Rick Johnson demands suspension settings that would kill the average human being. Jeff Ward wants a bike that hits harder and quicker than Mike Tyson, while Guy Cooper likes a smoother approach. Larry Roeseler prefers the agility of a teenaged gymnast, while Dan Smith wants the high-speed stability of a Boeing 747.
We mere mortals are just as diverse in our taste for power rushes and handling strategies, but we all want suspension that isolates is from the terrain, brakes that would stop the world on its axis, Mack truck depend-ability with the sleekness and weight of Michelle Pfeiffer and less maintenance requirements than a houseplant. We also want it for free, or as close as we can get to free. That's a pretty tall order for the manufacturers to fill, but try they do.
Right now they're out testing the 1991s, on every kind of track or terrain they can find, with every kind of rider that they can swear to secrecy, They'll test every component on the bike, they'll try a million suspension settings, they'll test a bazillion different ignition and power-valve curves. When the best combinations are achieved, they'll then try to break the bike. All of this and much more went into each 1990 model.
Each manufacturer tried to build a bike so awesome that every rider on earth will want to rush out to buy it, whether they ride in the peat bogs of West Virginia, the red clay of Georgia or the adobe of Southern California. Each used different approaches to achieve the perfect bike for everyone, a bike that'll win a National as well as crawl over a slimy rock.
None of them achieved perfection. Some work here but not there, for this rider but not that one. The purpose of this shootout is not only to pick the best overall bike, but to steer you to the bike that'll best suit your needs for track and or trail. Right about now the manufacturers are cringing, because they sell the bikes as closed-course- competition-only machines, for legal reasons. Well, you go riding with friends, that's competition, and you start at your truck and end up back at your truck. That's a closed course. With the addition of a quiet muffler/ spark arrester combo, these MXers can be made totally trail-legal.
So let's evaluate and rate each stock bike for motocross, compare them for play riding and see what needs to be done to make each one a pearl of perfection. Let's start shooting!
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
We assembled a test crew with various abilities and sizes to ride and rate each of the machines. To get a good cross-section of terrains, we tested at DeAnza Cycle Park, Los Angeles County Raceway and on some excellent trails on private property. You're probably thinking, "Oh, boy, another blue-groove test. How will it work in Michigan?" Not so. We were fortunate to have some good rainstorms pass through, making DeAnza very much like the clay mud of Eastern states and LACR resemble the wet sand tracks of Florida or Michigan. Trail traction varied from excellent to snotty, giving the machines a good chance to strut their off- road prowess, if any. After each tester rode each bike we'd grill him for his thoughts, and at the end of the day we'd ask him which bike he'd buy first, second, etc., to ride stock in those condi- tions. After three full days of hammering the bikes relentlessly, we tallied the scores like we were scoring motos (see chart) and emerged with a clear, and surprising, winner. During acceleration testing on tacky clay soil, we found that none of the bikes really walked off and left the others, as the KTM 125 had done in that shootout. All of the bikes are fast, but each has its own distinct power characteristics, or in the case of all but one motor, deficiencies.
ALL NEW KTM 250 MX/C
Honda's Roger DeCoster eyed our pre- production Broc Glover Replica 1990 KTM 250 and mused, "It looks very much like our CR250."
In fact, the new "backwards" 250 looks almost exactly like the Honda CR250R. motor, aside from a different power-valve system. The pipe looks much like the CR, only the belly sticks out further, and the Katoom silencer is a dead ringer for the Honda. DeCoster took a few hot laps (with Roger, every lap is a hot one) on the bike and said, "Yes, it's very much like our 250, except there's not as much bottom or top, and the suspension is way too soft for me. Other than that, it is a very good bike."
We told the KTM guys what Roger said, and they scrambled back to the drawing board for more power and damping. The porting, ignition and pipe were changed in search of more power and a wider spread, and the suspension got a similar reworking. We received our production model the day before this shootout and noticed a big improvement in thrust and suspension action. It's still very Honda-like, but the spread of power still doesn't approach the phenomenal CR engine. The long-stroke motor pulls very smoothly and builds revs fairly quickly, but it makes most of its power in the mid- range. Pros complain of a lack of run-out on top, but novices appreciate its mellow low-end. The clutch is great but not as light as the RM, and shifting is on a par with the Kawasaki and better than the Yamaha. Car- buretion is perfect, like the Honda. Novices to pros will feel at home here, though pros will want more on top, and the bike hooks up very well in slick conditions. Not a bad motor, at all.
We can't believe that KTM would copy Honda's suspension theories, since we've been sniveling about Honda's settings for years, but they did! The fork and shock springs are too soft for anyone over 150 pounds. Both ends bottom easily at speed, and the softness causes the bike to stand up unexpectedly coming out of corners. This is on top of harsh initial travel. We also experienced a loss of rebound damping at both ends during testing, resulting in unexpected big air and bigger eyes off of jumps- with the rebound dialed to the max. Plug in heavier springs and the light rebound will put you in orbit. Plan on spending a few hundred on suspension work, just like a Honda owner.
Handling, on the other hand, is excellent. The Katoom will carve the inside line almost as well as the CR, but it's as stable as the national debt on rough straights and choppy sweepers, despite having the second-short- est wheelbase of the bunch. You steer the bike with the front wheel, like a Honda, as opposed to steering with the throttle, like a Suzuki. Many testers rave about how easy it is to flick the KTM around over jumps and how it loves to rail berms. Very Honda-like, indeed.
Brakes draw mixed reviews. Some say both ends are better than the CR, but a few riders complain of the rear being too touchy. The Magura controls are excellent, although two testers say they feel awkward compared to the Japanese bikes. Everybody likes the kickstarter being on the right side of the motor now, but it's placed high, like the CR and KX. Layout is excellent; it's easy to move around on and very slim.
Overall, the '90 KTM 250 is a huge improvement over last year and mimics the CR250R pretty well. It's the best and most competitively priced Euro 250 to ever see American showrooms, but the comparative lack of top-end and suspension performance drop it to last chosen (on the average) when we head to the motocross tracks. In motocross voting, the Katoom only drew two sec- onds (both pros) and a third (novice); the rest were fourths and fifths.
KAWASAKI'S PERIMETER KX25O.
Kawasaki boasts in its KX250 brochure that "it's over for those other guys." On paper, it should be over. The ultra- rigid, street bike-inspired perimeter steel frame, combined with inverted forks and ad- ditional swingarm stiffness, virtually eliminates frame flex. It also allows a true lowboy gas tank and never-before-seen mass centralization. Tucking the head angle a degree and lengthening trail aid both cornering and straight-line prowess. Something was lost in the translation between the draftsman's table and the tabletop. Yes, the bike is very rigid, so rigid that vibration is annoying. It has a rock-solid feel, so much so that it has a mind of its own and you have to fight it to make it do what you want it to. Jeff Barbacovi, our resident 140- pound 125/250 pro, says, "It seems heavy in the air-you have to fight it. Turning is okay. It's harder to get in the groove on sandy berms, but once you muscle it in it stays there."
On flat surfaces turning is more of a handful, as the bike oversteers. In tight, slow corners it feels downright clumsy. It is also skittish on choppy sweepers, with Mike Larson and others complaining of headshake. Many complain of the awkward feeling on the bike. It has the shortest wheelbase and second-tallest seat height (the cR is tallest but settles a lot due to the soft suspension). It feels both much taller and shorter, due to the highly placed steering head (what happened to the gullwing lower triple clamp?) and wide midsection necessitated by the perimeter frame. The KX weighs only three pounds more than the RM but feels 15 pounds heavier on the track or in the air. This tall feeling is exaggerated by the suspension, which is initially stiff but bottoms on the big hits with 160 + -pound riders on board. The initial stiffness virtually eliminated and controls, good suspension and
What we have in the 1990 KX250 is a machine aimed at serious Pros and intermediates only. The handling, turning, shifting and throttle control demand total concentration and constant input. It produces the most peak horsepower but over the most narrow powerband. Three experts chose the KX for second place MX honors, while one pro rated it last. Averaging all of the votes produces third overall in motocross ratings. Such in life on the Perimeter.
RAILING ON THE YAMAHA YZ250
Yamaha for some strange reason, neutered the famous YZ250 hit for 1990. The short-stroke motor now produces less low-end with a smoother midrange hook. The most sedate hit allows the bike to maintain better traction on slick surfaces, but the hit-mongers on the crew missed the old rush. This leaves on with the impression that it does just about everything well, but nothing spectacularly. Shifting is notchy and it really balks under a full load in soft terrain.
Ergonomics, brakes, and controls (aside from shifting) are good but not outstanding. As a package, the YZ250 is a great choice, for intermediates and experts, right out of the box. But slower guys won't have all that much fun riding it. For MX, the YZ comes in a close fourth behind the pro-oriented KX250.
SUZUKI'S STEALTH RM250
Suzuki managed an engineering miracle with the '90 RM250. The made the bike much faster than the anemic '89 without making it unridable for slower guys. The motor doesn't hit like the KX but it revs quickly, due to a very light flywheel. This is great in sand and loam but can be a hand- ful on slicker tracks in the hands of less experienced riders. It also stalls easier than the others. Power comes on smoothly in the lower revs (but not as low as the CR) and climbs into a strong, broad midrange. We dropped the main one size and got it to pull as well and as long as the CR on top. Impressive and easy to use.
Suspension action is unequaled in'90. From beginner to pro, the Kayabas soak up chop, holes, whoops, G-outs and jumps with- out transmitting any jolt to the rider. Handling is excellent-just point and shoot. It corners extremely well with very little rider input and feels obscenely light in the air. The RM slides predictably and is stable at high speeds, but some riders complain about the front end feeling too light, resulting in a slight twitchiness in sweepers. Clutch pull is the lightest of the bunch and shifting is on a par with the Honda. Brakes are as strong as the I(X and YZ with a lighter feel, but still not in the CR league. The Bridgestone M23/22 tires are excellent on hard-pack but not as versatile as the Dun- lop K490/695s on the CR and KX. With all this going for it, you'd think the Suzuki would be the hands-down choice for motocross, especially since the suspension stomps all over the Honda's Showas, but voting put the RM a close second to the CR. Suzuki has an excellent package for begin- ners and pros alike, but the Honda over- shadows the RM with the motor and handling of doom.
HANGING IT OUT ON THE CR25OR
Honda attacked their suspension woes of '89 with a vengeance, made slight geometry changes and mellowed their awesome motor a tad for '90, but they still didn't get the suspension action right. The fork internals still suffer from particulate contamination and the fork springs are too soft for anyone over 160 pounds. Compression damping is harsh at both ends over stutter bumps, but the action is excellent on supercross-like jumps and rockers, but how many CR250R owners ride supercross? Suspension action is the CR's only weak point and it'll cost the own- er around $300 to get it right. This puts the Honda in the $4300 price range. Yowsa. Still, the magic CR motor is worth the price of admission. The long-rod motor comes on lower than any other 250 and keeps building well past the point where all but the Suzuki sign off. Comments range from "power is incredible-it'll power over anything" to "it's got great, smooth pow- er and it's easy to control." It does nothing sudden except get you to the next turn quicker than you expect. Clutch pull is the heaviest of the group, but the slick-shifting tranny and electric powerband make up for that --tenfold.
Handling also draws several votes of "perfect." "It'll turn wherever you want to go, no line is too tight;" "Stability is unequaled and it's very easy to whip in the air." Only heavier riders have any snivels towards handling, as the too-light fork springs allow excess diving and headshake. Those weighing under 160 pounds have no complaints about turning or stability.
Brakes are first-rate. Controls and layout also take top honors, as do the tires, although the rear is the only 18-inch holdout in the bunch. The Honda draws complaints only about its suspension, which is "harsh'' and "kicks unless you keep it on the gas." In motocross scoring, the CR received eight first-place votes to the Suzuki's six. Honda takes a close win here with an admittedly flawed machine, but the motor and handling override the harsh suspension action.
OFF-ROAD RAVINGS & RATINGS
A different set of priorities came into play when the pack heads for the trails. Initial suspension compliance, motor tractability, comfort, ease of riding and overall gearing become more important as the trails get slicker and steeper than loan shark interest rates. To test the play ride fun quotient, we spent a day in the sticks on the bikes, then got our test crew to rate the rides. It should be noted that riders who ride off-road exclusively would be better off with an ATK, KTM EXC or DX/C, YZWR or RMX.
Yamaha gets excellent ratings for tract- ability with a smooth power surge and lots of flywheel. It also draws favorable comments for stability and ease of riding, but it gets downgraded for a low, cramped seating position and harshness over roots and rocks. Voting put it close to the KTM but last.
KTM also has excellent tractability with a super-smooth midrange but it doesn't have the low-end of the Honda. Suspension action is subtle over rocks and is great for general off-road riding, and comfort gets an- other excellent rating. However, gearing is tall, with a jump between second and third, and our testers feel more at home on the Japanese bikes on the trail. It gets fourth. The RM has good tractability but has very little flywheel effect, so it stalls easily and tends to slew on slick surfaces. Suspension compliance is the best of the group and ease of riding is awesome, with the clutch and throttle pulls being extremely light. Comfort is very good, although taller riders snivel about the seat being too low, resulting in a cramped riding position. For trail use, the RM takes third, stock.
Surprisingly, the KX rates second, despite the obscenely abrupt motor, which is very flat on the bottom. It'll plonk along but won't snap onto the pipe cleanly; then it lights up the rear tire as it climbs into the explosive midrange. Compliance over roots and ruts is on a par with the Yamaha, and the KX gets good comfort points, despite a tall seat height and a girthy midsection. Handling is quick and predictable on tight trails, but the pipey motor requires a delicate touch.
The Honda hammers you mercilessly on the trail, but the rough ride isn't enough to overshadow the awesome motor' It'll plonk like a trials bike, then climb instantly into the midrange when needed, Perfect ergonomics, brakes, controls (aside from a stiff clutch), and handling make the CR comfortable on the trail, though the ride could be smoother. The CR squeaks out another win at the off- road polls.
PERFECTING THE MACHINES
All of the 250s could use more flywheel for off-road use. The KTM, RM and YZ have off-road counterparts, and the off-road ignitions will bolt right on the MXers. Kawasaki owners can retrofit an earlier-model lighting kit to their KX or they can get a Klemm Research (I7l4l 272-8480) KX Torque-weight, available in 12-, 15- or 20- ounce sizes, for $74.95. This requires a $37.50 spacer kit. Moose Racing ( MOOSE-IT) offers a l2-ounce flywheel weight for the CR250R for $89.95 and steel clutch plates for $44.95. CR off-roaders should invest $8.95 in Moose's Wonder Spring, which plugs into the power-valve governor inspection cover in a matter of seconds and causes the power valve to kick in later, further smoothing power. Moose also has a wide-ratio fifth- gear kit, which raises fifth by eight percent' for $135. This allows a change from 14/51 gearirig to 14/53 for a lower first while still raising top speed.
Our Honda cold-fouled several plugs. Moose modifies (leans) the choke circuit, to alleviate the fouling, for $15. r CR riders over 160 pounds should go to 22.5-pound fork springs' The forks should be revalved for more rebound with this switch. Both the forks and shock benefit from revalving to lower high-speed compres- sion damping. This will alleviate the harsh- ness, KX riders who want a smoother mid- range can have their cylinder head machined at DMC for $70. DMC also sells a low-to-midrange pipe for $157. . FMF sells a RAM reed- valve kit for $199 which gives RM250s more power everywhere. They also have a mid-to- top-end pipe for $159.
Pete Murray's RM250 flies with a Pro Circuit pipe ($149.95), silencer ($64) and porting/head mod ($225). It has more power every"lvhere, especially on top, and Pro Circuit specializes in all Japanese bikes, as well as Showa and KYB suspension.
Downers Grove Yamaha reports that the Y2250 has way too much compression, which chokes top-end. They'lI redo your head for $46.75. Standard port and polishing ($129.95) boosts low-to- mid, while their Pro Port I ($199'95) mod enhances mid-to-top. Steve Lamson uses the Pro Port II mod ($299.95), which gives it killer top-end power. DGY also eliminates the YZ harshness (lowers HSCD) for the forks ($85 plus parts) and shock ($129.95).