2008 Lightweight Dual-Purpose Shootout

Adventure Within Reach

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Here’s a trio of street-legal dirt funsters that are as versatile as they are inexpensive. With expensive fuel and economic blues getting us down, we ran these easy-to-ride, off-road-capable 250s through a gauntlet of tough testing. We found a lot of value for MSRPs less than $5000.

While none of these bikes will win you an off-road championship, they do pack a surprising amount of value under their palatable retail prices. In terms of components, the Kawasaki’s KLX250S stands above the Honda CRF230L and Yamaha XT250, yet all three share some basic traits. For example (brace yourselves!), all three wispy d-p machines inhale through a traditional, single carb, and (thankfully) all are electric-start. It’s worth noting that the Kawi’s 250cc mill is kick-starter ready, should you choose the accessory option. The Honda offers its historical reliability and friendly composure. The Yamaha offers more power and a few electronic goodies that the Honda lacks. The Kawasaki piles on all that and a bag of chips, offering the best suspension and the most power and torque in the test.

The Hunchback of Santa Clarita gives us a look at the Yamaha in high-troll motion.

What initially began as a playful dare grew into a full bore Motorcycle.com shootout. After attending two out of three model introductions for these bikes, I ordered up the missing third bike. Far from race-ready enduros, this is a collection of motorcycles slightly bigger than downhill mountain bikes.

The first test of mind and body, and motorcycle, was the 150-mile slog to the beautiful mountain resort town of Big Bear Lake in California. Packed like borox mules, Pete, Kevin and I each piled on the necessary gear to produce a remote test without any support vehicles. We carried everything on our bikes; video cameras, tools, laptops and days of clothing for both riding and dining. Unfortunately the booze had to be left behind for weight-savings – too bad.

One of the greatest pleasures afforded by the low monthly payments includes grand views from places you can't take the family sedan.

Lugging such wide loads on such tiny motorcycles taught each of us a lesson in freeway drafting. With each bike’s top speed just reaching the bottom of the Cali freeway speed scale, distance became an obstacle and speed a chore for these lightweight singles. Mile after mile of knobbies-on-grooved pavement taught us a second lesson about the these bikes; road noise will nearly drown out the engine noise. Humming along the freeways, pegged but sipping gas, the average fuel consumption reached nearly 60 mpg.

With our arrival in Big Bear, the hardest part of riding these narrow-seated bikes was over and the excitement was just beginning. I’ve long wanted to ride some D-P bikes up at Big Bear. The other guys weren't so sure about the terrain, actually worried that the jeep trails weren’t going to be challenging enough. But I already knew the trail and planned to take them where very few jeeps can go. Not even halfway through the second day’s ride Pete and Kevin both were reconsidering their bank accounts – they wanted one of these bikes to help keep the youthful spark alive. “Being on these bikes makes me want to buy one,” said road-rider Pete.

Unlike class photos, there’s no clown in this batch, only star pupils.

Nitty Gritty

Kevin enjoyed the childhood feeling we shared wandering the forest trails, only worrying about making it out in time for dinner. “That was more fun that I thought it was going to be,” he said with a dust-encrusted smile. Pete, on the other hand, wanted to send that “John Bull character” to hell for the rugged trail in his namesake. Arguably the toughest jeep trail in Big Bear, and perhaps in the whole Los Angeles County, John Bull Trail was the route on which we would punish both the bikes and our bodies.

2009 Yamaha XT250
$4,549 MSRP MO
View specs here

Yamaha’s lightweight dual-purpose mount is the 2009 XT250. As with any of these quarter-liter street bikes, the gearing is short and strong launches are a fantasy. You can easily hit third gear before crossing an entire intersection. With the XT, the gearbox is a little notchy, but the engine overall is smoother than the CRF’s.

Capable of 80 miles per hour on the freeway, the XT is more comfortable cruising along at 70 mph, sipping fuel with an average of 55 mpg. Off-road is where this softly-sprung machine hits its limits. Absorbing much of the terrain with its 11-inches of ground clearance and soft foam saddle, the Yamaha feels like a bike with an old design, not to mention its retro looks. The round headlight certainly looks aged, although I personally like it compared to the more up-to-date lights on the other bikes.

In slow-speed crawling, the XT feels stronger than the KLX, according to Kevin and Pete’s first blast on the bikes. The final dyno results show us that the Kawasaki has the most power and torque all through the rev range, followed by the Yamaha and then the Honda. Torque numbers follow the same pattern.

Peak Horsepower & Peak Torque
Horsepower Torque
Honda CRF230L 14.09 @ 7,100 rpm 11.44 ft-lbs @ 6,000 rpm
Kawasaki KLX250S 18.66 @ 8,000 rpm 13.22 ft-lbs @ 6,900 rpm
Yamaha XT250 16.29 @ 7,200 rpm 12.71 ft-lbs @ 6,500 rpm


2008 HondaCRF230L
$4,499 MSRP MO
View specs here

Honda’s CRF230L is a SOHC air-cooled 223cc single-cylinder four-stroke as friendly as can be. For the newbie traveling around in an RV and close to OHV park access, the CRF is a terrific choice for beginner riders or seasoned champs.

Light weight and less powerful on the freeway, it takes a few more skill points to get the CRF to its top speed of about 75 mph. On the trail however, there couldn’t be an easier bike to ride. On the road we’d seen a 60-mpg average from its 2.3-gallon tank. The Kawasaki has the same sized tank while you’ll find a 2.6-gallon tank on the Yamaha.

Sporting the best clutch feel and broadest engagement, the CRF’s levers are comfortable and pleasing. The gearbox shifted gears smoothly, but we often found it a little hard to find neutral within the short throws.

On the John Bull trail, the Honda’s good low-end grunt made it feel like it had the bigger motor over the XT, yet the Yamaha’s extra 26cc and the dyno numbers tell us otherwise. But in a class of such diminutive motors as these, “feeling” can carry a lot of weight. Perhaps the Honda’s lighter steering and overall lighter weight was the deceiving factor. [With tanks full of fuel: CRF, 267 lbs.; KLX, 300 lbs.; XT, 289 lbs.]

The Honda we tested came with a few optional items such as the rear tail rack and grip guards which added to the overall MSRP (prices unavailable at time of publishing), closing the gap between the Honda and the Kawasaki.


2009 Kawasaki KLX250S
$4,899 MSRP MO
View specs here

As the only liquid-cooled mount in the test, Kawasaki’s 2009 KLX250S stood head and shoulders above the competition. For an MSRP difference of just about $400, the KLX sets itself far apart from the others with fully adjustable suspension, better tires, electronic instruments, modern styling and higher performance on both dyno and trail.

“The KLX looks like a real motocross bike with street-legal abilities,” exclaimed Pete. Leaning more towards a dirt bike than a street bike, a rider feels it in the saddle. The KLX is the choice for the wanna-be MX rider when compared to the Honda and the Yamaha. The saddle is higher due to the 9.1-inches of rear suspension travel, and thus less friendly to shorter or amateur riders. The Yamaha and the Honda both have a 3.1-inch shorter seat height of 31.9-inches.

On the roadway, the more relaxed geometry of the KLX offers better composure at higher speeds with an average 3.25-inch longer wheelbase of 56.3-inches and slightly wider tires. The KLX also offers the highest top speed of the three, easily tackling the 80-mph mark on the only dash with a tach (a digital one at that). We observed an average 59 mpg on the little Klixxer.

Despite its class-topping build quality and capabilities, shifting on the mini-Kawi isn’t super-precise and steering is a little slow in the tight stuff, but the overall package is probably the best for the money.

The KLX's 11-plus inches of ground clearance and adjustable suspension package give the rider the ability to take nearly any line.

In The Trenches

On the John Bull trail, suspension and ground clearance were tested to the limits. In the most technical of sections, the XT had good low-speed grunt and light steering, but we found it a touch too soft in both the saddle and suspension. The Honda was the lowest of the bunch by 1.7-inches (9.5 inches) and too low compared to the other two as we tap danced on the shifter to make our way through this rock garden of a trail.

The KLX swallowed the battlefield with the greatest ease but required higher revs thanks to the taller gearing it shares with it beefier brother, the 250F. With higher and tighter suspension, the Kawasaki’s 45mm USD fork and stock hard guards helped it climb over almost anything we put in front of it. The Honda fared better as the rock-crawling master with its superb maneuverability. Pete found that “the Honda carbureted very well, its lower idle ability is a help in the low-speed rock crawling.”

Kevin considered the CRF to be best trials bike of the bunch and gave it to our off-road newbie, Pete, in the trickiest situations. In such riding conditions, however, the lower ground clearance (lowest of the three) produced a few unintentional upshifts and harsh bumps when taller rocks made contact with the shifter peg or non-folding foot pegs.

All three of us agreed that despite the pure-bred origins behind the package offered by the Kawasaki, the steering felt the slowest of the three on the trail, due to its lazier rake angle, the larger front wheel diameter and less steering lock. The greater steering trail provided by the taller wheel and ground clearance on the Kawi adds straight-line stability and roadworthiness, but proves a minor liability in tighter off-road sections.

'...any of these bikes would do you great service.'

For most of the miles ridden on dirt, stand-up riding was the norm. When riding the streets, the saddle construction was more obvious. The XT had the Cadillac-comfortable pad – both a blessing and a curse. At first the cushion is nice, but once the foam compresses, the ride gets harsh. The Kawasaki had the stiffest saddle in the bunch; more like a real dirt bike, and the CRF seat landed in the middle with more support being wider and less stiff.

Built for economic-minded buyers, each manufacturer had choices to make about where to save a few pennies. A few items in this vein are noted on each of the bikes.

Yamaha chose to provide a lockable detached gas cap to stave off the would-be gas thieves. Kawasaki included the more convenient locking hinged-type gas cap you find on most streetbikes. Honda, however held true to the dirt bike roots with a twist-off breather tube vented loose gas cap.

Where the power meets the road and trail, the KLX sports a pair of Dunlop D605F tires, the Honda had the Bridgestone Trailwing 27s and the Yamaha skimps a bit with a pair of less-compliant Cheng Shin tires.

Gone Full Circle

Don't ask! Yeah, it's as stupid as it looks but all part of the fun available on the trail.

When you start shopping for a sub-$5000 transportation method capable of nearly any terrain, you’ll find these light dualies on your list. Park it in your bomb shelter or use it to escape the impending economic doom. Or use them to get to your classes and the café – any of these bikes would do you great service.

With barely enough collective cubic centimeters (721cc) to fill the weakest of cruisers on the market, these three bikes provided miles of fun.

While both the Honda and the Yamaha survived the test without damage or shame, they both revealed their lower limits on the toughest trails. They offer docile manners and relatively low seat heights to suit shorter riders and those who will avoid rigorous off-road work like John Bull Trail. Either example would suit beginning riders better than the dirt-worthy but tall KLX. The XT wins points for its stronger engine, but the CRF wins some back with its easier maneuverability in off-road use.

But for taller, more experienced riders, it’s impossible to overlook the value packed in to the KLX250S. It’s has extra power to keep up with aggressive city traffic and it has a much higher-spec suspension to handle rough off-road situations. While they all offer a lot for the money, the Kawasaki KLX250S just offers more. 

Specs Comparison
Honda CRF230L Kawasaki KLX250S Yamaha XT250
Displacement 223/6 spd 249/6 spd 249/5 spd
Top Speed 75 90 80
Peak Torque 11.44 @ 6000 rpm 13.22 @ 6900 rpm 12.71 @ 6500 rpm
Peak Horsepower 14.09 @ 7100 rpm 18.66 @ 8000 rpm 16.29 @ 7200 rpm
Base MSRP $4,499 $4,899 $4,549
Gallons 2.3 2.3 2.6
Fueling Carb Carb Carb
Suspension Travel
6.3 9.1 7.1
Suspension Travel
9 10 8.9
Ground Clearance 9.5 11.2 11.2
Seat Height 31.9 35 31.9
MPG 60 59 55
Tires Bridgestone Trailwing 27 Dunlop D605F Chen Shin
Wheel (front) 2.75 x 21 3.0 x 21 2.7 x 21
Wheel (rear) 120/80-18M 4.6 x 18 120/80-18M

Related Reading
2009 Kawasaki KLX250S Review
2008 Honda CRF230L Review
2008 Yamaha WR250R & WR250X Review

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