HOW TO BUILD CHAMPAGNE HONDA CRF250 ….ON A BEER BUDGET

September 25, 2012
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Testing dirt bikes can be a dirty business?both in the figurative and literal sense of the word. It is because of MXA‘s commitment to testing motorcycles and products without prejudice that we sometimes end up in hot water. Case in point, Honda hasn’t been very pleased with the MXA wrecking crew for the past four years. Communication with Honda, although civil, has been strained by the fact that we have written accurate, but less than glowing tests about the CRF450 and CRF250.

It’s not uncommon for two sides to disagree. Democrats and Republicans. The Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. It’s the nature of humanity. Although we enjoy certain attributes about Honda’s bikes, on the whole we have had serious issues with the CRF models since they went to the new generation design. And, much to Honda’s dismay, we made it loud and clear to everyone reading our magazine that Honda had made several grave mistakes during product development.

There is a little disconnect going on here because, in truth, the MXA wrecking crew likes Honda. We respect every employee under big red’s roof. We admire their attempt to create a forward-thinking motorcycle instead of simply resting on their laurels. It may have been an effort that received a cacophony of boos from us, but we aren’t narrow minded enough to believe that the world revolves around the MXA wrecking crew. There are proud current model CRF owners who adore their steed. To them we say, Bravo!

Our issues with the 2009 and newer CRF450, as well as the 2010-2012 CRF250, are plentiful. They are also solvable. We have come to enjoy both bikes, but not without making a few changes. It’s no secret that Honda’s kicked-in head angle creates stability problems. That bugaboo isn’t as apparent on the CRF250, but it’s still prevalent on faster and rougher tracks. The engine, a fire-belching beast on the previous generation carb-equipped 250F, was tamped down once Honda went to electronic fuel injection. Adding insult to injury, the suspension has typically be too soft.


Of all the mods we made the most imporrtant one was changing the gearing from 49-teeth to 50-teeth.

Over the past three years we have tested every conceivable CRF250?from Trey Canard’s Geico/Honda to a slew of aftermarket hop-up bikes. Through the hours of seat time on these bikes we began noticing a pattern. There were four distinguishing areas on a CRF250 that were addressed that we found favor in?the suspension, engine, front brake and clutch.

The MXA wrecking crew understands that times are tough. Despite lofty proclamations from incumbent politicians about a rebounding economy, the empty wallets of the public don’t lie. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and neither do motorcycles. That is why MXA scoured the aftermarket industry looking for quality deals on products that would befit a Honda CRF250. Our objective was to keep the total bill under $2000 while solving the numerous riddles of an otherwise excellent bike.

STEP ONE: FIRST AND FOREMOST, WE WERE PARTICULARLY INTERESTED IN MATCHING UP THE SUSPENSION WITH WHAT A HEAVIER AND/OR FASTER RIDER WOULD REQUIRE OUT OF THE SHOWA UNITS.

Step one: First and foremost, we were particularly interested in matching up the suspension with what a heavier and/or faster rider would require out of the Showa units. We chose Factory Connection for several reasons. First, we generally like the work that Factory Connection does. We say “generally” because they missed the mark when we tested a Wiseco-build Kawasaki KX450F in the February 2012 issue. We wanted to give them another chance. Second, Factory Connection does the handiwork for the likes of Justin Barcia, Eli Tomac, Justin Bogle and Wil Hahn. If anyone knows how to tune Honda CRF250 suspension, it’s Factory Connection.

What’s our complaint about the stock fork setup? The 0.45 kg/mm fork springs are too soft for our tastes (which Honda has addressed on the 2013 model). Jumping up a spring rate not only helps prevent bottoming, but it balances out the chassis. This quick fix isn’t the be-all, end-all solution to the handling/suspension quibbles, but it is significantly better. Not surprising, Factory Connection installed 0.46 kg/mm fork springs for our target 180 pound Vet Intermediate. They also lowered the oil height by 27cc (to 345cc) to prevent midstroke harshness, used new fork seals and did a revalve job.

As for the shock, Factory Connection upped the spring rate (from 5.3 kg/mm to a 5.4). They also revalved the shock, replaced the fluid, and installed an oil lock collar set to slow the shock down as it traveled through the stroke.  The total bill for all of Factory Connection’s work? $782.45, including the stiffer springs.

STEP TWO: THE POWERPLANT OF ANY MOTORCYCLE?THE BELLY OF THE BEAST?IS A PLACE WHERE HORSEPOWER CAN BE GAINED AND MONEY GOES TO DIE.

Our only engine mods were a better clutch and an aftermarket exhaust.

Step two: The powerplant of any motorcycle?the belly of the beast?is a place where horsepower can be gained and money goes to die. We are well aware that the CRF250 gives up over a horsepower to the class leading Kawasaki KX250F, but that doesn’t concern us. If we wanted to bleed money like Cee Lo Green at a wig convention then we would install a pipe, high-compression piston and camshaft. We could have gone whole hog and gone with a 269cc kit. Instead, we yearned for an inexpensive exhaust system that would help spread out the midrange-only powerband of the CRF250.

Enter Yoshimura. We’ve had great luck with Yoshimura exhaust systems on many bikes. It made perfect sense, and cents, to spring for the stainless steel head pipe/aluminum muffler RS-4 system. At $595, it is almost half the price of Yoshimura’s super lightweight titanium/titanium system. Better yet, the design and specifications of the cheaper exhaust match up to the expensive system. The slick carbon fiber end cap on the stainless/aluminum exhaust is the cool looking cherry on top of the cake.

STEP THREE: PERFORMANCE MODIFICATIONS DON’T ALWAYS COST MONEY. WE LEARNED SEVERAL YEARS AGO THAT A VICE COULD IMPROVE BRAKING POWER ON A CRF250

A lot of the CRF250 handling woes are byproducts of its overly soft front forks?stiffen those up and you can make the CRF250 do what you want.

Step three: Performance modifications don’t always cost money. We learned several years ago that a vice could improve braking power on a CRF250. How is that possible? Honda has incorporated a plastic front rotor guard into the axle collar. The guard helps protect the rotor from damage, but hinders airflow, leading to weak braking power caused by excessive heat. We removed the rotor guard/axle collar and used a vice to press out the collar. Increasing airflow to the rotor improved stopping performance.

The CRF250 has the weakest brakes in the class, but brakes on other bikes of the Big Four aren’t much better. The MXA wrecking crew values a quality oversize front brake. We’ve become quite fond of Moto-Master’s rotors, because they provide progressive feel at the brake lever and lock up with force when needed. The Moto-Master Flame oversize rotor set us back $175.00, and an additional $74.95 for the bracket.

STEP FOUR: THE STOCK CRF250 CLUTCH DOESN’T UNDERPERFORM LIKE THE FOUR-SPRING CRF450 UNIT, BUT IT’S NOTHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT, EITHER.

Although we spent some money foolishly on some foof,  the heart of our beer budget program was to fix the brakes, suspension, clutch and powerband for under $220.

Step four: The stock CRF250 clutch doesn’t underperform like the four-spring CRF450 unit, but it’s nothing to write home about, either. The five-spring clutch has a metered and consistent feel at the blade, but over time the springs lose tension and the clutch basket tangs become notched. Most riders can keep the clutch in working condition for quite some time, but it will eventually give up the ghost.

Wiseco has developed a clutch kit for the CRF250 that we were interested in testing. Wiseco uses a harder material on their clutch basket ($259.75) for added durability. Stiffer Wiseco clutch plates ($139.95) were also beneficial. Although unnecessary, for our purposes, we wrapped up the package with a Wiseco clutch cover ($164.95). The inner hub and pressure plate remained stock?becasuse we didn’t want to break the bank.

THE END RESULT: TO BE PERFECTLY CANDID, THE MXA WRECKING CREW ALWAYS KNEW WHAT IT TOOK TO MAKE THE CRF250 PERFORM BETTER IN THE AREAS OF SUSPENSION, HANDLING, BRAKING AND POWER.

We went with a stainless steel Yoshimura exhaust system. It works the same as the high-priced Ti systems, but without the hefty price tag. 

The end result: To be perfectly candid, the MXA wrecking crew knew what it took to make the CRF250 perform better in the areas of suspension, handling, braking and power. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce what would make our CRF250 work. Stiffer fork springs kept the front end up through rough sections and stable at speed, and the shock resisted bottoming. Factory Connection did an excellent job at calming the CRF250 chassis down. We recommend their handiwork to any CRF owner unhappy with chassis balance and suspension performance.

The Yoshimura RS-4 stainless steel/aluminum exhaust helped broaden the powerband without breaking the bank. We yearned for an even stronger CRF250 engine, but that would require a camshaft and head work?two things that weren’t in the budget. Yoshimura also offers a EMS PIM2 unit for limitless customizable tuning to the EFI system. Again, since we were pinching pennies we steered clear of the advanced software. If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to boost midrange, do we what did. Add a tooth to the rear sprocket.

Unless you ride a KTM, Husqvarna or TM, we strongly recommend investing in an oversize front brake rotor. The benefits are huge. Not only can you brake deeper into corners, but a rotor like the Moto-Master Flame allows for a more metered feel at the lever. We suggest sticking with the stock brake pads. CRF250 owners, interested in an oversize rotor or not, should remove the front brake rotor guard.

You might be able to get away with using the stock CRF250 clutch for a season, but sooner or later the clutch will begin to slip and feel notchy. Although this was our first time testing the Wiseco clutch in a CRF250, we were pleased with the results. The worst clutch abusers couldn’t wear out the system, thanks in part to the stiffer clutch springs.

What’s the total cost of our 2012 Honda CRF250 project bike build? $2195.45, not including some of the add-ons that we tacked on. It’s very intriguing that for under $2200 a CRF250 owner can drastically improve his bike.

For information on the products that we used, visit www.factoryconnection.com, www.yoshimura-rd.com, www.wiseco.com and www.moto-masterusa.com.

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