It’s not often you can look at Honda and not see them as the major player in a particular sector of the motorcycle market. Honda, like everyone else, lag behind a certain Austrian manufacturer in the dirt bike world.
But dig inside the motocross market, where 450 four strokes dominate, and Honda is a proper player thanks to 2017’s totally re-vamped CRF450R. Launched a year ago it buoyed Honda’s fortunes, brought them back to the forefront not just because some big-name racers like Ken Roczen in the USA and Tim Gasjer at GP level were winning on it, but simply because it is an impressively good bike.
A year down the line and the Big Red is aiming for exactly the same success with the 2018 CRF250R. With a host of copy-cat changes the 250R aims to play the sweet little brother role alongside a head-banger racer sibling. We’re not talking total novice bike here, it is still a ready to race motocross bike and Honda has other models more suitable for trail riding or beginners if that’s what you’re after. That said, the 250R is more welcoming by a good chalk than the 450 and to that end is and should be the more attractive bike in Honda’s MX line-up.
If the successful philosophy behind the CRF450R was ‘Absolute Holeshot’ performance, the aim to improve every aspect of the chassis and engine performance and make it quicker out the gate and therefore faster everywhere, then the 2018 CRF250R follows exactly that mould. A shorter, more compact chassis with improved mass centralisation plus a more powerful, higher revving engine make it every bit the baby brother of the 450R.
250 four strokes always feel good on track but the new baby CRF has a distinct feel good factor about it from the early laps of the Italian launch near Rome. Borrowing much in terms of chassis development, the 2018 250R has 3mm shorter overall wheelbase and swingarm (distance between rear wheel and swingarm pivot is 15mm shorter) plus shorter rake and trail which Honda claims doesn’t compromise performance. The 340g lighter frame is the seventh generation twin spar alloy frame on the CRF and the extruded aluminium subframe is 20% lighter, lowering weight up high and reducing the centre mass. An alloy tank reduces high-up weight by 513g compared to the previous plastic design too.
Suspension changes don’t go unnoticed around the test track at Ponte Sfontado either. The ground is mostly hard-packed and undulates wildly like Cadwell Park on a bender. Showa’s air forks were about as popular as crap on your shoe so it is a relief to find fully adjustable, 49mm sprung forks return to the new bike (replacing Showa air forks). The spring forks means the feel for front grip is back and adjustment is meaningful again and quite simply that meant confidence was right on point from the first laps on a strange, new track. They are basically the same spec factory Japanese riders are using to race.
Helping with that ‘Absolute Holeshot’ effect is a Showa shock sitting lower in the chassis (39mm lower top mount) which maintains the legendary Honda/Showa Pro-link design made famous in the ‘80s. One of two drop-offs around the Sfontado track are like riding off the side of a house, a pretty good test of suspension as you’d want in this life. Forks and shock soak this kind of treatment all day long without feeling harsh or vague, at the other end of the scale, in the slower stuff either. It speaks volumes that the stock suspension is good enough for World Champion Tim Gasjer, British Championship contenders Bryan Mackenzie and Josiah Natzke to rip around just as happily as the rest of us mortals.
“Don’t be scared to over-rev the engine” says former MXGP racer and now Off Road Racing Manager for Honda Europe, Gordon Crockard. Introducing the 2018 CRF250R at Honda’s impressively large dealership in Rome, the Crockstar rattles through the 249.4cc DOHC, four stroke engine’s changes as quickly as he knocks out laps: 9% more top end power with 900rpm higher rev-ceiling, power spread more broadly (by 2000rpm) across the revs, bigger bore and shorter stroke (79x50.9mm), larger titanium valves (33mm inlet/26mm exhaust) have increased valve lift (10.5mm inlet/9.5mm exhaust) to improve ‘gas flow’ and throttle response, plus reduced air friction help it suck air better. The tighter and more compact engine design had an over-square bore and stroke figure (79 x 50.9mm) and a lighter crank (350g lighter).
The CRF250R’s twin exhaust port engine is distinctive among off road bikes, not just 250 motocrossers. The twin exhausts give it a balanced look all of its own and with aftermarket exhaust cans fitted it takes on a distinctive exhaust note too. Spend any time with this bike and it’s hard not to start loving its looks and design. Looks are distinctly Honda and well-made, the panels are impregnated with graphics which means there’s no stickers on side panels to keep renewing.
The transmission on the 2018 CRF250R is also simplified with a single oil system (instead of separate engine and gearbox as previous) which reduces weight too with 350cc less oil capacity. The clutch now has different friction plates across the clutch to blend performance with durability.
Shorter gear ratios are helping access the increased power too. On track that helps you hit the power where you need it through the revs and feel like you’ve got the right gear more often. Where you might ordinarily expect a 250F to be bogging and lacking guts, if you trust Crockard to his word and keep the motor revving, it pulls and keeps momentum going.
If a bike is new in 2018 it’s gotta have a button or you might as well be riding Guy Martin’s old Nokia phone. It’s taken Honda a while to get it but, at last, no more kicking because Honda has fitted an electric start. The fuel injection system promises better cold start reliability also but the chief benefit is being able to quickly restart when the engine is hot, usually when you’ve crashed or stalled.
Overall engine weight has increased by 1kg thanks to the inclusion of the electric starter motor and battery. The lithium ion battery weighs naff-all though (0.65kg) and sits snug under the seat at the back of the air box. There’s no kickstarter mechanism, you don’t need one, but the overall weight increase goes unnoticed.
Three power modes are also new to the 2018 CRF250R. Adjustable by a simple handlebar button you can switch between ‘standard’, ‘smooth’ and ‘aggressive’ modes. They make an appreciable difference depending on your abilities and riding conditions. Around the mostly hard-packed Ponte Sfondato track (a bit like Cadwell Park on drugs) I found the ‘standard’ map sweetest with a broader spread of power and a straighter power curve. The ‘aggressive’ mode sharpened things up and would be good for soft or sandy riding but needed more careful throttle control on some baked-hard sections on this track. In slick conditions the ‘smooth’ power mode would help to find grip.
The CRF250R was at the front of technology in the growing four stroke world while two-strokes, in the eyes of the Japanese manufacturers at least, were a dying breed. Though the CRF250R has made distinct leaps forward since those early days in the mid-2000s, in more recent years development has been slow, lagging behind and making it not the best option on the 250 four stroke market.
Not any more. With more power in a clearly easier to ride chassis and some great suspension the new CRF250R is not only a chunk better but highly addictive on track. Honestly it makes you want to keep riding, riding, riding until someone waves a flag at you to come in.
Fancy trying out any of the above bikes or indeed dipping a toe on a whole range of Honda’s off road range? You could do a lot worse than check out former world motocross champion, Dave Thorpe’s school: davethorpehondaoffroad.com
Engine: DOHC, liquid-cooled, FI, four stroke, single
Bore/stroke: 79 x 50.9mm
Transmission: five-speed, chain
Seat height: 957mm
Ground clearance: 327mm
Weight: 108kg (claimed, wet)
Fuel capacity: 6.3 litres