First Impression: 2013 Honda CRF250L

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Nov 20, 2012 ... CB750, which put the best of the European and American manu- facturers on the .... flawless fuel injection that delivers extremely linear throttle.

First Impression 2013 Honda CRF250L Big Red’s dual-sport budget blaster


by Scott Rousseau


ONDA’S ALL-NEW CRF250L can pull off amazing leaps like few other motorcycles can, even though it weighs a not-so-svelte 320 lbs., and its nonadjustable fork and preload adjustable monoshock aren’t likely to be mistaken for motocrcross-grade suspension componentry. But then, we’re not talking about a supercross-style double jumps here. The CRF250L’s obstacles are generational and fiscal, and Honda is banking on the hope that it has built a high-tech, low-cost, lightweight, dual-sport that will appeal to veteran riders and those in generation X and Y who are interested in taking up the sport today. The CRF250L was designed from the ground up to offer a fun, simple, lightweight motorcycle that provides reliable transportation during the week and enough capability for spirited trail riding on the weekends. If that strategy sounds familiar to you, then you probably read our First Impression of the NC700X last month; its marketing goals are identical. And just like the NC, the CRF250L does it at a budget-conscious price. At $4499, it’s $600 less than the aged CRF230L it’s replacing! To prove the CRF250L’s dirt-worthiness, Honda invited us to…Santa Barbara, California?...I did a double take when I first saw the press invitation. Isn’t Santa Barbara that posh Rivierastyle town about 90 minutes north of Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast? Maybe it was a typo. Maybe they meant Palm Springs? But a follow-up email revealed that my speed date with the CRF would begin and end at the luxurious, campus-like Fess Parker’s Double Tree Resort, right across from the marina in downtown Santa Barbara. Needless to say, I had my doubts that there would be any dirt-worthy off-road routes near Santa Barbara. As for the CRF250L’s ability to perform, honestly, I was less concerned. Honda has a long and respected legacy of building four-stroke dual-sports. Heck, the company practically redefined how a dual purpose single should perform some 40 years ago.

Flashback Buoyed by the success of its revolutionary inline four-cylinder CB750, which put the best of the European and American manufacturers on the ropes in the heavyweight marketplace at the dawn 20



of the 1970s, Honda returned its attention toward the lightweight market, recognizing that it had a better chance of growing a new legion of Honda customers than converting existing motorcyclists. Following a string of moderately successful but less-than-revolutionary singles, Honda revolutionized the lightweight category when it introduced its XL250 Motosport “enduro” in 1972. All-new from the ground up, the XL250 was the first Honda engine to feature four valves per cylinder, and it was also the first to use magnesium in its engine castings. Its decidedly oversquare 74mm x 57.8mm bore and stroke bolstered its ability to rev, delivering 22 hp @ 8000 rpm, more than enough to churn through some pretty nasty terrain on the weekends. At the same time, the XL250 provided reliable, sensible and economical transportation to and from work during the week. As such, it received critical acclaim from many of the motorcycle publications of the day. To say that the XL250 was a huge sales success for Honda is an understatement. Riders young and old became XL owners, with more than 80,000 units sold over the course of its 24-year run—not including the spinoff XR off-road machines. Reliable as hammers, they also made great second-hand buys, and generations of new motorcyclists grew up with—or at least spent some time aboard one of Honda’s four-stroke singles. Quite naturally, many became loyal Honda customers. The CRF250L’s purpose is to attract more.

Fast Forward As the journalists in my wave sat through Honda’s technical presentation the night before our ride, I still wondered about our route. As it turns out—and in 20 years of riding off-road in Nevada and California, I was completely naïve to its existence— there’s a pretty darn good dual-sport route that runs along the top of the coastal range above Santa Barbara: Romero Canyon Road, to the Divide Peak OHV Park, which made up the bulk of our offroad ride. Not only that, the area is littered with awesome, twisty paved roads that sportbike riders are no doubt aware of, roads with names like Gibraltar Road, Camino Cielo Road and Stage Coach Road. Honda even popped for lunch at the historic Cold Spring Tavern, a popular stop for motorcyclists who trek to Laguna Seca to take in the MotoGP every year. The ride to Divide Peak in the morning was epic. On a clear day such as we enjoyed, the scenery that unfolds from atop the ridges is magnificent, offering bird’s eye views of Santa Barbara and Carpinteria as well as the Channel Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Tech/Riding Impression When Honda initially released info on the CRF250L several months ago, it announced that the engine would be based on the liquid-cooled, four-stroke single used for the CBR250R. That made sense to me for a couple of reasons. MCN had already tested the CBR250R and enjoyed its suprisingly torquey engine performance—so adapting it for off-road use seemed plausible. And since the 250L is manufactured in Honda’s Thailand factory, sharing the same engine architecture with the 250R is a sound economic strategy that allows Honda to lower its production costs. The common specs between the CBR and CRF include 249.6cc of displacement via a 76mm bore and 55mm stroke, dual overhead camshafts and a compact four-valve head with a centrally located spark plug to fight detonation. Roller rocker arms are used to reduce valvetrain friction and the engine uses a shim-over-bucket design that makes valve adjustments a snap because the valve shims can be replaced without removing the camshafts.

Honda reduced parasitic drag even further a couple more ways: First, the piston has a very short skirt and is impregnated with a slick molybdenum coating, while light striations on the piston retain engine oil as the piston moves up and down in the bore, allowing the use of lower-tension piston rings. Second, the cylinder centerline is offset from the center of the crankshaft, 4mm toward the exhaust side, which lessens piston-to-cylinder wall thrust during power strokes. Other nifty engineering techniques include a spiny finish for the cylinder sleeve to minimize blow-by gasses and reduce oil consumption. The sleeve itself is also centrifugally cast, an expensive process not normally found in a lot of OE motorcycle engines. Centrifugal casting creates a uniform wall thickness that is thinner and lighter than a poured cast-iron sleeve. The CRF250L gets its own tune-up, however. Honda engineers wanted to emphasize low-end grunt and mid-range torque for increased tractability and easier off-road driveability rather than high-rpm horsepower, so the CRF250L uses a different ECU to control ignition and EFI mapping; a different airbox and a new intake manifold that provides a straighter path from the airbox to the cylinder head. Its PGM-FI 36mm throttle body is also 2mm smaller than the CBR’s for better low-rpm flow velocity, and its exhaust head pipe is smaller in diameter and longer overall than the CBR’s. Regardless of the terrain, the CRF250L’s willing little engine maximized my fun quotient. Shinnying up and down the ride route’s serpentine asphalt roads, zipping down fire roads or picking my way through a technical single-track section, the CRF250L’s motor had just enough power to keep me smiling as long as I rowed its smooth six-speed transmission and occasionally fanned the clutch, 125cc motocross-style, to keep it revving. While I wished for just a little more bottom-end snap to help me wheelie over large rocks or across washouts as necessary, you don’t have to ride it like a motocrosser. It delivers practically electric motor-style power, and its pull is smooth if not authoritative down low, thanks to flawless fuel injection that delivers extremely linear throttle response. The engine always sounds like it’s turning a lot of rpm, and often it is, but the CRF remains extremely manageable, delivering almost perfect traction in every off-road situation imaginable. It’s user-friendly for beginners and plenty of fun for experienced off-road riders. It can also motor along on the trail or the road for a long time between fill-ups. Honda claims 73 mpg for the 250L, good for a theoretical range of 146 miles from its 2.0-gal. fuel tank. Since serious off-road use tends to punish transmissions in ways never imagined on the street, it’s nice to know that the CRF250L’s six-speed transmission features wider gears and strengthened shift dogs. The internal ratios are identical to the CBR250’s, but a two-teeth larger (40T) rear sprocket lowers the CRF’s final gearing, improving its low-rpm grunt. Lastly, its clutch is fitted with a judder spring to absorb shock loads through the driveline. These changes are appreciated, as aggressive riders are likely to spend a lot of time tap-dancing on the shifter and fanning the clutch to keep the CRF singing. The CRF’s frame is all-new and purpose-built, not just some remodeled CBR250R chassis. Made of steel, its twin

oval-section main spars, semi-double cradle configuration and round-section steel, bolt-on subframe provide a strong foundation for off-road use, yet its ergonomics are designed to be slim and compact like Honda’s CRF motocrossers while maximizing rider comfort. Its numbers include: 56.9" wheelbase; 27° 35' rake and 4.4" of trail. During our ride, I appreciated the CRF250L’s chassis even more than the engine, as its ergonomic layout is practically identical to Honda’s CRF motocross or off-road machines. The lowish seat (34.7", says Honda) and excellent handlebar positioning give the rider plenty of leverage to crank into paved corners or dirt berms, and the chassis responds well by simply going where you point it. It also offers ample front-end feedback to enhance rider confidence whether on the street or in the dirt. And what the CRF’s 43mm Showa inverted fork and shock lack in adjustability is more than made up for in suitability for street or off-road work. Reboundadjustable, the shock is mated to a Honda Pro-Link rear suspension system with a monobloc tapered aluminum swingarm. This is a casting process that allows for the creation of intricate shapes and variable thicknesses as needed for a particular application, allowing the engineers to fine-tune the balance between rigidity, flex, strength and mass. The CRF250L offers 9.8" of travel up front and 9.4" out back, and more isn’t really necessary. The fork delivers excellent control without feeling harsh, but the rear tends to be a little too soft, as delivered, over hard hits. It may only require a little fiddling with the preload adjustment to dial-in, but there was no time for that, and overall, the CRF’s suspension is plenty competent for most riders. Wave-rotor disc brakes—a single 256mm front with twin-piston caliper up front and a 220mm with single-piston caliper out back—adorn the CRF and offer plenty of stopping power with just the right kind of feel for the dirt. The bonus is that, unlike many dual-sport machines we’ve tested, they also offer good initial feel and bite for street riding as well. Their lightweight disc designs are lifted from the CRF250R and CRF450R, and are claimed to offer exceptional self-cleaning abilities in muddy conditions. Likewise, the CRF’s 21" front and 18" rear aluminum rims are attached to the hubs in a spoke pattern layout taken from the motocrossers. It’s a lacing pattern that Honda says adds rigidity to the wheels. The rims are fitted with IRC tires (3.00-21 front, 120/80-18 rear) that provide plenty of traction in the dirt without being noisy or uncommunicative on the street. Of course, with its common rim sizes, you can fit the CRF250L with just about any off-road tire combination of your choice.

Final Thoughts As my day with the CRF250L wound down, it occurred to me that Honda is truly at its best when its design teams focus on how much value they can pack into a given model, and the CRF250L is proof. It’s high tech, genuinely exciting to ride and extremely economically priced. Perhaps it will take a Lightweight Dual-Sport Model Comparison to determine where the CRF250L ultimately ranks in its class, but it is already a winner on many levels. Visit us at WWW.MCNEWS.COM