Go off road in spring: Honda XR motorbikes

March 04 2021
Go off road in spring: Honda XR motorbikes

Second-hand Style, with Richard Cooke

With apologies to Tom Lehrer (he’s still alive!), spring is not yet here. And life, of late, has been neither skittles nor beer.

However spring does, without fail, get me dreaming about motorbikes. Riding in temperatures of less than 10 degrees is painful, but in spring…each year I try and justify buying a bike, an objectively insane notion given that my demographic is right in the sweet spot of over-confidence and intensive care. Or worse.

But what about off-road bikes? No cars in the way, no buses or lamp-posts to hit. No concrete, kerbs or pedestrians. Off-roading is heaven, and off road bikes become my favourite thing in the world by April.

Funny thing is, no-one seems to buy them any more. Peak sales for off-roaders in the UK was the late 80s and throughout the 90s, which coincided with the main manufacturers getting these bikes just about ‘right’. They looked ace, were lightweight, powerful and well built for trail riding.

Such machines are now attracting high prices as nascent classics, which makes me feel old. It also makes me pleased, now that others are starting to recognise how good these bikes are.

So this month I’m sharing my top 4 springtime ‘classic’ off road bike recommendations with you.

First a word of warning: twenty years ago I bought a ‘D’ reg (1987) Honda XR600R for £850 from an architect in Putney. It is this month’s picture, and it is wonderful.

I do not recommend this bike to you. It was never officially imported here, and for good reason. The ‘600’ figure, like all numbers I mention below, represents the engine size, so 600cc.

This is too big and powerful for the sort of riding you will do off road in the UK. Bikes this size are built for the outback of Australia, fire roads of California and, in my case, the under-construction mud of the new A120.

It was kick-start only – never again. If you dropped it, both carburettors flooded and it had to be left to stand for five minutes before it would start again.

I loved that bike, but I wouldn’t buy it again and nor should you.

Better to go smaller and lighter, for the narrow trails and steep muddy banks that you will be riding on.

First up the Yamaha DT125. Two stroke, powerful when derestricted, very attractive to thieves back in the 90s. Kurt Benson rode one in Hollyoaks. An incredibly cool bike for a 17 year old.

However, two strokes are pretty anti-social, and they need a load of maintenance if thrashed. So my remaining choices are thumpers rather than screamers.

Next up is the Suzuki DR350. Probably the best compromise here, as it works nicely on-road as well as off. Softly sprung, enough power (c.30hp) without being too much and an electric start on some models. Much better looking than the DR400 that replaced it.

I don’t think there is a better bike to learn to wheelie on. Recommended.

However, for the same power and a bit less weight try and track down the mean green Kawasaki KLX250. Stick to the original 1990s version, with the rectangular headlamp.

I rode the current model a few years ago, and it just didn’t have the manic power delivery of the earlier nut-job 90s effort.

If you want serious power and all your neighbours to hate you, look to the Kawasaki KDX range. Two-stroke insanity, with 40hp and properly feather-weight.

The winner, and the bike I should have bought instead of the XR600, is Honda’s XR400. Same bike but less weight, an electric start (hooray!), officially imported so plenty of supply, and enough power to ride on A-roads if required.

They aren’t cheap though – prices reflect how good they are.

Remember, motorcycles don’t depreciate like cars do. This bike is simple enough to service at home, with all the mechanical parts accessible. Honda just build their bikes better than the competition, with superb design, fit and finish.

The flip side is a reputation for being a bit boring, but trust me, Honda XRs are anything but.

Get out there!

What to pay: Honda XR400 1996-2003 - £3,000.