We compare the top 250-class machines from Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Husqvarna, Yamaha and the all-new GasGas MC 250F. Will a new 250F sheriff take over?
By Ryan Nitzen | Photography by Kit Palmer
Like an old-school western standoff, a winner in the 250cc motocross class is decided when the dust settles, and one bike stands above the rest. Manufacturers keep a close eye on their competition with hands at the ready, eager to draw and pull the trigger without hesitation. Each year the competition is chock-full with a cast of unique characters—all fierce and hungry for their chance as the new leader in town. While the whistling sounds of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly played in the background, we placed six machines head-to-head in our own small-bore standoff conducted at Cahuilla Creek MX and Glen Helen Raceway.
Over the past few years, an obvious blue victor has leveled the competition and retained the sheriff badge in the town of 250F motocrossers. This year, however, a crew of bandits are keen on closing the gap and overthrowing the current regime. They’ve added ammunition with updates in the suspension, engine and tech departments. An all-new brand even has entered the fight for 250-class supremacy. We enlisted six sharp-shooting testers ready to mount these gasoline-burning steeds and ride off into the sunset. Time to lock and load, the 2021 Cycle News 250 Motocross Shootout is here.
It should be noted that Suzuki did not come to the fight this year. As with our 450cc shootout, Suzuki did not have product for us to use and could not lock in a date when a ’21 RM-Z250 would become available to us, so we went on with the show Suzuki-less. Last year, the excellent-handling RM-Z250 brought up the rear in our 2020 250F shootout, held back by harsh forks, too much weight and no push-button starting. The bike received no changes for ’21. In fact, the RM-Z250 hasn’t seen any changes since getting a significant update in 2019. The ’21 RM-Z250 carries the same $7899 price tag as it did in 2020, making it the least expensive 250F in this group. It’s also the heaviest at 238 pounds (wet) and is now the only one that relies on manual starting.
2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout | The Steeds
GasGas MC 250F ($8499)
Weight (wet): 231 lbs.
The GasGas MC 250F is the newest and lightest addition to the 250cc motocross class. This all-new bike can be considered a blend of the KTM and Husqvarna, as it features many favored characteristics from both camps. Aside from the all-red frame and plastics, the GasGas stands out with one-piece cast triple clamps (compared to a two-piece billet design), aluminum Neken handlebars, silver wheels and Maxxis Maxxcross Tires. These red rides also come standard with an aluminum subframe (same as the KTM), the same swingarm as the Husqvarna, and the newly updated WP Xact suspension components.
Honda CRF250R ($7999)
Weight (wet): 237 lbs.
The 2021 Honda CRF250R enters this gunfight looking eerily similar to the 2020 model. In fact, it is exactly the same bike! While Honda spent most of its time doing a ground-up revision on its 450, the 250 was left with the crumbs as far as R&D. Dual-exhaust systems, a three-mode map switch, electric start and Showa suspension highlight the capabilities of the original red ride. This is the bike that took Chase Sexton to a 250 East Supercross Championship; can it be the victor in this year’s shootout?
Husqvarna FC 250 ($9399)
Weight (wet): 233 lbs.
This white stallion has victory on its mind after being the runner-up in the 2020 CN 250F MX Shootout. Similar to its orange and red relatives, the FC 250 has a high-strung powerplant, steel frame, Brembo brakes and WP Xact suspension components. The white bike does sit 10mm lower than the others, as the forks and shock are indeed shorter for a lowered center of gravity. The Husqvarna is the most expensive bike in the lineup but comes chock-full of premium features like a carbon-fiber subframe, map switch with traction control and a Magura hydraulic clutch.
Kawasaki KX250 ($8299)
Weight (wet): 236 lbs.
This green machine gets an entirely new package for 2021. Based on the shootout-winning KX450, the smaller 250 receives a new frame, swingarm and body work; an updated motor package; a hydraulic clutch; and an electric starter. These refreshing updates unfortunately tacked on an extra four pounds to the KX’s overall weight. No fear from Team Green, however, as they claim their recruit has increased bottom-end power and a redline of 14,500 rpm. The KX250, once again, retains the “ergo-fit” controls and coupler map system with three options: standard (green), smooth (black) and aggressive (white).
KTM 250 SX-F ($9299)
Weight (wet): 233 lbs.
The KTM 250 SX-F has been a shootout contender for the past few years and returns with its sights set on the top spot. As the second-lightest bike of the bunch, the SX-F comes armed with a high-revving engine, a steel frame, WP Xact air fork and rear shock, as well as Brembo brakes and a Brembo hydraulic clutch combination. The KTM also features a handlebar-mounted map switch with two unique ECU settings and the option for traction control. A narrow rider cockpit, refined technology and a fast powerplant are key attributes for the Orange Brigade’s arsenal.
Yamaha YZ250F ($8299)
Weight (wet): 237 lbs.
Last year’s shootout winner is back with a host of new changes aimed at improving overall power and precision from the engine and chassis. A new cylinder head, a wider intake port, revised frame thicknesses, new front brake caliper and updated suspension settings complete the blue bike for ’21. In short, it received the same changes as the YZ450F just a short year prior. The smaller of the YZF’s also comes equipped with Yamaha’s proprietary Power Tuner App. The blue crew has abandoned the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality and is ready to fire first in this year’s shootout.
VIDEO | Cycle News 2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout
2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout | 6th Place
And then there was one. Each year the 250 class is a breeding ground for technological advancements and mechanical progression. So without any updates for the new year, it’s no surprise that the Honda CRF250R finds itself trailing the pack for 2021. The original red ride did in fact get some small changes in 2020, but the only difference between this year’s bike and last is the frame sticker that says 2021.
On the track, the Honda is not exactly what we’d call a back-of-the-pack-kind-of-bike. It does everything as expected, just nothing that is overly exciting. Compared to the others, the engine seems down on overall power, sometimes stifled, if you will. It has a lackluster bottom end and likes to be revved high like a two-stroke. Our testers critiqued the motor, saying that it “had a small sweet spot where it would make good power,” but adding that this area was hard to find in order to turn consistent fast laps. The handlebar-mounted selectable map switch is a nice feature from Honda and offers the rider three unique modes on the ECU: standard, smooth and aggressive. All riders noticed that the CRF did come alive a bit more when ridden in the aggressive map three and kept it there for the majority of our test days. The dual headers and exhausts can be a bit deceiving, too. At times the tone of the exhausts makes it sound like you are going faster than you actually are.
The Honda comes suspended by Showa A-Kit-style coil-spring forks. Despite these factory-esque suspension sticks, the fork and chassis pairing gave off a harsh feel shared among the test group. The bike tracks straight in typical Honda fashion, just in a manner that requires more input from the rider. We noticed a type of “dead” feeling that translates from the front wheel, up through the forks, and eventually to those tough stock grips. It also tips the scales at 237 pounds, the heaviest in the fleet (tied with the Yamaha YZ250F). In short, it’s simply not as easy to ride as the other bikes in the class.
The 2021 Honda CRF250R is clearly a championship-proven machine, just ask Chase Sexton and the Geico Honda Team. Sadly, without a factory-tuned engine, and fully coated forks, it falls a tad short in this year’s shootout. Regardless of our say, it is hard to argue with the numbers and with a sticker price that’s $1400 less than a new Husqvarna (and $300 less than both the Yamaha and Kawasaki), the price tag alone might just be enough to coerce your wallet into going red.
2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout | 5th Place
Husqvarna FC 250
With the most expensive price tag of the six bikes, one would expect the Husky to easily walk away from the field. The Magura clutch, Brembo brakes and a composite subframe are factory features that make this bike without a doubt the most “premium” of the bunch. Unfortunately for this model year, the high sticker price and choice componentry don’t exactly translate into high-ranking results.
The power and handling left us with nothing to complain about. After riding the other two Austrian bikes, we had become familiar with the personality of this white stallion. A long and linear power curve can hold gears no matter the terrain and carries smoothly up to the rev-limiter. The FC 250 features a vented air box like its KTM counterpart and never has a shortage of airflow pumping directly into the engine. Once again, our favored map was the more assertive map two. Just like the KTM and the GasGas (which requires the aftermarket switch), map two wakes up the engine and allows it to rev out right in that meaty sweet spot. The much-desired throttle connectivity is another big plus found while onboard the white bike.
The steel chassis offers incredible turning capabilities, and, when paired with the lowered forks and shock, actually allowed our testers to dissect the early morning conditions at both locations. Yes, the stanchions and cartridges are actually 10mm shorter than the ones found on the KTM and GasGas. Dropping the FC 250 directly enhances its ability to stay glued to the ground, especially in flat corners. Our testers routinely noted this bike as one of the best turners on both days. Have a creative line that sweeps from one side of the track to the other? The Husqvarna FC 250 is absolutely the bike to try it out on.
Interestingly enough, the lowered chassis was a double-edged sword. While the lowered suspension helps improve the Husky’s turning prowess, it seems to hinder it a bit everywhere else. While the lowered chassis received accolades during our 450 comparison, it scored mixed reviews during our 250 test. Riders commented that the suspension felt either too harsh or too soft and that it had a tendency to ride too deep in the stroke. Similar to the Kawasaki, the WP components on the Husqvarna simply required much more tuning to get each rider comfortable.
The Husqvarna continues to set precedence with class-leading features. As mentioned, the Brembo brakes, Magura hydraulic clutch, traction control, carbon-fiber subframe and lock-on grips are all race-ready add-ons that come standard on this machine. Amazingly enough, at 233 pounds the FC 250 is only three pounds lighter than the larger-displacement Husqvarna FC 450. We always enjoy swinging a leg over the “Mercedes of motocrossers,” but a small 10mm change made a big difference for our riders this year.
2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout | 4th Place
Team Green arrived with an entirely new bike this year, but the 2021 KX250 finds itself in the same spot as the year before. It actually tied in overall points with the Husqvarna but a second- and third-place vote for the Kawasaki was enough to break that stalemate. The general consensus is the latest version of the Kawi is a much better package than the previous and all our riders were impressed with the improvements.
Time to dive into the details on the green machine.
For starters, let’s talk about the all-new electric start! Finally, the KX gets an electric starter, and a coned-disc hydraulic Nissin clutch; the same as its bigger KX450 counterpart. Both of these add-ons make for a more user-friendly package and bring the KX250 up to par with the rest of the tech-driven field. This bike now also has the same chassis as the KX450, a favorite of our testers during the 450 shootout. This style of trickle-down technology received kudos from our 250 testers as they felt familiar and could easily adapt to the bike regardless of height or weight.
The KX’s new motor also earned accolades from our group. The motor has a much better bottom end than last year’s bike and offers a strong pull before feeding into a pipey top end. It pulls gears longer than before, aiding in easy rideability on the elevated testing courses. When tuning the engine, our band of testers opted for the more aggressive white coupler. They noted that this plug-in gave the bike more excitement in the mid-to-top ranges and offered a racier feel throughout. This was the only bike in our test to have a coupler system and it does require the rider to make a pit stop in order to make ECU adjustments. No, it’s not the end of the world, but we have become a bit spoiled after making on-the-fly adjustments while riding the other brands.
If our test results were finalized after riding a perfectly prepped track, the KX could be a contender for first place. The bike is agile and slices up the track in the primo conditions. Unfortunately, that’s not how shootouts work. As the track faded away, so did our rankings with the KX. At times the suspension felt notchy and required much more tuning than most of the other bikes. The KYB crew was a joy to work with but finding that perfect setting was something all the testers seemed to struggle with. Those who rode it first loved it. Those who rode it last shuffled it back a few positions. After some minor adjustments or just more time with the bike, we’re sure it could be a front runner.
Overall, the Kawi has moved strides in the right direction. An all-new bike proved to be downright great when the conditions are great, too. When it gets rough, so did our riding experience.
2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout | 3rd Place
GasGas MC 250F
Surprise, surprise. The GasGas MC 250F exceeded expectations in its shootout debut and crosses the line in third place. Some may not be shocked to find this newcomer finishing in tow with the KTM as they share many of the same pieces and part numbers. However, there were enough subtle differences to draw a definitive conclusion about the new bike.
Again, before you think of it as just a red KTM, consider the GasGas as another viable option on the dealership floor. While it’s based on the KTM and Husqvarna models, the MC 250F can be classified as a “more user-friendly” option, friendlier to ride and friendlier on the wallet. Like we mentioned above, the cast triple clamps, aluminum bars, silver wheels, Maxxis tires and no map switch provide enough manufacturer savings that, in turn, lowers this bike’s sticker price $900 compared to the KTM.
Okay, so it rides just like a KTM right? Yes and no. The power character of the GasGas is fun and forgiving with less of that all out racey-ness found in the KTM and Husky. In fact, this is what propelled the bike up the ranks for many of our testers. The bike is so easy to ride that our testers could push it to its limit lap after lap. Yes, this is the same powerplant as the KTM, but the blocked off airbox cover and different headpipe on the GasGas governs the delivery in a way that smooths out the overall curve. While the vented airbox cover on the KTM continuously sucks more air and produces more power, the GasGas cruises right along at a more comfortable and controlled pace. By no means are we saying this bike is slow! Rather, you can instigate the engine in a way that was liked by all of our testers. As a note, this red ride was equipped with the $180 map switch add-on for both days of testing and nearly all of our riders opted for the more aggressive map two. This is an accessory that can be added by the dealer and plugs directly into the bike’s ECU, and we feel that this is an option that many will step up for.
And the suspension is just the same as the KTM, too, right? Well, not exactly. The GasGas does come equipped with the newly updated WP Xact components but offers different, softer, settings in the fork and shock. The grueling braking bumps at Glen Helen offered the perfect testing grounds for the fork and this plushness was welcomed right away by our veteran testers. For some of our pro-level riders, it did take some getting used to as most of them prefer a much stiffer base setting. In the end, a few clicks stiffer on the GasGas fork gave these guys exactly what they were looking for while the valving offered some much-needed comfort in the rough stuff. In fact, those who rode this bike late in the day applauded it for its ability to dive bomb the downhills with minimal effort.
In the end, the GasGas was able to land on the podium in its rookie year. A lightweight package paired with an effortless power delivery and supple suspension offered enough differentiation when compared head-to-head with its orange and white cousins. It’s also hard to argue a $900 price difference when the GasGas still comes equipped with class-leading components like Brembo brakes, a Brembo hydraulic clutch, and the entirety of KTM’s R&D department.
2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout | 2nd Place
KTM 250 SX-F
In years past, the Yamaha has walked away as the clear victor in the 250 class. The KTM group isn’t satisfied with defeat and continues to make strides towards the top spot of small-bore supremacy. Case in point, the KTM 250 SX-F has moved up a spot in the overall rankings from a year ago and finds itself as a close runner up in 2021. As a matter of fact, the KTM was the only bike to hinder the YZF’s perfect score as one rider placed the SX-F as his number-one pick. Updates to the power and suspension have all helped catapult the KTM into podium position.
Power on the pumpkin is some of the most usable that we’ve found. This bike loves second and third gear and can pull through the rpm range better than the rest. We found this especially useful on the steep uphills at Glen Helen and the rolling hillsides of Cahuilla Creek. The strong and linear powerband doesn’t possess a harsh hit like the Yamaha. In both maps rather, it comes on strong down low and carries in a smooth fashion all the way up to the red line. Our riders favored the newly refined map two for its livelier nature. In this setting, the rear wheel feels directly connected to the throttle cable. The more you twist the grip the faster you go. Sounds simple, we know, but in reality, it’s hard to perfect that feeling without bits of lag or wheelspin. This streamlined power adds to the overall ease of riding the orange machine. Like the speed limit in a luxury sports car, the KTM’s speed sneaks up, and really shows itself when the rider looks around at the scenery and says, “holy crap I’m going fast!”.
WP’s refinements to their Xact suspension components are another strong suit for the KTM. This has been by far the best air fork we have ridden to date and received praise from all six test riders. In all seriousness, the fork is the most comparable it’s ever been to its coil-spring adversaries. It has great absorption in the initial part of the stroke and maintains its composure under load. This is something we’ve longed for with the air fork as it has felt weirdly unresponsive in the past. Another highlight for the Orange Brigade was the tunability of the front suspension. Rather than riding back to the truck, we were able to make trackside adjustments to the compression and rebound with the plastic clicker knobs. Most of our riders stiffened the fork two to four clicks to find the right amount of hold up and were back on the track in under a minute. Along with the overall weight savings of the air fork design (a claimed three-pound difference), these new updates enabled our riders to push the KTM to its limit.
To reiterate the podium performance of the SX-F we must touch on its overall package. The “Ready To Race” mentality is clear from the moment a rider throws a leg over the bike. Small things like the plush ODI Lock-On Grips ensure rider comfort from the first crack of the throttle. The Brembo brake and clutch combo along with traction control are other premium add-ons that come standard on the SX-F. KTM’s body work is perhaps the skinniest of the group which gives the bike a slim feeling everywhere on the track. It might not have taken home the title this year, but the KTM 250 SX-F is closing the gap and leading the charge towards a 250-class takeover.
2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout | 1st Place
The Blue Crew is back to lay down the law and maintain order in the 250F motocross class. Yamaha’s goal for this year was to refine an already proven package, and in turn the YZ250F just keeps getting better. So good in fact that the blue bike received nearly unanimous number-one votes across the board from our six gun-totin’ testers (as mentioned, all but one put it on the top spot). This means the Yamaha camp earns another term as the 250 Town Sheriff, but only after it sniped its way past a fleet of calculated competitors.
The motor package on the YZ250F is arguably the most exciting in the class. After last year’s shootout win, the engineers updated the powerplant looking for more mid-to-top pulling power and increased peak output. They did just that. With a light feather of the clutch the bike comes alive and pulls like a strongman through rpms. While we enjoyed riding the bike in the upper end of the power curve, it does seem like YZinger missed the mark a bit in terms of bottom-end excitement. The bike clicks through gears in rapid succession, climbing through the curve and encouraging the rider to really rev it out. The majority of our test riders preferred the “light on” map as it provided an aggressive and stronger over-rev character that carried them through the elevation changes at Cahuilla Creek and Glen Helen.
Suspension is what really sets the YZ apart from the field of hungry hopefuls. The Speed Sensitive System (SSS) fork was our favorite on both days of testing, as it continues to offer that sought-after cloud-like feel. The front end eats up chatter bumps with progressive damping that floats over the rough stuff and provides a confidence-inspiring cushion deep in the stroke. Our testers said that they could hold it on longer going into a corner or send it further down a landing without harsh repercussions. Only two of our riders even felt the need to touch the fork clickers. The nimble character of the chassis and suspension give the rider an ability to slice through ruts or rail outsides in an ultra-controlled manner. Balance is the name of the game and the Yamaha gives you just that.
The Yamaha continued to impress in the overall usability department. The wide pegs provide a comfortable rider platform while the handlebars and bar mounts offer four unique positions to best suit rider needs. Lastly, we can’t forget the Power Tuner App. From a consumer point of view, this is a huge selling feature as riders have nearly unlimited options on the power characteristics of their bike. Each time we ride the YZ, we’re reminded just how easy it is to use this smartphone app.
If we had any complaints about the Yamaha, they’d be left in the dust. After spending some time on the YZ250F we’ve realized it doesn’t take long for the rider to get used to the sound of the airbox and exhaust. Undoubtedly, the bike is louder than most of the rest (maybe not the Kawasaki), but in the end it’s something we can overlook due to the smile-inducing ride experience. The blue bike brought its best to this year’s gun fight and heroically rides off into the sunset, once again, as the 250-class champ.
2021 250cc Four-Stroke MX Shootout Summary
In this year’s small-bore standoff, six unique steeds came to strut their stuff, all hoping to claim the 250-class crest. In the end, only one can own that heroic closing scene, riding cinematically into the distance with the others settle in disbelief. This year again, the Yamaha YZ250F fired first and maintained its position at the front of the field. Despite a two-year repeat from the Blue Crew, the rest of the outlaws are clearly hellbent on a victory of their own. The KTM has moved up, the Husqvarna down, GasGas entered the fight and Kawasaki enlisted an entirely new bike. The gap has dwindled, and the pack continues to close in on the leader. And while there’s a fight to be won every weekend, where the checkered flag serves as its own symbolic badge of honor, these results will stand for another year.CN