By: Ari Henning
This economic recession is a drag, but we’re optimists, so we’re sure that the dark cloud hanging above the motorcycle industry has a silver lining. Market pressures are steering manufacturers toward more practical and affordable motorcycles, which is good for us consumers.
The new CRF250L is part of this economy’s pearly perimeter. It’s a versatile, efficient, and fun dual-sport that sells for just $4499. That’s cheap—$500 less than Honda’s previous small-bore dual-sport, the carbureted, air-cooled CRF230L. This kind of advanced, do-it-all, go-anywhere versatility for $4499 just wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago—when Honda and other manufacturers were busy catering to a crowd with fatter wallets and thick lines of credit—or if it had, it would have been ignored.
The CRF250L’s low price comes in part from the capable motor already available in the CBR250R sportbike. The CRF250L gets power from the same liquid-cooled, fuel injected, four-valve single as the CBR, but with a few minor tweaks to broaden low-end power and make it more suitable for off-road use. The CRF’s ECU has different fuel and ignition maps, while the airbox is bigger, the throttle body smaller and the exhaust header pipe longer and smaller in diameter. The transmission ratios are the same as in the CBR, but the cogs are wider and the shift dogs are reinforced. A revised clutch with judder springs helps handle the increased stress and higher loads of off-road riding.
The CRF doesn’t enjoy a motocrosser’s state of tune, but it is laden with efficiency enhancing technology. An offset cylinder, molybdenum-coated piston skirt, and reduced piston-ring tension all contribute to an efficient and durable design that Honda claims is good for 73 mpg. We hammered the CRF for 60 miles before the first fill-up, and the digital dash showed that the 2-gallon tank was only half empty. Overall, we managed 54 mpg.
Looks play a big part in a bike’s showroom success, so Honda designers made the CRF-L look as much like the CRF-R motocrossers as possible. To that end, the bike has a beaklike front fender, fat, inverted Showa fork and Pro-Link rear suspension, sharp radiator shrouds, slim seat, and pointed tail section. The all-new steel frame and aluminum swingarm were even designed to emulate those of the specialized R bikes. The most noticeable reminders of this bike’s price-point status are the limited suspension adjustability (shock preload only) and stamped-steel rear brake pedal.
The CRF’s seat is listed as 34.7 inches above the ground, but the shock sags under load, so even shorter riders can put both feet on the ground at stops. That narrow motocross perch won’t do for 100-mile highway stints and the radiator breathes hot air on your left knee in traffic, but beyond that the CRF is accommodating. The upright riding position lets you see over all but the tallest SUVs, and the bike’s huge steering sweep and excellent balance make easy work of tight maneuvers in parking lots or out in the woods. The clutch is ultralight, the gearbox smooth, and fueling seamless. On the highway, the CRF will ooze up to 70 mph easily, but acceleration to and, maybe, beyond 80 mph is best described as leisurely. At that speed, the engine is revving its guts out but is still fairly smooth.
At best I’m a mediocre offroad rider, but the CRF is so light, balanced, and responsive that I felt totally in control when our group left the pavement to explore a 30-mile section of OHV trails in the Santa Ynez Mountains and responsive that I felt totally in control when our group left the pavement to explore a 30-mile section of OHV trails in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara. The CRF’s single has good bottom-end grunt but also likes to rev, so it’s equally suited to slow, technical work and fast fire road blasts. The front tire doesn’t find as much traction as we’d like and the shock feels harsh over fast chop, but the CRF is a good enough dirtbike that it will inspire you to explore every trail and goat path in your local riding area.
The CRF tipped our scales at 326 pounds, 40 less than the CBR250ABS. Skinny tires, a wide handlebar, and a punchy motor make this bike a surprisingly good partner on a twisty road. Freshly laid pavement or fractured asphalt, the CRF doesn’t know the difference. With more than 9 in. of suspension travel at either end, there’s plenty of stroke to handle bigger bumps, while decent damping insures you don’t blow through that travel on the brakes or levering the bike into a tight turn. The CRF’s IRC tires provide good bite in the dirt, and even deflated to 15 psi for off-road work they barely squirmed when pushed hard on pavement. I wore them all the way to the edges keeping former Motorcyclist fast guy turned PR pundit Ken Vreeke (riding an XR650L) in sight on the ride to lunch. The CRF’s upright riding position and wide bars might just make it a better back road scratcher than the CBR!
This bike is incredibly practical and tons of fun. Not many bikes can boast this level of versatility and efficiency, and at that price? The CRF250L is a winner. The market is calling for more efficient and affordable motorcycles, and Honda says the CBR250R, NC700X, and CFR250L are just the beginning. Optimistic? You bet we are. Now that's a silver lining.
Originally published in the January 2013 Issue of Motorcyclist.