250F SHOOTOUT

 
(1/3/2012)
 
When it comes to dirt bikes, the 250cc four-stroke motocross bike is the most sophisticated technology we have. Most of the designs were taken directly from the Formula One automotive world, where high rpm and small displacement combine to generate the highest performance in the racing world.
Despite the challenge of developing these motors, the field is packed today, and the 250F class has become the front line in the battle for attention and prestige in the motocross world. For 2012, the 250s received more development than any other group of bikes. We rode the six main contenders all over Southern California to check out the results of this tech war. The Honda CRF250R, Husqvarna TC250, Kawasaki KX250F, KTM 250SXF, Suzuki RZ250 and Yamaha YZ250F were put through their paces at Glen Helen Raceway, Piru MX and Racetown 395. They were all wearing identical tires (Dunlop MX71 fronts and 952 rears), but were otherwise stock. Here’s how it played out.
 
 
 
HONDA CRF250R
After the revolution-
When the 250F world changed in 2010, Honda was at the forefront. The CRF250R was the first 250 to get fuel injection, with most others following quickly. For 2012, Honda’s R&D staff refined the 250, focusing on creating a more well-rounded package. The platform remains essentially the same with a single-overhead-cam motor (the only one in the 250F world), but the new version is fed by a smaller throttle body (46mm instead of 50mm). The suspension was reworked for more stability, with a new linkage to allow the rear end to ride slightly lower. Other changes include bigger footpegs and a smaller chain roller, but overall, Honda took a very conservative approach.
STRONG POINTS: The Honda isn’t the lightest bike, but most riders thought it was. It feels like a 125 two-stroke the way it drops into turns and can be thrown around effortlessly. The suspension is well balanced, and most of the “stinkbug” feel that has characterized it since 2010 is gone. Give credit to the Honda R&D team for making so many improvements with so few changes. Since the arrival of fuel injection, the motor has been smooth—so smooth that it has been criticized for being a little boring. With the smaller throttle body, the CRF has a little more thrill off the bottom, but it still has a very progressive, flat power delivery.
WEAK POINTS: Some riders still complain that the CRF has a mind of its own. If there are ruts criss-crossing a turn, it might not choose the one you have in mind. This was a significant factor two seasons ago; now it is less so, but still there.
The Honda isn’t a horsepower standout, but it does well on the dyno. We would like to see a little more hit. We know it’s possible, because Kawasaki managed to figure it out. The bars are smallish 7/8th-inch Renthals, and the brakes are just average.
BOTTOM LINE: The Honda is a solid machine that can be made into a national-championship bike with very little effort. It’s only real drawback is that it doesn’t inspire passion—and this is a sport driven by passion.
Price: $7420
Weight without fuel: 223 pounds.
 
HUSQVARNA TC250
The newest member of the serious-contender club
Husqvarna’s 250 has a short but colorful history. The design was on the drawing board when BMW took over a few years back, and it was rumored to be a key factor in the acquisition. The first production model received a lot of support from the MX world, and it was the basis for Antoine Meo’s World Enduro Championship—but it didn’t have enough power, and everyone knew it. The next year, the issue got worse with the coming of Mikuni fuel injection. For 2012, this model gets some serious changes. A Keihin EFI system replaces the Mikuni one; the engine has a whole new head, the KYB suspension is revised and the frame is stronger. It’s a whole new ball game.
STRONG POINTS: The Husqvarna handles well in every way. It drops into turns easily, it’s stable in fast straights, and it never, ever does anything wicked. Much of the credit goes to the KYB suspension. The fork is plush on straight hits, and the rear end never gives you any reason to think about it. 
The Brembo brakes are excellent. The hydraulic clutch has a good feel and a light pull. The oversized bars are strong and have a good bend. The seat can be removed with a turn of a Dzus fastener. The titanium Akrapovic exhaust system is probably better than anything you can find on the aftermarket. The Husky is a quality piece of work.
WEAK POINTS: Sadly, even though the power is greatly improved, it’s still the bike’s worst feature. The fact that it can be so much better and still not be in the hunt is a grim reminder of how handicapped it was last year. The switch to EFI seemed to hurt Husky more than any of the others. Now, it’s finally on par with the bikes of 2005 or so. The TC gives away about three horsepower to the fastest bikes in the class and is roughly on par with only one other—the KTM. Riders also complain that the Husky’s layout is awkward and that the wide gas tank makes it feel heavy.
BOTTOM LINE: Few bikes got as much attention as the Husky. Riders genuinely wanted it to be good. The power output was a death blow last year; now it’s merely a handicap in an otherwise pleasing package.
Price: $6999
Weight without fuel: 225 pounds
 
KAWASAKI KX250F
The heir to an unparalleled legacy

If the dirt bike world were to have royalty, the Kawasaki KX250F would be it. The KX250F was born into a family of blue-blooded race winners at the Monster Pro Circuit race team. It couldn’t help but become the winningest motorcycle in its class. Given time, it will doubtlessly become the winningest bike of all time in the Pro MX world. Like most others, it got a major redo when it got fuel injection. The motor was almost entirely redesigned. But, the development didn’t stop there. The 2012 KX got a very significant first in the off-road world; Kawasaki added a secondary injector “upstream” from the throttle body. This is new to the dirt world, although it’s common on street bikes. The mapping of the fuel delivery and spark advance is new, the crank is rebalanced and the exhaust system is changed. Last year, Kawasaki introduced the Separate Function Fork (SFF), with the spring located in only one side. This year it has been revised, and many of the surface treatments have been upgraded.
STRONG POINTS: Power! The Kawasaki has lots and lots of top-end power. The secondary fuel injector is apparently responsible. The KX now has a little life to the formerly linear power delivery. The hit is a hit. Beyond that, the motor has quick throttle response and feels willing. The suspension is a hit as well. The SFF front end works well and gives the rider more range of adjustment. When a heavy rider cranks up the preload in the rear, he can do the same in front and have a more balanced package.
WEAK POINTS: The KX doesn’t feel especially light or agile. It’s not the heaviest bike in the shootout, but it can be a little clumsy-feeling at times. Beyond that, the nitpicks are small. The motor is mechanically noisy, the grips are hard and nasty, and the 7/8th-inch bars are easily tweaked because of overly soft rubber mounts.
BOTTOM LINE: The Kawasaki is a great motocross bike in almost every way. It has motor on everyone, and that’s incredibly important in the 250F class.
Price: $7399
Weight without fuel: 224 pounds
 
KTM 250SXF
The cost of being different

KTM isn’t afraid to be different. The 2012 250SXF isn’t like any other 250 four-stroke MX bike ever made. This year it has electric start. It can trace its lineage back to the 350SXF that won the MX1 World Championship under Tony Cairoli. It has the same basic frame, EFI system and suspension, with linkage in the rear end. The motor itself is actually from last year’s 250XCF off-road bike. The power-producing parts aren’t that different from the original SXF, but it got a new starter system and battery to make everything work. Accordingly, the new 250SXF is heavier than the other 250Fs, but not as heavy as you might expect. The KTM weighs 231 pounds without fuel, while the other fuel-injected bikes range between 223 and 225 pounds. Only the carbureted Yamaha has a significant advantage in the weight department.
STRONG POINTS: The electric starter is a big deal; you can ride harder when you don’t have to worry about stalling. When 250Fs were brand new, this would have been a game changer. Nowadays, they start much easier and stall less often. But in the chaos of motocross, the starter is still an advantage. Overall handling is very different from the other 250s. The KTM is well planted and secure-feeling, and most riders felt that was an asset. Also, nearly everyone is astounded by the power of the brakes. Nothing stops as well as the KTM. Nothing. The hydraulic clutch, oversized Renthal bars, and parts like the chain and sprockets are all the best.
WEAK POINTS: Somewhere along the way, the KTM lost power. It’s not as strong as it was in its carbureted days. The motor is slow-revving, and it makes you fight to drag power out of it. It was essentially in the same arena as the Husky, perhaps even giving away a little on top. Riders also complained that they could feel every extra pound. The KTM is only 8 pounds heavier than the Honda, but it feels like much, much more. The 250SXF is basically a downsized 350, and that’s how it feels.
BOTTOM LINE: The electric starter was a great idea, but we’re not so sure about fuel injection. Without it, the KTM would weigh the same as the others and keep the button. With more power, it would be a phenomenal machine.
Price: $7699
Weight without fuel: 231 pounds
 
SUZUKI RM-Z250
Neglected or lying in wait?

It would be easy to forget about the Suzuki RM-Z250. Despite having jumped into the fuel-injected world earlier than anyone else with the 450, the company has been keeping a very low profile with the 250. It got a serious remake with the EFI system in 2010, but for the last two years, Suzuki has imported very few bikes. The racing program for the 250 was dwarfed by the attention Dungey got on the 450. But last year, we discovered that Suzuki hasn’t neglected R&D on the 250. In fact, the 2011 model was easily the best bike in the class. It had a Keihin EFI system and a new-generation aluminum frame. For 2012, there were no changes for the 250 except, perhaps, one. It will probably be more readily available at the dealer level.
STRONG POINTS: This bike handles! Suzuki has always known how to make a bike corner, and the RM-Z250 proves it yet again. It drops into turns effortlessly, without extracting a price anywhere else. It does none of the wandering that bikes with quick steering usually exhibit. It also has a universal appeal. Pros think it handles well, and so do novices. It turns with the gas on and the rear end sliding or with the throttle clamped shut. We also consider the Suzuki’s motor a notch above anything in comparison, except the Kawasaki. The RM-Z has good bottom and a respectable mid-range hit. The fuel metering is clean, and the layout of the entire bike is comfortable. In the suspension department, the RM-Z scores big. Both ends are plush and can take a big hit very well. As far as components go, the oversized bars are a big plus.
WEAK POINTS: In most categories, the Suzuki outshines the other bikes, so a list of its weak points is simply a list of the areas where it doesn’t clearly beat the others. Top-end power is good, but not as strong as the Kawasaki’s. It lacks the super-light feel of the Honda and instant bottom-end power of the Yamaha. And we can always hope for a hydraulic clutch and higher-quality chain and sprockets.
BOTTOM LINE: Suzuki is a funny company. Without much of a pro racing program for the 250, or even a promotional campaign, it’s something of a secret. Those who know about it will probably keep their mouths shut. Racers are like that.
Price: $7399
Weight without fuel: 224 pounds
 
YAMAHA YZ250F
Carburetion: The next big thing
Last year, the Yamaha YZ250F seemed to prove that the carburetor was dead. It was the only 250F without fuel injection, and it was distinctly without distinction. It was a little sleepy-feeling, and the carburetor was as good a scapegoat as any. But, the YZ was actually well received in the handling department. In 2010 it got an entirely new chassis based on the bilateral aluminum frame that was featured on the radically new 2010 450.
For 2012, the YZ250F’s carburetor is back, but it’s bigger (39mm vs. 37mm with an oval bore), the piston is lighter, the spark advance was remapped, and the crank was rebalanced. Then Yamaha targeted the semi-new frame and redesigned it yet again. It got more rigid aluminum members around the swingarm pivot, and the fork offset was reduced. Overall, the Yamaha is the most-changed 250F of the year, and it still has a carb. Interesting.
STRONG POINTS: The motor! Wait, hold on. How is that possible? It turns out that the YZ250F got a huge increase in power for 2012. It has great low-end power and a more free-revving feel. On top, the YZ’s power output is in the running with the Suzukis and Hondas, only taking a backseat to the Kawasaki. All this happened with very few motor changes. And with a carburetor, Yamaha also has the lightest bike in the class by a significant margin. It turns out that fuel injection’s biggest downfall is the weight of the fuel pump and the bigger generator required. The YZ feels light and turns well. We also love some of the details, like the ProTaper bars with their multiple mounting positions. For the record, the YZ motor is considered the most reliable in the class.
WEAK POINTS: The trusty Keihin carb scores big, but has one flaw: it has a case of the hiccups. Large jump landings and some zero-G situations can make the YZ sputter, and we haven’t found any jetting solutions. We’re also reluctant to get on the new-frame bandwagon. We liked the old one. Larger riders, in particular, felt less cramped last year. The suspension was also easier to tune last year. Our test riders had a mild clicker war trying to get the YZ rear end to settle down. Everyone found a setting, but often they were in opposite directions.
BOTTOM LINE: The YZ was an early favorite in the shootout thanks to the element of surprise. No one expected it to be this good. With an R&D power bowl, a pipe and some mild mods, it could be the best in show.
WINNERS & LOSERS
The 250F sweeps 2012
We had a dozen test riders casting ballots, and two machines got an overwhelming majority of the first-place votes. Most of those went to the Suzuki RM-Z250, and so we’ll declare it the winner for the second straight year. It’s the best in turns, it has the best overall handling and it has the most agreeable suspension. But, the Kawasaki isn’t far behind. It’s the fastest, and that goes a long way in the 250F class. After that, the Yamaha was clearly more popular than the Honda. The YZ’s incredible resurrection in the motor department is hard to explain, but impressive. Its problems are all easy to solve. The Honda, on the other hand, has no easily cured ills; there’s just a lack of inspiration.
As for the Husky and KTM, they both just need one thing: power. You can’t survive in the 250F field without it. The KTM, though, offers one thing that no other 250F can match: the starter. But, the Husky costs much less. Ultimately, it’s your choice.

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WARNING: Much of the action depict­ed in this magazine is potentially dan­gerous. Virtually all of the riders seen in our photos are experienced ex­perts or professionals. Do not at­tempt to duplicate any stunts that are be­yond your own capabilities. Always wear the appropriate safety gear.

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