2013 Honda CRF250L: Dual Sport Darling

Text: Ken Freund • Photography: Kevin Wing

After being away for almost a decade (the street-legal XR250L was dropped in 2004), Honda is back in the 250cc dual sport segment with the CRF250L. The new machine receives its crisp styling from Honda’s CRF series, but the engine design is borrowed from the CBR250R sportbike.

Powertrain and Performance

The CRF250L’s lively 250cc engine is liquid cooled and has a dual-overhead camshaft head for optimum performance. Shim-over-bucket valve actuators allow valve adjustments without removing the cams, which reduces maintenance labor considerably.

Although the CRF250L shares the CBR250R’s basic engine architecture, there were some changes to increase low and midrange torque. These include ECU remapping, a modified airbox and intake manifold, a smaller throttle body, and a different exhaust. While the CRF250L still has Programmed Fuel Injection, a 36mm throttle body improves low rpm smoothness and throttle response, which is especially useful when off-road.

The CRF’s engine comes alive with the touch of a button and runs smoothly even when it’s cold. Engine power is on par with other four-stroke 250cc dual sports, and the bike tops out around 85 mph, which is sufficient to maintain highway speeds with a little reserve. The engine’s short stroke lets it rev more freely, and the balance shaft cancels vibrations effectively. On the road, it pulls steadily up to redline, yet there’s usable torque at the low rpms needed for off-road.

Honda added a “judder spring” to the cable-actuated wet clutch to reduce engagement chatter. The six-cog gearbox gets wider gears and stronger shift “dogs.” Clutch-lever pull and transmission shifts are effortless.

Chassis and Handling

A sturdy twin-spar steel frame with a bolt-on steel rear sub-frame allows easier repairs. The wheelbase is 56.9 inches, with a 27-degree, 35-minute rake, and 4.4 inches of trail. A robust 43mm Showa inverted fork provides a plush 9.8 inches of travel. The rear Pro-Link suspension employs a Showa shock absorber with a 40mm cylinder, but it only has adjustable spring preload. There are no damping adjustments. An aluminum swingarm reduces unsprung weight, and the rear travel is 9.4 inches. Thanks to the long-travel suspension, the CRF250L has a cushy ride in most conditions both on and off-road. The turning radius is small, the bike handles very well, and the steering is light. Plus, it feels sufficiently stable at highway speeds.

Braking duty up front is the responsibility of a single 256mm rotor grabbed by a two-piston caliper. At the rear, a 220mm rotor and one-pot caliper provide the slow down. Together the discs deliver satisfactory braking for a dual sport motorcycle having a curb weight of 320 pounds plus rider. The brakes are simple to modulate, but no ABS is available.

A 3.00-21 enduro-type tire is fitted at the front and a 120/80-18 at the back. Such street-legal tires are always a compromise, but we found they offer decent traction on and off pavement. The 21-inch front and 18-inch rear rims permit a wide selection of off-road replacement tires if your plans include much dirt riding.

The CRF’s upright riding position and wide handlebar are comfortable and permit good control. There is no tach, but the compact digital speedometer cluster is clear-cut. The mirrors are free of vibration and allow a full view behind. Saddle height is a tall 34.7 inches, which is going to be a challenge for riders who are short of inseam. The narrow motocross-style seat is firm and narrow and becomes unpleasant all too soon.

With only 2.0 gallons of total fuel capacity, you’ll probably be stopping for gas quite often. A lot of oversize aftermarket gas tanks will likely be sold as a result. Although Honda claims 73 mpg, that figure was calculated on fuel consumption during exhaust emissions testing in the lab as specified by the EPA. So don’t look for that kind of mileage in everyday riding. We expect between 50 and 60 mpg, depending on how and where you ride.

Final Thoughts

Honda appears to follow the same quality control standards at its Thailand facility, where this bike is made, as it does in its Japanese factories. Hence the CRF250L maintains the tradition of fit, finish, and craftsmanship Honda is known for.

While this is a machine that beginners should be able to ride and learn on, intermediate riders will also enjoy it. The suggested retail is a competitive $ 4,499, and we believe the new CRF250L is a good value. We had a lot of fun strafing the corners on rural byways, and the CRF is well suited to dirt, gravel, and moderate single-track trails. Whether you’re looking for an easy-to-ride beginner’s bike, a fuel-sipping commuter machine to zip through traffic, an adventure bike for the weekends, or all of the above, the CRF250L is a good candidate.