This week we returned to our roots. It was all about riding small-bore dual-sport bikes. We have the Honda CRF300L and the Kawasaki KLX300. The main appeal to both bikes is price; they each sell for around $5500. Both are made in Thailand and both are more about simple transportation than going fast off-road.
The Honda CRF300L first appeared as the CRF250L back in 2013, then it got a major update in 2021. The stroke was increased by 8mm to arrive at 286cc. It got new camshafts, and both the airbox and the exhaust were redesigned. The finish is outstanding, the brakes are made by Nissin and the rims are aluminum. You have to get up close to see the inexpensive stuff. The suspension is about as basic as possible. The rear has adjustable spring preload and that’s all; no reservoir, no clickers. The handlebar is ⅞-inch steel, and there are no handguards or frame guards. It comes in at 286 pounds without fuel.
The Kawasaki KLX300 has a very different backstory. It’s been blinking in and out of existence since 1994. In its early days, it was one of very few small-bore off-road four-strokes. In technology, it was miles ahead of the Honda XR250R and the Suzuki DR250 of the day, which were both single overhead cam and air cooled. The off-road version of the KLX lasted about 15 years–most of that time as a 300. The dual-sport version KLX250 was introduced in 2006 and lasted until 2014. It disappeared for a brief period and then showed up with fuel injection. The version of the bike you see today came to life in 2021 when the displacement was upped to 292cc. One area where Kawasaki splurged was in suspension. The fork has adjustable rebound damping, and the piggyback shock has adjustable preload, rebound and compression damping. On our scale, the Kawasaki is 282 pounds without fuel.
Both bikes are taller than you might expect. With unladen suspension, the lowest part of the Kawasaki’s seat is 36.5 inches. The Honda’s is 37.2. That changes as soon as the bikes settle under their own weight. They’re soft–very soft. The Kawasaki settles more than the Honda, making it a little easier for the short-inseam crowd to touch the ground. Conversely, the Honda has more ground clearance. Both bikes come with very street-oriented tires. In order to go on an off-road ride of any substance, you need to replace them with full knobbies. We installed Dunlop’s new Geosport EN91 tries, which are knobbies with DOT approval.
Up front, you gotta understand what these bikes are. They were made for street transportation and mild trail riding. One on one, though, they’re great trail companions. Their performance is so similar that you can’t help but have fun riding them together–just don’t invite those guys on 300 two-strokes. The Honda and Kawasaki both make around 23 horsepower and rev out around 9500 rpm. That’s enough power to go respectably fast on level, hard-packed trail. When you get into sandy hills, they struggle. You have to shift like a madman. If you try to stretch a gear by abusing the clutch, both bikes fall flat. If you really pay attention, you discover that the Honda has slightly more low end power. It’s also geared lower in first and second gear. Both bikes could use lower final gearing and be happier on the trail. In the big picture, though, the motor performance on these two bikes is so similar it’s almost eerie.
The seat height is much more relevant. Not only is the Honda a little taller, but it has a wider seat. That means short riders will struggle just to get a leg over it. Riders who are taller and those who are more experienced, on the other hand, will like the Honda’s extra ground clearance. It isn’t just about clearing rocks and stumps, it’s about how close your feet are to the ground. On the Kawasaki you’re nervous about wiping your feet clean off its narrow little footpegs.
In the suspension department, neither bike is set-up for real off-road riding. They’re made to be cushy and comfortable around the campsite; nothing more. The ride that feels so comfy and plush on the road turns into a pitchy, divey affair in even the mildest off-road terrain. In the case of the Kawasaki, you at least have the option of subtle fine-tuning. You can increase preload on the rear shock and increase both compression and rebound damping. That gives you a little more security, but the range of adjustability is limited. The Honda, on the other hand, has no adjustability and desperately needs more damping at both ends. You can improve both bikes by spending money, but all the money in the world won’t make them into race bikes. Right now we’re trying to learn more about the bike to determine an overall winner.
BACK IN THE DAY
I got into the test-writing business in 1981, which, as it turned out, was a very significant year for motocross bikes. Here are a few interesting bikes that I got to test when they were brand new.
The 1981 Suzuki RM125 gets the honor of being the first liquid-cooled dirt bike from Suzuki as well as the first single-shocker. It was far and away the best 125 of the year and represented a massive leap forward. Oddly enough, the reign of the Suzuki RM125 didn’t last long. It was soon surpassed by other makers; most notably Honda.
This was the end of an era for Maico, but what a glorious end it was. To this day, the ‘81 490 is virtually worshiped by vintage bike enthusiasts. It single-handedly changed the open class in motocross. Sadly the end was already in sight for the Maico dynasty due to family squabbles.
Not all milestone motorcycles are famous for their performance. Some just bring new technology to the table. That was the case with the 1981 Honda motocross line. The CR125R and CR250R had liquid-cooling and single shock suspension. Honda got the linkage placement radiator layout right, and others would soon follow suit. Despite the innovation, the 1981 Hondas were mediocre performers.
This was the first mainstream liquid-cooled motocross bike and would have been more notable if it hadn’t been upstaged by the Suzuki. Yamahas already had single shock suspension for seven years, but the lack of linkage left performance on the table. By next year, the YZ125 would have linkage and radiator location similar to Suzuki’s.