With spy pictures showing what might be coming next year for the red lites bike, we hooked up a test of the 2017 CRF250R to see if the current model is past its use by date.
Words: Mark Pics: Alick
It isn’t surprising that the 2017 Honda CRF250R has a familiar feel. Why? Well, because it’s essentially identical to the 2016 model we’d tested a year previously. Yep, Honda spent all their resources updating the CRF450R for 2017, with the flagship model being given a complete revamp that saw the likes of a new motor, a new frame and updated everything. So, the poor 250R missed out on the love. But is that a bad thing?
At the heart of the 250R is Honda’s tried and tested Unicam powerplant, a single overhead cam, 249cc, liquid-cooled, single cylinder four-stroke. It’s not cutting edge, and after Suzuki’s RM-Z250, it’s making the least horsepower out of the current crop of leading 250Fs. But as with many things, it’s not always how much you’ve got but more importantly how well you use it, and the 250R is designed to let you use everything it’s got.
There’s a four-valve head to help the gases flow, and Honda chose to give the 250F twin pipes to keep it in the family silhouette of its bigger brother, the CRF450R. Whether twin pipes do anything to the power is debatable, especially as the Honda isn’t winning any maximum horsepower awards and surely the twin cans add to the overall weight figure of the small CRF which is relatively high at 105.6kilos ready to ride. But they do look cool and there is still something about riding the Honda with its twin shooters out the back.
The last major update for the CRF250R was back in 2015 when it received the handy map switch button, Showa SFF TAC air forks, a larger diameter exhaust, a big disc rotor and a stiffer shock spring. The switchable mapping was a great addition, with the ability to choose between stock, aggressive and mellow depending on the conditions you’re riding in. With maps theoretically able to be switched on the fly, you need to hold the button in for three seconds to get the selector working and make sure the throttle is fully closed, so it’s really a set while you’re stopped scenario. But it’s certainly a useful addition to have and is something most CRF owners would use on a regular basis.
With many manufacturers struggling to get the whole air fork thing working properly (many aftermarket suspension outfits have made a decent job of supplying spring/oil replacement inserts for many) the Honda Showa units show that air suspension can work and work well. With masses of adjustment available via the air valves which control the three adjustable chambers in the left leg, there’s a traditional clicker adjustment for the damping cartridge in the right. The CRF forks are sublime in their action and can be tailored to handle anything from the Centre Point jump at Taupo to the tracks at your local trail ride. If there’s one thing the CRF250R does excel at, it’s being versatile.
A few other modifications creeped in for the 2016 version, with the piston and connecting rod swapped out for lighter versions in an effort to make the powerplant react faster, while the compression ratio was lifted to 13.8:1 from 13.5:1. Titanium exhaust valves were slotted in place of the steel ones and the intake and exhaust ports were reshaped, with the result being a boost in horsepower of 1.6hp. A resonator was added to the exhaust and finally, the fork legs were made 5mm longer.
The rest of the CRF is standard Honda. The Renthal handlebars are universal across the CRF range as is the aluminium perimeter frame, which Honda have fined-tuned over the years until they got to this point where everyone agrees the little CRF is a dream handling bike. The cockpit itself is compact, especially with the ’bars in the stock position, but that’s not a bad thing as it gives you the feeling of control over the 250R especially if it’s a younger rider moving up from a 125cc machine.
Styling isn’t exactly what you’d call cutting edge, with 250R still rocking the same silver wheels they have over many versions of the CRF range, while the styling is typical Honda reserved. It doesn’t exactly scream ‘look at me’ but then not everybody wants to be the attention grabbing one in the paddock. Kicking the CRF over does, however, make you a little bit more noticeable, with the larger exhaust openings giving the 250R a throatier bark than previously.
Still Got It
Firing the 250R into life, and again it’s nothing new. The kickstart isn’t ornately designed like the RM-Z250 and there’s no electric start, yet. But the Honda does fire into life easily every time after the initial startup which requires a couple of prods of the lever. Choosing which map you want is the next thing to do, with a press of the button showing you which map is selected by corresponding flashing lights. It’s quick and much simpler than changing plugs, and the difference is noticeable out on the track. We’re not really sure why you’d want to go for the mellow map, but standard and aggressive provide smooth fueling and ample power for most occasions.
Being the only single overhead cam (Unicam) powerplant in the segment, it gives the CRF an advantage in some areas but is negative in others. Firstly, power is down, with the Unicam motor not able to reach the heady rev ceilings of the double overhead cam powerplants of the opposition. The CRF produces maximum power of around 39horsepower at 10,600rpm where some of the others in the paddock are making up to five horsepower more and revving to over 14,000rpm. When you’re only talking about the relatively small amounts of power produced by 250Fs, five horses is a big deficit, as is the extra 4,000revs. In a race environment, you’d think that the Hondas would get demolished, with the competition able to hold onto revs longer without shifting and being able to tap into the extra mumbo. But the CRF has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Safe and steady isn’t always a bad thing, especially when you’re trying to get power to the ground, hit jumps and negotiate ruts, berms and holes, and the CRF cossets the rider letting him get on with the business in hand. Okay, having extra horsepower is nice, but getting power to the ground is what gives you the advantage and the Honda with its lower revving powerplant and excellent Showa suspension somehow manages to find drive in even the trickiest of terrain. The shock received a stiffer spring and updated damping for 2016 and the changes have given the CRF a planted feel, with the rear tracking what’s going on at the front rather than feeling loose and trying to overtake it or step out.
The Honda’s aluminium perimeter frame hasn’t been modified for over three years, and you can see why the engineers have decided to leave it alone with the way the CRF manages to combine light steering with a stability through corners that others can only dream of. The Honda doesn’t get flappy no matter how ham-fisted you are with your throttle action, and on the fast straights there’s the safety net of the Honda Progressive Steering Damper (HPSD) to keep the front wheel pointing straight and true.
Despite being one of the heaviest 250Fs in the paddock (and even heavier than some of the current crop of 450s), the CRF’s kilos disappear as soon as you’re moving, again thanks to the excellent chassis which lets you get away with anything while keeping the Honda stable and steady. In the air the CRF is as controllable as any of the other 250s and the 49mm SFF TAC Showa forks absorb even the gnarliest landings with 310mm of suspension travel.
But it’s the powerplant that most would call into question, that is, before they’d ridden a CRF250R. Okay, it’s down on power and doesn’t have the rev ceiling of the others, but the CRF is still there on a drag to the line, with the balanced nature of the Honda letting you get on the gas earlier and harder than the competition without the fear of it biting you in the arse. The Honda just gets on with the job in hand, it isn’t fancy or do any clever tricks, it just does what it does well. The gearbox needed to be good as you’re shifting more to keep within the meat of the power rather than revving the motor out, but the Honda gearbox is one of the best with cogs able to be shifted at any revs without fear of missing a selection. Once again, it’s been developed over the years and Honda are obviously happy they’ve got it right.
Hitting the trails on the CRF250R and you can understand why you see many of these models doing double duty between moto tracks and trail rides. The CRF doesn’t feel sharp and ultra-focused like a race bike, and as such, is a perfect weapon for dodging some trees. The cockpit, and the saddle especially, is comfortable for a day of riding and the planted feeling of the suspension and chassis allows you to ride hard in the roughest terrain, while the squick steering lets you make a mockery of tight single track.
It’s also in this environment that the Unicam motor comes into play, with a healthy low-to-mid range surge in the power delivery ideal for the trails. You don’t want to be screaming around at 14,000rpm to get the most from your engine in the trees, and the power in the middle of the CRF’s delivery makes trail work a breeze. And if the going gets slippery or if you’re riding cross country and the tracks open, well there’s the option of the switchable mapping to alter the Honda’s power characteristics to suit.
It might not be the latest and greatest, but over the years of development of the CRF250R Honda have got to this point where it ticks all the boxes, well almost. Okay, we all think we could do with more power, and maybe we’re right. There’s a time and a place where maximum horsepower rules, and if that’s what you’re after, then you need to shop elsewhere.
But with the CRF250R, Honda have proven that the rest of the package can make up for a deficit in the engine department. A solid, confidence-inspiring chassis, great suspension and easy ergonomics all go to make the CRF250R still competitive. It’s just whether your head can cope with the fact you’re down on power compared to the guy pitting next to you. Get past that and you’re going to find the CRF250R is still a competitive machine, which at its current special price of $11,995 means you get all the advantages of great Honda build quality at an extremely competitive price.