2011 Honda CBR250R
Nobody should be surprised to learn that Honda has the know-how to build a smooth, light, easy-to-manage motorcycle that is ideal for novice riders.
Or that the company can make a practical commuter bike that combines hybrid-beating fuel economy with a comfortable riding position and a flexible, well-mannered engine. Or that it has the ability to create a sportbike that can make even jaded ex-racers consider becoming racers again.
What does raise eyebrows, though, is that Honda can do all this with a single motorcycle — and do it at the entry-level price of $4,299.
The 2011 CBR250R is the latest example of Honda’s knack for changing the world’s perceptions of what a motorcycle, and motorcycling, can do. Honda did it with the Cub a half-century ago, which has since become the best-selling motor vehicle ever, its production run topping 60 million. Honda’s lightning struck again with the 1969
CB 750, whose use of an inline 4-cylinder engine came to define the Universal Japanese Motorcycle.
Designed for a growing world market that includes, almost as an afterthought, the Americas, and built in Honda’s long-established factory in Thailand, the CBR250R is intended to be sold for decades, in huge numbers — sort of a two-wheel Model T of the 21st century.
By the simple math of its 249 cc displacement, low 30.5-inch seat height and come-hither price, the CBR250R will be typecast as a beginner bike in the United States. But its smart design and thoroughly modern engineering make it far more than that: even with me aboard — and my weight in pounds exceeds the Honda’s displacement in cc’s — the little CBR is fully capable, on a sufficiently curvy road, of disappearing into the distance ahead of much-bigger, much-heavier, much-more-expensive motorcycles.
It’s a laugh-in-the-helmet reminder of just how much sheer fun a good lightweight street motorcycle can be. It has nearly the same dimensions as a razor-sharp Honda CBR600RR sportbike, but weighs 44 pounds less. It’s nimble in responding to steering inputs, yet stable and confidence-inspiring once set into a turn. Its suspension is expertly tuned, able to accommodate riders from 125 pounds to 250 pounds and more without major sacrifices in either ride or handling.
The liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, single-cylinder engine was created exclusively for the CBR. At a price where most manufacturers, especially in these hard times for motorcycle sales, would be tempted to recycle older technology, Honda started from scratch.
A counterbalancer quells vibration; new roller-bearing camshaft followers cut friction; a cylinder bore offset from the crankshaft centerline does more of the same. An exhaust catalyst cleans up emissions, and an ample muffler lets you slip past the neighbors almost undetected. The engine is tuned mildly, emphasizing usability and durability.
If treated gently, as most beginners will, with the revs kept in the neighborhood of its 7,000-r.p.m. torque peak, the CBR250R will still outrun most everyday automotive and scooter traffic.
If you wind the motor higher, there’s a lot more fun to be had. Peak power — 23.7 horsepower, according to Cycle World’s testing — arrives at 8,500 r.p.m., but the happy little single is more than willing to stay at its electronically enforced 10,500 r.p.m. redline all day long.
Where bigger motorcycles loaf, the CBR is screaming—but it’s doing so with impressive smoothness and relative silence. The handlebars have a very slight buzz at high revs, but for riders wearing a full-face helmet, gloves and earplugs the only indication that the motor is spinning rather quickly will be the tachometer needle.
It was a surprise to me, after decades of riding much bigger and costlier bikes, that such a small machine could be so capable. It shouldn’t have been. In the ’60s, when Honda and other Japanese manufacturers were breaking into the American market, a 250 cc machine was considered midsized to eager high school and college students.
Veteran riders can remember thinking of a Yamaha RD350 or a Honda CB450 as fast — an era in which even the near-exotic Honda 750 made just 67 horsepower.
In city traffic, the CBR gives almost no outward indication that it is a lowly 250. The new motor has enough flywheel effect to prevent stalling; excellent calibration of its electronic fuel injection; and a clutch with a soft, wide engagement point make it easy to keep the motor spinning. The 6-speed transmission is sure and smooth, encouraging you to bang off gear changes as if you were accelerating away from a MotoGP grid.
The CBR250R is available with an antilock braking system for an extra $500. Its brakes are so good — precise and powerful, with excellent feel — that an expert may be tempted to do without. But for the great majority of riders, especially newcomers to street riding, they should be considered a necessity.
Once up to speed, the CBR is remarkably capable even in the 75-80 m.p.h. flow of Southern California’s freeways. It looks like a baby brother to Honda’s VFR1200 sport touring bike, and its riding position is just as comfortable. What matters is the relationship of the seat to handlebars to footpegs, and the CBR has it right. Friends in my riding group from 5-foot-6 to 6-foot-4 adapted in seconds and were happy for hours.
Admittedly, on one long uphill freeway stretch I had to keep the CBR at wide-open throttle in fourth gear (of six) to maintain the 75 m.p.h. pace of my companions on bigger bikes. Still, the CBR250R can do just about anything a bigger motorcycle can do. You just might have to work a little harder, shift a little more or concentrate more — all of which, as least to me, makes the experience more rewarding.
As if you need another rationalization to have this much fun, the CBR also delivers hybridlike fuel economy. I saw an average of 56 m.p.g., and many of those miles were spent at wide-open throttle in the lower gears, climbing from sea level at home to 6,000 feet on the Angeles Crest Highway. In most cases, the 3.4-gallon fuel tank will be good for 180-mile stints.
Honda says that there are 27 patented technologies built into the CBR250R. But it’s the sum of these parts — the way they all work so well together — that makes this bike so appealing.
How good is the CBR250R?
If somebody told me that this was the only street bike I could ride for the rest of my life, I would say, “Oh. Cool.”