There’s been a big rift in the 250 class recently. On one side, pros and intermediates have lined up behind bikes like the KTM 250SX-F and the Husqvarna FC250. They say power is still the single-most important factor in the 250 class, and that to be competitive there, you have to ride a bike that rewards being aggressive. On the other side, novices and weekend riders are big fans of bikes like the Yamaha YZ250F, Suzuki RM-Z250 and Kawasaki KX250F. They want a bike that’s friendly and fun above all. Now we have another factor in the mix. The 2018 Honda CRF250R is all new and completely unrelated to its predecessor. The “2018 250 MX Shootout” is all about exploring the status quo in the 250 MX class and about seeing which camp the Honda falls into. Or, can it be the bridge between two worlds?
It’s good to be king
KTM is in the driver’s seat for this year’s 250 MX shootout. The 250SX-F is the lightest in the class. It has electric start, and for years it has been the fastest too. The motor is a very sophisticated double-overhead-cam design with a valve train that uses finger-followers between the cam and the valves in order to allow extremely high revs. The only thing that held it back was suspension, and last year KTM addressed that with the WP AER 48 air fork. The bike offers a number of ways to alter that powerband through a map switch and traction control, but no matter which setting you use, it’s a pro-level revver. For 2018 KTM took a wait-and-see approach. The bike didn’t get any mechanical changes aside from a beefier battery and some suspension tweaking. It did get a few cosmetic updates, including that orange frame.
STRONG POINTS: There’s no arguing with horsepower. The KTM remains the fastest bike in the 250 class. It has more peak power, and it revs forever. It also has a broad powerband, starting in the middle and going up. It gained a few ounces this year, but at just under 219 pounds, it remains the lightest bike in the shootout, if only by a 1/2 pound compared to its blood brother the Husqvarna. More good things: We still think the WP AER 48 is the best air fork. The hydraulic clutch is excellent. The brakes are strong, and we love the e-start.
WEAK POINTS: You have to be aggressive to ride the KTM to its full potential. If you don’t rev it, it doesn’t do anything special. It’s also geared too tall for most riders. The electronic mode switch is of limited usefulness.
BOTTOM LINE: KTM won last year’s 250 MX shootout, so it’s the bike to beat. Most of the other bikes have only slight changes, so it only has to withstand the attack from Honda to be on top once more.
For a full test of the 2018 KTM 250SX-F, click here.
From the KTM factory’s northern door
There’s no escaping the fact that the Husqvarna FC250 comes out of the same factory as the KTM 250SX‑F. The Austrian parent company of both makes has done a great job of separating them in identity, dealer network and marketing, but at the end of the day, they share 90 percent of the same parts. The Husky has a few exclusive touches, such as the integrated airbox and subframe, D.I.D Dirt Star rims, a ProTaper handlebar and a Magura clutch master cylinder. It also has its own look and different bodywork. But, as with the KTM, its only real changes for 2018 are the battery, the suspension settings and graphics.
STRONG POINTS: At the risk of repeating ourselves, the Husqvarna FC250 is a top-end screamer.
On the track, it’s really hard to separate the KTM and Husky. They both have the same strengths, especially the top-end power and low overall weight. The brakes and clutch are excellent, just like those of the KTM. The Husky does have a slightly different riding position, and the power delivery is just a tiny bit smoother, but most riders rate the two bikes in a dead tie in sheer performance. We will say that the parent company has done a good job of promoting Husqvarna separately and has given the bike a very different look.
WEAK POINTS: Like the KTM, the Husqvarna suffers from sleepy low-end power delivery. The biggest shortcoming has nothing to do with the bike’s performance on the track. Husky still has an identity crisis, and there is lingering resentment from those who say that the bike is simply a “white KTM.”
BOTTOM LINE: If your twin brother is a movie star, is that such a bad thing? The Husqvarna is tied to the KTM, which means it’s fast, light and nearly flawless. In any ranking, the two bikes have to finish back to back.
Not just a new motorcycle; a new way of thinking
Honda is the wild card for this year’s shootout. The other five bikes have minimal changes, but the 2018 CRF250R is completely different for 2018. You hear terms like “total redesign” and “all new” tossed around every model year, but in this case, the very philosophy of the bike has changed. It now has double overhead cams with finger-followers and a super-short stroke. The motor is electric start only; no kickstarter at all. Clearly, there’s a lot of KTM influence here, but not everywhere. The air fork is gone, replaced with a Showa coil-spring fork. The chassis is completely different from the old CRF250R, but we did get a preview of it on the 2017 Honda 450. The 250 uses the same frame with minor variations around the engine cradle. Like the 450, it uses an intake that goes over the rear shock to eliminate the turn and give the throttle body a straight shot down into the intake valves.
STRONG POINTS: The end result is that the Honda is a screamer. There’s a massive horsepower increase over last year, and it’s all from the mid-range up to a crazy top-end scream. Even with all the changes, the Honda still handles like a Honda, which is to say it’s very nimble and easy to turn. The bike is actually much more stable than last year’s model, too, and the suspension is nothing short of outstanding.
WEAK POINTS: All that peak power came at the expense of torque down low, so now we have yet another pro-oriented powerband that requires an aggressive riding technique. Despite the sacrifice down low, the Honda still doesn’t match the power output of the KTM or Husqvarna. It also gained considerable weight. The Honda weighs 228 pounds without fuel, which is almost 10 pounds heavier than the KTM. You can feel it too.
BOTTOM LINE: Honda took the fight to KTM and made an impressive effort. In many ways, the new CRF250R equals the Austrian machines, but that’s still not enough for a regime change in the 250 class.
The people’s 250F
The YZ250F has a huge following of devoted riders who absolutely love it. It has long been the number-one choice for novices and beginners, and there are even a few pros who prefer it over any other 250. When it got the reverse-head, downdraft intake treatment in 2014, it became the new standard of the 250 class in terms of horsepower quality. And, it was still reasonably light, despite the addition of fuel injection. Yamaha stubbornly stuck with the KYB coil-spring fork throughout the era of air forks, which further cemented its status as the most-loved bike in the class. Since its introduction, the bike has been refined from year to year without Yamaha changing the fundamental formula. Now, it returns with almost no changes for the new model year to face a class that has, for the most part, completely changed over the last three years. It still weighs 222 pounds without fuel.
STRONG POINTS: The YZ250F still barks. The motor has instant throttle response and great low-end power that isn’t reflected on any dyno chart. The Yamaha gets more done with smaller throttle openings than any of the others. It also wins the suspension wars again. The YZ’s fork, in particular, is the universal favorite among all test riders, from novice to pro.
WEAK POINTS: The Yamaha has been near the top of the class for a long time and is probably due for a major update. It isn’t as easy to turn as some of the other bikes. Peak power is good, not great. It lacks any avenue to tailor the powerband without purchasing the Yamaha Power Tuner. And, when this bike was released four years ago, no one could have known that electric start would soon be mandatory in the 250 class.
BOTTOM LINE: The Yamaha still has a lot to offer. It might still be the favorite for everyone below the pro ranks. It is due for a change, though, and we expect the 2019 YZ250F to be completely new.
Follow-up to last year’s redesign
The Kawasaki KX250F has had more success in pro racing than any other bike in its class. For that matter, it’s the winningest motocross bike of modern times, thanks to riders like Ryan Villopoto. In more recent years, however, the KX hasn’t been as dominant, leading to a total chassis redesign in 2017. Kawasaki followed that up with a long list of motor changes for the 2018 model. It got a new head, throttle body, air boot, intake cam, fuel pump and ECU settings. It doesn’t have electric start, but the KX is the lightest of the Japanese-made 250 four-strokes at 221 pounds without fuel. It uses a single-spring Showa SFF Type 2 fork, with the spring in one leg and all the damping functions in the other. The suspension settings are also new for 2018.
STRONG POINTS: The KX has great low-end power, making it very easy to ride. The motor revs quickly and barks hard. Novices absolutely love the fact that you don’t have to rev the bike to make it go. The Kawasaki is very narrow and feels lighter than any bike in the shootout, even though it gives away a couple of pounds to the KTM and Husky. Another great feature is that it can be tailored to fit almost any rider. The footpegs and handlebar positions are adjustable, and the fork has adjustable preload.
WEAK POINTS: Despite a number of motor changes for 2018, there’s little difference in peak power output, and it still struggles to match the KTM and Husky in sheer acceleration. The fork wasn’t especially well reviewed by test riders, who mostly complained that it was harsh. The exhaust is loud. The handlebar is undersized, and the use of couplers to change maps is clumsy when other bikes have handlebar-mounted buttons.
BOTTOM LINE: The Kawasaki’s power delivery makes it a good fit for novices, and we know from the success of Pro Circuit’s Monster Energy factory team that there’s a pro-level bike just under the surface.
Just out of the spotlight
Suzuki has been shuffled out of the limelight in the 250 class by newer bikes and pro teams with bigger names. It was, however, the standard of the class for years, especially in the handling department. Suzuki tried to revive that legacy with considerable changes for the 2016 model year, but the bike didn’t really look or perform any differently. Now, the 2018 model is completely unchanged aside from graphics. It features one of the most adjustable air forks in the business. The KYB PSF-2 fork has independently adjustable high- and low-speed compression and separate air chambers in the left and right legs; the Showa triple air and the WP AER 48 only have air chambers in one leg. The Suzuki still uses couplers that allow you to adjust the power delivery, like the Kawasaki.
STRONG POINTS: The Suzuki’s fundamental personality hasn’t changed for years; it’s still an extremely good-handling bike with a smooth, torquey motor. The RM-Z250 is still excellent in the turns. It lays into corners effortlessly and doesn’t demand any special technique. It’s also very stable. To this day, no test riders have serious complaints about the bike’s overall handling.
WEAK POINTS: The Suzuki’s motor is underpowered by modern standards. Even in its heyday, it wasn’t especially fast, and all the other bikes have long since moved ahead. The Suzuki also is a bit heavy despite having no electric starter. It weighs 226 pounds without fuel and feels like a very big motorcycle.
BOTTOM LINE: The bike still has a place in the market, and it can certainly be made competitive, but the RM-Z 250 hasn’t quite kept up with the rest of the class. It needs more power and less weight. An electric starter certainly wouldn’t hurt.
THE TALE OF THE TEST RIDERS
Ranking the 2018 250 motocross bikes
The Honda CRF250R certainly isn’t the first electric-start 250 MX bike, but it shows that Japan can play that game too. From this point forward, riders will want electric starters on everything. Still, we put that fact aside and judged these bikes strictly on performance. That required that we spell out some ground rules first. This test is oriented towards racing in the hands of experienced riders. These motorcycles aren’t trail bikes, and they aren’t marketed towards vets or seniors. As a breed, the 250 MX bike is all about youth and racing. That was the criteria we used last year when we chose the KTM 250SX-F as the winner, followed closely by the Husqvarna FC250. This year, only the Honda and the Kawasaki have substantive changes, so they are the only two bikes that could upset the order. Here’s what happened.
FIRST PLACE: KTM 250SX-F
Once again, the KTM emerges as the fastest and the lightest. It has the best brakes, a hydraulic clutch and quality that puts it over the top. Yes, it’s aimed towards pros and intermediates. It expects you to know who you are.
SECOND PLACE: HUSQVARNA FC250
If anyone were to split up the KTM and Husky in the final rankings, you should immediately question his credibility. The biggest difference between the two is in image, not performance. Like the KTM, the Husqvarna is powerful, light and demanding.
THIRD PLACE: HONDA CRF250R
In performance, Honda made a huge leap forward for 2018. It posed the most important question of this year’s shootout. Did it close the gap? The answer is yes. The new CRF250R caught up to the leaders in the class. In the end, though, it didn’t surpass the KTM or Husky, particularly not in the motor department where it needed to the most. We have a feeling that Honda has more up its sleeve for next year.
FOURTH PLACE: YAMAHA YZ250F
Had we chosen vets, seniors and beginners for our test riders, the Yamaha would have won. It’s the easiest bike to ride and is still the best choice for the average rider. With motor work, it can win in the pro class too. The time has come, however, for Yamaha to make a big change.
FIFTH PLACE: KAWASAKI KX250F
Kawasaki made some serious motor changes this year, so it, too, had a chance at changing the world order. As it turned out, the changes simply reinforced the KX’s existing personality. It remains a throaty, fun bike to ride. It still needs improvement in peak power and suspension.
SIXTH PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z250
Clearly, Suzuki’s resources were focused on the 450 this year. The 250 needed attention, too, but it will have to wait. For racers, it doesn’t have enough motor, and the fork is a carryover from a phase that came and went. It remains a great-handling bike. Let’s hope that doesn’t change.