Over the years, Honda’s XR75, XR80, XR100 and CRF80/100 models have given countless riders their first taste of dirt. I’d even bet that just as many people got started on an XR (or a CRF80/100) as the often-cited Honda 50.
The time-proven formula of a durable air-cooled, two-valve, four-stroke engine placed in a recreationally oriented chassis works well. It attracts riders, and it gets them excited. Yet the outgoing CRF80F and CRF100F were lacking in a couple key areas (styling and torque) and one major area (starting) when compared to the now plentiful competition in the play/beginner bike market. So, in moving along with Honda’s new focus on building bikes for everyone, the CRF F line gets two new 125cc models to help keep the line full and fresh. Both are nearly identical, but the Big Wheel B model has a 16-inch rear wheel and a 19-in. front replacing the 14/17 setup of the standard CRF125F. What’s more, the B has a two-inch-higher seat and a $300 boost in price: $3199 vs. $2799.
Electric starting for playbikes has been a game-changer. No one it seems, especially new riders, likes to kick-start anything, even if it’s easy. Honda already had the electric-start engine, an air-cooled 124.9cc four-stroke Single, from another bike sold somewhere else in the world. With its 52.4mm bore and long 57.9mm stroke, this two-valve powerplant boasts good torque, which is perfect for this application. It also fits nicely into the chassis, which is very similar to that of the CRF80F/100F. Honda, though, has chosen to beef up the suspension with a slightly larger fork and shock. Next, in addition to a front disc brake , the bikes have a styling package that mimics the motocrossers and the same shroud image of most new Hondas.
For a proper perspective, we threw some kids on the bikes and sent them riding. One, a fast novice motocrosser, races a CRF150R. The other, his sister, had taken a few years off from riding, so she was a perfect match for the intended skill set of the standard for the CRF. Not unexpectedly, our racer soon found himself bottoming the suspension of the B model, but nevertheless still having a lot of fun on the bike. And his sister thoroughly enjoyed the standard CRF125F, judging by the smile on her face. To be clear, these 125s are beginner bikes that a rider can grow with until it’s time for a racebike, or to keep and ride occasionally and always be satisfied. Moreover, Honda’s build quality is bombproof, and we didn’t see any corners cut in comparison to the CRF80F/100F. They start right up and need a little choke, especially if it’s cold. There’s even a key-on ignition to keep the bike parked if necessary. Sometimes, the homework has to come before the riding.
The power of the new Honda is all torque. Max power feels like it’s reached 1000 rpm above idle, and it stays level all the way through the rev build-up. Off of idle, the bike has an almost stall-proof bottom end, making clutch use a lot easier than with the older XR and CRF powerplants, which were comparatively light on torque. The four-speed gearbox (versus five in the CRF80F/100F) is mated perfectly to the power delivery, and wide ratio gaps are filled with the motor’s ability to pull. If anything, these new Hondas will teach riders that shifting is the key to going faster. Clutch action is smooth, and the pull is about right for smaller hands. Also, the muffler does a good job at keeping the noise level proper and is not so quiet as to make dad think he’ll have to cut something out of it to make the bike go.
The new chassis is designed to keep a low seat height and provide a steady, stable and planted ride, which it does. A racer would say the handling is sluggish; on the other hand, a new rider would call it confidence inspiring. The suspension is just right for trail speeds and for a little jumping. Get carried away and it will bottom, but Honda saw this coming and beefed up the fork and shock shaft to keep things from bending. The front disc brake is a big improvement for stopping power, and you’ll forget the rear is still a drum design because it works just fine. The steel shift lever and brake pedal are clear cost-cutting measures, but you’ll love them as you bend them back after a tip-over and ponder the expense of having to replace costlier aluminum parts.
Overall, these new Hondas are simple, low-maintenance machines of the gas-and-go variety, and you could probably get away with just a few air filter cleanings a year and maybe an oil change. These bikes seem like they would run forever. As such, they bring Honda back into the game with a competitive play/beginner bike whose features and performance are spot-on for the intended audience. Sure, some may miss the revvy nature of the old XR75 (that still lingered on in the more modern versions), but that wasn’t the best for the beginners out there. On top of that, I can’t think of one person who’ll complain about the electric starting. With the sharp-looking new 2014 CRF125s, Honda is bringing a whole new generation of riders into our ranks.
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Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Cycle World.