Buyers’ guide: Honda CB250/400N
The underrated and very decent 400 and the slightly less so 250
BACK WHEN big bikes meant 500cc and up and little bikes meant 250cc and below, the middleweight market was less clearly defined. You couldn’t really go by capacity alone given the performance differences between two and four-stroke, and then there was the question of what they were actually for – particularly the four-strokes. Touring? Commuting? The capacity-driven sports rider viewed middleweights with some derision, while cannier types with less racy pretensions knew they were on to a good thing – at least when it came to insurance and fuel bills.
Honda had made a bold statement with their 400/4, the stylish if underwhelming and expensive inline-four. So as far as we were concerned here its replacement, the 1978 CB400N Superdream parallel-twin, was an unexpected change of direction. You have to take a global view to realise what Honda were up to. The 400/4 was deemed unsuitable to the crucial US market. Honda had to think internationally for their key offerings – the 400/4 had been squarely aimed at the UK – and catering for the local tastes and quirks of smaller markets made poor commercial sense.
First came the short-lived 1977 CB400T Dream (Hawk in the US) which lasted just six months in UK showrooms. Styling was bulbous and dated, though the engine had something going for it with twin balancer shafts to smooth the ever-present bugbear of the 360-degree parallel-twin – vibration. Three valves per combustion chamber (two in, one out) ensured breathing efficiency. The technology came from, of all places, the Honda Civic car. A CB250T variant was also offered for the UK learner market.
Then the CB400N Superdream arrived in 1978 with its angular ‘Euro’ styling and computer-age graphics. It was launched alongside the CB250N Superdream, whose purpose was easier to understand in the context of the pre-125cc restricted learner market. The Dream’s Comstar wheels were all alloy where previously they had been steel and aluminium, and the 400 benefitted from an additional front disc. Both got six gears where the Dream had five. Indeed Honda claimed more than 50 tweaks to the engine over the Dream including porting and valve timing, lifting peak power from a claimed 34 to 43bhp.
When it comes to the 400, it’s hard to believe a twin could get the better of a four, but not only did the Superdream offer a better level of comfort through its physical size than the 400/4, it was a good deal faster too. Where the 400/4 struggled to top the ton, tuck in on the Superdream and a top speed close to 114mph was attainable. That made it quicker than its four-stroke contemporaries too with handling that let the most be made of its performance.
Meanwhile in the quarter-litre sector, the CB250N was up against stiff competition in the four-stroke parallel-twin market from the Yamaha XS250 and Kawasaki Z250A, and it could feel sluggish in their company. That did nothing to impede its popularity though, with 17,000 sold in the UK in 1980 alone. The 400 was a success too, with combined sales over the 1979-’84 model run exceeding 70,000 units just in Britain.
It’s easy to make a case for owning one today, with excellent spares availability and, in the case of the 400 particularly, a well-balanced motorcycle that will deliver the goods as capably as it ever did.