Take the dirty way home on this Honda

21:19, Dec 17 2012
Honda CRF250L
Honda CRF250L: A new-age 21st Century version of the humble road-going trail bike.

Where most Japanese bike-makers seemed to go into hibernation to wait out the global financial crisis, it is now apparent that Honda used the time to design a host of more affordable motorcycles that are cheaper to run and own.

Engine: 249cc liquid-cooled dohc 4-valve fuel-injected single; 17kW (23bhp) at 8500rpm, 22Nm at 7000rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, chain final drive.
Frame: Steel single-cradle frame with tapered aluminium rear swingarm; unadjustable 43mm inverted front forks with 250mm of wheel travel and rear monoshock with 240mm of wheel travel.
Price: $9995
Hot: You'll be looking for the off-road shortcut home if you ride one of these to work, a well-executed multi-purpose motorcycle.
Not: Two grand more expensive than CBR sibling; needs a 10-litre tank; lack of suspension adjustment.
First we had the CBR250R single, probably the New Zealand market's most affordable new sportsbike at $7995 as it brought a glimpse of Moto3-class chassis performance to our roads. Then came the NC700 twins, two plush-riding 12-grand bikes that are so miserly with fuel that they're probably now banned in Opec-member states. The $4995 PCX150 scooter tested recently didn't want for technical sophistication or build quality, and also had a fuel gauge that appeared immune to the effects of gravity. Now there's the $9995 Honda CRF250L - a new-age, 21st-century version of the humble road-going trailbike.

Many will look at the newest member of the CRF family and mutter "it's about time". For trailbikes have been neglected as a genre for around 20 years or more, and the class is stocked with mostly obsolete designs. The one notable exception is Yamaha's $12,349 WR250R, a brave attempt to bring state-of-the-art dirtbike tech to the road. However, the Yamaha effectively priced itself out of a market thanks to its use of such high-ticket items as titanium engine valves, top-shelf suspension, and an all-alloy frame.

Honda CRF250L
SWINGING ARM: Part of a top-shelf suspension set-up with an all-alloy frame.

At nearly $3500 less, the CRF250L has the potential to do some good sales numbers in this country, particularly as it sneaks under the 10-grand barrier. Adventure riders seeking a multi-role machine suitable for commuting, farmers with a need for a stock-chaser that's suitable for entering the local school's charity trail ride, learners who aren't afraid to get dirty: Your perfect bike has now arrived.

There's just one thing wrong with the CRF250L: It isn't perfect. While the lockable fuel tank is welcome, it could offer more generous storage than the scant 7.7 litres it holds. Honda has also detuned the fuel-injected engine of the CBR250R for this more dirt-friendly sibling, reducing the diameter of the throttle body from 38mm to 36mm, and fitting a longer exhaust header pipe of smaller diameter. The resulting loss of 4bhp is keenly felt when riding the 23bhp CRF. The delivery of torque is more linear and smooth but there isn't a lot of it.

Riding the CRF is therefore a bit like eating a nouveau cuisine meal - everything is beautifully presented and super-refined, but full satisfaction remains elusive.


Honda CRF250L
SIMPLE STUFF: But all you need.

If this bike was mine, I'd be tracking down a CBR throttle body and freer-flowing exhaust at the earliest opportunity.

That said, the Honda is still a fun ride, especially if you need an excuse to keep popping into a certain fuel station for an encounter with your favourite forecourt attendant.

A light clutch lever action, snick-worthy gears, 4.0 litres/100km fuel use, and a butter-smooth 100kmh sweet spot are genuine powertrain delights, and the steel-framed chassis has the balance of one of those hilarious trials bikes (not to be confused with trail bikes).

You feel like you could ride over a tightrope with this bike, helped by a riding position that encourages standing on the pegs as much it does sitting down. Not that you sit down much on the CRF-L, as the dirt bike seat will have you shifting your cheeks around after half an hour in the saddle. Tourers need not apply.

The Honda's suspension hits the perfect compromise for a trail bike. It won't win any motocross races, but there's still enough well-damped wheel travel to take care of any ditches encountered out on the trail. With roughly 30 per cent less travel than serious dirt racers, the seat height of this CRF plummets to an easily manageable 875mm - 100mm lower than that of the L's cross country racing cousin, the CRF250X. Climb aboard, and it's easy for those of modest in-seam dimensions to place both feet on the ground as the suspension settles further.

I can see those of the multi-tasking gender taking to the 144kg CRF250L like ducks to water.

Those new to dirt-riding will also feel confident right away, courtesy of the lazy steering geometry and generous wheelbase of the new Honda, design features that encourage stability over rough terrain. For myself, I'd rather have the more nervous yet more nimble handling of the mid-sized, air-cooled XR250s, XR350s, and XR400s I've owned. I might have crashed those bikes with monotonous regularity, but they were the absolute bomb for threading through tighter trails and slaloming between pine trees.

However don't let these rose-tinted memories of long-gone XRs put you off the CRF250L. It hits the trailbike nail squarely on the head by being affordable, robust and durable. It's also as comical to ride as it is economical.