2023 250 MX SHOOTOUT: FULL TEST & VIDEO

 

Motocross has changed. The 250 four-stroke class once existed in the shadow of the big bikes. They were called “lites” and considered the rough equivalent of 125 two-strokes. No more. At the first Supercross of 2023, the top 250s qualified ahead of all but three 450s. The performance of the typical 250 four-stroke is so high that displacement might not be the defining measure of performance much longer. But, for now, 250s have their own class at most races, and that begs the question, “Which one is best?” We have gathered the seven bikes most commonly available in the U.S. The group is mixed. Some are completely new, and some are unchanged from last year. All were left stock for this comparison, and that includes tires, which are a mix of Dunlop and Maxxis. We’ll go over each bike’s strengths and weaknesses before we offer the official DB 250 MX ranking for 2023.

GASGAS MX250F

GasGas motocross bikes, to state what has become common knowledge, come out of the same factory as KTMs and Husqvarnas. But, for 2023, the GasGas MC250F is completely different because it’s based on an earlier platform. The MC250F also has a lower suggested retail price than its counterparts in the Husky and KTM lines. A number of part suppliers are different, including those for the handlebar and rims. Plus, the GasGas has no resonance chamber in the exhaust head pipe, uses cast triple clamps and does not come with a map switch. Maxxis tires come on both ends.

STRONG POINTS

The GasGas is a cushy, comfortable motorcycle that’s easy to ride. This generation of the steel Austrian frame is fairly compliant, which helps the suspension do its job. Up front, the fork is the WP Xact air fork, similar to the ones on the KTM and Husky, but it’s set up on the soft side, enhancing the MC250F’s identity as an inviting bike for less experienced riders. It is the lightest bike in the shootout, coming in at 218 pounds without fuel on our scale. That contributes to the bike’s excellent overall handling. It turns well and is very easy to manhandle.

 

WEAK POINTS

GasGas may claim to be an affordable brand, but it isn’t inexpensive enough to justify the lack of a map switch, the budget pipe or the cast triple clamps. The power is unnecessarily limited, and the suspension is handicapped. The MC250F still costs far more than the Japanese bikes. The horsepower is softer than that of either the KTM or the Husky. Likewise, the suspension is set up a little soft for an aggressive rider.

BOTTOM LINE

In stock form, the GasGas is a good, friendly bike for the sportsman-level rider. It’s also easy to build into a pro-level machine, but let’s not lose perspective; this isn’t a budget motorcycle by any means.

HONDA CRF250R

Last year Honda made big changes to the CRF250R. It got the new chassis that the 450 got in 2021, and the motor was completely reconfigured. The head, piston, rod, cams and clutch are new, although it didn’t get a hydraulic clutch like the 450. Along the way, it lost weight and became the lightest of the Japanese 250 four-strokes. On our scale, it’s 219 pounds. For 2023, it returns unchanged. It still offers three maps and three levels of traction control. The suspension is Showa and the tires are Pirelli.

STRONG POINTS

The Honda has excellent low-end torque. The power comes on early and strong, so you don’t have to use the clutch as much as you do on other 250s. Even when you do use the clutch, the pull is very light. The steering is easy. Overall handling is good, too, due to the lightweight and responsive steering geometry. Everyone feels comfortable on the CRF250R. The rider positioning is excellent for most riders, large or small.

WEAK POINTS

After making such strong low-end power, the Honda goes flat at higher revs. On top, it has nothing on the KTM, Husky or Kawasaki. The first two maps are of little use, because most riders prefer the most aggressive of the three. The suspension is difficult to dial in. The fork, in particular, is harsh on small chop and bumps. The Pirelli tires were okay on soft terrain but less effective on hard-packed soil.

BOTTOM LINE

Honda has a great package that just needs more fine-tuning. That was true of the 450 when it got these changes, too. In the 250 class, you can give away a little peak power if you make up for it in some other place. Honda is still looking for that other place.

HUSQVARNA FC250

Everything about the Husky FC250 is new for 2023, but we’ve had some time to get used to it. We first saw this frame and motor in the limited-edition FC250 Rockstar Edition last year. The frame is still steel, but it is constructed to be more rigid on many planes. It also has new rear suspension and an electronics package that includes Quickshift, as well as traction control. Even though the frame and engine are identical to those of the KTM 250SX-F, the suspension is different. Both ends have slightly reduced travel to lower the seat height. The tires are Dunlop MX33s.

STRONG POINTS

The Husqvarna is a powerful bike. It gained power from bottom to top, and that’s a huge benefit in a class where horsepower is disproportionately important. Cornering is another strong point. The geometry is the same as it was last year, but the new frame is less conducive to suspension squat exiting turns. That results in more stability overall. As for the reduced seat height, it’s a universal hit. Even tall riders like it, and no one reported ground clearance issues, even in ruts. Quickshift can be effective, too, even though not everyone trusts it.

WEAK POINTS

With the new platform, the Husky gained weight. It now weighs 227 pounds. The new frame also gives the rider a great deal of feedback from the track. This puts more of a burden on the suspension, and the WP air fork is already somewhat overworked. The overall result is that the Husky isn’t especially friendly to beginners and novices. Even though the motor makes decent low-end power, it works best when you rev it, and that can be a demanding way to ride.

BOTTOM LINE

The Husky sends a mixed message. On one hand, the lower seat height makes it inviting to young riders and those with less experience. On the other hand, it’s a harsh motorcycle with a demanding pro-level power delivery. Overall, though, it’s hard to argue with this much power and such good overall cornering traits.

KAWASAKI KX250

Kawasaki made massive changes to the KX250 in 2021 with considerable fanfare. For 2023, the engineers went in and made selective changes almost in secret. It got new valves, a new flywheel, a new head pipe, new gear ratios, a new intake and a number of other invisible changes. It still has coupler-based mapping, footpegs that can be relocated and the only hydraulic clutch on a Japanese 250. It’s the same weight as the Yamaha, Suzuki and Husky at 227 pounds without fuel. The KX250 comes with Dunlop MX33 tires.

STRONG POINTS

The Kawasaki is faster than ever. Last year it was the only Japanese bike that could hang with the KTM and the Husky, at least on top. This year, it seems that Kawasaki answered the call and found more power to counter the progress from Austria. The Kawie is also a comfortable bike, and, between the four handlebar positions and the two footpeg locations, it has a great deal of adjustability. We love the hydraulic clutch, which has the easiest pull of all.

WEAK POINTS

Even though Kawasaki made excellent progress with the motor output, it still could use more power down low. The coupler-based mapping is clumsy and archaic, and none of the maps provided help down low. The motor is still a little raspy, with a loud bark and considerable popping. Overall, the Kawasaki isn’t especially stable. This strikes us as odd, because the KX450 is very well planted with the same basic chassis. The suspension is still very middle-of-the-road. If anything, the fork is a little harsher this year.

BOTTOM LINE

Everyone likes riding the KX250 but comes away wanting just a little more of this or that. Sometimes suspension is the issue; other times it’s stability or low-end power. One area where the KX gets universal praise is top-end power. On a 250, that goes a long way.

KTM 250SX-F

KTM has been pushing the edges of the envelope in the 250 class for years. It was the first with electric start, the first with a hydraulic clutch and even the first to break into the 40-horsepower bracket. So, the newly redesigned 2023 250SX-F comes with great expectations. It has the new frame and motor that the Factory Edition got last year and the Husky FC250 got this year. The basic frame geometry is unchanged, but the flex characteristics and the angle of the motor have changed, along with the bodywork. The new bike gained some weight and now comes in at 226 pounds. The tires are Dunlop MX33s.

STRONG POINTS

Power. As always, the KTM has great power. The new motor has more revs on top and more willing throttle response down low. It has a slightly sharper hit than the Husky, even though the motors are said to be identical. Despite being slightly taller than the Husky FC250, the KTM corners like magic. The change in the motor angle results in less suspension squat under acceleration. The brakes are excellent, and the hydraulic clutch is as good as ever.

WEAK POINTS

The KTM has a harsh feeling on small bumps and hard edges. Part of the blame goes to the WP Xact air fork and part goes to the new, more rigid chassis. Despite having so much adjustability, the air fork is difficult to square away. The rear suspension is completely new for 2023 but doesn’t seem to offer a distinct improvement over last year.

BOTTOM LINE

KTM is on a roll. Last year’s bike was outstanding, and with the redesign, it gained even more power. But, not all the changes are advancements. The chassis is heavier and harsher. It will take time before the new bike’s potential can be fully realized.

SUZUKI RM-Z250

Several seasons ago, Suzuki tapped out of the year-to-year melee of motocross bike one-upmanship. As a result, the RM-Z250 is the product of an earlier era. It has no electric start, no hydraulic clutch, no map switch, and no technology that wasn’t available a decade ago. Suzuki does have a launch control feature called S-HAC, and recently the RM-Z250 comes with an aftermarket GET mapping system. The bike’s most significant feature is a price of $7899, which is dramatically less than any of the others.

STRONG POINTS

The RM-Z250 still handles well. It always did, and the influence it had on the rest of the 250 class is noticeable. It seems that many of the other motorcycles have grown more Suzuki-like when it comes to cornering. The motor has a smooth, linear power delivery, and overall the bike is easy to ride and makes you feel like a hero. The brakes are good, and the overall comfort level is excellent.

 

WEAK POINTS

When it comes to outright acceleration, the RM-Z250 is at a significant disadvantage. Peak output is more than 5 horsepower down compared to the others, and that makes it difficult to compete at any level. The suspension is also very stiff for the typical 250 rider. As an aside, we have to point out that if you stall the bike during a race, you have to kickstart it, but you knew that.

BOTTOM LINE

We respect the fact that Suzuki is taking a completely different approach, especially considering that the most common complaint in the sport is the high price of new bikes. We do wish that the Suzuki had been frozen in a slightly different state. It wouldn’t be any more expensive to offer it with softer suspension.

YAMAHA YZ250F

No motorcycle has had as much success in pro racing as the current version of the Yamaha YZ250F. The bikes of the Monster Energy Star Racing team are legendary in the pro ranks. The production version has had a great run as well, and it was the winner of the 2022 Dirt
Bike
Magazine “250 Motocross Shootout.” It returns unchanged for 2023. It still has the reverse head configuration that has been a Yamaha trademark for over 10 years. It features Yamaha’s Power Tuner smartphone app for no extra charge.

STRONG POINTS

The YZ250F is still on the very top of the suspension heap. Yamaha’s proprietary version of the KYB coil-spring fork is good on light chop and outstanding in heavy whoops. Same goes for the rear; the rougher the track, the bigger the YZ’s advantage. The motor’s most significant trait is its throttle response. The YZ rider gets better results with less effort. Even if you don’t like the way the Yamaha runs, it can be altered easily with the Yamaha Power Tuner app, which is still the best tool in the business for consumer engine tuning.

WEAK POINTS

The YZ is falling behind in the horsepower category. Even though the motor is responsive and fun, it gives away peak power to the Austrian bikes and the Kawasaki. The YZ also has cramped ergonomics, especially for tall riders. As far as overall handling, the YZ doesn’t feel especially agile or light. It weighs 227 pounds without fuel.

BOTTOM LINE

The Yamaha has enjoyed a long run at the top of the 250 class, but the time for change has come. It still has incredible suspension, a snappy power delivery and tuning technology that no one else can match. In the years ahead, however, that might not be enough.

CONCLUSION

Advancement comes in surges and waves in the motocross world. This year has seen the bar raised higher than ever before in the horsepower department, but that isn’t enough. A motocross bike can only be as good as its most limiting feature. In general, it might take another year or two before suspension and handling can catch up. For that reason, we have a repeat winner.

FIRST PLACE: YAMAHA YZ250F

The YZ250F is still the bike that best puts all the pieces together. It might not be the fastest, but it’s fast enough. While the rest of the class gets its act together in suspension and technology, the Yamaha squeaks through with another win.

SECOND PLACE: HUSQVARNA FC250

Going in, we felt this would be the year of the Austrian bikes. With so much power and advancement, it seemed inevitable. But, with big changes come big risks. It might take a year or two to sort out the FC250’s new parts and see what we really have. In the meantime, we admire Husqvarna’s unconventional thinking when it comes to seat height.

THIRD PLACE: KTM 250SX-F

As we pointed out earlier, most of the big advancements in the 250 class have been ushered in by KTM. This year is no different. The 2023 KTM 250 motor is a step forward. The rest of the bike will catch up soon.

FOURTH PLACE: KAWASAKI KX250

Like Husqvarna and KTM, Kawasaki found more power this year. The KX250 is faster than ever. Also like the Austrians, suspension is the next frontier that Kawasaki must face to reach the top of the class.

FIFTH PLACE: HONDA CRF250R

Two years ago the Honda CRF250R was held back by a motor that was all top and no bottom. Now, the motor is all torque without enough peak. Likewise, there have been dramatic swings in suspension and handling. Honda has all the pieces, but they have to meet in the same place at the same time.

SIXTH PLACE: GASGAS MC250F

We will admit that placing the GasGas in sixth is somewhat arbitrary, especially considering that it’s so light and the motor has so much potential. In stock condition, though, it’s being deliberately held back. It’s a bike that could be so much more if only it were set free.

SEVENTH PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z250

The RM-Z250 is a great motorcycle but not a great racer. We love the fact that Suzuki is offering a lower-priced alternative, but at the end of the day, it’s not our money. We just test motorcycles. You can see the price for yourself and act accordingly.

HORSEPOWER

 

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