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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- Electrics: 6 v 6 a/h battery
charged by crankshaft mounted 50w AC generator.
Coil and contact breaker ignition. Direct
- 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
- Suspension: Front: Two
way damped telescopic fork. Rear: Pivoted
fork with two way damped, load adjustable
- 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
- Instrumentation: Matched
illuminated speedometer and rev' counter.
Neutral, turn signal, main beam warning
- 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
- 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
- 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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