photographers their due.

      • Joe


  • stabmaster

    Is this bike at dealerships in los angeles already? i want to buy one tomorrow.

    • Wes Siler

      Sure is. Let us know how you like it.

      • wwalkersd

        Not in San Diego, though.

  • Trev

    This one looks like a winner.

    I do have a question, that could also be asked of the WR250R/x (and many other Dual Sports); why does this not have a tachometer? I get that the majority of the buyers might not care about that, some will just scream to just get an *insert aftermarket loud exhaust system* (and learn to shift by ear, you fucking idiot), or tell you that riding is just not for you; but there are (or might be) people who would like to have a tachometer from the factory and not doing the other things.

    I guess something(s) such as packaging, price, and the actual need probably played a role in why it doesn’t have one. I don’t get why it has a “fuel level” reading on the display, when a small flashlight and your eyes can do the same thing. Now that I think about it, the same thing could be said about the tachometer.

    I know the WR250R can be put into a dealer mode that has a tachometer; however, you can’t see the speed along with it.

    Sorry for rambling and for being nit-picky about this small thing, but it has been something that has bothered me about most newer Dual Sports.

    • Wes Siler

      You don’t need it. It’s a small, flexible engine, you just shift when it feels right.

      Honestly, you’re not looking at the tach while riding any bike anyways.

  • Jon B.

    Foolish but earnest question—and yes I know the PR day was in CA—can you put a plate on it in Cali?

    • Wes Siler


  • wwalkersd

    “Ridden a Honda CBR250R yet?”

    Funny you should ask that, Wes. I would really love to give one a try. I went by one of my large, multi-brand local dealers today, looking at a few bikes, including the CBR250R. I asked about test rides, and the short version of the answer was “you can ride it after you buy it”. I understand there are issues with liability, potential for theft or damage, etc., but every BMW dealer offers test rides, as do most Euro brand dealers. Is it down to the difference in clientele (maturity, wherewithal?) between brands, or more support from the manufacturer? Why the hell would anybody buy a bike without riding it first to see if you like it?

    Also, the young saleswoman who was helping me had never heard of the CRF250L, let alone being able to find one on the floor. Then again, she didn’t seem to know much about any of the bikes. In that, she seemed pretty typical of the salespeople I’ve encountered in Japanese-brand dealerships in the San Diego area. I’m used to car salespeople knowing less about their product than I do, but in an enthusiast-driven market like powersports, you would think it would behoove the sales folks to know their products.

    I would think that these kinds of dealer issues have something to do with poor sales numbers. But I’m not in the business, so what do I know?

  • Eben

    I don’t think you can really say it’s “every bit as good as the competition” without qualifying that somehow. The WR250R weighs 20 lbs less, makes 5 more horsepower, has longer travel, adjustable suspension and more ground clearance. The lower seat and more useable engine will make the CR250F more approachable to a lot of riders and they probably won’t miss those higher spec details that they’d get on the Yamaha. If you were an experienced enduro rider looking for a relatively inexpensive, low-maintenence woods bike, however, the difference between the two would likely be enough to make you shell out a little more money.

    In the same price range, though, the Honda absolutely destroys the XT250 and KLX250.

    • David Dawson

      Exactly what I came in to post. Price and performance wise, this seems to be slotted to compete against the KLX and the now fuel injected XT250 than the WR250R.

      • Sean Smith

        Exactly. Wes is just comparing it to the WR250 because those are the only two dirt bikes he’s ridden.

        • ike6116

          So if he hops on his first proper two stroke motocross bike and has a good time we can expect to hear about how “if you’re a real dirt rider this is what you’re looking for” with a complete dismissal of running cost / hassles etc ?

          • Sean Smith

            Nah, that would involve knowledge of wrenching and the associated costs, which left with Grant and I. He’d tell you that it went ring-ding.

        • johnb

          No one would have ever guessed that. SS, do you not work at HFL anymore since the corporate shake-up? Are you sniping?

          • Sean Smith

            Wes made a lot of promises and didn’t have much follow through. I sound bitter because I am.

            • Ben W

              Damn, Sean. It sucks to hear that, though it does answer a few unspoken questions. I hope you stick around. You and Grant always provided a tremendous counterbalance.