All of you who put crayon to paper over the last few years to tell Honda to go back to building simple, inexpensive little bikes like the ones that helped make the company what it is today have gotten your wish. The CBR250R has been a big success. Honda’s spokespeople say NC700X sales are “blowing off the charts.” And now for the latest installment: the $4499 2013 Honda CRF250L. Using a slightly modded version of last year’s all-new CBR250R liquid-cooled injected Single in a new chassis, the CRF sells for $600 less than the (carbureted) Kawasaki KLX250S, $700 less than the (air-cooled) Yamaha XT250 (and a whopping $2,191 less than the way tricker WR250R). Heck, it’s even $500 cheaper than Honda’s own creaky old (yet highly effective) air-cooled CRF230L.
Adapting the CBR motor to dual-purpose use was as simple as swapping the 38mm throttle body for a 36mm one and bending up a longer exhaust header of smaller diameter, to shift the meat of the powerband a bit lower in the rpm range. Wider gears and a judder spring in the clutch have been added to address the thousands of shocks an off-road bike is heir to. The 73 mpg Honda lists in the specs may be a little optimistic in everyday use, but the CBRs we’ve been riding are great misers of gasoline—a good thing since the CRF tank only holds 2 gallons. (And when it comes time to adjust their roller-rocker activated valves, the cams get to stay in place, which also helps make these bikes inexpensive to own.)
The CRF gets an all-new steel frame that looks like the cool aluminum ones on Honda’s competition dirtbikes (Honda admits looks are super-important in a class trying to attract new riders), and the 43mm inverted fork and aluminum swingarm look like they know what they’re doing, too—though the trained eye will note the lack of adjusters except for the preload collar on the Pro-Link shock.
As for me, I liked the CRF right off the bat when I found my 30-inch legs could climb on without a running start (even though Honda’s specs say seat height is 34.7 inches), and once I was in place with the springs compressed a tad, ground contact was easy. In fact, the springs felt so soft in the parking lot, a couple of us feared we would be in for grief off-road. Not to worry: The damping people have done good work with the bike’s 9.8 and 9.4 inches of travel (front and rear, respectively), and the claimed 320-pound-gassed-up CRF maintained level flight over some gnarly, rocky fireroad at a pace designed to keep me in the saddle (luckily I’d left my knee guards at home and had that for an excuse). The CRF is not a competition bike, but some pretty competitive fast guys who passed me weren’t holding that against it as they whipped by. At the end of the day, there were no wadded CRFs, which is highly unusual for this sort of press junket and a testament to the little bike’s off-road prowess.
In fact, I’d been on the same trail a few months ago riding an old XR400R with knobbies, and I have to say I didn’t feel too much less in control of the CRF on its dual-purpose Dunlops. Instead of the quickish 94mm of trail of an XR, the CRF gains a little more stability with 113mm of trail and a longer wheelbase. For off-road novices, that’s a good thing. What the CRF lacks is the low-rpm chuggability all the XRs were famous for. Luckily, the clutch is really light and the six-speed gearbox is agreeable enough, because you will find yourself downshifting to get it on the pipe again. Why not? This 250 likes to rev.
Back on the street with kneecaps intact, all is rather anticlimactic, really. Honda’s specs have the CRF at 37 pounds lighter than the CBR250R, and with the dual-sporter’s sit-up ergos and dirtbike handlebar, it’s a super easy bike to ride around town. We didn’t get on the freeway, but thanks to the engine counterbalancer, there is a smooth, 60-80 mph sweetspot. And there is nothing more fun than a light dual-sport bike on busted-up, twisty-gnarly-tight backroads, where the CRF really shines.
Just as with the CBR, there aren’t many tacky components that reveal where Honda saved money, though passenger pegs clevis-pinned to the subframe tubes is one place (it makes them easy to remove, though). A nice digital instrument panel includes a clock and a bar-graph fuel gauge. Four big hooks are provided for bungeeing things, there’s a locking storage compartment on the left side, as well as a helmet lock. For $4499, it seems like a helluva nice little bike that works great and should be cheap to keep. Stay tuned for a full test soon. And put down the crayons. Honda says there’s lots more exciting stuff to come.