Just Right: 1972-1977 Honda XL250

The Honda XL250 defined dual-sport bikes with its groundbreaking design and became one of the most popular offroad motorcycles ever.

Honda XL250

The Honda XL250 sold well, despite a few niggles.

Photo courtesy Honda

Content Tools

1972-1977 Honda XL250
Claimed power: 20hp @ 8,000rpm
Top speed: 80mph (period test)
Engine: 248cc air-cooled OHC single
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Weight: 287lb (half tank fuel)
MPG: 50mpg (approx.)
Price then/now: $850 (1972)/$1,000-$2,000

In the early 1970s, Honda had a dilemma. Off-highway bikes were selling like cold beer in July, and the sweet spot in the market was the quarter-liter class. Yet Honda could only offer their CB100-derived SL125 or the SL350, also based on a street bike (the CB350). What to do?

A fresh start was required, and Honda came up with a groundbreaking design that defined dual-sport bikes for at least a decade, anticipating as it did the demise of 2-stroke trailies.

True to the company’s heritage, Honda stuck with a 4-stroke engine, in spite of the dominance of 2-strokes in the popular 250cc enduro/trail category from Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Can-Am, Ossa, Bultaco and Montesa. To compete, Honda created the first mass-produced overhead-cam, 4-valve motorcycle engine.

The compact and over-square 248cc engine used a 57.8mm stroke and 74mm bore with a shallow squish-band combustion chamber for its four valves. A 28mm Keihin carburetor provided fuel, with ignition to the central spark plug by flywheel magneto. The aluminum alloy cylinder was lined with an iron sleeve and the piston drove a sturdy crank running on two roller mains. A trochoidal oil pump provided pressure lubrication to the big end bearing and valve train. Engine cases were in aluminum with side covers in then-exotic magnesium alloy. Primary gears fed power to the 5-speed transmission through a 7-plate wet clutch.

The drivetrain fitted into a spine frame with a single tube loop under the engine, and the aluminum-rim, 18-inch rear wheel was controlled by 5-way adjustable dual shocks. At the front, Honda borrowed the latest fork technology from Ceriani, using a piston to control damping. Attached to the Ceriani forks was a 21-inch aluminum-rim front wheel. Fully equipped with 6-volt lighting, turn signals and paired speedometer/tachometer, the XL250 weighed in at 287 pounds with half a tank of gas.

And that’s where things went slightly off-key. Compared with its competition, the Honda was around 10-30 pounds heavier, in spite of the magnesium components. Cycle magazine speculated that cost-containment may have caused production engineers to spec a mild steel frame with heavier gauge tubes instead of high-alloy steel.

With the XL already carrying valve gear that the two-smokes didn’t, the extra avoirdupois isn’t too surprising. On the plus side, the lights and battery were wired with quick-disconnect plugs, and could be easily removed, saving 13 pounds.

Cycle took the then-new XL250 off-road in April 1972 and found that it “pulls like a tractor,” the same simile being used by Cycle Guide, which said that “opening the throttle produces an instant surge of acceleration.” Cycle opined that compared with the competition, and in spite of its weight, “the XL250 was an impressive hill climber … maybe the best. There was not a hill encountered in our test that the bike would not deal with.”

The “vastly powerful” brakes (Cycle) worked well overall, with the front being “extremely progressive.” The rear came in for some criticism for “too little lever travel between any braking feel at all, and locking the wheel and stalling the engine.” Cycle also found that the relatively rearward weight distribution made the XL “a delight to jump and charge on, but nerve wracking to get stopped or turned on rough or ripply curves.”

Besides the rear brake actuation, Cycle had few niggles: The front fender provided inadequate protection for the rider in enduro conditions; the turning radius was too wide for single-track turnarounds; and when the front brake lever broke off in a high-side, Cycle’s tester found it almost impossible to replace in the field. Adding hand guards was recommended.

Overall, though, most testers really enjoyed the XL250, finding it smoother over the rough than the 2-stroke competition and more tractable at low revs, saving downshifts. And while it would never be competitive with high performance 250cc motocrossers, said Cycle Guide, “we’d guess that the Honda dealers will sell all the XL250s they can get.” The XL250, concluded Cycle World, “is destined to become one of the most popular offroad motorcycles ever.”

And that it did. Well-built and tough, there are plenty of survivors out there. Just keep an eye out for oil leaks from the countershaft sprocket: Fixing it means splitting the cases. MC


Contenders: Offroad rivals to Honda’s XL250

1971-1981 Suzuki TS250R Savage
Claimed power:
23hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed:
76mph
Engine:
246cc air-cooled 2-stroke single
Transmission:
5-speed, chain final drive
Weight:
269lb (half tank fuel)
MPG:
35-45mpg
Price then/now:
$799 (1972)/$850-$1,750

A year before the XL250 came on the scene, Cycle magazine conducted a six-way test in its August 1971 issue among the 250cc offroad bikes then on the market. Their conclusion: “Winner? Suzuki by a whole bunch … the Suzuki TS250R is the finest motorcycle of its type available for purchase in the United States.” That’s pretty unequivocal!

Compared with its predecessor, the 1969 TS250, the “R” was a full 35 pounds lighter and came with added reliability via Suzuki’s PEI Pointless Electronic Ignition. Otherwise, the R followed a similar pattern to the TS, with a rugged 246cc piston-port 2-stroke engine (derived from the TM250 motocrosser), with oil fed to the timing side main bearing and big end roller as well as intake oil injection. The primary side main bearing was lubricated by transmission oil, and a gear primary drive fed a 12-plate wet clutch and 5-speed gearbox. Oddly, for an offroad bike fitted with trials tires, the front wheel was 19-inch diameter (though a 21-inch option was available). Suspension was 5-way adjustable, at the rear only. A useful feature, noted Cycle World, was the primary kickstarter, allowing the Savage to be restarted in gear.

Cycle World loved it, concluding that “the new TS250R does everything better (than the TS250), and the price is the same. A good value for the money.”

1968-1976 Yamaha DT2/DT3
Claimed power:
24hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed:
76mph
Engine:
246cc air-cooled 2-stroke single
Transmission:
5-speed, chain final drive
Weight:
270lb (half tank fuel)
MPG:
31mpg (offroad)
Price then/now:
$859 (1973)/$1,000-$2,000

On paper, Yamaha’s DT2/3 range, introduced as the DT2 in 1968, was a lot like the TS250R and certainly inspired Suzuki’s quarter-liter offroader. They had the same bore and stroke, similar construction and matching performance.

However, the DT lacked Suzuki’s electronic ignition (that had to wait until the arrival of the DT250F in 1977), but it did score in having Yamaha’s “Torque Induction” reed-valve intake, intended to give a broader powerband without compromising overall performance. New for 1973, the DT3 sported a 21-inch front wheel over the DT2’s 19-incher, which Cycle World claimed “improved steering precision immeasurably,” though its narrow section 3.00 x 21-inch profile meant the front tended to plow in mud and track ruts in sand. They recommended a 3.50 section tire. Cycle World also noted that Yamaha’s chassis development had not kept up with the powertrain.

The engine’s high location in the frame meant handling was just “adequate” for sedate riding, but a problem at high speed. “You just can’t have ultimate control over whoop-de-doos with a high center of gravity,” they said. Noting that the competition had now caught up with Yamaha’s early lead, Cycle World still liked the DT3’s reliability. “It’s the kind of bike you can pour gas and oil in and ride for hours … It’s really foolproof.”