If you close your eyes, listen closely and click the heels of your off-road boots three times, you just might hear a ringing sound.
Is it tinnitus? Probably. But I like to think it's cash registers as they rack up sales for dual sports.
Bikes that can be ridden both on- and off-road turned out to be one of the industry's few bright spots last year, so it's no surprise that manufacturers are turning their attention to the segment. Take Honda, for example. The company hasn't introduced a new dual sport model in 15 years, but for 2008 it's rolling out the CRF230L.
Luckily for American Honda Motor Co., the Torrance-based subsidiary didn't have to rush the development or even spend any R&D money to cash in on the trend because the CRF230L already existed in another market. For the last three years, Honda has been building and selling the same bike -- under the XR230 moniker -- in Japan, where riders have been buying dual sports for their fashionable street appeal, not their off-road functionality.
In the U.S., though, it's likely the CRF230L will actually spend some time in the dirt, because: a) there's land for it, and b) the bike is surprisingly capable. In fact, this dual-purpose bike operates on three levels -- as a casual off-roader, as a commuter bike and as an entry-level model. On the day I spent aboard the 230L roaming the sand, rocks, hills and pavement around the old Northern Mojave mining town of Randsburg, I found it equally suited in all three areas.
I'll start where every rider starts when saddling a bike for the first time: swinging a leg over. Oddly, for a dual sport, I didn't incapacitate my hamstring or knock my boot into the tail section trying to clear the hurdle of a seat. That's because the saddle is an unusually low 31.9 inches -- a feat that was aided by nudging the compact motor forward in the frame.
Equally unusual for a street-oriented dual sport is the high ground clearance -- 9.5 inches -- and suspension travel. There are 9 inches of travel in front, provided courtesy of the leading-axle Showa fork, and 6.3 inches of travel out back, thanks to the pre-load-adjustable, pro-link Showa shock. Add it all together, and you've got a bike that lighter-weight riders can catch some air on without bottoming out the bike once the flight has ended.
Or you've got a bike that carves a mean corner on the street. I was scraping pegs all over the place on the twisty curvies, which were a blast on a bike so nimble and lightweight. It's just 267 pounds full of fluids and ready to roll.
Lest anyone be fooled by the name, the CRF230L is not a street-legal version of the CRF230F. The two models share a similar air-cooled, 223-cc single-cylinder motor, but they have radically different resumes. The F version is a purpose-built dirt bike, whereas the L's MO is the street.
In addition to the lights, signals, mirrors and other gear that make the bike road ready, the L features a slightly larger carburetor to meet on-road emissions standards. To take the bike up to its top speed of 70-ish mph, there's a sixth gear. And to slow it down, there are disc brakes in the rear as well as the front.
What makes this bike a good choice for commuting is its ease of use and light touch on the pocketbook. At current prices, filling the 2.3-gallon tank costs a reasonable $7 and will take you about 140 miles.
What makes this bike slightly less good for commuting, especially via freeway: Its lack of power and any whiff of a windscreen. I didn't spend much time on the open highway, but when I did, I felt like a wind sock.
Those aren't issues for entry-level street riders, a typically underserved segment of the market Honda is pursuing with the CRF230L. In addition to capitalizing on the dual sport trend, Honda was looking for another starter bike to complement its long-standing Rebel and Nighthawk models.
I'd say Honda's succeeded, creating a lightweight, user-friendly motorcycle that makes a triple threat out of its newest dual sport.
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2008 Honda CRF230L
Base price: $4,499
Powertrain: Air-cooled, carbureted, SOHC, two-valve single-cylinder, four-stroke, six speed
Displacement: 223 cc
Seat height: 31.9 inches
Ready-to-ride weight: 267 pounds