Dual-purpose bikes occupy the same grey area as any product designed to do two different things: they never do both really well. Two-in-one shampoo and conditioner, sporks, and phablets are prime examples, leaving your hair a bit flat, your food difficult to eat, and your oversized smartphone hanging half way out of your pocket.
The Honda CRF250L is no different, with quirky pavement handling, combined with tires that are a compromise off-road, and a motor that isn’t completely at home in either scenario. And yet I had more fun on this bike than I’ve had in a long time, and wished I had more time with it. Months more time. Years. I might actually buy one.
The 2019 CRF250L ($5,799) we tested came in a handsome black colour scheme, giving the bike a slightly sinister look, like a bad guy racing through the streets of some European city in a Bond movie. It looks like a real dirt bike, with a big 21” front wheel and monster fender to match, inverted forks, and a long seat that swoops from the gas cap all the way back over the rear tire. There is also a Rally version ($6,499) that does a great impression of an adventure bike, with a bit more suspension travel, a windscreen, and dual headlights.
Both versions come with the same fuel injected, 249cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke single, six-speed transmission, inverted fork up front with single disc brake, and linkage driven rear shock. A nice LCD display (with fuel gauge) and electric start round out the amenities; the only frill missing is a gear position indicator.
The styling is pure CRF, and at a glance it looks like a dedicated off-roader, giving it an air of credibility that some dual-sports lack. It does have some quirks, like the long front brake line looping right in front of the LCD display, obscuring the upper half, or the little gaiters on the mirrors that constantly popped out of place and floated around on the stalks. Those minor annoyances aside, the bike, especially in the black colour, looks great, and the fit and finish is decent for this price point.
Riding off road
Riding the CRF for the first time, two things were immediately apparent: the brakes needed bedding in, and the bike did not handle like a typical street bike. The first stop was loooong, but a few repeated hard stops had the front binder working fine. Handling-wise, leaning into slower speed, sharp corners, the bike tipped over alarmingly quickly on its tall suspension, but with some experimentation, I found that pushing the bars into the corner with body more upright, rather than leaning with the upper body into the corner, felt more natural and controlled. Surprise, surprise, the off-road bike prefers to be steered with an off-road technique!
Also, under hard acceleration and at higher speeds, the front end felt quite twitchy, although it never did anything dangerous, even when I tried to incite a wobble with some intentional wagging of the bars. Once accustomed to its tendencies, the bike handles the pavement reasonably well, with light weight and snappy handling in town.
And on road
Out on the highway, however, along with the twitchy-feeling front end, the engine runs out of breath quickly, and the lack of wind protection buffets the rider. For longer stretches, I found that leaning back a bit, with arms straight, was a comfortable, if awkward-looking, solution. Anyone looking to spend any significant time on the highway will likely do better with the Rally model and its adventure-inspired windscreen.
However, on bumpy pavement and gravel back roads, this bike comes into its own. Cracks, potholes, rows and rows of stutter bumps, hardpack or loose, the CRF floated effortlessly, in full control and with steady composure. Post apocalypse, CRFs will rule the pockmarked landscape, unfazed by the bomb crater-riddled roads and highways, carrying the sole survivors from one burned-out city to the next, hunting for spares and fuel. And fuel they will need, not because the CRF250L guzzles gas, but because it has a tiny fuel tank, at 7.7 L, and will require frequent fill-ups.
Should the CRF rider be chased off road by radioactive zombies, he or she can relax in the knowledge that the Honda can handle much of what a real dirt bike is capable of. The bike is reasonably light, at 146 kg (322 lbs.), and long in suspension travel, with 222 mm (8.7 in.) travel front, 240 mm (9.4 in.) rear. Riding over smaller logs was easy with 255 mm (10 in.) of ground clearance and a decent skid plate. Handling that was a little strange on the road made perfect sense on the dirt, and the bolt-upright seating position that acted as a sail on the highway made for easy body weight transfer and a quick transition from sitting to standing.
The engine, breathless on the highway, was actually a little lacking in the bottom end, but decent enough to pull up steeper hills, even when a gear too high, and likely just right for novice off-roaders. Most lacking on the dirt were the tires, and understandably so; the huge knobs and paddles of a decent dirt tire would never be suitable on pavement, and the knobbies fitted to the CRF were quite good, considering. The rear hooked up well in loose conditions, but muddier soil would pack between the knobs, limiting traction, although the resulting rear tire spin was all part of the fun.
How does it stack against the competition?
For better off-road performance, most dual-sport comparisons point to the Yamaha WR250R as the better candidate, but it comes at a considerable price premium ($7,799), and with a much less beginner-friendly seat height. Over at Kawasaki, Team Green has the KLX250 with an identical price to the CRF250L, sporting adjustable suspension versus the Honda’s non-adjustable units, but is also saddled (pun intended) with a taller seat height (890 mm [35.0 in.] compared to the Honda’s 875 mm [34.4 in.]).
The true beauty of the dual-purpose bike shone bright on the ride home from the trails, taking the long way and looking for dirt roads to explore and vistas to photograph. It wasn’t fast, nor terribly comfortable, but riding from the trail to dirt road to pavement, right up the street to your garage in suburbia, had an entertainment and charm factor that bigger, faster (and invariably more expensive) bikes could rarely match.
The CRF lacks any intimidation factor (unlike its CRF450L big brother), can be ridden virtually anywhere, and will provide more smiles per dollar than anything short of a free comedy festival. It just won’t give your hair the body and shine you’ve been looking for.