Honda CRF250L 3200-mile review

nv-15CRF250L long-term test

Gear review here

Amsterdam to Anywhere (trans Africa with CRFLs)

In my short CRF-L test in the UK back in February I speculated: ‘If you can cruise at a real world 65mph and tackle any reasonable off-road trail, it makes you wonder if a bike like this could indeed be a contender as a lightweight, load-carrying overlander...’

monu14An invitation to a show in the US gave me a chance to arrive early, pick up a CRF of my own and pull off a long-planned tour of the fabulous Southwest (see map, right). My mission was to set forth and evaluate whether the CRF really could be the answer to the long-sought lightweight overland travel bike. America is not an ‘adventure motorcycling’ destination as I define it, but it sure is a great place to go ride around on a trail bike for a few weeks.

Links to the trip reports:

What makes the Honda special is that there seem to be so few bikes like it these days. Besides Kawasaki’s KLX250S (which in the UK comes with efi and can be as cheap as a CRF), other 250 dirt bikes seem to be high performance racers with maintenance schedules set in hours, while we’re told a typical ‘adventure’ bike weighs a quarter of a ton, puts put over 100hp and costs 10 grand. Where are the old XLs and XTs of my early biking years? Yes I know there are ageing DR-Z400s, but apart from that it’s all got too specialised and more particularly just too heavy, although in presumed response to the stagnating global economy there do seem to be signs of bikes fluttering back down to earth.

Most would assume an ordinary 250 dual sporter is physically too small to carry a travel load in comfort, too fragile to hack the terrain and of course too slow to not get in the way. On this last point the US may not have not a great place to simulate riding through the AMZ where speeds are much slower, but the barren deserts and mountains of the American West didn’t put up much of a fight in terms of busy roads. Other factors, as you will read, did affect the Honda.
frogsSome might even say a 250 is just plain too boring, but that depends on your attitude to combining travel with motorcycling. There seems to be increasing chat about 125s for overland travel, and not merely from an attention-seeking ‘Across the Andes by Frog’ novelty PoV, but simply because that’s all new riders can afford these days, not least when taking into account the cost of obtaining a full license to ride bigger capacity bikes.

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32-bagWhat you can’t accuse a CRF-L of is being too expensive, too fuel inefficient or too heavy, despite people getting hung up on the fact it weighs some 144kg.
For the record, mine was not a stock bike and came with 1000 miles on the clock as well as various performance and functional accessories. You can read about the rest of my set up here but in a nutshell they included:

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Comfort
When I first saw and sat on a test bike back in February I was gratified to find it wasn’t too small for my 6′ 1″ frame, nor was it uncomfortable to ride, though a shorter person may not have got on (literally) with my jacked-up US CRF. Over a full day my legs never felt cramped on the pegs, although the saddle was annoyingly high, especially when getting on and off wearing heavy leather trousers and back luggage in the way. It’s all good for the abs and quads, I suppose.
Yes, saddle soreness set in at over 200 miles, or sooner on rough tracks (the Aero pad may have deferred this a bit), but the lack of vibration from the small engine as well as frequent stops of even a minute or two all helped relieve butt pain. In fact, frequent stops rather than burning down the highway like Gheghis Khan aboard a V-Max chariot was quite a revelation. I found it was easier to break the rhythm or momentum when you’re not going that fast in the first place. Standing up on the dirt to spare the bum didn’t really work for me; the risers weren’t high enough and I stooped.
32-screenThe $70 Spitfire screen (or something like it) was a no brainer. It kept most bugs, occasional rain and what wind blast there was off me without affecting stability too much. The basic handlebar mounting system works surprisingly well and the screen can be removed in a minute for off-roading at where times I did feel it angled back rather too close to my face.

Economy
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Do you know what, I actually think the CRF’s mileage is not so exceptional. I bet if I rode a BMW 650 twin like I did the Honda I’d get to within 90% of the CRF’s readings.
The fuel log is here. It’s divided into three stages: running inefficiently (power was not really affected), running a bit better (less rich) and with the EJK retuned, running correctly.
Without even trying, I got close to crfuelogmy 100mpg (UK) goal a couple of times to know it was achievable. My last recorded fill was an annoying dash 70 miles back to a motel to retrieve something while averaging nearly 60mph. Returning to Flagstaff (climbing from 4000 to 7000′) a couple of times I noticed I was on the throttle stop so this ‘worst possible’ mpg added up to 56US or 67.5UK. Again, I suspect my recent GS650 twin and 660 Tenere before that would have managed the same mileage at similar speeds, but then who rides 650s like a 250 except when you’re running on fumes? Talking of petrol fumes, filling up is a pain to master without splashback; the small tank and two bars blocking the filler mouth combined with high pressure gas pumps you seem to get in the US means there is often a spurt of gasoline coming back at you. I discuss bigger tanks here.
So, in the final ‘running correctly’ mode over some 2400 miles of dirt, highway and freeway the Honda averaged 72USmpg or 86.7UK. By comparison last year the BMW twin did 57/68 and the Tenere before it 59/72, so the Honda is a good 20% better while running on about 30-40% of the power.

Oil, water, drive chain, tyres
In the first 1000 miles, when the fuelling was off the bike got through an oil-level window’s worth with was surprising. Once the fuelling was fixed it used no oil over the next 2000 miles, and may have even gained some. Maybe it was still running-in and it was nothing do with running rich? Who knows. No coolant was ever used and the chain, lubed most days, never needed tensioning.

doomo22Tyre wear was a bit of a shock – that’s some soft IRC rubber they’ve slung on the back, worn out and split just 3200 miles from new. For me that’s a record on any bike, and from the condition of the CRF it wasn’t like the original owner caned the Honda. Dirt or pavement I ran both tyres at about 30psi and by the time I sold it at 4200 miles the front had about 4-5mm left. They performed fine on road and trail – as did the replacement Maxxis Desert. I suppose hot days and the combined weight of 280kg on the two OE tyres was too much – it certainly wasn’t due to pulling ‘blackies’ out of gas station forecourts!

Performance
ben
Not having ridden the bike in totally stock form and spending most of my time at elevations greater than Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak (4406′, right), it’s a bit difficult to judge true performance. Then there was 10% ethanol fuel in AZ and maybe CA too, but regular fuel in Nevada? Does that make a difference?
I experimented with various octanes but can’t say 91 RON was better than the usual 87 (Honda recommends 85 or more), though one time after a remote and expensive fill up the bike was noticeably down on power (‘stale’ fuel?) until the next fill a few hours later.
Tuning the EJK correctly in Truckee didn’t noticibly produce lots more power, just much better economy, though when I did return to Phoenix right at the end of the ride (1100′ elevation) I thought I did notice more acceleration, but perhaps that was just because I was frequently stopping and starting at traffic lights for the first time in over a month.
At times above 6500′ I thought I could notice a significant drop in power, even though at nearly 10,000 feet I could still do 50mph on the level. They say air density drops 4.5% every 1000 feet or that at 10,000′ the air pressure is 70% of sea level, but I don’t know if that means proportional oxygen levels too or if it all gets exponential as altitude increases. I suppose a 30% loss of power at 10,000 feet is plausible – 12hp still being enough to propel the 250 at 50mph.
High or low, the efi fuelling was perfect – never a stutter or a stall nor a surge when hot, as the BMW did last year in Morocco, With the Honda just some brief hunting as it warmed up in the mornings.
Like all 250s, hills and headwinds are the killers of speed, though not necessarily economy, as the fuel log shows. With me and the full load on it (additional combined weight equalling about the same as the Honda) the L simply hasn’t got the power to punch effortlessly up hill at 6000′ or against a headwind. On a more powerful machine you can just wind it on and pay at the servo later (a guy on an 1150GS told me he got as little as 120 miles to a tank against severe headwinds in the mid-West).
I don’t think the EJK running on the stock engine (apart from air filter backfire screen removed) added more than 1 or 2hp if anything at all, and I suppose a small engine is more affected by relatively small levels of power loss. If I’d stayed up there in the Great Basin I think I’d have experimented with upping (richening) the settings on the EJK, even if it cost a few mpgs. It might have cooled the motor too.

Two-LaneOvertaking on the highway was an extremely rare event and at high elevations I was sometimes down to 45mph in 5th gear, more commonly 50mph. That sounds a bit inconvenient or unnerving on a two-lane blacktop with a 65 limit, but in practise the traffic was so light and daylight visibility so good that it wasn’t unsafe. But it did mean you had nothing to spare.

carnbraeWhat I did miss was the surge and the rush of acceleration – the fun factor that is elemental to biking and keeps tyre manufacturers as well as a few nurses in business. Loaded up, there is no real perception of acceleration on the Honda, the numbers simply crawl up the speedo. Exuberant antics like power sliding out of dirt turns (right) necessitated yanking the throttle or very poor traction which simply risked dumping it.
They talk about 24hp with a full-noise pipe, drilled airbox, 1T less on the countershaft and EJK retuned to suit, but my one-day’s experience at that theoretical power level before setting off was merely an embarrassing and unsustainable racket. Teenagers take note: noise ≠ power.

Most of the time I chose to cruise at 55 and with no traffic around was very happy to do so. I could look around, take pictures easily and generally not need to cling on or concentrate too hard. Maybe I should get an H-D? Above 65 the CRF-L didn’t always feel so stable, both with and without the screen or the baggage on or off. It could be the front tyre, front mudguard or just the light weight. The wake of a big truck up ahead wasn’t a great place to ride, and in the very strong winds I experienced on some days the bike got blown about quite dramatically, though never felt dangerous.
The highest true speed I saw was 72 briefly downhill though it wasn’t pinned yet. I had an rpm read-out on the Trail Tech Vapor and although it fluctuated quite a bit, rpm actually wasn’t as high as you’d think. Even with a piston the size of an egg cup the Honda only revs to 8000 and I don’t think I ever went over 5000 in normal riding.

Apart from high-speed stability the handling gave no surprises, but I wasn’t tearing about or intent on chamfering my boots soles. Obviously it’s easy to manoeuvre at low speed and the tyres and brakes were never overwhelmed by the weight or the power, nor the front forks by hard braking.

nv-04Note that on my bike the speedo read 8% under (ie: slower than true) and the odo was even worse, some 12% under. Other CRF-L owners have reported over-reading and some have it spot on. Establishing my error early on, I used the GPS or more commonly the Vapor (left) as accurate odometres to determine distance and so, accurate mpg.

Off road riding
doomo45
On the 500+ miles of dry dirt I rode I never felt the need for more power, nor was the accumulated weight of the bike ever hard to handle. (I never had to haul it out of deep mud, sand or snow). The biggest limitation such as it was, was the tall- but more especially the widely spaced gearing which sometimes made slow, technical riding tricky without slipping and so stressing the clutch – something to be avoided.
crgr-shockloadAlso, what I believe they call a slipping ‘judder spring‘ in the clutch and the way I jacked up the OE shock (left) made the back-end harsh when riding unloaded on bumpy terrain (though it was just right when loaded). It may all have been exacerbated by the lack of a cush drive in the back wheel, too. On the same topic the gearbox was less slick than the Honda press bike I rode in February, but as mentioned that did seem a suspiciously well set-up machine. The forks felt fine and neither end ever bottomed out, despite my 205lb weight, which just shows you how slow I ride!

cc-splashRiding by myself, loaded up in the hills with no comms and at times helmet-free, I didn’t push my luck and in turn, didn’t push the Honda either, but it was good to know the bike was as light as practicable. U-turns on narrow trails were easily knocked out where a bigger bike would have involved much heaving and shoving. The bar risers I fitted were actually still not high enough to sustain standing on the pegs in a natural posture, but then I tend to sit down unless absolutely necessary or my arse is in meltdown (‘Stand up when you must, sit down when you can’). My theory is sitting keeps you more in touch with the hammering and stresses the luggage rack and tyres are receiving, these being the two most common causes of problems on the long road. How’s that for an explanation! (One guy on the WRT gently told me off for not standing up on a big climb).

Durability
Here you have to wonder whether an inexpensively produced 250, even a Honda, is up to the task of long-range, fully loaded travel. It’s best to avoid long spells where you’d need to cane the engine, as well as change the 1.5L of oil much more frequently than the suggested 8000 miles. On a hot day running slow with a backwind it does run close to 100°C for hours (102°C max recorded) at which point the fan kicks in, but although it never boiled over, nor showed a warning light on the dash (if there is one), I tend to regard the fan coming on when not at a standstill as a warning. (Having a water temperature read-out on the Vapor was a great feature).
crfl-frameI took it easy so the subframe took the hefty vertical load without any signs of stress, but like all bikes is more prone to side swipes. The only fall I had at some 15-20mph was harmless to me, but bent the bars a little, twisted the forks in the yokes and even tweaked the subframe – all this without a full load in the panniers which can exacerbate stresses. Apart from the bars, that was all set back with some loosening and retightening but it did make me wonder about the subframe which is any light monoshock travel bike’s traditional weak spot.

With the high mileages that overlanding obviously involves, you also wonder if you’d be running the motor, if not the whole bike, closer to the limit than a 500cc+ with more in reserve when ridden moderately. Sparing the revs and the gear change as well as frequent oil changes is the best you can do there, but months of bad fuel or unavoidable neglect might take their toll sooner than on a bigger bike. This is all speculation of course, though Lois Pryce did admit her TTR250 was shagged out by the time it got to Cape Town (or maybe it was her Serow 225 on arriving at Ushiaia?). If given a good start to life though, you’d hope a 250 like mine will last better than a clapped-out KLR 650 running on 40 a day.

Summary
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Passing over ag bikes and posties,  something like a CRF is at the extreme bottom end for a practical overlanding bike; at least for someone of my size. But for my sort of riding (let alone budget) it’s still far less extreme and much more practical than a Triumph Explorer, Super Tenere, ‘Waterboxer’ or any other of the quarter-ton 12s that seem to exemplify ‘adventure bikes’ to ill-informed entities led by most of the UK moto media. Perhaps ‘adv bikes’ and what you can see I now deliberately now call ‘overlanders’ or ‘travel bikes’ are beginning to take on different meanings.

In the end I think I was right all along when building up my never tested GS500R: a 500-650 single or twin delivers the optimal level of performance, weight and – with efi- economy for a real-world overlander. Unfortunately these days the price you pay is at least 20 kilos more weight than you want which may simply be down to manufacturing economics. As MTBers will know, a little lightness costs a lot of $$$.
elk14One guy I met in Flagstaff said he liked his big Harley as ‘it sure gets windy around here’, but when I sum it all up, it’s the lightness that makes the Honda such fun, easy to live with, manoeuvre and ride. (The winds I experienced were never unnerving.) Bikes now have masses of power, and now at long last have creditable fuel economy too, but light weight is the element many bikes are lack and why for example we’re right to be potentially excited by the forthcoming 450 CCM and why guys put up with things like a KTM690 (above left – same weight as the Honda but nearly four times the power at nearly double the price).
Loaded up with a realistic kerbside weight of some 180kg (+ me), the L was about as heavy as I would wish a bike, but light enough to be unloaded and pulled out of any ditch or manhandled onto a boat, pickup or plane. The economy was impressive, but then so it should be. But when you think of the typical 30-kilos of payload and accessories that most of us carry on a big ride, for someone of my build the ability to hold 60mph (100kph) on any road is what is wanted to make the ride relaxing. People are using the CRF250L for all sorts of applications so ymmv, but I see now that for me that requires a bit more than 250cc.

I’ve since got myself a BMW 650Xcountry back in the UK.

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15 Responses to Honda CRF250L 3200-mile review

  1. Steli says:

    I have just past 2000 miles mark on my 2014 CRF250L I would not trust this bike to go out of town. Has all kind of problems with the clutch and shifting gears. It feels like any time the gearbox will broke apart. I would never recommend this motorcycle to any one.

  2. ted says:

    hi! i’m happy to read ur article, i’v just bought crf250L this september and i’m planning to travel around the philippines next year. i’m impressed by your adventure with honda crf250L! thanks 4 d tips!

  3. Oli says:

    Awesome in depth review. I have spent 3 years searching for a bike that ticks all the boxes the 250L does, your review has helped confirm that decision! Cheers

  4. Pingback: Kawasaki KLX250s As a D/S Tourer - My Report - Page 2 - Horizons Unlimited - The HUBB

  5. Thank you for a great article and your experience shows in your sensible unbiased commentary. I am a life-long biker from UK now living in the Philippines, where, for the last 5 years I have been running an XR200, air-cooled simple (old design) and relatively rugged. I have been eyeing the new CRF and am impressed by some of the tech thereon and by the more modern looks. I am still struggling to spend 200,000 pesos on something I am simply not convinced will be as tough as my old XR. I have a Luddite attitude towards EFI systems, wary of expensive parts, wary also of a more highly stressed motor with liquid cooling to boot. Some reports I have read might indicate the chassis parts are a little weak sustaining damage in minor (yet frequent) off-road slow spills. I would surely appreciate your comments on this as you know what you are talking about and have ridden the CRF.
    Once again, thank you for a tremendous article. Great stuff. Noel far from home.

    • Chris S says:

      Hi Noel, glad you found the report useful. Your price sounds like £2800 which looks like a bargain assuming its the same bike we get here for 50% more. I owned or used twin shock and ProLink XR200s back in the 80s and they were brilliant trail bikes, but I see they still sell XR200s new in Ph for 80k less pesos than a CRF. I would not be put off by efi which, with water cooling, is the way things must go wrt emissions but I’d say the CRF’s rear subframe is no stiffer laterally than an XR – always a weak point on either bike when loaded and travelling. I found one slow speed fall with luggage on my CRF distorted the frame sideways an inch or two. Probably would have on an XR or any similar bike too.
      A few months ago we hired XR250R Tornados in Morocco which I suspect are the same tech era as your XR200. I thought it was a brilliant machine unloaded on the dirt; better than the CRF in a lot of ways. Plus a Ph XR200 is about 20% lighter than a CRF and I bet as economical. Shame the XR250 or 200 are not sold in the EU as like you I err towards simple old tech as long as it works and costs less.
      So, seeing as your XR200 is probably not an old hack from the 1980s I’d stick with it and save your pesos.

  6. Raj and Sam says:

    This is a brilliant review!
    There is a lot of valuable info in here, thank you very much for posting this.

    My friend and I are planning to take two HONDA CRF250L’s on a ride through the Asia-Pacific, and are reading up on many things, preparing as best we can.

    At the moment, we are mostly concerned about the weight that the L’s can take. Mixing and matching numbers from your article, we estimate about 30-40Kg’s each bike, is this correct in your mind?

    We are building custom aluminium panniers for our bikes, and have purchased the ‘Wolfman’ racks to support them.

    We would love to hear your thoughts on the subject, and pick your brain if possible.

    Again, can not thank you enough for this research, it is invaluable to us.

    Cheers
    Raj & Sam.

    • Chris S says:

      Glad you found the report useful Raj & Sam. You are right about the weight limit but only because, like so many similar bikes, the bolt-on subframe is so light. It is presumably rated to carry a passenger on the highway but I would try and keep the total max payload in this area well under 30kg. I see that Wolfman no longer make side racks (it seems because their welder/supplier has moved on, rather than for ideological reasons) but their fat-section oval side racks look pretty solid. Problem is, they attach to the passenger footrest mounts which, with alloy boxes, puts even more stress on the whole structure. Like all skimpy mono shock subframes, it has very little sideways resistance. The rack will distort to the sides after minor falls, especially with solid metal boxes which have little cushioning effect. Distortion of a a few inches is not actually a problem if clearance is maintained, but it’s worrying as after enough left and right bending it will break like Uri Geller’s spoon.
      If you’re convinced alloy boxes are a good idea I would suggest extending (+ re-angleing if necessary) the Wolfman bar that mounts to the passenger footrests to attach at the rider footrests on the main frame instead. This may not help much with side loads (subframe distortion after falling off), but it will transfer the more continuous vertical loads that will lever off the back of your subframe directly into the chunkier main chassis. The graphic of the chassis shows the difference.
      I would also consider adding a bracing plate below the back of the subframe triangle junction (where it becomes single tube). Similar to the picture at the bottom of p98 in the book or here: http://adventuremotorcyclinghandbook.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/xr4-sub.jpg.
      Then, I’d finally try and arrange heavy items forward and use a funky aftermarket bash plate as a fixing point for heavy items like tools or even mount side tanks around here, all to keep the weight off the back.

  7. Tunca Baran says:

    Hey, Very useful informations for the CRF250L. Thanks for that.. Could you please tell me what is the brand of Spitfire screen and where can i get it?

    Thank you.

  8. Marika Edstein says:

    Hi! Was excited to find your website, particularly as 2 of the bikes you have prepared for adventure riding are my current rides. I am at the early stages of planning a 3 week ride from Burke NSW, to Alice Springs NTvia Lake Eyre, Oonandatta Track etc. with 2 other friends, they will be riding DR650’s. I was thinking of using my BMW F650GS but am concerned with the ultimate weight of the bike after it’s loaded with camping gear, extra fuel, spares etc. My alternative is the CRF250L which I think I’ll be more comfortable with ia lighter & smaller bike but concerned it may not be able to cope with the conditions. What are your thoughts on the CRF for this style of riding? I understand that either bike will need modifications. Would greatly appreciate any contributions you may have. Have enjoyed reading your reviews of both bikes. Thanks for taking the time.

    • Chris S says:

      Hi Marika, I think the 250 will easily cope with the dirt road conditions and be less intimidating than the BM when/if it gets rough + generally be less tiring to handle. To me it depends how much bitumen there is on your route which looks like some 2500km one way via Broken Hill. If it’s much more than half dirt I’d take the Honda. Then again tyres can make the 650GS (twin) so much more predictable on gravel (+ the seat is nice and low); a proper knobbly like I fitted to my bike in Moab might last you all the way to Alice on the BM, but initially be a bit ‘squidgly’. And then I presume you have the getting back; trucking or road riding; the 650 twin will be a pleasure on the road, the CR-L less so, though mine was down of power due to the elevation; you won’t have that problem.
      Finally I presume you’re smaller and lighter than me so your 250 won’t be overwhelmed and if you have time to do more than just the Oonandatta you’ll be able to enjoy day rides in the East and West Macs once you get to Alice. That’s a fabulous area you want to spend a week in.
      So – straight run via the OT and ride back: 650 on deep knobbliest (not TKCs); bit of exploring/diverging off the OT – or first big dirt adventure and trucking back, take 250 although with good set up (protection, tyres, light loads) both bikes will be great. If you think the Honda might be a keeper, I’d invest in a better shock.
      How lucky you are to have all that desert out back ;-)

  9. Chris S says:

    Hi Paul, glad you’re enjoying your L. I didn’t record a tracklog or even have much of a planned route but with the detail mentioned in the reports you could probably work it out off a map. What a great place it is to ride out there. I want to go back!

  10. Paul Meylemans says:

    Hi, I have been reading your 3200 mile review of the Honda CRF 250 L with a lot of interest. I have one myself, but in Luxembourg where I live there are not many dirt tracks one is allowed to ride with a motorbike. I enjoy the CRF 250 L for commuting and have taken it during my holidays to the Swiss Alps. Having only driven big engine bikes before I was very pleasantly surprised by the Honda.
    I am also interested by the route you have been following on your trip to the south-west of the US. Do you have a GPS track or a roadbook of your trip?

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