Today’s small-displacement bikes are fantastic machines. They all pack a lot more performance than their size and looks would lead you to believe. And all at very reasonable prices. It’s no wonder that the 500cc-and-under category of motorcycles are sales leaders with nearly all the OEMs at the moment.
What if we told you we rode a similar 250cc motorcycle from 28 years ago that would lay waste to today’s 300cc machines? In both performance and build quality? You want some of what we’ve been smokin’, right?
Related: Top 10 Motorcycles Of The 1990s
Twenty-eight years is an awful long time in motorcycle years, especially bikes of the sporting category. In the not-too-distant past, not making some sort of model upgrade every two years doomed your latest and greatest model to the back shadows of the dealership floor to collect dust. And that’s exactly how the Japanese domestic market was in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Because of licensing restrictions, smaller-displacement machines like the 250cc category comprised the bulk of sales in Japan. Motorcycle racing was also reaching its peak of popularity in that country during that time, with races such as the Japanese Grand Prix and the 8 Hours of Suzuka drawing enormous crowds. Thus the hot sellers back then were race-replica bikes patterned after the machines competing in those events; the sales premise “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was never more apropos than in Japan during this period.
The 1991 Honda CBR250RR (also known as the “MC22,” its Honda internal model designation) is a prime example of just how serious the Japanese OEMs were about the domestic market back then. While the styling shows a bit of age, a closer look at the bike reveals componentry that literally shames anything in today’s small-displacement categories. The frame is a massive twin-spar aluminum unit with offset main spars suspending the engine below that allow fresh air intake runners (ram air technology hadn’t quite made it to production motorcycles yet) a direct shot at the airbox intake. The gull-wing swingarm (identical to the two-stroke NSR250…that’s a Japanese domestic market story for another day) has undoubted race-ready rigidity while allowing the exhaust to be tucked up tight for ground clearance.
The 249cc, inline-four-cylinder, gear-drive DOHC engine is an engineering and production manufacturing masterpiece, especially when you consider its age. Redline is set at 19,000 rpm—yep, you read that right, no typo. Think about that for a minute: Even F1 auto racing engines didn’t reach that stratospheric number until 11 years later, yet here was a production unit for sale to the public in 1991 with a full warranty that’s expected to easily fire up in the morning and scream at five-digit rpm all day long if need be. To think that four pistons with diameters about the size of your average wristwatch face and 16 valve faces each about the size of a thimble are producing 45 hp (the maximum allowed for the 250cc class in Japan) is amazing.
Despite its hard-core racing persona, the CBR has a very amenable riding position, with a short reach to the bars, low seat height, and average legroom. The engine starts readily on cold mornings using the cable-operated choke knob, and quickly settles into a smooth, 1,200-rpm idle once warm. Because of its ultra-high rpm ceiling, the gearing can be short enough in the lower gears that taking off from a stop doesn’t require tons of clutch slip unless you’re trying to holeshot traffic. While not exactly a powerhouse below 10,000 rpm, the Honda still has enough torque to pull quickly through the gearing, and is easily a match for any modern 300cc machine.
The little CBR really comes alive above 13,000 rpm, the tiny engine vibes smoothing out and acceleration accompanied by a soundtrack not that far off from the screaming V-10 F1 auto racing engines of yesteryear. Peak power occurs just above 18,000 rpm, but doesn’t seem to drop off much as the engine continues revving on up to 19,000 rpm and beyond. We can only imagine how the Honda would be uncorked with a full exhaust and other derestriction measures; 20,000-rpm screaming bliss, anyone?
Granted, you’ll be doing a lot of shifting to make time. Keeping the little engine on the boil is paramount, but luckily the transmission is crisp and positive in its action. There’s no slipper clutch (remember, this is ’91 we’re talking about here…), but the close-ratio gearbox—and a little work from the rider to blip the throttle and match engine-to-road speeds—helps keep everything working smoothly.
But while the wailing four-cylinder is certainly an impressive piece, the CBR’s chassis is the star of the show. It may not have the latest components like a shock linkage or inverted fork or full adjustability, but the Honda’s twin-spar aluminum chassis simply works well despite its early origins. Steering is light yet neutral as well as precise yet stable, and with abundant ground clearance, corner speeds ramp up easily. Feedback from both ends is excellent, and while the 249cc engine doesn’t exactly have the type of power for rear-wheel-steering corner exits, the front provides enough communication to attack corner entries with an aggression that maintains momentum and makes the horsepower deficit much less of a liability.
The CBR’s brakes are also ’90s tech, with smallish 275mm dual stainless steel discs mounted on rubber-damped steel buttons attached to stamped-aluminum disc carriers. The two-piston slide calipers on each side might not look as flashy as today’s monoblock pieces, but the whole brake system gets the job done. There’s good power and decent feel, enough for excellent control and deep entries into the corners that further exploit the potential of the chassis.
That a 28-year-old motorcycle could go head to head with the latest 250cc machinery is amazing. The 1991 Honda CBR250RR represented a time when racing was king in Japan, and the domestic motorcycle market reflected that engineering enthusiasm. Alas, that era has long passed, and supersport bikes don’t have that same popularity with the buying public, in Japan, here, or abroad. But at least there are still bikes like the CBR provided here by Iconic Motorbikes (iconicmotorbikes.com) to remind us of a great period in motorcycling.