The Honda, Kawasaki, KTM and Husqvarna 250 MX bikes all had nearly invisible updates for 2020 that changed everything. Going in, they all knew that Yamaha’s new YZ250F would be tough to beat. They knew that the YZ would probably return unchanged, and they knew it wouldn’t take that much to close the gap. All of them set out on a mission to make the most improvements for the least amount of money. The result is that an already tightly grouped class became tighter still, setting the stage for a very competitive 250 shootout. All of these bikes were tested individually by the Dirt Bike staff before being leveled against each other in a six-way contest. All were given fresh Dunlop MX53 tires and taken to five different tracks. Eventually, a new picture of the 250 class emerged.
The wild card of the 250 class
Everyone knew that Honda left something on the table. The 2018 CRF250R arrived with a complete and total redesign. It had an all-new, DOHC, electric-start motor and a new chassis replacing a dated model that was long overdue for change. For the most part, everyone loved the new bike, but it was a pro-only revver. It needed more torque and more rider friendliness. For 2020, Honda’s engineering cavalry finally arrived. The head and valve train were redesigned. Even though the chassis appeared unchanged, it got a new frame and swingarm with less rigidity. The EFI mapping was changed, but the bike still has three maps that are selectable through a handlebar-mounted switch.
Overall, the Honda is the best-handling bike in the 250 class. It turns well, has excellent suspension and the layout makes virtually everyone feel comfortable. The bike’s peak power is as good as anything in the class, and this year the bottom end is much improved. Even though it still doesn’t produce the torque that it had before the redesign, it has excellent throttle response and a very free-revving motor. You don’t notice any lack of low end because you don’t linger in that area. With a little clutch, it’s easy to make the Honda sing. Most riders prefer throttle maps one or three, but it’s good to have options so readily available. The brakes are good, and the fit and finish are excellent.
Honda didn’t do anything to reduce the bike’s weight, which is still much greater than the KTM’s, Husqvarna’s or Kawasaki’s. Even though its handling is excellent on tighter tracks, the Honda tends to wander slightly at speed. The clutch doesn’t have a very good feel and fades with overuse. That’s more of a handicap than usual since you tend to use the clutch in every turn, because even after the updates, the low-end power is nothing to get excited about.
At a glance, you might assume that the Honda is unchanged. That’s a big mistake. With the improvements in the motor and frame, the bike’s overall personality is so agreeable that you can forgive its few flaws. Clearly, this is a case where a few changes went a long way.
Starting to reveal a gentler side
Enough talk about the Husky being a white KTM. This year the FC250 is emerging with a distinct personality of its own. The engine, frame and suspension components are still the same as the KTM’s, but the Husky has a number of parts that are its own, including the clutch hydraulics, rims, bodywork and airbox. Beyond that, this year Husqvarna’s internal test riders developed suspension valving that is designed to be a little gentler than that of the KTM. The airbox now has a vented cover for more airflow, and there are mapping changes, too.
The Husqvarna is fast and light. The motor has more low-end power than most of the new-age 250s, and on top, it’s the screamer that it has always been. The new vents in the airbox give it a little more power in the middle, and the handlebar-mounted map switch gives the rider the option of altering the power delivery, if only slightly. Overall, the handling is neutral and cornering is excellent, primarily because the bike is narrower and lighter than anything except the KTM. Most riders see the suspension settings as a clear improvement over the previous model. It has a cushier feel that it clearly needed. The hydraulic clutch has an excellent feel, and the brakes are outstanding.
Even though the suspension has moved in the right direction, the Husky still has a harsh, unyielding feel compared to the Japanese bikes. The fork is especially brutal on slap landings. The seat is also hard and abrasive, so the bike isn’t especially forgiving in the comfort department. The motor’s low-end power looks good on the dyno, but on the track it has a draggy, slow-to-rev feel. You need to twist the throttle all the way to make it run as well as it can. Gearing is very tall.
We are big fans of Husqvarna’s attempt to attract a more mature rider by giving the bike a softer feel. The trend needs to continue. For now, this bike still has a hard edge and requires a lot of commitment.
The arrival of smart engineering
Someone had to be the grownup in the room. Kawasaki looked at the previous KX250 in a very practical way and concluded that the only thing it really needed was more top-end power. It was already lighter than the other Japanese 250s, and the suspension would be easy to update. So, the 2020 model got a redesign from the crankshaft up. A new valve train with finger-followers between the valves and the cams allowed more revs and more top-end power. The rest of the bike was unchanged aside from the suspension, which got a new coil-spring KYB fork. No electric start, no new bodywork and no hydraulic clutch. By doing it that way, Kawasaki kept the price low.
As expected, the 2020 KX250 has excellent top-end power. It’s now a screamer, with most of the good stuff happening right before the 13,000-rpm redline. There’s no reason not to pull a holeshot with the new KX. Kawasaki engineers also managed to make these changes without adding weight. The bike weighs 223 pounds without fuel, which is about what it weighed in 2019, despite the switch to two fork springs (the previous Showa had only one). The bike feels narrow, light and easy to toss around, and the suspension is outstanding. The brakes are improved, although still not the best in class. The price, however, is the best in class.
Also as expected, the KX lacks low-end torque. It was a clear trade-off. The disappointing part is that the previous KX was a favorite among novices because of its low end, and now it makes the least in the group. It has to be at least mentioned here that the bike has no electric start, although you don’t need a staff of test riders to tell you that. There were comments that it usually takes several kicks. The overall handling is good, although it can get a little busy on a rough track. The exhaust note is very loud, and the clutch fades quickly. Kawasaki’s method of changing couplers to alter the EFI mapping is clumsy.
Rarely has a bike that looks unchanged undergone such a dramatic shift in personality. The old KX was everyone’s little buddy; now it’s a demanding hardliner. It’s just a sign of the times, but along the way, the bike became less distinctive, now blending into the pack without offering anything exceptional.
The paper tiger
There’s no denying the numbers. The KTM looks far better than the other 250 four-stroke motocross bikes on paper. It’s the lightest on the scale, one of the most powerful on the dyno and the most sophisticated in terms of features like the hydraulic clutch, Brembo brakes and Neken bars. Recently, though, it has been under fire in an increasingly competitive class. KTM didn’t plan to make big changes for 2020, but there are some tweaks to spice up the package. The WP XACT air fork got some significant internal changes, as did the shock. The EFI mapping was altered, and KTM supplies a vented airbox cover with each bike.
There’s no arguing with power. The 250SX-F is fast in any contest against other bikes. It doesn’t get every holeshot, but it isn’t the bike’s fault when it doesn’t. The vented airbox cover makes a slight improvement in throttle response—but only slight. Overall handing has to be considered another strong point; the KTM tucks into turns easily and powers through without a twitch. The light weight might be a big factor in this, but it’s probably just good geometry. As usual, the clutch and brakes are tops.
Despite the numbers, the KTM doesn’t always feel especially powerful. The motor is slow-revving and over-geared. We often make dramatic gearing changes to bring back the snap, but then the spread in gear ratios is a little tight. The power is there, but you have to open the throttle all the way to get to it. Halfhearted efforts won’t cut it. The bike doesn’t score well in comfort, either. KTM gave it a stiffer frame two years ago, and it hasn’t been the same since. The air fork was pretty good for 2017, but in terms of performance, it hasn’t changed much since then—and every other bike has.
The performance is undeniable. The KTM has the power for a pro rider to do his job, but a novice or intermediate might struggle to get the most out of it. And like a WW1 U-Boat, creature comforts are few. You can blast anything out of the water, but you won’t have that much fun in the process.
Slightly out of sync
Last year Suzuki gambled. The company took a chance by presenting what it saw as an old-school, no-frills motocrosser that concentrated on the basics of handling and value. Suzuki might have recognized that electric start was more than a passing fad, but they thought that riders wouldn’t demand it if the performance was there and the price was right. So, the 2019 budget was spent on the new frame and key engine changes. The bodywork was updated, and the bike had one of the lowest prices in the class. There was nothing left in the budget for changes in 2020, so this bike arrives just as it did
at this time last year.
Overall handling is, in fact, a strong point of the 2020 Suzuki. It offers a good mix of cornering ability and stability. The layout of the Suzuki is excellent. The relationship between the pegs, the seat and the bars is right for riders who populate the middle of the bell curve in terms of size and weight. The brakes are good. The best single feature is the price. The Suzuki sells for $1300 less than the most expensive bike in the shootout, which is the Husqvarna. Right now Suzuki dealers have some pretty sweet deals.
Horsepower is critical for a 250 four-stroke, and the Suzuki is tragic in that department. It’s way off in terms of overall acceleration. Even low-end torque is nothing special, and throttle response is slow, so it’s hard to bring the revs up with the clutch. Suzuki also blew it with the suspension setup. The bike is stiff and unbalanced. The fork and shock components are of high quality, so they can be re-valved by a good suspension tuner, but that eats into the RM-Z250’s price advantage. Like the Kawasaki, the Suzuki still uses plug-in couplers to alter the EFI mapping, which is a dated way of doing things.
Suzuki’s strategy of sticking with the basics might have worked, but the execution isn’t what it should be. The RM-Z250 is underpowered and overweight. Test riders still want to like it. We hope that it makes a comeback. The RM-Z250 has a history of doing well in shootouts, and we want it to continue.
Running for a second term
Yamaha is sitting pretty right now. The YZ250F was redesigned for 2019, and it was a hit. Last year’s bike got a redesigned electric-start motor featuring new-age Wi-Fi connectivity. It got a new chassis, and it got back into the hunt in terms of power without giving up that much torque. On top of that, it retained its title as the suspension king of the 250 four-stroke class. How does the company follow up on the heels of all that? By updating a grommet in the air filter for 2020. Yamaha figured that the 2019 YZ250 was good enough to run for office again.
Yamaha has now inherited the mantle of “250 Torque King.” The YZ250F might not have changed, but the rest of the class did, particularly with the Kawasaki turning into a screamer. That makes the Yamaha the easiest bike to ride and race. Yamaha also retains its crown on top of the suspension department, but just barely. Most of the other Japanese bikes have followed the YZ250F back to the proven formula of a coil-spring fork and a well-balanced package. We are still impressed with the Yamaha Power Tuner app, which allows you to alter the power delivery with any smartphone, and we are astounded that no other manufacturer has adopted this. The YZ also has good brakes this year and a clutch that is the best of the non-hydraulic set.
The YZ is a bike without true weak points, only areas where it doesn’t excel. Its peak power is decent, but most of the other bikes in the shootout have it covered. There are EFI maps out there that can improve top end, but none will take it to the top. The rider layout is offbeat. It’s cramped in the seat/peg relationship but tall in front. Yamaha normalized this somewhat for the 2020 YZ450 but not the 250. The Yamaha feels heavy, even though the Honda hits the same number on the scale as the Honda. No one accuses the YZ of being especially good in turns.
There’s no question that the Yamaha is an excellent machine. It appeals to both pros and novices. We only wish that Yamaha had kept on developing the bike after its spectacular first-year effort. There’s still some work to be done in a few key areas.
THE NEW WORLD ORDER
A changing of the guard
It’s impossible to come into a shootout without preconceived notions. Last year’s results set the stage—any new winner would have to take on the Yamaha YZ250F. By the same token, the bikes in this class have a history of being very closely matched. There were several contenders that could leapfrog two or three positions with only slight forward progress. That’s exactly what happened.
FIRST PLACE: HONDA CRF250R
The Honda defies its numbers. It isn’t the lightest, the most powerful, nor the torquiest, but it is the most fun bike to ride. Honda achieved this with excellent overall handling and suspension. The motor still isn’t perfect, but it overcomes its weaknesses with great throttle response. You can bring the motor to life quickly, so you’re never forced to wait.
SECOND PLACE: YAMAHA YZ250F
The Yamaha is still a winner with a large number of riders who rely on torque to get the job done. It’s the only bike in the group that doesn’t have to be screamed all the time, taking one job off the rider’s plate and allowing him to concentrate on other tasks. The suspension remains one of its strongest features. Here, Yamaha has clearly shown the others how to do it right and catch up.
THIRD PLACE: KTM 250SX-F
The KTM remains the best bike for the elite pro rider. The 250SX-F is so fast and light, it might be the only bike that could qualify for a Supercross main in stock configuration. Clearly, that’s not the best recipe for a bike that’s sold to the general public, but it does set the bar very high for production bikes in general.
FOURTH PLACE: HUSQVARNA FC250
Once again, the Husqvarna finishes back to back with the KTM. The day is coming when there will be more separation between the two siblings, but we can’t say in which direction. For now, we are delighted with Husqvarna’s move towards the non-pro rider and hope that it continues.
FIFTH PLACE: KAWASAKI KX250
We have nothing but respect for Kawasaki’s approach to the 2020 250 class. The engineers concentrated on the bike’s one weakness and left everything else alone in order to come in with the lowest price in the class. Unfortunately, they traded away the bike’s strongest asset along the way, so there was no net gain. The KX250 now appeals to a completely different rider.
SIXTH PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z250
The problem with the motocross market is that it’s too small to justify the huge development costs involved with all the changes that we expect on a yearly basis. Suzuki was forced to make do in 2020 without change for purely practical reasons. Unfortunately, this isn’t the right time to make do in the 250 motocross world.