A Real World Bike Test: The Honda CRF250 Rally

I’m no good at talking about torque.

Same goes for specs: I don’t really care if a bike redlines at x-million RPM or what-what. I want to know what the bike will do for me and how it might fit into my life. What it feels like to ride and how it’ll handle a long trip. And, most important in this Visual Age, did it give me that warm, gooey feeling, you know, just looking at it?

So, here goes: the first of a series of “Real World Bike Tests”. To kickstart this, ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Honda’s nifty-two-fifty, the CRF Rally.

First we have to go back in time to Cape Town in the winter of 2002. A foul northwester has brought curtains of rain to the city. The streets are gleaming and greasy. I have just sold my CJ750 and sidecar to a South African Navy technician (who will default on the last payment and disappear into the night, but that’s another story).

I have my eye on a used but still-pretty little red scrambler at the dealer across the road from my office. It’s a 200cc Honda CT200AG. A farmer’s bike, the dealer tells me, in case the wide, tractor-style seat – built for chunky, beef-fed farmers’ ass – didn’t give it away. It has a wide rear rack, and a small rack over the front headlight. And double side stands! I think the “AG” stands for “agricultural” but I am wrong: it means “Automatic Gearbox”. (On a 200cc? With a 50kg bleating ewe on the back and 150kg of sunburned farmer in the saddle?)

Because I am a sucker for anything different, I fall for the double side stands and the rack over the headlight. Not that I will ever put anything on the front rack because, well, what would you put there? I buy it for cash, plus license plate and roadworthy and ride it away from the showroom.

Bike Honda CT200AG
On the road to a weekend trance party in the mountains

As it turns out, that marriage between the 200cc pot and the auto gearbox was not an entirely happy one. The bike battled on Cape Town’s hills which are as steep as San Francisco’s. Add a screaming southeaster off the mountain and it was quicker and safer to walk. Alone. In the wind. Out on the open road, I was routinely blasted onto the shoulder by speeding trucks whose slipstreams would toss us both around like confetti. Still, cent for cent, it remains some of the best transport I have ever had. I rode it for a full year and was almost in tears when I sold it … to an actual farmer.

Over the years since then, I have sniffed around Honda’s other small trail bikes, thinking that maybe a little more grunt and a manual gearbox would resolve the AG’s shortcomings. But look as I might, none of them had that special “zing” – not the Tornado, nor the Bushmaster which even, though it also had double side stands, failed to stir my heart.

Then I saw the first teaser photos of the CRF 250 Rally, and I knew I had to have one.

It was red. A 250cc single-cylinder thumper with – wahey! – a six-speed manual gearbox. Grunty and utilitarian, yet high-stepping with a decent fairing and screen, offering some shelter from the wind as well as enclosing the motor.

The Sunday Times motoring editor suggested I borrow one and take it on a long road trip. “People would like to know if you can,” he said.

I collected the test bike at ADA, a driver training academy near Hartbeespoort Dam. When I told the guys of my plan to head down the N4 for a weekend on the twisties around Sabie in Mpumalanga, they gave me thoughtful looks. (If they had goatees, they would have stroked them.)

“It will take a long time to get there,” said one.

I opted for a shorter all-day ride around the Magaliesberg range, and a couple of days of commuting instead.

First impressions were good. The riding position is roomy and offers a lofty view over the road. Joining the late morning traffic on the road from Hartbeespoort, I was immediately charmed by the bike’s good manners, quick throttle response and lightness of touch.

Rally clocks

It was quickly apparent, though, that the 250cc pot would not dish out much fun on a modern highway. I’m sure many backroad enthusiasts will happily drag the Rally to their preferred playgrounds behind an SUV, but to me that defeats the object of having a bike in the first place.

On the daily commute, it was a different beast altogether. My route takes me from the suburbs and up Jan Smuts Avenue, one of the most chaotic and contested pieces of roadway in all of Johannesburg. The road is famous for suicidal minibus-taxi pilots, angry men in SUV’s the size of small apartment blocks, and many, many out-of-sync traffic lights.

The Rally is a tall bike with a proper trailbike seating position so the view is excellent. Handling is light and nimble, and the bike – despite it’s light weight (just 157kg) – has a certain presence on the road, which meant that I was not entirely invisible to the carbound herd.

It’s quick on the gas so I was smartly away at the lights, but with that little pot and standard gearing, it runs out of puff quite quickly. It’s fine on short bursts between lights but out on the longer stretches of roadway, I could feel the crazies closing the gap fast. So it goes: at least “they” could see me.

On the aesthetic side, I really liked the tall screen and the offset headlights which give the Rally a bit of attitude. Put the bike on its side stand and step back and, yep, it looks right.

By the end of the week, the Rally and I were firm friends and remained so. Getting to and from work became a pleasure.

As the days went by, I lamented the fact that the dirt roads that once crisscrossed the northern parts of Johannesburg have now mostly been tarred or boomed, because it’s clear that the Rally will shine on dirt. The bike would make a fine mount for a long Karoo backroads adventure. All that dirt, all those big horizons, such a little bike.

It would be true to say I grappled with temptation but R84 999 ($6755 as of May 9 2018) is a little rich for me.

The Rally is a good, solid, pretty ride. But it’s not a perfect one.

Thanks to ADA for the test bike. See www.adasa.co.za.