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 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.
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.