Honda has brought a new offering to the beginner dual-sport market with a street legal version of its popular CRF230.
A helmet, scratched and chipped to hell, can be the best indicator of a great ride – but one that’s crushed? The chinguard, virtually sheared off, serves as a token reminder of the fascinating time we had chasing ghosts through the Mojave Desert. We rode from California City, CA all the way to the living ghost town of Randsburg and back on Honda’s newest on/off-road family member, the 2008 CRF230L.
For its intro of this one-of-a-kind dual-sport, Honda mapped out nearly 40 miles of whooped out desert trails, hot pavement and open dirt roads. Coming in, we were basically expecting a simple street-legal version of the CRF230F, which introduced our female tester and author to the sport several years ago. In a lot of respects, that basically is what the 230L amounts to, but there’s more to it than a simple set of blinkers and a license plate. The L model (MSRP: $4499) is really in a class of its own, reviving the classic appeal of a versatile one-size-fits-all motorcycle.
We began our test by scavenging for course markers, but darting in and out of the unmarked single track nearby was irresistible, and totally worth discovering even if it meant getting somewhat lost. Thanks to MotoUSA Off-Road Editor, JC Hilderbrand’s innate sense of direction, we had to be chased down and led back to the yellow brick road more than once.
This being our guest tester’s first experience riding in the desert she couldn’t pass up bombing through the endless intertwined tracks, weaving in and out of the notoriously dry shrubbery and weeds. Ant Hill served as a rocky, moguled-out playground, and the only noteworthy elevation change within reach (though how noteworthy can it be with a name like that?). Though hardly worth extending the aluminum swingarm or mounting a studded paddle tire, the series of small inclines and descents were only a few miles out of the gate, and gave us our first feel for the all-terrain aspects of the 230L. It was then that we started to be captivated by what this little firecracker has to offer. Its surprising agility and comfort makes off-road riding as beginner-friendly as we expected, but much more exciting.
Other than a shared bore and stroke (65.5mm x 66.2mm) the F and L models are pleasantly different. Like most off-road CRF machines, the bike starts up in a flash with one push of the button. The powerful electric starter easily churns the piston against a 9.0:1 compression ratio. There is no kickstart, though, so make sure you turn the key off when stopping for any length of time.
The L model, though friendly, still produces a little brawn when needed. The double valve, 223cc air-cooled engine makes favorable power for the target audience of beginners and low-key riders. A wide ratio six-speed gearbox allows for some extra thump through the trails, and smooth acceleration on the highway. Thanks to the larger 30mm CV carburetor, the powerband is wider than its 26mm piston valve-equipped 230F cousin, though overall power is far from the kind that gets away from you.
The amicable motor allowed us to comfortably hit speeds around 50mph on the dirt roads. The speedometer goes to 80mph, but kicking it into top gear and pinning the throttle for over two miles of tarmac only grazed the 70 mph mark. So, freeway speeds are out, but this camping steed was never intended to lane-split the 405. The bike taps out with ease and we never experienced exceptional vibration or headshake, even with the compact 52.8-inch wheelbase and 26.8-degree/4-inch rake and trail (compared to 27.3 deg/4.4 inches on the F model).
The 230L is small, nimble and provides enough braking and acceleration for low-key riding, be it dirt or street.
Naturally, when you’re putting the throttle to the test, the next thing you’ll encounter is finding how well this machine can stop when needed. The 230L relies on two powerful disc brakes, unlike the F model which uses a drum rear. A 240mm disc graces the front and a 220mm is bolted on the rear. The back binder felt a little mushy at first, but the sensation didn’t last once we got some time on it. The front brake has a gradual bite that complements the rear for a strong, manageable halt on pavement and dirt. The aforementioned Ant Hill is a good example of terrain beginners might consider difficult braking circumstances, and the 230L held its own going down the steepest rocky paths. Part of its gripping capabilities is attributed to the Bridgestone Trail Wing tires. At first glance these tires don’t look like they’re going to control very much at all, but we were mildly astonished at how well they performed on rocks, uphill/downhill, pavement and even in moderate sand.
The 230L uses a semi-double cradle steel frame and Showa suspension. The Pro-Link rear shock offers 6.3 inches of travel and preload adjustability, which is plenty for highway use or moderate off-road. However, when aggressively attacking the dry California trails, it was a little springy when bottomed out. The front forks muster up nine inches of movement, and with the exception of a few instances where our testers took to the air, held up to normal riding without anything to complain about.
“The suspension really didn’t surprise us a whole lot,” says our 180-lb editor. “The bike is obviously not meant for anything more than a casual clip, so if you’re going to push it then you’ll pay. I blew through the stroke by simply picking up the pace, much less jumping, but both ends do a very respectable job of handling over-aggressive riding and they are sufficient for dinking around. I’d say the fork is a little better than the shock, but overall the package matches the rest of the bike to a T – the whole thing just works.”
No big deal, because this Honda isn’t made to be hitting triples or pounding whoops. Its nimble demeanor also makes it that much more desirable. For a dual-sport this thing feels like a feather, even to our 5’8″ 115-pound lady tester. Despite Honda’s claimed ready-to-ride figure, the CRF hides its 267 pounds extremely well. Another surprising aspect of this bike is how ergonomically wealthy it is. The seat height is only 31.9″ allowing most riders to be able to plant their feet comfortably on the ground. Being able to touch is vital for beginning riders, especially females who rely even more on the lower body for physical strength. The low center of gravity gives a ton of confidence and makes cornering on pavement or dirt a cinch. A most perfect compliment to the low seat height is its tall steel bars. This ‘comfort cocktail’ makes it unbelievably easy to stand up while riding, and both our riders noted how little their butts hit the seat.
“Honda provided a XR650L as our photographer bike, and I unfortunately spent most of my day on it,” says the 5’11” Hilde. “I know that stock XRs aren’t super-comfortable for aggressive riding, but I was blown away by how much more comfortable, and fun, it was to rise up and rip it with that little 230. I didn’t want to give it back!”
The only time we sat down very much was during pavement sections. The riding postion from the pegs as comfortable for all our testers, but sitting was equally as accomodating with a large rider cockpit on such a small bike.
The only thing that could make the cocktail a little stronger would be to beef up the footpegs which are a bit narrow and puny for our tastes. Speaking of pegs, this little dual-sporter comes with rear pegs for a passenger, yet they fold out of the way to maintain the sleek, compact feel and look of the 230L. Pillion riders will also appreciate the discreet hand strap on the back of the seat, allowing for a more secure ride.
Spending a day in the desert on the 230L’s capable wheels was a blast. We’d have liked more time to see if the little commuter continues to impress, but as we unstrapped our helmets and set them aside at the end of the day we couldn’t help but think it would. The 230L crushed our expectations, much in the same way as our tester’s unsuspecting helmet was trampled by a passing truck – an unfortunate loss softened by the grins on our faces and the fact that her head wasn’t still in it.
The best thing about this bike is its ability to birth people into riding and opening up possibilities to the whole family. When Honda produced its first dual-sport over thirty five years ago it was geared towards a market of mostly men, not to mention the materials used back then produced motorcycles that were heavy as cows, another unfavorable feature for women. Now we live in a millennium where women are as free and willing as men are, the time is ripe for bikes like the CRF230L. It’s a true ambassador for the dual-sport breed bringing street lovers to dirt, dust lovers to street, and easily introducing the wife or girlfriend to the freedom of twisting a throttle. Both of our testers mention that the CRF230L is nearly perfect for any woman looking to get her own motorcycle. But it’s not only a wife’s bike, and for even experienced riders with the right mindset, the 230L fosters the essence of motorcycling in general – to discover and explore, not only the outside world but ourselves in the process.
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