First Times Ride: Honda CRF250L dual sport does it right

The dual-sport market continues to be a growth sector for the motorcycle industry. The CRF250L is Honda's latest attempt to create market dominance in this sector as it has in others.

The company has fielded a very able bike. The CRF250L -- Honda's small-bore version of its 650cc desert dual sport -- is a smart, sturdy street bike that hits the dirt.


Not as tall in the saddle as the CRF250R or CRF250X, and offering less travel fore and aft, this version of the dual sport offers really appealing around town handling, great gas mileage (a promised 73 mpg), capable maneuvering in the soft stuff and a pretty sweet sticker price, too -- $4,699.

In the city, it feels nimble and lighter than its 320 pounds, the relatively low sit (34.7 inches, compared with the CRF250X's 37.7 inches) and relatively high bars making for fine urban ergonomics. It sits tall enough in traffic to be visible, and offer visibility, but sits low enough in the saddle that I wasn't tip-toeing around at traffic lights and stop signs.

The not-quite-knobby tires -- in the classic dirt bike 18-inch and 21-inch configuration -- track fine on the street, and don't create too much vibration on the freeway. The CRF250L hits 65 mph-plus with no effort, and cruises quite agreeably at that speed -- thanks in part to a smartly-designed six-speed transmission.

Off-road, those same not-quite-knobbies didn't grip quite hard enough to do any serious motocross riding, but the bike doesn't invite that anyway. Those 320 pounds in the dirt make the bike feel a little heavy, and it's also a little soft in the suspension, and a little underpowered, for any serious off-road action. The front end comes up only with some coaxing, and anything airborne seems unwise.

But it's well designed for light trail and fire road riding. The back end busts loose and slides well, and the softer suspension would be a blessing on longer off-road rides.

The engine is a liquid-cooled, fuel-injected unit built, along with the rest of the CRF250L, at the company's relatively new Thailand factory -- as are Honda's new CBR500s.

The bike also offers all kinds of user-friendly components that show the company's attention to rider needs. There's a fuel gauge. There's a helmet lock. There are four "cargo hooks" bordering the seat, for securing cargo with bungee cords. The foot pegs and brake lever are spikey metal, so your boots don't slide around when they're wet or muddy. But the shift lever is rubbered -- so you don't tear up the top of your shoes shifting gears on your way to work.

There's also no kick-starter for this electric-start motorcycle. I took that as a sign of great confidence, on the part of Honda, that this bike is never going to break down. Given its successes over the last few years, and the great bikes it keeps building, it's tempting to share its optimism.