2003 Honda CR 250R - First Test & Review - Dirt Rider

In the extremely competitive world of professional motocross, race teams constantly battle with each other for race wins and, ultimately, championships. What drives these million-dollar semis to the races every week is the corporate motto: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. Honda may have caught your attention with the untouchable pace and race results of Ricky Carmichael. He wrapped up the 250 supercross title and has not let up on the competition for outdoors with a blistering streak of moto wins on pace for a record-setting year. This redhead has even a few DR staffers wondering if they could improve their lap times by riding an '03 CR250 with the handlebar rolled back. Critics speculated that the rigidity of the CR's twin-spar aluminum frame would haunt Carmichael with his wide-open riding style. Even though some of the other factory teams have scoffed at the Honda's frame, doubting RC's measured up with the stock unit, these protests have only served to prove Honda's design. The frame reveals stock dimensions upon close AMA scrutiny and demonstrates Honda's twin-spar creation can be pushed to the absolute limits without any repercussions.The normally dominant CR250 found itself runner-up to the YZ last year, and that's after winning it all in 2000. With Honda chasing the boys in blue for a change and other manufacturers looking to move up in the ranking as always, the big question is: Will this year's changes prove to be enough to move the Red Wing into the lead?What's New?
Honda may have unveiled its third-generation twin-spar aluminum frame just last year, but it's obvious the guys in R&D; weren't allowed to cash in all their accrued vacation hours following the '02 introduction. This year's machine is full of innovations aimed at better power and a plusher ride. They started with different cylinder porting closer to the race team's specs for more top-end and overrev performance. The changed cylinder required an all-new exhaust pipe for optimum performance. To achieve better sealing at low speeds and smoother flow at high speeds, the exhaust port was reshaped and thickened. On the intake side, the reed valve has been altered to an eight-petal design, much like what comes in the CR500, for more responsive throttle response and low-end power. This year's air intake system offers a 10-degree straighter alignment with the engine, also targeted for stronger bottom-end and all-around performance. A new foam gasket between the airbox and airboot was added in an attempt to eliminate last year's Achilles' heel. The CDI's new mapping broadened power in all directions.The third-generation frame was almost untouched; just some minor refinements were made for additional durability. The suspension has a number of adjustments starting with more midvalve compression in the 47mm inverted Showa fork. The shock has gone from a 4.9 to a 5.1kg/mm spring rate with more rebound and compression damping to complement the alterations to the fork.Track Time
The evolutionary advances in all of the 250cc production motorcycles have some, like KTM, putting out almost 50 horsepower with rumors of even more for '03. These lightweight modern marvels are capable of churning as many ponies as the heavy, slow-reacting 500cc machines that were very popular in the past. Setting the mark at 50 horsepower has left engineers scrambling year-round to squeeze every last drop of power out of their engines. Honda stepped into the future last year with its case-reed electronic power-valve design. The '02 engine was very predictable and smooth but lacked grunt in any part of the powerband. Honda made lots of motor mods so the '03 machine would lose that electric-smooth feel and really bring the CR engine to life.On the track we found the new powerplant has more hit in the bottom and midrange with close to the same top-end performance. Even with the improved power, the new CR still requires either shifting down a gear or lots of clutching in deep soil and powdery berms. Several of our more advanced riders like DR tester David Barrett thought the bike had potential but still felt the engine was slightly anemic and would need a trip to the hop-up shop before race day.However, the rather uneventful power does have its advantages when you are in dry and slippery conditions. The motor tracks well and doesn't break loose unexpectedly. Slower riders liked the controllable feel of the smooth powerband and noted the machine took less energy to ride in long motos. We put the technicians through the wringer trying countless combinations of jetting, but that only moved the power around and we were never able to lose the motor's tinny feel. With the help of master technician Eric Crippa, we found using a 430 main jet, optional GBEH2-72 needle in the first clip, 35 pilot jet and air screw at 1.5 turns had the entire powerband running cleaner with a more responsive feel. Tweaking just a touch more idle than stock did help improve the power. The shifting is a bit notchy and made the CR struggle when shifted under a major load.After the first day of riding, we questioned the new gasket that seals the airbox and airboot. When we were pulling the entire airbox apart on the CR250R, we discovered some debris had entered the gasket between the airbox and airboot. The problem appears to be the new gasket's porous material that is not entirely air- or watertight. Remember, last year's airbox was very problematic and required serious modifications to seal properly. Our suggestion is to install a Pro Seal kit on the '03, which includes a two-neoprene gasket (one on the air filter side and a thinner one on the airboot side) and a new aluminum airboot plate. Retail price is $54.95, and it's available from PC Racing at 909/698-4962.The suspension changes made to the front and rear for '03 seem to accommodate the more aggressive and heavy riders. The Showa fork feels stiffer this year and all of our testers generally went out on the compression. The stock compression setting is 14 clicks out and both Jason Webb and Barrett ended up running 16 clicks out as their favorite setup. Fork rebound stayed close to the stock setting of 15 clicks, only moving one or two snicks in either direction for all our final settings. The shock is also stiffer with the beefier spring rate and new valving. With the sag set at 98mm, the bike still settles and corners well but a couple clicks of less compression gave the bike a plusher ride. Fortunately, the stiffened suspension still has the same plush Honda feel. The chassis handles great and maintains the same stable, predictable manners on the roughest of tracks.Everybody who was pleased with last year's bike will smile a little bigger when they ride the '03 CR. Honda's new 250 may have retained a slightly anemic motor but the rest of the bike, brakes, tires, suspension and craftsmanship are all still top notch. The upcoming shootout will see how it stacks up against the competition.What's Hot!

•Smooth tractable power
•Great brakes
•Comfortable ergonomics
•Stable handling
•Best seat-foam density available on a
stock MXer

What's not!

•Engine feels sleepy
•Fork is harsh for light riders
•Doesn't shift under power

Last year's CR250 made me happy in a number of ways but the weak engine kept it from being my number-one choice. With my major concern being the motor, I couldn't wait to see if the power had been improved. This year's engine has more bark in the bottom and midrange with close to the same top-end performance. The bike got more of what it needed but still feels a little underpowered in deep soil conditions. I was forced to ride a gear lower in tight corners due to the bike's struggle to pull second gear at times. The quality I did like about the tame powerband was how long I could ride the bike without getting tired. The '03 CR didn't like to be shifted under power, sometimes refusing to change gears without me backing off the throttle. Suspension worked great with a very balanced and predictable feel. The bike remained stable even at the end of the day when the track revealed its nastiest braking and acceleration bumps. The '03 CR corners like last year's machine with the same light and nimble feel. This year's CR250 has retained a lot of the good qualities it had last year but still feels slightly down on power.
--Jason Webb/5'10"/175 lb/IntermediateWhen I sit on the '03 CR250, seat, bar, pegs and controls fit perfectly. Just like last year the ergos are very comfortable. Front to back, the suspension has a balanced feel, making this thing slide into corners like a champ. The fork was harsh at times when entering corners with big braking bumps but not bad elsewhere. The bike still handles well and has a very lightweight, maneuverable feel in the air. The motor is all right but needs a few adjustments to be race-ready. The jetting is very touchy and hard to get right, even with a technician by your side. The bike's smooth power shined when the track dried out and became slippery. If the CR had spot-on jetting specs and a different rear sprocket, it would be dialed.
--Danny Carlson/5'9"/145 lb/Pro

Well, you always are excited to ride the new bikes and it seems with Honda you have that extra enthusiasm because of the incredible leaps in technology over the last few years. This year the bike looked relatively the same, which was a slight disappointment but I was definitely going to look beyond that for this ride. When I first sat on the bike, its fit and finish immediately came to light--the best of the Japanese bikes without a doubt! Nothing feels better ergonomically sitting still than a Honda; seat height feels great, the foam is just the right density, the levers are good quality and the bar feels like it's in the best position. It's hard not to feel like Goldilocks here finding the perfect porridge, chair and bed.

After finally getting the CR out on the sandy track, what I noticed first was how light and nimble the bike feels. You can easily take the inside lines and whip it off jumps, but there is more to riding than just looking cool or winning practice. As I began to push this bike hard to turn out decent lap times, I knew I would have to make significant changes to the suspension. My arms started to pump up at the sight of braking bumps because I knew I was in for a slight round of Honda headshake. The winner ultimately was the bike. I don't know if I was just too light for the rigid frame to correctly diagnose and treat the problem, but I could never make it handle the way I wanted.

The motor, on the other hand, performed well considering we were at a really sandy track without another bike to compare it with. We had a little difficulty jetting the bike. But after we found the solution, I was able to clear all the jumps I needed to keep up with Webb. The bike runs well and jumps admirably, which makes it a strong supercross bike, but how many of you out there have walked a real supercross track, let alone raced one? If you're enjoying riding your 2002 Honda, you will undoubtedly be surprised with this one. The Dirt Rider 250 shootout will be the ultimate judge of how much is Ricky's talent and the Honda's true performance against the others.
--David Barrett/5'10"/145 lb/Pro DR