Honda’s CRF250 Rally: Big­ger than it looks

Texarkana Gazette - - AUTO SUNDAY - By Charles Flem­ing Los An­ge­les Times

The last cou­ple of years have seen in­ter­est­ing devel­op­ments in the “ad­ven­ture rid­ing” mo­tor­cy­cle seg­ment. It's the fastest-grow­ing niche and seems to be at­tract­ing in­creas­ing num­bers of older rid­ers. But both be­gin­ners and older rid­ers may have is­sues with the size, weight and power of the class-lead­ing ad­ven­ture bikes, which of­ten have 1000cc or 1200cc en­gines, weigh more than 500 pounds, and sit very high. They in­clude BMW's R1200GS, KTM's 1090 and 1290 Ad­ven­ture and Su­per­ad­ven­ture, and Honda's Africa Twin.

To at­tract those rid­ers, man­u­fac­tur­ers have been busy build­ing smaller-bore ad­ven­ture bikes, and dual-pur­pose bikes, that can per­form ad­e­quately on-road and off.

A few week­ends back, I bor­rowed Honda's new CRF250L Rally, and gave it a test run that in­cluded high-speed high­ways, twisty moun­tain roads, dirt roads, rock-strewn jeep trails, and al­ti­tudes above 12,000 feet in elevation.

Honda's CRF250L is an en­try-level dual-pur­pose mo­tor­cy­cle that, when first in­tro­duced, didn't im­press me much dur­ing my 2013 re­view ride. While the bike per­formed well around town and was steady on the free­way, it didn't have the horse­power, sus­pen­sion or travel to han­dle much rough stuff.

So I was pleased when Honda in­tro­duced the Rally ver­sion late last year.

Not ev­ery­one shared my en­thu­si­asm. Some of my col­leagues de­rided the CRF250L Rally as noth­ing more than CRF250L in Africa Twin liv­ery—the same bike, pre­tend­ing to be re­lated to Honda's Dakar

Rally ma­chines.

That wasn't fair, and turned out to be not quite true. The Rally, while still tame by Dakar stan­dards, in­cluded some up­grades that gave it con­sid­er­ably more off-road ca­pa­bil­ity.

Al­though shar­ing the 250L liq­uid-cooled en­gine, six-speed gear­box and chas­sis and strapped with the same 18-inch rear and 21-inch front wheels, the Rally ver­sion stands taller, has more ground clear­ance, and has more sus­pen­sion travel than its lit­tle brother bike.

All of that came in very handy on my re­cent test run.

With a friend rid­ing an­other new small-bore ad­ven­ture ma­chine—the Kawasaki Ver­sys 300—I tack­led a back­coun­try patch of pave­ment un­of­fi­cially known as Cal­i­for­nia's “high­est mo­torable road.”

Peel­ing off of Cal­i­for­nia 168, east of Bishop, paved White Moun­tain Road climbs from 4,000 feet to about 10,000 feet be­fore be­com­ing a dirt road. Then, over a wash­boarded but oth­er­wise well-main­tained 14 miles, the road climbs to 12,470 feet be­fore it stops at the White Moun­tain Re­search Cen­ter at Bar­croft Sta­tion.

I didn't ex­pect a lot from the lit­tle bike. At 6 feet and 175 pounds, I'm per­haps a lit­tle big for a street­tuned 250cc mo­tor­cy­cle. I es­pe­cially didn't ex­pect the Rally to per­form well at high speeds or high al­ti­tudes.

But I was pleas­antly sur­prised. At 65 miles per hour, on US 395, the Rally had enough power to keep up with traf­fic and of­fered enough wind pro­tec­tion for me to stay un­buf­fet­ted and com­fort­able.

Climbing White Moun­tain Road, there were plenty of times when I wished for more power, and plenty of times when I had to drop a gear to main­tain pace. But even above 10,000 feet, the Rally was still chug­ging along, car­ry­ing me ever up­ward into the thin­ner air.

Com­ing down from Bar­croft Sta­tion, my com­pan­ion and I elected to try Sil­ver Canyon Road, rec­om­mended as a more rugged route than the way we'd come up.

And rugged it was—steep, rut­ted, rocky and washed out in sec­tions by win­ter weather, it asked a lot of the lit­tle Rally.

Though I'd missed it on the street, I was glad now that the model I'd bor­rowed did not have the op­tional ABS—a life­saver on paved roads, but trou­ble­some in the dirt.

I also made good use of the 21-inch front wheel, off-road tires, 11 inches of front end sus­pen­sion travel, and ex­cel­lent front brake. These got me nim­bly through the nasty sec­tions and got me off the high moun­tain with­out too much drama.

At $5,849 (with an ad­di­tional $300 for op­tional ABS) the Honda Rally is com­pet­i­tively priced. Sur­vey­ing the crop of sim­i­lar bikes at sim­i­lar MSRPs, it's hard to iden­tify a bet­ter deal for this kind of mo­tor­cy­cle.

That's partly be­cause there aren't many mo­tor­cy­cles quite like this. The afore­men­tioned Ver­sys 300 is re­ally more a street than trail bike. The same can be said of the 300cc ver­sion of the Suzuki V-Strom, while Suzuki's DR-Z400, more ca­pa­ble in the dirt, is less friendly on the street.

The Yamaha WR250R has many ad­mir­ers but costs $1,500 more than the Rally. The ex­tremely able small-size dual sport bikes made by KTM cost more than twice as much. The promised 310cc BMW 310GS, priced to move at $5,000, isn't here yet. Nei­ther is KTM's ru­mored 390cc Ad­ven­ture bike— though that will likely cost quite a bit more.

The only el­e­ment that makes me hes­i­tate to fully rec­om­mend the Rally is that en­gine. At 24.5 horse­power, pulling 341.7 pounds (when fu­eled) and a lot more when you add a rider, the en­gine just doesn't have enough grunt.

On the other hand, that ane­mic pow­er­plant does get a re­ported 94 miles per gal­lon in fuel con­sump­tion. I did the en­tire White Moun­tain loop on less than half a tank of gas.

If you're not in­ter­ested in ag­gres­sive trail rid­ing and aren't plan­ning to rip up any sandy hill climbs, the Rally ably an­swers a lot of mo­tor­cy­cling needs.

HOW THE TWO BIKES COM­PARE

The Rally is more than just a dressed-up ver­sion of the 250L. In ad­di­tion to more pow­er­ful front brakes, a wind­screen, blacked-out wheels and that “Rally-style” color scheme, there are sev­eral ar­eas in which the Rally is a more ca­pa­ble bike than the 250L—off-road and on.

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