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2018 Vital MX 250 Shootout

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Are you looking for a new 250F for yourself, or maybe your young grom? Do you have a few brands in mind, but just can't decide which one would suit your needs? That's why we're here, to give you all the information and insight you need to pick the best bike for you. Welcome to Vital MX's 2018 250 Shootout.

As always, you'll get to examine our test rider's comments on each of the six bikes from our days of testing. Our goal is to give you clarity on the bikes and aspects they agree on, while also shining a spotlight on where they disagree. That will show you how each model works for different riding styles, weights, and overall opinions. Each rider was required to spend an equal amount of time aboard all six bikes before being allowed to revisit the brands they needed more time on to help narrow down their results. Also, each rider is tasked with answering one simple question. "Which bike would you take home or to the track to race the next day with the adjustments available off the showroom floor?"

For this latest edition of our 250 Shootout, we visited three different tracks in Southern California; Cahuilla Creek MX, Perris Raceway, and Glen Helen. These three tracks were chosen because of their range of terrain, size, and jump style, which we felt would test our 250F fleet effectively. Cahuilla features constant elevation changes, flowing fast corners, a bit of sand in the berms, and it gets angled acceleration chop through most sections. Perris Raceway is your typical modern day motocross track, as it's on fairly flat property, with many man-made obstacles as you enter and exit the corners. At Perris, you're constantly accelerating, jumping, and then braking hard, with ruts and outside berms in nearly every corner. Glen Helen pretty much needs no introduction. The iconic host of Nationals and MXGPs is old-school moto. It's littered with large hills, and is fast, rough, and full of huge braking bumps as you descend the downhills. The track was especially gnarly this year, as our day spent there was the practice day prior to the 2017 Vet Worlds. That meant that there was a large number of riders on the track at the same time as our testers, along with some of the most nonsensical lines we've ever seen due to the massive range of skill levels on the track. Beyond this, we continued working with LITPro to keep track of our laps and data for each day. The riders could use this data to help gauge their performance, but it's complicated to feature here.

Previous readers of our Vital MX Shootouts will likely recognize the majority of names on our tester list. Each of these riders are selected because of their ability to provide feedback, their honest nature, along with being in the riding shape needed to pound out lap-after-lap during our multiple days at the track. As you can see by the past bikes the riders have ridden or owned, most of them have had experience on quite the range of brands and models. And as we've had in past versions, one of our test riders is going to be buying a bike based on his results from this Shootout. That's some decisive info right there.

If you're looking for a refresher on what's new with each model, you can find the technical info by hitting the specs links. They're listed in order by MSRP, from most expensive to least expensive.

Below you'll find two charts, the first being a horsepower overlay from all the models and second you'll see an overlay chart for all the torque figures. All the dyno figures are produced from bikes in their standard engine mapping, but some models in this test produce more power or different curves in the optional maps. All dyno services were provided by Race Tech in Corona, California.

These weights were also collected at Race Tech, using a scale that recorded front and rear bias of each bike, along with the total weight. Dry weights are done with the motorcycles ready to ride, minus fuel in the tanks. Wet weights on the other hand are ready to ride with a full tank of fuel. Our version of a "full tank" was to fill each bike until the fuel was at the brim of the tank, then place the cap on. That's as full as they get.

Below you'll find the results for each bike, listed from last to first place. With each overall result, you'll also find the personal scores of each test rider added up, which reflects that model's finishing position. Each rider ranks the bikes from first to sixth, then we add up these scores and the lowest total number wins. It's simple but effective, allowing you a quick view into how each bike landed where they did. Once you get past the shock and awe of the results, you can scroll down a bit more to find each rider's individual results, along with their personal rankings and write-ups about each bike. Giving each rider their own voice and allowing you to see where we all agreed, and disagreed over the 2018 fleet.

For those that want the brief low-down or just like listening instead of reading, we've got our video edition with about ten minutes of quick results and insight from our own head of testing, Michael Lindsay. If you have some free time though, we strongly recommend you keep scrolling to see the scores of each bike and each of our seven test rider's thoughts. There sections will show you how we came to these conclusions and how the scores added together.

Also, if you want to discuss the results with us, drop us a comment below the article or join our larger QNA discussion in the forum..which you can find that here: Forum QNA - 2018 Vital MX 250 Shootout.

Scores: 6 - 6 - 6 - 6 - 6 - 6 - 6 = 42

Scores: 5 - 4 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 5 - 5 = 31

Scores: 4 - 5 - 3 - 3 - 2 - 4 - 4 = 25

Scores: 2 - 2 - 4 - 1 - 5 - 3 - 2 = 19

Scores: 3 - 3 - 1 - 5 - 4 - 1 - 1 = 18

Scores: 1 - 1 - 2 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 3 = 12

The Suzuki RM-Z250 isn't like the RM-Z450, which was aging like fine wine. The 250 has wrinkles...and a limp, which are becoming more obvious with each passing year. The main downfall lies in the engine and its performance. A few years back, the RM-Z was competitive with snappy throttle response, good initial response and a strong bark as you entered the mid-range. But as the field has advanced, the other bikes have taken on some serious horsepower up top and the Suzuki can't touch that as it falls flat earlier than any other bike in the class. Where it goes flat, the other bikes aren't just making power, their numbers are still going up. The more open the track layouts we rode this year, the more obvious this became. On tighter tracks, the RM-Z was closer to holding its own. Down in second and third gear, the yellow machine has just enough bark to keep things exciting with some well-timed shifts.

The engine isn't the only thing holding back the RM-Z, although I feel like it's a part of the problem I'm about to describe with the suspension. For me, the RM-Z has struggled for a few years now in the fork department. The move from Showa's SFF spring fork to the KYB PSF2 a few years ago was helpful, but not enough when the settings still aren't dialed in. The RM-Z suffers from a topped-out feeling from the fork, with initial tension that's hard to break without softening up the fork a decent amount. For me, this required compression clicker adjustments and lowering the air pressure. Once this was done, the fork was a little dead and fell through the stroke, so speeding up the rebound did a lot to keep the fork moving and get some of the plushness back. But with the changes, the fork struggles to hold itself up, as the RM-Z's older engine seems to produce more inertia and engine braking than most of the bikes in the class.

Out back, the shock also has a held up feel, but it’s much easier to get working as softening things up is more effective and doesn't upset the chassis the way the fork changes can. Speaking of the chassis, this is the RM-Z's saving grace as it's precise – a little rigid – but precise. Even though it handles well, I feel like it's actually fairly stable as the bike doesn't get too twitchy, even when I would run the fork too soft and let it dive through the stroke. Of course, that didn't bode well for how I rode the bike when the front dove that much, but it didn't shake the front end like most other bikes in the class would in the same situation.

Ergo-wise, the RM-Z is old school and easy neutral in seat to footpeg height, and has bars that are fairly close to the rider, good for the smaller guy moving up. Although, the bar bend itself has too much sweep and cause an angle in my elbows I'm not used to. Down low, the frame feels a bit wider than most of the bikes in the field. In the end, the RM-Z is able to put up a decent fight on tighter tracks with the right suspension changes, but it's not able to match that as things get faster, bigger, and rougher.

As a guy that has owned more KX250Fs than any other bike, it pains me to place the green machine in fifth. I'm mad at myself as I typed out the finishing position but let’s get into it with the good points. Starting off, I think someone in the racing department has been playing around the KXF, as it has the most responsive and well-mapped feel of any bike in the class. It doesn't matter what gear or RPM I'm at, give the Kawi a blip of the throttle or turn it a bit farther, and it comes to life with a confidence-inspiring bark like it's ready to go. Off the bottom and into the mid-range this bark is followed up by some very usable power, but at higher RPMs it just doesn't lay down the power to match that bark. It doesn't run bad up top, just not as good as the bikes above it on this list. Actually, “just not as good as the others,” is the running theme to my time on the Kawasaki. For me, it really does a lot of things quite well, but it’s not the best at any of those things, and the machines I ranked above it have some real standout features. 

Regarding the ergos, I've always felt comfortable on the KXFs due to my extensive time on them and I feel like the latest generation has a lot going for the young grom moving up to the big bikes, just like I was when I got my first one. The KXF has what feels to be the shortest distance from the seat to footpegs, a thin frame between the legs, and a low subframe that doesn't taper up, which works great for the shorter legs of the upcoming rider. This inspires a lot of confidence as I move back on the bike and hang it out, but it's coupled to a tall handlebar...which caused me to roll it back quite a bit to make it feel low enough to match the rest of the machine.

As for the chassis balance, the KXF has that low squatted feel in the rear, but due to a softer front fork spring this year, the overall bike settles down and feels low to the ground. Once again, good for the little guy. But in some situations the Kawi feels like it wallows around a bit in both the front and rear. I feel like the softer fork spring this year was the right move, but it needs a little less rebound damping (aka needs quicker rebound) to allow the fork to work more and extend back out between hits. Otherwise, it tends to pack down and unsettle the bike, especially under heavy braking and on downhills. Quicker rebound and even a little stiffer compression on some tracks helped a lot and got the fork working for me, but it just never had the plushness of the bikes I ranked above it. I got it working, just not as smoothly.

Like I mentioned above, the Kawi also feels a little dead out back, as the shock would pack down under acceleration. This made the KXF easy to rear steer with its snappy response and squatted rear as I hung back off the bike, but it also caused it to snap loose sometimes as it wallowed too deep in the stroke. Speeding up the rebound was the biggest help for me here, as it stayed up in the stroke and was able to take the next hit better, along with keeping the chassis more neutral and balanced.

The Kawasaki would move up the list a lot for me with a simple handlebar swap, more top end performance, and a suspension change up front. That would be moving over to a dual function fork, and away from the SFF system which I feel can just never get the balance between plushness and hold up that a standard fork system can accomplish...at least accomplish much easier at the production/consumer level.

This decision was difficult, as you'll see (spoiler alert), when I placed the Husky's brethren a few spots ahead. I had to weigh whether the reasons I didn't like the Husqvarna were enough to rate it behind the KTM or away from it. Ultimately I ask myself if the faults with each bike were something I could live with in stock form, and the couple things that stood out about Husky were enough to allow another bike or two to slip in above it.

In the stats, the Husqvarna is immediately impressive; second lightest in the class, top level horsepower, Brembo brakes, tons of electrical goodies, and more. When first sitting on the bike, it has an aggressive rider compartment with a flat seat profile and low, flat handlebars. Overall though, the Husky feels a little tall off the ground, but otherwise the ergos suited me well. The long flat sidepanels offer a lot of grip for the legs and they really don't bow and push out anywhere, making things very consistent as you move about the bike.

As for the engine, it's impressive on the dyno and out on the track, in a certain way. The Husky feels like it pulls forever, but it also feels like it takes too long to get through the gears. It has great torque off the bottom and starts off smooth, but continues to build and build through the RPM range, ultimately ending with some insane pull at the highest RPMs. The problem is I want to be at those high RPMs sooner, and it's kind of difficult to keep the bike there. Every time you let the RPMs drop, you have to do the waiting game as the Husky spools back up, kind of like a car with a big turbo, waiting for the patience to pay off. While not all 250s get through their bottom ends quickly, usually a moderate amount of clutch work can fix that and get the train rolling. But on the Husky it didn't seem to matter how much I mashed the clutch...the bike just didn't bark to life like I would've wanted. I say this as I tried both maps, and not even the second more aggressive mapping provided a cure. Also to clarify, this engine feel isn't apparent at lower gears as the engine has enough power to jet through first and second gear, but starts to become a bit more obvious in third gear and ultimately becomes a problem for me once fourth is reached.

I found that I spent a bit too much time trying to figure out my shift points with the Husqvarna and had to focus a bit more on rolling my speed through the corners, as I couldn't stop, pivot, and squirt out without an RPM penalty. Because of this I was definitely smooth on the Husqvarna, but it didn't offer the excitement I felt throughout the rest of the field. Also, without that bigger hit in power, the rear end was a bit more difficult to set up as it took some adjusting to get it to squat as consistently as the KTM. Also the added flex of the Husky's subframe and swingarm caused a difference in feel. While meant to aid the Husky, and they do in a sense, they also eliminate some of the precision feel the KTM offers. I seemed to struggle sliding the Husky more, because of the power output and the feel the rear offered. It just seemed a bit inconsistent and not as confidence-inspiring.

Speaking of the chassis as a whole, the Husqvarna offers more comfort than the KTM due to the extra flex. In our 450 Shootout, I was a fan of this extra comfort on the Husky and chose it as my winner. But in the 250 class, I wanted more of the precision feel and the comfort wasn't as needed. The fork itself was comfortable, but I seemed to struggle a bit more with balancing hold up and comfort, as I was driving deeper into the corners because I had a false awareness at times of how fast I was going. After a bit of work I was able to get the same comfort as I had on the KTM, but not quite as confidence in the front. It felt a tad bit more vague, where the KTM gave me more feel along the ground.

I will say on one of the tracks we rode the Husqvarna was outstanding. When the conditions were slick and I needed to roll my corners to maximize traction, the Husqvarna was great. The extra chassis flex also helped in these situations. But anywhere that had quality traction, big hills, or large braking bump sections I could charge into, I just didn't feel as comfortable as the bikes that bettered this one on my list. The Husky has its place and I think there's a host of riders that will appreciate it, but it just doesn't tickle me the way my top three do.

Third Place: Honda CRF250R

Placing the new CRF250R in third was a struggle for me as I bounced it around from fourth to second between our testing days. Why? I never really got along with the last generation bike, and the new one is seriously night and day better than the old bike for my style. But one thing holds me back from throwing this higher up the list, and that’s the lack of bottom end snap. When I rate my bikes the good traits are obvious, but I try to think whether I can live with the negatives long term, and while I love the new engine that small missing area of power down low is just enough for me to change my mind.

As I mentioned, the previous generation CRFs weren't my cup of tea, as the ergos and overall chassis balance/handling characteristics didn't suit me at all. The latest generation still isn't exactly built towards my style, but it did something even better, offering up a bike that can be ridden by a range of riders and styles…at least that's my opinion. Considering it took top honors in the 450 class I think that shows how good the new chassis could be, and I think the 250 is even better. The frame on this little machine is a bit more compliant that its bigger brother, but still offers the insane amount of front end feel I've gotten used to on the 450. This feel from the frame is coupled with a front fork that actually slightly out ranked the YZF's KYB forks for me. The forks were plush throughout the stroke, but had just enough bottoming resistance to keep me happy. Any clicker changes I made over our days of testing were based more off maintaining a chassis balance I wanted. On jumpier tracks, I went just a little bit stiffer to push the bike and on faster/rougher tracks I was near the stock compression as it was so plush, but sped up the rebound a bit just to keep it up in the stroke a bit more for my liking. 

As for the shock, over our few days my changes were relegated to a click or two slower rebound to keep the rear settled under acceleration, and occasionally going a bit stiffer on high speed compression to keep it away from bottoming if I seat bounced an abrupt jump face. On tighter tracks, I ran the forks between three and five millimeters in fork heights, with about 106mm of sag...while on faster tracks I played around with 107-108mm of sag and three millimeters of fork height.

"using that hit was reminiscent of a riding a two-stroke at times"

The engine is big step in the right direction for Honda in the 250 class, going from a 2017 engine that wasn't much better than the RM-Z, to something that gives it just enough juice to be competitive in the overall rankings. The new dual cam engine, which is very reminiscent of KTM's engine layout, has moved all of its power to the mid-to-high RPM range...but has given up what it previously had down low. Now the engine doesn't start producing notable numbers until around what feels like 8,000-8,5000 RPM and keeps pulling from there. Below that RPM though, the bike is quite mellow and doesn't have any bark to get itself moving. In the standard map, it takes a little bit or time to get through this bottom end lag as it rolls into the mid-range and builds to where the real power is. The third, aggressive map, spools up a bit quicker and has more of a hit in that mid-range. This made the bike more exciting to ride and using that hit was reminiscent of a riding a two-stroke at times, as using the hit to your advantage could make things quite fun. Leaving the bike a gear high allowed me to climb on the throttle a bit early in the corners and time it where the hit would let me slam through or hop over some chop on exit...or squirt the rear end around to get off a corner earlier. 

If conditions were soft, though, the Honda took some effort and more shifting than the other two bikes above it on this list. If you buried into a berm a gear to high, or even a similar gear as the Yamaha and KTM, it wouldn't always pull it and would require some serious clutch action to get things rolling again.

Overall, I can't compliment the new CRF enough for the chassis, suspension and even the well-balanced ergonomics. The bike was my favorite to ride in the roughest sections this year, due to the up and down rev of the engine, making it drop RPMs and inertia quickly as I entered corners...making it easy to move around what's actually the heaviest bike in the class. At the end of our testing I made my decisions based on the bike as more of a "package" and with the lack of bottom end and mid-to-top that is good, but still not better than the KTM. I had to relegate the CRF to third. If Honda could get some more initial roll on response and torque out of this bike, it would contend for the top spot on my list.

Second Place: Yamaha YZ250F

Moving into 2018, the YZF is now in its fifth year since the major powerplant overhaul in 2014 that brought it into stardom and wide praise. The YZ250F simply creates power in a way that no other 250 in the class quite matches. The YZF comes to life earlier, with more torque and snap than the competition...making you think you're on a toned down 450. What really makes the Yamaha stand out is not just how early it comes on but how it keeps pulling from there. Low-to-mid performance is unmatched, and allows you to ride this bike in a gear higher than nearly everything else in the class, and in some sections it's in a class of its own. From there, the Yami doesn't quite give up as it pulls into the higher RPMs quite respectably, ending out on a good note for a broad powerband.

As for the ergos and chassis, Yamaha has done a lot of work here but its still not quite suited for me. While the chassis itself works well and offers a good combination of flex/absorption and precision, it's the layout that doesn't quite fit . The bars are low, which I like, but the peg to seat height is a bit much for my short legs. This gets even even more obvious as I moved back on the bike, as the subframe configuration causes the seat to gain in height at the rear. This makes it a bit uncomfortable for me to get back under braking as that height and the bulge in the sideplate from the exhaust use up what little leg room I have in a hurry. Up front, the bigger radiator shrouds can cause a similar effect. Adding to this is the overall chassis balance on the Yamaha. To work well, it's a bit tall in the rear. Typically we used between 100-102mm of sag, in the past I've tried more but it's hard to keep the front end feel needed to get the slightly bigger YZF around the corners.

This might seem like a lot of complaining, but there's a reason why it holds down second place, as the suspension makes up for the short comings of the ergos. It's a bit soft, but really soaks up everything I throw at it. Combined with the amazing engine it has, it allows me to take some pretty unique lines as the suspension takes up the worst chop while the bottom end snap allows me to pop in and out of certain lines. Not to say it's nimble, as I feel like I take wider lines on the YZF, but I can square out of them earlier if needed to change up my entrances to the next section with ease.

"The plushness is there, it just needs a little help staying there sometimes."

As for the suspension itself, I already mentioned its plush, but it still can be assisted by a bit of tweaking. On the faster tracks that contained a lot of back-to-back braking bumps, I felt the YZF needed the rebound to be a bit quicker, otherwise the fork would fall too deep into the stroke and that tall rear end would ride me into the corners. The plushness is there, it just needs a little help staying there sometimes. As for the shock, depending upon the track I would do a few different things with rebound or the high speed compression, all to keep the rear end a bit more squatted under acceleration.

The Yamaha really has two things going for it in the end, an engine that's unlike anything else in the class that allows you to ride it like a 250F or in ways you wouldn't normally; then it has suspension that really can take the worst you can throw at it. Considering how big the engine is when weighing the decision in the 250 class, this really gave it some extra points in my book. The downfall and reason I can't put the Yamaha first is due to the ergos that don't suite my body build and what I consider to be a chassis that's a little too touchy to keep balanced for my riding style.

First Place: KTM 250 SX-F

There's a simple reason why the KTM tops my list again in 2018, it's a complete package. Starting from when I sat on the bike, everything feels in place. The peg to seat height and reach of the bars is cozy at my smaller size but not so cramped that someone bigger than myself couldn't take over the controls. Rolling onto the track the responsiveness of the engine, strong brakes, and great bike balance offered immediate confidence and an ease to get up to speed. For me, the KTM was literally the easiest bike to hit all my marks and jumps, even on the first lap of a session when coming from a totally different bike.

The engine isn't as strong as the YZF off the bottom, but it has just enough power at the crack of the throttle that allows me to carry a gear higher in some corners. From there, it snaps to life into a strong mid-range pull and puts out the most horsepower up top. In the standard map (map one), the bike has more of a linear and consistent pull into the mid-range, while the second more aggressive map has more of snap that I preferred. Overall, the engine perfectly suited my style and allowed me squeak around the slick insides, rolling on the power a gear high before the real power came on...or bury the KTM deep into a powder berm, screaming the machine and pulling a clean shift on exit to come out and accelerate down the straight.  

Out on the track, the KTM feels as light as it looks. The actual weight, or lack thereof, is noticeable when throwing it around; along with the engine inertia being quite low and allowing the 250 SX-F to float into the corners. The chassis itself is quite short, offering a small and nimble feel when getting it into the tighter corners, but the aggressive suspension settings and engine output make it easy to throw into the outside corners.

The only negative in the bike is the fork, and I'm stretching to say that at this point. On my personal list, the KTM's AER 48 ranks just behind the Yamaha and Honda's forks, only losing out on a slight bit of plushness those two offer. The actual movement of the WP forks on the bike is quite good, I just feel like I have to set them up slightly stiffer for front end feel and to keep them up a bit under heavy braking. Due to all the time I've spent over the past few years on the AER 48s on all the KTM and Husky motocross models, its easy for me to adjust this fork and I find situations where I can use combinations of compression, rebound and small air adjustments to get exactly what I want. For the sake of how someone less experienced might handle this fork, I also tried leaving the air pressure standard and did all my adjustments with compression and rebound. Doing this, the results were still quite good, but just not as perfect as the YZF and CRF. For rougher tracks such as Glen Helen, I relied on faster rebound to keep the forks up, while a jumpy track like Perris I actually went up in air pressure but softened the compression. I felt like this stiffened the fork in the mid-stroke and on for the aggressive sections, but opening the compression a little gave me a bit of comfort back at low speeds.

As for the shock, it's really on point and my changes to it had more to do with bike balance, just tweaking how the rear end would squat in different conditions and level of traction. At no point did I feel the actual compression or rebound feel wasn't to my liking. This is one of the bikes I played the least with sag, too, as I found 106mm works well for me regardless of the track. The balance and handling characteristics I found with that and the standard fork height kept me happy at each track.

The combination of the light weight, an engine that suited my needs, and suspension I could easily tune to my needs, offered me a bike that I found desirable at every track in every condition. While I loved a lot of the bikes in this test, none of them suited me in every situation like the Katoom did. 

Age: 30
Height: 6'0" / Weight: 147 lbs.
Experience: 30+ Intermediate
Recent Bikes: 2017 Honda CRF450R (current), 2013 Yamaha YZ250, 2015 KTM 250 SX-F

Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z250

I really want to throw my leg over a Suzuki and have my mind blown, but that wasn't what was in store for 2018. Unfortunately, when I rode the RM-Z it felt as if I was riding a throwback Thursday bike from what feels like a decade ago. Even though the Suzuki came in last on my lineup this year, keep in mind that all the bikes on this list are all very competitive and we are always splitting hairs when deciding on the rankings here. But with all the other bikes being so much more current in fit and finish, the RM-Z stands out. With saying that however, it does have a few great attributes though that made the bike really fun to ride. The bottom end is great, and it hits right off the get go and pulls pretty solidly into the mid. The tighter the track, the more fun this machine is, as it’s quite explosive out of the gate. Now the problem lies when the engine tapers off after the mid-range, and signs off completely towards the top, making it somewhat contradictory to a typical 250F powerband. Also, the bike had noticeable weight to it over the others in the class. When I would come out of a corner and be leaning over to “scrub” a rolling mound or off a jump I could literally feel the bike’s weight in a way that made it feel heavier than my 450 at home. I’m not sure if it’s a gyro effect or if the bike is just heavier, but it was noticeable on the track in a few areas.  

Now when it came to the suspension I really struggled with the fork. It was initially way too harsh and would not get into the stroke in order to absorb hits and bumps which ended up actually translating those hits into my wrists. I spent some time making adjustments so that they would break through that initial holdup and get into the meat of the stroke, which helped on those same areas of the track, but ended up being far too soft on other parts and ended up upsetting the entire chassis. It was a balancing act to find a setting that would least likely upset either part of a track and it took the most work in the field to get to a point where I could put laps in. Even though the engine is lacking, I feel as if the Suzuki had the fork action of the Honda or Yamaha and worked will with the chassis, it would be hard to place at the bottom of the list. But when it comes down to picking up one of these bikes to race in stock form, the fork and lack of top end power, as well as the  simple weight of the yellow machine will hold it back from ranking any higher than sixth in the Shootout for me.

Fifth Place: Husqvarna FC 250

The Husky was a head-scratcher for me. I love the KTM, but I kept double-checking myself when considering how drastically different these two bikes felt.  The Husky’s fit and finish is top-notch and has been in the recent years; great clutch feel, brake setup, hard parts, and my favorite...E-start! The bike is slim and light-feeling, but it starts at the slightly different feeling ergos, such as a few instances where I couldn’t find the rear brake pedal easily and ended up overshooting a corner. The footpegs and seating position felt tighter but a bit taller than some of the other bikes, specifically the Honda and KTM, but I’m not certain if that’s the case when it comes to actual measurements (I'm going off "feel" here). Initially, it's quite surprising how quiet the Husky is and that's matched by the power delivery, quiet and calm. I felt that I had some trouble staying on the same page with the power delivery, as there were a few sections in particular where I'd be struggling to either run second gear out or shift to third and potentially not have the "hit" before take-off. Even after a few sessions on the bike, I found myself either over-revving or shifting the bike too soon, which started to affect my confidence and had me over-thinking things. The power was smooth and definitely there (I'm not saying it's slow), but I didn’t feel as if it had much bottom-to-mid due to how slowly it revved up. The torque is there, just not the snap you need to get things done at time. When the mid came alive it was strong and progressive, pulling consistently to a good top end that would let you stretch out the power quite nicely. 

The suspension and chassis were good in areas for me, but I found myself having some issues in other areas. The forks and shock worked very well for when the suspension was in the stroke and maintained a consistent balance, but I had a bit of trouble getting the bike to maintain a level of grip I wanted in a few key places. I made some adjustments and was able to help with the issue, but I still had some disruptions upon corner entry with the front end and some of the faster/rougher sections where I was on the throttle, trusting the front end’s ability to remain stable. These slightly offsetting quirks, along with missing the right gearing at times, really took a lot of my confidence away while on the bike. In the end, it's still a great bike, with a lot of great features and solid points. But in the grand scheme of things, I felt like it took a bit more to dial in then the bikes above it, and I didn't find myself riding the bike as much for enjoyment, but spending more time trying to adapt and learn the machine.

Fourth Place: Kawasaki KX250F

The green machine took fourth for me this year, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I really enjoyed the bike! The KXF has always been a great bike, but it wasn’t expecting it to be as close the top three as it was for me this year. It's good in a lot of areas, as the ergos are pretty similar in feel from prior years. What surprised me the most on the Kawasaki was how quickly I became comfortable on it, and how easy it was to ride as my motos progressed.

As for the engine, it has a great bottom-to-mid hit, really raspy and responsive, and continues to pull decently until tapers off as you really get into the higher revs. In most places on the track, this wasn’t too much of an issue and I really enjoyed having the nice responsive bottom end hit. That helped propel me out of any sand or rutted corner I was in. When I started getting up to speed and really wringing it out, the bike was underwhelming and instead of being great it just remained good again. I was able to play with the couplers that adjust the maps, and with the more aggressive map you get a more aggressive hit, but basically in the same areas with a bit more extension into the top of the power.  

"...turn in on the KXF was effortless."

The chassis is very smooth, with great absorption and turn in on the KXF was effortless.  It would drop into ruts with confidence and I wouldn’t feel compelled to foot dab or make any adjustments before rolling on the throttle through the exit. I know the Kawi gets a rear-steer label, which is very obvious on the 450, but here on the 250 that doesn't feel like it's quite the same case. It holds a better balance with great turn in and front feel, but you can also step it out a bit with the snappy response when needed. The forks were good, not as plush overall as some of the other bikes, but still with a consistent feel through the stroke. With the rear shock, though, I felt it was a bit more active than some of the other bikes and sometimes it would unsettle a bit on downhill or through braking bump sections. Overall, the bike is a solid package for anyone looking for a new 250F, but I feel that the top three on my list edged it out in each area by enough to keep the KXF in fourth this year. 

Third Place: Honda CRF250R

I've been itching to spend some time on this bike, especially since I already own a 17’ CRF450 and love it! Since a huge list of those updates have been transferred over to the 250F this year, I was excited to see how she stacked up. Compared to the other bikes in the class, the CRF feels long and lower, especially after getting off the YZF, Husky, and RM-Z. The ergos are very inviting and take almost no time to adjust to. The E-Start is a huge plus in my column, and I’m glad they got on the button bandwagon. My favorite part of the Honda were the forks...which gave the bike what could be best described as a wide, plush, and safe-feeling front end. The action is smooth and there aren't the bottoming concerns I felt on last year's 450. The front end confidence is a front-runner for me, as the bike turns and works extremely well on the track, and even better on the jumps. It's easy to carve, turn, jump, and ride...in typical Honda fashion.  

The engine had been a huge topic for the Honda these last few years, and they've definitely created a whole new package this time around. While it's very potent, and I'd even go as far to say it has explosive power, it's in a very small area near the top of the powerband. To put it bluntly, the bike is incredible, as long as you keep her singing. It actually reminds me a lot of a 150SX in the way that the bottom is smooth, but slow to pull you out of the corner and as it builds into the mid...you start to realize you'll be alright once it hits mid/top and you launch into the next section. Now while this engine is fun, it has problems which lay in two areas: I had trouble on tight rutted areas because I would either have to shift twice in a corner (where I may only shift once or not at all on the other bikes) and if the bike were to fall off the power I would have to wait a moment for it to regain its potent hit. This isn’t the worst thing, but if you ever have lazy moments or make mistakes like I do, this will definitely be noticeable on the track. If I could place the YZF or the KTM engine performance into the chassis of the Honda, it would easily be fighting for the top spot this year.

Second Place: Yamaha YZ250F

The spots behind my winner were very difficult for me to decipher. The 250F class is very diverse in the way that each seems to shine in one or more areas that others don’t. In the regards to the YZF this year, it has a few areas that shine a bit more than some of its competitors. The bike is still tall and wide in comparison to the others, but it’s very easy to get used to after a lap or so, and the cockpit makes it easy to move around on the bike freely as needed. I found that the YZF was a really fun bike to ride, meaning that the power was playful and useable with a typical Yamaha “grunt” that really makes some of the jumps and sections doable without hesitation. The engine package has been and continues to be smooth while powerful ever since a lot of the changes that took place in 2014. When it comes to the engine on the blue machine, I would say that the “grunt” or pure torque of the machine is its separating factor from the rest of the pack. 

The chassis was very balanced and I instantly felt confident on the bike as I have on recent YZ250Fs. The fork and frame design really work well on the 250F, and in my opinion, far better than the chassis works on its bigger brother. Overall, I didn’t have any unstable feeling with the bike, I felt that it was actually quite playful, and allowed me to pre-jump some braking bump sections. I also had a blast on the jumps with the bike as it was very easy to throw around. The chassis does feel somewhat “soft”, but in a good way, adding a bit of extra comfort even when thinks got really rough. As for the suspension, it’s a very fluid but active feel, with great and progressive bottoming resistance that helped me feel confident about diving into sections. What held it back was a bit of struggle when it came to dropping into tight rutted corners. It felt like the bike has a lot of weight on the front, and can react fairly quickly to front end input, and if you’re a bit off I felt like I was making some twitchy adjustments as I tried to get into the rut. However, this was not the case from mid-corner to exit, as the bike was solid and put the power down predictably...tracking great out of corners and into any section. Another small drawback for me on the Yamaha was that there is still no E-Start. Also, the seat and cockpit area is still a bit wide for my liking, but it’s not a deal breaker for me since it proved easy to adapt to on the track. With fun and useable power, along with a very capable chassis, the YZF earned a solid runner-up spot for me this year!

First Place: KTM 250 SX-F

It's honestly been an amazing thing to watch KTM propel their bikes and brand to the forefront over the last decade. Whatever they’re doing over there is definitely working, and keeps getting better with each year! I currently have a red big bike in the garage, but after spinning laps on the 2018 KTM 250 SX-F, that might change. As much as I wanted to find flaws and quirks in the bike this year, it was near impossible for me.  Initially, the bike felt like a typical KTM chassis for me; which means it feels short, light, and slim. I’ve said it a lot lately, but the electric start should be standard on all bikes these days, and KTM has had the lead on this for some time now. As for the controls, I felt that they were all very neutral and easy to adapt to within a few seconds on the track, which wasn’t the case for me on every bike this year.  

When I took the bike out on the track, I instantly noticed a smooth and fairly broad powerband (for a 250F) that is in unison with your throttle engagement. It doesn't quite bark like the Yamaha or Kawasaki, but it has some good surges that makes it feel exciting. I also found that I could ride the KTM in third gear for most all the tracks, and if I got a little tired or lazy, I wouldn’t feel like the bike was struggling to deliver torque or power. I definitely shifted the least on the KTM as the power delivery was strong from the bottom through a subtle build in the mid, and ending with a powerful top end power where you can really play with the HP this engine produces. 

"I feel that the KTM has a full package that is very hard to beat..."

Mated up to this powerful engine package was a very fun, purpose-built chassis. I’m a huge fan of the steel-framed bikes, and now with the AER forks dialed in I feel that the KTM has a full package that is very hard to beat in the 250 class. In prior years, the fork was the hitch for me when it came to putting the KTM at the top of the box, but not anymore, as I felt that the rougher the track got, the better the bike performed. Believe it or not, I have to say that there's now an air fork that I would love to have on my bike! In my opinion, the best suspension is the suspension that doesn’t draw your attention in any way, because it’s working exactly as it should. With bone stock, off the floor settings, I felt the KTM had this affect with me. On the tracks we rode, the KTM took the most minor amount of clicker changes, made me push a little bit harder, and smile that much more. All-in-all, a killer engine package with a flawless chassis setup which complemented by the high-end brakes, hydraulic clutch, E-Start and mapping options made it a clear winner for me!

Age: 24
Height: 5' 7" / Weight: 150 lbs.
Riding Experience: Pro Motocross and Supercross
Recent Bikes: 2015 Honda CRF250R (current), 2017 Husqvarna FC 450, 2016 Yamaha YZ450F

Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z250

The Suzuki showed its age a little when I first climbed aboard, as the frame felt a little wider by my feet and knees than the other bikes in the class. It also had a handlebar that had a bit too much sweep for me. The actual mounting point of the bars were a bit back, so a straight bar would've been nice for my size and style, as the footpeg to seat height was quite comfortable.

Once out on the track, the chassis felt balanced on smooth straights, but once I got into the bumps and chop it was obvious fork was pretty stiff and ridged. It just felt held up in the stroke, and the rear end matched this feeling, making the bike feel a bit loose as it danced across the top of bumps instead of soaking them up. To free things up, I went softer on compression and faster on rebound to get things moving again, but this didn't suit jumpy tracks well, as now it would blow through the stroke. Out on a track like Glen Helen I was able to get the bike working well in the rough, but at a jump-oriented track like Perris, I couldn't find a happy medium.

On tighter tracks, the engine was okay, as the snap off the bottom-to-mid in the lower gears could satisfy with the right shift points. But as soon as you needed to really wring it out, it just couldn't keep up with the pack. The faster the sections, the more shifting work was needed to keep things rolling, especially if there were any soft or slick sections that could pull the RPMs too far in either direction. It needed to be in just the right place to make competitive power. 

Fifth Place: Kawasaki KX250F

Within my first few laps on the Kawasaki, it was obvious this bike does a lot of things very well, but nothing about it stood out as best in the class. The chassis setup was very balanced through straights into the corners, but it got a little loose on exits as the rear end has the tendency to snap around at times.

Up front, the fork took a little rebound work as it was dead at times, working well at low speed but falling into the stroke in rougher sections. Actually, speeding up the rebound on both ends helped keep the bike up in the stroke a bit more and allow each end to work a bit more.

"...as I was easily able to get back on the bike and wheelie through the roughest sections."

Being that the KXF was a little on the soft side, it did make it easy to plant and throw my weight around to force the bike into doing certain things. This also offered a lot of feel at Glen Helen, but made it a bit hard to push the bike to its limits on the hills and rougher sections on the track, even with the rebound opened up quite a bit. What did help in the rough was the low subframe, as I was easily able to get back on the bike and wheelie through the roughest sections. The footpeg to seat height was quite compact, which was comfortable for my size, but the handlebar felt a bit too tall to match the rest of the bike.

As for the motor, the KXF had great bottom end and throttle response, making it fun on tight tracks, but it revved out quickly in the bottom gears when the track opened up. The bike didn't fall on its face at high RPMs, but it definitely went flat, requiring some quicker shifts when entering fast sections until you were above third gear.

Fourth Place: Yamaha YZ250F

Initially, I thought the Yamaha was quite balanced under acceleration, but once I let off the gas and started braking for corners quite a bit of weight would transfer to the front of the bike, giving it a stinkbug feel. The faster the track and the harder the braking zones, the more this became apparent. Stiffening the fork a bit helped, but if the conditions were hardpacked, I'd lose a bit of feel and end up with a vague front end coming into corners. The overall action of the fork was quite plush and really shined if the track had more of a constant flow (and heavy braking wasn't involved). For example, out at Glen Helen, the rebound and plushness worked really well on the hills and chop that littered the track. As for the shock, the action really seemed to suit the Yamaha, especially under acceleration, with all the power it put out.

The YZF definitely has a lot of bottom-to-mid power, as this bike is strong from the initial crack of the throttle. First, second, and third gears were very consistent and usable, but the YZF didn't pull all the way through as well in third, and fourth; relying on shorter shifts as it seemed to go flat in third a bit and more notably fourth at high RPMs. Mostly, I would've liked to feel it rev out a bit better in third and fourth as I was using those gears often.

The ergonomics were interesting, as the footpeg to seat height is more spaced out and in my opinion, if I had longer legs it would be a perfect fit. The handlebar positioning also felt slightly far away and I would've liked it to be a bit closer to me. Due to the power, softer suspension, and ergonomics, I felt like this bike made me ride it more like a 450 than a 250 at times.

Third Place: Husqvarna FC 250

The Husqvarna's chassis setup is extremely well-balanced from the get go, as the fork and shock worked well together through rough straights and deep technical ruts. Both ends of the bike offered a lot of feel and definitely offered a lot of confidence when I pushed hard on acceleration and braking. The harder and more aggressive I was in each section, the better the bike worked, but when traction became an issue and I couldn't push as hard, the suspension was a bit too held up in the stroke. In these situations, things needed to be a bit softer to get the bike to settle or I'd end up rear steering the bike due to the loss of front end traction.

The more constant speed the track offered, the more it suited the Husqvarna. The suspension handled constant abuse well, and when the engine was spooled up and didn't need to rev back up over and over in rush, the easier it was to use the actual power output to its best. The reason I say this is although the Husky puts down some solid power, with great torque from bottom-to-mid, and it really shines up top...but it takes a bit to get there. In lower gears such as first, second, and even third a bit, its easy to use up the engine and get through the gears. But as you enter third, try to go to fourth and above, the FC 250 takes a bit of time to rev out effectively before the next gear change. Sometimes, it just makes you wait a bit too long and can throw off your flow. 

With the way the Husky made power, it was easy to flow on the bike and it was actually deceiving how much speed you had going into each section as your shifts weren't at the same time on this bike. I actually came into some corners quicker than I'd expected and I'd have to brake quite hard to gather things up, throwing off the chassis balance and upsetting my corner entrance. I'd end up standing the bike up as I tried to get stopped and then resort to rear steering to get back out of sections as I missed my marks getting the bike laid into the corner. In the end I could ride the Husqvarna fast and quite smoothly...but it took more adjustment to my riding style and what I did on the track, more than any other bike in the Shootout.

Second Place: KTM 250 SX-F

My first few laps on the KTM showed one main thing, this is a precision bike that's meant to be raced. The rider compartment has a neutral peg to seat height, not too compact but not too big. The bar bend is low and flat, giving the bike a very aggressive feel. The shifter and brake pedal are a bit more spaced out from the pegs, requiring more effort to reach but also easier to not drag or mistakenly tap as you move about the bike.

While the chassis offered a bit more flex and comfort than most of the bikes in the class, the suspension settings were more aggressive and stiff. The more jumps that were present, and the harder the braking zones, the KTM offered a lot of rider feedback (the good kind) and allowed me to push. On slicker tracks with more flowing corners, it was a bit hard to plant the bike sometimes and it required me to go a bit softer on settings to get the KTM to settle naturally without a lot of load. On a rougher track with uneven soil such as Glen Helen, I tried to go softer to make the bike more compliant, but it was a bit too much for the big hills and higher speeds in some sections. To complement the softer settings here, quicker rebound was needed to keep the bike balanced and not allow it to go too deep into the stroke, mostly with the fork.

"For me, the KTM was the easiest bike to use the most of each gear..."

The engine on the KTM is very well rounded with smooth power off the bottom, building stronger and stronger as the revs climbed. At the same time, it had enough grunt down low to pull itself it higher gears through corners. For me, the KTM was the easiest bike to use the most of each gear, as I could use up the hold gearbox effectively from low to high RPMs in all gears, it could pull it. A big help to this was the transmission, which was precise and smooth.

For me, there were two negatives with the KTM. While I got the air forks working in most conditions, I still think a bit of improvement in overall smoothness and feedback to the rider would help. Also, the design of the radiator shrouds make things a bit tough for me. I keep my legs up high in the corners and I managed to get my boot/leg stuck on the shrouds a bit too often and it would upset my balance and consistency around the track.

First Place: Honda CRF250R

My initial thoughts on the CRF were how well balanced the chassis felt just about everywhere we went. On rough straights the fork reacted quickly to bumps and worked well with the rear shock, balancing itself out from front-to-rear, and bump-to-bump. At Cahuilla and Perris, I didn't notice any balance issues, but at Glen Helen where things were rough and faster, I did feel like the rear end sat high. After taking a turn off the shock and ending at about 108mm in sag, it offered a bit more stability in those conditions. The shock itself seemed to do its job well, keeping the bike planted and tracking excellently out of the turns. Coming off a 2015 CRF250R, I noticed the footpeg to seat height is slightly bigger, offering little extra legroom. This made my lower body sit a bit straighter, but the handlebar height was just right where I could get into an aggressive stance when needed.

Rough straights were my favorite on this bike because I could tell exactly what it was going to do at all times. Coming into corners the fork had a lot of rider feedback, almost dead feeling from say bump one through three, but not harsh as it would progress into the stroke throughout the remainder of the bumps. Overall, the planted feel up front was just consistent, no matter how hard I pushed in or which end of the bike I was tracking in with.

The engine did lack bottom end grunt, but for myself, I'd rather lack some bottom end and have a massive mid-top end like this bike has. The advantages of having a more mellow (smooth) bottom end worked in my favor at rough tracks like Glen Helen, with ruts that have a slick, hard base. The bottom end power is enough for me to get the job done in lower gears but I did make sure I kept it singing if I shifted above third to keep the CRF pulling strong. 

Age: 35
Height: 5' 9" / Weight: 160 lbs.
Riding Experience: 30+ Pro
Recent Bikes: 2017 Yamaha YZ450F, 2013 Kawasaki KX450F, 2012 Suzuki RM-Z450

Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z250

Another year and Suzuki hasn't made any notable changes from the previous years. Jumping on the bike, however, everything still feels initially well and comfortable, which brought some excitement as it doesn't feel like there was much to adapt to. Out on the track, however, it's instantly obvious that it just doesn't have the performance of the other 250Fs. As for the suspension, things were slightly unpredictable with entering turns on the front forks. An initial harshness on the small bumps was unsettling, but on bigger hits it performed better, showing it was plenty stiff. Going softer on compression helped this, but I do think that it would take more time to tune this in for my own personal liking. The shock had a similar feel as the forks, especially on acceleration, and didn’t inspire confidence, needing a softer setting as well. Overall, the bike in stock trim just had a stiff and held up feeling. Fine when the track was smooth, but as the bumps got bigger the suspension stood out more. Also, I wasn’t a big fan of the Dunlop MX52 front tire and I think that may have added to the unpredictable corner entry. They're the only bike in the pack with this tire choice and it's obvious on track. 

On the track, the Suzuki's engine struggles a little off the bottom if the terrain isn't solid, but is snappy and pulls strongly in the midrange...but then signs off too early compared to the competition. Also, it just didn't have the clean-running feel as some of the other bikes, as I noticed a slight backfire when on full throttle and in over-rev. Overall, I felt like you had to ride the RM-Z really hard and maybe push it beyond my comfort zone to get lap times that were compatible with others. Fun in one way, but not something I'd want to live with. Really, the RM-Z isn’t a bad bike as the chassis and ergonomics are good enough to be with the rest of the pack, but it needs the grunt and plusher settings to match up with the modern day 250F.

LITPro Lap times:

  • Glen Helen: 2:26.0 (4th)
  • Perris: 1.45.82 (5th)

LITPro Start data: 

  • 5ft 0.54/ 11 mph
  • 10ft 0.81/ 14.8 mph
  • 15ft 1.02/ 18 mph
  • 30ft 1.51/ 23.5 mph
  • 60ft 2.22/ 33.2 mph

Fifth Place: Honda CRF250R

Putting the CRF250R in fifth place actually hurts me a little, to be honest. The bike is actually really good and Honda has made some significant improvements from last year. I really liked the addition of electric start and also the new chassis that reminded me of the 450, but even better. When you sit on the Honda, it fits really well and everything about this chassis feels really good. You have to hand it to Honda, their ergos just feel like a dirtbike without anything odd to it. Out on the track, it turns really well in all conditions. Throw it into a sand berm at high speed? It can handle it. Dive into the tightest ruts and trust the front tire all the way in? It can handle it. For me, the feel from the front forks is a big part of this, something that I'd really compare to well setup kit suspension. 

However, for me, the major downside to the Honda was the power. To get the most out of the CRF, you had to rev it and use the clutch, especially if there was a soft berm that robbed power. Each time I saw a questionable corner, I’d have to shift down a gear and bring up the RPMs to get it back out but it felt like it struggled still if things didn't go quite to plan. When the track was smooth, I had fun revving the bike but it almost felt like it was overheating a little at times. To me, the Honda is the bike with the most potential and with more bottom end power it would climb up the results considerably. But for my style, I struggled to make the bike work for me in quite a few situations.

LITPro Lap Time:

  • Glen Helen: 2.26.20 (5th)
  • Perris: 1.49.62 (6th)

LITPro Start data: 

  • 5ft 0.52/ 11 mph
  • 10ft 0.78/ 14.7 mph
  • 15ft 0.99/ 17.5 mph
  • 30ft 1.46/ 26.1 mph
  • 60ft 2.17/ 31.2 mph

Fourth Place: Kawasaki KX250F

I’ve always got on pretty well with Kawasakis and have spent quite a bit of time aboard their 450s, so jumping on the KXF offered some immediate comfort. The ergonomics were good and the bike felt narrower than I expected between the legs. Out on the track, the first thing I noticed was that the suspension was a little softer than some of the others, especially on the larger jumps and bigger bumps. But at the same time, it was also something I could work with by going a few clicks stiffer on the setup. But one area I struggled with on the KXF was coming out of the corners and ruts, as I felt the bike had a tendency to stand up and not stay in the turn. This is probably due to the softer settings and the bike squatting a bit under load, with a bit more work on the chassis balance I think I could remedy this. Even with my slight struggles, I surprisingly managed my best lap time on the Kawi at Glen Helen before the track was at its worst. Also, I had an issue with the footpegs jamming up with dirt at Glen Helen, which did make the bike harder to ride.

The Kawasaki's engine was pretty good. Nothing stood out over any other bike in the field, but it was very usable. It really rewarded commitment, as you could bury the bike deep into a berm, or lay it over far in a rut, and expect instant response as soon as you were ready to go forward. Some of the other bikes take time to spool up or bark to life, while the Kawi just seemed ready to go whenever.  

LITPro Lap time:

  • Glen Helen: 2.21.95 (1st)
  • Perris: 1.45.29 (3rd)

LITPro Start data: 

  • 5ft 0.51/ 10.7 mph
  • 10ft 0.78/ 14.1 mph
  • 15ft 0.99/ 17.0 mph
  • 30ft 1.48/ 24.5 mph
  • 60ft 2.21/ 32.2 mph

Third Place: Husqvarna FC 250

The battle for second and third in the shootout was actually pretty close for me....being that it's between the two most similar bikes in the test. Initially sitting on the Husqvarna, I felt a little awkward but as soon as I took it out on the track the weirdness went away and it performed really well. The balance of the chassis felt good on the base settings and the suspension was a little stiff, but I actually liked it that way as I felt more comfortable pushing the bike right away. The stiffer settings seemed to mix well with the softer/more flexible chassis, but a couple of times there was a little kick in the rear end on braking bumps...almost like the chassis would flex in the subframe and release the energy a bit unexpectedly. 

Without any real tweaks, the bike corners phenomenally well and feels like it's on rails in the deepest ruts. But the real highlight for me was the power, it was strong and almost felt like it was electric at times. The motor pulled steadily from the bottom and kept pulling all the way to the top, consistently and constant all the way through the RPM range. At Glen Helen, I could really let the bike open up and keep it singing all the way up the hills, where it was the most rewarding.

"Even with a tap of the clutch, it wouldn't always work..."

One area I did struggle with a little on the Husky was shifting. I’m not sure why, but it felt like sometimes I’d have a little trouble getting it to shift up under load. Even with a tap of the clutch, it wouldn't always work...like the shape or length of the shifter itself was the problem. Overall, the Husqvarna is a great package with a unique powerband for the class.

LITPro lap time:

  • Glen Helen: 2.26.35 (6th)
  • Perris: 1.44.07 (1st)

LITPro Start data: 

  • 5ft 0.54/ 10.7 mph
  • 10ft 0.80/ 15.2 mph
  • 15ft 1.00/ 18.0 mph
  • 30ft 1.50/ 23.5 mph
  • 60ft 2.26/ 31.2 mph

Second Place: KTM 250 SX-F

Although the KTM and Husky are brothers, it's amazing how both feel rather different out on the track. My first impression on the KTM is that it has a good feeling of quality and race team driven performance. It feels a little more comfortable to initially sit on than the Husky (for me) and when you take it out on the track it has a similar characteristics, however the suspension felt a little more predictable and balanced. The WP AER forks performed well and didn’t do anything too unpredictable. They do their job but just aren't quite as smooth as the Yamaha's KYBs. The shock was pretty good but I tended to bottom it out on takeoffs at Perris. The steeper the jump face, the more I could feel the tire rub, especially with a little seat bounce. Going stiffer on low and high speed compression helped this in a few situations. I also found that I had a little bit of headshake at Glen Helen, which I could dial out with some small tweaks to the chassis balance and forks. 

The KTM corners really well and would catch inside lines with ease. Overall, the SX-F carves most situations with ease and doesn't require a second thought when it comes to cornering ability. Although, I did notice that sometimes I’d get my boot caught on the radiator shrouds when my leg was high in deeper corners. The motor is fairly strong off the bottom, and pulls consistently throughout the range, making it easy to ride. Compared to the Husky, it's a bit snappier and revs quicker through the range. Really, the KTM is a solid bike all the way around and a good buy for about any type of rider. For me though, the Yamaha just checked a few boxes ahead of the KTM in certain aspects, leaving the orange machine in second on my list.

LITPro Lap Time:

  • Glen Helen:  2.23.65 (2nd)
  • Perris: 1.49.62 (6th)

LITPro Start data: 

  • 5ft 0.56/ 11.0 mph
  • 10ft 0.82/ 15.0 mph
  • 15ft 1.03/ 17.9 mph
  • 30ft 1.51/ 21.4 mph
  • 60ft 2.24/ 32.3 mph

First Place: Yamaha YZ250F

Without doubt, the Yamaha was the most confidence-inspiring bike in the shootout for me.  Sitting on the YZF feels very comfortable and extremely balanced, but initially I noticed the bulge in the left sidepanel from exhaust. As soon as I got onto the track, though, that sensation went away and the snappy throttle response took over my attention. The YZF's power pulled strongly from the bottom without hesitation and continued smoothly all the way to the top where you could really be aggressive. I really liked the free revving and light feel that felt like it came from a lighter crank than the other bikes, and was certainly a highlight. While it has that grunt and pull down low, once you're up and off the bottom it's snappy and revs up quickly. This engine feels like something you would expect out of a high-level race bike and gives a great platform to improve.

Suspension was very predictable on jump faces and had good hold up in the bumps on braking. The only change I made was one click slower on rebound for the forks, as initially I felt like they were returning a little too quickly for my liking...the change was noticeable and positive. The shock handled everything well and especially on acceleration absorbed the bumps. Even at Glen Helen, when the track was rough, it performed really well and absorbed acceleration well. Initially, I felt like I struggled to get it to turn, but the more I’d commit to the turns and trust the bike, it would go and actually surprised me a few times on how fast I went around a rutted turn. Personally, I like to stand up and flow with a bike and use the last braking bump to turn off and the Yamaha really let me do this with ease. My only negative is the bike feels a little wide compared to the other machines in the class, and I'd like to see it get a bit slimmer up at the radiator shrouds and at the exhaust side panel.

For me, the Yamaha is the bike I’d pick to race tomorrow and take home as it suits my style the most in the class. Beyond that, I had the most fun on the YZF and that was something that stood out to me.

LITPro Lap time:

  • Glen Helen: 2.24.15 (3rd)
  • Perris: 1.45.85 (5th)

LITPro Start data: 

  • 5ft 0.52/ 11.8 mph
  • 10ft 0.78/ 15.0 mph
  • 15ft 0.99/ 18.0 mph
  • 30ft 1.46/ 23.9 mph
  • 60ft 2.17/ 31.8 mph

Age: 14
Height: 5' 9" / Weight: 165 lbs.
Riding Experience: Novice
Recent Bikes: 2015 Yamaha YZ125

Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z250

From the first few laps, it was clear the Suzuki is set up a bit too stiff. After a few changes to soften up the forks, I was able to put in laps and push on the RM-Z harder and harder. However, while the forks now had some movement to them, there wasn't a lot of comfort. The softer we went, the more I could push the bike, but it definitely wore me out more than any other bike in the test. This wasn't helped by the fact that I was working harder to keep a consistent pace, mostly due to the lack of overall power. The Suzuki is really snappy off the bottom but as the bike revs up, it just starts to drop in power, happening quicker than any other bike in the Shootout. I found myself shifting much more on the bike and having to time them perfectly, just like I was back on my 125 but not as exciting with the way it made this power.

The rider controls were comfortable enough, and the bike was easy to hang onto. The frame wasn't the skinniest, but between it and the sidepanels, I was easily able to grip the bike, even though I was having to ride it so aggressively. The bright side to the Suzuki was how well it handled and cornered, no matter which track we rode this was a consistent factor. For me, though, the missing power from the engine and the needed comfort…oh, and the lack of electric start…leaves Suzuki in sixth place.

Fifth Place: Yamaha YZ250F

Having spent a few years on Yamaha YZ125s, I've tried a few of my friend’s newer 250Fs, as I thought about riding one when I moved up. However, my feelings on the 2018 version are the same I had after riding a few others, the controls and cockpit just don't seem to suit me, along the width at the front and rear of the bike bothering me. My discomfort mostly comes from the wide radiator shrouds and the tall rear end of the bike, it just feels like a lot of bike when coming from a 125, especially compared to the other bikes in the Shootout.

As for the suspension, it was good out of the box, but not perfect. On the rougher tracks I felt a bit of harshness from the fork for my style and ended up going a bit softer. After this the forks really seemed to soak up everything I threw at them, but it still wasn't easy for me to push on. Now the engine was unique, as it has much more snap, bottom, and mid-range pull then anything else I tested. On the tighter tracks, the Yamaha was the easiest to get over obstacles out of the corners and it just leaped over anything I pointed it at. While it was fun, it didn't pull as well at the top as some of the other bikes I preferred, so I was shifting it a bit earlier. 

For me the Yamaha just wasn't the complete package. While it was powerful and had great suspension once we dialed it in, it wasn't easy or natural for me to ride like some of the other bikes. Coming off a 125, it isn't really ridden the same and feels like it's a lot to handle sometimes.

Fourth Place: Honda CRF250R

The Honda really is so much better than the previous model, and a lot more fun to push and ride aggressively. The power feels like a four-stroke version of my 125, with all the power being mid-to-top end. Luckily the bike revs up quickly but at the same time I spent as much time shifting this bike as I did the Suzuki. Also, it didn't leave me with as much confidence when I was trying to shift on jump faces and it was a bit inconsistent, not always clicking up cleanly.

The rider area of the Honda was comfy and super-easy to get used to, from the moment I swung a leg over it I was at home. Out on the track the bike felt balanced, but just a little harsh in a few places for me. With some minor adjustments we were able to get both ends moving a bit smoother. The CRF was a blast to ride aggressively, but the lack of bottom end made it hard for me to rank higher up my list. If it had a bit more roll on power or at least some sort of bark earlier on, I'd feel it was a more well-rounded package and rank it higher.

Third Place: Kawasaki KX250F

Initially, the Kawasaki really won me over, as the smaller rider cockpit and controls made it feel so much closer to my 125 than anything else in the test. Beyond that, the engine was so responsive and snappy, offering a lot of fun all over the track. It's not just for show, either, as the KX pulls strong off the bottom and really shines in the middle, but starts to taper off if you rev it too far...which is hard, because the bike sounds great and is easy to scream around the track. It's not as effective, but it sounds cool! But for the best result, I found myself shifting a little earlier, which was easy due to a smooth transmission.

"we got it better and smoother, but never as plush as..."

While I said it won me over initially, that didn't quite stick as the days of testing wore on. The rougher the track got, the more I struggled with the Kawasaki. While the small feel of the bike and snappy engine allowed me to do a lot of cool things on the bike, the harshness of the suspension took a bit too much out of me when riding the main lines. With adjustments, we got it better and smoother, but never as plush as the two I rated above it. In the end, the Kawasaki would need better suspension and more top end to be the complete package on my list.

Second Place: Husqvarna FC 250

From the moment I threw my leg over the Husqvarna, it was obvious how light the bike was, and with great controls, it was very easy for me to get used to. What made me really like the Husky is the lightness combined with the broad power, which made me push the bike early on as we were testing. The engine isn't as snappy as the some of the other bikes, but it feels more broad overall than anything else. It makes good, solid power from the roll on of the throttle all the way to the rev limiter. While it doesn't feel particularly strong anywhere, the consistency of the power was really enjoyable. Although I really stretched out each gear and didn't shift as often, it still was smooth and easy to engage when I would click up or down a gear.

What settled the Husqvarna into second for me, though, was the suspension and handling. On faster tracks I could rail the outsides easily but when I dove into the tight ruts, which it entered well, I couldn't get it to settle down all the time. I felt a bit inconsistent in my corners and never could quite figure out what to do about it. Now on the KTM, I didn't face this same problem, and that was one of the main points on why it one-upped the Husky on my finishing order.

At the end of the day, I loved the Husky for its broad power, electric start and lightweight...but I'd need more time to dial in the suspension to be happy with it day-to-day.

First Place: KTM 250 SX-F

The KTM 250 SX-F was a clear winner for me, as by the end of the tests, I literally didn't change anything about the bike during my outings. The controls and overall layout was very comfortable from the first lap, making it the easiest bike for me to adapt to and hang it out on.

The engine was great combination of smooth and broad, but snappy where needed. The KTM felt like it made the most power, especially up top and was fun to scream out on the track. But at the same time, it started off the bottom smoothly and had a nice snap in the middle that made it easy to be aggressive on, rail berms, and blitz out of ruts on. And as I mentioned before, I didn't make any changes, which should say how much I love the suspension and how the bike actually handled. For me, I could send the 250 SX-F into any corner at any speed and get through it without a problem. As for the suspension, it was well-balanced and had settings that allowed me to push, overjump, and be as aggressive as I wanted to be. At the same time, it worked so well when the track got slick and rough, without me having to adapt how I rode...that left me with a ton of confidence in the bike. Oh yeah, did I mention the electric start is awesome?

Age: 33
Height: 5' 9" / Weight: 160 lbs.
Riding Experience: 30+ Novice
Recent Bikes: 2016 KTM 250 SX-F, 2016 KTM 125 SX

Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z250

The RM-Z was very comfortable from when I first climbed aboard the bike, with a fairly natural setup, and what I'd consider a neutral rider triangle...outside of handlebars that have a unique sweep to them. As I rolled the bars back, I realized they quickly start to point down towards your thighs and just get more uncomfortable. This was just the start, but the suspension was the biggest struggle for me on this bike. I just wanted to get the forks to free up and start moving, but I felt like I kept hunting. The best feeling I got was when we lowered the fork pressure to 34.5 PSI and went way out on compression. It finally freed up the fork, but it still wasn't very plush overall. The rear was similar, but not as bad. After a few clicks softer on high and low speed compression, it also freed up, but the bike just still didn't offer comfort although it worked better around the track. Really, for me, the suspension on this bike offers too many adjustments and can just lead down a long road of confusion.

The engine is easy to ride, but yes, it’s not the fastest bike on the market. I don’t mind the that the bike isn’t a beast because it’s easily controllable, but the biggest character of the engine I don’t like is how early it signed off and how much I needed to shift. When you are in the meat of the power, this thing can pull you, it just takes the right timing and more work to make sure your are hitting your marks. For me, 250Fs are supposed to be exciting, especially in the engine department...but this one just doesn't meet that expectation. 

"…like it's creating a crazy amount of rotating mass and pulling itself back."

Weight shouldn’t really be a factor on 250Fs, but unfortunately on this bike I felt it the most. And I'm not saying I really feel it on and off the stand, it’s all on the track...when the engine is revving. The RM-Z feels a little too much like an old school four-stroke…like it's creating a crazy amount of rotating mass and pulling itself back. At some points when trying to preload off a braking bump and into another, it almost felt like a magnet was holding the bike down, almost like the way a 450 feels when its engine is spinning fast. As most would say, the mellow overall power and excellent chassis does make the bike fun, but the lack of power compared to the rest of the class and the struggles with the suspension put this bike at the bottom of the list when compared to the rest.

Fifth Place: Kawasaki KX250F

Do you want the good news or the bad news? Okay...first the good news, the Kawi has very impressive engine and throttle response. I could say the best in the class when it comes to this exact feature. Anywhere in the RPM range, if you crack the throttle it’s there and ready to give you what you want. There are very few bikes I’ve ever felt that have this kind of snap, one being my own bike with a ton of custom mapping and dyno time. The bike can pull up the hills of Glen Helen without blinking an eye. I also noticed the transmission on this bike shifted like butter, it was so smooth, never hanging up or having to force it into gear.

The bad news to me were the suspension and the ergonomics. The bike has a very low footpeg to seat height and what makes it awkward to me is that the bars feel tall. So I want to say the bike would suit a shorter rider because the footpeg height, but the tall bars make me want to say it’s suited for a tall guy. Kawasaki does offer some adjustability and we dropped the footpeg mounts five millimeters and yes, that did help make me feel more normal. Once we got the controls settled, we went to work on the suspension. At Perris the main problem was the harsh forks and not getting traction to the front wheel. We took out some preload (went to five clicks) softer on compression and three clicks faster on rebound. This free’d up the fork and let it move through the stroke for me. With sag at 105mm this let me change the bike into a front end steering bike and gave me the front end confidence I was lacking. Just a personal opinion, but I thought maybe the chassis itself was a bit rigid as the whole bike was still lacking some of the comfort of the other bikes found higher up my list.

I tried the standard coupler and the lean map coupler. I kept wanted to go back to the standard because I feel it pulls farther on the top and ends cleaner. At Cahuilla and Perris the bike was popping on decel from the slight elevation we were at, the lean coupler helped stop that. I also felt the clutch on this bike was the stiffest. It gives you solid feel and no slipping, but you have to deal with the heavy pull during your long motos.

Fourth Place: Husqvarna FC 250

In the past, I didn’t believe it when guys said they felt such a difference between the KTM and Husky, but it’s true! The standout reason and what pushes this bike to fourth was the slow-revving engine nature of the engine. It’s an interesting feeling like the power is there, but you have to wait until it builds, almost like a two-stroke powerband, but it doesn’t hit as hard as it keeps building. At one point, it felt like maybe there was a heavy engine oil that was giving it too much resistance, if that helps explain what I was feeling. So for some younger riders or vet riders, this could be the ticket and it really bodes well when the track is slick or doesn't require you to accelerate too much from a tight stop. 

The bike doesn’t do anything crazy or bad, as it's very controllable and easy to ride. It has a neutral setup with good chassis balance. At Perris I felt very comfortable on the bike right away, the track wasn’t too rough and it was very tacky. But then I had a hard time getting the bike to settle into corners, it wanted to squat, pop up, I’d pivot again then squat. Like I had to make two turns in one. Slowing down the rebound helped, but overall the bike seemed to be comfortable but had a hard time keeping it planted once down to lower speeds.

The ergos of the bike were pretty good for me, except the Magura clutch, which works great, but I did feel like the lever is a bit thin and sharp...not quite as comfortable to use as the other bikes. The mapping controls and traction switch are much better and simpler to use than the older version, it’s dummy- proof to see what setting you are in. The Husky makes you feel confident while riding because the way it holds you in between your legs. The bars have an easy bend and rise to get used to, although they might feel a bit on the lower side if you are a tall rider. 

Third Place: Yamaha YZ250F

There were two main characteristics of the Yamaha that stood out and gave it the third spot on my list. The most obvious was the insane bottom end grunt the engine offered...followed by the excellent suspension front and rear. It’s unreal how much bottom end they got out of this 250F, with so much power from the initial crack of the throttle just makes you smile. I remember multiple times just being shocked with how this bike pulled and thinking this can't be a 250 in terms of engine size. But here’s the tricky part of the engine for me, at tighter tracks like Perris it was able to pull from corner-to-corner or jump-into-corner without hitting the rev limiter. At tracks like Cahuilla and Glen Helen, I felt like I was short shifting and timing them more in order to keep it in the power and out of the top where it flattens out. This is where the preference comes to deciding if you want a 250F with power on the bottom or the top, and for me I prefer to ride them harder and enjoy that feeling of hanging it out. 

"...just floats effortlessly through the stroke..."

The suspension is undeniably a proven setup that rivals some revalved settings I’ve gotten from tuners. It's very plush initially, with great bottoming resistance and just floats effortlessly through the stroke. These forks gave me lots of confidence, charging into corners and knowing the front end will bite. At Perris I had a bit of a problem with the front wheel wanting to knife on tight ruts. With 100mm of sag, we went out one-and-a-half turns on the shock’s high speed to get a bit of weight off the front and this helped the front track better without falling in. At Glen Helen, we went to 102mm of sag and one-and-three-quarters out on the shock’s high speed, along with one click slower rebound to get the rear end to settle in corners better on the higher speeds of that track. Overall, I just had to play with the bike balance a bit from track-to-track but with a few clicks and adjustments it seemed like I could accomplish what I wanted.

The ergos on the Yamaha took more time for me to get used to than most of the bikes. I felt the bars were lower than others in the class and the whole bike in general felt a bit low to me, but the funny thing is that the seat still bounced up and smacked me in the butt! Another negative about the feel on the bike is the left side of the bike its very flat and almost uneven feeling when compared to the right side panel, which sticks out because of the silencer. I think a shorter rider would benefit from this bike, just the way it feels sitting on it and riding gives me a lower center of gravity feel. But at the same time, the subframe seems to get you easy if you have short legs... Also, I'm feeling old school for talking about kickstart, but the bike starts so easy I didn’t even mind. One or two kicks every time, I never had a problem starting it.

Second Place: KTM 250 SX-F

It’s hard to go wrong with this bike, as it's solid in all categories; E-start, hydro clutch, steel frame, and an engine that revs to the moon! Personally, I feel very comfortable on this bike (that's why I own one), the rider triangle is very neutral and I think it leaves enough room for bigger riders but is just tight enough for the smaller guys. Within just a minute I had my controls dialed and everything felt right at home. I really like the way the bike feels between my legs, it’s really easy to grip from your ankles all the way to your knees.

What knocked the KTM SX-F off the top spot of me were the forks. Don’t get me wrong, this is the best air fork I’ve ridden and way better than the old 4CS but I just never felt very connected to the ground like a spring fork, or just the perfect motion I got from the Honda's forks. I got them working well at Perris by going to 10.8 bar and three clicks out on compression. This gave it the feel like there’s more preload in the fork and you sit up higher so you can use the top stroke more, as the big lips and g-outs at Perris really called for that hold up. I really like the shock in stock setting, I didn’t touch it all over the three days. I just couldn’t get the fork to feel amazing. It felt good, but not good enough to take the top spot. The advantage of the air fork is that it’s one fork for all weight riders and if you are technically savvy this could give you additional adjustability. For example, at Glen Helen we went down to 10.5 bar, two softer on compression and four-to-five clicks faster on rebound to help the fork react faster on all the chop. So when I look back, it’s pretty cool that I had two very different settings that work well at very different tracks. This wouldn’t be possible with a spring fork.

The KTM engine isn’t known for its bottom end grunt but its screams at the top. As you can tell by me putting the Honda in first place, I don’t mind riding the bikes at the top of their power curve. Compared to the Honda though, the KTM has a bit more response down-low, especially in map two.

First Place: Honda CRF250R

For me, the Honda CRF250 wins because it has the best out of the box feel, on all three tracks we rode, I was instantly able to get up to speed and feel comfortable within one to two laps. This stood out to me, as I really I couldn't say that about any other bike, besides the KTM (but I own one). The ergonomics of this bike suited me with little adjustment and the suspension is by far the best suited for me in all the conditions we tested. By example, this bike was the last I rode at Glen Helen when the track was at its absolute worst, and I'd bet money on it that I had my best lap time in those conditions. Considering the KTM and Husky obviously have the best brakes, I'd say the Honda squeaks in just behind them in that regard as I was easily able to dive to the inside lines after the downhills. One thought that was surprising on this bike was the lightweight feel...being one of the heaviest in the class, it doesn’t feel heavy at all to me on the track. I could flick it around wherever I wanted without much thought.

"Some people might be scared to rev the bike like this because it makes the suspension tense up like a two-stroke..."

Now when we talk engine, this is where some people might want to question how this could be the best bike of the year on my list. To me, yes, this bike doesn’t have a great bottom end and I wont lie and say it does, but it still has more than enough power for the average rider like myself. I think if you’re a rider coming off a 125, this will no doubt be a great transition to a four-stroke for you because you can keep the bike up in the revs where the meat of the power is. Some people might be scared to rev the bike like this because it makes the suspension tense up like a two-stroke, but I didn’t get that feeling. This also reminds me of how free this engine felt to me, as it revs fast and rolling off the throttle the bike doesn’t pull itself down with much engine braking. Not that it full-on freewheels like a two-stroke, but something in the middle of those two.

As for the suspension it was almost perfect for me. For chassis balance, I ran around 107-108mm of sag and slid the forks down in the clamps 3mm to balance the bike out. For me, choppering it out just a bit helped the bike stay a bit more planted and added comfort, all without sacrificing front end traction. At Perris, I went two clicks softer on fork compression for comfort, but at Glen we stiffened it up a few clicks, sped up the rebound, and went two click softer on the shock's low speed compression to deal with the big hills. The shock was a bit stiff, hitting big square edge bumps and defecting to the side. The simple two clicks gave it a great feel where I could rev the crap out the bike going up the hills and almost manual straight over the bumps (not something I can usually do so easily). The one and only real complaint I had was it wasn't as easy to tip the CRF into the tightest corners as a couple other bikes in the class.

All these thoughts combined is what makes the Honda CRF250R the best out of the box, ready-to-ride bike on my list. I feel like I can take this from the showroom floor, to the track or even a race day and feel comfortable right away. I haven’t felt that way about a new bike in a long time.

Age: 40
Height: 5' 9" / Weight: 170 lbs.
Riding Experience: 40+ Novice
Recent Bikes: 1989 Kawasaki KX500, 2016 Honda CRF250R, 2017 Honda CRF450R

Sixth Place: Suzuki RM-Z250

Suzuki hasn't had a major update in recent years, and unfortunately it's starting to show. Compared to all the other bikes in this shootout, it feels and looks old, and it isn’t the lightest or smallest, either. But once again, you have to remember that all of these bikes are really good, and each of them can be modified to fit a majority of the riders. Although the RM-Z's engine feels a bit slow and underpowered compared to other bikes in the class, it is still pretty strong from the bottom. The best way for me to ride it was to not really rev it, but rather use higher gears to keep it going. On a tight track like Perris, the power deficiency is more noticeable because you really need to get going before the next obstacle. The engine felt much better at Glen Helen, as the straights were longer and I didn’t have to worry about clearing the jumps. Initially I thought that I would be slowest on the Suzuki, but in fact, at Glen Helen I posted faster lap times on it than with the Yamaha or the Husqvarna. Maybe it’s because when the bike feels kind of underpowered, you end up riding it harder and going faster. 

"Unfortunately owning a bike with air forks can be too much hassle for a weekend warrior like me."

The RM-Z’s front and rear balance is good, and the bike has neutral feel to it. Some of the other bikes are quite a bit leaner, but that wasn’t a major issue. As always, cornering is a strong point with the Suzuki and you can take advantage on those inside lines, but I feel that there are already some bikes in the class that can turn better. The biggest problem for me was that the front forks felt too harsh. I kept going softer on compression and it helped, but with a little trade-off to stability at high speeds. There’s plenty of adjustability available in the suspension, but I think I would need much more time to take full advantage of it. Unfortunately owning a bike with air forks can be too much hassle for a weekend warrior like me. By the time I get to the track I’m usually already running a bit late, and I might not have the time or the motivation to check the fork pressure. With the 2018 RM-Z450 going back to spring forks, it’s more than likely that the RM-Z250 follows suit for 2019. Hopefully that will come with other major updates and bring Suzuki back to the level of the rest of the 250Fs.

Fifth Place: Kawasaki KX250F

It actually feels a bit unfair to put KX250F in the fifth place, because Kawasaki made a bunch of refinements to an already good bike. The engine has a really free feel to it, and I think the throttle response is maybe the best in the class. I tried both the standard (green) and lean (white) couplers for different ECU settings and I felt that the standard gave me better torque and more linear power. On a smooth track with a lot of jumps and good traction, the Kawasaki really shines. In Perris I could clear the jumps with ease. I even clocked my fastest laps there with the Kawasaki. Although Kawasaki might not have the strongest engine it was still fun to ride. It is also maybe the second-loudest bike, and that could add up on the feeling of engine having good power. I had to adjust the clutch a few times and the brakes weren’t the strongest in the class, but they were not something to really complain about.

The KX250F has a really flat seat, and there is plenty of space on the bike to move around. The Kawasaki has adjustable footpeg and handlebar mount positions, so the rider compartment can be adjusted even for bigger guys. The good thing about the Kawasaki was that I usually sit too up front in corners, but with the KX250F I found myself sitting a little further back, which was a good thing. However, the rear end sits quite low and that makes the bars feel a bit too high for my taste. I prefer the little more balanced feel of some of the other bikes in the class. Even though Kawasaki has changed the balance towards front end, I still feel it likes to be turned on the rear wheel.

The bike feels really light in the air and you can control it easily. But once again the forks were my biggest problem. The initial movement was just too harsh for my speed and/or weight. I went for a softer compression setting and tried play with the rebound, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to really find the perfect cure for it. The rear suspension worked really well and my only complaint was that I was looking for some more traction on those Glen Helen uphills. Overall, Kawasaki is on par with the KTM and the Husqvarna and could easily be third on my list. A more balanced feel, better forks, and electric start on the Austrian bikes puts them ahead of Kawasaki.

Fourth Place: Husqvarna FC 250

The first impression on the Husqvarna at Cahuilla Creek was really good, and after the first day I was pretty sure it would be my weapon of choice in this shootout. The power felt linear and engine pulls really well all the way to the upper RPMs. However, when riding the bikes back-to-back you notice the engine picks up revs much slower than the KTM. Although it might have even helped in the slick and dry Cahuilla, it was a clear disadvantage at Perris, where there is great traction and short run ups on some of the jumps. I didn’t notice a big difference between maps one and two, so I ended up riding with map two (the "aggressive" map). I could actually feel the traction control, but it is not something I like to use for a 250F and ended up riding without it. 

The Husqvarna feels light and thin, but it’s still a bit tall for me. The bike has good straight line stability, and it stays in the ruts well. In the air, the bike feels really easy to flick around, but in corners I somehow ended going outside most of the time. Due the different swingarm and subframe compared to the KTM, the frame seems to flex a little more, which helps coming into the corners with braking bumps. As far as the suspension goes, it’s pretty firm and has great hold up, so I really liked it at Cahuilla and Perris that were relatively smooth with some bigger jumps. Unfortunately in Glen Helen the front fork started to feel a bit harsh. So I played a bit with compression and rebound to get more comfort out of it, but once again ran out of time to find the perfect setting.

Brakes on the Husqvarna and the KTM are the best in the class, with great power and feeling. There are also many great features on the FC 250, like an electric start, factory-installed hour meter and an easy-to-change air filter. The hydraulic clutch has light pull and you don’t have to adjust it, but it has a bit an on/off feel to it, and you don’t have the response that a clutch with a cable has. The seat was a bit stiff for me and the seat cover was so grippy that it pulled my pants down on hard acceleration. Both Husqvarna and KTM have a longer shifter pedal than the other bikes. That takes a little time to get used to, and I sometimes missed a shift. However there is an optional shorter lever available that can come handy for riders with smaller feet. Overall, the Husqvarna FC 250 is a great bike that is suited more towards faster and taller riders.

Third Place: KTM 250 SX-F

Before the shootout, I was really interested to see the differences between the KTM and the Husqvarna. During the shootout, we rode the Austrian bikes back-to-back, and that really helped to set them apart from each other. They share all the same features like an electric start, hour meter and an easy-to-reach air filter. Despite the small differences, the bikes feel surprisingly different on the track. The engine is basically the same on both bikes, but the different airbox seems to make the KTM engine more free and throttle responsive. On slicker tracks you can’t really feel the difference, but on tracks with great traction, it is easy to notice. In Perris there were a few jumps I was struggling to clear on the Husqvarna, but had no troubles what so ever on the KTM. Once again, I couldn’t really feel the difference between the two maps, and also opted out on traction control just to have a more direct connection between me and the bike. Similar to the Husqvarna, the shifter was a tad too long for my taste and although the hydraulic clutch has a light pull and doesn’t need adjustment, I still prefer the cable clutch feeling on a 250F. The seat was a little softer and didn’t have as much grip as on the Husqvarna, which was a plus for me.

I felt that the fork had a little vague feeling at the beginning of the travel compared to the Husqvarna, and it was a bit hard for me to figure out how to get rid of it. Finally, at Glen Helen I had a bit more time with the KTM to try different settings and ended up going way softer on compression and opened up rebound three clicks on the fork. On the rear I opened up both high and low speed compression, but maybe the biggest thing that helped with that vague feeling was tightening up the head steering stem. A cool feature on both the KTM and the Husqvarna is the compression clicker on the forks that you can adjust by hand, so you can easily try new settings without going back to the truck. Even though I got the WP air forks working pretty well for me, it’s still something that prevents these bikes from being my first choice for a bike to own. I still prefer the feeling of good spring forks (ála Yamaha and Honda), but more importantly checking the air pressure on the forks and everything that comes with it is not something I want to deal with again. I was fastest at Glen Helen on KTM, so if this bike would come with spring forks it definitely would be in running for the top spot in my rankings.

Second Place: Yamaha YZ250F

I had already tested the 2018 YZ250F a few months ago in Finland, so I thought I knew what to expect, but the bike kept surprising me all throughout the test. To be honest, after the photo day at Cahuilla I never have thought that Yamaha would be in the contest for being the bike of my choice, but I ended up really liking it. As everyone knows the engine is really strong from the bottom and it makes an easy and fun bike to ride. Overall, the engine has almost a 450 feel to it and because of that you can get away with “point and shoot” type of riding in the corners. I feel it has the most engine braking and it might be partly to blame why the bike a feels a bit heavy on deceleration. Yamaha is the loudest of the group and that can be either a good thing or bad thing, depending how the rider likes it.

I really liked the suspension, but I was looking for a little more front end traction. At Glen Helen I went a few clicks softer on compression on the forks, and in Perris I raised the forks 1mm which helped with cornering. I had the sag set up at 100mm in Perris for better cornering, and at 102mm for more stability in Glen Helen. Yamaha is the easiest bike to ride standing up in the corners and the strong motor backs it up as you don’t have to change gears all the time, like on some of the other bikes. I was surprised that even with that kind of heavy feel I could turn the bike really well and ride the inside corners with ease. I was also pleased to notice how well Yamaha hooked up when accelerating through the rough uphills of Glen Helen.

The ergonomics are my biggest challenge with the Yamaha, as it still feels wide and big. It could be partly a visual thing, but when sitting down in the corners, the tank and shrouds felt wide. The back end of the bike sometimes gave me little slap on the ass on downhill braking bumps at Glen Helen. The handlebars have also a little more rearward sweep than the other bikes and the palms of your hands have different contact points to grips. I even ended having a legendary Yama-thumb (a blister in the thumb joint as it rubs against the grip flange). Even small things like of front brake lever having a little edge made the bike feel a “squared” and not as comfortable as some of the other bikes. All-in-all, despite not having any major updates for 2018, Yamaha is really good bike with best motor in the class.

First Place: Honda CRF250R

Honda had the only completely new bike in the group. Everyone was eager to try it out on the first day of the shootout to see if Honda finally come out with a stronger motor. Coming off a 2017 Honda CRF450R, I came to this shootout trying to be as objective as I could and I was also kind of hoping I wouldn’t have to pick Honda first. Despite my almost negative starting point I was really disappointed on the engine when I first rolled on the track. Even though the engine sounded “throaty” and strong, from the bottom there was really nothing happening until you hit the middle RPMs. For a lazy 450 rider like me, it took quite some time to get used to shifting and using the clutch all the time. But once you get used to it, the CRF250R is actually fun and exciting to ride. It kind of makes you feel like a kid again with bike screaming over 14,000 RPMs. The bike revs to the moon and I sometimes didn’t want to upshift just to hear the bike scream. How the engine comes to life in the midrange makes the it feel exciting and a kind of “two-strokish” (is that even a word?). I think kids coming from 85s or 125s will love this bike. However, after the first day of riding I didn’t think it would be even in the top three for me, because of the engine.

The best thing about the Honda is how well it turns, how balanced the bike feels, and how well the suspension works for my speed and weight in stock form. The bike really won me over within the next testing days at Perris and Glen Helen, as it suited both tracks really well despite those being so different. On both tracks I felt I could put the bike wherever I wanted, and the suspension handled the big hits and small bumps really well...and without any surprises. However, on a tight track like Perris you really need to RPM range. For Glen Helen, the sag was set up to 108mm, which helped the bike with high speed stability through the rough track. The CRF250R is not the lightest bike in the class, but you really notice it only when lifting it from the stand. I really like the electric start and I think every bike will have it within the next few years. Pretty much the only two complaints I had were the clutch that seemed to fade a bit during the day, and the front brake that wasn’t as good as on the Husqvarna or the KTM.

When trying to decide the best bike for me, it was really a tossup between the Honda and the Yamaha. They are totally different kinds of bikes, and pretty much the only common thing is that right out of the box is they both have a great suspension that suits me really well, and neither has air forks to worry about. Yamaha’s motor is unbelievably strong from the bottom and it makes the bike easy and fun to ride. The Honda is really nimble, ergonomics are great, and you can turn it anywhere you want, but you really have to be precise with the shifting and push the bike to go fast. In the final day of shootout I still hadn’t made up my mind about which bike would be the chosen one for me. I decided that the winner would be the one that I would be faster on at the end of the final day when the track would be rough. So at the end of the final day of the shootout I rode both bikes back-to-back at Glen Helen to see which one was faster (or least slow in my case). Before going through the LITPro data I pretty sure that Yamaha would have been faster, but to my surprise, Honda took the cake (although overall, I was fastest on the KTM). Even more surprising was that my end-of-the-day run on the Honda was faster than my morning run on the Yamaha. I also did starts with all of the bikes and to back up my decision I also got the best starts on the Honda. So despite a mid-to-top-only engine, Honda has the best overall package for me and it is the bike that I would buy for myself in the 250 class.

Conclusion

While not as dominant as last year's result, the KTM did take a solid and clear-cut win for the repeat. As our test riders chatted after the test and started to finalize their results, it became obvious that KTM had what it takes as no one was considering it outside their top three. 

Coming into the shootout, we were a bit unsure how the new Honda was going to settle into this pack. From our First Impression ride just over a week ago, it was clear that the chassis and suspension on the new CRF were in the ballpark of a winning machine, but the lack of bottom-end in the powerband of their new engine caused us some concern. Although every rider noted this...the punch from mid-to-top, combined with the handling characteristics, chassis balance, and suspension were enough to overcome this and the Honda was able to squeak second away from Yamaha by one point. 

The Yamaha, is somewhat the elder statesman of the class, with its last major overhaul in 2014, and minor updates since. We all know the Yamaha has best low-to-mid engine performance in the class, almost feeling like a mini-450 at times, alng with solid performance up top and great suspension to boot. In the end, the more nimble Honda offered riders a little more excitement and comfort on track, while the Yamaha is still just a tad big for some rider's taste. Honestly, the CRF and YZF feel like near polar opposites on the track by the way you ride them and the lines you can take with each one...yet in the end only one point separated them by what was clearly the toughest decision for each rider.

From there things became a bit more clear-cut, as it was a small margin back to the Husqvarna. Yes, it seems insane that the Husky can finish with two bikes between itself and its orange cousin, but that's just how close the top four bikes are. What cost the Husky in the 250 class is the characteristic of the engine, which many felt like was just too lethargic when you feel how well the KTM responds; and the extra flex in the chassis which works well in some areas, but gives up ground in others. In the end the test riders made their preference obvious, as the Husqvarna didn't beat the KTM on any rider's list, unlike the 450 Shootout where the Husky's softer qualities won a few guys over, causing some split decisions between white and orange. 

Now the Kawasaki in fifth was praised during each rider's first few laps on the machine, as the snappy engine and small feel of the bike made things very exciting. But as our testing days rolled on and rougher conditions arose, most of our riders found some struggles with the suspension and with each of the bikes above it being better in the rough. It slipped down the list a bit by the time the results were turned in. 

Finally, the last place goes to the machine that we think most expected it to go to, the Suzuki RM-Z250. A lack of changes over the years that have really put a dent into the competition, and it sadly earns this spot. As we mention every year, the chassis is phenomenal, but suspension that's hard to dial in, and an engine that doesn't have anything for the competition has cost it a shot at being anywhere but sixth place. We really think the handling characteristics are on point, and we hope Suzuki is focused on bolting in some serious power soon, because then this ride could shine.

While picking a winner is one of the goals in our 250 Shootout, the main reason we do this is to give you our honest opinions on each machine. If you're in the market for one of these bikes, we hope we've given you the information you were looking for to make an informed decision. As usual, we'll be back in year's time to give you all of our test rider's thoughts on the 2019 250 and 450 models, along with any other shootout we perform. Any thoughts on the results, or a suggestion on the format? Maybe a question about the actual results of this test? Drop us a note in the comment section below, or join our discussion on the forum in a special QNA dedicated to the Shootout and its results. You can head here: Forum QNA - 2018 Vital MX 250 Shootout.

Article by Michael Lindsay // Photo by Preston Jordan and Steve Giberson // Video by Joe Carlino and Jacob Johnson