Great explorers have one thing in common: an insatiable desire to see what is beyond their own familiar territory. In the motorcycling world, dual-sports give us the chance to explore well past where the pavement ends while being able to get to that trailhead legally and efficiently with the benefit of a license plate. And these three bikes do so without breaking the bank, because even great explorers sometimes have to stick to a budget.
On the low end, we have Honda’s new, $4499 CRF250L joined in our test by the $5099 Kawasaki KLX250S and the somewhat pricier $6990 Yamaha WR250R. For the most part, these are high-tech, modern motorcycles.
All three machines feature 250cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke Singles with double overhead cams and four valves. But Yamaha raises the ante with titanium intake valves, a forged aluminum piston and an 11.8:1 compression ratio (compared to the CRF’s 10.7:1 and KLX’s 11.0:1), which helps to give it just over five additional horsepower and a bit more torque versus its competition here.
Advanced fuel-injection systems on the CBR250R-derived Honda and Yamaha engines contrast with the Kawasaki’s 34mm Keihin carburetor. EFI’s biggest advantage on these electric-start bikes is for cold startup: The injected bikes fire immediately and settle into a steady idle within seconds, whereas the KLX has to sit on the choke for some time before the engine will run cleanly without enrichment.
• Unbeatable value
• Modern MX styling
• Best fuel economy in its class
• A bit on the porky side
• Suspension lacks adjustment
• Feels more playbike than enduro
Another benefit afforded by fuel injection is improved economy. The Honda ranked second in output on our Dynojet 250i dyno, yet it sipped from its tank the least, recording 67 mpg on our fuel-mileage loop compared to the Yamaha’s 63 and Kawasaki’s 60 (see “Mileage Matters”). With each motorcycle offering 2.0 gallons of fuel capacity, the CRF will make it 14 miles closer to civilization when returning from the wilds than will the shortest-range KLX. That’s a long way to push a 300-pound motorcycle!
Each of the three offers good throttle response with enough snap to loft the front wheel over off-road obstacles. Honda focused on midrange power, the CBR producing maximum torque 3000 rpm lower than the Yamaha’s peakier mill, which also redlines 1000 rpm higher (11,500) than the CRF and 1500 beyond the KLX. The divide between the engines is much more apparent on the highway, where the WR easily blows the Kawi into the guardrail as it climbs to speeds that are illegal no matter which state you live in.
Each manufacturer’s intended street/dirt ratio becomes clear when looking at the chassis of these machines. Honda saved money by giving the CRF a steel frame and only rear spring-preload adjustment. Kawasaki turns it up a notch by providing a fully adjustable shock and a fork with preload and compression damping adjusters but sticks with a steel frame. Yamaha goes with fully adjustable suspension at both ends attached to a semi-double-cradle frame with aluminum main spars and steel downtubes that doesn’t look too far removed from the all-aluminum frame used on the YZ450F MXer.
Since most buyers will likely use these bikes as commuters during the week and then put them to task on dirt roads and single-track on the weekends, that’s how we evaluated them.
All three are awesome city bikes; they’re lightweight, maneuverable and powerful enough to tackle anything the urban environment can throw at them. But two stand out, and for completely different reasons.
• Most enduro-oriented ergos
• Proven reliability
• Lightest of the bunch
• Still carbureted
• Least horsepower
• Significantly less range than EFI bikes
On the one hand, you have the Honda, which has the lowest seat height (34.4 in.) and gives the widest range of riders firm footing at stops. Its smooth fueling and good midrange torque also make the CRF very forgiving and easy to ride. On the flip side, the Yamaha has a 36.6-in. seat height and a high-revving, barky engine. Although Yamaha no longer offers the WR250X supermoto version (with 17-in. wheels), the R does quite a good impression of the X on asphalt. This leaves the KLX right in the middle, competent and willing but not particularly a standout in this setting.
We spent a fair amount of time on the freeway, and, no, this was not the most enjoyable place to ride these diminutive dual-sports. Each can keep up with the flow of traffic without issue, but the Yamaha does it best, while also possessing the most comfortable seat. In our fuel-mileage story, you’ll notice that these bikes didn’t achieve the same economy as their sportbike cousins, which is due to their shorter, off-road-ready gearing that makes the engines spin higher at any given speed. Aerodynamics also aren’t as good.
Off-highway, these machines are right at home and can tackle just about anything you throw at them. What differentiates them is the speed at which obstacles can be attacked. Each bike wore its stock tires, which provided decent grip on street and dirt. For those wanting more off-road ability, all three have standard dirtbike-size wheels, so they can be easily upgraded with enduro-spec, DOT-approved rubber.
Two important factors separate these machines on the trail: suspension and weight. The WR has the most travel front and rear (10.6 in. at each end) and weighs 289 pounds. The Honda, again, is at the opposite end of the scale with the least suspension travel front and rear (8.7 and 9.4 in.), and it also weighs the most at 308 lb. The Kawi splits the suspension difference with 10.0 in. of fork travel and 9.1 from the shock, but, at 287 pounds, it’s the lightest in the group.
• Most playful and powerful engine
• Best suspension
• Excels on any surface
• 48 percent more expensive than Honda
• Only (!) 26 percent more power
• Tall seat height intimidating for some
The Honda carries its weight low and felt the most stable on dirt roads with loose gravel sprinkled on top, but it lacks suspension travel for truly gnarly stuff. The Kawasaki’s ergonomics feel the closest to a full-blown enduro, while its middle-of-the-group seat height helps make it easy to maneuver on tight singletrack trails (when a dab is in order). It also offers adequate suspension travel for all but the toughest terrain. The Yamaha, however, is comfortable on any surface, fast or slow, rough or smooth, tight or wide open. The WR’s tunable suspension is the closest in the group to a real off-road racer’s, which means you can charge into chunder without worrying too much about getting ejected off the seat.
In the braking department, all three are on equal footing, with adequate power for the street but good sensitivity and feel for loose or slippery surfaces.
Despite their differences, each of our trio is a very good bike. So, how do we pick a winner? When we sat down to analyze our notes, we had an obvious performance king in the WR250R and a standout bargain in the CRF250L. Which posed the questions: Is the Yamaha really $2200 better than the Honda? And where does the KLX fit in? The answer depends on what you are looking for in a dual-sport machine.
Ultimately, we broke it down like this: The Kawasaki KLX250S is a simplistic, effective and affordable battlewagon but is much better off-highway than on it. The Honda is a great value no matter what criteria you use for judgment. The CRF is arguably the best commuter of the three and was always the number-one choice amongst the less-experienced dirt riders in our group for its ability to inspire confidence. For those seeking a more hardcore dual-sport machine that can handle seriously hairy terrain, the Yamaha WR250R is tops by a wide margin and is just a few mods away from being a really good budget enduro.
But if wanderlust is in your genes and your wallet is a bit thin, the CRF offers the best performance-per-dollar ratio in the class, on tarmac or trail. Get out there!
|Honda CRF250L||Kawasaki KLX250S||Yamaha WR250R|
|Dry weight||308 lb.||287 lb.||289 lb.|
|Wheelbase||56.9 in.||56.4 in.||56.2 in.|
|Seat height||34.4 in.||35.4 in.||36.6 in.|
|Fuel mileage||67 mpg||60 mpg||63 mpg|
|0-60 mph||8.6 sec.||8.5 sec.||6.7 sec.|
|1/4-mile||16.67 sec @ 73.98 mph||16.65 sec @ 74.89 mph||15.49 sec @ 80.31 mph|
|Horsepower||19.6 @ 7500 rpm||19.5 @ 8310 rpm||24.8 @ 9890 rpm|
|Torque||14.3 ft.-lb. @ 5640 rpm||13.4 ft.-lb. @ 7025 rpm||15.1 ft.-lb. @ 8190 rpm|
|Top speed||80 mph||81 mph||87 mph|