Trail Testing the Honda CRF230F

A mainstay of the Honda CRF-F lineup, the Honda CRF230F is back for 2016. Positioned as the final stop as one progresses through the CRF-F line before moving up to a Honda CRF250X enduro bike or CRF250R motocrosser, the 230F is a more capable dirt bike than many give it credit for being.

Honda CRF230F WheelieWhile the 2016 Honda CRF230F has full-sized wheels (21”/18”), it doesn’t have the long-travel suspension–and tall seat height and extra inches of ground clearance of enduro bikes–and the overall ergonomics are in the more casual range. This makes it a great bike for those transitioning to a full-sized bike for the first time–the CRF150F and CRF125F Big Wheel use 17” and 19” tires—or anyone who’s backing it down from a more aggressive ride.

The just over 34-inch seat height of the CRF230F is perfect for me, even though I’m not completely flat-footed in my Alpinestars Tech 3 boots. That doesn’t matter on a dirt bike–especially one I don’t have to kickstart. What does matter is being able to confidently dab at any time, as well as know that I can come to a stop anywhere, As much as I like the seat height, I did feel like the bike was a tad small for me, though not cramped.

When standing up on the Honda CRF230F, though, the overall smallness (compared to the 250X, which I have ridden quite a bit) is actually a plus. I feel like I can manhandle it, if necessary, and that is confidence inspiring. The bike is not exactly light at 249 pounds, but because the weight is carried low and the bike is physically smaller, as a package it is not intimidating in any way. For comparison, the 250X is just five pounds heavier, while the 125F Big Wheel is 55 pounds lighter.

A smaller bike to manage, with an easy-going power delivery, gives you a bike you can push and ride aggressively without feeling like you’ll get yourself in trouble. This encourages you to test yourself. I found I could ride the same trails and single track faster on the CRF230F than on an enduro bike with better suspension and more responsive throttle action.

Honda CRF230F motorcycleThere’s enough power in the air-cooled, two-valve 223cc thumper to tackle a variety of conditions with authority. The delivery is not fast, though, but you’ll quickly figure out to twist the throttle hard and use the clutch to get the most out of the engine. Even so, you’ll never be squirting up the trail like the guys on dad bikes, but there’s very little you won’t be able to do. You’ll just be doing it slower.

While the Pirelli MT 320 tires are serviceable enough — undoubtedly a price-point choice — when conditions get technical and line choice is particularly important, the narrow profile of the front tire makes itself known. You’ll find the Honda CRF230F doesn’t quite track the line you’ve chosen as precisely as you’d like, nor are the knobbies quite as grippy when you need them to be.

Also, the soft carcass of the tire, while it does soften the ride, adds to the spongy handling. An upgrade to a pair of Dunlop Geomax MX51 tires will improve the handling and feel of the CRF230F’s suspension.

While the Showa suspension isn’t top drawer, it actually does a very credible job with the 9.5-inches of travel in front, and 9 in the rear. Riding through a dry wash strewn with rocks, the Honda CRF230F’s 21-inch front wheel keeps its composure and plows through. Plush it is not, but it gets the job done without feeling unsettled, even as it traverses square-edged bumps. With feet on the pegs for this kind of terrain, hand and foot levers are still easily reachable and usable.

Honda CRF230F Trail BikeWhere the limitations of the suspension were most noticeable was on a downhill, cupped-out single track. Although I felt secure enough to let the CRF230F bounce over rough terrain and bumps while on the throttle, when off the gas the less-precise compression/rebound at the front of the bike had me tip-toeing more carefully. The only adjustability on the suspension is the rear spring preload for ride height setting.

With plenty of torque in the low to mid-range, the CRF230F is a blast to ride, whether at a casual pace or higher in the revs as you push your edges. Groomed trails, or not, the bike responds dependably and without drama, which boosts any rider’s confidence.

The Honda’s comfortable motocross-style seat allows you to slide up the tank to weight the front wheel. Comfortably wide handlebars provide plenty of leverage when maneuvering through tight quarters.

Power delivery is friendly enough for novice riders, but with a heavier hand on the throttle and some finessing of the clutch, the CRF230F is happy to move along athletically. Steep uphills are not off-limits to the 230F; attack with conviction and you’ll be well rewarded.

Honda CRF230F FunYou won’t get into trouble with the Honda CRF230F’s brakes. There’s nothing grabby about the front brake, in fact it’s perfectly dialed for its intended audience. A healthy squeeze on the front brake will produce enough stopping power that allows you to ride at a good clip, knowing you’ll be able to slow it down reasonably quickly. As you progress, you can consider upgrading to a steel-braided brake line.

The rear drum brake is soft, but is useful to finesse your speed and stability when used in conjunction with the front brake. You’re unlikely to lock it up accidentally, though you will also find it harder to lock it up to back it into turns.

The six-speed transmission is rock solid, engaging persuasively enough that I don’t hesitate to shift whether going up or downhill. With that many cog choices and the wide powerband, you’re never in between gears.

The CRF230F’s clutch lever engages smoothly, though it’s not particularly light — a bit of a surprise. I kept two fingers on it at all times when riding aggressively.

Always worth mentioning is the importance of the electric start — which increases the fun factor of any ride. There is no reason to spend your energy kicking the bike if you don’t have to. The CRF230F starts reliably at every push of the button; activate the easy-to-reach choke lever on the left side of the 26mm carb when the engine is cold.

Of course, Honda could make all sorts of upgrades to the CRF230F, but keeping the price below $4200 is a laudable goal. You can make a few changes of your own without losing the appeal of this highly dependable, low-maintenance motorcycle (has anyone ever had to adjust the valves on a 230F?). Clean the air filter when needed, check the chain, and change the motor oil now and then–all easily done–and that’s it. Oh, wait, the two-gallon tank will need gas once in awhile.

Standing at the top of the Honda CRF-F food chain, the 2016 Honda CRF230F is a legitimate transit point between the CRF150F Big Wheel and CRF250X enduro bike. True to its F roots, it won’t startle you with its performance, yet it is fully capable of going almost anywhere you want to take it.

Photography by Don Williams

RIDING STYLE
Helmet: Fly Racing F2 Carbon Fastback Helmet
Goggles: Fly Racing Zone
Pants, jersey + gloves: Fly Racing Kinetic Women’s Racewear
Drink system: Fly Racing Hydropack
Knee braces: Leatt C-Frame
Boots: Alpinestars Stella Tech 3

2016 Honda CRF230F Specifications
ENGINE
Type: SOHC, two-valve, single-cylinder 4-stroke
Bore x stroke: 65.5 x 66.2mm
Displacement: 223cc
Cooling: Air
Induction: 26mm piston valve carburetor
Ignition: CD
Transmission: 6-speed
Final drive: #520 O-ring sealed chain.
CHASSIS
Suspension
Front: 37mm Showa forks; 9.5 inches of travel
Rear: Linkage assisted Showa shock with spring-preload adjustment; 9.0 inches of travel
Brakes
Front: 240mm disc w/ 4-piston caliper
Rear: Drum
Tires:
Front: 80/100 x 21 Pirelli MT320
Rear: 100/100 x 18 Pirelli MT320
DIMENSIONS
Rake: 27.3 degrees
Trail: 4.4 inches
Wheelbase: 54.1 inches
Ground clearance: 11.7 inches
Seat height: 34.1 inches
Curb weight: 249 pounds
Color: Red
Warranty: Six months, transferrable limited warranty (extendable)
2016 Honda CRF230F MSRP: $4199