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Honda XL250 Road Test


Motorcyclist illuatrated 1976

Evaluating trail bikes presents no end of problems to a tester. Should he assume it to be primarily a roadster intended for the odd off-road spot of fun, or should he assume it's natural home is the rough, with road excursions being treated lightly? Then again, once on the rough, should it simply perform comfortably along trails and no more, or should it provide at least a reserve of suitability for extremely arduous going?

For reasons best known to themselves^ no end of trendy suburbanites assume the sporty stance of a trail bike is meant to enhance their own glamour in the eyes of the world which, obviously, they assume is upon them, regardless of the fact anything their incorrectly used rough country machinery can do on tar­mac, almost any proper roadster will beat hands down.

The rule is to never buy a trail bike unless you seriously intend off-road or green lane riding, for unless you do, the whole exercise is just plain stupid, es-, pecially if you end up with one of the European competition-based machines which, although grand on the truly rough, can be diabolical monsters if subjected to prolonged tarmac treat­ment.

There is just one trail bike to have drifted through my experience which really does appear to adequately cover the widely differing demands of con­crete and hill country. Admittedly it has not the competition heritage of, say, an Ossa Explorer or suchlike and on the road even the most plebian utility 250 will run rings round it, but there is nothing else providing anywhere near the same economical adaptability as the XL250 Honda under the infinitely vari­able situations any go-anywhere rider can find himself in if he has red blood in his veins.

Off-road intentions or not, there is precious little around offering the ad­vantages of a comfortable, silent and reasonably economical 250 four stroke single, as does this one. As I was running the bike in the deterioration in cold starting that set in towards the end was indicative of nothing more than a desperate want of spanners but, even so, I'm blessed if I can forgive Honda's ir­rational love of placing ignition keys under the fuel tank nose, especially on a trail bike of all things, where they are distinctly vulnerable. Neither did I like the car type choke knob placed where it was in a position of such central pre­eminence between the instruments anyone might be forgiven for assuming it was the ignition switch. If the switch had been there and the choke lever on the immediately accessible carb, then perhaps life would have been easier.

No more did I like the ignition cut-out button placed right next to the throttle where, as happened a couple of times, it provided an unpredictable and treache­rous threat to safety. Not on the road, for it was then like any roadster, but on the rough under conditions when riding be­came a sort of instinctive blur of basic survival instincts.

Now it might be argued that trail bikes are neither enduro nor trial bikes, so should not be subjected to extremes but. when I'm off road with 100 acres of rough country all around in which to play ISDTs with a couple of pals, you don't catch me being sensible about things at all. Commonsense is not what trail bikes are about anyway. Once I batted through heavy scrub, numbing my flayed knuckles, but also having to suffer the consequences of total power loss from a flicked switch as I descended into a dry river bed, and another time my hand was jarred into the switch as I landed heavily from a drop down a rock step. From then on the switch was taped permanently on.

But that is the level of criticism I am reduced to, and its pretty small stuff, eh?

One other slightly aggravating point was the turn signals. Obviously they should be removed for off road riding along with the mirrors. As was pointed out later, electrical wire plugs are fitted, but when I was out in the field and faced with the problem, not being able to locate the plugs after a search, I had to cut their wires. Sorry Honda, but...?

Since I last rode an XL250 a couple of years ago the bike has undergone a few changes, these being towards a definite improvement in the chassis group, providing much more agility than previously, and the engine seemed to be less powerful than it once was.

Honda claim an improved power development over the past model, but in reality this would not appear to be the case. Whereas top speed was an im­mediate 70 mph (112km/h) it is now an immediate 65mph (104km/h) only, and that after noticably less punch than once poured so marvellously from this beefy little thumper. It is still useful, mind, but no longer impressive.

Two changes have taken place which might possibly account for this negating of torque. The first is a new induction system which, I fancy, neither con­tributes nor detracts from engines past, but simply reduces noise to its current ghost-like waffle. Second is the exhaust system and, it, unlike the induction modifications, must indeed hobble en­gine efficiency as much as it destroys noise.

I will be the first to admit the necessity and pleasure to be gained from riding a quiet motorcycle, especially one meant for countryside exploration such as this, but that it should be gained at the ex­pense of power loss when power (tor­que) is so invaluable, and part of the major attraction, does appear to be slightly mad.

The system itself is gigantic, and probably one of the chief reasons for the increase in weight (351b/16kg), along with the huge new air filtration system. The exhaust pipe curves up from the head and back into a great black box filling the gap between the engine and rear wheel before lifting out and ending in a spark arrester, itself little more than another silencer.

If I owned one of these bikes I would be sorely tempted to remove this un­necessary (in Britain with its damp climate) muffler and then have carbu-ration adjusted to suit for, I feel it, more than anything else, is responsible for the torque loss. Certainly it was not possible to feel the single's combustion shock from the end of the pipe, but merely a rising and falling wave of warm gas.

So restrictive was the silencing group that when a clamp worked loose ahead of it the amount of force with which gas escaped far exceeded that of anything I have noticed before on other bikes under similar circumstances. Quite pos­sibly the same amount of power might be forthcoming at 7,500 revs as was previously at 8,000 but, somehow, there is a definite lack of bite about the machine now and, I have no doubt at all that, low speed torque development, as well as high speed power, is reduced.

For all that though, fuel consumption appears to be the equal of the previous model's, and maximum speed cruising, a method of travel to which the Honda is well suited thanks to its refusal to approach maximum engine speed in top gear. This provides something in the region of 65, occasionally 70mph (104/112km/h) under favourable con­ditions, the average top speed to be maintained at a fuel consumption of approximately 68mpg (24km/l), and who could argue with that even with a "proper" roadster? Given a more careful right fist 76mpg (27km/l) was simply encouraged by settling for sub 60mph (96km/h) roadspeeds and less frantic acceleration.

It was not at all surprising to discover that little could compete with the XL250 as a commuter's ideal machine, although I would be sorely tempted to change the tyres to something more suited to wet and greasy city streets than the Bridgestone trials ones fitted as stan­dard. In all respects they behaved as well as any trials tyre could under such conditions as are imposed by all weather road use, but that is not enough for their long term acceptance by regular touring types.

Through traffic the bike was perfect, out manouvreing everything else be­cause of its background and, with its ut­terly reliable tick-over and bottom end punch, was well able to give me a tho­roughly relaxing ride, so much so I was lead to my present conclusions regard­ing its dual purpose excellence.

Even at higher speeds, once I became used to the slightly light and negative castor action of the steering, which was the way it should be with bikes of this type, my. confidence increased enor­mously as the miles rolled under its buzzing tyre blocks, although never to the extent where I was able to ground anything! Possibly too, therefore, it should satisfy the scratchers amongst us as well. At extreme speeds there was a faint steering rock, but a harmless and entirely safe one which acted as a warning of approaching limitations long be­fore they actually arose.

Placing power limits is something of another problem. In top gear, depending on conditions under-wheel, it seemed to start at around 1,800 revs (17mph/27km/h) and finally fade out around 7,000 or 7,500rpm (71-74mph/114-119km/h), so much dep­ended on wind and ground conditions that categoric maximums are simply not possible, especially as in third gear there was enough torque produced to deal with any situation at low engine speeds other than proper trials sections from as low as 1,300 revs (6mph/10km/h).

Whereas previously the XL250 was a bike of the old school in which one sat in the saddle and let it do the work, power­ing its way through and over whatever arose, it was apparent from the changes that the rider is now expected to play a more important part in the proceedings. It proved possible this time to place the machine accurately where previously it could not.

I found in the past I could crawl all over the thing during a ride through some rutted and hilly oak woods close to me without forcing it off line, and that along high speed shale tracks it was practically impossible to change line once set along it. Now though, on this latest machine, there is tlefinitely more of the competition trials bike than there was. Body lean affected lowspeed direc­tion control, and footpeg pressure worked wonders at high speed as well; nowhere near as much as competition types demand as their priority, but en­ough to make the XL250 that much more useful in the hands of an expert trail rider, even to the extent of suggesting to me a definite potential for enduro work.

There is only one disadvantage. It was still this side of impossible, at least in my sweating hands, to lift the front wheel, which might not sound relevant until the situation arises, as it always does, when at speed on loose gravel, wet roots or chalk slime, a nine inch rock step or log showed up. All I could do was en­courage the Honda over by going through! the motions of lifting it and hoping that every little helped. It ob­viously did because we always survived and live to tell the tale. It did mean however that in order to protect the front wheel the front tyre had to remain pressurised much too firmly for maximum grip and stability.

Apart from the power style of the en-gine, the principle reason for this trait was the long wheelbase of the machine. In order to improve handling, which has been done very nicely, the steering angle has been altered one degree, from 59.5 to 58.5. Simultaneously and prob­ably as a direct result of the steering angle change, the wheelbase has been increased by one inch (25mm). Thus, what was always a "slow" handler, has become slower still due to its power depression, weight gain and wheelbase stretch. Certainly it is more responsive than ever as though the long wheelbase effect is overshadowing the steering geometry improvement.

Given half a chance I think an owner would be advised to loose as many of those 55.53 inches (1,410mm) in the wheelbase by reducing the pivoted fork length, and by removing the spark ex­tractor, then, I feel sure, something of the stifled vitality of the machine might show itself.

What was very satisfying indeed, es­pecially when accompanied by another rider on a stroker, was to plough through the kind of deep mud and up slippery slopes the other machine baulked at. Admittedly, if you put an ace on a stroker and an ace of a thumper, the chances of either one or the other win­ning any trial of strength and skill would depend on the man and not the machine. Put a couple on non-experts on the same bikes and just watch the four stroke pilot ride where the other could not, solely because of the inherent advan­tages of the thumper in dealing with any situation needing wheelgrip, and off road, is there any other requirement worth mentioning alongside that?

In really soft and known conditions I let the tyres down to lOlb and 17, rear and front respectively, and then, by Harry, did it grip! Thanks to serations inside the rim walls there seemed to be no need for security bolts.

On any other bike I would have cursed the high seat, but on this one, when standing up was all part of the fun, it was, if anything, an advantage, for it made the transition from one to the other less extreme. But whichever, the riding position was well considered and comfortable, although personally I would have preferred a handlebar with slightly more raised end grips.

The seat itself was just about long enough for the occasional pillion passenger, and also doubled as a useful little luggage prop.

On the debit side I found the employment of a rubber band fastened tinbox as a tool box by the rear tyre a little thoughtless, there now being no room for a tool tray under the air cleaner.

On the credit side though was an excellent direct powered headlamp with a beam which put to shame many battery powered machines, and a couple of flex­ible plastic mudguards I doubt any reasonable owner could break.

I liked the brakes very much; indeed they were one of the best points of the machine. Gentle and progressive on.the rough, yet adequately powerful on the road. It was a pleasure to return to the sweet delights of a set of good drums and I only wish we had more of them around.

The prop stand was well planned and secure, although a slightly larger foot would have made it even better on soft ground, and any sensible owner is going to be well advised to fit a set of rear damper shrouds or gaiters if the damper seals are not going to be prematurely worn.

And who needs a rev counter on this machine? To my mind it is an expensive anachronism, but on the other hand, if the XL250 is really to be the lightweight all-things-to-all-men, then perhaps it should be fitted after all.

To my mind it has a much greater potential than its already highly attractive performance and construction suggest. Perhaps the best of the non-competitive trail bikes.

Honda XL250 Specifications;

  • Engine Type: Inclined, air cooled, single cylinder four stroke with steel cylinder liner. Ball race mains and caged roller big end. Gearbox in unit with horizontally split crank-cases.
  • Valve operation: SOHC chain driven from right side. Capacity: 248cc. Bore and stroke: 74 x 57.8mm. Compression: 9.2:1.
  • Carburation: 28mm piston valve Keihin breathing through wet foam air filter.
  • Electrics: 6 v 6 a/h battery charged by crankshaft mounted 50w AC generator. Coil and con­tact breaker ignition. Direct headlamp power.
  • Lubrication: 3.2 pint (1.8 litre) wet sump.
  • Claimed power: 20 bhp @ 7,500 rpm. Torque unknown but assumed approximately 14 ft/lb (2kg/m) @ 6,000 rpm.
  • Primary: Gear. 3.12:1 reduction.
  • Clutch: Wet multi-plate.
  • Gears: 23.52; 16.66; 12.80; 10.00; top 8.06:1. Selection by left side one down and three up foot pedal.
  • Final drive: Exposed unlubricated chain. 3.20:1 reduction.
  • Frame: All welded single loop with duplex engine cradle and open rear sub frame.
  • Suspension: Front: Two way damped telescopic fork. Rear: Pivoted fork with two way damped, load adjustable units.
  • Wheels: Front: 2.75 Bridgestone trials tyre on WM2 a 21 in high tensile steel spoked rim with anti tyre slip ser­rations. 6.5in (165mm) sis drum brake. Rear: 4.00 in Bridgestone trials tyre on WM3 x 18in high tensile steel spoked rim with anti tyre slip serrations.
  • Instrumentation: Matched illuminated speedometer and rev' counter. Neutral, turn sig­nal, main beam warning lights.
  • Equipment: 2 gall (9.5 litre) steel fuel tank inc. 5 gall (2.2 litre) reserve. Short pil­lion seat and footrests. 5.5in 139mm) 35 w direct energy headlamp. Horn, turn signals, twin mirrors. Prop stand. Helmet lock. Steering lock. Tool kit in non-lockable box. Kick start. Spark arrestor. Washable air cleaner ele­ment. Steel sump guard. Trials tyres. Ignition cut-out button. Stop lamp.
  • Weight: (claimed dry) 3.1 3 Ib (1 42 kg). As tested with full tank, 341 Ib (155kg).
  • Wheelbase: 55.5 in (1,410mm). Ground clearance: (sump guard) 9 in (228 mm). Seat height: 33 in (838 mm).

XL250 Performance Data

  • Fuel consumption: Mild 40/60 mph (64/96 km/h) cruising, 76 mpg (37 km/I). Fast riding, 66 mpg (23 km/I). Around town 74 mpg (26 km/I).
  • Fuel quality: 93 octane (three star).
  • Oil consumption: Negligable during test period.
  • Speed: Highest one way speed with 200lb rider wearing stormsuit and crouching, 73 mph (117 km/h). Best practical top speed, 70 mph (11 2 km/h). Gear speeds: (at 6,500, manufac­turers recommended optimum). 21; 30; 40; 51; top 64 mph. Speedometer accuracy: Correct at 30 mph (48 km/h). 2 mph (3 km/h) fast at 60 mph (96 km/h).
  • Price: Inc VAT, £559.

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