For 2017 there’s big change in the 2150 MX world. We gathered all six contenders for a race of champions. They all received Dunlop MX3S tires as a control measure, and then they were taken to a mixture of different tracks with different conditions. The final venue was the FMF Dynojet dynomometer where they were scrutinized further. Afterwards, 10 riders were polled, the strengths and weaknesses of each bike were discussed, and a winner was chosen. Here’s what they said.
Honda has always been a maverick in the 250 class. The Honda has a single-overhead-cam design, twin exhausts and an HPSD steering damper, which are big departures in the 250 world. The Honda even performs differently. The CRF250R is a low-end motor in a high-revving world. For 2017 Honda didn’t touch the 250. It has all the same features it had in 2016, and, for that matter, it’s almost the same as the 2015 version. The fork is a Showa Triple Air with three air chambers in the left leg. There’s a handlebar switch that lets you choose between three different ignition curves.
The Honda has more bottom-end power than any other 250. The dyno loves the CRF250R because the motor makes real torque. The Honda’s other strong point is that it feels lighter than any of the other 250s. It’s actually 4 pounds heavier than the KTM, but you would never know it because the CRF250R is very agile and maneuverable. With its low end and great handling, it’s a fun bike to ride. Novices, beginners and even trail riders love it. The Showa triple air fork has the versatility to work well in a variety of environments, even off-road.
Even though the motor has great bottom-end torque, it doesn’t help much on the track. In order to be competitive with the other 250s on a typical motocross course, you have to run the bike at high revs, and the Honda falls flat above 9000 rpm. You can play with the map switch all you want, but the Honda still feels desperately slow from turn to turn. In the suspension department, we once declared that the Showa triple air was the best air fork on the market, but those days have passed. The WP forks on the KTM and Husky have surpassed it. The exhaust note is oddly loud.
The Honda has been mostly unchanged for years. That’s not how you get to the front of a competitive class like this. The 450 is all new for 2017, so the 250 is probably a placeholder this year, waiting for a similar redesign in 2018. The fact that the CRF250R still has so many fans is a testimony to its original design. It’s still a good bike for riders who aren’t trying to win pro races, and it’s actually an excellent novice-level racer. But, that doesn’t help against a field of more modern 250Fs like the ones we have here.
Husqvarna is doing a good job of establishing a separate identity from KTM as far as image and marketing go, but it is what it is. The FC250 was designed and assembled by the people at the KTM factory using most of the same parts that are used on the 250SX-F. The main differences are in the bodywork, the airbox, the subframe, the rims, the handlebar and the clutch master cylinder. The seat also has a different texture. The motor, frame and suspension are the same as on the KTM, meaning it has the new WP AER 48 air fork and a new map switch that has traction-control mode as well as a start mode. Starting is electric with no kickstarter.
Two facts are inescapable: the Husky is lighter and more powerful than any of the Japanese bikes. It already had an advantage in those areas, and it lost even more weight and found even more power for 2017. The bike’s weight is now 218 pounds without fuel—3 pounds lighter than the newly lightened KX, 4 pounds lighter than the Yamaha and Honda, and 8 pounds lighter than the Suzuki. The source of most of the weight loss is the new air fork. Beyond being light, the AER 48 is an excellent fork. It has a single air chamber in one fork leg, which makes adjustment simple, and performance is good on virtually all terrain. In the power department, the Husky is a screamer. It revs and revs, making more power right until it hits the electronically mandated end of the road at 14,000 rpm. In the last 4000 rpm, it makes far more power than the Japanese models. When it’s time to stop, the brakes are awesome.
The Husky is a demanding bike to ride. Most novices will rev it in the early laps of a race, then only use three fourths of the power available as the race drags on. It takes determination to take the bike all the way to the rev limiter with every shift. When ridden at lower rpm, the FC250 is draggy and lazy. That same problem raises its head in turns. When you’re fresh and aggressive, the bike seems to corner like it’s on rails. When you start losing that edge, the bike stands up. Part of the problem is over-gearing. The Husky needs two or three teeth more on the rear sprocket for most riders. As far as the suspension goes, the improved fork reveals that all is not perfect in the rear. We spent more time making micro-adjustments than ever before, trying to chase small hops and wags.
There’s no arguing that the Husky is an incredible bike. The fact that it’s this light and still has electric start is nothing short of phenomenal. The peak power is just icing on the cake. If we were the designers at Husky, we would try to take some of that incredible peak power and relocate it towards the bottom of the powerband to make the bike easier to ride—and make it distinct from its orange cousin.
Kawasaki’s pro-level success with the KX250F is legendary, but the production bike was long overdue for change. So, everything is new on the 2017 KX250F. The top end sits at a different angle, and the piston, head, crank and cams are all new. Kawasaki also made big changes to the EFI system, but it still uses the dual injectors, with one in the throttle body and another upstream in the airboot. The chassis got more changes, with a narrower frame, revised rear suspension linkage and stiffer fork springs. That fork is still the Showa SFF, with a single spring in the right fork leg and all the damping in the left. The bodywork is also new on the 2017 KX250F. It now looks more like the KX450F.
Kawasaki found more bottom end this year. The bike has always had excellent throttle response. The motor is eager to go from the first crack of the throttle, and the power in the middle is still good, giving the KX excellent overall powerband. The bike also lost weight for 2017. In last year’s shootout it was the heaviest of the bunch. Now it’s a pound lighter than the Honda and Yamaha at 221 pounds without fuel. That decrease in weight combines with the narrower frame to improve the bike’s handling. It feels good on the track and in the air. Riders of all sizes like the layout of the bike. You can adjust the height of the footpegs and the bar location. Electric couplers also allow you to adjust the power in a subtle way.
The horsepower war is escalating with each season. Even though the new KX250F has a motor that’s improved in every way, it still didn’t gain enough to have any advantage over the Yamaha, KTM or Husky. The same holds true in every category. It lost weight, but not enough. The suspension is improved, but only slightly. The SFF fork has never been the best on the block, but riders generally like it because of its simplicity and the fact that it has a coil spring. That might not be enough in the years to come. Likewise, the KX has the weakest brakes, a loud exhaust and, even though it’s narrower than it was, the radiators spread out to make long-legged riders less comfortable.
Kawasaki made a better bike for 2017. It’s faster, lighter, narrower and more competitive. If you’re a KX250F fan, all that will be enough to allow you to remain competitive while wearing green. Unfortunately, the changes don’t quite go far enough. If it gained a little more power and lost a little more weight, it would be a very different story.
It’s tough to come face to face with your own limitations. That’s what the KTM forced us to do in past years. It was always the fastest 250F and usually the lightest, despite having electric start. Yet, we had to confess that it wasn’t much fun to ride. Why? Because the old 4CS fork was punishing on medium rough tracks, and the high-strung motor didn’t respond to anything less than an all-out effort. Consequently, we had to admit that we were holding the KTM back. For 2017, things are different. The fork was replaced with a new WP AER 48. The motor had already gained more power the previous year, and there were several electronic modes available at the press of a button, including two maps, traction control and launch mode.
At the risk of repeating ourselves, the KTM is a very fast 250F. It has the most top-end power of any production 250 four-stroke ever made. The motor seems to rev forever, and if the track has a steep hill, it will pull away from the Japanese 250s in short order. All you have to do is scream it to the limit. That’s not news. What is front-page, read-all-about-it material is the fork. It’s good! Not just better than it was or good for an air fork; it’s a genuine advantage. The AER 48 made us reopen the chapter on air forks just when we had decided they could never be quite as good as the best coil-spring forks. The KTM also has good overall handling manners and excellent overall construction. The hydraulic clutch has an excellent feel. The brakes are outstanding and, remember, it has electric start.
We still want more low-end power. The KTM is sleepy off the bottom, and that makes it difficult to ride on technical tracks. To make things worse, the gearing was changed in the wrong direction for 2017. KTM engineers took teeth away from the rear sprocket when they should have added them. The KTM is still an expert-level bike and doesn’t tolerate riders who don’t give it 100 percent. As much as we like the air fork, we still dislike having to check it before each ride. Without much power in the basement, the traction control is mostly a sales feature.
KTM finally listened. Riders have been complaining about the fork for years, and we were starting to think we might never be heard. But now, with good suspension up front, the KTM is finally a complete package, even if it isn’t friendly to orphans, widows and beginners.
Suzuki has a mixed history in the 250 class. At times, it’s been the best of the breed because of a policy of making very conservative, thoughtful changes. In recent years, though, it seems that philosophy has backfired. The changes were too conservative and buried beneath an unchanging appearance. On top of that, the lack of a pro race effort pushed the RM-Z out of the headlines. In 2016, there were substantial motor changes that were completely invisible. Even the frame was altered, but no one would know unless they started measuring things. The biggest change was the move to a KYB PSF-2 air fork. It has an air chamber in each leg, as well as independently adjustable high- and low-speed compression damping. For 2017, the bike returns unchanged, aside from black rims and number plates.
The Suzuki still handles well. For years, its best asset has been the way it turns, and that won’t change. Unlike the KTM, which requires a lot of throttle to manage, the Suzuki can be turned with gentle input. You point it and add throttle as you see fit. That’s one reason the RM-Z is a great novice/beginner bike. It works well at all levels. It’s also very stable at speed, and you can pick your line as opposed to the bike picking where it wants to go.
The actual power output of the Suzuki is no strong point, but the delivery is. The bike has most of its output in the middle where it’s easy to get to and easy to use. There are couplers that allow you to adjust the EFI mapping, and they are an effective way to tailor the output for various conditions.
As we said, the actual motor output is not one of the bike’s strongest features. It’s at the bottom of the heap in horsepower. At low rpm, it’s actually in the running briefly, but as the revs climb, the Suzuki falls further and further behind. Even in the days when the RM-Z was at the top of its class, it was never because of the motor but despite it. The passing years have only made that problem more noticeable. As for the single most dramatic change last year–the fork–the results aren’t encouraging. The PSF-2 has a stiff, harsh feel that’s tough to tune away. The dual compression adjusters don’t seem to have independent results, so when you adjust one, you also alter the other. The fork is also sensitive to change. The air chambers carry much lower pressure than those of the Honda and KTM, so one pound can make a huge difference in the way the bike feels.
Some riders truly enjoy riding the Suzuki. It makes sense. Any time you have a bike that handles well without a lot of power, that’s hero material. The RM-Z remains a great bike for doing laps and having fun, but time and the other 250s have not been kind to this bike.
It’s as if Yamaha engineers got three wishes from a motocross genie back in 2014. First, they wished for a new 250F that everyone loved. Then, they wished for three consecutive national championships. And finally, they wished a suspension plague on all other manufacturers.
After three years, however, the magic is beginning to wear off. Other makers are shaking off the curse, so Yamaha had to go back to work on the YZ250F, making a significant number of changes to the engine and frame. The head is different with reshaped, steeper intake ports. The piston, crank, rod and cams are new. The gearbox has a number of changes, and the frame has been altered for different flex characteristics. The footpegs are 5mm lower, and the suspension has new settings. The bike still has the only two-spring fork in the class with the KYB SSS front end.
Listing the Yamaha’s strong points is simple—everything. The bike has decent power from the bottom to the top. It’s reasonably light and it handles well. But, the only area where it truly excels is the suspension. The fork, in particular, was unanimously voted as the best in the shootout. Even though the new WP air fork is good, it’s still not up to the Yamaha’s standards. The fork is set up properly for an intermediate rider in the 170-pound range, but if you’re a little heavier or lighter, it doesn’t seem to make much difference. When something works this well, everyone loves it. The Yamaha also has good clutch feel, decent brakes and is well built. Yamaha still has the most reliable bike in the class.
The most significant sign that the Yamaha might be nearing the end of its reign is the fact that it doesn’t top any category except suspension. It’s not the lightest or the quickest. On top, the KTM and Husqvarna are far more powerful, and on the bottom, the Honda has more torque. Its dry weight of 222 pounds was once the lightest in class, but now the KTM, Husky and Kawasaki are lighter, if only by a few pounds. The brakes are good, but not as good as the Brembos on the Euro bikes. In turns, the Yamaha is still no match for the Honda or Suzuki, but it’s still pretty darn good.
The Yamaha works well in both worlds. It’s easy to ride for novices, and pros still love it. No other bike in this shootout is as universally respected by riders of all levels. In power output, it’s well behind the KTM and Husky, but no one has ever accused the Yamaha of being slow.
FOR PART 2 AND THE CONCLUSION TO THE 2017 250 MX SHOOTOUT, CLICK HERE
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