Like all these dual-sport bikes the Honda CRF230L is agile on and off-road.
In spite of its recent redesign the CRF230L also failed to garner up a lot of praise amongst our testers in the appearance category. Many of the styling cues, including the appearance of the front fascia and simple analog-style instruments, look nearly identical to the Suzuki’s and a bit aging as compared to the more modern exterior of the water-cooled bikes. We do, however, appreciate the color of the red/white plastics and the sleek shape of the fuel tank shrouds, seat and tail section.
“For a bike that Honda
just updated a few years ago it doesn’t look very modern,” says photo man, Gauger. “I could live with it but then I found out that it costs the same as the KLX250S and all of a sudden it no longer becomes worth it.”
As Gauger astutely points out, the biggest flaw with the CRF is its $4999 MSRP which is identical to the Kawasaki’s. It gets even worse when you consider that the Honda is a 2009 model while the Kawasaki is a ’10. If you can look past that price discrepancy the Honda offers a unique riding experience as compared to the rest of the bikes.
Even though the Honda employs a low 31.9-inch seat height (tied with the Suzuki as being the lowest) and a short 52.8-inch wheelbase (shortest in this quartet), it feels physically larger than the DR which makes it a nice compromise for a smaller rider looking for something between that of the tall Yamaha and the smaller Suzuki. Despite its mid-range size, the CRF does employ a 21/18-inch front and rear wheels.
The position of the handlebar, footpegs and seat are more rational than the Suzuki, but it still lacks the outright versatility of the KLX which made it hard for all but our shortest to truly be comfortable while standing at the controls.
“The Honda’s ergos are much more realistic than the Suzuki and you can tell engineers spent some time figuring it out,” said Garcia. “Still the bike is a little too small for my liking. I think it could be improved by simply fitting a taller handlebar and seat if you wanted to though.”
The CRF came in at 267 pounds with a full 2.3 gallon tank of unleaded fuel giving it the honor of being the lightest machine in this test. In terms of fuel mileage the CRF netted a 67 mpg average which is astounding considering how much time was spent with the throttle glued to the stop. This gives it a real-world range of 107 miles before the fuel switch has to be moved to reserve. After that the rider still can cover approximately 46 miles before running out of fuel.
When first fired in the morning the Honda’s 223cc air-cooled Single requires the use of the handlebar mounted choke lever as well as a blip of the throttle before pressing the electric start button. Like the other carbureted bikes, the CRF’s engine is very cold-blooded and needs a few minutes of elevated idling before it can be ridden away cleanly without any hesitation issues.
At normal idle we measured the CRF’s exhaust note at 72 dB which is identical to the Suzuki and one decibel quieter than that of the KLX. At half of maximum engine speed (4700) we recorded a reading of 87 db equal to that of Kawi and quieter than both the Yamaha (90 dB) and the Suzuki (89 dB).
Like the rest of the bikes, the CRF’s SOHC two-valve engine was slower at Mammoth compared to operation at sea level. Even still, once the engine was warm it carbureted cleanly. To try and regain some of the ponies we lost at altitude we pulled off the seat and removed the snorkel in the airbox. This actually compromised engine performance off the bottom but increased it at mid-to-high rpm.
Like the Suzuki, on flat ground the CRF was able to pull right around 70 mph on pavement. Downhill we saw the speedometer needle climb as high as 80 mph. Another 5-10 mph can be gained during NASCAR-style downhill drafting maneuvers. At these speeds there is an awful lot of engine vibration delivered through the controls but it isn’t quite as strong as the Suzuki.
On our dyno at home the CRF pumped out almost 15 horsepower and just over 12 lb-ft of torque. This placed it third in terms of peak power production. Surprisingly, off the line the Honda delivers the strongest rush of acceleration with more torque than any of the bikes until the WR’s engine finally zings to life right around 5500 rpm, followed by the KLX another 1000 revs later. This allows the CRF to get the jump off the line with it accelerating the fastest to 30 mph in 3.3 seconds. Further aiding it was its excellent clutch and 6-speed gearbox.
“Sure the Honda has the strongest bottom end and felt like it had the most grunt down low even compared to the liquid-cooled bikes. But as you rev out the motor it falls on its face fast,” explains Garcia. “This means you’ve got to short-shift the CRF in outright acceleration is what you’re going for.”
Frankie is right. Despite the CRF speeding to 30 mph in the shortest time, on the other end of the spectrum it took it nearly 16 seconds to reach 60 mph placing it at the very back in our acceleration test and proving the effects of its bottom-end biased powerband. Combine this with the low seat height and the Honda is perhaps the friendliest for novices and a standout in tight city riding. The bottom-end torque requires no clutch slipping during starts and commuters can rest surefootedly at stop lights. Second-gear starts are entirely possible to limit shifting between lights.
A 240mm front and 220mm rear disc brake offer plenty of stopping power with the under sprung fork being the only real limiting factor when trying to make an aggressive stop on the pavement. Neither brake offers excessive bite, which makes them easy to manipulate for all riders regardless of skill level.
Similar to the rest of the bikes the Honda glides down the pavement superbly. The soft damping characteristics of the non-adjustable fork and spring preload-only adjustable hydraulic rear shock allow it to suck up pavement irregularities gracefully. Off-road the suspension felt similar to the DR’s with its damping attributes overwhelmed at even a moderate pace. Still given its reduced rolling mass, short wheelbase and tough, responsive clutch, it’s a surprisingly fun and simple bike to work with off-road. One thing to keep in mind while playing in the dirt is that the CRF has the lowest ground clearance (9.5 in.). Extra care has to be exercised when attempting to hop over small obstacles on the trail.
Like the Suzuki, the Honda employs a small water-resistant plastic storage container tucked inside the left rear fender. It also has passenger footpegs and a helmet hook if you ever need to run errands in or around town.
The CRF230L is the bike of choice for someone looking for something a bit larger than the DR200SE but not quite as tall as the Kawasaki or Yamaha. It’s easy to ride, performs well and employs the most fuel efficient engine. But the biggest limiting factor is its lofty $4999 price tag as compared to the bigger, more versatile Kawasaki’s KLX250S.