Back in the day there was a wide range of trail bikes on the market. From the two stroke brilliance of Yamaha’s DTs to the mighty Honda XRs. If you wanted to go green you could head for the Kawasaki’s KDX or KLX range for your dose of off-road riding at the weekend and then return to commuting on the same bike on Monday morning.
Honda CRF250L Vs Kawasaki KLX250S… The battle of the true trailies
But things have moved on since those halcyon days. Trail riding has become more and more difficult to do thanks to meddling middle-aged townies moving into the countryside and the demographics of motorcycling have followed them into the middle years. The resultant effect has been that there are precious few true trail bikes left, and the off-road market has polarised to Austrian domination of bikes that in reality are far from trail bikes. So in a landscape dominated by supremely competent enduro machines that can pound the lanes one day and win Romaniacs the next, is there still a niche for an old fashioned trail bike?
Honda Vs Kawasaki… which is really better?
Looking at our list of trailies from the glory years, the KLX250 is the only one still surviving. Kawasaki continue to produce the soft-roader some thirty years later and although there have been subtle changes and upgrades over the years, the basic bike is still much the same animal – a gentle and easy to use bike that will run for the next two decades with very little fuss. The 2016 version may take some of its design cues from the KXF motocross range, but this boy is no track monster.
For Honda, the legendary XRs and XLs have long since been consigned to the history books. When we contacted Honda to obtain stock pictures of the XR400R for our XR Vs DRZ review, even after trawling through the photo archive of the whole global network from California at Tokyo, Honda could only locate a solitary image of the bike. The XR was made for nearly ten years, sold thousands of units across the globe and continues to be a firm favourite a decade after production ceased, yet only one image exists. That’s show business …
In its place, Honda now has the CRF250L as the only true trail bike in their range. Using what is essentially a road bike engine in a steel frame, the budget priced bike is constructed outside Japan and has proved to be a popular bike for both commuters and would-be off-roaders.
UP FOR AN EPIC ADVENTURE?
After retiring all of the trusty Honda XRs from our tour bike fleet in Southeast Asia and we needed to decide on their replacement. So which of these bikes would takes the top step in this battle of an often forgotten class? We had to know…
Toby purchased one of each bike in Cambodia and Julian took some out for test rides on the UK’s green lanes. The Kawasaki KLX250S Vs Honda CRF250L… which is really better?
The Kawasaki KLX250 scores well for comfort, thanks to a good seat and good suspension. Even at full chat the bike remains planted and copes with the big hits well. Although the CRF would take the win for road riding comfort.
Although the frame looks sturdy and well finished, the steel needs care to keep it from getting rusty in damp conditions. The bike needs a proper bash plate straight away.
As the KLX is relatively tried and trusted tech, it needs to be a tad cheaper than the RRP. Haggle like hell if you are buying new.
The KLX has some MX style presence in the car park and looks the part. Expect to change plastics occasionally to keep it from looking tired.
As stock the power needs freeing up to be really enjoyable. It’s fine and stupidly quiet in standard form, you just know it’s being strangled. We wouldn’t dream of using this bike on our tours without modifications.
Green, Clean and far from Mean – KAWASAKI KLX 250
The fact that this bike still exists within Kawasaki’s range is something of a miracle. With the big K often struggling with Suzuki to keep up with Honda and Yamaha, the need to streamline their range must be ever present. So the very fact that it is still there does suggest that however much the market might have shrunk for this machine, it is still there. And on the basis of our test, we can see why. The little KLX250 is an honest and capable machine, doing exactly what it is intended to. And what’s more it’s capable of being substantially better with not too much effort or indeed cash.
Coming in at just over £4000 in the UK, it’s a cheap bike to start off with compared to the performance enduro models at almost double that. The bike runs a four valve, fuel-injected, six geared 249cc DOHC motor in a steel perimeter frame. The front forks are only adjustable for compression damping, but the rear can be tweaked for preload, compression and rebound damping.
So what else do you need to know? The brakes use a 255mm front and 230mm rear disc, the tank has a fairly small 7.7 litre capacity and the ground clearance is 285mm – that’s not massive in off-road terms but big in road terms.
The exhaust is a full Euro 3 compliant unit with an internal catalytic converter. These are not words you want to hear.
But the smaller sibling 250 is far more visible and the lump it uses looks a dead ringer for the DRZ donk, even if the internal capacity is lower. And the similarities don’t end there… Click here to view on the Kawasaki website.
RIDE EXPEDITIONS RATING: KAWASAKI
The Honda CRF250L may not have adjustable suspension, but what is there does the job well. The seat is ‘all-day’ comfortable and the cockpit is open once you ditch those nasty steel bars. The KLX has the upper edge of comfort on the tougher off-road.
Even though the CRF250L is built far away from Japan in downtown Thailand, the Honda quality is still there. From the steel frame to the excel rims, it’s good stuff. You will however want to add a strong radiator guard to the top of your shopping list
All this goodness and flexibility for less than 4 large is great value in any currency. Buy a nearly new and you can take a quarter off that too!
For a budget level bike, the Honda is still a looker, so scores high with its MX inspired styling.
As stock it’s competent and copes with on or moderate off-road easily. And simply a new pipe lets the power rip.
Little Red Rooster –HONDA CRF 250L
Pitched at the same price point as the KLX, the Honda CRF250L has been a bit of a silent assassin in the range, clocking up fans from both the tarmac and mud community. As a true Ronseal bike, the Honda does exactly what it says on the tin. You can commute every day from now until your pension kicks in and the bike will never let you down, yet if you want to mix in a bit of dirty fun, then it’s happy to oblige. It’s a winning combination.
Honda list the little CRF in the adventure section of their website and in fairness that’s not wrong. People are taking this bike on trans-global expeditions thanks to its rock solid capabilities and reliability. Like the KLX it’s a 250 cc, six geared, four valve DOHC lump wrapped in a steel frame that’s painted to look like aluminium. It’s clearly not ‘ally’ because if it were the bike wouldn’t come in at a decidedly porky 144 kg. American website Motorcycle.com called this ‘feathery’ – they clearly have some mighty big birds in the US …
The wheels are 18/21. The ground clearance is lower than the Kawi at 255mm and the brakes use a combination of a 256 front disc and a 220mm rear. The look of the bike fits in with the rest of the bikes in the CRF range, but the motor is a transfer from the road division having been swiped from the CBR250R. It works well on the dual-purpose guise having been given a smaller 36mm throttle body and a longer, narrower exhaust header to extend the midrange. The bike is more than capable off-road and just as the KLX, the motor has more to give once freed of the emission friendly gubbins that the regulators seem to love.
Like the KLX, the tank is 7.7 litres but as with the Kawasaki, the Honda is not a thirsty bunny – it sips the unleaded like it would prefer not to have to bother. Click here to view on Honda’s website
RIDE EXPEDITIONS RATING: HONDA
The CRF and KLX out on the trail
Heading out onto the trails, these bikes feel remarkably similar in standard guise. You immediately lose the weight that is evident on the side stand and the bikes both feel surprisingly agile given their bulk. Also immediately noticeable is that you step off an enduro bike onto these two mild-Millie’s you are going to be seriously disappointed. You really have to reset your head to cope with the power drop on the standard bikes. If you keep these bikes for any length of time then the chance of you not seeking out a bit more oomph are small – but more of this later.
The overall dimensions on the two bikes is compact too, maybe a little more so on the Kawi than the Honda. Both use ‘cheap as chips’ steel bars that bend far too easily and transmit lots of trail vibration. Although we appreciate that they are built to budget, not fitting alloy bars to bikes being made in 2016 is a bit rich – ditch them and go alloy before you take the bike out of the garage in our opinion.
The cockpit and the Kawasaki is pleasing and really easy to read compared to the more slim line off-road models. The Honda isn’t bad too, just a bit more cluttered to our mind, but it does have a fuel gauge while the KLX goes for a tacho instead. Both bikes have conventional key controlled ignition that you will forget if you are not used to keys off-road – that’ll be us then!
” On the red dirt roads and easy trails the comfort and smoothness of the Honda wins every time, but when you get to the more snotty stuff it’s the more agile handling and superior suspension of the Kawi that takes the win. And that’s before the mods! “
– Ride Expeditions founder, Toby Jacobs
Out of the two the plastics on the Honda work better, as the tank shrouds on the Kawi seem to catch your riding jeans on occasions. It’s also made of a tougher compound too – our KLX in Cambodia was dropped and plastic snapped far too easily. Similarly – we can hardly believe we are saying this – the footpegs are better on the Honda being both wider and more comfortable than the skinny steel items on the KLX.
Suspension wise, the Kawasaki KLX250 comes out in front, thanks to the adjustability of the rear and front compared to Honda’s ‘you get what you are given’ units. But while that’s a win for the green bike, Little Red gets the vote on the power of the stock machine as it’s got that little bit more bite that you need.
One annoying glitch on the Honda CRF250L that was really noticeable was the fact that the engine is asymmetrical and really sticks out on the right hand case, forcing your legs wider than the left. In comparison the KLX250 feels much more natural.
Both machines come with road based semi-knobbly tyres that sort of do the job on both surfaces, but inevitably fall short once it gets slippery, giving them a vague and uncertain feel. They grip, just take a while to do it almost like they are operating on a fly-by-wire interface, rather than handlebars.
As a final note, the fuel economy on both bikes is just staggering. We went out all day on both machines and when it came to refuel time our trail riding buddies were putting in £8 of fuel in their two-strokes, while the KLX took half that at £4 and the lil’ Honda just £3.50. Impressive stuff.
CRF250L Vs KLX250 – THE VERDICT
From stock these bikes are very similar, as you’d expect. Where the one excels, the other has an answer up its sleeve. Both are extremely easy to ride both on and off-road, but if left standard you will soon find their limitations. On the basis of the marginally more punchy motor the Honda edges it in the battle of the CRF250L Vs KLX250S, but the Kawasaki is damn close even given it’s long model run. Upgraded, it’s a different story…
” We will be replacing our trusty old XR’s with the Kawasaki KLX250 for the trails in Cambodia alongside our YAMAHA WRF450’s for those that insist on extra horses!. But the Kawi as standard simply won’t cut it, so ours will all be heavily modified to improve performance – bored out to 300cc, fuel controllers, aftermarket exhausts etc. The Honda CRF250’s will be used for our tours up in Laos and Vietnam. “
Ride Expeditions have upgraded our fleet of Honda XR250’s and Suzuki DRZ400’s that we used on our off-road tours in Southeast Asia, and it is now the Kawasaki KLX & Honda CRF 250’s and the YAMAHA WRF450s are the ones to fill their shoes. But bearing in mind that the little 250’s lack in power when left standard, we need to look at options for upping the ponies.
HONDA CRF 250L
For the CRF, releasing the power appears to be relatively simple. A quick swap on the strangling pipe that Honda have fitted to a far more free breathing FMF version releases the horses like opening all the stable doors at once. From a shy librarian it removes its glasses, shakes loose its hair and is suddenly far more fun to be with. In fact the power and noise on the FMF make the CRFL feel much more like its predecessor XR’s – close your eyes and you’ll be convinced that Honda are still making them.
Next up the tyres need to go in favour of proper off-road rubber, though what you choose depends on the terrain. In the UK we go for a trial rear and enduro front, but in Vietnam and Laos where we will be using these, then enduro both ends is the best way to go.
Other than this it’s just a set of new taller alloy bars, either cross-braced or FatBars and we are good to go on a totally transformed Honda that will still return 70mpg and run all day – perfect.
KAWASAKI KLX 250
For the KLX, the older engine needs a bit more help to get real sweet. We’re heading along the route of ‘there’s no replacement for displacement’ by fitting a 300cc big-bore kit for the new bikes we’re using in Cambodia. Allied to this we’ve changed the exhaust system to let it breathe freely and added a hopped-up EFI control unit with improved mapping to match the pipe. The results, when matched to a new 14/45 sprocket setup are an astounding improvement over stock and release the potential in this dependable little motor. Where the stock bike lacked the snap to overcome trail obstacles, the upgrades make it one hell of a bike for adventure motorcycling, and a worth successor to the legendary Honda XR250s we used to run and love. The King is dead, long live the King.
Which do you think is best?
Have you ridden or owned either of these bikes? Cast your vote on which bike you think is better and leave your comments below – we’d love to hear your experiences! Or if you’d like to come and ride one of ours, hop on over to our Ride Calendar to see what tours we’ve got on and when.
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