Racer X Tested: 2011 250 Shootout

November 25, 2010 9:00am | by:

It’s tough to decide which brand to buy, isn’t it? The best way to choose would be to ride each of them back-to-back and get a feel for what each is like, but for 99 percent of the population, that just isn’t feasible. Well, the Racer X staff stepped up to fill the void, meeting with manufacturers at Cahuilla Creek Motocross Park last week so that six staff members could take turns on the 2011 250Fs.

Cahuilla Creek is a great track for testing a 250F—it’s fast, so you get a very good idea of the engine characteristics of the motorcycle you’re riding, and it also has a mix of wide, sweeping turns and tight, rutted turns, which both lets you assess a machine’s handling and gets you slowed down enough to check out the low-end power a bike can deliver.

They're all here...
Photo by: Matt Francis

The following is what each of our six staff testers thought at the end of the day:

David Pingree:

KTM: This bike still has the best attention to detail. The brakes, clutch, grips, pegs, and finish on the KTM are second to none. The handling has improved dramatically over the years on this bike. The motor is strong and probably revs further than any other bike. I only had two issues with this bike: I still hit the seat pan when exiting turns with sharp chop (added foam depth would improve the feel of this bike), and there is a slightly disconnected feel between the front and back end of the bike. It just lacks a little bit of stability.

Honda: The Honda is an incredible all-around package. The suspension and handling are the best in the class. One of the best traits of this bike is that it instills confidence in rough sections. You can just hammer through bumps and not worry if the bike is going to do something unexpected. Brakes are decent but the front could be stronger. The motor is smooth and easy to use but is a little softer-feeling than some of the others. The Honda is a comfortable bike.

Yamaha: The Yamaha turns exceptionally well. The changes they made to the chassis are big improvements over the past couple years. The downside to this bike is the engine and its lack of fuel injection. When you ride the other bikes you don’t realize what a difference the EFI makes in throttle response; then you jump on the Yamaha and notice it right away. The bike had several bogs, due to cold temps and elevation at the track, that weren’t an issue with the other brands.

Suzuki: The Suzuki was the biggest surprise for me. The engine is probably the best in the class. It is crisp, quick, and easily delivered. The chassis is comfortable and stable and easy to just jump on and go. The brakes are excellent and the Renthal Fat Bars are comfortable and classy. The only issue I had with this bike at all was a slightly harsh feeling in the forks on smaller, choppy bumps.

Photo by: Matt Francis

Kawasaki: The Kawasaki did everything really well. The engine is solid, the handling is good, the brakes are good, and it’s comfortable … there wasn’t anything bad about it! If I had to get really picky I would say the forks felt a little twitchy and the shifting was a little notchy, particularly trying to find neutral.

Overall: My guess is that I could turn the same lap time on any of these bikes. They’re all good and, really, you’re only going to go as fast as you’re going to go. So, the question becomes, which one requires the least amount of effort from me, and which bike am I most comfortable on? I am absolutely torn between the Honda and the Suzuki. Both bikes are incredible and would require next to nothing to set them up to race. I give the Honda the nod here simply because the suspension was slightly better for me. However, my decision would be better made based on price, dealer support, manufacturer support at the races, contingency, etc. These are the things that make a huge difference over the course of a season.

Pete Martini:

Suzuki: I loved all aspects of this bike; it felt the most comfortable all around. The power hits like an upper cut from Mike Tyson circa ‘89, the handling was best in class, and the suspension felt great. 
Honda: An all around solid-feeling bike, very easy to ride, very manageable powerband, it comes on smooth and stays smooth all the way through each gear, and the infamous bog of previous Honda carbureted 250Fs is long gone. Low-end power lacks a touch compared to the Suzuki or KTM, but you can rev out second and third gear way longer than anything else in the class,
KTM: It took a few laps to get use the overall feel of this bike, but after getting comfy, the bike was a joy to ride. Best in class front brake, meaty powerband (a very close second to the Suzuki in that regard), a very user-friendly clutch. The bike tracks well and settles down well even in the rough stuff. The faster I rode, the better this bike felt.
Kawasaki: It makes decent power, it pulls well from the bottom up, handles better than average, and it felt pretty comfortable in the braking bumps. The front end tends to knife a little during deceleration, and second and third gears revved out quicker than other bikes in this class; I felt like a had to shift and use the clutch a lot more to stay in the meat of the power.

Photo By: Matt Francis

Yamaha: The bike has better-than-average power, but I felt an immediate difference in throttle control from its competitors, leaving me longing for the feel of the other bikes EFI systems. The bike sits tall for me and didn’t really settle down well in the corners, ad the front end never seemed to track predictably. I had a hard time getting comfortable on this bike.
Overall: I listed the bikes above in order of my preference, but all of them are very impressive. If I take into consideration the fact that I like to replace my bikes every two years, I would buy the Honda because I feel the resale value is better than the Suzuki. If this was not a factor, I would buy the Suzuki without question; it was my favorite bike to ride and I’m hard pressed to say I wouldn’t buy it over the Honda.

Matt Francis:

Kawasaki: This bike handled really well. It had a quick and responsive throttle, which I like—especially on a 250. It also has a roomy cockpit for taller riders like myself. The transmission was not very smooth, though; I had trouble getting it to shift when the bike was under a load.

Honda: The Honda has a strong motor from mid to top, but it does lack a little bit on the bottom. The transmission was really smooth and shifting was flawless. It’s one of the easiest bikes to ride and it’s very light and agile feeling. The only downside is the slight lack of bottom-end power.

Suzuki: This was the best engine in the class. It was strong from the very bottom and revved as far as you want to rev. The suspension was great as well. In fact, the Suzuki was solid all the way around, though personally I don’t like the fact that it’s yellow.

Yamaha: This bike was really easy to start and I like that. The motor was strong from the mid to top but was a little sluggish down low. I had a few bogs, and that really caught me off guard after riding all the EFI-equipped models. The bike also seemed like it was geared for a smaller rider … I’m pretty tall and it was pretty cramped in there.

Photo by: Ping

KTM: This bike was an easy starter as well. The motor is super strong and lived up to what I’d heard from others who had ridden one recently. I really liked the suspension; it handled everything flawlessly, from chop to kickers to jump landings. The transmission was smooth and never gave me any trouble. Despite all the good qualities, though, I couldn’t seem to get comfortable on this bike.

Overall: If I were to buy one of these bikes, I would buy the Honda.

Steve Cox:

Honda: I ride a Honda CRF450R as my personal bike, so I expected I would like the Honda CRF250R—and I did. It handles intuitively and the controls were right where I expected them to be. The chassis was stabile while still wanting to turn whenever and however you asked it to, but the engine was all top-end power, which is no good for a big guy like me. Bigger guys need torque, and the CRF250R didn’t seem to have much of that. So while it was fun to ride, it was difficult to ride fast for me.

Kawasaki: Purely based on the chassis alone, I think the Kawasaki was the best of the bunch, although I don’t know if that’s entirely a good thing. The thing was, the Kawasaki was so incredibly comfortable, plush, and responsive that I started to wonder if that’s what you really want from a race bike. I mean, it’s for racing, not cruising. But it did everything well in the chassis department, and it had much more power down low than the Honda did. It was really fun to ride, and easy to ride fast.

KTM: KTM is known for horsepower, and that’s what you get when you get on the new 250 SX/F. It has power, for sure, and the handling is right in line with any of the other bikes in the class. It’s a great all-around bike, and it comes with some very high-quality components like the hydraulic clutch, wave brake rotors, and on and on. KTMs are no longer "also-rans"; they’re legitimate contenders in the very specialized motocross discipline.

Suzuki: All I have to say about the new Suzuki RM-Z250 is wow! This thing may be the perfect 250F. It has power everywhere (including what seemed to be a ton more bottom-end torque) but that’s not where it stopped. It had plenty of mid-range and top-end as well, and it handled, well, like Suzukis have been known for in recent years: very well. It didn’t do anything funny or weird; it turned, it was stable at speed, and it had power anywhere and everywhere I wanted it, so I could ride it however I wanted. This bike is, in a word, great.

Yamaha: One word to describe the Yamaha would be "solid." It’s got plenty of horsepower, although it does seem to be concentrated down low (which is good for me, but not really characteristic of 250Fs). And the chassis? It does everything good and nothing great. It corners well, is stable, etc., but it’s not exceptional in the turns or exceptionally stable; it’s just solid. What Yamaha has done is provide a great foundation for a really, really good race bike, once you modify it to suit you—which, let’s face it, most people who race motocross are going to do anyway in terms of suspension and tweaks to change the power characteristics, etc.

Overall: The Suzuki RM-Z250 is the hands-down winner, in my eyes. It does everything not just good but great.

Photo by: Matt Francis

Garth Milan:

Kawasaki: The KXF was the first bike I rode, and I immediately felt comfortable on it. I hadn’t ridden for quite some time prior, but the Kawi was pretty easy to get acquainted with and I adapted to it quickly. Power felt strong overall, and the digital fuel injection allowed for perfect, immediate throttle response. Handling was also good, though I felt the KX250F kept me on my toes a little more than the others; I seemed to tire a bit quicker on it, and the front end got nervous a time or two. For the most part, though, I really enjoyed the Kawasaki. But while it did most things well, for some reason I just never fell in love with any particular part or aspect of it enough to declare it the winner. Despite that feeling, I believe I could definitely post equally quick lap times on the KXF as I could any of the others, if not faster, and I feel that the bike has been vastly improved. Definitely a solid contender for the right rider.

Honda: Though the CRF didn’t have a ton of changes for 2011, there’s something about it that is just plain comfortable. It feels a bit softer and plusher than the others, though I never had any bottoming problems. In the end, this led me to really trust it. I felt totally comfortable pushing my limits on the Honda; more so than probably any of the others. While it had a tendency to fall flat on top, power-wise, and definitely wasn’t the fastest of the bunch, its overall "rideability" made up for the lack of power in my eyes. If I rode it more like a 125, leaving the power on a bit harder entering turns and such, it rewarded me by giving me the confidence to keep that speed and momentum with solid cornering tendencies and great overall handling.

Photo by: Matt Francis

Yamaha: I tried to keep a completely open mind when jumping on the Yamaha (which looked really trick) and forget about the carburetor below, but it happened more than once—I experienced the dreaded engine bog when pushing the Yamaha to its edge. I may have never noticed it or complained about it a couple of years ago, but with the rest of the class sporting EFI these days, the Yamaha is definitely ready for the upgrade. Still, engine power was more than healthy down low and through the middle. I think I may opt for a tooth lower on the sprocket, however, to allow it to keep pulling a bit more on top. Overall, though, the Yamaha was strong. What killed it for me was the ergonomics; while I applaud Yamaha for adding the new four-position handlebar option, the radiators stuck out obnoxiously far. Take this with a grain of salt, as my 6’5" height is far from average. However, with my height, my knees ended up right at the widest part of the shrouds, making the bike seem much wider and thicker than it actually is.
Suzuki: Something just felt right about the Suzuki. From the second I started to ride hard on it, I trusted it completely. The midrange hit and instant throttle response was very impressive, and the RMZ just lived to blow up berms, never over- or under-steering in corners. The Suzuki also felt thin and light, and the suspension was smooth and progressive. I felt like I could do lots of laps on the Suzuki with minimal fatigue, thanks to its smooth handling.

KTM: As usual, the KTM’s motor flat-out ripped! From the very bottom of the midrange all the way to the top, the KTM was all about impressive power. But I also like a bike that stops well, and the front brake on the KTM more than did the trick in that regard. I’m pretty sure I heard another test rider joke about how they almost went over the bars due to the amazing stopping power of the KTM, and that is a major plus, especially for a guy my size. On the other side of the bars, after all these years, I still love the buttery smooth hydraulic clutch on the KTM … another plus. The new linkage setup seemed to work out great, too, as the Katoom has never felt so planted and stable. The front end was extremely easy to trust, and found its way into corners with predictability and traction every time. One negative for me, and again it was due to my size, was that the KTM’s exhaust pipe in the rear stuck our far enough for me to catch my leg on most of the time, which was quite annoying and gave the bike a wider feel than it actually has.

Overall: As cliché as it is to say, it needs to be said: Every single one of these bikes is amazing in its own way, and I firmly believe that I could take any of the five 2011 Shootout bikes, and after a bit of getting used to it, go just as fast as on another. That said, much of the decision just boils down to personal preference, brand loyalty, and dealer performance. While there were three bikes that I felt almost equally good on, if I could have rolled any single bike into the back of my pickup at the end of the day, it would have been the Suzuki. Like I said before, I jumped on the Suzuki and immediately felt at home. It was easy to keep in the meat of the power (which it had plenty of). Combine that with the ergonomics and handling, and the ‘Zook was just plain fun to ride! The cornering prowess that Suzuki has become known for really shines through in the 2011 model. I would need to ride the RM-Z on a rougher track to see how it fared in bigger bumps, but on the fairly smooth track that we conducted the shootout on, the Suzuki never got scary or twitchy at high speeds. 

Ed. Note: Chad Pederson is not on the Racer X staff, but he is part of our regular testing crew. Since he made the long trek out from Minnesota to help with our 450 shootout, we decided to let him contribute to the 250 day as well. Call him our token chubby, pizza-making, ex-pro rider.

Chad Pederson:

Yamaha: The YZ was just okay for me. I liked the quick feeling of the new chassis setup and the way the bike looks and feels when you sit on it, but I had some bogs and I felt like the motor was flat on top. It just felt a little slow to me. The handling was okay.

Suzuki: This bike was awesome. The motor felt like a race bike! As soon as you get on the RMZ, you just feel confident and comfortable. The suspension was good but I did get some headshake at times when the chop started coming up. It was probably just a setup thing, but it’s the one negative thing—the only negative thing—I had to say. Great bike.

Honda: The Honda has always been the one setting the bar in this class, in my opinion. It‘s still a great bike and I feel like it’s still probably the best-handling bike in the class. It’s so stable and predictable that you can charge through bumps or mud or whatever is in front of you, and that’s a cool feeling. But the motor definitely feels a little soft compared to a couple other bikes this year, namely the Suzuki and the KTM. Still, the Honda is an awesome all-around bike.

Kawasaki: I really liked the Kawasaki this year. The suspension was set up perfect for me for some reason. I went a little softer, and then it was dialed—I could have raced it that way all year. The motor was good; it wasn’t the quickest, but it was really solid and the EFI worked perfectly. I had nothing bad to say about the Kawasaki at all. The motor wasn’t quite as good as the Suzuki and the cornering wasn’t quite as nimble as the Honda, but I think it really comes down to personal preference when they’re this close.

KTM: The motor on the KTM was great. I still felt like the Suzuki had a little more bottom end but the KTM pulls to the moon. It revs really high. The handling is good; I really had no complaints there. I love the brakes and the clutch as well as the bars and the pegs and finish. They really do a good job of putting race bike parts on these things. I had a little bit of a nervous feel in the front end on the KTM that kept me from being able to push when I was entering turns, but that was the only complaint I had.

Photo: Matt Francis

The Suzuki wins this one for me. It has an awesome engine and the whole package is good. The fork was the only hiccup, but it was pretty minor. I could still go out and race it just the way it was and be stoked.

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