We have a top-to-bottom assessment of the 2020 250cc four-stroke motocross field in our 2020 250cc Four-Stroke Motocross Shootout.
Photography by Kit Palmer
With our 450cc shootout done and dusted, it was time to turn our attention to the quarter-liter showdown, the battle of the 2020 250cc four-stroke motocrossers. To no one’s surprise, the competition remains incredibly tight across the field of six players, making it no easy task to sort out the field among the 2020 Yamaha YZ250F, KTM 250 SX-F, Husqvarna FC 250, Kawasaki KX250, Suzuki RM-Z250 and Honda CRF250R. Further complicating our decision-making process were high winds, fires and power outages that plagued the Southern California fall season. But even through dust storms, gusting wind and trashcans tumbling across parking lots, we ventured from track to track, putting in the man (and woman!) hours on the 2020 machines with a varied field of test riders from novice to pro level, ranging in age from “Shouldn’t you be in school right now?” to “Uuugh… where’s the Icy Hot?”
While our 450 Shootout was an exercise in splitting hairs to determine a winner, our 2020 250F Shootout produced a rather clear victor. Beyond that, the waters grew murkier and our task of rating our way through the field became harder. Many of the strengths and complaints of each model showed consistencies, but exactly where they stood in the ranking as overall packages was far more open to interpretation.
But in the end, it’s always open to interpretation, right? That’s exactly why we’ve broken it all down in terms of motor, suspension, handling, ergonomics and power-tuning options for each bike, so you can make your own educated decision. Also be sure to check out links to contingency—something that could definitely play a factor in your choice to buy a bike, even for a casual competitor!
The Contenders in the 2020 250cc Four-Stroke Motocross Shootout
2020 Honda CRF250R
Not a lot went untouched on the Honda CRF250R for the 2020 model year. An all-new frame and swingarm headline the chassis changes while new intake and exhaust valves, a new intake cam and new head pipes (yes, plural—there are two) fine tune the power output. Honda also pointed out stronger clutch springs, a new brake-pad material and a lower-mounted battery box for improved CG. After finishing fourth in last year’s shootout, Big Red is eager to regain some ground in the 250 division; will these changes get it there?
2020 Husqvarna FC 250
After a substantial number of updates in 2019, Husqvarna calls 2020 a “refinement year” for the FC 250. Like its orange cousin, the Husky receives suspension valving updates in the WP Xact air fork and WP Xact shock, but in an effort to differentiate the Austrian machines, the Husqvarna’s valving leans to the softer side while the KTM trends more aggressive. The Husky also receives the option of a vented airbox cover, meaning you no longer have to take a Makita to the plastics to get more air flowing to the engine.
Team Green came out swinging in 2020 with a high-revving makeover for the KX250. A bigger bore and shorter stroke along with a new finger-follower valvetrain aimed at putting more power on the top end. All-over changes to the intake, throttle body and exhaust system further tune the power. Chassis-wise, the KX250 ditched the Showa SFF fork and went back to the traditional KYB 48mm coil-spring fork along with a new KYB shock and updated linkage. A revised frame, new bodywork and beefier brakes complete changes to the latest KX250.
2020 KTM 250 SX-F
The KTM 250 SX-F comes into our 2020 shootout as the defending champion, having topped the field last year with its lightweight performance and top-level components, most of which remain unchanged. The KTM gets only light revisions, including revised valving and a new piston in the WP AER 48 fork aimed at more plush action in the initial stroke. Updated shock settings complement the revised fork, and, like the 450, the 250 SX-F now comes with two airbox covers, one vented and one sealed so you can open up the airflow for improved power.
2020 Suzuki RM-Z250
After a major overhaul in 2019, which saw the RM-Z250 receive a new cylinder head and dual injectors along with new frame and swingarm to go with updated KYB suspension, the Suzuki made big improvements in terms of overall performance. After an exhaustive revision, the Suzuki crew opted to ride into 2020 without any changes. The Suzuki holds strong among the best-handling bikes in the field, and has a lot to offer in terms of performance, but it is one of the only bikes in the shootout to not offer electric start.
Yamaha’s YZ250F comes into 2020 wholly unchanged from the 2019 model that was a top contender in our shootout last year (Read the Cycle News 2019 250cc Motocross Shootout HERE). It was a three-way fight for the win in 2019, a fight that the Yamaha just barely lost out on, collecting third. The carryover 2020 is still a fantastic package with its class-leading suspension, electric start, a powerful motor and onboard Wi-Fi with the free Power Tuner app. While the YZ hasn’t changed, its primary competitors have—will that yield different results this time around?
Sixth Place 2020 250cc Four-Stroke Motocross Shootout: 2020 Suzuki RM-Z250
It’s amazing to think that we’re already in the first model year of a whole new decade of motocross bikes. Ten years ago, we were asking ourselves “do we call them ’O-tens?’ Or are they just ’tens?’” And now here we are in the first model year of the roaring 20s looking back at a decade of innovation. Some things have changed quite drastically—look at the Husqvarna for example, which wasn’t even on the playing field back then. The Yamaha is another example of a radical reinvention with its rearward cylinder and distinct bodywork. Electric start, traction control, push-button map switches, even onboard WiFi, are now found on 250cc production motocross bikes.
Yet through the ups and downs of an ever-evolving field, some things have remained consistent. Not unchanged per se, just consistent. Amid a blur of evolution, the Suzuki has remained in clear focus as to what it promises to deliver: a well-balanced chassis, razor-sharp handling and crisp power with spot-on fuel injection. That’s what you got with the 2010 RM-Z250 and it’s what you still get today. Throughout its revisions over the past 10 years, it has been praised for these same characteristics, and (aside from some questionable deviations in the fork design) the RM-Z250 hasn’t seen any radical updates. That “Suzuki feeling” hasn’t changed much.
Is that such a bad thing? If you’re like that familiar face in the crowd, then no. But if you’re trying to win shootouts, yes.
In this ultra-competitive field, if you don’t innovate, refine and repeat, you’re quickly left behind. Suzuki took a solid step forward last year, but not enough of these steps have taken place to keep up with the rest of the field. That’s what lands the RM-Z250 in sixth place.
With our complaints out of the way, we can now talk about what the Suzuki does well. Handling, of course, tops the RM-Z’s strengths. “Tight is the word to describe the Suzuki. It’s awesome in jumps and sharp turns,” one tester said. Another tester commented, “Cornering is the Suzuki’s strong point. It’s super easy to rail ruts.” Our testers agreed it felt light, skinny and “easy to ride” with comfortable ergonomics, particularly for riders in the 5’8” to 5’10” range.
On the suspension side, we found the Suzuki to be a bit stiff, particularly in the front. Even for our advanced riders, the 48mm KYB coil-spring fork has a harsh feeling that’s difficult to tune out. It seems to behave better the harder you push it but overall compliance could likely be improved with some softer valving.
Power on the Suzuki is quick-revving and crisp with a good pull from the mid- to top-end. The new cylinder head and dual injectors the RM-Z received in 2019 have elevated the Suzuki’s muscle to a very respectable level, and while it’s not the most powerful in the shootout, we’d call it on par with the field. Of the three fueling couplers, just about everyone preferred the aggressive choice (not many among us felt any of the 250s had too much power). Coupled with a slick-shifting five-speed transmission, the RM-Z is a blast to ride, darting between corners and tackling ruts with ease. Our more aggressive riders would like a bit more power off the bottom and more snap from the somewhat linear powerband. But for novice and vet riders, the Suzuki’s mill was no cause for complaint.
On the scale, the ’Zook checks in at 238 pounds, the heaviest in the field. It’s only one pound heavier than the Yamaha and the Honda, but it shouldn’t be heavier at all considering both those bikes have electric start.
While it lands at the back of our shootout in sixth place, there is a lot of potential here. If you can live without electric start, the Suzuki has everything you need to be competitive, including a contingency program that is worth looking at.
Fifth Place 2020 250cc Four-Stroke Motocross Shootout: 2020 Honda CRF250R
The Honda is a bike with a lot to offer with electric start, selectable-map switch, Showa A-Kit-style coil-spring fork among its prime offerings. After dropping a place to fourth in last year’s shootout, Honda was looking to regain some ground in the 250cc four-stroke division. Among a number of all-over changes, Big Red focused on improving low-end power and made revisions to the chassis of the 2020 CRF250R, and while some enjoyed the high-revving power and flickable nature of the Honda, the results of their latest revisions proved to be somewhat polarizing on our test riders. In our overall scoring, the Honda received one number-one pick, but the rest of our testers ranked it in the bottom half of the field, leaving it to collect fifth in our shootout.
Handling and suspension performance were the shining points of the Honda. The A-Kit-style 49mm Showa SPG fork provides a planted feel and smooth performance everywhere, from braking bumps to big hits. Most found it a little soft in its stock form, but adding a few clicks of compression provided great holdup and helped get rid of headshake at speed, which was an issue for some riders.
The Honda proved to be very flickable by nature, able to slice through corners like a scalpel, handling everything from sandy turns to rutted hard-pack with effortless precision. Ergonomics also play a role in the Honda’s handling prowess. The CRF is very easy to move around on with a comfortable cockpit that nearly all our testers mentioned. “The Honda was the most comfortable bike in the lineup,” said one intermediate tester. “The shrouds being thin allowed you to get your leg out easily.”
The power department is where the CRF continues to struggle. Despite Honda’s efforts to build better bottom-end muscle on the 2020, the CRF still hides most of its ponies on the top-end. Unless you’re skilled enough to ride it up there, it feels like it lacks power against the rest of the field.
“The power was not as strong as the other 250Fs,” our vet expert tester said. “The smooth power delivery makes it easier to ride, but I wish the bike could have more pull, more punch.” Still, the improvement over the 2019 is evident, as another tester described. “Bottom-end power was the most noticeable change on the motor. It bites fast, slows on mid and hits good on top. Holding each gear a little longer works well.”
The handlebar-mounted map select button is a nice touch on the Honda, even if the flashing-light design is lacking in refinement. Just about all our testers preferred the aggressive first map on the Honda, which seemed to provide the most punch. But even there, the Honda lacks the roll-on power of its competitors.
You might be able to liven up the power on the Honda with aftermarket exhaust, but plan to shell out twice as much for the Honda’s dual-exhaust. That’s not a 1-into-2 design—that’s two separate full systems running down each side of the bike. (Cha-ching.)
But the good news is you might not feel the need to replace much else on the CRF, as fit and finish are top notch. With features like the titanium fuel tank, a tapered aluminum Renthal Fatbar, powerful brakes and even its revised footpegs, the Honda is a well-finished machine.
While it feels light on the track, the CRF250R is on the heavier side of the spectrum on our scale, checking in at 237 pounds, fueled up, ready to ride. But on the price-tag side, it remains one of the lightest. Despite the number of upgrades made to the 2020, Honda managed to keep the price point steady at $7999.
Fourth Place 2020 250cc Four-Stroke Motocross Shootout: 2020 Kawasaki KX250
The 2020 model year brought about some big changes at Kawasaki. After resting on its laurels for the 2019 model year, Team Green came out with an all-new KX250 for 2020. Kawasaki left hardly anything untouched from the frame, suspension, motor, brakes, bodywork and everything in between. The Kawi crew was most intently focused on three things: power, power and power.
That is, indeed, the wow factor on the Kawasaki. From the midrange through the top, it pulls hard with an exciting punch of power. “Hands down, this bike has the best motor,” one vet expert tester said. “This bike rode like a KTM 350.” The mid-to-top torque range is very robust, but is also a tradeoff, coming at the expense of low-end and roll-on power. And while the Kawasaki had its fans, not everyone agreed it was the best power of the bunch—the Yamaha and Husqvarna also receiving nods in the category.
The KX250 comes equipped with three plug-and-play fueling couplers, here again, the most aggressive was the choice of just about all our riders. Even for our novice tester, the aggressive coupler was preferable due to the better roll-on power it provided. Whether you’re revving it or lugging it, riders across the spectrum from novice to pro thought the Kawi could benefit from improved bottom-end response in order to get out of corners easier.
Keep it revving and carry your momentum and the Kawasaki will take you for an exciting ride. Of course, keeping it “on the pipe” involves a bit of clutch abuse, and our pro tester reported a bit of clutch fade after a lively session with the KX.
The chassis also saw some major changes for 2020 with an updated frame and a new KYB shock. Most notably, Kawasaki dropped the Showa SSF fork for the KYB 48mm coil-spring fork which is a very welcome change to the KX.
Suspension action received favorable marks from the majority of testers. “The forks were so smooth; it felt like riding on clouds,” one intermediate tester said. “It’s super plush and has good comfort all over, feeling firm all the way through the stroke,” another said. Compared to the Yamaha’s famously plush KYB SSS fork, the Kawasaki has a firmer, more positive feel, and for many of our testers the stock setup was right on the money. But the Kawi’s suspenders don’t cover quite the span of different weights and abilities that the Yamaha suspension caters to. And of course, the Austrian duo can also boast more versatility in this department with their air-spring adjustability. Still, the Kawasaki’s suspension is a step forward for the KX.
In the handling department, we found the KX plenty compliant through the turns with a nice planted feel, particularly in rutted corners, we’d stop short at naming it the best in class. Still, it had its share of fans, as one of our pro testers raved, “This bike loves ruts. I found myself searching for every inside line. The flat seat allowed me to slide up toward the tank very easily.”
So why isn’t the Kawi ranked higher than fourth? Well, two reasons. First, the top-three are just that good, hardly giving up anything to the Kawi in the areas it performs so well. Second, the KX still does not have that little magic e-button we long to see on the handlebar. We could also dwell on minor complaints in fit and finish, such as the thin levers and the outdated 7/8” handlebar. How about stepping up to the tapered aluminum, Kawi?
The lack of an electric start does have its pluses, however—it has allowed Kawasaki to keep both the weight and the price down on the KX250. It’s the lightest of the Japanese bikes (though it still gives up a few pounds to the Austrians) and it also has the smallest MSRP at $7799.
Third Place 2020 250cc Four-Stroke Motocross Shootout: 2020 KTM 250 SX-F
We are now into the podium finishers of our 250cc four-stroke motocross shootout—enter the Austrians. The Husqvarna managed to edge out its orange counterpart this time, with the KTM landing third in the overall ranks, if only by a single point.
The KTM 250 SX-F came into the shootout as the defending champion, and for 2020 the SX-F received only a few light changes—a new piston and revised valving in the WP XACT air fork and a vented airbox cover for improved air intake.
As with the similar revisions made to its bigger 450 sibling, the changes made to the fork prompted some hot and cold responses from test riders with some still feeling a harshness in the initial action, and even a lack of overall balance. As one tester put it, “the fork and shock feel like they don’t go together. I could never get that feeling of being stable.”
Yet others praised the KTM suspension, commenting it felt “near perfect” with supple action through whoops and braking bumps yet never bottoming out. It seems the busier the WP fork is, the better it performs. Late in the day on a rough track, the KTM slices through the chop and delivers a smooth ride. On flat landings or downhill jumps, the subtle harshness is still apparent, and while we wouldn’t go as far as calling it a performance limitation, it is enough to hold it back in the shootout.
“The forks have improved, once again, but still lack the confidence that the spring forks give on the Yamaha,” our pro tester said.
Still, there is plenty to rave about on the KTM. The broad power delivery, excellent handling and incredible light weight are among its shining points.
The KTM is the lightest bike in its class, weighing in at a svelte 233 pounds (with fuel). The light weight combined with the skinny profile of the frame make the KTM exceptionally agile and easy to move around on.
The KTM’s 249cc powerplant churns out a broad swath of torque in a controlled manner, resulting in very a user-friendly powerband that appeals to everyone from pros to novice riders. “It never felt like it was ripping my hands off, but it was powerful enough to pull me out of the corners,” said an intermediate tester. The broad midrange in particular received a lot of praise from testers. Unlike the Kawasaki that will fall off the pace if it’s not in its sweet spot, the KTM will keep pulling just about everywhere, building from a meaty midrange to a stunning top end, minding its manners all the way through. “It has very broad power that thrives up top,” our pro tester commented. “I found myself not having to shift this bike as much.”
And if you feel the power isn’t quite great enough, there are multiple ways to tailor the output to your preference between two engine maps, two traction control options (plus off) and even the airbox side cover (sealed or vented).
The Brembo hydraulic clutch is another nice complement to the power, offering smooth, consistent modulation with a light pull at the lever. Braking power is also strong and consistent, being named the best in class. The KTM can boast a lot of “best in class” features as its fit and finish are unmatched (except, of course, by its Husqvarna cousin) with aftermarket-level components right down to the ODI grips.
These premium features come with a price tag to match. At $9099, the KTM is second only to the Husky when it comes to the price tag. But if you’re looking for top-to-bottom quality, you better be ready to shell out a little extra for it.
Second Place 2020 250cc Four-Stroke Motocross Shootout: 2020 Husqvarna FC 250
The Husqvarna FC 250 received the same 2020 treatment as the other half of the Austrian duo, receiving the same new piston and revised damping on the WP XACT fork, but moving in a different direction from the KTM and going softer rather than firmer on the overall setting. This seems to have made the difference between the two as the Husky barely edged out the KTM for the runner-up spot in our shootout.
The softer, more compliant nature of the FC’s valving won over most of our testers. The plush valving didn’t fall short for any of our aggressive riders as the air-spring versatility is able to suit any number of different weights and ability levels. That’s what the Husqvarna does so well—accommodate a wide span of riders. That, of course, is an advantage in shootouts.
The WP suspension, and supple fork action in particular, handle the small bumps and chop exceptionally well. The flex from the steel frame also goes a long way in complementing the suspension action for a comfortable and well-balanced ride. The suspension is not without its critics, however, and some riders didn’t get along as well with the light front-wheel feel of the WP XACT air fork. “I never felt like the front end was grounded,” one tester said. Another commented that the front wheel lacked bite, and that he preferred the more planted feel of the Honda and the Yamaha.
“Comfortable” was the word used most when it came to the FC 250. When it comes to fit, ride comfort and suspension action, the Husky does it all exceptionally well, with even the ProTaper bar doing its part to make things a little smoother on the rider’s hands. (The seat, however, could use a little tenderizing.) A vet expert tester commented, “It wins for me because of comfort. No dealing with the harshness of the other bikes.” A novice tester also raved about the comfort of the Husky, which was especially noticeable at the end of a long day. “It sure was forgiving when I was tired and the track was choppy and dry. We got the suspension working pretty well, and with some help from the traction control, it was much easier to keep pushing.”
Like the KTM, the motor of the Husky is another major standout feature. Power comes on in a very smooth fashion, building to a broad midrange and an incredible top end. It doesn’t have the punchy, pipey feel of the Kawasaki, but churns out power everywhere with a strong pull from bottom to top. Testers named it the longest power range of the bunch, remarking that they were shifting less, and that the Husky “loves to be revved.”
The engine comes with two ready-made maps, selectable by a handlebar switchblock that puts the Honda’s blinking light to shame. The neat cluster on the left bar has a clear “1” and “2” along with “Map” and “TC” for a concise display. It is easy to switch maps on the fly (not sure how much demand there is for that ability, but anyway, there you have it) and you can also take your pick from traction-control options: TC1, TC2, and off. Find your right combination and get the most out of the FC’s incredible power.
Our most aggressive testers also loved the Magura clutch for its strong, consistent action and an easy pull at the lever. The powerful and progressive Brembo brakes were also praised by riders. The hydraulic controls are primo, as are just about all aspects of the Husqvarna. As the priciest bike of the bunch, we’d expect nothing less. The FC 250 checks in at $9199, a stark contrast to the Kawasaki’s $7799 price tag. But let’s break down everything you’re getting here: electric start, handlebar-map switch and traction-control options, hydraulic clutch, ProTaper handlebar, ODI grips, two airbox-cover options, Brembo brakes, the list goes on. There’s lots to love, and lots to shell out for. But if you want a ready-made racebike and you find favor with the WP XACT air fork, then here’s your huckleberry.
First Place 2020 250cc Four-Stroke Motocross Shootout: 2020 Yamaha YZ250F
It’s not the first time the Yamaha YZ250F has topped our 250cc shootout, but this might be the first time a carryover model has risen in the ranks to win a comparison. No, the Yamaha hasn’t changed. And yes, it is the winner of our 2020 250cc four-stroke motocross shootout.
Last year it came down to a hair-splitting decision between the Yamaha, the Husqvarna and the KTM. This year, it stands clear of the crowd, earning half of the number-one picks from our test pool. How did this happen? Simply put, Yamaha left well enough alone. Just like the 2019, the 2020 YZ250F is a beautiful machine with unmatched suspension, a ripping motor and technological features that no other bike in its field can claim (onboard WiFi and a free Power Tuner smartphone app). It all comes together in a package that shines in every performance category.
Starting with the motor, the YZ has gobs of power right from the first crack of the throttle. While other bikes in the class have incredible mid-to-top muscle, the YZ has it where others are lacking—off the bottom. That’s where it hits hard with plenty of roll-on power that makes the Yamaha incredibly easy and fun to ride for a wide range of riders. “The bottom end is essentially what makes this motorcycle roar,” said one expert tester. “It pulls out of deep sand, mud and really anything you throw at it.”
On the top end, it is rivaled by the Husky, KTM and Kawasaki. However, its usability and its tunability are big plusses for Yamaha. A handlebar-mounted button allows you to switch between two engine maps on the fly, and those maps are selectable and further tunable on the Power Tuner app. If you want to shift the power curve in any direction, it’s nice to simply pick up your smartphone before picking up your wallet. With the YZ, you can start with the free app before deciding if you need an exhaust system or engine work.
One of our biggest complaints with the YZ, however is the sound. The Yamaha’s beast of a motor is irritatingly loud, and left us wishing the fancy Power Tuner app also came with volume control.
As for suspension, it’s like we stated before—if the 250 shootout was left to suspension performance alone, the Yamaha would win hands down. The KYB SSS fork is simply unmatched in its ability to slice through the rough chop with supple ease. Its plushness doesn’t give anything away on the bigger hits, either. And through all the different tracks and different riders, we found ourselves making minimal changes to the clickers. Kudos to Yamaha for sticking with the KYB speed-sensitive coil-spring fork for so many years and never venturing into the air-spring, single-side, separate-function crazes, from which many of the manufacturers are now making their way back. Yamaha chose to innovate in other areas, and not change what was clearly working.
The YZ is still a unique design in the field, with its signature reverse cylinder, forward airbox and wrap-around exhaust. The chassis results in some nonconventional bodywork, and while this is nothing new for Yamaha, ergonomics is still an area that can hold the YZ back for some.
“For me, this is the outsider,” one tester commented. “I’m not loving the design; from the front fender to the rear fender the YZ makes me feel out of place.”
Irregular, perhaps, but the geometry of the Yamaha is doing plenty right. Handling is nothing short of excellent, rounding out a stellar performance package for the YZ250F.
Fit and finish are among the best: powerful brakes and a large 270mm front disc handle stopping power, a tapered aluminum bar and extra-wide footpegs add comfort to the cockpit (the stock grips could be better) and details like the blue rims, engine plugs and gold chain finish off this great package.CN