I am not a motorcycle journalist. I have many years of experience designing and developing them and nowhere near the experience of professional road testers who typically write new motorcycle reviews. But, owing to the fact that I have been a loud proponent of small, modern bikes and the industry's need to stop ignoring young and beginner riders, the people at Honda invited me down to Los Angeles to try out the new Honda CBR250R. Here is my story about what I believe is the best thing to happen to motorcycling in North America in a decade.
Michael Uhlarik previously wrote Motorcycling's Missing Link in which he identified motorcycles that were short on capacity, but not short on curb appeal, as what was needed to reach today's potential young riders. — Ed.
I live in a cold, rural area of Canada where the riding season is 8 months at a stretch, the road quality is famously awful and taxes and road insurance are high. The good news is that we are blessed in this country to get a lot of Japanese machinery that is unavailable Stateside, which in Honda's case mean bikes such as the CBF1000 standard and diminutive CBR125. This is a test market, of sorts, which has often been used as a barometer of whether or not a motorcycle will fly in America. That four-stroke 125 was brought in a couple of years back and many naysayers talked trash about how no one in a country as big as ours, dominated by Baby Boomer bikers obsessed with power and gadgets would ever buy one. They were very wrong.
Lots of people seem to have forgotten that we all start somewhere, and that those same Boomers all began on small displacement motorcycles, like Suzuki T10s and FZ1-E's. Honda itself sealed its reputation with the 1961 C72 Dream and later the CB77 Super Hawk 305. These clean, reliable bikes did 90mph and gave Triumph Bonnevilles and BMW R69s a run for their money, at a fraction of the price. Back then, Honda coined their famous slogan, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”, emphasizing that anyone, anywhere could enjoy fun, safe motorcycling at a reasonable cost. In doing so, Honda invented the modern motorcycle.
And yet today the same people who propelled the brand along in the ‘60s and ‘70s turn up their noses at the notion that another generation might enjoy the same pleasure. The marketing men say there is no market because there is no data to support “the business case.” Veteran journalists say that with the price and attractive performance of 600cc middle weights eliminates the demand. And yet, in a shrinking American sales environment where 5,000 units of anything is considered a huge success, those people chose to ignore demonstrable facts, like the over-subscription of second hand, insurance-friendly and versatile bikes like Honda's CBR600F and Kawasaki ZZR600. The appearance of grey import, used Japanese market 400s too, may seem insignificant, but it is an indicator that a demand for reasonable performance in a smaller package is there. Still they said: no market.
Kawasaki's surprise introduction of the revised Ninja 250 in 2008 finally blew that argument out of the water, especially when it went on to become the fifth best selling motorcycle in America. American Honda clearly decided to return to its roots long before that happened, since the new 2011 Thai-built CBR250R and CBR125 had to have been in development at least three years ago. Unlike the littlest Ninja, which borrows heavily from a previous, much older engine architecture, the CBRs are all new motorcycles. They look alike, but share virtually no common parts, says Honda. Each is purpose designed from the ground up for their respective roles, to maximize performance and function. From my experience and what I have seen, they do just that.
You Meet The Nicest People on a Honda...Rain or Shine
Arriving at American Honda in Torrance was supposed to be a treat. After all, southern California is a damn sight more pleasant than Quebec in December, but fate conspired to dump heavy rains, low temperatures and add strong winds to our day, so it was definitely raining on the CBR's parade.
First impressions are that with the 250, Honda got right the styling direction set out in the VFR1200. Where the big sports tourer is fat in the middle to the point of looking pregnant, the CBR is a lithe little beast, more like an Aprilia RS250 or NSR two-stroke. The floating side panels are beautifully executed, with fine, crisp details around the edges and featuring matching black inner panels, something unheard of on motorcycles at this price point. Quality looking cycle parts, from the five spoke wheels to the full instrument cluster to the gorgeous paint on the steel trellis frame push the CBR250R far above the perceived quality range of bikes costing literally twice as much. I know I am a designer and maybe that makes me vulnerable to placing too much weight on styling, but the one thing I know is that good looks sell hardware. Of course, looks are subjective, and I personally don't love Honda's new design theme with its blunt nose and vertical emphasis, but that the design quality is extremely high is beyond doubt. Lots of time, care and money has been spent making each styled body part and mechanical component, that attention to detail is rare. In this price sensitive segment, where every part has to be scrutinized to save 10 cents, it is nothing less than miraculous that Honda could pull this off. I know, because I have designed bikes this cheap. Even in low cost manufacturing countries, it is a challenge.
Fortunately, the good news does not end there. Riding the CBR250R through Los Angeles on the freeway destroyed another misperception about small bikes: that they can't handle highway speeds or distances. In driving winds and surrounded by lunatics in SUVs, our little convoy of CBRs flew down the left lane at a leisurely 75 for an hour, never missing a gap in traffic or unable to pull away easily. Sure, I got passed by some hero on an R6 wearing shorts, but other than that we owned the fast lane, blowing past everyone else. Power comes in a linear fashion, smoothly building with a slight increase in the buzz at the handlebar ends until it runs out of puff after 8,000rpm or so. It certainly won't take your breath away if you are experienced with large motorcycles, but for what it is, and its intended audience of beginners, it is plenty.
Once in the mountains past Malibu, with visibility less than 30 yards and standing water in the hairpin corners, the CBR revealed solid footing, easy handling and excellent brakes. I rode both the ABS equipped and standard versions and I must say that the ABS was surprising. I am not a fan of budget ABS for obvious reasons. To get such technology into a low cost vehicle it usually means dumbing down other and, in my opinion, higher priority components. Other times it means that the ABS is one of those nasty, intrusive jobs that vibrates annoyingly and feels like the bike is actually taking longer to stop. The CBR's ABS was smooth and confidence inspiring, almost invisible until you noticed that you didn't lock up on a greasy patch of pavement.
And that, in a nutshell, is the amazing thing. That Honda could engineer a great little motorcycle is not surprising, but that they could do it for $3,999 is. Perhaps even more amazing is that American Honda, following Honda Canada's lead with the CBR125, elected to offer it to American audiences at all. Sure, they want a piece of Kawasaki's 250 market action, but Yamaha have similar 125 150 and 250cc sports models in Asia that compete dead on with these offerings, and they have done nothing. The world inside the walls of a major OEM are full of corporate politics, big picture economics and limitations on resources, all of which make paradigm shifting programs difficult to implement.
A New Dream, A Familiar Problem
Let there be no mistake, the Honda CBR250R is a paradigm shifting motorcycle. It is an excellent all around machine, which coming from Honda is not so special, but more than that it has raised the bar for bikes in this category so high that nothing else around $4,000 makes sense anymore. Paint, body part count, features, fuel economy, comfort and fun are all there, in portions that simply couldn't be imagined at this price point before. The Ninja is good, but the CBR250 is a better product by an order of magnitude.
There are better bikes out there if you are in the market for speed, handling and sportbike image for cheap (a second hand Yamaha FZR400 or Aprilia RS250 spring to mind); better value for money exists too, if volume is your thing (Hyosung GT650); and certainly looks are in the eye of the beholder. But, what this Honda does is check literally every box and offer a modern, new motorcycle that can do just about everything well all day long, with Honda quality and after sales care, at a bargain price and with an ABS option. In our sometimes limited North American world view, that is a refreshing thing.
There are some doubts, however. Motorcycling in our countries has an image problem, one that puts up barriers in front of the venerable CBR250R and other machines like it. Despite our self-inflicted economic meltdown, big, bad-boy egotism still drives our industry. I will go so far as to say they are our industry. Everywhere else in the world, motorcycles are transport as much as they are recreation, and what's more, they are OK with that. You don't need to be on the extreme end of any spectrum: the fastest superbike in production; the baddest custom chopper; or some adventure soft-roader with GPS and aluminum hard cases to be cool. In Brazil, in Italy, in Japan and most every biker culture just being on a motorcycle, any motorcycle, is cool. Not so here. Ride outside the box at your peril.
As an industry, we encourage this high-school mentality. Just this morning I was at my local Honda dealer talking about maxi-scooters, explaining how terrific they are for cruising around the countryside. The dealer, a guy my age, shrugged dismissively and murmured “...they aren't my thing.” No kidding. They aren't my thing either, but for Mr. And Mrs. Retired Tourist, a 500cc Yamaha TMAX is an infinitely better choice to spend six weeks in the summer on than some V-twin cruiser costing twice as much. Have you ridden a TMAX? 100mph with waterproof, lockable luggage integrated into the body, excellent sporty handling and brakes, twist-and-go-transmission, wind protection and all-day comfort are cool to me, if my mission is to ride to Vancouver with my wife. But it's not cool to a narrow demographic of opinion leaders, so to to hell with it... pushrod cruisers for everyone!
This is the mountain, the towering height of fickle public opinion, that the Honda CBR250R has to scale if it is to succeed. Honda are no doubt aiming at not only sensible types (the ones we labelled “uncool”), but also people completely outside motorcycling's bandwidth. There are a lot of consumers out there who like the appeal of motorcycling, but until now have been too intimidated by the image and products on offer to step in. They are the kindergarden kids, looking over the fence at the grade 1 playground, envious of their toys and increased freedom, but too afraid to cross over. Those people, professionals and students, young and old, with the right media message, will discover that they too can be cool and enjoy riding motorcycles, just like another generation of ordinary Americans once discovered.
You meet the nicest people on a Honda. And that's a lot of people.