Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Test riding the Honda CRF250L Rally

Yes you could say life is pretty good! It just felt right to test ride the 2017 Honda CRF250L Rally in the beautiful country of Swaziland. Both bike and country are small yet beautifully formed, with the capacity for a real adventure.

My own CRF250L (affectionately named Rhonda)  was taking longer than expected to arrive by ship from Canada, so when Honda South Africa offered me the Rally version to try out while I waited, of course, I jumped at the chance. I had reviewed this bike for ADV Moto Magazine last year, but could only go on the specs. Now was my opportunity to try it in real life and see if my predictions were right! The moment of truth had arrived. 

In the past few years, many people have seen the benefit of a simple, small and reliable bike for overland travel. Since I personally hit the road three and a half years ago, many more have made tracks with the same bike, and people regularly contact me to ask what changes I made to it before I left. The CRF250L is fast becoming the bike of choice for many a newby overlander, but, of course, adaptations have to be made to convert it from a city commuter/trail bike into a worthy long distance travel companion. 

Now, with the Rally version,  you can pretty much pick it up off the shelf and go, without even getting your hands dirty. To make it even more desirable, Honda have given it a price tag that makes it the cheaper option when compared to buying the standard L and converting it with aftermarket parts! So how did it compare to Rhonda (2013 standard CRF250L with aftermarket adjustments)? 

With new styling inspired by the CRF450 Dakar racer, the CRF250L Rally certainly looks the part, with a racer style front screen, and improved asymmetric LED headlight. The screen was perfectly adequate and about the same height as the Bajaworx screen I fitted to Rhonda in California. I find it makes all the difference to my energy levels on long journeys to have more wind protection, and unlike the screen on the Africa twin (which I tried out in Canada), where I had to look THROUGH it because of my height (although perhaps that is adjustable?), this is the perfect height for me. No head buffering and no visual distractions. 

The new 10 litre tank offers a fairly acceptable average range of around 240km, but personally I would have liked to see at least a 12 litre tank (as with the aftermarket tank on Rhonda). Without those extra two litres, there are many a rural stretch that I just would not have made without carrying extra fuel. For most journeys though, this is perfectly adequate. 

The  upright position provides a comfortable posture for long distances. Is it just me or are the bars slightly higher than the standard L? My bike has bar risers and the Rally did not feel like it needed them at all. In fact I'd swear they were the same height as the stock with bar risers added. It felt comfortable sitting, and was much improved when standing on the pegs. Perhaps that is due to the extra 30mm in the forks? 

The Rally version comes with the addition of a belly pan, hand-guards, optional ABS and a larger floating front disk break brake for extra stopping power. The brakes work REALLY well. Once I had figured out that you can only turn the ABS off when stationary, I set about testing it on and off road with and without the ABS. As is standard Honda practice - it does what it says on the tin! The brakes are friendly and responsive, allowing  you to brake hard with confidence on all surfaces. 

During the ride down from Nelspruit, we crossed the border into Swaziland and headed for Piggs Peak.I was warned by the very friendly guards at the post that I was about to hit a 20km stretch of gravel. I asked 'Is it deep gravel?', wishing I had my proper riding kit with me, and he replied 'Oh yes, its very bad'. 

According to the specs, the bike weighs a little more than the standard 250L but I couldn't feel the difference. 

The Rally includes a heavy-duty clutch for 'progressive engagement' and a larger throttle body which gives just a little more power in the low to mid range. Perhaps it has just a tiny fraction over a standard L with a 13 tooth front sprocket fitted (although the 2017 standard L has also received a new ECU, I can only compare to my 2013 model which has had the gearing adapted).  I tested the bike at altitude, on dirt/sand/gravel/tar roads, through twisty mountain passes, and even finally on straight motorways during my long and rather dull 'fastest route' back to Joberg. Of course, the motorway is not for this bike. It will happily sit at the speed limit (and a little beyond if you wring her neck), but it's no cruiser. Instead, this bike inspires you to take your time and seek out the dirt roads and back country routes! Here you will not be disappointed.

The larger header pipe and new muffler is a welcome change from the overweight beast my 2013 model still wearily has to drag around the world! I'm happy to see that this is also a change to the new 2017 standard L model. Good work Honda! Big thumbs up from me! Do you have a spare one going for Rhonda?   

I love the all-new dash and adjusted ECU which really adds that touch of 'adventure bike' to it. It just feels more substantial. The tower also adds an extra handy map holder for easy access. Not an intentional design plan, but handy none the less!  The headlights and screen are frame-mounted, which makes the steering a little lighter. My only bug bear with this is that now, in a parked position (bars turned), there is a big hole where once I would stuff my gloves!

Also the clutch and brake cables are so tight that there is no room for adjustment if required. It looks like Honda have used the same cables as with the standard L and taken up all the slack with the longer forks. 

The extra 20mm of seat height only adds to the substantial feeling, in my opinion. For a short legged individual like myself, I find it only a problem when reversing (no leverage!) and when trying to get the kick stand up when parked on uneven ground (so she is parked bolt upright. Hard to explain, but if you've been there, you'll know what I'm talking about!). I am 5' 4 and of even proportions I guess (back to leg length)! I am on tip toes (as with most dual sport bikes), but if you are not comfortable with that you can lower it with the linkage or cut an inch out of the seat. 

Now - about that seat! Okay, So it's a budget bike, we must remember that, but surely Honda could recognise the fact that most owners will not be actually rallying this bike regardless of the name, and put some of their awesome designers onto providing a more comfortable consistency and shape (perhaps narrow at the front for the off roading but wide at the back for the long stretches of sitting? Just a thought). I still cannot believe that I travelled 30,000 miles on my stock seat before I changed it. I guess I had got used to it but boy did I feel the difference going back to the standard seat on this trip after a long day in the saddle! 

So after 1000km on the CRF250L Rally, am I ready to toss Rhonda aside and replace her with a big sister? Of course not. We must finish our trip together but, if I were back at the start line and had the choice, would I choose this bike to take on my trip? Without a doubt. I would still change the seat though and, annoyingly, the tank for that extra distance. Otherwise I'd leave it stock and hit the road! This bike is a bargain. You get a lot for your money and you won't see much go wrong for many happy miles to come! 

Steph and Rhonda


  1. Thank you for this excellent review from an expert rider. I bought it new as a 67 year old 'new' rider and I agree the seat can be better.What seat would your recommend?

  2. Very thorough evaluation of a great bike.
    I rode the 250 Rally (briefly) at the Honda Ride Out, and decided that it needed a closer look.

  3. Met Leonie and Peter recently, who also did a RTW trip on two CRF250L bikes. They basically said the same as you: very reliable and relaxingly light! Leonies bike has done 130.000km so far with unopened motor, Peters engine needed some maintenance (new piston and rings if I recall) because of an incorrectly fitted air filter that allowed dirt inside. It can't get better than this! Good luck, keep on traveling and greetings from Sweden!

  4. Nice one Steph' ... a well-rounded, objective review. The comments about the seat are important, as this is a constant niggle on many bikes. With more and more people engaging in long-distance overland trips, you'd think the manufacturers would pay more attention to this important issue. My own experience, was in buying a purpose designed single seat for my F650GS, had it re-covered and profiled with increased padding in all the right places. It turned out to be less comfy than the stock original ... mostly because there was more room to move around.

  5. What makes a seat comfortable then? soft, hard, pressure points ...?

    1. I own a 2008 Kawi 650KLR loaded and I bought a Corbin aftermarket seat that was lower than the stock one by a couple of inches, Just the height diff alone was awesome but I find issues with the density of the foam. I have tried short trips to full on day trips experimenting with that Corbin seat only to find it very uncomfy after a couple of hours in the saddle. I think I am going to change the seat again but try to find some foam that might be friendlier with the pressure points with the Sciatica's.

    2. Thank you. I was considering a Corbin seat (very expensive), but it is probably true that a harder seat is more comfortable at the end. Maybe I should take a rest when the seat begins to hurt and leave the original seat.

  6. Great write-up as always, Steph.

  7. Thank you Steph, that's a pleasure to read your test of this bike, keep going!

  8. After almost 4000 km this little bike rides like hell ! Thank you Honda.

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  14. Nice review Steph. I brought a rally off the back of your trip. 50k without issue on this engine sold me on this mini adv bike. Just need to get Fern one now....

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  16. Thank you for this review. Shorter people like myself appreciate it. I recently was able to see this in person and was slightly intimidated by it size, but I am going to have another look. The windscreen and extras, might offset the cost of lowering it a bit. Thanks.