So have you seen a lot of open-class sportbikes with the dealer tags still on them lately?
Neither have I. And neither, I’m guessing, have the product planners at the Japanese Big Four. What they have seen is weak sales numbers and plenty of dealers shutting their doors for good. Sales numbers for the motorcycle industry here are around half of what they were in 2006—and things aren’t improving, either. You can blame lots of factors; aging of that key Baby Boomer demographic, a sluggish economy, tight-fisted banks, but the bottom line is big bikes aren’t selling, and will take a very long time to get back to the numbers we’re used to seeing.
Where the two-wheeled industry is growing, worldwide, is in developing economies, particularly in China and India. So what do consumers want in those countries? They don’t need 190 horsepower and SBK-spec suspension, that’s for sure; bad roads and traffic conditions make stuff like that useless. Good looks, user-friendliness, simple reliability and most importantly, affordability are what sell bikes in most places.
Granted, those things may not be so important to many of you MD readers. A number of you do want 190 hp and race-spec components. So why do I think Honda’s little CBR250R is one of the most important bikes of 2011? Because it represents the future of the industry, one focused on the customer and the customer experience more than building rolling showcases of racing dominance and high-tech expertise. And bikes built for a global market will start appearing more and more, reducing R&D , production and distribution costs. Always wanted those cool little bikes they have in other countries? Be careful of what you wish for.
I know, it’s depressing me, too. So let’s focus on the positive: the 2011 CBR250R that I rode last week at Honda’s Torrance, California headquarters is a really fun bike, one that is going to put a smile on the face of everybody who rides it. After all, Honda—and the Japanese motorcycle industry in general—became the global success story it did by putting fun, lightweight and affordable machines in the hands of every consumer who wanted one. The CBR gets back to those roots by using technology, clever design and global economics.
In press materials and scripts of talking points Honda’s P.R. folks use when they officially interact with media, there is little to no mention of the 380-pound elephant in the room, the Kawasaki Ninja 250R. And in fairness to Honda, I don’t want to do too much comparing, as the CBR wasn’t developed just to beat the Ninja. But looking at the CBR, it’s clear Honda’s engineers took aim at their green competition. They knew beating it on power while achieving their other goals would be challenging (I won’t say impossible—American Honda’s VP, Motorcycles, Ray Blank told me once that Honda could build anything it wanted, and I have no doubt of that), so it appears they instead focused on the Ninja’s weak spots. A peaky powerband less friendly to new riders is one, budget-oriented build quality and features was another and porky-for-a-250 curb weight was a third. Another challenge would be to beat Kawasaki on something it’s always been tough to beat Kawasaki on, especially for an obsessively detail-oriented company like Honda: price.
The powerband bit would be tricky. How do you make a 250cc streetbike comfortable, reliable and fast enough while still offering good throttle response down low? MD readers have known this one for years: a high-performance Single motor that is torquey, fast-revving, and still packs a relative punch up top. Honda’s motor is an all-new design (sorry, no street-going Unicam CRF250R motor for you!) with nine patents in the engine alone. It’s a liquid-cooled design with a compact cylinder head that uses forked roller-rocker arms to actuate the four valves.
Some of you may wonder why Honda didn’t just use the VTR250 V-Twin motor it’s been using for decades. After all, the VTR250 we reported in 2009 has the same wet weight as the CBR250R and makes a little more power, and we all know a V-Twin is very user-friendly and fun. The answer is probably a matter of money—it’s more expensive to build a V-Twin, which would mean a higher MSRP and less profit for dealers. Honda thinks in tens or hundreds of thousands of units—maybe even millions.
The very oversquare bore and stroke numbers—76mm by 55mm—are similar to the CRF250’s (and CBR1000RR), but it uses a mild 10.7:1 compression ratio, probably to make sure it can use lower-quality gas with no troubles. The crankshaft runs on plain bearings to reduce noise and vibration—a first for a Honda Single, and a gear-driven counterbalancer runs right next to it. There is a six-speed gearbox. Fueling is by PGM fuel-injection, and there’s a catalyzed exhaust system to ensure the bike meets emissions regulations worldwide.
The chassis also got a lot of thought. It gets a light, rigid tube-steel frame with triangulated trellis-style bracing. There’s a non-adjustable 37mm fork in front and a Pro-Link-equipped rear monoshock, with five spring preload settings. Wheelbase is a tight 53.9 inches, and a 25-degree rake speaks to quick, if not extreme steering response. The 17-inch wheels roll on IRC Road Winner bias-plies, a 110/70-17 in front and a 10mm-fatter-than-the-Ninja’s 140/60-17 in back.
The Honda’s brakes deserve some attention. The standard model gets a two-piston caliper and a 296mm front disk, but there’s also an ABS version with a three-piston front caliper. It’s combined so that actuating the rear brake also activates the front caliper, depending on how much force is applied. Working the front lever doesn’t activate the rear brake, allowing for more “sporting use.” Stoppies, anyone?
Styling, comfort and convenience touches aren’t forgotten. The fairing is sculpted and futuristic looking—maybe a little too busy for many American buyers, who tend to be a little older and more conservative than other markets, but step back and squint and it grows on you. There are nice rubber-covered grabrails for a passenger, the footpegs are mounted on real rearset brackets, there’s room under the seat for tools and maybe a sandwich (as long as it’s not a club) and the instruments are smoothly styled, with digital readouts for time, fuel, mph and engine temp.
So how do they deliver all this technology at an affordable price? Take advantage of lower labor costs by building it outside of Japan is what I’d do. And so does Honda, building this bike at its Thailand plant (something Kawasaki and Triumph do as well), where it’s been building Thai and world-market bikes since 1967. That means an MSRP of just $3999 for the non-ABS model, exactly what the Ninja goes for.
The CBR made a good first impression on me, as I’m used to waiting a minute or two for my 2010 Ninja 250R to warm up to a rideable state from cold. It fired right up and after stuttering a bit, was ready to ride away in just seconds. Fueling seemed right on, with no flat spots (although since it’s probably only making about 8 hp under 3000 rpm, it all feels like a flat spot) I could find. The gearbox was buttery-smooth, as was the light clutch pull and perfect engagement.
The ergonomics will be found similarly friendly, and not just by beginners. At 30.5 inches, new riders will have plenty of confidence when the bike is stopped—no small thing, when you consider a third of prospective buyers in the “entry sport” category are women. But the other riders on our little press junket varied in size, from Motorcycle USA’s Steve Atlas trial size to Motorcycle.com Jeff Cobb Virginia Slims 120, and nobody faulted the ergos, even if Cobb looked a little silly. Wind protection is also comparable to what you’d find on a bigger sportbike, with a wide fairing and big windscreen bubble. The passenger seat is tiny, but not as small as the seat on some 250s I could mention.
A big concern many have about buying a 250 is how it will perform at highway speeds. But unless you like to seriously abuse the law, the CBR is just fine. At a claimed 359 pounds full of gas (add nine pounds for ABS), it’s plenty heavy to not get blown around by semis and crosswinds. I felt engine vibration at higher rpm, a tingly buzz through the footpegs and grips, what you’d expect from a free-revving 250 Single, even if it’s counterbalanced. A 3.4-gallon tank should provide adequate range, although Honda hasn’t released mpg figures. After 100 miles, the fuel gauge read a third tank remaining, for what that’s worth.
The six-speed gearbox, quick-revving motor and good midrange response help it get up to 60 mph as fast as you need, and a quick downshift to fifth is enough to access a nice little top-end kick for passing. The 250 functions like a larger bike, at least until you reach about 70 mph. From there, you’ll need a downhill slope or a lot of room to get up to the bike’s top speed, which we weren’t allowed to explore—not enough room on the I-405 between Torrance and Malibu. But I did see an indicated 80 mph at one point (and judging from a radar-equipped traffic sign, the CBR actually has little speedo error), and although it was past its 8500 rpm power peak, at about 9500 rpm, it still had a ways to go before redline in sixth gear.
But who gets a 250 for top speed? Lightweight sportbikes are for tight, twisty roads like you’ll find in the canyons of Malibu. Following Honda development rider Jeff Tigert on a CBR600RR, we passed a rider on a big Moto Guzzi sportbike going uphill—and then we opened it up and had some fun. Although the CBR initially felt a little heavy-steering compared to the Kawasaki, it was very stable in turns and wasn’t hard to steer by any measure. The suspension was a little lacking—it’s clearly set up for the lower speeds and poor-quality pavement you’d encounter in developing areas—as the front end felt too soft and the rear shock felt sacked out. But it all worked well enough on bumpy, twisty pavement, and riding this bike on twisting roads is a ball, especially following other riders on similar bikes.
Braking performance was adequate on the standard bike—you don’t need much power with a bike this light and slow. The ABS version worked as you’d expect, with a little mushiness at the lever, but I was impressed with how functional the combined braking was. It will help new riders brake smoothly and safely, but you can also just use the front setting up for turns. None of us noted the extra weight of the $500 ABS option.
One thing we did all note was the tuning potential of this bike. The muffler seems restrictive, heavy and big enough to cause a cornering problem on the racetrack, and there’s no doubt the aftermarket will respond quickly. When it does, I’d expect a free-flowing exhaust to free up 3-5 ponies. Honda won’t give us power figures, but I’d guess the stock bike puts around 22 hp at the back wheel, so some tuning should make it almost as fast as the 92 mph (according to Cycle World’s radar gun in 2008) Kawasaki. The suspension is as rebuildable as any sportbike’s, so I wouldn’t be surprised to start seeing this CBR at trackdays and on club-racing grids (Honda is offering lots of contingency money to club racers as well).
What it all means is that Honda has a very competitive product here. It’s easy for new sportbikers to hop on and ride, it’s fast and entertaining enough for experienced riders, and at $3999 it’s priced right. Its only marked disadvantage is a top speed that may be just slightly lacking for high-speed commuting.
But the fact that it’s a Honda is enough for many new riders. Add in its styling, low seat, friendly nature and competitive price tag, and it could be one of the best-selling sportbikes of 2011. And that’s a very good thing, as most of those buyers will be new riders, younger than the average age of 49 reported by JD Power in its latest study. If our sport is to survive, it needs affordable and attractive new bikes to draw in young buyers, and consumers who have so many other things they can do with their money. The quarter-liter class used to be a one-man band—let’s hope Honda’s entry sparks enough interest to form a trio, or even a quartet.