I had preconceived notions before I swung a leg over the CRF250 Rally, thanks to the spec sheet: too heavy, too gutless, too expensive.
After spending a few days aboard a loaner from a local dealership (thanks again, Toys For Big Boys in Moncton!), I’ve changed my opinion. Here’s why.
Almost as soon as the CRF250L duallie arrived on the market, Honda fanboys started begging for a rally bike based on the platform. Unexpectedly, Big Red paid attention. After teasing the public with concept bikes, Honda finally delivered with the CRF250 Rally as a 2017 model.
From a distance, the CRF250 Rally looks like a proper, full-sized adventure bike, with lines like the Africa Twin, but up close, it’s obviously a scaled-down imitator, based on the CRF250L dual sport. It’s the same engine, the frame and the seat look the same, the suspension is very similar (but has longer travel in back). The only real difference is the bodywork — but it’s a big difference.
While the CRF250L has minimal bodywork, like most dual sport bikes, the Rally is absolutely covered in plastic. Considering the small size of the bike underneath, this machine may have the most plastic-to-motorcycle ratio of any Honda since the Pacific Coast 800. Longtime CMG readers know that if there’s anything I dislike, it’s excessive plastic, especially on a bike that’s intended to go off-road. It means there are more pieces to scuff and break (indeed, my loaner even sported a few solid scratches before I got my hands on it).
However, it actually looks good, with sensible styling that doesn’t suggest false pretensions of aggression. Also, and more important, the plastic bodywork proved very functional at speed.
The ride, on the road
I noticed two things as I left the dealership’s driveway. First, the bike felt more powerful than the 2015 CRF250L that CMG used as a long-term tester. Second, it also felt a lot bigger, without feeling too heavy.
The reason it felt like the engine had more grunt was because it does: Honda made some changes to the CRF250L engine in 2017, which supposedly adds more horsepower (1 hp or 2 hp — not much, but noticeable in a bike this size). The old 250L was not much fun on the highway, due to a lack of power and wind protection. Now, I was actually able to pass the occasional car on the four-lane highway, and I was comfortable doing so, thanks to the bike’s fairing.
Sitting in the cockpit, you know you aren’t on a full-sized ADV bike, but the CRF250 Rally does feel like a full-sized motorcycle. The whole point of an adventure bike is to build a versatile motorcycle that covers miles in comfort, even in bad weather, and the Rally does that, thanks to well-designed bodywork that keeps wind and rain off you. You can lay down hundreds of klicks in crappy conditions, and still be comfortable. I would know — it rained half the time I had the Rally.
This is a much better highway bike than its stripped-down predecessor, and it’s a good backroad bike as well, if you enjoy the thrill of pushing a small-capacity motorcycle through its paces. You won’t have the snappy corner exits of more powerful machines, so you’ve got to concentrate on smooth, fast corner entries. This is where the machine’s light weight (when compared to a bigger bike) shows its benefit. With a 21-inch front wheel, you know you won’t get razor-sharp handling, but the wide bar and low weight make up for that.
You can still only push the bike as far as the tires (surprisingly compliant on asphalt) and chassis will let you. For a 100-kg fatty like myself, the suspension is the weak point — you can outride the springs by pushing the bike too hard on a bumpy back road. But a lighter rider or a better road would mean you could positively thrash this bike with few worries.
The ride, off the road
So the bike works well on asphalt. What about off-road?
I had the opportunity to ride the Rally through several different stretches of graded gravel roads, and found it worked well on this terrain. Its low weight means you aren’t in trouble if the surface suddenly gets loose, and pitching the bike sideways isn’t as intimidating as a 250-kg behemoth. Thanks to the mild power output, the machine won’t get away from you. Traction control isn’t necessary, and you don’t have to worry about turning off ABS, because it isn’t there (it is available in some markets).
Again, suspension and tires hold the CRF250 Rally back on gravel roads, as the one thing you do not want to do is pick up a lot of speed and hit a large pothole when you’re already low on stability and traction. Better knobby tires would definitely reduce the risk of things going pear-shaped when you’re off-pavement, but those come at the expense of low wear life or lessened pavement capability. Still, every owner will have to change tires eventually, and when that day comes, it would be worthwhile for the Rally owner to choose carefully.
I would have liked to try loading the Rally with luggage to see how its handling changed on the gravel roads, but that wasn’t an option. You’ll have to go aftermarket if you want to add hard bags, as Honda doesn’t offer factory panniers. Honda dual sports have a reputation for weak subframes, so most users will likely opt for soft luggage anyway — it saves money and is arguably better offroad.
Given the bike’s small size, some ADV enthusiasts are going to wonder about its performance in more rigorous off-road conditions. I didn’t get the opportunity to try single-track with the CRF250 Rally, but I did take it down some fairly beat-up quad trails, with unsurprising results. Despite the bike’s low weight, it’s no enduro, at least not out of the box. The tires aren’t knobby enough to really push it in the sloppy stuff, and the suspension will show its shortcomings quickly if you decide to do a Joan Barreda impression on this bike.
However, keep the speed down and it is very unintimidating to tootle along in tricky off-road sections, and if you do get stuck, it’s a lot easier to pull out than a full-sized adventure bike (as I found out for myself). And as long as you start easy, you should be able to figure out the bike’s limitations (and yours) and adjust your speed accordingly.
Overall, I liked this bike a lot, but there were some things I wasn’t impressed with, starting with the plastic. I understand the desire to build a good-looking low-budget adventure bike, but I felt much of the bodywork would get beaten up quickly in a serious off-road scenario. The side plastics look like they’d be scratched very quickly by a pair of filthy dirt-bike boots, and the belly pan looked like it would be smashed quickly by a bungled log hop (one more reason to stick to less technical dirt riding).
The other big gripe: why doesn’t this bike have the same engine as the CBR300? It should fit into that frame easily, and while it wouldn’t make it a wheelie monster, the added power would be welcome.
As well, I’ve seen enough complaints about the broken subframes on CRF250Ls and XR650Ls to consider it a weak point on Honda duallies. If this is going to be considered as a real adventure bike, Honda needs to make sure it can actually haul a decent amount of luggage.
The price is $6,499 MSRP for the 2018 model, but consider what else is in this price range. Suzuki is selling its DR650 for $6,299 in Canada this year, and that’s with a five-year warranty (the Honda only comes with a 12-month warranty). Spend a few hundred more, and you can get a Suzuki DR-Z400S ($7,299, also with five-year warranty) or Kawasaki KLR650 ($7,199). Honda’s own CB500X is $7,399. However, the bike’s closest competition, the Kawasaki Versys-X 300, has a $6,499 MSRP this year, and the BMW G310 GS has a $6,450 MSRP, so Honda’s in the ballpark it needs to be.
Key Specs: 2018 Honda CRF250 Rally
Base Price: $6,499
Price as Tested: $6,499
Engine: Single cylinder, DOHC with 4 valves, liquid-cooled, 4-stroke
Curb weight: 157 kg (346 lbs.)
Power: 24 HP (18 kW) @ 8500 rpm
Torque: 16.7 ft-lb (22.6 Nm) @ 6750 rpm
Wheelbase: 1,445 mm (56.9 in.)
Length: 2210 mm (87 in.)
Seat height: 895 mm (35.2 in.)
Brakes: Single 256 mm front disc with 2-piston caliper/Single rear 220 mm disc with 1-piston caliper