2011 HONDA CRF250 MOTOCROSS TEST: HONDA BETS THE BANK ON A MINI-VERSION OF THE CRF450; WARTS AND ALL

December 9, 2011
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Q: FIRST AND FOREMOST, IS THE 2011 HONDA CRF250 BETTER THAN THE 2010 HONDA CRF250?

A: Yes. After going for the gusto in 2010 with an all-new CRF250, the Japanese manufacturer made a handful of changes for 2011. These updates were noticeable, but not earth-shattering. Suffice it to say that the 2011 Honda CRF250 is better than the 2010 model, but not resoundingly so.

Q: HOW MANY CHANGES CAN BE FOUND ON THE 2011 CRF250?

A: After Honda completely redesigned the CRF250 last year, we figured that the 2011 model would be a warmed-over 2010. Guess what? It is. Honda made several refinements in the engine tuning, steering damper specifications, suspension valving and muffler design. Here is a quick rundown of the six updates made for 2011.

(1) Muffler. With sound remaining a hot-button topic for closed-course motorcycles, Honda hushed up the 2011 CRF250. Their goal to was to meet the 94 dB AMA sound limit. The easiest way to reduce sound is by choking up the muffler?which is exactly what Honda did. They decreased the muffler outlet diameter, changed the airflow inside the core, and increased the overall length of the can by 100mm. Due to the longer canister, the muffler bracket has been moved farther back. Translation: an aftermarket exhaust system from last year’s model won’t fit on the new bike because of the different bracket position, which also means that Honda utilized the CRF450 subframe to accommodate the bracket. On the plus side, the CRF250 and its big brother share the same subframe and plastics.

(2) HPSD. The CRF250 comes with the patented Honda Progressive Steering Damper (HPSD) once again; only for 2011 the damper features a larger piston diameter. The damper piston is now 24mm (instead of 20mm) for improved tracking traits. The new HPSD will fit on last year’s CRF250.

(3) Engine. You can expect new ignition maps with each passing year, thanks to electronic fuel injection; it is the modern equivalent of a jetting change. For 2011, the CRF250 has revised mapping to work with the new muffler and to increase bottom-end power. What exactly did Honda do to the mapping? They leaned out the fuel delivery in the top-end (from 11,000 to 13,000 rpm) and richened the fuel delivery from 6000 rpm to 11,000 rpm. They also advanced the ignition timing.

(4) Suspension. After increasing the diameter of the forks and changing the shock positioning in the frame last year, Honda made incremental adjustments to the Showa units for 2011. The forks and shock received increased compression damping to help keep the forks higher in their stroke. They needed to increase the compression damping in the shock to help balance out the forks.

(5) Gearing. For a third consecutive year Honda changed the gearing on the CRF250. In 2009 the bike came equipped with a 13/51 combination, and last year Honda dropped three teeth off the rear sprocket (13/48) to coincide with updated inner gear ratios. For 2011, the CRF250 has a 13/49 combination to match the engine’s updated power profile.

(6) Fuel filter. Last year, the CRF250 fuel filter was set in a horizontal position. For 2011, Honda moved the fuel filter to a vertical position to lessen clogging and facilitate servicing.

Q: WHY DIDN’T HONDA DRASTICALLY UPDATE THE 2011 CRF250?

A: Honda typically makes major changes every three model years. 2010 was the beginning of the current design sequence. Since Honda left no stone unturned last year, changing the frame, switching to electronic fuel injection, revamping the engine and using all-new Showa suspension, it would be ludicrous to think that Honda would completely overhaul the CRF250 again. Our expectation is that Honda will continue with the current design through 2012, and then consider a redesign.

With that said, there is a fly in the ointment that could push a new model release date back in the schedule. New designs are predicated on three factors: bike popularity, sales and the economy. We’re going to go out on a limb and say that the current model CRF250 isn’t incredibly popular with the general public, that motorcycle sales aren’t going to improve any time soon, and that the economy is proving slow to rebound. If these three conditions persist, the current CRF250 might well be extended into the foreseeable future. Time will tell.

Q: HOW WOULD WE DESCRIBE THE 2011 HONDA CRF250 POWERBAND?

A: The 2011 Honda CRF250 engine is a head scratcher. The CRF250 engine falls right between JFK’s assassination and the Roswell UFO incident in terms of mystery. How so? MXA test riders would rave about the CRF250’s speed down short straights, but complain about the engine’s inability to pull hard down long straights. “Impossible!” they would chirp. In truth, the 2011 Honda CRF250 is a midrange-only power monger. The engine isn’t exceptional off idle, but it’s not terrible, either. From 7500 rpm (just below midrange) up through 10,000 rpm, the CRF250 is strong. However, the power is severely hampered by two things: (1) The flat powerband in the upper reaches of the curve. (2) The lack of throttle response caused by the choked-up muffler. On top, the CRF250 runs out of steam. You have to shift to move forward because revving the engine doesn’t pay any dividends.

 
Decibels: The numbers tell the tale. It is quiet.
 
Midway: Every MXA test rider liked the midrange power of the CRF250, but wanted more on top and on bottom.             

Q: ARE WE HAPPY WITH THE EFI SYSTEM ON THE 2011 HONDA CRF250?

A: We don’t want to depress any techno-geeks, but the Honda CRF250 was much better off without electronic fuel injection. Say what? After years of droning on and on about the CRF250’s horrendous bog, we should be singing the praises of Honda’s 50mm EFI throttle body. While we no longer have to worry about a hiccup out of corners or a hesitation when landing off jumps, we’d rather deal with jets and needles than suffer from the boring power delivery of the 2010 and 2011 CRF250 models. The 2009 CRF250 engine romps all over the 2010 and 2011 versions. As for the belch-like bog of the carbureted CRF250s, we had deciphered the Keihin 40mm carburetor riddle years ago. With a needle and handful of jets, we found crisp throttle response and an awesome powerband on the Keihin FCR-equipped CRF250s. Honda did cure the bog, but the cure is worse than the disease.

What would the MXA wrecking crew do if we ran Honda’s CRF250 development program? We would choose one of two options:

(1) Bite the bullet and return to a tried-and-true carburetor (but opt for a 36mm Keihin instead of the massive 40mm unit).

(2) Work night and day on the current electronic fuel injection system to breathe new life into the CRF250 powerplant. The 2010 and 2011 CRF250 models are choked up, not in terms of raw horsepower, but in their engine characteristics. “Boring” and “flat” are the two adjectives most commonly used to describe the CRF250 engine. The 2011 powerplant is fast, but you would not know it unless you put it on a dyno, like we did.

Q: HOW DOES THE 2011 CRF250 RUN ON THE DYNO?

A: Maximum horsepower on our 2011 CRF250 is 38.02 ponies at 11,200 rpm. Maximum torque is 20.04 foot-pounds. To compare those numbers to last year’s bike, the 2010 CRF250 reached 37.02 horsepower at 11,000 rpm. Maximum torque was 19.39 foot-pounds. On the dyno curve, the 2011 engine is nearly identical to last year’s powerplant. However, at 7500 rpm the 2011 engine slowly climbs up to a one horsepower advantage over the 2010 engine. That horsepower advantage is maintained through 12,000 rpm.

Q: HOW DOES THE CRF250 STACK UP TO THE COMPETITION ON THE DYNO?

A: Compared to the other 250 four-strokes in the class, the 2011 Honda CRF250 ranks first in overall horsepower and second in torque. The CRF250 produces the most horsepower from 7200 rpm until 8200 rpm, is on par with the KTM 250SXF from 8200 to 8800 rpm, and is king of the top-end (from 9200 to 11,200 rpm). It odd that this doesn’t show up on the track.


Handle with care: In stock trim the 2011 CRF250 is quirky. What does that mean? It is code for hang on with all your might.

Q: DOES THE CRF250 PASS AMA SOUND?

A: Does it ever! Honda was serious in their quest to lower sound levels on the CRF250. By lengthening the muffler, rerouting the airflow in the canister and decreasing the diameter of the outlet port, Honda drastically lowered the CRF250’s sound emission. How quiet is the 2011 CRF250? Unbelievably, the CRF250 dipped under the 90 dB limit (89.9 dB) for the AMA sound test, and it became the first Japanese 250 four-stroke that we have tested in 2011 to pass the FIM two-meter-max sound test at 115.0 dB. We were so shocked by the low sound output that we tested it several times, but we always got the same results. We salute Honda for taking the sound issue seriously.

Q: HOW DOES THE HONDA CRF250 HANDLE?

A: As is becoming commonplace among frame designers, the CRF250 has a very steep head angle. On paper, a tucked-in head angle should allow a bike to rail inside lines with ease. If the proper head angle and frame geometry are achieved, the result is an agile and balanced bike (a la Suzuki). It is our opinion that Honda went too far with the CRF250’s head angle. The decreased trail equates to nasty headshake at high speed and serious oversteer on the entrance to corners. Every MXA test rider complained of oversteering in, understeering out and constant course corrections in the center.

These bugaboos can be addressed, but not entirely fixed, with several modifications. First and foremost, a longer shock linkage arm drops the rear end and balances out the bike. Heavier or faster riders will require stiffer fork springs to keep the front end from diving under braking (in spite of Honda’s stiffened fork valving). Tightening the steering stem nut and adjusting the steering damper will also improve stability, regardless of rider weight or skill level.

Q: HOW WOULD WE IMPROVE THE 2011 HONDA CRF250?

A: Let us count the ways:

(1) Linkage. The Honda CRF250 stinkbugs, thanks to the steepened head angle, soft forks and tall-in-the-rear setup. This is not a good trait, as the front and rear of the bike seem disjointed. Last year, we ran a longer Pro Circuit linkage arm and felt immediate improvement in the CRF250’s handling. Lowering the rear of the bike slackened the head angle enough to calm down the twitchiness and head shake. The 2mm longer link arm lowers the seat height by 12mm and stiffens the initial part of the shock’s stroke to hold the CRF250 shock higher in its stroke longer.

(2) Exhaust pipe. We salute Honda for addressing the AMA’s sound ordinance rule. The 2011 CRF250 purrs at an ear-soothing 89.9 dB. The low decibel level should be music to the ears of aftermarket exhaust companies. Why? Because with the small muffler core comes reduced throttle response, and just like the Coates family after Old Yeller died, the CRF250 is very choked up. It is true that an aftermarket exhaust system will raise the decibel output on the CRF250, but it will bring the responsiveness back to the engine (and virtually every aftermarket exhaust is AMA legal).

(3) Gearing.
We were pleased with last year’s 13/48 gearing combination on the CRF250. The midrange-only powerplant worked well with the 48-tooth rear sprocket. For 2011, Honda punched up the bottom end by switching to a 49-tooth sprocket. We weren’t pleased. After test riders tired of wearing out their shifting foot, we opted for last year’s taller gearing. Surprise! The wider gear ratios allowed the engine to stay in the meat of the powerband longer. This is the exact same mod we made for the 2010-11 Yamaha YZ250F’s short powerband.

2011 Honda CRF250: If you are looking for visual cues to discern a 2011 CRF250 from a 2010 CRF250, focus in on the muffler and the position of the silver drop shadow on the radiator shroud graphics.

Q: WHAT ARE OUR BEST FORK SETTINGS?
 
A: Despite Honda’s effort to improve the performance of the Showa 48mm forks by using stiffer valving, it was merely a Band-Aid fix. Make the following changes to the CRF250 and find happiness. (1) Go stiffer. Heavier (over 165 pounds) and faster riders should use stiffer fork springs to help the forks stay up in their stroke. (2) Drop ‘em. Don’t be afraid to drop the fork legs in the triple clamps to help prevent oversteering. (3) Set the sag. If using the stock link arm, we suggest running upwards of 105mm of sag to help balance out the bike. (4) Tighten up. Tighten the steering stem nut underneath the top triple clamp to reduce slack in the front end. (5) Dampen. Honda went to a larger-diameter damping piston on its HPSD steering damper for a reason. The front end shakes like a leaf in a hurricane. Go in on the damper.

For hardcore racing, these are MXA‘s recommended 2011 Honda CRF250 fork settings (when changed, stock settings are in parentheses):
   Spring rate:
0.46 kg/mm (0.45 kg/mm)
   Oil quantity:
342cc
   Compression:
8 clicks out (13 clicks out)
   Rebound:
8 clicks out
   HPSD:
4 clicks out (7 clicks out)
   Fork leg height:
Flush with top clamp
   Notes:
The 48mm Showa forks come with a separate aluminum screw on top of the fork legs. Don’t use it to bleed air out of the forks! It is only to be unscrewed when the forks are being serviced. Use the brass screw to bleed air out of the fork legs. We believe that any rider over 165 pounds would benefit from stiffer fork springs.
    
Q: WHAT IS OUR BEST SHOCK SETTING?

A: Here is what the MXA wrecking crew ran in its 2011 CRF250 (when changed, stock settings are in parentheses):
   Spring rate:
5.3 kg/mm
   Race sag:
105mm
   Hi-compression:
1-1/16 turns out
   Lo-compression:
7 clicks out
   Rebound:
10 clicks out (11 clicks out)
   Notes:
The shock is very sensitive to high-speed compression. Heavier riders should go in 1/4 turn on high-speed compression and set the sag at 100mm, but only if stiffer fork springs have been installed.

Q: WHAT DO WE HATE?

A: The hate list:

(1) Frame. There’s a point where radical frame geometry hurts more than helps. In stock trim, the 2011 CRF250 suffers from headshake down straights and oversteer in corners. Resolving those issues will take creative thinking and money.

(2) Forks. The 2011 Showa units are minimally better than last year, but they still need help. The frame geometry is mostly to blame, but the soft forks still take some heat from MXA test riders.

(3) Clutch.
Persistent clutch abuse will lead to a slipping clutch that fries in short order. The reason? Honda uses longer clutch springs that aren’t stiff enough to keep the clutch stack from slipping. Stiffer aftermarket clutch springs are an affordable and effective solution.

(4) Front tire.
The Dunlop D742FA is a poor excuse for a tire. In fact, it’s an abomination.

(5) Footpegs. Dear Honda, 1990 called and they want their footpegs back. Honda has the worst footpegs on the market. They are small and easily pack with mud.

(6) Front brake guard. It’s nice that Honda tried to protect the front brake rotor. With that said, the guard keeps air from cooling the rotor, leading to brake fade. Take the guard off and press the axle spacer out (you’ll need it). You might laugh, but guess what?there is a noticeable difference in brake life with and without the guard (although not if you are a “three-lap and a sandwich” practice rider).

(7) Mud guard. After a few hours of hard riding, the chain will begin to eat through the left side of the mud guard.

Q: WHAT DO WE LIKE?

A: The like list:

(1) Engine. It would be wrong of us to snub the CRF250’s horsepower numbers. It is the 2011 250 four-stroke dyno king. The dyno’s awesome power output doesn’t exactly transfer to the racetrack, but it is quite fast in the midrange.

(2) Sound. This bike purrs like a kitten. We commend Honda for lowering the sound output of the CRF250. It’s an ear-soothing 89.9 dB.

(3) HPSD. Honda is the only manufacturer to utilize a steering damper on their motocross bikes, and the CRF250’s handling needs the additional help to calm it down.

(4) Aesthetics. Sitting still, the CRF250 looks fast. We love the aesthetics, especially the usefulness of the rear fender hand hold.

(5) Weight.
The 2011 CRF250 is flickable in the air and light in motion.

Q: WHAT DO WE REALLY THINK?

A: When we asked every MXA test rider what they thought of the 2011 Honda CRF250, they praised the midrange power, were lukewarm about the suspension and loathed the handling. Depending on how you use it, the 2011 CRF250 will live and die by the headshake and oversteer caused by its radical frame geometry. It’s sad, but true.

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