Honda’s smallest displacement CRF is also their top-selling dual-sport model, moving more than 35,000 units. The company attributes that to the bike’s accessible size and price, with design elements mimicking the Baja-dominating CRF450X and Dakar-winning CRF450 Rally. The goals for 2021 were to increase power, reduce weight and improve off-road performance, without sacrificing value, reliability or the big-bike styling.
Honda decided to improve the performance of both the CRF250L and the CRF250L Rally, by putting them on a weight loss and strength training program, plus a requisite renaming. While both the 2021 CRF300L and CRF300L Rally have similar underpinnings and updates, there are some subtle differences that can only be measured by tape, or the seat of one’s pants. Let’s dive in.
When compared to the CRF300L, the CRF300L Rally adds 1.3 extra gallons of fuel capacity (3.4 to 2.1 gallons), a 20mm wider seat (190mm to 170mm), hand guards and a frame-mounted windscreen, for those who like to travel farther. The Rally also has a 40mm larger front brake disc (296mm to 256mm), a third-inch lower ground clearance (10.9 to 11.2 inches), and half-inch higher seat (35.2 to 34.7 inches). That is the meat of it. But wait, there’s more…
Big Red states wet weights, with a full tank of fuel, and lists the Rally at 333 pounds. While that is 24 pounds heavier than the 309-pound CRF300L, what is more remarkable is that almost 8 pounds is the extra fuel, making all the extra gear only a 16-pound difference. Opting for ABS also adds a few extra pounds to either model, for the weight weenies to argue over incessantly.
Honda stated the Rally has roughly a 250-mile range, which is both welcomed, and though unverified, it indicates an expected fuel economy of more than 70mpg. That also indicates the CRF300L should have a range of about 150 miles. The 250L was known to achieve 60-70mpg, so the quote isn’t too far-fetched. Regardless, fuel economy will always depend on how hard a vehicle is flogged.
Nips and tucks result in the 2021 CRF300L weighing 11 pounds less and the Rally weighing 9 pounds less than the last year’s CRF250L models, even with the Rally receiving a 25% larger fuel tank (3.4 gallons) and both getting a 15% displacement increase! Weight was reduced marginally on many parts, including the frame, swingarm, rear sprocket, lower triple clamp, front fender, side covers, toolbox, instrument cluster, license-plate bracket, plates and tubing thickness, and even a new hollow rear axle.
The engine features the same compact cylinder head and counterbalancer as the CRF250L, which equates to the sewing-machine smooth running Hondas are known for. The electric-start, liquid-cooled, single-cylinder, four-stroke power plant received an 8mm stroke increase to 63mm, while bore remained unchanged at 76mm. This created a 36cc displacement bump to 286cc, and about a 20% increase in both horsepower and torque from the CRF250L. The world will not be set ablaze by 27 horsepower and 19.6 lb.-ft. torque, but it’s a noticeable increase in power and torque in real-world use, from bottom to top, when compared to the outgoing models.
The camshaft was also revised in both lift and timing, increasing output in the lower and middle powerband. This is beneficial for both urban and off-road riding, where the bike is primarily ridden in a lower gear. A lighter exhaust system reduces both vibration and sound output, and was also tuned to improve throttle response at low rpm.
Updated gear ratios feature closer spacing in the lower gears and wider spacing in the higher gears, further improving power delivery down low, while maintaining a comfortable ride at higher speeds. This smallish motor, with its displacement bump and improved gearing, cranks and grinds through tough single-track, and will still happily carry 200 pounds to 75 mph on the highway. A 20-percent lighter clutch pull comes by way of a new assist and slipper clutch. While Honda claims it improved aggressive shifting performance, we still felt that shifting was a bit clunky when called upon under duress.
The frame’s lateral rigidity was reduced by 25%, by narrowing or shortening the down tube, down-tube gusset, main pipe and cradle tubes. A revised one-piece, cast-aluminum swingarm with a reduced pivot width further optimizes flex and reduces lateral (23%) and torsional (17%) rigidity, to deliver more uniform flex and more predictable handling. Revisions to the frame and crankcase increased ground clearance 1.2 inches. The kickstand is stronger and the foot plate 10% larger, for improved stability, tested successfully on a 180-degree concrete pivot reversal. Thank you, Archimedes.
The same 43mm inverted Showa fork and Pro-Link single-shock rear system is a carry-over from the former models. However, suspension stroke was extended 0.4 inches front and 0.6 inches rear, resulting 10.2 inches of wheel travel at both ends. Suspension settings were revised, and a new rear link and connecting rod result in somewhat improved suspension performance, as compared to the old models.
However, there are still no adjustable settings outside rear preload, which leads to an extremely soft ride that quickly becomes bouncy on irregular surfaces. We felt the rear end bucking while going over whoops and other midsized obstacles during off-road riding. The very first modification recommended for anyone looking to do aggressive off-roading would be replacing the suspension with something that is tunable. Urban commuters that hit a fire road occasionally will likely be perfectly fine with the stock setup. Note that this tester is 6-feet tall and 200 pounds in gear, which might be a bit larger than Honda considers the “average” CRF300L rider. Thus, suspension may feel better for smaller riders.
Hydraulic brakes clamp 256mm front (296mm on Rally) and 220mm rear rotors. ABS is available for a $300 upcharge, with a rear-wheel disable feature, to allow sliding it sideways in the dirt. A new rear-brake master cylinder incorporates the reservoir, eliminating the hose from the prior model, for a cleaner appearance. Wheel sizes are industry-standard 21 inches front and 18 inches rear, assisting in rough terrain, while offering plenty of tire options. The new polished black aluminum rims should clean up easier, too.
The riding position was revised to improve reach and maneuverability, including an increased handlebar sweep and slimmer width of the most forward portion of the seat, making it easier to grip the tank with the knees, and put both feet down when stopped, even for the short of inseam. The footpegs were moved slightly rearward, and the right swingarm-pivot cover redesigned to reduce width.
The Rally adds two 5.8-ounce handlebar weights, rubber mounted seat cushion and rubber footpeg plugs, to further reduce vibration. While reach was comfortable while sitting, it was a bit short for a 6-foot frame when standing while riding technical terrain. Because the Rally tank is substantially wider, it is also harder, or at least more uncomfortable, to shift body weight forward when doing tight turns off-road, as the tank splays the legs.
An updated LCD meter features 6mm larger black characters on a gray background, which was easy to read on the Rally, but the front brake hydraulic hose frequently blocked line of sight on the CRF300L, as the cluster was positioned lower than the Rally. Speedo, tach, clock and fuel indicators return as standard, and new functions include gear position, an rpm adjustable shift indicator light, plus fuel consumption and mpg. The headlamp is LED on the Rally, keeping power consumption low, but strangely a standard bulb on the CRF300L.
Honda offers many optional parts, including an electrical socket, wider foot pegs, heated grips, a top box and a rear rack. Many parts from the former models should be direct swap, and the aftermarket will surely jump on board with many other options, as the tiny CRF should remain extremely popular in new guise.
We recommend the Rally for anyone riding long distances, as it is taller, has longer range, less vibration and a touch of wind protection, though the stock shield caused some buffeting at speed. It also has a more radical appearance, including a wide stance and asymmetrical headlights with carbon-fiber-look shroud.
If off-road is the name of the game, opt for the CRF300L (or a KLX300, with better suspension), as it has a slightly lower seat, higher ground clearance, lower weight, and it was much easier to move around on when riding aggressively, due to the narrower tank.
Either way, both new CRF300L models received more torque, horsepower, ground clearance, suspension travel and lighter weight, all for a mere $50 increase in MSRP. After a day riding dirt and street on both bikes, we would put either bike near the top of the list when shopping for a fantastic value in the dual-sport segment.
2021 Honda CRF300L $5,249/$5,549 (ABS) USD
2021 Honda CRF300L Rally $5,999/$6,299 (ABS) USD