What does adventure mean to you? Wait, let me narrow that down: What does adventure motorcycling mean to you? Maybe your idea of adventure on a motorcycle is setting out, destination unknown with nothing but a paper map and the Blue Highways to guide you. Or maybe, to you, adventure means setting out across the American southwest with a few friends in tow, using trails and highways to connect yourself to our vast array of spectacular national parks. Perhaps your sense of adventure riding involves knobby tires, an ever-changing trail system of sand washes and fish tacos as you make your way down the Baja peninsula.
That’s just the point to touch on first and foremost – adventure riding means different things to different people. Marketing in the motorcycle industry would have you think you need to be jumping a 1200cc-plus, 550-lb, $18,000 “Adventure bike” over a mountain, through the woods, and to grandmother’s house (in Siberia) we go.
For those who want to get their feet wet having an adventure on a motorcycle, or maybe just want to add a more versatile type bike to their garage, we put together a shootout of small-displacement motorcycles that point in three different directions to help you decide which bike would fit your definition of adventure best.
2017 CSC RXR
Let us start with a motorcycle that has been around for some time now yet may still need an introduction to some. The CSC RXR is a 250cc, single-cylinder motorcycle built in China by Zongshen that is small in stature yet, from afar, resembles many adventure motorcycles currently on the market. From its pronounced beak to its wire wheels, it certainly looks the part and is in line with today’s current interpretation of what an adventure bike should look like. It stands out from the other two here with its amazingly low MSRP of $3,495. That’s $2,200 less than the Kawasaki and $2,400 less than the Honda.
Chinese bikes used to get a bad rap due to poor build quality, lack of dependability, and general moto-racism. Taking a closer look at the CSC RXR, it doesn’t look half bad up close either. This is a solid basic motorcycle, and for the money you will save compared to the other two competitors in this shootout, you can fund a few week’s worth of adventure if you plan right. Of course, if adventure riding is your plan, the RX-3 from CSC with the same engine might pique your interest. The RX-3 comes outfitted from the factory with a taller windscreen, luggage, and engine guards in addition to accoutrement found on the RXR at an MSRP of $3,895. “Our friend Joe Gresh has spent thousands of miles on these things,” mentions John Burns, “and documented most of them on YouTube, with zero problems.”
So, how did it perform against Kawi’s Versys-X 300 and Honda’s CRF250L Rally? Not bad at all. While perhaps the least refined, it was not badly outclassed. On the freeway, heading to our mountainous destination, the Zongshen 250cc Single was a bit buzzy and felt somewhat unstable with a slight input to the wide handlebar causing a nervous wobble from the front end. Slow things down a bit, and the overall package is happier to take in the sights cruising at 55 mph. Although, slowing things down a bit is no easy task.
“If getting up to speed wasn’t a priority for CSC engineers,” noted associate editor B. Jaswinski, “then neither was slowing down. The rear brake works fine, but the front brake requires a very firm squeeze of the lever to scrub speed.”
The exhaust note from the CSC sounds great, although its 363-lb curb weight coupled with 20.8 hp and 14.0 lb-ft of torque prove to be a bit underwhelming at WOT. Power builds slowly, but as long as you keep it spun up through the mountain roads, it will keep up with the Honda. “The power doesn’t flow quite as linearly as the Honda’s EFI, but it’s damn close,” said Burns, referencing the Honda’s slightly higher 22.0-hp rating.
Taking the RXR off-road, the 31.3-inch seat height will likely make shorter riders more comfortable as they begin their off-road experience. However, you won’t want to be sitting too often. That’s not due to the seat, which is rather comfortable, but because of the lack of suspension damping which felt harsh on the street and was magnified in the dirt. The CSC offers adjustable rebound front and rear which allowed us to soften up the rear shock. However, while making a discernable difference, the CSC was still left ranked in last place in terms of suspension. Thankfully it’s 8.3 inches of ground clearance come with a small metal skidplate to guard against low-lying, case-cracking boulders.
While the CSC wasn’t bad off-road, both it and the Kawi would benefit from more aggressive tires. However, with the CSC’s 100/90R-18 front and 130/70R-17 rear, finding rubber to fit may leave you with limited options for the RXR.
Even with the laundry list of accessories available for the CSC which include luggage, heated grips, and up-spec suspension components, there seem to be a few things lacking out of the box. Our test bike came equipped with a passenger seat yet no passenger footpegs, and while this bike is positioned as an adventure motorcycle, there were no nooks or crannies to hook a bungee for strapping down luggage.
The CSC RXR felt the smallest in terms of rider ergos, which made it easily flickable around town. Its wide handlebar was preferred off-road compared to the Kawi’s which has a more street-focused bend.
Overall, our testers were split regarding the RXR’s relative merits. Brent and I put the CSC in third place relative to the other two bikes, while John placed it right in the middle.
“For way less money than the other two, if the CSC pushes your buttons, I would not talk you out of one and would even condone your willingness to break from the herd,” proclaimed Mr. Burns.
2017 Kawasaki Versys-X 300
Kawasaki’s newest and smallest “versatile system,” the Versys-X 300 is a solid package. While it is undoubtedly more road-focused, it does a more than decent job holding its own on the trail against the other two “dirtier” bikes, especially considering it rides on the streetiest rubber.
The wee Versys is the most road-biased of the three, and it shows when you’re on pavement. The 34.6 hp and 17.4 lb-ft of torque from its 296cc two-cylinder engine pulls away from the competition effortlessly while on the street. These extra engine components do of course add weight, making the Kawasaki the heaviest bike in the test at 384 pounds.
The suspension worked the best out of the three with its stiffer springs being preferred on-road and in some situations off-road. The riding position was noted as being very comfortable despite the incredibly hard seat.
“As roomy as the seat is, it lacks in comfort. The shape isn’t bad, as you can cozy right up to the tank, but the foam could be much softer. I found my upper inner thighs the most upset with the firmness,” mentioned Brent as he rubbed his sore thighs after a hard day’s riding. Also lending to the comfortable package of the Versys was the lightest clutch I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of squeezing. That coupled with its bigger, revvier motor made the Kawasaki a walk in the park (or National Forest) to ride.
The model we tested was equipped with ABS and retailed for $5,699, $300 more than the non-ABS model. The brakes felt great on the pavement, but we would have preferred to have been able to easily disable the system when venturing onto the trails.
Off-road, the Kawasaki had only a few issues to note if considering a healthy dose of dirt in your ADV plans. First, more aggressive tires would drastically help when ridden off-road. Second, the header and oil filter are front and center behind the 19-inch front wheel, protected only by a plastic belly pan which seemed to be more aesthetic than for protection. Anyone considering the Versys-X for much (to any) off-road exploration should consider investing in a skidplate to protect those sensitive bits. Thankfully, with the Versys-X 300 being such a popular bike in the small-displacement ADV/touring segment, the aftermarket already has a few options, two of which being a company named T-Rex Racing and another, Happy-Trail.
While we managed to choose our lines carefully as to not inflict too much damage on the undercarriage of these bikes, I did find myself rolling through a downhill rock garden on the Kawi, enjoying the day’s testing when, thud! And the bike shut off. Oops. Once I rolled the Versys down the rest of hill, I flipped the gear shift into neutral and it fired right back up like a champ. Off we go, but as I pressed the shifter into first, it shut down the engine again.
You see, most modern bikes include a safety switch on the sidestand that will shut down the engine if it’s put into gear with the stand down to ensure you won’t ride away, hit the stand on the ground, and topple over. When riding off-road, these vulnerable safety switches can get smashed and trick the motorcycle into thinking the sidestand is permanently down. After quick inspection, it was clear this was our issue. Miles into the trails on the side of the mountain, we decided to cut the wires, and splice them together to complete the circuit. Voila! Trail fixes are the most rewarding kind of fix. “You off-road guys live for these trail fixes,” mocked Burns. That’s not entirely untrue.
Kawasaki says the Versys-X 300 was built for any road, and with a little extra protection underneath and better off-road rubber, the little Versys-X is capable of much more than just paved roads.
“It’s definitely the streetier of the three, but with a slightly wider handlebar and maybe a pair of TKC80s, I don’t think it would be any less effective in the dirt. In fact, what I love about these three is when you get stuck between a rock and a hard place, instead of toppling over and breaking something, I found I could put a foot down, roll back a foot or ten, and try again,” surmised Burns.
2017 Honda CRF250L Rally
The Honda CRF250L Rally easily took the top step of the podium from all of our test riders in the cool factor and grin factor portions of the scorecard. Our subjective scores were backed up at nearly every gas or food stop over our two days spent on these bikes by passerby’s stares and questions about the Honda – it’s a looker for sure. With it’s radical styling based on Honda’s HRC rally bikes, the CRF250L looks almost every bit the part of a Dakar-trouncing off-road motorcycle.
What may surprise some to hear was just how well the Honda performed on the road. The seat was the most comfortable despite being somewhat slim, while the suspension soaked up bumps along the freeway and kept the bike feeling stable at 75 mph, although we thought it was too soft front and rear. The initial bite of the Honda’s single 296mm front rotor via the twin-piston caliper felt the strongest of the bunch, followed closely by the Kawi. The wonderfully wide-open steering lock made tight maneuvers and lane-splitting a breeze. Speaking of breeze, the CRF-L’s windscreen did a pretty great job deflecting wind for us, from 5-foot 7-inch John to 6-foot 1-inch Brent.
The soft non-adjustable suspension was the cause of most of our beefs. “My main complaint is its high seat and soooooft rear shock, which uses up about half its long travel as soon as you climb on,” groaned Burns about the issue we tried to fix before departing toward the mountains. With no adjustments in the front and only preload in the rear, which was set to full soft, we thought we could up the preload a bit, “but only if you want to take apart your whole subframe and airbox,” pointed out Jaswinski. While that may be an exaggeration, the process requires the removal of the side panel and rear brake reservoir, which will leave a window big enough to get a punch through. While we would definitely prefer stiffer springs front and rear, the Honda still didn’t have any issues off-road, floating over boulders like they weren’t there. On road, however, in the faster, twistier sections, the soft suspension was definitely a detriment to its overall handling.
The Rally is built to be the most off-road-oriented bike in the test and also when compared to its little brother, the CRF250L. Adding $750 to the MSRP of the base CRF250L, the Rally offers its namesake styling, a 2.7-gallon gas tank compared to 2.1 on the base model, and about an inch extra suspension travel front and rear, resulting in a ground clearance of 10.6 inches. When we weighed the Rally it scaled in at 340 lbs with its tank full, which puts it 13 pounds over the base CRF250L that we put on the scales in February of 2016. We tested the non-ABS Rally, but Honda also offers the Rally with ABS for an additional $300.
Even without the additional optional ABS, the Honda CRF250L Rally is the most expensive bike of the bunch at $5,899 ($6,199 w/ABS). If your destinations have you off of the pavement and into the dirt more often than not, it is certainly the most capable with nearly double the suspension travel of the Kawasaki (even if it is so soft that it becomes less when a rider is mounted), and DOT knobbies out of the box. With 22.0 hp and 15.7 lb-ft of torque, it’s not a screamer and down on hp by 12.6 ponies to the parallel-Twin Kawi, but it feels more competent when riding off-road.
Brent and I were looking forward to the off-road test the entire time, which may explain our interest and excitement with the Honda, while John Burns wasn’t thrilled with its high price and lofty 35.2-inch seat height.
“If we’d been able to dial up more preload, the seat would’ve been really up there,” said Burns. “For short people, no bueno. This one looks like a mini Africa Twin and everybody loves it; I do too, but I’m not seeing the value when it’s nearly twice as much money as the CSC.”
Looking toward the scorecard for answers, Brent and myself ranked the Honda higher than the Kawi on our subjective cards. JB the iconoclast chose the Versys.
In the accompanying video, Brent and I both said we would opt to put the Honda in our garage if we had to choose, while John picked the Versys-X 300 for his more street-biased idea of adventure. Brent had this to say: “It would be a great quarter-liter, do-it-all adventure bike if Honda offered adjustable suspension or if you swapped out the springs for stiffer ones and uncorked the pipe to let it breathe better. I thought it was the most fun and comfortable to ride overall.”
In the final analysis and after adding up all the numbers (twice), it’s the Honda CRF by a nose! The Versys-X 300 was right on its tail, though, losing out by just 1.1% – with the Chinese entry bringing up a distant third. Actually, not even all that distant: The CSC got a 70.7% overall ranking to the winning Honda’s 84.5%, but it costs just 59% as much as the Honda. Each of these motorcycles falls into its own little sub-niche, really. They aren’t so exactly the same that it is a perfect comparison for everyone (as it rarely is). It all comes back to your idea of adventure and what you are planning to do with your motorcycle.
The CSC RXR is a great option for the budget-minded beginner or for the riding veteran looking to add an alternative style of motorcycle to his garage without a significant investment. Should your adventures see you bouncing through boulders, sand washes, and pitted-out fire roads, the Honda CRF250L Rally will work best. If you feel the wind of adventure beneath your wings while headed out onto the open road with nothing more than a tent and a sleeping bag strapped to the back of your motorcycle, ready to ride down whichever dusty road you find at the end of the pavement, Kawasaki’s Versys-X 300 will do it for you.
Give some thought to what you really plan to do with these motorcycles, not what a marketing department says you should do. Do some research and take some test rides if you can. Decide what adventure you want to have and head out toward the horizon. It’s guaranteed to be time well-spent.
|Lightweight ADV Shootout ScoreCard|
|CSC RXR||Honda CRF250L Rally||Kawasaki Versys-X 300|
|Total Objective Scores||89.1%||81.7%||82.9%|
|Quality, Fit & Finish||65.0%||88.3%||84.2%|
|Ryan’s Subjective Scores||65.2%||87.3%||83.8%|
|John’s Subjective Scores||75.0%||82.7%||85.0%|
|Brent’s Subjective Scores||58.1%||85.6%||81.7%|
|2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout Specifications|
|CSC RXR||Honda CRF250L Rally||Kawasaki Versys-X 300|
|MSRP||$3,495||$5,899||$5,399 ($5,699 with ABS)|
|Horsepower||20.8 hp @ 9000 rpm||22.0 hp @ 8600 rpm||34.5 hp @ 11400 rpm|
|Torque||13.6 lb-ft @ 6600 rpm||15.6 lb-ft @ 6800 rpm||17.4 lb-ft @ 9100 rpm|
|Engine Type||Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, single overhead cam, 4-valve single-cylinder with balance shaft||Liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, DOHC, single-cylinder, four-stroke||Liquid-cooled, 8 valve, DOHC parallel Twin|
|Bore x Stroke||77.0mm x 53.6mm||76.0mm x 55.0mm||62.0mm x 49.0mm|
|Fuel System||Delphi EFI||PGM-FI; 38mm throttle body||Direct fuel injection, two 32mm throttle bodies|
|Front Suspension||37mm inverted fork, 5.1 inches of travel||43mm inverted fork, 11.0 inches of travel||41mm telescopic fork, 5.1 inches of travel|
|Rear Suspension||Preload adjustable monoshock, 5.6 inches of travel||Pro-link monoshock, 10.3 inches of travel||Bottom-link Uni-Trak monoshock, with adjustable preload, 5.8 inches of travel|
|Front Brake||Single-piston caliper, 262mm single disc||Two-piston caliper, 296mm single disc||Single-piston caliper, 290mm single disc|
|Rear Brake||Single-piston caliper, 258mm single disc||Single-piston caliper, 220mm single disc||Two-piston caliper, 220mm single disc|
|Seat Height||31.3 inches||35.2 inches||32.1 inches|
|Wheelbase||55.1 inches||57.3 inches||57.1 inches|
|Rake/Trail||27°/4.58 inches||28°10’/4.5 inches||24.3°/4.3 inches|
|Curb Weight||363 lbs||340 lbs||384 lbs|
|Fuel Capacity||4.2 gal||2.7 gal||4.5 gal|
|Colors||Blue, Silver, White, Orange||Black/Red/White||Metallic Spark Black/Metallic Graphite Gray
Passion Red/Metallic Flat Raw Graystone
|Warranty||2 years unlimited mileage||1 year transferable unlimited mileage||1 years unlimited mileage|