Honda certainly has a proud history of producing four-stroke powered dual-sport machines (previously called dual-purpose machines) dating back to the 1972 XL250KO. For many years the number of toy-hauler-pulling families has been expanding; during this time Honda has chosen to evolve and expand its full line of smaller CRF dirt bikes. The company has done well with these off-road-only machines, all while virtually ignoring the street-legal trail bike category.
This all changes with the release of the 2008 electric-start CRF230L. Based on the company’s highly popular off-road-going CRF230F, the “L” model receives various changes, including the addition of necessary street instrumentation which includes a speedometer, a headlight and flexible mounted turn signals. The 230L adds a larger 30mm CV carburetor to provide a wider powerband, a quiet exhaust fit with a spark arrester, a conveniently located ignition switch, handlebar-mounted choke and even small, foldable passenger pegs. The end goal was to create an affordable, rider-friendly and easy-to-ride machine.
The 230L is powered by a 223cc, air-cooled, SOHC, two-valve, single-cylinder four-stroke engine–the type of engine Honda is legendary for producing. Apparently the 223cc powerplant was chosen to keep the size, weight and cost ($4,499) of the bike as low as possible. This is because as engine size increases, so does the weight, complexity and cost. The six-speed, carbureted, O-ring chain final drive engine is set in the same basic frame as that of the “F” model. Suspension components include a 37mm leading-axle Showa fork with 9.0 inches of travel and a single Showa shock offering up 6.3 inches of travel and preload adjustability. On/off-road tires grace the 18-inch rear wheel and the 21-inch front. A single 240mm disc brake is fit up front, a 220mm disc is fit to the rear. The 230L weighs in at a light-feeling claimed 267 pounds (full of fuel and ready to ride), has a low seat height for this type of machine at 31.9 inches and provides healthy ground clearance at 9.5 inches. The 230L carries 2.3 gallons of fuel in its black-painted steel tank, which resides under the machine’s red plastic bodywork. Honda offers an accessory rack and hand guards as fit on our test bike.
This easy-going street-legal bike should appeal to a huge range of potential buyers. These run the gamut from the casual rider just learning to ride, to the person who just wants to economically commute around town. But the list of potential customers doesn’t stop there, as the CRF230L is perfect for the off-road camping crowd who might want something that’s street legal for running into town, or a bike that can be enjoyed off-road by the entire family for a weekend of fun and then ridden on city streets during the week. For off-road use the 230L will be great for young riders who are expanding their skills, or the casual rider wanting a smaller bike that’s not intimidating by its physical size or engine output.
The new Honda certainly is user friendly in every way, but this didn’t prevent us from taking full advantage of the little machine off-road–as this is where Honda chose to introduce the bike. Our first impression on the little blacktop we touched was the bike is certainly compact and the engine feels a bit stifled and underpowered compared to its off-road cousin. We would later be reminded first impressions don’t always tell the entire story.
As we hit the dirt and started covering real California desert trails, not roads, the Honda began to impress. When the engine is revved into the mid and upper end, power delivery is actually pretty darn good–and fun to boot. We also found the little CRF could be lugged surprisingly low in first or second gear on hills without the fear of stalling, and that the small machine covered sandy roads better than most. But what really stood out was how the suspension on this street-legal machine was amazingly smooth riding on the dirt. Heck, most dirt bikes don’t provide the smooth sit-down ride offered up by the 230L–actually the perfect ride for the intended audience. And when pushed across rocky whooped-out desert, rather hard by a larger rider, the 230L continued to impress for a machine of this type and size. The power delivery is good enough up top to loft the front wheel to clear obstacles, and the suspension continued to deliver a ride far beyond the expected means of such a machine. The cleated footpegs and rear brake lever help make this all possible and safe. The slim bodywork and off-road-type seat make it all comfortable and natural feeling. And speaking of natural feeling, the Honda just feels right, with excellent ergonomics and controls, and strong, but not too-strong front and rear disc brakes.
On the pavement you’ll find the bike is comfortable for smaller riders and easy to manage. Larger riders will feel a bit oversized. The power output is best suited to casual riding around town. The top speed we experienced was an indicated 65 mph, lighter riders saw a little more. A comfortable top cruising speed for the bike is 55 mph, and after 50 miles of mostly full-throttle play in the desert our machine had plenty of petrol left in the tank, and we had not yet reached the 0.7-gallon reserve. This should translate into excellent fuel economy.
Honda certainly appears to have hit the target with the new CRF230L. The motorcycle is small, highly manageable, comfortable, fun to ride and really outdoes itself in off-road use for this type of machine. We think you’ll be seeing a lot of CRF230Ls running about in the future, in the desert and foothills as well as running to and from work and school. The new Honda CRF230L certainly covers a lot of bases for a lot of different riders, and it does so really well.
If you’re interested in the 2008 Honda CRF230L, you might also be interested in Rider‘s 250-class Dual-Sport Shootout, featuring the CRF230L.