For this week’s Classic Steel we are going to look back at the first of Honda’s case-reed 250’s, the 2002 Honda CR250R.
For this week’s Classic Steel we are going to look back at the first of Honda’s case-reed 250’s, the 2002 Honda CR250R.
By: Tony Blazier
In 2002 Honda introduced what would turn out to be their last CR250 two-stroke. The new bike fixed all the problems that had plagued the previous decade of Honda 250’s, but then proceeded to ruin the one thing that had been its strength. It was cruel irony indeed.
Perhaps no single machine in the history of the sport has enjoyed as much success as Honda’s venerable CR250. Honda’s deuce-and-a-half has captured countless national and international championships, including an unprecedented run of nine straight Supercross titles. It took Gary Jones to America’s first 250 National title and brought Ricky Carmichael home in the first ever perfect season. If there was such a thingas motocross royalty, the Honda CR250R would be king.
For 2002 Honda threw out its award winning ’92-’01 250 mill and spec’d out an all-new design. The new case-reed motor looked promising on paper, featuring a works style electronically controlled powervalve to go with Honda’s unparalleled reputation for horsepower. Unfortunately, the new motor was everything the old one was not- lazy, lethargic and boring to ride.
Along the way, Honda has produced some great CR250’s, and some grim ones. For every ’86 world beater, there was a ’81 disappointment to offset it. Even so, Honda’s tradition of wickedly fast motors and unparalleled durability has remained staple of CR250’s from the very beginning. They may not have always been the best bike, but nine times out of ten they were the fastest. Honda horsepower was a very real thing, and for nearly thirty years, the Red Rockets were most often the bike leading the charge into the first turn nationwide.
Honda’s listless 249cc mill was very boggy off the line and lacked any usable torque below the mid-range. After perking up briefly in mid-range, it would limp into an uninspired top end hook. On the dyno, the CR’s mill looked to be making serious horsepower, but on the track, its slow revving delivery, finicky carburation, notchy transmission and narrow power spread made it a hard bike to go fast on.
The early 2000’s found the sport of motocross in a major state of flux. The introduction of Yamaha’s revolutionary YZ400F and YZ250F had thrown a major curve ball to the entire industry, upsetting the traditional class structures and leaving the other Big Four manufacturers scrambling to catch up. With the runaway success of the YZ400F and later its successor the YZ426F, and rumors of upcoming EPA restrictions, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the long term future of two-stroke in motocross. When you added in the asinine displacement advantages given to four-strokes by the AMA, the outlook for 250 two-strokes started to look even bleaker. In spite of all these uncertainties, Honda saw fit to introduce an all-new CR250R for the 2002 season.
The new bike featured the third generation of Honda’s controversial twin-spar aluminum chassis. After being introduced in1997 to much fanfare, the alloy frame had been roundly panned by the public and press alike. First revised in 2000, the new frame promised to be even lighter and better handling than before. Adding to the new chassis were greatly revised suspension components and a complete redesign of the hallowed Honda 250 two-stroke single. The question for 2002 would be, would the new Honda finally offer suspension and handling to match its rocket motor, or would the new 250 end up being cannon fodder for the new generation of 450 thumpers?
After over a decade of dominance, the departure of Jeremy McGrath left a massive void at Team Honda. After a six-year dry spell, Big Red went after the reigning 250 MX and SX champ in an effort to turn around their fortunes. To say RC’s move to Honda in ’02 was a bit controversial would be an understatement. Many fans felt the multi-time champ had turned his back on lifelong sponsor Kawasaki in a blatant money grab, and let him know it on several occasions. For RC’s part, he claimed to have made the move because of Honda’s superior equipment. Ironically, RC’s arrival would coincide with the debut of a CR250 that was actually probably worse than the bike he had based his decision on. While RC would continue to win races on the Honda, it was pretty clear that at many times, his bike was not the best one on the track.
By far the most controversial facet of the ‘02 Honda CR250R was its all-new motor. After dominating the horsepower wars for nearly two decades, Honda threw out their proven 250 mill (originally debuted on the 1992 CR25R), and replaced it with an all new case-reed design. The 249cc case-reed mill featured an electronically controlled powervalve (a feature used on Honda Works bikes going back to the early eighties), replacing the centrifugally controlled unit used previously. Honda’s decision to move to a case-reed architecture was certainly bold one. Case-reed motors had been a staple on 125cc and 80cc machines since the mid-eighties, but had never proven particularly successful on larger machines. As a rule, the short intake tract inherent to the case-reed design offered a narrower spread of power than the traditional cylinder intake. In the early nineties, both KTM and Suzuki made attempts at case–reed 250’s with mixed results. In both cases, the motors tended to be very one-dimensional, offering abrupt, but short power curves. With the introduction of Honda’s new 250, “The Motor Company” officially threw their immense engineering know-how behind the case-reed conundrum.
Unfortunately for Honda, one ride on the new CR250 made it very clear that they had not solved the inherent problems with the case-reed design. Where the previous Honda mill had offered both massive horsepower and ease of use, the new motor offered a lethargic, metered delivery. It was soft off the bottom, with very little usable torque in the lower ranges. In the mid-range there was a noticeable surge of power, but it was far less than either the 2001 Honda or the class leading Yamaha YZ250. On top-end, the Honda petered out and laid down well before hitting the rev-limiter. In addition to having a very narrow spread of usable thrust, the CR’s mellow mill was finicky to jet and hard to get running cleanly. Certainly not helping its hard to use power spread, was a notchy transmission and poorly shaped shifter that made changing gears a real chore (blasphemy on a bike that had owned the title of best transmissions for decade). There were also problems with its new “RC” electric powervalve that required constant attention to assure proper adjustment. With its mid-range only power, listless delivery and notchy transmission, any long time CR owner who plunked down their hard earned $5899 expecting another Honda rocket, was in for a rude awakening.
Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and for the first time in fifteen years he brought CR owners a really good set of forks. The 47mm USD Showa’s on the ’02 Honda soaked up everything in their path with ease. Too bad it took them nearly two decades to figure it out.
While the new motor was a huge step back for Honda, the new chassis was the exact opposite. After struggling with their first two alloy design, Honda really hit their stride with revision three. The new chassis was narrower and lighter than the previous designs, offering more flex and better feel to the rider. Honda had been steadily feeding flex back into their ultra-ridged chassis and by 2002, the bike was finally approaching the compliance of a traditional steel frame. On the track, the ‘02 CR was light feeling and very responsive to rider input. It did not turn quite as well as the Honda benchmark ’93 CR, but was more stable as speed and sure footed in the rough. The chassis exhibited none of the harshness that exemplified the first gen alloy frame, and handled fast tracks and tight courses with equal aplomb. As much as the motor was an epic fail, the new chassis turned out to be a rousing success.
In an incredible turn of fate, ’02 Honda riders actually got to enjoy excellent suspension front and rear for the first time since Regan was in office. After years of mismatched and pathetic efforts, Honda hit it out of the park with the new CR. It offered a plush controlled action that actually let the rider do more than just hold on for dear life.
During Honda’s epic run of motor dominance in the late eighties and early nineties, its one Achilles heel had been it sub-par suspension. Year in and year out, the Honda CR250 would win the dubious award for the worst forks on the track. For 2002, Honda actually reversed its traditional rankings by spec’ing out an excellent set of forks for their new 250. The new Showa units were plush, well controlled, and for once did not beat your wrists to a pulp in three laps. They were excellent on “slap-down” landings and did an admirable job of soaking up the chop. After over a decade of futility in the fork department, these boingers were a real revelation.
The theory behind Honda’s new “RC” electronic powervalve system was that it would offer a more precise action and do away with the sometimes erratic engagement of a traditional centrifugally controlled governors. While this sounded great in theory, in practice, the new system offered none of the old bike’s prodigious power. When Honda did away with the sudden “on-off” engagement of the mechanical system, they also did away with the explosive rush of acceleration that corresponded with the valve snapping open. On a dyno, the smoother, more even delivery of the RC valve motor probably looked superior, but in the real world, the bike’s lack of hit was a handicap.
Traditionally Honda’s shocks had not been as abysmal as their forks, but that is no great praise. Most years the shock could be used without sending it out for an expensive re-valve, but plush they were not. So it was no less amazing, that the new CR’s rear Showa shock was the model of excellent performance. It tracked straight through the bumps and swallowed up big hits with easy. MXA summed it up best by proclaiming the 2002 CR250R’s suspension the best ever to grace a Honda motorcycle. They went up and down, absorbed bumps, and did not pound the rider to a pulp. For a Honda motocross bike at the time, that was a major accomplishment.
In ’02 Honda used all sorts of tricks to keep the new CR’s weight down to the absolute minimum. One such trick included removing the traditional brake fluid reservoir in favor of this super-compact rear master cylinder-reservoir combo. While it did save valuable ounces on the bike, its minimal fluid capacity could lead to fading during long moto’s
Certainly helping the Honda’s suspension was its super light weight. At 213 pounds the CR was a full 10 pounds lighter than the average 250 at the time. You could certainly feel that weight on the track, and the CR felt more like a featherweight 125 than a big 250. The ergonomics were also excellent, with a narrow layout and flat seating position that made moving around easy. One interesting change made to the new CR was Honda’s switch to a small integrated rear master cylinder for the rear brake. It was lighter and more compact than the old unit, but brake draggers quickly found it would fade under abuse. In the details department the CR was typical Honda. Everything from the metallurgy of parts, to the fit and finish of the plastic was top notch.
While we did not know it at the time, the ’02 CR250R would prove to be last all new CR250 two-stroke ever (at least for the foreseeable future anyway). It was an amazing design exercise, showcasing the latest in chassis, suspension and motor theory, all wrapped in drop-dead gorgeous bodywork. It looked the part and handled the part, but when it should have gone BRRAAPPP! It just went whhaaaaaa….wwhhaaaaa…whhaaaaaa.
As history would show, the ‘02 Honda CR250R would prove to be the last of its breed. Honda would continue to produce the ’02 model, with minor modifications up until 2007, when the company move to all four-strokes all the time. If only the ‘02 CR had used the ‘01’s motor, it would have been without a doubt the best CR250R ever. As it was however, it was a great bike saddled with an anemic motor. Considering its long, storied history, it was an ignominious end to one of the all-time 250 two-stroke powerhouses.