The XR reborn
The X's fork and shock have some teeth. Don't automatically go to the revalving man until you ride it for yourself.
It ís sad when a cult is left without a leader. That's what happened back in 2005 when the XR250R disappeared. Only now, after four years of mourning, are the faithful ready to move on and deal with the fact that the XR won't be coming back. The CRF250X has finally been accepted as America's official small-bore trail bike. It didn't happen quickly or easily, but it happened.
The resistance came from hard-core XR250 fans; guys like Chris Smith who raced the little stone axe of a bike all over the world. He and others didn't understand why Honda would discontinue a torquey, simple, mild trail bike with something based on a high-rev motocrosser. But now that the loss anxiety has faded, those riders have taken a second look at the X and have realized that even though it's not an XR, it's still pretty darn good.
THE JOURNEY FROM MOTOLAND
Back in 2005, Honda didn't just stick lights, a starter and a big, fat muffler on the CRF250R to make it into a trail bike. Almost all of the parts were altered in some way or another. The frame was made more compliant, the head, cam and piston were changed and then it was topped with a kickstand, an 18-inch wheel, an odometer and so forth. The X looked like the R but was a very different bike. In 2006 and 2007 the X got a number of motor and suspension changes, plus emission updates, but the bike was left unmolested for 2008 and 2009. Now the CRF250X has reached that point in the life of an off-road bike where it has become a staple. It might go unchanged for a very long time, which will probably give comfort to the slowly growing cult that is forming around it.
When trails get ugly, tight and delightfully nasty, you're in CRF250X country.
Our 2009 test bike is a California model. Of all the dirt bikes in Honda's line, the 250X is the only one that has a split identity; there's a version for 49 states and a version for La-La land. The only difference is the cam, which results in slightly more torque for the California model. Weird. In either case, the bike makes spectacular bottom-end power for its breed. Face it, a 250 four-stroke isn't supposed to have torque. That was what lifted the old XR to its icon status. It ran great down low. Of course, it was a dog up higher, but that's forgotten and forgiven. The CRF250X has near-XR levels of power on the bottom, but you would never know because the motor feels so different. With the CRF, the bottom-end is like fly-over country--something you go through on the way to somewhere else.
As the revs climb, the CRF just feels happy and willing. There's certainly no wild excess of power, but somehow you don't notice or care. The motor just works. And all this takes place in stock condition. The bike is 100 percent EPA and California Green Sticker legal, and you don't have to do a darn thing to it before you go have fun. There's no rejetting required, no airbox modification needed and certainly no throttle stop to be defeated. If you decide you can't stand leaving things alone and remove the baffle, you'll be rewarded with more noise and less power.
Honda designed the X motor to work perfectly well in stock form. If you want more power, you'll have to work for it.
Conversely, if you decide to take the X racing, you'll need to find more power, and it isn't easy. A race pipe doesn't produce a very satisfying increase by itself. You have to go all the way, with a different cam and piston to really made a difference. And then you [will] have to mess with jetting and airbox changes. There's no shortcut here.
BUT LEAVE THE CHASSIS BE
If you spent your whole budget finding more power and decided to drop the CRF250X into a national enduro, you would be fine. You wouldn't have to do a thing to the chassis. It doesn't need suspension work. It doesn't need a steering damper. It doesn't even need to lose weight. The Honda handles great. It feels light and easy to dominate, and generally encourages you to go faster and faster. The little CRF has Honda's off-road version of the HPSD system, which is a tiny shock-absorber-like steering damper mounted behind the headlight. It is the least intrusive damper in the universe, so much so that many desert racers mount [another] steering damper on the bars (mostly on the 450 version). You wouldn't double-down dampers on a 250 four-stroke, of course, because there probably isn't much high-speed desert on your agenda. In fact, the HPSD system is just right for the 250; you don't feel it unless you remove it. Then the bike loses some of the magic stability in fast turns.
Likewise, the suspension is perfect for the 250's target riding. It's cushy and comfy enough over the little stuff, but someone at Honda definitely spiked the punch. You can push the CRF as hard as you want on trails, and you never feel like you're over-riding the fork and shock. It can even deal with whoops the size of dead horses without issue. Only when you get cocky and take it on a motocross course does the bike reach its limits. The X is set up much more aggressively than anything you might expect out of a 250 four-stroke.
That's why the bike is developing it own secret society. Yeah, those who bemoan the loss of the XR still exist, but they'll come around. In stock form, the 2009 Honda CRF250X is the best 250cc trail bike that we've ever had. It's about time that we made it official.
Once upon a time, there was a bike called the XR250R with a cult of crazy followers. The CRF is a worthy replacement. The suggested retail price is the only change for 2009; it's $6699.