2017 Honda CRF250L Rally Review – First Ride

Scott Rousseau
by Scott Rousseau

The new Rally offers solid performance in an economical ADV motorcycle

From the song “Little Honda” by the Beach Boys:

I’m gonna wake you up early cause I’m gonna take a ride with you.
We’re goin’ down to the Honda shop, I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do.
Put on a ragged sweatshirt, I’ll take you anywhere you want me to.
First gear, it’s all right (Honda, Honda, go faster, faster)
Second gear, I’ll lean right (Honda, Honda, go faster, faster)
Third gear, hang on tight (Honda, Honda, go faster, faster)
Faster, it’s all right.

There’s no denying that Honda’s CRF250L dual-sport machine is a hit.

The CRF250L’s high-winding engine doesn’t pack a lot of punch, but that hasn’t stopped it from putting a whoopin’ on the competition in the dual-sport market. The entry-level CRF250L has been a true overachiever, leading the category, says Honda, with 20% of the market share. Around 4000 customers ponied up for a CRF250L in 2016, and we haven’t heard of too many complaints from ’em. The CRF250L isn’t the quickest or fastest machine in the quarter-liter class, but it was never designed to be a massive off-roader as much as an off-roader for the masses.

It’s not a big motorcycle,
Just a groovy little motorbike.
It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys,
That two-wheeled bike.
We’ll ride on out of the town
To anyplace I know you like.

Going anyplace has been the strong suit of the CRF250L since its inception, and for 2017 Honda has not only updated the standard CRF250L to give it a little more zest, it has also added a second, eye-catching model: Joining the standard CRF250L this year is the CRF250L Rally, which boasts Dakar Rally styling lifted from Honda’s CRF450 Rally machine, slightly taller suspension and more fuel capacity than the CRF250L so you can have even more fun between filling stations. For 2017, the CRF250L costs $5,149 while the CRF250L Rally retails for $5,899.

Although the CRF250L Rally weighs more than the Honda CRF250L, the extra poundage doesn’t hurt it in the handling department. The Rally is a capable corner carver on asphalt.

Honda recently invited us to sample both machines in Southern California, using the California headquarters of Johnny Campbell Racing as its base station. If you don’t know who Johnny Campbell is, then you must not know off-road racing, because the San Clemente-born Campbell is a legend in the discipline with a plethora of SCORE Baja 500 and 1000 wins as well as two finishes in the Dakar Rally. Now retired from racing, Campbell fields Honda factory-backed teams in the AMSOIL Grand National Cross Country Series, where team rider Trevor Bollinger is the reigning champion in the XC2 Pro class. Our band of journalists got the chance to sample the CRF250L and CRF250L Rally equally while embarking on a self-guided tour using the Rever navigational app on a route that mixed a good portion of off-road riding in with two-lane blacktop as we rode to and from the Robert Renzoni Winery for lunch before swapping models and heading back to JCR in the afternoon.

While the CRF250L Rally is technically an all-new model, it shares the updates made to the CRF250L, which include a 2mm larger throttle body (now 38mm rather than 36mm) and a revised airbox with a 100mm longer connecting tube for improved throttle response. The airboot has also been reshaped to give the CRF250L a better “pulse feeling” when riding. Its two-chamber structure is also more compact and thus a little lighter than the previous component. In search of a little more peak horsepower while reducing emissions, Honda also fitted a new ECU and increased the exhaust headpipe size by 10mm, to 38mm.

The Honda CRF250L retains the same character that made it the best-selling dual-sport model in America, but it (and the Rally) received updates for 2017 to enhance power while meeting emissions standards.

Chassis-wise the CRF250L receives a few more upgrades for 2017, including updated instrumentation that features a bar-graph tachometer to keep track of revs, LED bulbs in the taillight for improved reliability and brighter lighting, an updated license-plate holder, and a new wave-style 256mm front rotor (the CRF250L Rally’s is bigger still, 296mm). Even better, both 2017 CRF250Ls are available with optional two-channel ABS that can be deactivated for dirt riding.

Where the CRF250L boasts new CRF motocross-style graphics, the CRF250L Rally offers an entirely different look. In addition to the engine upgrades, the Rally model’s Showa fork travel is stretched 1.18 inches while its Showa shock rides on a different linkage than the CRF250L. Its Dakar-influenced styling also incorporates a 2.7-gallon fuel cell, 0.6 gallon more than the CRF250L.

Our day began with the CRF250L Rally, and it included some rather technical fire-road terrain with plenty of rocks and huge washouts, courtesy of last winter’s torrential rains. It made for an excellent test of the Rally’s capability.

It may not feel any stronger than the previous model, but the CRF250L still delivers a delightful ride thanks to its responsive, fuel-injected engine and its weight-defying handling character.
It climbs the hills like a Matchless,
Cause my Honda’ built really light.
When I go into the turns
Better hang on tight.
I’d better turn on the lights
So we can ride my Honda tonight.

Sorry, uh, Boys, but as we expected, the Rally’s Thailand-built, CBR250R-based 249.6cc four-stroke Single is no power monger even with the larger 38mm throttle body and other performance updates incorporated by Honda, and yet it’s still a delight. Its 76mm bore and 55mm stroke, DOHC four-valve favors rpm over torque, and there’s plenty of breath to keep the Rally rolling down the road or along the trail. The 250L motor is truly electric in feel despite its lack of grunt, and its smooth-shifting six-speed gearbox and linear-feeling cable-operated clutch facilitate the multiple gear changes needed to keep the engine in the meat of its powerband. The CRF250L’s ratios are identical to the CBR’s, but the CRF transmission boasts wider gears and strengthened shift dogs. The clutch is also fitted with a judder spring in its hub to absorb shock loads through the driveline if the rear wheel should snag a rock or a tree root on the trail.

The engine’s smooth and precise fuel-injection is a real plus, delivering clean throttle response, though you still need to rev it up and snap the clutch in order to pop over rocks, ruts and other obstacles on the trail. When the going gets slick, the L motor has just enough flywheel inertia to maintain sure-footed traction through most of the off-road terrain you’re likely to attempt on the Rally. The real beauty of the Honda motor is that it instills confidence to allow a rider to grow his or her off-road capabilities without getting into trouble. Previous CRF250L testing has shown us that the engine’s fuel economy is around 73 mpg, so the CRF250L and the Rally should be as user-friendly at the gas pump as it is on- or off-road.

Both the CRF250L Rally and the CRF250L deliver all-day riding comfort, although we prefer the Rally for its extra wind protection.

Neither the CRF250L Rally nor the CRF250L are lightweights. Honda claims curb weights of 341.7 lbs. for the CRF250L Rally and 317.5 lbs. for the CRF250L in non-ABS trim, but weight isn’t really a shortcoming when you’re knocking about on either machine. The shared chassis features a combination of twin oval-section main spars, a semi-double cradle bottom connected to a round steel, bolt-on subframe. Thanks to its greater fork travel, the CRF250L Rally’s wheelbase measures 57.3 inches, with the front-end geometry checking-in at 28.1° of rake and 4.5 inches of trail while the CRF250L rides on a 56.9-inch wheelbase with a 27.6° rake and 4.4 inches of trail.

Both machines deliver reasonably precise steering thanks to wide handlebars that afford the rider plenty of leverage when transitioning from left to right and back again. The chassis on both machines delivers a stable feel, allowing you to push either machine harder than you’d think you could. Experienced off-roaders might be wanting more performance in a few key areas, but not so much that the CRF250L or the Rally are a big letdown to ride in stock trim.

Although the CRF250L Rally boasts about 1.2 inches more travel than the CRF250L, its extra weight and soft suspension settings require that you pick your flights carefully. The CRF250L delivers a tauter ride that is more conducive to off-road tomfoolery.

If there’s one area where the CRF250L Rally does come up a little short – and that’s ironic – it’s in the suspension department. Despite its 1.18-inch longer, 11.3-inch travel, 43mm coil spring Showa inverted fork up front, the added weight of the Rally’s bodywork and heavier fuel load tend to make the front suspension action feel mushy when reasonable hits are encountered. While the shock is mounted to a Honda Pro-Link rear suspension system with a tapered aluminum swingarm to yield 10.6 inches of rear suspension travel, both ends are on the cushy side once the pace goes beyond casual trail-riding speeds.

That isn’t the case on the lighter CRF250L, which features essentially the same fork and shock but with 9.8 inches and 9.4 inches of travel respectively. The standard model doesn’t reach its off-road speed limit quite as quickly as the Rally. We found out during our return leg to Johnny Campbell Racing that it is surprising just how silly you can get on the CRF250L before common sense prevails and keeps you from going on your head. The sensation is that the CRF250L’s suspenders simply have more spring tension, which delivers a tauter and more controlled feel that helps when you find yourself going a little too quickly in the rough stuff, and the CRF250L’s smaller and slimmer overall feel encourages such shenanigans in the first place.

But if you should find yourself needing to get on the binders, at least Honda didn’t scrimp on their performance. The 296mm wave-style front rotor on the CRF250L Rally and the 256mm wave-style rotor on the standard CRF250L, which are both clamped by Nissin twin-piston calipers, deliver a smooth and controllable feel when applied. The action is more akin to dirtbike brakes than streetbike brakes, which is to say more linear than downright powerful, but the front brake on either machine works well with the 220mm rear disc and single-piston caliper out back to provide plenty of stopping power, and with the optional ABS there’s even less reason to worry about locking up either wheel during a panic stop. Adding the ABS option will set the customer back an additional $300 more than the base MSRP on either machine.

The CRF250L and the CRF250L Rally are an absolute blast on two-lane roads, yet despite their gear-driven counterbalancers, the engine buzz at 65 mph can become a nuisance on long freeway jaunts.

But whether you do or don’t opt for ABS, plan on spending a lot of time enjoying either of these machines. If you’re more of a long-distance guy or gal, then the Rally’s larger fuel tank, slightly larger feel and excellent wind protection will be to your liking. If you’re going to spend more time experiencing tight single-track trails, the CRF250L is a better choice for its more dirtbike-like ergonomics for riders who really want to test their mettle on technical trails. Neither machine feels cramped or otherwise uncomfortable in the cockpit.

Either way, know that both machines boast the same top speed – about 81 mph. However, riding them that fast for any length of time isn’t all that pleasant. Despite their smooth-revving performance and vibration-quelling, gear-driven counterbalancers, our experience on the super slabs was that 6000 rpm was about the limit before secondary vibration began to creep through the bars, pegs and seat, making the ride less pleasant. Unfortunately, the bar-graph tachometers on both showed that indicated 65 mph comes at a buzzy 6800 rpm. Keeping the revs to 6000 produces an indicated 58 mph, not really enough for Southern California freeway use but more than enough for two-lane, backroad exploration.

Even so, aside from the few shortcomings that are obvious concessions to their economy-bike status, the 2017 Honda CRF250L and CRF250L Rally are very capable machines for the entry-level or casual dual-sport rider. Both deliver just enough engine performance, comfort, handling and braking to justify their existence, something to which the CRF250L’s sales figures already bear witness. More experienced riders might wish for more power or better suspension performance in the dirt, but that wouldn’t stop us from sticking either one of these little Hondas in our garage.

They’re all right.

Lofting the front wheel on either the CRF250L Rally or its standard sibling requires a liberal doses of revs and a snap of the clutch. It’s still fun no matter which way you do it!

2017 Honda CRF250L

+ Highs

  • Excellent all-around performer at a bargain price
  • Great handling
  • Good suspension despite its economy price

– Sighs

  • Too much buzz at freeway speeds
  • Feels heavy next to a proper dirtbike
  • If it’s making more power, darned if we can feel it

2017 Honda CRF250L Rally

+ Highs

  • A new on/off-road model with awesome Adventure-bike styling
  • Smooth and responsive, if not powerful, engine performance
  • All-day comfy ergonomics

– Sighs

  • Mushy suspension action compared to the CRF250L
  • Not quite enough gearing to run 65 mph buzz-free
  • The CRF250L is already heavy enough
Specifications2017 Honda CRF250L2017 Honda CRF250L Rally
Engine TypeLiquid-cooled, fuel-injected, DOHC, single-cylinder, four-strokeLiquid-cooled, fuel-injected, DOHC, single-cylinder, four-stroke
Bore x Stroke76.0mm x 55.0mm76.0mm x 55.0mm
Compression Ratio10.7:110.7:1
Valve TrainDOHC; four valvesDOHC; four valves
FuelingPGM-FI; 38mm throttle bodyPGM-FI; 38mm throttle body
IgnitionFull transistorized ignitionFull transistorized ignition
Final DriveChainChain
Front Suspension43mm Showa telescopic inverted fork; 9.6 in. travel43mm Showa telescopic inverted fork; 11.6 in. travel
Rear SuspensionPro-Link, Showa single shock; 9.4 in. travelPro-Link, Showa single shock; 10.3 in. travel
Front BrakeSingle 256mm disc w/Nissin twin-piston caliper (ABS optional)Single 296mm disc w/Nissin twin-piston caliper (ABS optional)
Rear BrakeSingle 220mm disc w/Nissin single-piston caliper (ABS optional)Single 220mm disc w/Nissin single-piston caliper (ABS optional)
Front TireIRC Trails GP 3.00 x 21-inchIRC Trails GP 3.00 x 21-inch
Rear TireIRC Trails GP 120/80-18-inchIRC Trails GP 120/80-18-inch
Trail113mm (4.4 inches)114mm (4.5 inches)
Seat Height34.4 inches35.2 inches
Ground Clearance10 inches10.6 inches
Wheelbase56.9 inches57.3 inches
Fuel Capacity2.1 gal.2.7 gal.
Claimed Curb Weight317.5 lbs.341.7 lbs.
MSRP$5,149 (add $300 for ABS model)$5,899 (add $300 for ABS model)
Scott Rousseau
Scott Rousseau

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2 of 34 comments
  • Travis Donald Travis Donald on May 08, 2017

    Hopefully the MOrons will do a four bike shootout this Fall. They can add the KLR650 as the fifth bike for the control (most sold ADV Bike in that price range). RX3 Cyclone 250, Versys X 300 non ABS, G310GS, CRF250L Rally ABS. Maybe next year the Duke 390 ADV, and MT-03 ADV can be in the shoot out, and we can drop the Cyclone and KLR.

  • Scat Scat on May 09, 2017

    I'd be buying the Rally if it were at LEAST a 350. These 250's just don't put out enough HP to make the occasional freeway ride a safe experience. What's the point if you can't take a freeway to your 'drop off point'.....? And, big fail on the mush suspension springs....
    Come on Honda...do it right.