This battle goes way beyond the 250 class in motocross. It’s East meets West, Europe versus Asia and a fundamental clash of design philosophies. This year it so happens that the hottest skirmish is between 250 motocross bikes. Control of that class has been shifting back and forth between the bikes of Japan and those from Austria, with the hearts of America’s MX youth at stake. Ground has been surrendered, then retaken, as technology advances. Over time, the only clear winners have been the riders. Today’s 250 motocross bikes are worlds more advanced than the bikes of just five years ago.
For 2019, two manufacturers are offering bikes that are essentially new. Two others have made radical revisions, while another refined a bike that was ground-shakingly new last year. Put them all on the track at the same time and you have a contest with no guaranteed outcome. For our 2019 250 shootout, we took six bikes to four different California tracks: Perris Raceway, Milestone MX, Glen Helen and Cahuilla Creek. We gave them all Dunlop MX33 tires as a control measure, dyno’d them at Pro Circuit, weighed them in our shop, and rode the daylights out of them. When it was all over, a clear winner emerged. Here’s how it all went down.
Last year’s wonder bike digs deeper
In 2018 Honda set the 250 class on fire with an all-new bike. Every thought, philosophy and design that defined the original CRF250R was abandoned, and a double-overhead-cam, electric-start screamer emerged in its place. The Honda’s motor was cutting edge, with a valve train straight out of Formula One racing. For some, it was too much of a shift. The older Honda was a torque king, whereas the new one had all its power on top. So, Honda engineers went back to find more low-end power. For 2019, the throttle body was decreased by 2mm, the cams were redesigned, and the ECU was remapped. It still offers three different power deliveries through a handlebar switch, and the chassis still features a Showa coil-spring fork, albeit with new settings. It also got a Renthal Fatbar and black rims.
The only topic all our test riders agreed on was the Honda’s overall handling. It’s outstanding. The CRF250R is the best of the bunch in turns, with very light steering, sure-footed traction and a general feeling of predictability. In comfort, the Honda is also on top. Admittedly, “comfort” is a broad range of subcategories, and riders come in all shapes and sizes. Still, most fit the Honda’s spread-out rider compartment and like the seat, bar bend and controls. Most of all, they like the suspension. The fork, in particular, is plush and suited perfectly to a 160-pound intermediate rider. That’s the bread and butter of the 250 class. Faster riders might find it a little busy, but that’s easily cured with a few clicks of compression damping. Same goes for the rear. The Honda is well-balanced.
Between the cams and the EFI changes, Honda gained power throughout the rpm range compared to last year. But, it needed more. In low-end, it’s the weakest of the six bikes. You quickly learn to keep it screaming all the time. If it does drop into the dead zone, at least you can recover quickly. The Honda motor gains revs quickly. Most riders liked map one the best. That’s probably why it’s map one. With such a highly strung motor, you end up using the clutch often, and even though the pull is easy, it heats up quickly. Japan still hasn’t embraced the hydraulic clutch, but that’s what this bike needs.
The Honda is a fun bike to ride that makes you feel like you’re the most talented rider on the track. The handling is forgiving, and the scream of the motor seals the deal. In the final analysis, though, it’s just a slightly more refined version of last year’s bike. We wanted a little more.
Greatness comes in white
We’ve said it again and again. The Husqvarna FC250 isn’t a KTM. It has its own personality, its own strengths and its own weaknesses. Despite all that, each year the Husky and the KTM finish in a virtual tie in the final pecking order. They’ve been different, but not different enough for true separation in performance. For the record, the Husqvarna FC250 and the KTM 250SX-F come out of the same factory and share the same engine, frame and suspension. The Husky has a long list of things that set it apart, though. It has completely different bodywork and a composite subframe/airbox. The Husky uses Magura clutch hydraulics, D.I.D Dirt Star rims and a ProTaper handlebar. This year, the Husky got a stiffer frame and new bodywork, among other changes.
The Husqvarna is a rocket. It revs amazingly high and gives a final kick right before it hits the rev limiter. In the past, riders have complained about a lack of low end. That’s no longer a big factor. The Husky might even make more down low than the KTM, but it can feel sleepy down there simply because it makes so much on top. A handlebar switch offers two different maps in addition to traction control and launch control, but all settings are similar with the exception of launch mode, which makes a drastic temporary power reduction. The Husky is very light and comes with some of the best components in the world. For 2019, the clutch is greatly improved. It now has a DDS clutch with a diaphragm spring, resulting in an easier pull. It is, of course, hydraulic. The brakes are excellent.
This year, the comfort score for the Husky took a slight hit. The stiffer frame might be better for Supercross-style tracks, but it makes the bike feel a little harsh in most other settings. The WP AER 48 air fork is decent and can be adjusted quite easily, but many riders still prefer the feel of coil springs. Fork air pressure is one more item on the checklist that requires attention before each race. The Magura clutch hydraulic system hasn’t proven as reliable as its Brembo counterpart. Overall, the Husqvarna is a demanding bike aimed at pro-level riders.
Husqvarna has made improvements to the FC250 for 2019, but you have to ride at a very high level to appreciate them. The bike can win races at any level, but it’s less friendly to novices than it is to pros.
Advancement by standing still
Kawasaki made no mechanical changes to the 2019 KX250. The bike received a significant makeover two years ago, then was further updated in 2018. For 2019, Kawasaki’s R&D department clearly concentrated on the new KX450 and let the existing KX250 coast into the new year. It still features its dual-EFI system with a secondary injector shooting fuel into the air boot, upstream of the throttle body. The Showa SFF fork has a single coil spring in the right side and the damping function in the left. Only two bikes have a kickstarter in this test, and this is one. It’s the only bike with a 7/8-inch handlebar, and it has the lowest price with further incentives currently available at the dealer level. To change engine mapping, Kawasaki uses a system of electronic couplers that can be swapped in the pits.
This is a throaty torque king by the current standards of the 250 class. The KX250 has always had good bottom end, and now that has become an overwhelming strength simply because all the other bikes have moved in the opposite direction. Both Yamaha and Honda have followed KTM down the high-rpm path, leaving Kawasaki as the tractor of the group. That makes it the easiest bike to ride, especially for novices and older riders. You don’t have to rev the KX to go fast. You don’t have to clutch it, and you don’t have to shift constantly. The Kawasaki is also the lightest-feeling bike in the crowd. It’s actually about 3 pounds heavier than the KTM and the Husky, but it’s narrower and more agile. The Kawasaki is the only bike with footpegs that can be lowered to allow more room for tall riders.
The Kawasaki illustrates how quickly technology has advanced in this class. Two years after a major redesign, it seems like a throwback to another era. Peak power is its main drawback. It simply can’t keep up with the others in outright acceleration. On top, it’s all done when the KTM, Husky, Honda and Yamaha are just getting to the main event. The SFF fork is both divey and harsh, and the overall handling is very busy. The KX also has a notoriously weak clutch, a loud exhaust and so-so brakes. The fact that it has a kickstarter isn’t necessarily a weakness, but it does demonstrate how times have changed since the Kawasaki motor was originally designed.
Oddly enough, we love this bike despite its shortcomings. When it’s time to hit the practice track and turn some laps, the Kawasaki is on top of everyone’s can-I-borrow list. On race day, though, it’s another story. The Kawasaki simply needs more steam to be competitive.
In the driver’s seat
A newcomer would never know that KTM is the smallest company represented in this test. On the contrary, the Austrian maker has taken on a leadership role in the motocross world. It has been KTM setting the trends and raising the bar in recent years, and all the others have had to follow. In 2019 the 250SX-F received a significant chassis redesign despite the fact that it was the unanimous class leader. The chassis was made more rigid in all planes of movement. The bodywork was slimmed down. The radiators were lowered, and the swingarm was altered to allow for more adjustment. The engine got a new throttle body and a new clutch with a diaphragm spring. It retained features like the Brembo hydraulic clutch master cylinder and slave cylinder. A bar-mounted multi-switch allows access to two maps, traction control and launch mode.
KTM knows how to make power. The 250SX-F is a very fast motorcycle. Is it faster than its near twin, the Husqvarna FC250? Maybe, maybe not. For the first time, test riders were unable to decide. Both make amazing power once you get them revved up and in the happy zone. It’s also incredibly light. Is it lighter than the Husky? Yes, but only by a 1/2 pound. Both bikes round off to the same figure: 218 pounds without fuel. That’s 9 pounds lighter than the Yamaha and Honda. The bike is narrower this year, and it’s extremely good in turns. The new clutch has a lighter feel this year and, as always, we love the hydraulic system. Also like last year, the Brembo brakes are excellent.
You don’t have to be a pro to ride the KTM, but it helps. You have to scream it like you mean it to take advantage of all that power. That isn’t to say the motor doesn’t make [some] bottom-end power. It’s actually much better than it was just two years ago, but the motor simply doesn’t respond well down there. Many riders choose to re-gear the KTM dramatically. You can add as much as four teeth to the rear sprocket without going wrong. The ride isn’t quite as plush as it used to be. Part of that is probably due to the stiffer chassis. Part might be because the suspension on the Honda and Yamaha are so darn good, they make everything else seem harsh.
The people at KTM know exactly what they’re doing. The reason this bike is aimed at expert riders is because KTM wants expert riders. It’s a little more expensive and a little more advanced than the average 250 rider can appreciate. That’s all according to plan.
Suzuki isn’t a company to follow anyone else’s lead. A lot of work went into the 2019 RM-Z250, but it wasn’t to graft on electric start or have push-button mapping. Those might come later, but for now Suzuki wants to concentrate on the basics. The bike was given a new frame, new bodywork and new suspension, then the motor was redesigned from the cylinder up. The head is new, and the EFI system was redesigned to make use of a secondary injector between the filter and the throttle body. For mapping changes, the RM-Z uses plug-in electronic couplers. Suzuki’s S-HAC launch control goes a step further than the others with different modes for different traction conditions. The suspension is new, with a coil-spring KYB fork and a new KYB shock.
Suzuki found more power for 2019. The motor is a good compromise between the torquey low-end of the Kawasaki and the high-rpm screamers such as the Honda, KTM and Husky. The power delivery works best with the lean coupler installed, which gives it more through the middle and top. Although the stock suspension is set up very stiff, most riders feel the suspension could be a strong point after a spring change. The KYB fork and shock have good action and are well balanced. Our protocol is that all the shootout participants are first compared using stock parts, but we later tried a Suzuki with lighter spring rates and loved it.
As noted above, the stock spring rates are stiff for anyone under 190 pounds. With apologies to riders who weigh over 190 pounds, that’s a misstep for a 250 motocross bike. Setting that aside, the bike simply doesn’t handle as well as it once did. Once upon a time, there was nothing that turned as well as a Suzuki RM-Z250. Now it feels thick and heavy in turns. It’s not the heaviest bike in the shootout (at 226 pounds without fuel), but it feels like it. We would forgive the lack of electric start if it resulted in a weight advantage, but the Suzuki doesn’t even start easily.
Suzuki has given us a long string of winners in the 250 class, but you have to go back a few years. The new RM-Z250 is more powerful, and that’s a big step forward. Unfortunately, it seems like the team only got the job half done. The suspension is stiff. The handling is uninspired, and the power is a compromise. There’s a great bike in there somewhere, but you have to dig for it.
The next generation
This year, it’s Yamaha’s turn to make the big leap forward. As expected, the 2019 YZ250F is all new but based on the platform and ideas that Yamaha established with the 2018 YZ450F. The frame and bodywork are straight off the 450, while the engine went through extensive changes. Yamaha’s production department took a page from the Star Racing works bikes, essentially duplicating the head concept with oversized buckets and aggressive cam profiles. The bottom end was reconfigured with an electric starter positioned behind the cylinder, which is still slightly canted to the rear. The head pipe does a full lap around the top end before connecting to the silencer, almost in the middle of the bike. The most innovative feature is the bike’s EFI system, which connects to any smart phone via a Wi-Fi signal. That allows you to alter the mapping, and a handlebar switch allows you to switch maps on the fly.
The Yamaha has the best power in the class. That isn’t to say it has the most power; the KTM and Husky still have more way up on top. But the Yamaha pulls hard all the way from the bottom to the top. What’s even better is that it doesn’t require a big handful of throttle to make the Yamaha go. It responds from the first crack. If you want more bottom or more top, you can have it via the Yamaha Power Tuner app. This isn’t a gimmick; it’s a useful tool that’s effective and easy to use. It won’t be long before other manufacturers take the same approach. As usual, suspension is a Yamaha strength. While everyone else was experimenting with air, Yamaha was refining the KYB coil-spring fork to near perfection. Only the Honda is in the same league, suspension-wise.
With the coming of electric start, the Yamaha is now tied with the Honda as the heaviest bike in the class—227 pounds without fuel. The field is only separated by 9 pounds, though. The Yamaha doesn’t carry its weight quite as well as the Honda and feels somewhat thick in the middle. Larger riders say the bike is cramped, particularly in the seat-to-peg relationship. Even smaller test riders say it’s tight and prefer the handlebar in one of its most forward positions. As much as we love the power, it did lose bottom end compared to last year’s YZ250F, although only below the normal operational range.
Yamaha scored well with the motor. On the track, it accelerates every bit as hard as the KTM; and, when you’re not wide open, the YZ’s low-end power makes it much easier to ride. The Power Tuner app is a great innovation, and when you throw in Yamaha’s traditional stranglehold in the suspension category, it’s a hard package to beat.
Ranking the 2019 250 screamers
Riding motocross bikes is fun. Ranking them? Not so much. In the 250 class of recent years, it’s especially difficult to distill facts and weed out personal bias from a broad range of riders who vary in size, skill and style. Determining the final order can be a tedious process. But not this time. The vote for the winner of the “2019 Dirt Bike Shootout” was nearly unanimous.
FIRST PLACE: YAMAHA YZ250F
Going in, we knew the Yamaha would be tough to beat. If you took last year’s bike and found more top-end power, that would have been enough to place it on top. Yamaha did so much more than that, though. The new YZ250F has power, suspension and true innovation. The bike’s reputation for reliability wasn’t a factor in the final outcome, but it will probably be the icing on the cake for Yamaha riders in 2019.
SECOND PLACE: KTM 250SX-F
The KTM 250SX-F remains the fastest and lightest production 250 four-stroke in the world. For a select crowd of talented riders, that’s all they need. Will KTM ever soften the bike to appeal to a broader cross-section of riders? Maybe, maybe not. For now, the bike is fulfilling its role with the motocross elite.
THIRD PLACE: HUSQVARNA FC250
Once again, the Husky 250 finishes in a near tie with the KTM. As we say over and over, the bike has its own personality, but the differences are not significant enough to be a deciding factor. This year, many riders said they liked the Husky’s power delivery better than the KTM’s. On the flip side, the bike suffered a recurring problem with the hydraulic clutch, which is one of the items that is different from the KTM.
FOURTH PLACE: HONDA CRF250R
Rarely is a bike’s handling so universally praised. The term “handling” is inherently vague and comprises many subjective components. But, whatever it is, the Honda has it. The CRF250R is a fun bike to ride and has only one major shortcoming. It needs better low-rpm performance. Hopefully, Honda is still working on it.
FIFTH PLACE: KAWASAKI KX250
It seems inevitable that the current Kawasaki KX250 will be replaced with a new bike next year. That’s too bad, because this one offers something that no other 250 has right now. It’s super easy to ride. The KX makes power down low, which is a virtue that’s rapidly going out of style in 250cc racers. This might be the bike to buy now and hold on to for future generations.
SIXTH PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z250
Suzuki’s fierce independence and we-do-it-our-way attitude has served it well in the past. In this case, the company misread the market. There might not be room for an old-school, kickstart 250 unless it offers some distinct advantage over the others. Even the Suzuki’s traditional handling advantage is subverted by suspension missteps. Hopefully, Suzuki will take another shot at updating the RM-Z250 in 2020. o