BATTLE OF THE MIDSIZE THUMPERS
Story By Chris Denison And The Dirt Rider Test Crew
Photo By Drew Ruiz And Connor Gustus
Of all the displacement classes in the motocross realm, the 250cc division is definitely the most competitive when it comes to stock performance. All six major manufacturers in this category have made it their mission to coax as much raw power out of these four-stroke engines as possible, meaning riders have a wonderfully potent range of options to choose from when selecting a new bike. For 2013, the spectrum of brightly colored 250Fs offers something for everybody, with several standouts as well as a few minor disappointments that simply leave room for improvement via the aftermarket. As usual, we put this class through the wringer and learned as much as possible about these bikes so that we could bring you a straight-up assessment of how they compare. Let the games begin!
HOW WE TESTED
Dirt Rider shootouts are based on repeatability, honesty and objectivity, and we made every effort to ensure a fair comparison of the 250Fs. That meant putting 10 hours on each bike before bringing them together for a collective setup and photo day at Racetown 395 in Adelanto, California. As with the 450s, all machines were kept stock aside from a new Dunlop MX51FA front and MX51 rear tire. We utilized a variety of male and female testers of all heights, weights and speeds at several distinctly different riding areas. Of course, we didn’t pull any punches in our evaluations — what you see here is everything that our test crew discovered.
WINNER: HONDA CRF250R
Knowing that the 2012 CRF250R was a great machine (and with much of big red’s resources tied up in the all-new CRF450R), Honda’s engineers did not reinvent the wheel with the 2013 model. Revised EFI settings, improved front and rear suspension components and new-generation Dunlop MX51 stock tires stand out as the major changes, all of which add up to noticeably improved performance on the track.
The Honda’s powerplant consistently starts on the first couple of kicks and immediately gets your attention with its crisp, smooth throttle response. Low-end is improved over last year, and while there’s now more excitement coming out of tight turns and when doing starts, we still feel the bike could use more meat on the bottom. Midrange is satisfying, potent and linear enough that the CRF stays hooked up even in slick conditions. The remainder of the power spread packs enough torque to easily pull taller gears, yet those who love to rev can still get their high-rpm fix without being punished by a too-low rev-limiter. So smooth is the overall delivery that the Honda can, at times, feel slightly corked and down on power (especially up top). The truth is that the CRF is not the fastest 250F, but it’s the easiest bike to ride in this class, which also makes it the easiest bike to ride fast.
Test riders big and small, slow and fast all agreed the CRF250R is the best-handling 250F, period. The bike is super flickable yet incredibly stable. It feels planted and doesn’t react too quickly in chop, with excellent compliance that gives the rider the ability to “point and shoot” the bike to virtually any line. Tight inside lines are no problem for the red machine, though some riders noticed the front wants to climb out of ruts. A light and nimble overall feel boosts cornering — the Honda is really easy to lean over — and the bike tracks really well out of turns.
Riders in the 165-pound range should find that the CRF250R is sprung perfectly for them. Up front, a plush stock feel (especially in the first part of the stroke) causes the fork to use its full range, although excellent bottoming resistance accompanies this comfortable setting. The shock has even better bottoming resistance and enjoys a similarly soft initial stroke that results in amazing traction in the back end. As expected, the harmoniously sprung front and rear ends make for the most balanced suspension out of any stock 250F. Riders can feel the track without excessive feedback, and the Honda works great in braking bumps and chop.
Fit And Finish
As with the CRF450R, this 250F shines when the hours start adding up — durability is one of the bike’s strong points. The ergonomics of the Honda are comfortable for a wide variety of riders, with an excellent stock handlebar, good grips and great pegs. Across the board, Honda’s brakes used to be a lot better; the CRF250R’s front binder is good for dragging through rutted turns, but overall stopping power is lacking.
The Bottom Line
This is not the fastest 250F in terms of raw power, but the overall package makes the Honda a winner. It is the smoothest, easiest-to-ride bike in this class, and just about anyone can hop on the CRF250R and go. This superior balance and ridability — along with the fact that the bike worked amazingly well at every track we took it to — gave the Honda the edge it needed to stop the KX250F’s winning streak and claim a well-deserved overall shootout victory. But aftermarket companies should take note: This bike is begging to be modified!
CRF250R SETTINGS | STOCK | BEG/NOV | INT/PRO
FORK COMPRESSION | 7 | 6-8 | 5-7
FORK REBOUND | 11 | 11-12 | 11
SHOCK LOW-SPEED COMPRESSION | 8 | 8 | 6-8
SHOCK HIGH-SPEED COMPRESSION | 2 | 2 | 2
SHOCK REBOUND | 11 | 11 | 9-11
SHOCK SAG (MM) | 102-105 | 104 | 104
FIRST RUNNER-UP: KAWASAKI KX250F
Dirt Rider shootout wins do not come easily, yet the KX250F took the top honors in our 2010, 2011 and 2012 comparisons, and racers everywhere have since been buzzing about the stock performance of the Kawasaki. Boosted compression, an acoustic resonator chamber on the header and other internal engine upgrades accompany a revised frame and a larger-diameter Showa Separate Function Fork (SFF) as the major changes to the 2013.
As the best stock motor of the bunch, the holeshotprone Kawasaki comes out of the gate with a manageable yet strong bottom-end hit. The broad initial power extends smoothly into what is the strongest bottom to midrange pull of any stock 250F, with another smooth transition from mid to top. A little more overrev wouldn’t hurt, but the lively snap of the bottom to mid is always accessible via a higher gear. The biggest gripes we have regarding the Kawi’s engine is the raspy-sounding exhaust and a notchy shifting feel that could stand to be smoother when downshifting on deceleration and upshifting under power.
Riders who tend to steer using the rear wheel and the throttle will enjoy the Kawasaki’s stance, which places more weight on the back tire than the front. This contributes to the bike’s stability at speed, along with a confidence-inspiring ability to tackle deep ruts. The KX250F jumps well and can consistently be moved around in the air. There is some pushing of the front end in turns, but for the most part the Kawi tracks well in banked berms and gets great traction in flat corners. Rutted turns are one of the KX-F’s strongest areas, given that the bike settles well and stays planted. The overall handling feel is heavier than the Honda — the Kawi is not the quickest turning machine — but our testers associated a feeling of safety with the Kawasaki’s traction-grabbing ways and felt that the motorcycle cornered better when it was being pushed hard.
The Showa Separate Function Fork was boosted 1mm to 48mm in diameter for 2013, with larger damping components and a slightly altered triple clamp for increased rigidity. These changes angle the fork settings more toward performance, and yet the Kawi’s shock seems to be built for slower speeds and more comfort. This creates an unbalanced feeling that, in our opinion, took the suspension a step backward from where it was in 2012. Our testers were split on their ability to bottom the fork — some felt that it blew through the bottom of the stroke easily, while others praised the bottoming resistance. The initial feel of the fork is definitely harsh, and going softer on compression just makes the fork too soft on regular landings. More preload seemed to be the best answer as it also decreased the occasional bout of headshake found on entry into braking bumps. Out back, stiffening up the shock helped the bike to track better, but this beat up lighter riders and drastically decreased the low-speed comfort of the bike for beginner and novice riders.
Fit And Finish
The KX250F is easy to start even when in gear, and the look of the bike when new is racy and clean. Visually, the Kawasaki ages quickly and can start to look hammered after a relatively short amount of track time. Clutch fade is a very real issue if you hammer the left lever; abusers of the clutch are not rewarded, as it will first fade and then start to slip, both of which decrease the life span of the clutch. The ergonomics seem to be perfect for the average (5-foot 10-inch range) rider, although we weren’t fond of the feel of the grips.
The Bottom Line
We love the Kawasaki’s engine, but the track-to-track ridability isn’t quite there and the suspension took a step backward for 2013. There’s no denying the outstanding performance potential of this machine with a capable pilot on board, yet our novice testers were intimidated by the Kawasaki’s engine. This bike simply is not as well rounded as the Honda, which is why it didn’t win a fourth year in a row.
SECOND RUNNER-UP: SUZUKI RM-Z250
Suzuki invested heavily in the 2013 RM-Z250, giving the bike an all-new transmission, a more rigid frame with steel engine mounts and a switch to Showa’s 48mm fork that the Kawasaki received. Changes to the piston and intake and exhaust valves were made to gain stronger midrange power.
We like the RM-Z powerplant, especially the low to midrange pull. The power is snappy off idle, and the Suzuki is responsive and easy to keep in the power, making the bike pull well through any type of corner. However, the RM-Z is definitely lacking in overrev, and the bike falls off on top even harder than the Kawasaki. The stock mapping feels too lean, and we hoped that switching to the richer EFI coupler would improve the pull up top. We tried a few options, but nothing pulled as well as stock. Shifting on the Suzuki takes more work than the Honda, as proper clutch use is required to make the bike get into gear.
It’s safe to say the Suzuki has the best overall cornering traits of any 250F. Unlike the RM-Z450 (which struggles with a too-rigid chassis), the yellow 250F is agile and changes direction easily. Tight, inside-line ruts are one of the Suzuki’s specialties, and corner exit — thanks in part to the layout of the power — is awesome. Corner entry takes a little more work (the bike can stand up going into rutted turns), but once in the turn the RM-Z250 stays hooked up. Overall stability is good, though straight-line stability can be a little twitchy and quick handling.
Unlike the Showa fork on the Kawasaki, the Suzuki’s SFF is actually a little soft. Going stiffer not only provides better damping but also improved upkeep in the fork, which is prone to diving under heavy braking. Yet even with the front sitting lower in the stroke and deflecting off braking bumps, some of our fastest test riders felt that the Suzuki has a decent stock race setting. The shock sits high in the stroke and enjoys a good beginning to mid feel; we just wish that bottoming resistance were as strong as the front and that the bike wasn’t so stinkbugged. Small bump absorption on the shock can be slightly busy, with a few testers searching for a more dead feel in the rear.
Fit And Finish
The Suzuki’s ergonomics are fairly neutral, although some testers opted to roll the handlebar back to combat the rear-end-high stance of the bike and a few commented that the radiator area feels bulky and big. If you don’t use the hot start when the engine is at operating temperature, it can be difficult to get the RM-Z lit. We think the aluminum fuel tank is a cool-looking touch.
The Bottom Line
The RM-Z250 is most definitely a competitive bike, and a couple of test riders pegged it as their favorite 250F. If the top-end had the same performance as the responsive low-to-midrange and if the suspension were a little more capable, the great-cornering Suzuki would have undoubtedly ranked even higher.
RM-Z250 SETTINGS | STOCK | BEG/NOV | INT/PRO
FORK COMPRESSION | 11 | 11-13 | 9-11
FORK REBOUND | 9 | 9-10 | 9
FORK SPRING PRELOAD | 6 | 6 | 6
SHOCK LOW-SPEED COMPRESSION | 14 | 14-15 | 14
SHOCK HIGH-SPEED COMPRESSION | 2 | 2½ | 2
SHOCK REBOUND | 14 | 13 | 12-13
SHOCK SAG (MM) | 105 | 105 | 105
THIRD RUNNER-UP: YAMAHA YZ250F
Yamaha must be planning something big, because it opted not to throw any major changes at any of its motocross bikes for 2013. Like the YZ450F, the new YZ250F received only a white rear fender and a house-branded handlebar (still the same ProTaper, but without the logos), making it the only carbureted 250F for the second year in a row.
Aggressive throttle openings and hard landings reveal a slight hesitation in the Yamaha’s carburetor. Other than that, tuning is fairly clean. The bottom-end is not extremely strong (for comparison purposes, the Kawasaki is much snappier), though the YZ-F pulls well once you get going. Mid to top-end power and overrev are among the best in this class. Many testers commented the YZ250F was faster than they remembered, indicating that a perceived lack of power due to the carburetor is not actually the case. We’d love to see the Yamaha have more stock roll-on power in the transition from second to third gear, where the bike is often ridden. Shifting is smooth, starting is easy and the YZ-F has little to no engine-braking.
Yamaha went with a new frame starting with the 2012 YZ250F, and this contributes to one of the best chassis in the class. The bike is stable — especially in chop — and stays extremely planted in a straight line. A slightly heavy feeling makes the Yamaha a bit tougher to turn for novice riders and in really tight corners (it simply takes more effort to lean this bike), but the overall cornering traits are competitive with any other 250F. Switching lines on the YZ-F is easy thanks to the good tracking, and thanks to the carburetor (or, more specifically, the lack of EFI) this is the lightest of these six bikes.
The Yamaha’s plush overall setting is a good match for rough, choppy tracks. A definite contributing factor to the bike’s solid cornering characteristics, this suspension settles well with a softer-feeling shock and a bit of a chopper-like stance. The fork is sensitive to clicker changes; two or three clicks make a big difference. Bottoming resistance is not the best, although adding compression via the clickers helps the fork to resist blowing through the stroke. If you ride this machine smoothly, it will reward you with a smooth, full suspension stroke that works well at high speeds.
Fit And Finish
The ergonomics of the Yamaha are spot-on; most riders feel at home the second they hop on the bike. The handlebar, now with a different colored bar pad, is an outstanding bend and doesn’t transmit any errant vibration to the rider. The tank of the bike is a bit bulkier than the others, and some riders complained they get hung up on the top of the radiator shroud, which can get stuck in the lip of the rider’s boot in corners. The only other unwanted surprise is excessive chain slap on deceleration, even with a properly tightened chain. And don’t forget to turn the gas on when you start riding and off when you’re done, because this bike still has a petcock!
The Bottom Line
For a bike that hasn’t been changed this year, the Yamaha works really well. We dig the overall handling, but portions of the engine just feel a step behind the Honda, Kawi and Suzuki. If we had a magic wand and could put the Kawasaki motor in the Yamaha’s chassis, we believe we’d have an extremely competitive and hard-to-beat package!
YZ250F SETTINGS | STOCK | BEG/NOV | INT/PRO
FORK COMPRESSION | 10 | 10 | 6-8
FORK REBOUND | 10 | 10 | 10
SHOCK LOW-SPEED COMPRESSION | 8 | 6-8 | 7
SHOCK HIGH-SPEED COMPRESSION | 1¾ | 1¾ | 1¾
SHOCK REBOUND | 14 | 14-15 | 14-15
SHOCK SAG (MM) | 102-105 | 102 | 100
FOURTH RUNNER-UP: KTM 250 SX-F
KTM claims that its 250 SX-F saw a power increase of nearly five horsepower over the 2012, thanks largely to an improved combustion chamber, larger intake valves and a new camshaft. Thinner engine cases help save weight, while a new gas cap, exhaust header and revised suspension settings help resolve some of the complaints we had about the 2012 model.
This motor is hugely improved over the ’12 version, yet only at higher rpm. The bottom-end is fairly flat and lacking in off-idle torque, and you definitely have to use the clutch to get away from this soft segment of the power. This requires that you ride the KTM harder than the other bikes if you want to stay on the pipe. But once on top, the improved pulling power kicks in and the 250 SX-F screams. The upper midrange offers huge punch, and the long overrev rewards those who let the KTM wind out rather than short shift it. Even still, the power up top comes on in surges and feels steppy when transitioning from mid to top. A huge amount of engine-braking creates a lot of drag on the rear wheel.
Stability is one of the KTM’s strengths, although it comes at the cost of feeling heavy and long. The bike maintains nice control through the rollers, much of which has to do with the fact that the heavy engine-braking keeps the rear from stepping out or deflecting. Cornering is consistent on the 250 SX-F, and the machine settles well in both ruts and on flat turns with the best performance coming in super-soft sections. The rear of the bike tracks well behind a precise-feeling front end. Other than a tendency to occasionally stand up in the apex of sharp corners, the KTM turns well and goes where you point it.
The harsh initial feel of the KTM’s fork is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the bike holds up well on jump faces and when entering corners under heavy braking. On the other, the fork has excessive bite on square edges and braking bumps, and can deflect on fast straightaways. It would seem that going softer on compression would be an easy fix, but going too soft accentuates a metal-to-metal hit that comes when the fork is bottomed hard. Going stiffer helps with bottoming but highlights the harsh feel. The shock is much less finicky and not quite as polar, with no major surprises and good hold up for faster and heavier riders.
Fit And Finish
KTM uses high-quality components, which is made evident in the excellent brakes and great look of the bike. We love the electric starting; this feature is definitely worth the added weight. Aside from a too-low handlebar, the ergonomics are well liked by most riders, and the KTM no longer feels as “foreign” as it did a few years ago.
The Bottom Line
The chassis of the KTM takes more time to adapt to than the other bikes, and some riders never got to where they were 100 percent comfortable on the bike. The engine pulls great on top; it just takes some work to get there. Despite these things, the new 250 SX-F is hugely improved over the 2012, and with some setup and aftermarket attention this machine can easily see even more performance gains.
250 SX-F SETTINGS | STOCK | BEG/NOV | INT/PRO
FORK COMPRESSION | 12 | 12 | 12
FORK REBOUND | 12 | 11-12 | 11-12
SHOCK LOW-SPEED COMPRESSION | 15 | 16 | 15
SHOCK HIGH-SPEED COMPRESSION | 2 | 2 | 2
SHOCK REBOUND | 15 | 15 | 14-15
SHOCK SAG (MM) | 100-105 | 105 | 105
FIFTH RUNNER-UP: HUSQVARNA TC250R
After receiving huge changes in 2012, Husqvarna’s latest TC250R saw a number of minor tweaks to help boost power and make the engine more competitive. Riders are becoming increasingly comfortable aboard Husqvarnas, and with vast improvements every year this bike is gaining more and more recognition as a legitimate option in the 250F division.
The TC250R requires a full, deliberate kick to start and leads into a linear and smooth powerband that feels pretty seamless throughout. The best way to describe the engine is that it feels approximately 20cc smaller than the other bikes; power is down across the board, and the motor just feels like it never gets going. The bike is extremely slow-revving with little reward on top, although shifting constantly and riding the Husky like a 125cc two-stroke will get you around the track with plenty of momentum. Engine-braking is plentiful, and while there are no major thrills there are also no big surprises — what you see is what you get with the Husky.
Following the motor’s tame personality, the Husqvarna’s handling is predictable and does nothing out of the ordinary. The bike stays balanced and goes in a straight line with no surprises. Cornering is comfortable, with great performance in rutted turns and good tracking in flat turns so long as you stay on the throttle. The Husky feels slightly big and tall in corners, and the tank/shroud area is fat when you stick your leg straight out.
The thing about the Husqvarna that surprises riders the most is the bike’s ability to gobble up rough terrain, especially when the dirt is loamy. Most testers thought that the fork and shock were excessively fast and slightly soft in stock form, which explains the drastically slower rebound settings we settled on. Both the front and rear suspension work together to skim across square-edged bumps instead of diving down into them. The fork was soft on jump faces and blew through the stroke when pushed, with a harsh mid-stroke that fights back on small chatter and acceleration bumps. This is the only bike in this class that has an issue with headshake when the front end has too much weight on it. Once stiffened, the shock maintains balance and works well on G-outs, jump faces and hard hits, although it too feels busy in sharp bumps. Fortunately, there is no odd bucking of the rear end.
Fit And Finish
There are some great components on the Husqvarna that our testers really enjoyed — the front brake is excellent, the handlebar bend is comfortable and the hydraulic clutch works amazingly well. The TC250R certainly has a unique feel to it that some riders really dig. The biggest ergonomic complaint is the soft seat. And although we had Dunlops on for comparison testing, we know from experience that the stock Michelin tires can amplify harshness and make the Husqvarna less predictable on hard-packed terrain.
The Bottom Line
As it stands, the TC250R has great suspension and handling characteristics, but so long as the engine feels underpowered the bike will not be on the same level as the other stock machines. Several testers ranked this bike above the KTM and some liked it more than the Yamaha, and the unfamiliarity of the Husky seems to be dissolving with every year. Don’t be scared to explore this motorcycle as a serious option; it does a lot of things well and is only getting better.
TC250R SETTINGS | STOCK | BEG/NOV | INT/PRO
FORK COMPRESSION | 9 | 7 | 6
FORK REBOUND | 19 | 11 | 8
SHOCK LOW-SPEED COMPRESSION | 10 | 9 | 6
SHOCK HIGH-SPEED COMPRESSION | 1½ | 1¼ | 1¼
SHOCK REBOUND | 15 | 8 | 8
SHOCK SAG (MM) | 100-105 | 104 | 104
WEIGHT* | FRONT BIAS | REAR BIAS | TOTAL
HONDA | 118 LB | 114 LB | 232 LB
HUSQVARNA | 115 LB | 124 LB | 239 LB
KAWASAKI | 110 LB | 124 LB | 234 LB
KTM | 117 LB | 125 LB | 242 LB
SUZUKI | 115 LB | 122 LB | 237 LB
YAMAHA | 112 LB | 118 LB | 230 LB
*ALL BIKES WEIGHED WITH TANKS FULL. ON AVERAGE, THE KTM HOLDS AN EXTRA HALF-GALLON OF GAS COMPARED TO THE OTHER BIKES. THE YZ-F, HAVING THE ONLY CARBURETOR IN THE CLASS, IS THE LIGHTEST BY A COUPLE OF POUNDS.
1. HONDA 28
2. KAWASAKI 35
3. SUZUKI 49
4. YAMAHA 52
5. KTM 55
6. HUSQVARNA 75
*COMBINED OPINION OF 14 TEST RIDERS. BIKES AWARDED POINTS BASED ON 1–6 RANKING, LOWEST SCORE INDICATES SHOOTOUT WINNER.
In terms of opinions, this shootout was one of the closest Dirt Rider comparisons that we can ever remember (although the “electoral vote” ranking gives the winner more breathing room). All six bikes are competitive in their own ways, and the top three are so close that we had riders giving one bike their top vote simply because another machine’s initial fork stroke was too harsh — it was that tight. In the end, the Honda wins because it is the most well-rounded bike of the bunch and works the best for the widest variety of riders at the broadest selection of tracks. The Kawasaki is an amazing stock machine, although the suspension needs some work to really feel perfect. The Suzuki, Yamaha and KTM are extremely close and each one’s superiority would be a matter of personal preference; there’s a lot to like about all three of these machines. The Husqvarna has come a long way and continued to win over riders who had never given the bike a chance. In a class where power is king, it’s interesting to see the shootout win go to the bike with the second-best motor, but this just goes to show that overall performance is the deciding factor of which 250F stands at the top of this class.
CHECK OUT WWW.DIRTRIDER.COM FOR FIRST IMPRESSIONS, AFTERMARKET SUGGESTIONS AND OUR 250F SHOOTOUT VIDEO.