First Ride Impression: 2018 Honda CRF250R
By: Scott Hoffman and Dustin Hoffman (no relation, Dustin is way faster)
Photos: Scott Hoffman
In the quarter-liter class, for the upcoming year, the Honda CRF250R has been one of the most anticipated motorcycles of the year—and also the last to finally get its tires dirty. The release has held up tests and shootouts but the twin-cam screamer is finally here.
So what is new compared to 2017? If you are reading this story you probably already know more than we do. But to cut to the chase—everything! Honda developed a new CRF450R chassis for 2017 and that is where the new 2018 CRF250R begins life. Why? Because the two bikes pretty much share the same chassis, fork, shock, wheels, swingarm, plastic, and so on. The only change on the frame is the lower engine cradle. Yes, the suspension settings were tuned for the 250R and spring rates are slightly softer than the 450R but that is about it.
The engine is new from the ground up. This is the first twin-cam, twin-exhaust port production motocross bike Honda has ever produced. Up until 2018 they have always run the Unicam-style head. This is also the first electric-start 250cc motocrosser from Honda as well. It looks as if kick-start motocross bikes are going away like the Dodo bird. Soon we’ll be telling the young kids, “Back in my day I had to kick-start the bike to get it to fire . . . on a hill . . . in the snow.”
The engine development is said to come from Honda’s Moto3 class road race engine and when specs of the 2018 CRF250R were first released, we knew it was going to be a screamer. The engine has a unique look and is like nothing we have seen from Honda, with regard to moto, in some time. Twin-cams are not a new concept from Honda, they have been using them for decades, just not in their motocross bikes. If you want to look up some more tech on the engine, it’s all over the Internet, or check out our story here (LINK ME).
DBT made the drive up to Zaca Station, just north of Santa Barbara, California. It’s a fun, almost natural terrain-style hillside track but not a track we have a lot of laps on.
To answer the question everyone wants answered first, is it fast? The engine is very free-revving and very much likes the throttle twisted and screams like a newborn at feeding time when ridden properly. If you are looking for a big bottom on this ride you better move on to the next color. This engine likes to rev and reminded some of our older riders of a 125 two-stroke because it can fall off the pipe low in the rpm range and requires clutch to get going again. However, when, the performance is also smooth and long, providing you keep it in the power curve.
The 2017 CRF250R, which was on hand to compare against the 2018, has gobs of bottom end and is very easy to ride but lacks power on top and kind of goes flat. The 2018 does not come close to its low-rpm bottom end but makes up for any inadequacies from that point on and the power curve is actually way longer than the 2017 and revs to the moon.
The 250, like the CRF450R, comes with three different maps to choose from, almost on the fly. You can change the maps while riding but it’s best to stop while fiddling with the buttons. The stock map lacks some bottom, but revs very freely and makes for a very long, broad, fairly easy to ride power curve. Map two is a little mellow and might work best in very muddy, slick, or very hard-pack conditions with minimal traction. Once we got to map three, it pretty much stayed in that position for most of the day.
We kind of thought the engine was average and not really that fast until we finally went to the more aggressive map. Map three adds bottom end and comes on a lot stronger with a hit in the mid and still keeps building power to a high-revving top-end. Map three might take a little of the free-revving top, top but the beefier mid is well worth the tradeoff. One of our heavier test riders noted they wished map one was identical as map three with a little more fuel added right where the aggressive map hits to help slow down the rpm range and maybe add a little more traction for less aggressive riders. Map three rips but it would be nice to have a map that was somewhere between the standard map and the aggressive map.
Although the final gear ratios on the new 250F have been altered compared to 2017, they really seemed to meld with the new power delivery and character. There was never really a dead spot or a gap where we wished the spacing was too close or too far apart. The spacing from 2-3-4 seemed to work very well and always seemed to keep the bike pulling. Gearing seemed pretty close but there were a few testers that said they wanted to try adding a tooth to the rear sprocket but others said that might pull the gears too close together and cause a rider to have to shift too much.
Honda also beefed up the clutch anticipating some possible slip action and during our test the action was very fluid and we did not have any clutch issues or fade during our day of testing. Out of corners a slight touch of the clutch helped kick the engine into its power curve if the revs dropped off just a tad or you were between gears.
After riding the 2018 CRF450R for a few weeks when it first came out, it was easy to jump on the CRF250R and feel comfortable right from the start. They feel similar but the 250 chassis is lighter in nature and expected to be that way. The chassis likes to be ridden aggressive and turning is exceptional. The front end at Zaca felt a little busy at times and that was part of our focus during testing. The chassis is a little less forgiving than the CRF450R. The 250 goes exactly where you tell it to go, but if you are lazy it can catch you off guard. It likes to carry momentum through corners and it rails corners if executed correctly. Our slower and heavier rider had a few mid-corner, over-steer issues because he was trying to make up corner speed with throttle while changing direction; he is more of a 450 rider.
The chassis is very balanced and we ran 105mm of sag for most of the day and tested all the way into the 107mm range. Clickers were often close to the stock settings with the biggest change going to the fork by running up to three clicks stiffer compression. Some of our test riders also like the feel with a click slower rebound front and rear and also tested with a click or two stiffer shock setting. It could have been more track related, we will have to find out later when we take the bike to more familiar tracks, but we tried to tune out the slightly busy front-end feel on downhills by dropping the fork slightly in the clamps. This did help along with the front fork changes but can affect the bike’s awesome turning by a very slight amount. Bottoming control is also very good and the fork and shock had a nice feel throughout the stroke. It’s also a little more plush on the small busy bumps compared to the ’18 CRF450R.
Just like the CRF450R, the 250R has solid brakes and the rider compartment is very accommodating to a variety of riders of different heights. The cockpit is compact but not cramped for riders at, or just over, six feet tall. The electric start is awesome and, like the 450, it too comes with the lightweight lithium iron phosphate battery.
Overall, the 2018 Honda CRF250R is very much different than the 2017. The biggest change is a whole new engine performance range and configuration. The engine is aggressive and likes to be ridden hard, yet the delivery is easy to manage as long as you don’t let the revs drop too low. The engine is fast but not sure if it will slay the rest of the field just yet. It needs to be flogged at other tracks first. The chassis is very nimble and turns on rails. The front-end was a little busy at certain times at Zaca on day one of testing, still not sure if that is totally track or bike related. Honda built a new mousetrap and thus far it works very well. We left the day impressed with the new ride with no real issues but still have some questions. We know in the hands of intermediate or faster talent the ’18 rips, but we want to know if a beginner or less-experienced rider can manage this high-revving, very-accurate-handling machine. We can tell you Honda did not miss the mark on the 2018 CRF250R and there are no red flags to report. It doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary, or at least that’s what we discovered after our six-hour stint with the new Red Rider.
Photo Model/Test Rider: Dustin Hoffman
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