Big Red's Little Motomonster
Inside, outside, pounding a berm or using a rut, the little CRF made easy work of all corner varieties.
Every year, one or more classes of motorcycles vault to center stage. While tarmac terrorizers are experiencing a new wave of open-class sportbikes, in the moto world, 2004 is undoubtedly the year of the 250cc mini-Thumper. New challengers from Honda and a dual-badged Kawasaki/Suzuki are looking to lay waste to Yamaha's revamped YZ250F, which has enjoyed three seasons as the only mid-sized Thumper on the moto block.
Honda's much anticipated CRF250R broke cover in this country more than a year ago and won its debut moto during last year's all-Japan national motocross series, where Team Honda's Ernesto Fonseca beat YZ250F-mounted Chad Reed, no less. Finally, the Red Riders are unleashing the CRF250R to regular moto Joes.
Sure, Honda's 250cc four-stroke may be late to the party, but is well dressed for the bash and comes with lots of personality. Although it shares some architecture with the CRF450R, the tiny, jewel-like, 52.7-pound 249cc engine was not developed in tandem with its bigger sibling. In fact, CRF250R development started after CRF450 development ended. Nonetheless, the 250 showcases the latest Thumper design-think.
It follows the 450's lead in featuring a compact, weight-saving single-overhead-cam design. Its bump stick directly actuates a pair of titanium intake valves and a forked rocker arm to open steel exhaust valves. A forged, 12.9:1, slipper-style piston does its business inside a Nikasil-lined cylinder. A flat-slide, 37mm Keihin with a throttle-position sensor takes care of mixing chores. Lightweight and efficient, a twin-sump lubrication system, which has its pump built into the vertically split cases, has separate oil supplies for the power-producing components (crankshaft, piston and valve train) and the power delivery components (clutch and 5-speed transmission). More important from an everyday standpoint are the CRF's internal, auto-decompression system that makes for simple kick starting, a gear-driven counterbalancer to quell the little Thumper's vibes and rubber-mounted handlebar to ease fatigue.
The long-awaited CRF250R bristles with trickness, even sitting still.
The CRF has all of the right moto stuff, beginning with Honda's fourth generation, twin-spar aluminum frame and ending with all of the latest CR-model updates. Most notable are the high-zoot, low-stiction, twin-chamber, 47mm Showa fork, frontline Dunlop 742 and 756 intermediate-terrain tires front and rear (respectively), Renthal aluminum handlebar, non-slip seat cover, redesigned bodywork, and quick-adjust clutch perch. There's also the trick, stick-type coil built into the spark-plug cap, dual-aluminum-pistoned front calipers, an integrated-reservoir rear master cylinder, fat axles, 12.4 inches of travel at either end, and a removable, semi-round-tube rear subframe.
Honda's original specs listed the CRF at 208 pounds dry, but were revised to 206 at press time, two pounds less than Yamaha's claimed weight for the YZ250F, but two pounds more than the KX250F's published numbers. The release date for the CRF250R is late November, two months after the Kawazuki debuted and a full three months after the Yamaha was available. At $5799, the Honda is $200 more than the Yammie and Kawazuki. On another note, an off-road version of the CRF, the $5999 CRF250X, which is equipped with electric starting, lighting and a larger fuel tank, among other amenities, will hit dealers in February.
Enough with the technical mumbo-jumbo, how's the little Thumper perform? Honda invited us out to SoCal's Glen Helen Raceway on a busy Thursday to sample its latest moto weapon. There, under the Big Red Bigtop, we found former pro moto wrench, and current media technical coordinator, Eric Crippa and crew at our beck and call, in-between assisting a couple of the major off-road glossies with 250cc four-stroke shootouts.
Flicking it with the greatest ease, testers commented that the CRF250R felt 125-like.
Before the Honda guys folded up their tent, we garnered first impressions from four riders of varying skill levels, each of whom spent time in the CRF250R's saddle. From the fast guys to the slower ones, here we go.
Expert motocrosser Steve Drew, who has helped us test bikes in the past, gave the CRF a good thrashing. Drew, who works in the White Brothers R&D department and is making a name for himself in Supermoto competition, was on hand to test prototype exhaust systems for Kawasaki's KX250F. The first thing he noticed about the Honda was its relatively soft low-end power delivery.
"You gotta keep the revs up, especially coming out of the corners when approaching a jump," said Drew. "It just doesn't have that initial pop."
Drew's quick fix for this little problem is as easy as going to a two-teeth larger rear sprocket, effectively shortening the gearing for a little more snap and acceleration off the bottom. On the up side, he thought the motor's mid-range and top-end hit were awesome, the brakes and clutch superb and the general feel of the bike top-notch. Once the rear preload was dialed in for his 6'2"/195-pound self, he found the suspension to be real plush. Drew, who mainly races a CRF450R-based supermoto bike these days, says he's planning to buy one of the new-fangled 250cc four-strokes to practice his motocross skills: "They're just a lot of fun, corner well and make me feel like I'm going real fast."
Honda support rider Daryl Ecklund was at Glen Helen trying to figure out which bikes to order for next year. The 18-year-old moto kid currently rides a TMR-modified, big-bore CR125. He was all bright-eyed after his brief flog on the CRF. "It's like a full factory bike," he beamed. "Faster than my modded 125 and the suspension is so much better â€“ it's just no contest. The four-stroke didn't feel heavier than my 125, but the engine braking caught me off-guard a couple times. I like my 125 a lot and didn't think I'd like the CRF, but I'm really surprised. I'm pretty sure I'm gonna go with the four-stroke."
At 52.7 lbs., the CRF250R motor is 11.6 lbs. lighter than that of the CRF450R.
Jay Clark was at Glen Helen changing Dunlop tires and helping the magazine guys with their track-testing duties on the new 250cc Thumpers. A 5'7", 175-pound intermediate Vet MXer, Clark is a long-time Honda man who currently rides a CR250R. He was instantly at home on the CRF250R, feeling it was as skinny as his two-stroke. He believes the motor is "way faster" than any stock 125 and the fourth-generation aluminum frame a bit more rigid than his Gen 3. Clark didn't have many negatives. "Badmouthing any of the new bikes is like finding faults on a Supermodel. If anything, I'd like to see a bit more grunt off the corners."
Would he buy a four-stroke? Clark's ridden the current crop of 450s, but feels that their exorbitant power lulls riders into a false sense of confidence. He's still not sold on the 250cc Thumpers and will keep buying two-stroke 250s until they cease to be produced. Sagely, he called the CRF250R a "great first effort." Indeed.
And then there's me, a 39-year-old, 5'7", 145-pound Vet Novice. An avid trail rider, I prefer western-style off-road grands prix to hard-core, jump-infested motocross races, but like to moto for practice and training. For what it's worth, I'm much faster on a quad and even more competent as a sportbiking canyon scratcher.
After purchasing a first-year YZ400F, my biggest gripe with four-strokes was their finicky starting procedures and the torque with which they needed to be kicked from their towering seats. For a guy with a 30-inch inseam, that's a tall order. Failing to start my stubborn Thumper on the side of a hill during the first lap of a grand prix until the third go-round, I promptly sold the YZ and bought a KX125, which, I figured, even if it landed on top of me, could be started by hand, or with my teeth. I promised myself not to buy another four-stroke unless it had electric start.
Although I now own a DR-Z400S (you guessed it, a four-stroke with electric-start), I've only ridden a couple moto Thumpers since my frustrating YZ. Imagine my relief when the CRF fired up reliably on the first or second kick during both of my riding stints and a paranoid test session where I started and shut it down at least ten times in rapid succession.
The CRF250R attacked and powered up slippery hills like a natural-born killer. 2001 AMA Western 4-Stroke National Champion Spud Walters demonstrates.
Starting fears kicked, I found the CRF250 to be super-skinny and fit like the proverbial batting glove. Drew and Clark concurred. Honda worked hard to make it so. The company brags that the ergonomics were optimized by adapting the handlebar, seat and footpeg height to place the rider's legs at the narrowest section of the frame. The brake pedal and shifter are also said to complement the riding position. The CRF's handlebar mount moves 3mm fore or aft to match rider preference. Finally, the new slim-line radiator shrouds, seat, fuel tank and side panels seal the deal.
At my pace and without any other bikes with which to compare, the CRF's motor didn't leave me wanting. It suffered silently plonking around while I re-learned the track, got me out of corners with all the gusto beckoned, performed second-gear starts with aplomb, cleanly revved to the moon, clutched easily, shifted well and didn't vibrate obtrusively. True, in order to get major thrust from this mill, it had to be ridden like a 125, which is not a bad thing, considering that many 250cc four-stroke converts are coming from the 125cc ranks. No complaints from me on the chassis that couldn't be dialed away with the twist of a screwdriver on the easily accessible compression and rebound adjusters. The front end stayed planted. No infamous Honda headshake from the new frame. The brakes proved powerful and progressive. Like all Hondas, the CRF250R demonstrated superior fit and finish throughout.
From my brief ride, I realized that there's another area where the CRF-R will shine, especially when compared to the current crop of 125cc tiddlers, general off-road riding. Sure, Honda wants to sell a boatload of CRF250Xs, but many CRF250Rs will see more action on trails than racetracks.
According to off-road media coordinator Ray Conway, Honda envisions the main customer for the CRF250R is any motocrosser who would consider a 125cc two-stroke motocross bike. (Sounds like Ecklund, eh?) The Honda man also thinks that it would work well in moto classes that are open to any size engine displacement, such as the Vet, Senior and Women's divisions. (Clark would probably agree with that.)
The CRF250R will accept the off-road-spec CRF250X's electric start, but this swap necessitates sourcing the X's starter, battery AND engine side cover, a prohibitively expensive proposition.
In closing, Conway said, "This bike should also be very popular at closed-course grand prix races." Think he might have been playing to his audience, me? No doubt.
Sorry, Ray, but after getting smoked in off-road grands prix when riding my 125 against bigger, faster steeds, I don't think the CRF250R is speedy enough to be my ultimate GP weapon. Nonetheless, Honda's latest motoscalpel is magic on the track and will be awesome on trails - enough of a combination to make me compromise on my ultimate grand prix mount. That said, if I can get my hands on a CRF250R, I just might become a Red Rider this year.
Anyone want to buy a slightly used DR-Z?