Changing Of The Guard?
Can the Yamaha YZ250F make it five shootout wins in a row, or will a new king be crowned?
The 250F class is a battlefield. Ruthless horsepower, knife-edge handling, and the trickest suspension components are required just to compete. Missing any of those? It’ll chew a bike up and spit it out, leaving a pile of parts for the vultures to pick off of. No mercy.
This year’s small-bore shootout is no exception. In it, we’ve gathered a bike from each of the leading manufacturers and pitted them head to head. We lived and breathed 250 motocrossers for weeks, traveling all across Southern California to a wide range of tracks and put each under the magnifying glass.
Click here to read this in the Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine.
By Michael Gilbert
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIT PALMER
Here to help is a hand-selected group of test riders with skill levels that ranged from novice to pro, a charge led by former factory racer Brett Metcalfe. Bikes themselves were left showroom-stock. From grips to tires, these are exactly as you’d buy them. The only exceptions being ones the average customer would make, like suspension-clicker and tire-pressure adjustments. Want to know exactly how the all-new Honda CRF250R compares to last year’s winner, the Yamaha YZ250F, exactly as their engineers designed them? We did too.
In the end, the battle came down to the fine facts. Each bike had its flashes of brilliance, but only one could leave the battlefield a victor. Which 250F motocrosser finished on top? Read on to find out.
MEET THE CONTESTANTS
The 2018 Honda CRF250R is the only all-new model in this year’s shootout. Big Red receives a new chassis, suspension, and engine for the 2018 model year, with the latter being the most unique change. Honda ditched the Unicam design in search of more power, now utilizing a DOHC configuration with twin header pipes exiting both sides of the cylinder head. The new chassis is nearly identical to that used on the current CRF450R, as is the A-kit style Showa spring fork. Expectations are high.
On this year’s spec sheet, the Husqvarna FC 250 is remarkably close to the KTM 250 SX-F, which rolls off of the same assembly line. The 2018 model FC 250 gets all-new Magura calipers, as well as a lighter lithium-ion battery, new graphics, and a new seat cover. Like the KTM, the Husky features traction control, launch control, electric start, WP AER 48 air forks, and an extremely potent engine package. It finished a close second to the Yamaha in 2017, which means its small changes could equal big results.
In search of improving power output throughout the rev range, Kawasaki updated the KX250F with a number of changes to its powerplant, including a new cylinder head design, throttle body, intake camshaft, and header pipes among other bits. To handle these changes, the KX’s suspension package also received minor changes. The Showa Separate Function Fork (SFF) received a softer spring and added preload, and the rear shock gets updates to its compression and rebound settings.
For 2018, KTM gave the 250 SX-F a number of small changes hoping that it would be enough capitalize upon Yamaha’s lack of development, and take the title of this year’s shootout champion. Changes to the SX-F include revisions to the settings of the highly capable WP AER 48 air forks out front, along with the usual bold-new graphics and an orange-painted frame—yes please! The changes may not sound like much, but with the Yamaha showing its age, this might be KTM’s year.
After a complete redesign in 2016, the Suzuki RM-Z250 has yet to see any more revisions, besides white side panels and a blue-accented seat cover and graphics. The RM-Z is known for being a rider-friendly package and cornering abilities, but there’s no denying that it is one of the heaviest and most-dated 250 in the class. After seeing Suzuki’s heavily updated ’18 450, we’re expecting big things from the RM-Z250 next year.
Yamaha’s YZ250F has been the defending champ of the Cycle News 250F Shootout since way back in 2014, when it received a complete overhaul. Since then, Yamaha has given a significant amount of changes to the YZ to keep it on top—until this year. In 2018, the Yamaha only receives a set of blue rims and bold-new graphics. Has Yamaha’s work over the last few years been enough give the YZ250F one more crown? Or will this year’s shootout mark the demise of Yamaha’s winning package?
GEARSET: Shift Black Label G.I. Fro 20th Anniversary
HELMET: 6D ATR-1
GOGGLES: 100% Racecraft
BOOTS: Fox Instinct
We try to not set expectations before our tests, but with the Suzuki’s performance in last year’s shootout followed by a handful of cosmetic-only changes for 2018, we had an idea of where the RM-Z 250 would stack up right from the start. The Suzuki has been untouched since its redesign in 2016, and with motocross technology advancing at such a fast rate; it’s simply fallen behind the competition.
Before jumping to the conclusion that the RM-Z is a bad motorcycle (it’s not), let’s talk about its strong points, as it does have quite a few. Metcalfe was the first to notice its impressive handling, saying, “The Suzuki has a lot of positives, like an extremely stable chassis that shines at high speed but still allows the bike to corner great.”
The same thoughts were echoed among the rest of the test riders, who all unanimously agreed that the RM-Z’s corner carving prowess is the best in class. At 236 pounds fully fueled, it takes a lot of effort to get the Suzuki slowed down and settled for the corner, but once leaned over its midcorner steering outshines its competitors by easily carving ruts, berms, and everything in between. A few testers noted that the stock Dunlop MX52 tires hindered the bike’s true potential, and that a swap to a better tire would offer improved traction and feel from the front end.
Suzuki employed a set of KYB PSF2 Pneumatic Spring front forks and a KYB rear shock to handle the RM-Z’s damping needs, but the majority of our testers struggled to find a comfortable setup with the package. It was a ceaseless battle trying to find the balance between bottom-of-the-stroke support required for larger hits, and that top-of-the-stroke plushness needed for small chatter bumps. The result was a compromising setup that either sent a wave of vibrations through your boots and gloves, or a soft set up so soft that it would shy riders away from hitting triples with the same aggression they could on other bikes.
GEARSET: Alpinestars Techstar Factory Pants
HELMET: 6D ATR-1
GOGGLES: 100% Racecraft
BOOTS: Alpinestars Tech 10
The RM-Z250’s lack of power might be enough to hold you back from going for the big jumps anyways. Of the group, this is the bike that challenges you to get a good drive off the corner, its ultra-soft power delivery followed by an unimpressive midrange and a top-end that seemingly signs off before it begins. Getting a drive out of the corner is a difficult thing to do on the Suzuki because of an ultra-soft power delivery that is followed by an unimpressive midrange and a top-end that signs off seemingly before it begins. Metcalfe was blunt when pointing the RM-Z’s biggest weakness out, saying, “The Suzuki lacks in every area of the powerband in comparison to the others.”
Being as optimistic about the Suzuki as possible, we can’t help but point out how confidence-inspiring the RM-Z is on track, even if its performance is subpar for high-level riders. The lack of power will come as a burden when racing, but in every other situation the bike teaches the rider how to extract as much performance out of a package as possible, without harsh consequences. The mellow powerplant and quick-cornering chassis may be perfect for a younger or less-experienced rider looking to learn the ropes of the 250 class.
There’s no doubt that the RM-Z250 has grown long in the tooth, and that any sort of performance upgrades would benefit the Suzuki, especially if those changes are in the engine department. With the current crop of bikes now featuring electric starters and on-the-fly selectable engine maps, the RM-Z250 is falling further and further behind.
It’s hard to not expect an updated version of the baby RM-Z in 2019 after Suzuki delivered an all-new 450 for the ’18 model year, but only time will tell. Here’s to hoping that Suzuki gives the RM-Z a fighting chance in next year’s shootout!
Kawasaki’s KX250F has always found its way to the pointy end of the 250 class rankings. In a class as challenging as this, that’s no easy feat, proof of just how potent this package has always been. Unfortunately for the green team, the competition has stepped it up for 2018, relegating the KX back to fifth place. Kawasaki did throw a small number of upgrades at the motorcycle, but in a class where winners are chosen by even the smallest details and advantages, the KX simply falls short. Not by much, but by enough.
The KX250F is fast, often referred to as a “powerhouse” by more than one of our testers, which is exactly what Kawasaki was aiming for when updating its engine for 2018. The power feels crisper than its predecessor off the bottom, and its aggressive initial hit enables you to jump off the corner faster than you would on most other bikes. The midrange is impressive, too, the bike revving quickly and building speed but flattening out sooner than most of the competition, specifically the Husqvarna and KTM. Swapping the engine map couplers trackside boosted low-end performance, but had no noticeable effect on the upper rpm range. Bummer.
A pair of Nissin brake calipers slow the Kawasaki down, the front end comprised of a two-piston caliper clamped to a 270mm disc. Although not a deal breaker in terms of performance, the package comes up slightly short in terms of outright braking power. Testers noticed that, compared to the competition, you’d have to pull the KX’s brake lever with a little extra determination in order to get it slowed down. Couple this with a track that has hard downhill braking sections (we’re looking at you, Glen Helen) and the issue becomes even more of a burden.
The KX250F’s suspension package was under the testing team’s microscope, as well, with most of them agreeing that the system is still not on par with the frontrunners. This is especially true of the Showa Separate Function Fork (SFF)-Type 2, which like the Suzuki’s fork, felt overly stiff on the top of the stroke for small choppy bumps, despite the internal damping updates for 2018. The same issue led to a slight headshake for some our test riders. Then again, even if the suspension has its hiccups, a number of testers repeated the same saying: “It’s still better than the air fork.”
GEARSET: Shot Race Gear Infinite
HELMET: Arai VX-PRO4
BOOTS: Sidi Crossfire 3 SR
Weighing in at 233 pounds fully fueled—one of the lightest bikes in the shootout—the Kawasaki is narrow between the legs and falls into the corner with ease. It’s nimble and tackles side-to-side transitions like it was made for this stuff, but its midcorner steering struggles in comparison to the other bikes, making it difficult to tackle tight, inside lines. Metcalfe summed it up best, explaining, “The Kawasaki loves to search for berms more than the other bikes, but with a little extra effort it can still catch the insides, just not as easily.”
Other standout features of the KX250F that had us tickled over the course of our test? How about the four-position adjustable handlebars that allow for 35mm of adjustment, or footpegs, which can be lowered by 5mm and work with the handlebar to help riders of all sizes custom fit the bike to their desires. Launch control is an appreciated touch, too.
In the end, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find the Kawasaki all the way back in fifth place, because it really is a great all-around performer. Some extra refinement to the suspension package and added features—like an electric starter and on-the-fly engine mapping adjustment might be all it would take to catapult the KX250F further up the rankings, but until then, the competition simply has it covered.
Yamaha shook the 250cc class up with its all-new, 2014 YZ250F, and has since led the charge through relentless, performance-minded updates. That changes this year, however, the Tuning Fork brand remaining relatively silent with little more than bold-new graphics and blue rims. Sadly, 2018 marks the end of the YZ250F’s four-year reign over the 250cc class.
But even if the YZ250F falls to fourth in this year’s shootout, there’s no denying just how balanced and overall impressive the package is. What ruled the class for four straight years doesn’t become junk the moment another bike takes its crown. In fact, the YZ250F is still widely praised by our test riders, even snagging a few first-place votes. The biggest reason? Its suspension package is nothing short of amazing; still a favorite amongst a wide range of riders.
Said to the best front end in the business, the KYB Speed Sensitive System (SSS) spring front fork is what each of our testers wanted to talk about. “It’s the best feeling fork, period,” said one rider. To which Metcalfe added, “It’s simply the best out of the field. The balance is perfect right out of the box and it works well everywhere.”
That overall balance Metcalfe refers to is probably the most impressive aspect; the top of the fork’s stroke is extremely plush, enabling you to glide over small bumps instead of chattering off of them, while the rest of the travel offers plenty of support to handle any big hits.
The Yamaha holds its own in the corners, even if the Bridgestone M403 and M404 tires don’t offer the best feel and traction. It pushes wide as soon as the throttle is opened, but feels very planted at corner entry. Chalk the former complaint up to a combination of the fork extending too soon and rear squatting too much under acceleration; either way, through a little time spent at the clickers, you can find a setting that helps overcome some of these weak points.
GEARSET: Leatt GPX 4.5
HELMET: Shoei VFX-EVO
GOGGLES: Von Zipper Sizzle MX
BOOTS: Sidi Crossfire 3 SR
Our test riders were also fans of the YZ’s powerplant, despite agreeing that the Husky and KTM had the best all-around engine packages. The YZ250F offers usable power at any point in the rev range, meaning you don’t have to ride at full tilt to build momentum. The Yamaha comes on strong at the bottom end, revving quickly through the middle of the powerband before hitting its redline. It doesn’t rev out as far as some of the competitors, but finding another bike with a powerband as broad as the Yamaha’s would be next to impossible. And that’s no easy engineering feet.
It’s the small details and nuisances that lost Yamaha the title this year, nearly every test rider agreeing that the YZ is beginning to show its age. The first gripe on the list was the lack of an electric starter, a feature that is seemingly becoming a standard for modern motocross bikes and could pay big dividends in race situations. The additional cost of the GYTR Power Tuner ($298.99) required to make mapping changes doesn’t help the YZ’s case. Tuning the Yamaha’s must be done with the engine shut off, unlike the on-the-fly configuration found on the KTM and Husqvarna. And noise is cool, but does it really need to be that loud, Yamaha? Air intake noise was also a nuisance for some.
While dethroned by the latest and greatest, the YZ250F is still a very capable motorcycle. Like one tester said come test’s end, “It’s the best bike Yamaha could squeeze out of this current package.”
The only all-new bike in this year’s shootout, Honda’s 2018 CRF250R came into the battlefield cloaked in question marks. Its big brother had been heavily updated in 2017, and recently won our 2018 450 motocross shootout, so expectations for the baby Honda built quickly. Would the changes to the CRF be enough to take on the Yamaha and the Austrian duo of the Husqvarna and KTM?
Honda gave its best effort, taking what it learned in the success of the current CRF450R and applying it to the lightweight motocrosser. The 250’s chassis is virtually identical to that of its big brother—apart from different engine mounts—which is known for its confidence-inspiring handling. Honda also outfitted the CRF250R with the same 49mm Showa A-kit Style spring fork as the 450 (yes!) and unveiled an all-new Dual Overhead Cam (DOHC) engine, which utilizes technologies developed in MotoGP. Throw in an electric starter and an adjustable engine map switch on the handlebar, and the new Honda looks class-leading even on paper.
Despite being the heaviest bike in the class, the CRF250R feels nimble and carries its weight well—all 238 pounds. It’s lively and tips into the corner like it’s on rails, with a “put it where you want it” attitude. Some testers found that its suspension need only minor adjusting to find the sweet spot, while others complained that the fork is slightly soft to resist bottoming. Bringing the CRF to a halt was no issue either, with more than one tester complementing the Honda’s braking components for offering both impressive power and feel through the lever.
Horsepower has become an increasingly important factor in the 250 class, but where the power is located is just as important as how much of it there is. The Honda likes to be ridden high in the powerband, offering a strong pull and plenty of over rev for the wide-open sections. Its low-end performance comes up short in comparison to the Austrians, this latest-generation engine feeling considerably weaker and having almost zero initial grunt at lower rpm. Despite the mediocre low-end performance, every tester agreed that the Honda’s engine was vastly improved over its predecessor’s, some testers going as far as saying it’s a “night and day difference” and “transforms the bike.”
Unfortunately for Big Red, the same testers did have their fair share of concerns, which played a part in the CRF’s third-place ranking. The unique cylinder head design with dual exhaust ports and twin pipes offers a trick look, but our group was slightly put off by what this could mean for the price of an aftermarket exhaust (read: it’s going to be pricey!). Fed up with the complicated flashing system for the selectable engine mapping, the testers also shied away from Honda’s tuning system, ultimately wishing for an on-the-fly, easily-identifiable system like what Husqvarna and KTM offer.
In the end, Honda has made an impressive push in the small-bore category, and the result is an incredibly competitive machine. It may have its quirks, but there’s no doubt that the CRF250R will come back stronger next year, like the 2018 CRF450R did (it didn’t immediately win shootouts after its recent rebuild either). A couple fixes, and the 2019 250cc shootout champion might just be oozing red.
KTM 250 SX-F
After being named the runner-up in 2017, KTM had a year to go back to the drawing board, make the changes needed improve the performance of its 250 SX-F, and come back ready for battle. The Austrian company painted the frame orange, gave the lightweight SX-F bold-new graphics, and revised the internal damping settings of the WP AER 48 front fork. The result? Yet another second-place trophy; finishing just behind its cousin, the Husqvarna FC250.
Second place or not, the changes to the front end proved beneficial, according to our test riders. Last year’s fork was known to have a harsh feel at the top of the suspension’s stroke, while not being stiff enough to support the bike on hard landings, often blowing through the travel. The changes to the 2018 model fix the issue well enough to make riders happy with the box-stock settings. At 232 pounds, the KTM is the lightest bike of this year’s bunch (even one pound lighter than the Husky), which gives it a lively feel on the racetrack, while requiring the least amount of physical exertion to ride. Our bodies thank you, KTM.
The 250 SX-F puts power down in an impressive manner, starting with an aggressive initial response at low rpm. From there, the bike makes its way quickly through the revs, passing through the midrange and almost never leveling off, no matter how high the revs get. This proved impressive to the faster, more aggressive test riders, with one commenting, “It revs to the moon! I had a hard time finding where the power actually signed off, because the straightaway would end before it would even reach that point. Its top-end speed leaves all the others in its dust, even the Honda.”
It’s important to note that less-experienced novice riders actually found the Kawasaki and Yamaha engines to better fit their skillset. The KTM (and Husqvarna) requires a high-level of momentum to keep the engine in its optimum rpm range, while other platforms allow for a more point-and-shoot riding style that novices may be comfortable with. Not to discredit either bike; the top-end power on the Austrian machines is a great (and thrilling) tool for any rider, no matter the skill level.
GEARSET: Fly Racewear Lite Hydrogen
HELMET: M2R X4.5
BOOTS: Sidi Crossfire SR 3
Both Austrian machines have a long list of features that help separate them from the rest of the class. Love it or hate it, the traction control system is unique, and proved beneficial even on the small-bore motorcycles, especially in off–camber turns and hard-pack surfaces. The system assists the rider by keeping the front and rear wheel tracking straight, which helps improve forward momentum. Equally beneficial, the map settings provide distinct differences in engine performance, while being extremely easy to toggle through and change while riding.
Rounding out the KTM’s positive notes is its hydraulic clutch and top-shelf Brembo braking components. The clutch offers great feel and consistency once becoming familiar with its lever action. Similarly, the brakes provide ample amounts of feel through the lever under hard deceleration, with enough stopping power to bring the KTM to a halt as fast as you need.
In the end, of course, there was one bike that was just a touch better.
It was only one year ago that the Husqvarna FC250 took a close second place (in a tie with the KTM) in the small-bore shootout, finishing just behind the Yamaha YZ250F. And while Husqvarna didn’t exactly go back to the drawing board, they did update the platform via a brand-new set of Magura brake calipers, a lithium-ion lightweight battery, and a new set of graphics and seat cover. It’s not much, sure, but it was enough to win over the favor of our testers.
Ergonomics are the biggest difference between the Husqvarna and KTM, nearly every test rider opting for the Husqvarna’s setup, which is highlighted by a seat that’s better in terms of the pocket it creates for the rider. By comparison, the KTM’s is flatter. The Husky’s “pocket,” in combination with the FC250’s narrower radiator shrouds, allows the rider to better lock themselves into the motorcycle throughout the corners, boosting confidence.
Another key factor in placing the Husky above the KTM was a slight difference in power delivery. Most testers noticed a smoother initial throttle response on the Husqvarna, chalking the difference up to the varying air box designs. Key to a more linear power delivery, this setup ultimately allowed for the riders to accelerate off the corner faster, without upsetting the balance of the chassis. The rest of the rev range was identical, meaning that the Husky has the same quick-revving nature as the KTM, a point we’ve grown so fond of.
The final deciding factor between KTM and Husqvarna was a more confidence-inspiring feel from the FC250’s WP AER 48 front fork, with Metcalfe adding that he was able to find a comfortable setting more easily on the Husky. It might weigh a pound heavier than the KTM, but on track that small difference goes unnoticed. And like the KTM, the Husqvarna feels very lively under the rider, while offering impressive stability at high speed.
GEARSET: Thor Pulse Level
GOGGLES: Thor Sniper
BOOTS: Alpinestars LE Tomac Tech 10
CHEST PROTECTOR: Thor
The rest of the FC250 is identical to that of the KTM, meaning that it comes equipped with all the same gizmos and gadgets that we can’t help but love. Traction control and selectable mapping modes are standard equipment, and are complemented by an on-the-fly adjustable format that is easily understandable. Throw in the launch control and electric starter, and bam, there you have it; the most electronically advanced bikes of the bunch.
When all is said and done, the 2018 Husqvarna is the most complete package in this year’s 250F shootout. Straight out of the box, it’s a lethal weapon, with very little adjustment required before it’s ready to line up at the starting gate. Sure, at $8799, the FC250 is the most expensive motorcycle in the 250 class (even $100 more than the KTM), but refinement doesn’t come cheap, and in the end it was those final touches that had our testers willing to cough up the extra cash. It was all compliments and hardly any complaints for the FC250. That, and flat-out speed.
Battle, over. CN