By Jeff Wilson
Life is all about compromises. Just ask anyone who has kids or works for a living and they’ll tell you so. Sure, we’d all love to do whatever we want whenever we want, but safety and sanity require compromises from time to time.
What you see here are two bikes that are all about compromise – the 2017 Honda CRF250 Rally vs Kawasaki Versys-X 300.
Their resumes each offer a lengthy list of skills and scenarios these machines claim to manage with aplomb – both on and off the road – but the trouble is, there’s no way a motorcycle that costs as little as these two do (less than $6,500) can possibly do everything they’re supposed to do well.
These bikes aim to be the jacks-of-all-trades but are masters of none, except for being reliable, rider-friendly and affordable fun – which just might be enough for many riders.
Despite their similar missions, they go about their tasks in completely different ways and achieve very different things.
First and foremost, their respective manufacturers claim the Versys-X and CRF250 Rally are designed for adventure. With the burgeoning popularity in the ADV (Adventure) bike category, it’s unsurprising that both Kawasaki and Honda have pillaged their respective parts bins to assemble these two new models for 2017.
Kawasaki boasts that the Versys-X’s engine comes from the Ninja 300, albeit tuned for midrange punch compared to its use in the baby sport bike. To achieve this, the intake has been re-worked, as has the exhaust, which has also been redirected higher off the ground to give more clearance.
That said, the temperament and sound of the Kawi’s engine never lets its rider forget the mill’s origins. To get appreciable power (39 horsepower, maximum), plenty of revs are required but happily, the gnarly Ninja sounds pretty good with its 296-cc parallel twin wailing away all the way past 12,000 rpm.
During our photo session, it did occur to us that the sound of the Versys-X screaming past in second gear at 8- or 9,000 rpm seems better-suited for a race track than a grassy field, but hey, what do we know?
It’s an impressively smooth engine, even at comfortable highway speeds upwards of an indicated (but optimistic) 120 km/h. Vibrations are very well managed, producing no untoward tingling through the grips or the rubber-topped pegs.
Honda has also utilized a power source pillaged from its (former) entry-level sport bike. The now-defunct CBR250 engine is the basis for the CRF250. Like the Kawi’s, this engine has been tuned for a less sporting existence. Being a single-cylinder, and with the exhaust tuned as it is, it feels and sounds much more like a dirt bike. At around 25 horsepower, the Rally’s engine is down about 14 ponies from the Versys-X, despite being re-tuned this past year with a revised intake and exhaust, reportedly netting a 10% power bump.
The power deficit versus the Versys-X is greater on paper than is felt in the real world where the Honda’s lighter mass (157 kg compared to the Kawasaki’s 175 kg) and more usable low-end torque helps keep it spritely. While hard core dirt bikers have bemoaned the Honda’s engine as being too weak-in-the-knees for proper dual-sport duties, we appreciate that this machine is exceedingly user friendly with outstanding throttle response, clutch actuation and transmission.
There were times when climbing some steeper hills on a few trails where we were caught short in too tall a gear, causing the little Honda to chug, but for the most part, there’s enough power to have plenty of fun. Still, we wouldn’t discourage Honda from using the CBR 500’s parallel twin to create a CRF 500 Rally.
Before swinging a leg over either machine, it’s pretty obvious which is going to be the better choice for the pavement, and which is going to be happier on the trail. Kawasaki has taken a street-oriented machine and toughened it up to handle some pot-hole-riddled cottage roads. Honda, on the other hand, has taken a dual-sport bike and dressed it up to look like a pint-sized Dakar rally machine.
What was unexpected, however, is just how manageable the CRF 250 Rally is on-road. Its soft suspension makes for a cushy ride, and in sixth gear at an indicated 110-115 km/h, the Honda turns at least a thousand fewer revs than the high-strung Kawasaki at the same speed. The small windscreen and smooth body work help the Rally make highway velocities tolerable.
The Kawasaki’s seat is a considerable 80-mm lower than the Honda’s, making it friendlier to novice riders (or those with short inseams), but that seat is also really hard and, with a stiffer ride, the Versys-X is actually less comfortable than the Honda for long hauls. Kawasaki offers an “ERGO_FIT Extended Reach seat” option for just over $200 that would hopefully offer a bit more padding.
The Kawi’s lower centre of gravity and stiffer suspension translate into a bike that feels more secure leaning harder into turns than does the Honda. The Rally’s skinnier, knobby tires also limit the amount any sensible rider will want to push on paved curvy roads.
Equipped with a pair of plastic pannier boxes and a rear cargo rack that are standard fare means the Versys-X is better-equipped to handle luggage for an extended ride. Of note, while we applaud Kawasaki for including the boxes, they do feel flimsy and one of our test bike’s lids had a particularly fussy locking mechanism. Our CRF250 Rally, without the optional rear rack, and with its slick, integrated pillion pegs, means finding places to attach a tail bag proved to be challenging.
The Honda’s instrument pod offers up the essentials of speedo, a small, digital tach, fuel gauge and clock. The frame-mounted fairing and windscreen ahead of it houses a pair of asymmetrical LED headlights that do a great job of illuminating the road ahead with clean, white light.
Like the Honda’s, the Versys-X’s windscreen also provides impressive shielding from the wind. Kawasaki provides a more comprehensive gauge cluster with a big, round analog tachometer and digital display for speed, fuel, temperature, clock and gear selection. There’s also a basic trip computer that will display km/L but not the more common L/100-km consumption average.
Speaking of fuel consumption, as an adventure bike, the Versys-X’s 17L fuel tank (and similar consumption rate) will carry you further than the Honda’s 10.1L will.
Kawasaki’s fitment of street-oriented tires on the Versys-X are its biggest limiting factor off-road. During our entire multi-day test period with these bikes, we saw maybe three hours total of sunshine, the rest of the time being a mixed bag of light, annoying rain and full-on deluge.
As a result, the grassy field in which we did some of our off-road riding was wet and more than a little slippery. It’s no surprise then that the Versys-X with its street-worthy tires struggled for grip, making it both fun to spin around, and a little dicey at times too.
It’s not just the tires that limit the Versys-X off-road. Its suspension offers a fraction of the travel of the Honda’s, meaning we were pretty careful with the Kawi when picking lines on the forest trail, choosing paths that contained few rocks, logs and mud.
The Honda, on the other hand, was an absolute hoot, happily tearing up the soggy grass in the fields, and easily swallowing the impacts of obstacles in its way on the forest trails. Compared to its CRF250L dual-sport sibling, the Rally edition is even more capable thanks to its 43-mm Showa fork and greater ground clearance (15 mm additional).
The light weight of both these bikes makes them very easy to manage, even for the relatively inexperienced off-road enthusiast. This also means that should a rider inadvertently lay either of these bikes down, in, say a slippery, grassy field, for instance, they’re also very easy to pick back up. You know, hypothetically-speaking.
Kawasaki Canada presents the Versys-X 300 with standard ABS. This is a thoughtful touch for riders looking to use their bike as an on-road adventure tourer, but we made good use of the Honda’s lack of ABS when playing in the gravel and dirt. Curiously, Honda USA offers an optional CRF 250 Rally with ABS, though Honda Canada does not.
Picking a Winner
At this point, we’re supposed to tell you which is the better choice; which one you need to spend your own hard-earned cash on. But we’re not going to do that, and it’s not a cop-out either. The fact is, which bike is the better bike depends entirely on what type of riding the buyer plans to do.
For someone looking to get into motorcycling and wanting a first bike – or even a first Adventure Touring bike – either one of these machines is a great way to get into the sport. If the adventures are unlikely to ever go beyond secondary paved and gravel roads, the well-equipped and better (on-road) handling Kawasaki Versys-X 300 is the smarter choice.
For adventures in remote destinations accessed off the beaten path, however, Honda’s CRF 250 Rally is the better way to go. The Honda also does well as a second (or third) bike in a stable for a rider who already has other machines for track or touring duties and is looking to get into some basic off-road fun, too.
Which bike is better all depends on what compromises you’re willing to make.