Just about any new four-stroke motocrosser is hot news, but the sheer anticipation of the new Honda CRF250R borders on the ridiculous. You can thank the outstanding success of Honda's CRF450R for much of the buzz, but big red's longtime reputation as a four-stroke force and an innovator in all types of racing certainly elevates expectations. Riders not wearing total dirt blinders are aware that Honda built amazing six-cylinder roadrace machines in the '60s, has an enviable record in U.S. Superbike racing, has built race bikes with oval pistons and rings and is currently kicking rear in MotoGP with a V5. If you happen to be a natural skeptic wondering what stinkin' pavement pounders have to do with quality moto machinery, wake up and smell the hot chocolate. GP two-stroke 500cc four-cylinder roadracers have long been an inspiration for change in the 125cc class. Even the most math-challenged dirt rider should be able to cope with dividing 500cc by four. That's right, each cylinder is a 125! The same pathway from pavement trickles down four-stroke technology. The short-stroke, high-revving four-strokes we currently take for granted are rip-offs of Formula One car and roadrace four-stroke technology.
Since we are looking at huge trickle-down here, it bears pointing out that Honda has the deepest well of four-stroke knowledge to draw from. Knowing that, we are as programmed to expect great four-strokes from Honda as Pavlov's dogs were to be fed. As a result, even with a 125cc class bursting with 250cc four-strokes in 2004, die-hard small-bore racers can barely sleep nights awaiting the CRF250R.Thankfully, that wait is over. And we won't be coy--it was worth the wait. That goes for the amazingly tiny powerplant as well as the slim, svelte and sexy fourth-generation aluminum chassis. Whereas the other four-strokes in the class--old and new designs--appear as if the chassis is shrink-wrapped around the motor, this Honda looks like you could slip it into place with your eyes closed--there is plenty of light between this motor and the chassis.
What Honda calls the "type four" (or fourth-generation) aluminum frame utilizes a mixture of castings and extruded tubes as with all previous aluminum models, but this frame uses tubes with a smaller cross-section than any Honda has used before, as well as slimmer and lighter castings. Despite seeming positively lithe compared to past Honda aluminum frames, it appears tough and stout compared to steel-tube frames. Honestly, though, who was worried that the CRF250R frame wouldn't be cool? Honda has had the aluminum-frame situation well in hand for a few years now. Honda's CR125R has a magic chassis, and we'd have been fine with the engineers just hacking that up to make room for the new motor.The real question revolves around the engine. Sure, the CRF450R motor is a hit, but it's not as though Honda has been batting a thousand with debut motors. As often as we've said, "I think I'm in love!" about the CRF450R, we've said of the CR125R, "What were they thinking?" We have no idea how the rumors got started, but many supposedly "in the know" claimed the 250 was delayed because it was slow. Later they said it was definitely fast but was tuned to the limit with no hop-up potential at all. We have no clue about those things.What we do know is this: The compact motor kicks easily and starts even easier. It takes only the tiniest prod at the starter to get the engine fired. Our initial test was at Carlsbad Raceway, so the engine showed only its best manners. The track is nearly at sea level, and the hard clay surface is the perfect showcase for four-stroke power; you could not pick a better place to debut a four-stroke. On the plus side, Carlsbad does have those famous hills, and you can't fool Mother Nature. It takes power to catch each successive gear going uphill.Out on the track, the 250 ran strongly from just above idle. Power built quickly with enough response to spin the tire on the blue-groove surface. In fact, we completely fried two of the Dunlop D756 rear tires during a day with the machine. Admittedly, those intermediate terrain tires were somewhat doomed at Carlsbad. Acceleration on the rough straights and up the steep hills was strong and quick enough to keep grins firmly in place for the entire day. Even with a decidedly Open class-size rider aboard the bike, we were using all of fourth gear on the longest uphill. Are you getting the idea we liked the motor? Perceptive of you. Impressive power, easy and smooth clutch action, no transmission missteps and no hiccups or stumbles sums up this CRF. It is tough to say with no competing model to use as a yardstick, but the bike felt plenty strong.Although we would have been happy enough with an existing chassis adapted to this engine, that wasn't Honda's plan. It chose to debut its type four chassis with the CRF250R, and it is as strong a performer as the engine mated to it. Handling inputs result in instant reactions. The whole feel of the bike is light and accurate. The steering is crisp as well. We did find that suspension setup was critical to stability, but that is to be expected on a track as fast and choppy as Carlsbad. Every rider was able to tune away any busy feeling.The suspension performance was most impressive as well. As with the CRF450R we tested earlier, the quarter-liter CRF has a very supple feel to its action. Both wheels stayed on the ground and in control. The bottoming resistance and feel were excellent with any reasonably sized pilot aboard. We found little to fault with any facet of the CRF's performance. Carlsbad has no rhythm sections or stadium-type jumps, but our experiences only made us want to try other tracks with more technical and modern layouts. We have confidence that no matter where the CRF250R ends up, the person with the butt on the seat and the hand on the throttle will be having big fun.