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ADV News2021 Honda CRF300L and CRF300L Rally First Ride Review

2021 Honda CRF300L and CRF300L Rally First Ride Review

Honda’s best-selling dual sport gets more power, less weight and a range of updates.

Published on 05.24.2021

Honda certainly has a proud history of producing small four-stroke dual sports that are well-rounded, easy-to-use, reliable and economical, going back to the early 1970s. That same winning formula has made the CRF250L platform the company’s best-selling dual sport with over 35,000 units delivered since its introduction in 2012. For 2021, Honda’s small displacement dual sport line takes a leap forward with the release of the CRF300L and CRF300L Rally.

Rumblings of a new 300cc CRF began appearing at the end of last year but it took several months before we could confirm the updated models would be coming to the states. Not only did we learn more power was on the way, but also upgrades to the suspension and weight reductions — three areas of improvement CRF250L fans have been longing for.

Honda CRF300L and CRF300L Rally review

In developing the new CRF300L and CRF300L Rally, Honda had two separate goals in mind. For the standard CRF300L, they wanted to improve its off-road performance without negatively impacting its friendly, approachable nature. With the CRF300L Rally, they wanted to enhance its long-range comfort, while not affecting its all-round performance. Maintaining a low price point for the value-minded rider was also a priority with both models. Has Big Red pulled it off? We’ll get into that and more but first let’s go over some of the upgrades.

What’s New

Honda CRF300L Rally review
The Rally model comes with a larger tank, windscreen, wrap-around skid plate, flappy hand guards, a larger-diameter front disc brake, and improved LED lighting.

Starting with the engine, Honda increased the stroke to boost displacement to 286cc, revised the intake cam timing, and improved the combustion chamber and intake efficiency for a 10% improvement in horsepower and 18% more peak torque. To further aid acceleration, Honda tightened the spacing of 1st through 5th gear, making 6th gear more of an overdrive gear. And smoothing out the delivery of power is an all-new slip-assist clutch with a 20% lighter pull.

Honda CRF300L review
The new models receive a boost in displacement to 286cc, revised intake cam timing, improved combustion chamber and intake efficiency, a slipper clutch, and revised gearing.
Honda CRF300L and CRF300L Rally
suspension
Both models feature the same 10.2 inches front and rear but differ in their damping and spring rate settings.

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A new exhaust, frame, swing arm, and triple clamp have all contributed to weight reductions. The standard CRF300L is now 12 pounds lighter than the outgoing 250cc model and the CRF300L Rally has shed 9 pounds compared to the old version. The revised frame was also designed to increase maneuverability, improve feel, reduce the bike’s width, and increase ground clearance. Both bikes get optimized suspension settings for improved off-road handling as well.

The standard CRF300L weighs 24 pounds less than the Rally while also sporting a 0.5″ lower seat height and slightly more ground clearance.

Previously, the CRF250L and CRF250L Rally had different suspension travel numbers. This year, both bikes feature the same 10.2 inches front and rear. That translates into an increase of 0.4 inches in front and 0.8 inches in the rear for the standard CRF300L, while the CRF300L Rally loses 0.8 inches in front and stays about the same in the rear.

The Rally model’s larger 296mm front disc (right) helps compensate for the additional 24 pounds it carries.
A new LCD display now shows gear position, fuel consumption and fuel mileage on the dash.

The seat height on the CRF300L has gone up slightly (0.3 inches) with the longer-travel suspension but the Rally’s perch stays the same. Ground clearance gets a modest bump of 0.3 inches on the Rally but the standard CRF300L’s underbelly is a full 1.2 inches higher off the ground. Wheelbase has been shortened (0.3 inches) on the CRF300L compared to the CRF250L while the Rally remains about the same, and there are some minor differences in the steering head angle for the Rally as well.

Honda CRF300L Rally review
The CRF300L Rally gets a bump in fuel capacity from 2.7 gallons to 3.4 gallons for a welcome increase in range.

Ergonomics on both bikes have gotten some updates like the 7/8-inch handlebar’s sweep that now offers a more-neutral elbow position, a seat with a slimmer front makes putting a foot down easier and foot pegs were moved rearward to ease shifting. Also, an all-new LCD display now shows gear position, fuel consumption and fuel mileage. In addition, both bikes get a stronger kickstand with a larger foot for improved stability while parked.

Honda CRF300L and CRF300L Rally
review

Other changes specific to the CRF300L Rally include a bump in fuel capacity from 2.7 gallons up to 3.4 gallons for a welcome increase in range. And to smooth out those vibes on the highway, Honda installed a set of handlebar weights and rubber inserts for the foot pegs. As in previous years, the Rally gets some extras the standard model doesn’t, like the aforementioned larger tank, a small windscreen, wrap-around skid plate, flappy hand guards, a larger-diameter front disc brake, and improved LED lighting. Both bikes can also be ordered with an ABS option, which adds $300 to the MSRP.

WATCH: Walkaround and a sound sample of the Rally’s engine braaping.

On the Street

Sitting on the bikes for the first time, both models have similar ergonomics. There is a comfortable reach to the bars and adequate leg room for my 6-foot 2-inch frame. The seat on the Rally has a plusher and wider feel that is more comfortable for longer journeys, yet with both seats there is no way to avoid sitting on the seat strap. Luckily, the strap can be easily removed with two bolts.

Honda CRF300L Rally test

Acceleration up to highway speed now feels more similar on both bikes. With the previous 250cc engine, the heavier Rally felt sluggish on the gas hauling my 215-pound body plus gear. It now gets up to speed without as much strain and once there, the small Rally windscreen does a good job of blocking the wind up to about forehead level.  

With the Rally’s new bar inserts and foot peg covers, it has a smoother feel in top gear compared to the outgoing 250 Rally but the vibrations are still there. It’s not just in the handlebars and pegs; the tank and frame also send vibes to your body. What’s made the biggest difference in smoothing things out though is the gearing change. Now the bike can cruise at 70-73 mph without getting excessive vibes. Right around 73 mph is where you feel the need to roll off the throttle whereas previously, that sweet spot was down at around 65 mph.

The Rally model now comes with a set of handlebar weights and removable vibration-damping rubber footpeg covers.
The seat strap comes in handy for moving the bike around but can be uncomfortable to sit on. Luckily, it’s easily removed with two bolts.

One thing I did notice with the taller 6th gear is that it struggles to reach 80 mph. It seems like Honda’s solution to the vibration problem was to make it harder for the bike to reach the RPM range where the buzzing is felt the strongest. So despite the increased power, it hasn’t helped roll-on acceleration in top gear.

In terms of highway cruising comfort, not much has changed on the standard CRF300L. I noticed how much wind protection I was missing immediately after switching from the Rally to the standard model. Any sustained riding above 50 mph will wear you out fairly quickly as you get blasted by the wind. You feel the buzz in the bars and pegs earlier too, without the rubber footpeg covers and vibration-damping handlebar inserts.

Once we got into some twisty asphalt sections, both the CRF300L and CRF300L Rally felt equally at home with light, agile handling in tight turns. Excessive dive and squat were not an issue, plus the increased power and revised gearing allow you to maintain a brisk pace with 1/4 throttle inputs rather than having to grab a fistful. Winding the motor to the moon is no longer required to keep your momentum, which makes for a much more relaxing ride in the bends.

Grip in the turns from the IRC Trail GP22 tires is adequate, but you can tell you are riding on knobbies when leaned deep in a turn. Under hard braking, the rear knobby also had a tendency to start chirping early as it struggled for grip. Although, some instability in the tires could be attributed to the fact we were riding with a reduced 18 psi for mixed on/off-road terrain.

Brakes on either bike require a firm squeeze to get the most out of them. There isn’t a lot of initial bite but they feel adequate. And while the Rally does have a larger front disc (296mm vs 256mm), you can’t really feel a difference. Perhaps any advantage is negated by the additional 24 pounds of extra weight the Rally carries. We didn’t get a chance to try out the ABS model during this test but we were told the system is defeatable on the rear wheel only, with a convenient dash-mounted ‘off’ button.

In The Dirt

Getting onto dirt for the first time, the stand-up ergos were surprisingly comfortable for my 6’2” frame. Perhaps you might want to roll the bars forward a tad if you are a taller rider, but overall the bar height, reach and foot position all felt ‘typical dirt bike-like’ for both models. The foot pegs are also fairly large for stock and offer good support for longer periods of standing, but the removable rubber covers that come on the Rally did make the footing a bit less stable.

2021 Honda CRF300L Rally  review

When sitting down, the extra girth of the Rally tank is apparent and it splays the legs a bit. However, it doesn’t prevent you from giving the tank a good squeeze in turns with your knees. But the bulge at the top of the tank did make sliding your weight forward a little harder on the Rally. On the other hand, the small rally fairing never seemed to get in the way or obscure your view on the trail.

My initial impression of the CRF300L Rally’s handling was that it’s light and flickable, with the ability to easily pick your line on the trail. It has the quick steering and responsiveness of a 250cc dual sport on tighter trails and it offers a lot of confidence at slow to mid-range speeds. Even so, the front tire does like to wander on smooth flat turns as you start to push the pace. By comparison, the CRF300L feels more nimble and rails even better in tight turns, offering good confidence as speeds increase.

2021 Honda CRF300L review

During our test, I took both models up a few loose, steep hills to see if the 300’s tighter-spaced gearing, increased power and weight loss made an impact on this type of terrain. The outgoing CRF250L and CRF250L Rally always seemed to suffer from too-tall gearing for trail riding, making tougher hill climbs a challenge. With the new powerplant, both bikes pulled 2nd gear all the way up without a hint of bogging, and the rear tire remained firmly planted in the loose dirt without getting squirrelly. A light clutch with lots of feel also aided control when feathering on technical climbs.

Heading back down these descents was also less cumbersome with the aid of a slipper clutch that keeps the rear tire spinning and avoids inadvertent lockup. Brake feel and modulation are also nicely matched for trail riding with plenty of feel to improve control and reduce sliding.

2021 Honda CRF300L dual sport test
Steeper descents are much improved with the aid of a slipper clutch that helps reduce rear tire lockup.

Bump absorption is where these two bikes diverge the most in their handling characteristics, despite sharing the same chassis. The Rally is designed to have a cushier ride for all-day comfort over a variety of terrain, and at slower speeds it’s great at sucking up any imperfections in the trail, offering a plush but lively feel. The suspension doesn’t have a lot of damping, so it rewards riders who have a more playful riding style. You can easily loft the front wheel or pop off small rises in the trail. For those riders who have a more hard-charging style, the suspension feels quite soft and it bottoms out quickly on mid-sized rocks, rain ruts or whoops.

2021 Honda CRF300L Rally dual sport review
2021 Honda CRF300L dual sport review

If you start to push too hard, the Rally lets you know with a clunk in the fork on compression and there’s also a strange step in the rebound you can feel when the front tire leaves the ground. The new front fork has 0.8 inches less suspension travel but I can’t say I missed it because the old Rally’s fork was so soft anyway. While the Rally is still too soft for my taste, I’d say it feels firmer than the outgoing model.

In contrast, the CRF300L is designed to handle bigger bumps at more aggressive speeds than the Rally. Improved damping and a firmer ride keep it from wallowing around and it’s able to maintain a precise line in rough terrain. The unsettling fork issues I noticed on the Rally mostly disappeared on the standard CRF300L and it almost felt like a different bike. The CRF300L is still on the soft side compared to a performance dual sport but it will get through pretty much anything you put in front of it. It still lets you know when it’s being pushed too hard, but the upper edge of its performance envelope is much higher than the Rally’s.

2021 Honda CRF300L review
2021 Honda CRF300L review

Settings in valving and spring rates are the main reasons these two bikes handle so differently on the trail. And while the CRF300L and Rally version are well-tuned for the style of riding they were intended for, a non-adjustable suspension means you are stuck with what the Honda engineers gave you. Adjustability may be a concern for more advanced off-road riders but many in the market for a bike like this are less likely to fool around with suspension settings anyway.

The Bottom Line

Has Honda hit its mark in terms of making the CRF300L a better off-road bike? Absolutely. It now has better suspension for more aggressive riding plus the extra grunt to take on bigger hill climbs and deeper sand. Yet it hasn’t lost any of its friendly, approachable nature that makes it attractive to newer riders or those just looking for an easy-to-manage dual sport to explore trails with.

2021 Honda CRF300L review

The Rally also achieved its goal of becoming a better long-range machine. Now with improved highway smoothness, increased range, and more power to carry all your gear, it’s an even more versatile machine. Honda also offers an optional 12-volt charging port, rear luggage rack and heated grips to further enhance its long-range capability.

There’s always room for improvement though and my biggest gripe with the Rally is that it’s still too soft for heavier or more aggressive riders off-road. If they gave it the same settings as the standard CRF300L, I’d be happy with that. Better yet, give the suspension some damping adjustments so you can tune it to your liking. My second wish for the future would be to smooth the motor out a bit more at around 8,000 RPMs to give it even better highway cruising capability.

2021 Honda CRF300L Rally review

Rarely do you get a significant update to a motorcycle that includes an increase in engine size with a weight reduction, so kudos to Honda for pulling that off. They also completed this round of upgrades while keeping the price increase down to a mere 50 bucks. Value-minded riders will appreciate the cheap cost of ownership too with 8,000-mile oil changes and 16,000-mile valve checks. 

Which model is better? It really comes down to the style of riding you expect to do. Riders that want to tackle more aggressive trails and either have a truck or live fairly close to the trails should consider the CRF300L. Those who are looking to get out on longer riders and don’t have a truck to get to trails that may be an hour or two away will appreciate the additional comfort and range of the Rally. 

2021 Honda CRF300L Rally review

How do they match up with the competition? Well the Rally is in a class of its own as far as single-cylinder, small adventure bikes that come with a windscreen, big tank, comfortable seat, and dirt bike chassis. With its lighter weight, ample suspension travel and 21”/18” wheel combo, it can handle some pretty aggressive terrain in moderation. Compared to other twin-cylinder adventure bikes, it feels much smaller and easier to pick up if you drop it. It’s an excellent ADV bike for anyone looking to build their confidence on the trail and there really should be more bikes competing in this category.

As for the CRF300L, it has some pretty fierce competition coming from the new Kawasaki KLX300 we recently tested. It’s hard to do a direct comparison without riding them back-to-back under the same conditions, but my rough assessment is that the KLX has a smoother, slightly more powerful engine and better big-bump absorption. Although, the Honda does have the advantage of a plusher ride, more roomy ergos, a slipper clutch, longer maintenance intervals, and an ABS option. Plus it costs $300 less. Hopefully, we can get these two bikes out on the trail in the near future for a more thorough analysis.

2021 Honda CRF300L review

No matter which model CRF300L you choose, both bikes continue in the Honda tradition of being dependable, capable, workhorses that can enable some pretty incredible adventures for not a lot of money. Both the CRF300L and CRF300L Rally are available now on showroom floors with a starting MSRP of $5,249 and $5,999 respectively. More information on the 2021 CRF300L line can be found on the Honda website.

Gear We Used

2021 Honda CRF300L & CRF300L Rally Specs

MODEL NAMECRF300LCRF300 Rally
ENGINE TYPE:4-stroke DOHC 4V water-cooled4-stroke DOHC 4V water-cooled
CYLINDER VOLUME (CC):286.01286.01
CYLINDER WIDTH X STROKE (MM.):76.0 x 63.04776.0 x 63.047
COMPRESSION RATIO:10.7: 110.7: 1
INDUCTION:Fuel injection system PGM-FI w/ 38 mm throttle bodyFuel injection system PGM-FI w/ 38 mm throttle body
CLUTCH SYSTEM:Wet multi-plate clutch, stackedWet multi-plate clutch, stacked
TRANSMISSION:6 gears6 gears
1ST GEAR:3.5383.538
2ND GEAR:2.252.25
3RD GEAR:1.651.65
4TH GEAR:1.3461.346
5TH GEAR:1.1151.115
6TH GEAR:0.9250.925
FINAL DRIVE:14T/40Tl #520 O-ring sealed chain14T/40Tl #520 O-ring sealed chain
IGNITION SYSTEM:Full Transistor DigitalFull Transistor Digital
ENGINE STARTING:ElectricElectric
DIMENSIONS WIDTH X LENGTH X HEIGHT (IN.):32.2 x 87.8 x 47.336.2 x 87.8 x 55.9
WHEELBASE:57.2 in.57.2 in.
GROUND CLEARANCE:11.2 in.10.9 in.
SEAT HEIGHT:34.7 in.35.2 in.
CASTER ANGLE / TRAIL DISTANCE (° ‘/) (MM):27° 30’ / 109 mm27° 30’ / 109 mm
FUEL CAPACITY:7.8L (2.1 gallons)12.8L (3.4 gallons)
FRAME TYPE:Twin Tube SteelTwin Tube Steel
SUSPENSION SYSTEM (FRONT):Telescopic type upside down, size 43 mm.Telescopic type upside down, size 43 mm.
SUSPENSION SYSTEM (REAR):Pro-linkPro-link
SUSPENSION TRAVEL (FRONT):10.2 in.10.2 in.
SUSPENSION TRAVEL (REAR):10.2 in.10.2 in.
WET WEIGHT (STD/ABS):309 lbs. / 311 lbs.333 lbs. / 337 lbs.
BRAKE SYSTEM (FRONT):Single two-piston hydraulic caliper w/ 256 mm discSingle two-piston hydraulic caliper w/ 296 mm disc
BRAKE SYSTEM (BACK):Single one-piston hydraulic caliper w/ 220mm discSingle one-piston hydraulic caliper w/ 220mm disc
WHEELS:Front spokes size 21 inches / back spokes size 18 inchesFront spokes size 21 inches / back spokes size 18 inches
TIRE SIZE (FRONT):80/100-2180/100-21
TIRE SIZE (REAR):120/80-18120/80-18
MSRP (STD/ABS):$5,249 / $5,549$5,999 / $6,299
MAINTENANCE INTERVAL:Oil change 8k miles/ Valve check 16K milesOil change 8k miles/ Valve check 16K miles
WARRANTY:12 months12 months

Photos: Drew Ruiz

Author: Rob Dabney

Rob Dabney started a lifelong obsession with motorcycles at the age of 15 when he purchased his first bike – a 1982 Honda MB5. Through his 20’s and 30’s he competed in off-road desert races, including the Baja 250, 500 and 1000. Eventually, his proclivity for exploration led him to dual sport and adventure riding. Rob’s never-ending quest to discover what’s around the next bend has taken him on Adventures in Mexico, North Africa, Europe, and throughout the American West. As a moto journalist, he enjoys inspiring others to seek adventure across horizons both near and far.

Author: Rob Dabney
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14 thoughts on “2021 Honda CRF300L and CRF300L Rally First Ride Review

  1. I like this bike. I would definitely consider one if I lived closer to the trails but I have to hit up some interstates and that is just not ideal with this engine. I’m hoping Yamaha comes out with a Tenere 300 with their parallel twin. I think that would be my sweet spot. The versys x 300 is just too ugly with too much plastic and could use a little more bite in the dirt.

  2. All they had to do was shoehorn the CB500x P-Twin into the CRF Rally frame and they win the game of being first to market with a 500cc twin adv bike. How does no company currently understand the first to this market will be like printing money.

  3. Would it be weird to buy the Rally bike and then put more asphalt friendly tires on it? At 67 years old I doubt I’ll be hitting any trails. Just want a nice commuter bike for my 6’6″ frame.

  4. Thank you for this review !

    I was looking for a dual purpose bike last february, with these bike; KLX300 and CRF300L just coming out, I was not sure which one to choose. Also, at that time, it was difficult or impossible to read road test about these new models.

    I wanted definitely a bike with low weight end good suspension for off-road purpose, after reading adv pulse review on KLX and CRF, I still think I make the right choice with my WR250R.

    Also, after 1,500 KM with a many kilometers off-road, the WR250R is fantastic, what a versatile bike !

    • WR250R is a great bike. It will be even better if they come out with a WR300R next year. We can only hope!

  5. Hi Rob! Great write up on the Honda 300L & 300 Rally! I had a Honda MB5 too! The feeling of exhilaration and freedom of riding that little Honda was unforgettable. What is amazing is that I have owned dozens of motorcycles since then, and it is my new 2021 Honda CRF300L that has rekindled that feeling I had many years ago! There is something about the reliability, small displacement, and user-friendly vibe. The 300L is a great bike. Keep doing what you do. I appreciate ADV PULSE. It is a great resource.

    • Hi Dave. So many riders want to get on the most powerful bike and don’t realize how much fun they are missing on with the smaller displacement machines. Glad you liked the review and that ADV Pulse has been a useful resource for you. It’s always great to hear that. Thanks!

  6. A very informative article to me. I am in rural Western Oregon and considering options to explore the region better. I am into my 60s now and my nearly 500 lb Tiger 800 is just more beast than I want to tame off road anymore. I’m looking for a light dual sport for logging roads and moderate two track. The most taxing pavement duties top out at two lane highways (55 mph posted, I rarely go over 60.)

    I am looking hard at the KLX300, but its tiny fuel tank is a concern. After this article the CRF300 Rally rocketed to being a serious contender. If it had suspension like the Kaw, I’d be handing someone cash for it today. An alternative approach to my desires could be the CB500X. Not a real dual sport, but it can pretend to be one with a straight face if one drops multiple thousands of dollars into Rally Raid kits. That bike brings better touring manners, 500 cc, and a much bigger tank, but comes with more than a 100 lb weight increase.

    I’ll stop posting my internal monologue now, and thank you for the article!

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