Three years ago Honda brought a curious addition to the rapidly growing adventure bike sector when they launched a modified version of their venerable CRF 250 trail bike and christened it the ‘Rally’. I’m ashamed to admit I dismissed the bike at the time as a mere styling exercise intended to woo newly qualified riders into purchasing a small capacity, faux adventure bike, rather like the rash of quarter litre cruisers which appeared on the market some time ago designed to appeal to potential future Harley owners.
However, during the past 18 months a number of AdventureRide customers have bought themselves a Rally and without exception these riders are highly experienced motorcyclists who know their stuff. One of them is my old chum Gary who, as well as being am expert rider, is also something of a dirt bike connoisseur and in the past has loaned me a number of interesting bikes to test including his Fantic Caballero and the classic Kawasaki KDX featured in previous blogs.
Gaz always carries out meticulous research before buying a bike and his enthusiasm for his latest purchase piqued my curiosity to see the bike and last week he was kind enough to let me try it for a day. A pleasant burble from the engine announced Gaz’s arrival on the CRF as he pulled up the steep drive to AdventureRide HQ, the fruitier-than-standard exhaust note being down to a Honda-approved Yoshimura system which not only sounds good but also knocks a bit of weight off the CRF’s slightly corpulent 157kg. Yoshimura claim a 2.8% boost in power from their exhaust plus an improved bottom end and mid range response and its a popular accessory for Rally owners.
The Rally’s attractive styling is cribbed from Honda’s successful 450cc Dakar bike with Gary’s bike being in the optional black metallic instead of the more common red colour scheme. The asymmetric headlight, neat, all-enveloping bodywork and belly pan plus a GS-style front ‘beak’ might suggest a quick cosmetic makeover but beneath the skin Honda’s design team have put a lot of thought into the Rally. A close inspection of the spec sheet compared to the standard CRF 250L reveals a marginally longer wheelbase, better brakes, larger tank, increased suspension travel and a couple of extra horses liberated through a more efficient header.
After handing me the key to the CRF, Gaz jumped on an AdventureRide Pampera and followed me off towards the Long Mynd. Having ridden CRFs in the past I’m familiar with their performance and whilst they’ll never set your pants on fire, they’re more than adequate for hustling along quiet back lanes. Out on the open road the sophisticated little four stroke motor hums along quite happily until it starts to run out of puff above 7000 rpm but to be honest, the bike is more comfortable being short-shifted and wafted along in an unhurried fashion. The Rally has an impressively flexible motor and can tolerate a very low speed in third gear without displaying any unpleasant snatch or grumpiness. To accomplish this I assumed it must have a low compression motor but no, the four valve, twin cam, fuel-injected single has a peppy 10.7:1 ratio and so top marks to Honda for impeccable fuelling and a faultless transmission.
With just 250cc and 157kg ( plus a winter-clad rider) to haul along the CRF accumulates speed in a smooth, unhurried way. This is not a criticism and the relaxed power delivery and typical Honda user-friendliness means this is a bike which endears itself to the rider over a long riding day. It also makes the bike very manageable on the trails. I know this from experience having ridden standard CRFs trail riding with my chum Nick Tunstill at Nick’s Spanish trail riding centre, something I covered in a previous blog* (see link below). CRF’s disguise their weight well and although the overall spec may look uninspiring on paper, the whole package is so cohesive and well thought out the riding experience exceeds expectations.
Travelling in a straight line on the open road I noticed an occasional requirement to make minor steering corrections to correct a barely noticeable weave. I’d normally suspect over-tight headstock bearings but we’re talking about a brand new Honda here so I think we can safely eliminate the possibility of sloppy assembly. Possibly it may have been caused by the windshield. Honda refer to the Rally as having as a fully floating screen but I can’t for the life of me find any reference on the web as to what they actually mean by that. The steering issue only manifested itself on a couple of occasions and it might just have been gusts of wind buffeting the screen which deflected the bike off course. No big deal but I thought I’d mention it. Standard CRFs don’t have this characteristic so it could well be down to screen /fairing combination.
The revised longer travel suspension on the Rally is particularly worthy of comment, it works superbly on pot-holed back roads and is impressively plush on rough trails. For a sub £6000 bike the Rally’s ride quality really is exceptionally good. Standard tyres are so-called 50/50 road and trail items and are predictably awful once you get off the tarmac. I’ve no idea why tyre manufacturers seek to perpetuate the myth of tyres which are supposedly 50/50 or even more absurdly 80/20 road and trail use. Off road, these allegedly dual purpose tyres are utterly useless except on bone dry, hard-packed fire roads. Good luck finding any routes like that in the UK.
A pair of Pirelli MT43s or similar would fit the character of the Rally perfectly: being trials tyres they’re not particularly brilliant in deep mud but they’re outstanding on wet rocks and gravel and work really well on the road. To further bolster the Rally’s off road capability you could fit a more aggressive enduro style tyre to the Rally but then you might also ask yourself why you chose the bike in the first place.
Speaking of off road capability Gaz’s CRF has switchable ABS, I didn’t notice it on the road which is exactly how a decent ABS system should behave. ABS can also be a liability on loose terrain because it hobbles the rider’s ability to do cadence braking. Unfortunately the Honda system can’t be switched off on the fly and there’s always a possibility you could be negotiating a steep, gravelly descent and suddenly discover you’ve forgotten to disable the ABS system. If you know you’re headed for the trails I’d suggest disabling the ABS setting off.
Of late, I’m seeing a trend amongst motorcyclists (as distinct from trail riders) to look beyond the normal conventions of road riding and seek out something different. The traditional Sunday morning ‘A’ road blast is becoming less attractive due to increasing speed restrictions and the volume of traffic. Big adventure bikes fill a certain niche and excel at long trips but there’s no getting away from the fact they’re often bulky, heavy and if you’re not crossing continents you can feel a little bit over-dressed riding around on one.
The CRF is 100kgs lighter than most Adventure bikes and physically much smaller. This makes it far more manageable if your own typical overland adventure is more like a 150 mile jaunt around Mid Wales or the North Yorkshire moors taking in a few byways and unclassified county roads along the way. For this type of use the CRF is a very fine bike indeed, my only observation being that the bike is almost too balanced as an all rounder and I wish it excelled more in one of its roles: perhaps be a bit more nimble off road or a little brisker on the tarmac. From a technical point of view it would be difficult to improve it’s off road capability without undergoing an expensive weight reduction programme but perhaps in the future Honda might do a 350cc version or similar to improve its tarmac performance.
Honda’s marketing claims the CRF Rally will take you “Around the world or around the block”. For the time being the company have carved out an interesting niche within a niche for themselves but I suspect it won’t be long before we see other manufacturers following suit into the quarter-litre adventure bike market.
As always, a big thank you to Gaz for the loan of the bike.