Normal shootouts are hard. This one was ridiculous. We’ve never had a field of bikes that was so deep and strong. The problem isn’t that we have so many bikes that could win; it is that there are so many that should win. But, they aren’t all the same. Each is designed to appeal to a slightly different rider, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. To explore this, we took them to a number of different tracks. After riding them with stock tires, we installed Dunlop MX33s on all seven bikes, and eventually the differences began to reveal themselves. Here’s what we found.
VIDEO UP FRONT
GASGAS MC 250F
Just different enough
The newest addition to the class is the GasGas MC 250. As you’ve probably heard, GasGas is now controlled by Pierer Mobility, the parent company of KTM. As a result, the MC 250 is a variation of the same platform as the KTM 250SX-F and the Husqvarna FC250. That doesn’t mean it’s the same. By having three different makes under its control, the company gets to send each in a different direction and aim for different buyers, whereas a single-line manufacturer is forced into a one-size-fits-all strategy. The GasGas MC 250 is softer, milder and designed for a less aggressive rider than the KTM. It has the same engine and chassis but different components, making it less expensive and less focused on high-end racing. But, it still has the same strong points as the other bikes in the group. It’s still very light and very fast. On our scale, the GasGas weighs 219 pounds, which is exactly the same as the Husky, but far lighter than any of the others. Since it also shares the same motor with those bikes, it’s powerful. The GasGas is a screamer, like the other two; it just has a slightly softer peak and doesn’t over-rev quite as far. It doesn’t have a map switch, so you don’t have a second option for power delivery or traction control. It also doesn’t have launch control unless you pay extra for the switch. The fork and shock are the same WP components as the KTM’s and Husky’s; they’re just a little softer. Suspension isn’t the MC 250’s strongest feature, although it wouldn’t feel right to call it a weakness. It’s just set up for a lighter, less aggressive rider. And since it does have an air fork in front, it has some of the inherent weaknesses of air. It doesn’t always settle evenly in cornering, and it can provide vague feedback in low-traction situations. Still, the main point of the GasGas is to provide a bike for those riders who are less focused on racing and more budget-oriented. The GasGas sells for $8499, which is $900 less than the Husqvarna.
Appeal that hasn’t changed
The Honda CRF250R is a bike that didn’t get any attention for 2021. Honda’s R&D team was entirely focused on the 450. It has the same chassis as the 2020 CRF450R with a coil-spring Showa fork and a hammer-head-shaped Showa shock. It still has twin pipes and a titanium fuel tank. The left side of the handlebar has a map switch that lets you choose from among three different maps or access launch control. The Honda’s strongest point is its overall handling. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t love the way it turns, fits and feels. It’s not especially light, at 227 pounds without fuel, but you would never know. It has light, easy steering and is surprisingly narrow, as long as you don’t obsess on the twin pipes. The one area where the Honda truly shines is overall comfort. It’s a bike that just feels right, no matter who you are. The levers, the seat, the bar bend—everything is just right. The Honda is also very fast on top. That might not mean as much this year, because the Kawasaki and the KTM-powered bikes are also powerful. They’re all screamers. In the last four years, the whole class has stepped it up in the power department. Sadly, most have lost power down low, especially the Honda. It doesn’t even get serious until 9000 rpm. For some riders, that’s a big issue; although, most 250F riders have learned to rev it by now. Overall suspension is another strong point for the Honda, but once again, it has competition in that area. Job one is taking hits, and the CRF250R is great in that category, although some riders complain it can be a little nervous at speed. Overall, though, we still love the Honda, and at $7999, it’s one of the least expensive bikes in this shootout.
Shorter legs, broader appeal
It’s an interesting year for the Husqvarna FC250. In the past, it was difficult to separate the KTM and the Husqvarna. There were differences, such as the bodywork, the composite airbox, the D.I.D rims and the ProTaper bars, but in the big picture, they weren’t enough to make the Husky stand out. For 2021, it’s a different story. Huskys and KTMs still share the same motors and frames, but Husqvarna shortened the suspension on all of its 2021 motocross bikes. It was a brilliant move. The seat height is over an inch lower than it was last year, and that gives virtually everyone more confidence. Young riders like it everywhere, and even taller riders find the bike is more manageable on starts. Did the shorter suspension result in any decrease in suspension performance? Not that we can tell. The action of the WP air fork is actually greatly improved over last year, which is a welcome change. Otherwise, the bike has the same strengths as always. It’s light, at 219 pounds without fuel, so it turns well and is super easy to toss around. And, of course, it’s very, very fast. The Husky makes its best power above 10,000 rpm. These days, that’s the norm in the 250 class. At low rpm, the Husky still feels a little weak, even though the dyno insists that it’s not. The issue is that it’s geared tall, and it doesn’t respond to half-throttle efforts. The Husky likes to be held wide open, even at low rpm. A more legitimate shortcoming is the decrease in ground clearance, which can be noticeable in ruts. Another factor to consider is the price. At $9399, the Husqvarna is the most expensive bike in this shootout.
Electric start and a whole lot more
The Kawasaki KX250 came into the comparison as one of the favorites. It’s all new for 2021 and has electric start at last. The motor is entirely new, although it does use the finger-follower valve train that was introduced last year. It also got a hydraulically actuated clutch with a coned disc spring and the exact same frame and bodywork as the current KX450. Unlike the 450, the KX250 uses KYB suspension components. The first thing you notice about the new Kawasaki is that it’s a screamer. Sound familiar? That’s a common theme among the 2021 250s. In the case of the Kawasaki, it’s even more noticeable because it was a real tractor just two years ago. Now it makes a ton of power, all on top. It feels wicked fast. In fact, the KX has the personality of a high-strung racehorse that always wants to be at full gallop. We’ve always believed that motor characteristics can be a big factor in a bike’s handling manners, and the KX250 proves the point. The Kawasaki 450 is a calm, polite machine, whereas the 250, with the same exact frame, seems a bit hyperactive and high-strung. It’s all about the revvy new 250 powerplant with its amped-up personality. Another factor might be the KYB suspension, which is more active than the Showa fork and shock on the 450. It still ranks well in the suspension department, but the KX250 is a little on the soft side for most riders. Oddly, the Kawasaki is the heaviest bike in the class at 228 pounds without fuel. You would think it was the lightest. This year the price went up by $500, but it’s still in the middle of the class at $8299.
The prototype for an entire class
The KTM 250SX-F has been the driving force in its class for a long time. It was the first with electric start, a finger-follower valve train, a hydraulic clutch, and on and on. With that said, the KTM 250SX-F has very few changes for 2021, and, in fact, it hasn’t had any major changes for about three years. It remains the lightest bike in the class at 218 pounds without fuel. The only significant change worthy of mention for this year is the WP Xact air fork, which has a new mid-valve and bottoming system. Suspension was the area that needed attention the most. If you are familiar with the previous KTM 250SX-F, you already know what to expect here. It’s a fast, high-rpm screamer—no surprise there. The motor is geared a little tall and works best with a lot of throttle, just like the two other bikes with the same motor. If you had to pick one thing that still stands out about the KTM against a backdrop of copies, it’s the way it turns. The 250SX-F has excellent cornering manners. Its light weight is certainly a factor here, but overall geometry and layout get some credit, too. The improved fork action is definitely welcome, but we still can’t list suspension among the KTM’s strongest points. The air fork has a certain characteristic that can be noticeable in some turns. After you think it’s settled and ready for power, the front end sometimes rides up. Some riders complain; others don’t notice. In the KTM strategy of offering three different bikes for three different riders, the 250SX is the one made for the most serious racer. It likes a racer with commitment; the harder you try, the better it works. Still, with three bikes sharing so much, we can’t help but wonder if the other two will steal sales from the 250SX-F. It’s the second most expensive at $9299.
Internet trolls have had a field day with the Suzuki RM-Z250. By coming in late without any changes, it’s a magnet for scathing comments and snarky remarks. For the record, Suzuki knows that the RMZ250 hasn’t had any big changes in a long time. But for now, that means that it has a legitimate segment of the market all to itself. It’s a simple bike for the MX purist. It has no electric start, so it has no battery, no regulator and no complex wiring harness. Plus, it’s torquey and easy to ride. One by one, all the others have re-aimed their bikes at the top of the market with high-revving motors that demand more effort and commitment. The Suzuki doesn’t have to be screamed and wrung out, so novices and beginners will find it easier to ride. Still, the fact remains that it gives away a good 5 horsepower on top, which is a disaster for racing in more advanced classes. It’s still a bike that handles exceptionally well. Back in the day, Suzuki was famous for excellent turning prowess. That hasn’t changed, but several of the other makers have cracked that code. The Suzuki is no longer the best-handling bike in the class. The RM-Z’s weight is a little puzzling to us. Despite having no electric start, it has no particular advantage there. It weighs 227 pounds without fuel—the same as the Honda and Yamaha. The current generation of the RM-Z is also a little unbalanced with soft rear suspension. We don’t mind when a bike goes unchanged, but as far as suspension is concerned, Suzuki should have stopped one generation earlier. It is the least expensive of the group at $7899.
The magic touch
Yamaha gave the YZ250F a long list of small changes for 2021. Most of them were previewed on the YZ450F a year earlier. That includes frame revisions, new motor mounts and a new airbox. The motor has its own changes, including a straighter intake tract, a new cam, a new muffler and new ECU settings. All this was done with the hope of finding a little more peak power without sacrificing torque. That was what kept the Yamaha from winning the 2020 shootout: it simply wasn’t as fast as some of the others. Did Yamaha achieve its goal? Absolutely. The 2021 YZ250F still isn’t the fastest bike in the class, but it’s in the hunt. The best part is that it didn’t lose any low-end response. The Yamaha isn’t one of those bikes that requires a huge handful of throttle before it reacts. It starts moving from the first twist of the grip. It isn’t the type of thing that shows up on a dyno curve, but it’s clear when you ride the bike. As the revs climb, the YZ never has a big power surge, and it doesn’t quite rev as high as some of the others, but it’s easy to get into the meat of the powerband. If you really want a little more on top, you can have it with the Yamaha Power Tuner smartphone app. Virtually all our riders preferred Yamaha’s over-rev map, which you can find in the full test on www.dirtbikemagazine.com. The Power Tuner isn’t a gimmick. It’s a legitimate tuning tool, and, so far, there’s nothing quite like it. Yamaha also seems to have everyone covered in the suspension department. The Yamaha fork and shock work so well that it’s a little boring, year after year. Smaller riders might say it’s a little on the stiff side, but even they confess that it’s still pretty good. The YZ does have a few sore points. It feels like it’s the heaviest in the group, even though it weighs exactly the same as the Honda and Suzuki. It’s also a little cramped for taller riders. But, overall, even the Yamaha’s harshest critics admit that the 2021 model has very little to complain about. The 2021 YZ250F sells for $8299.
The winner and the six that almost won
We’ve done a lot of shootouts over the years at Dirt Bike, but we have to confess, coming up with a winner in this group was one of the toughest jobs we’ve ever faced. Not only are there seven bikes, but three of them have the same motor and six of them make nearly the same peak power. When we looked at it objectively, though, we had to admit that one bike had universal appeal to riders of all skill levels.
FIRST PLACE: YAMAHA YZ250F
The Yamaha has the peak power and the suspension to satisfy the most advanced riders, and it has the manageability and the tunability to appeal to young novices fresh from the mini ranks. That’s a pretty good trick.
SECOND PLACE: HONDA CRF250R
If there’s any motorcycle that’s virtually impossible to dislike, it’s the Honda. We understand those who say it would be better with more low-end power, but that’s more of a want than a need.
THIRD PLACE: HUSQVARNA FC250
We finally have a substantial reason to pick the Husqvarna over the other bikes that roll out of the same factory. The shorter seat height of the 2021 model makes it less intimidating to the young riders who typically populate the 250 class.
FOURTH PLACE: KTM 250SX-F
On paper, the KTM is hard to beat. It’s light, fast and built to the highest standards. Still, it’s a pro-level machine that isn’t always the friendliest in the class.
FIFTH PLACE: GASGAS MC 250F
Even though the GasGas is aimed at a different buyer, it’s still so similar to the KTM and the Husqvarna that it’s almost inseparable. The price difference will doubtlessly put it over the top for some riders.
SIXTH PLACE: KAWASAKI KX250
This is a clear indicator of how high the bar is in this class. The KX250 came in as a potential winner, then ended up in sixth place. It’s fast and fun, but in the end, it’s another high-strung racer aimed at the most aggressive riders, leaving out too many of us.
2021 250 OUTPUT, AS MEASURED ON THE PRO CIRCUIT DYNO
Honda CRF250R: 42.52 hp @ 12180 rpm, 20.19 lb/ft @ 9240 rpm
Yamaha YZ250F: 42.60 hp @ 12860 rpm, 19.85 lb/ft @ 9960 rpm
Kawasaki KX250: 43.90 hp @ 13410 rpm, 20.81 lb/ft @ 9390 rpm
KTM 250SX-F: 44.22 hp @ 13870 rpm, 20.79 lb/ft @ 8980 rpm
Husqvarna FC250: 44.04 hp @ 13790 rpm, 21.11 lb/ft @ 8930 rpm
GasGas MC250F: 43.85 hp @ 13650, 20.71 lb/ft @ 8850 rpm
Suzuki RM-Z250: 39.14 hp @ 12220 rpm, 19.28 lb/ft @ 9330 rpmo