The Revolution Begins: 2004 250cc Four-Stroke Shootout

By the Testing Staff of TransWorld Motocross

[IMAGE 1]

By design, a 250cc four-stroke can easily be considered the best all-around motocross bike category for the average rider. Lethal in the hands of a skilled racer, powerful enough to haul around heavier rider, and manageable enough for beginners and play riders, a 250cc thumper is, most importantly, a fresh alternative to a high-revving, pipey two-stroke 125. Perhaps last year’s 125cc National Champion James Stewart put it best, saying, “I don’t know why anyone would ever buy another 125cc two-stroke again,” after taking his first spin on the Kawasaki KX250F four-stroke.

The 2004 model year is a big one for the small-bore class as not one, not two, but three fresh new entries into the class give consumers a variety of choices when it comes to 250cc thumpers. For the past three years, the Yamaha YZ250F has been the sole 250cc four-stroke available, but this year it is joined by the Honda CRF250R and the twin Suzuki RM-Z250 and Kawasaki KX250F models. Every Japanese manufacturer now offers both a two-stroke and four-stroke bike for the 125cc class and the undeniable trend within the motocross aftermarket is leaning heavily towards the valve-and-cam set. Yes, boys and girls, the four-stroke revolution is upon us.

For our comparison test, we gathered three riders of varied ability and visited two distinctly different courses: the brutally rough, natural soft terrain course at Cahuilla Creek MX Park, and the Supercross-style jump-laden El Cajon MX Park facility. To create a level playing field, the Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha were outfitted with Pro Taper AC-1 handlebars because the Honda comes outfitted with Renthal bars from the factory. To ensure consistent traction, Dunlop’s excellent K742F front and K756 rear tires were mounted on all four bikes. Each manufacturer was on hand to offer technical support throughout our official two-day comparison, but we spent several additional days at the track to confirm our initial conclusions. Here is what we found…

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THIRD PLACE

Kawasaki KX250F and Suzuki RM-Z250

We’ve always laughed at shootouts that result in a tie, but in this case it would be ridiculous to rate either the Suzuki or Kawasaki ahead of the other. Why? Well, as products of the recent Suzuki/Kawasaki merger, the KX250F and RM-Z250 are, for all intent and purposes, the exact same machine. Though the two bikes ran distinctly different throughout our test sessions–thanks to different carburetor jetting settings–there is absolutely no technical difference between the two, save for yellow or green plastics.

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So why did the dynamic duo finish in a tie for third? Well, it’s certainly isn’t because they’re not great bikes! The Kawasaki and Suzuki are spectacular machines that possess excellent handling characteristics, great ergonomics and strong motors, but neither drew more than third-place votes from any of our test riders.

Perhaps the most limiting factor was in the power department, as neither bike possesses the strongest motors in the class. As we mentioned earlier, the KX250F and RM-Z250 ran distinctly different from one another. The Suzuki was jetted only slightly leaner than stock (see sidebar), and possessed a fast-revving, hard-hitting powerband that pulled well in each gear. The Kawasaki, meanwhile, deviated further from stock and was much leaner overall (again, see sidebar). The result was a strong bottom-end and mid-range punch, with less overrev up top. One thing that we learned throughout the test was that while a two-stroke has a basic powerband that can be idealized by jetting adjustments, a four-stroke has several personalities than can be realized by a wide range of different carburetor settings, all of which run cleanly. In either set-up the green and yellow bikes run great and are more than capable of winning athe highest level, but ultimately it is the red and blue bikes that still run a little bit stronger. Furthermore, we’ve encountered some slight sealing problems on the engine cases of our test units and have heard similar reports from consumers, and have found that the twins tend to run hotter than the competition. A switch to Engine Ice coolant helped alleviate the temperature problem, but faster, more aggressive riders will likely need a better aftermarket solution.

Enough about the motor; let’s discuss the handling and suspension of the RM-Z and KX. The Kayaba suspension that graces both bikes does an excellent job of soaking up both small and large hits, even for heavier and/or faster riders. Handling is definitely the twins’ strong point, as the bikes have a low-feeling center of gravity and can be directed anywhere on the track with minimal effort. Getting the bikes to crank over in a rutted corner is effortless, and the bikes are equally adept in flat, slippery turns as well. Both have very neutral jumping manners and maintain a light, flickable feel both on the ground and in the air. Ergonomically the bikes are on the small side on the stand and while riding though the pits, but once on the track the compact rider compartment is barley noticeable, even for Sleestacks like Garth.

The Kawasaki and Suzuki thumpers are both excellent choices and we’ve seen quite a few in action at local tracks and at the races. Furthermore, we’ve had the opportunity to try several aftermarket exhaust systems and can attest to the fact that plenty of additional horsepower lurks within the engines.

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SECOND PLACE

Yamaha YZ250F

With a three-year head start on the competition, plus some very noticeable improvements for ’04, we honestly expected the familiar YZ250F to deny all challengers. Once ridden back-to-back with the rest, however, it was the Yamaha’s overall feel that kept it from pulling a knock-out victory. The undisputed King of the motor department, the Yamaha has a tall, heavier feel than all three of the newer bikes, and it was this alone that relegated it to second place.

But first, let’s talk about the motor! They say that power is everything in the 125cc class, and the YZ250F has the most, hands down. Throughout the powerband, the Yamaha has it all: great low-end torque, a gigantic mid-range punch, and top-end overrev that will satisfy even the laziest, non-shifting rider. Of the four bikes, the YZ250F has the most aggressive powerband, and the familiar punch in the upper echelons of the rpm range is exclusive to the YZ alone. Jetting was spot-on in stock condition for our SoCal locale, and the bike was easy to fire up on the first kick, hot or cold. Having played with aftermarket exhausts, intake accessories, and airboxes in the past, we know that the YZ250F can be made much faster when tinkered with. And that should be a scary thought for its competition…

Until the new green, yellow, and red competition showed up, we believed the YZ250F to be one of the best handling bikes ever made. Using the Yamaha as a benchmark, however, the competition was able to match its overall weight but redistribute it for lighter, quicker handling. We’re not saying that the YZ250F feels bad; it still handles great! In comparison to the others, however, it feels heavier up top and harder to coax through corners. Perhaps the best description a rider offered was that the Yamaha felt as if its mass were between his knees, while the Kawasaki, Suzuki and Honda felt as if it were between his boots.

Suspension-wise, the Kayaba fork and shock that grace the YZ250F are perfectly setup for riders who fall within the target weight range, but unlike the others, it cannot be comfortably adjusted to accommodate heavier pilots. The fork, especially, has a soft feel on hard landings that is only amplified over time.

The Yamaha YZ250F set the standard by which all others have been measured, but unfortunately, that standard has been raised. Expect Yamaha to come back swinging with a highly refined version in ’04.

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FIRST PLACE

Honda CRF250R

Honda took its time developing the CRF250R–Ernesto Fonseca first raced a prototype version well over a year ago–and the highly anticipated bike is definitely worth the wait. As a complete package, the Honda CRF250R is the best bike in the newly populated 250cc four-stroke class, thanks to unparalleled handling and suspension, a potent engine, and overall quality of construction.

The CRF engine has good, snappy low-end throttle response and a ton of mid-range power. The Honda has perhaps the most mid-range of all four bikes, and it can actually be ridden in a gear higher in some track conditions. While the top-end pull is good, this is where the Honda engine falls short to the Yamaha. Where the YZ250F keeps pulling hard, the CRF250R tends to flatten out and require the rider to grab the next gear. Still, in all of the track conditions we encountered, the CRF250R motor was potent enough to propel the bike over all the obstacles with the same ease as the YZ250F. Like the YZ250F, the CRF250R required no major jetting adjustments. We did experiment with some richer settings to see if there was some additional top-end to be had, but ended up returning to the stock settings when all was said and done. We had the opportunity to try a Pro Circuit exhaust on the bike and were quite impressed with the additional power that could be had. Still, in stock condition the bike is 100% competitive in the motor department, and puts out more than enough horsepower for the average rider.

Each and every test rider raved about the handling and suspension action of the CRF250R, reporting that the bike was the best-cornering machine many of them had ever ridden. No matter the track conditions, the CRF’s front and rear wheels stick to the ground and instill nothing but confidence. Of the four bikes, the Honda has the lightest, most nimble feel, with just the right amount of chassis rigidity that rewards an aggressive rider. Both ends of the Showa suspension proved plush and compliant in braking and acceleration chop, yet firm under medium- to large-sized hits. Most notably, it was tunable to suit the widest range of riders, from tiny to overweight.

Ergonomically, the CRF is very easy to hop on and get used to, even for riders who traditionally despise the feel of Honda’s aluminum chassis. The bike feels compact and slim, but not too small for taller pilots. The control group is top-notch, and Honda is to be commended for joining KTM as a manufacturer to deliver their bikes with high-quality handlebars.

Just a few paragraphs ago, we stated that power is everything in the 125cc (or 250cc thumper) class. Though the Honda is not the horsepower king, it is not that far off, and the bike’s superb suspension and handling are more than enough to overshadow its small shortcomings in the power department. It is with no uncertainty that we proclaim the Honda CRF250R the TransWorld Motocross Bike of the Year in the 250cc four-stroke category.

 

BRETT MOUNTAIN

Height: 5’10″

Weight: 140 lbs.

Skill level: Novice

Bikes recently raced/ridden: 2004 Yamaha YZ125, YZ250

Shootout rankings:

  1. Honda CRF250R
  2. Yamaha YZ250F
  3. Kawasaki KX250F/Suzuki RM-Z250
P>In my opinion, the Honda was by far the superior machine. It was hard to find anything wrong with the CRF; it cornered like a dream and was overall faster than any of the others. The motor pulled hard all the way from low-end to top-end without ever losing any speed or power. The Honda is also a great-handling bike. Once I dialed in the suspension, the bike was perfect for me. I was barely out of control on the bike and it made250F set the standard by which all others have been measured, but unfortunately, that standard has been raised. Expect Yamaha to come back swinging with a highly refined version in ’04.

[IMAGE 5]

FIRST PLACE

Honda CRF250R

Honda took its time developing the CRF250R–Ernesto Fonseca first raced a prototype version well over a year ago–and the highly anticipated bike is definitely worth the wait. As a complete package, the Honda CRF250R is the best bike in the newly populated 250cc four-stroke class, thanks to unparalleled handling and suspension, a potent engine, and overall quality of construction.

The CRF engine has good, snappy low-end throttle response and a ton of mid-range power. The Honda has perhaps the most mid-range of all four bikes, and it can actually be ridden in a gear higher in some track conditions. While the top-end pull is good, this is where the Honda engine falls short to the Yamaha. Where the YZ250F keeps pulling hard, the CRF250R tends to flatten out and require the rider to grab the next gear. Still, in all of the track conditions we encountered, the CRF250R motor was potent enough to propel the bike over all the obstacles with the same ease as the YZ250F. Like the YZ250F, the CRF250R required no major jetting adjustments. We did experiment with some richer settings to see if there was some additional top-end to be had, but ended up returning to the stock settings when all was said and done. We had the opportunity to try a Pro Circuit exhaust on the bike and were quite impressed with the additional power that could be had. Still, in stock condition the bike is 100% competitive in the motor department, and puts out more than enough horsepower for the average rider.

Each and every test rider raved about the handling and suspension action of the CRF250R, reporting that the bike was the best-cornering machine many of them had ever ridden. No matter the track conditions, the CRF’s front and rear wheels stick to the ground and instill nothing but confidence. Of the four bikes, the Honda has the lightest, most nimble feel, with just the right amount of chassis rigidity that rewards an aggressive rider. Both ends of the Showa suspension proved plush and compliant in braking and acceleration chop, yet firm under medium- to large-sized hits. Most notably, it was tunable to suit the widest range of riders, from tiny to overweight.

Ergonomically, the CRF is very easy to hop on and get used to, even for riders who traditionally despise the feel of Honda’s aluminum chassis. The bike feels compact and slim, but not too small for taller pilots. The control group is top-notch, and Honda is to be commended for joining KTM as a manufacturer to deliver their bikes with high-quality handlebars.

Just a few paragraphs ago, we stated that power is everything in the 125cc (or 250cc thumper) class. Though the Honda is not the horsepower king, it is not that far off, and the bike’s superb suspension and handling are more than enough to overshadow its small shortcomings in the power department. It is with no uncertainty that we proclaim the Honda CRF250R the TransWorld Motocross Bike of the Year in the 250cc four-stroke category.

 

BRETT MOUNTAIN

Height: 5’10″

Weight: 140 lbs.

Skill level: Novice

Bikes recently raced/ridden: 2004 Yamaha YZ125, YZ250

Shootout rankings:

  1. Honda CRF250R
  2. Yamaha YZ250F
  3. Kawasaki KX250F/Suzuki RM-Z250
P>In my opinion, the Honda was by far the superior machine. It was hard to find anything wrong with the CRF; it cornered like a dream and was overall faster than any of the others. The motor pulled hard all the way from low-end to top-end without ever losing any speed or power. The Honda is also a great-handling bike. Once I dialed in the suspension, the bike was perfect for me. I was barely out of control on the bike and it made me feel like a hero because I could ride it wide open in sections that I normally wouldn’t. This was by far the best bike for me.

The Yamaha YZ250F came in second over the Suzuki and Kawasaki mainly because of the motor. The Suzuki and Kawasaki have a bigger initial hit, but they don’t pull as hard or as strong as the Yamaha. The YZ250F is harsh for my weight, and it tends to push in the corners. It isn’t as confidence-inspiring as the Honda, Kawasaki or Suzuki in the turns, but it does jump and land well.

The Suzuki and Kawasaki both corner very well and the suspension was easy to dial in for my weight. The motors are good, but not overall as great as the Honda or Yamaha; while I might ride those two stock, I would buy a pipe for the Kawazukis right away. Both of the bikes are a little hard to shift under power, and they just don’t feel as solidly-made as the Honda. Still, I think that all four of the bikes are awesome, and they have forced me to rethink my opinion of four-stroke bikes. Though I still prefer two-strokes, I did come away from this shootout with a newfound appreciation for thumpers.

JED HERRING

Height: 6’1″

Weight: 160 lbs.

Skill level: Intermediate

Bikes recently raced/ridden: 2003 Suzuki RM250, 2003 Honda CRF450R

Shootout rankings:

  1. Yamaha YZ250F
  2. Honda CRF250R
  3. Kawasaki KX250F/Suzuki RM-Z250

For me, the Yamaha YZ250F has the best overall package. The Yamaha has the best motor, for sure, and power is the most important thing when racing the 125cc class. The motor pulls long and hard throughout the powerband, though it seemed to fall off a little bit on faster tracks. The YZ250F wasn’t the best handling bike of the bunch, but it wasn’t bad enough to change my mind about picking it first. The bike pushes the front end a little bit in corners, but it does handle big bumps and hard impacts well. It doesn’t handle as well as I want it to in the small choppy bumps, but that can be dialed in with a revalve. Overall, I was most comfortable on the YZ250F throughout the shootout, and I would buy it before any of the others.

The Honda CRF250R was the best-handling bike by far. The suspension is nice and predictable: smooth in the small stuff and firm in the big stuff. The bike corners very well in all conditions and I was the most comfortable jumping the CRF. The motor was good but not great; it was lacking low-end in comparison to the YZ250F. Where the Honda makes up for handling, it loses in motor. That is why I picked the Yamaha over the Honda; power is king in the 125cc class.

The Kawasaki and Suzuki ran differently from each other, which didn’t really make sense. I actually liked the way the Suzuki ran better than the Honda, but the way the Kawasaki was jetted didn’t really do a thing for me. The bikes handle well, maybe even better than the Yamaha. I could rail corners on the Kawasaki and Suzuki like the bikes were on rails, and jumping them was confidence inspiring, especially when seat-bouncing stuff.

MICHAEL YOUNG

Height: 5’ 7″

Weight: 155 lbs.

Skill level: Pro

Bikes recently raced/ridden: 2003 Suzuki RM125/RM250

I rate the Honda CRF250R first because I felt comfortable on it immediately. Within a lap or so, it felt like it had been my personal bike for several months. The thing that stands out in my mind most is how well the bike handles and how light it feels. It doesn’t feel like a big, fat four-stroke! I could whip this bike further than I have ever whipped any other thumper, and I could lay it over in corners just like I would my two-stroke race bikes. The motor is strong, but it could use a little more power. Still, the bike handles so well that it remains my hands-down favorite. I could race this bike in stock form and do well in the pro class.

The Yamaha got second, only because of the overall feel of the bike. The motor is still the best out there, but I never felt as good while riding the bike as I did on the other three bikes. The Yamaha is hard to turn and it feels big and bulky. Funny how before I rode the new 250cc four-strokes, I used to think that the YZ250F handled great! In comparison to the new bikes, it feels liike a YZ1000 in the turns and in rough sections.

I like both the Suzuki RM-Z250 and the Kawasaki KX250F because they handle so well. The suspension was not as plush and predictable as the Honda’s, but the bikes did work very well on the jump track at El Cajon. Cornering on both bikes is like a dream come true; I could blow up the outside line or slide through the inside like Jay Springsteen. I think that there isn’t a bad choice in the 250cc four-stroke class, and that all four bikes can be winners in the right hands. For me, however, the Honda was the bike that did it all.

Pick a Powerband, Any Powerband

While the Honda CRF250R and Yamaha YZ250F seemed to come perfectly jetted right out of the crate, we did plenty of experimenting with the Kawasaki KZ250F and Suzuki RM-Z250. Ironically, though the green and yellow bikes are identical, the carburetor settings that each respective manufacturer technician arrived at produced radically different results. For our sea-level location, here is what we ran, and what the settings produced…

Fast-Revving, Hard-Pulling Power

175 main jet

TK pilot jet

TK needle (TK) clip position

2 _ turns out on air screw

Torquey throttle response, big mid-range

175 main jet

TK pilot jet

TK needle (TK) clip position

2 _ turns out on air screw

(END SIDEBAR)

feel like a hero because I could ride it wide open in sections that I normally wouldn’t. This was by far the best bike for me.

The Yamaha YZ250F came in second over the Suzuki and Kawasaki mainly because of the motor. The Suzuki and Kawasaki have a bigger initial hit, but they don’t pull as hard or as strong as the Yamaha. The YZ250F is harsh for my weight, and it tends to push in the corners. It isn’t as confidence-inspiring as the Honda, Kawasaki or Suzuki in the turns, but it does jump and land well.

The Suzuki and Kawasaki both corner very well and the suspension was easy to dial in for my weight. The motors are good, but not overall as great as the Honda or Yamaha; while I might ride those two stock, I would buy a pipe for the Kawazukis right away. Both of the bikes are a little hard to shift under power, and they just don’t feel as solidly-made as the Honda. Still, I think that all four of the bikes are awesome, and they have forced me to rethink my opinion of four-stroke bikes. Though I still prefer two-strokes, I did come away from this shootout with a newfound appreciation for thumpers.

JED HERRING

Height: 6’1″

Weight: 160 lbs.

Skill level: Intermediate

Bikes recently raced/ridden: 2003 Suzuki RM250, 2003 Honda CRF450R

Shootout rankings:

  1. Yamaha YZ250F
  2. Honda CRF250R
  3. Kawasaki KX250F/Suzuki RM-Z250

For me, the Yamaha YZ250F has the best overall package. The Yamaha has the best motor, for sure, and power is the most important thing when racing the 125cc class. The motor pulls long and hard throughout the powerband, though it seemed to fall off a little bit on faster tracks. The YZ250F wasn’t the best handling bike of the bunch, but it wasn’t bad enough to change my mind about picking it first. The bike pushes the front end a little bit in corners, but it does handle big bumps and hard impacts well. It doesn’t handle as well as I want it to in the small choppy bumps, but that can be dialed in with a revalve. Overall, I was most comfortable on the YZ250F throughout the shootout, and I would buy it before any of the others.

The Honda CRF250R was the best-handling bike by far. The suspension is nice and predictable: smooth in the small stuff and firm in the big stuff. The bike corners very well in all conditions and I was the most comfortable jumping the CRF. The motor was good but not great; it was lacking low-end in comparison to the YZ250F. Where the Honda makes up for handling, it loses in motor. That is why I picked the Yamaha over the Honda; power is king in the 125cc class.

The Kawasaki and Suzuki ran differently from each other, which didn’t really make sense. I actually liked the way the Suzuki ran better than the Honda, but the way the Kawasaki was jetted didn’t really do a thing for me. The bikes handle well, maybe even better than the Yamaha. I could rail corners on the Kawasaki and Suzuki like the bikes were on rails, and jumping them was confidence inspiring, especially when seat-bouncing stuff.

MICHAEL YOUNG

Height: 5’ 7″

Weight: 155 lbs.

Skill level: Pro

Bikes recently raced/ridden: 2003 Suzuki RM125/RM250

I rate the Honda CRF250R first because I felt comfortable on it immediately. Within a lap or so, it felt like it had been my personal bike for several months. The thing that stands out in my mind most is how well the bike handles and how light it feels. It doesn’t feel like a big, fat four-stroke! I could whip this bike further than I have ever whipped any other thumper, and I could lay it over in corners just like I would my two-stroke race bikes. The motor is strong, but it could use a little more power. Still, the bike handles so well that it remains my hands-down favorite. I could race this bike in stock form and do well in the pro class.

The Yamaha got second, only because of the overall feel of the bike. The motor is still the best out there, but I never felt as good while riding the bike as I did on the other three bikes. The Yamaha is hard to turn and it feels big and bulky. Funny how before I rode the new 250cc four-strokes, I used to think that the YZ250F handled great! In comparison to the new bikes, it feels like a YZ1000 in the turns and in rough sections.

I like both the Suzuki RM-Z250 and the Kawasaki KX250F because they handle so well. The suspension was not as plush and predictable as the Honda’s, but the bikes did work very well on the jump track at El Cajon. Cornering on both bikes is like a dream come true; I could blow up the outside line or slide through the inside like Jay Springsteen. I think that there isn’t a bad choice in the 250cc four-stroke class, and that all four bikes can be winners in the right hands. For me, however, the Honda was the bike that did it all.

Pick a Powerband, Any Powerband

While the Honda CRF250R and Yamaha YZ250F seemed to come perfectly jetted right out of the crate, we did plenty of experimenting with the Kawasaki KZ250F and Suzuki RM-Z250. Ironically, though the green and yellow bikes are identical, the carburetor settings that each respective manufacturer technician arrived at produced radically different results. For our sea-level location, here is what we ran, and what the settings produced…

Fast-Revving, Hard-Pulling Power

175 main jet

TK pilot jet

TK needle (TK) clip position

2 _ turns out on air screw

Torquey throttle response, big mid-range

175 main jet

TK pilot jet

TK needle (TK) clip position

2 _ turns out on air screw

(END SIDEBAR)

f the overall feel of the bike. The motor is still the best out there, but I never felt as good while riding the bike as I did on the other three bikes. The Yamaha is hard to turn and it feels big and bulky. Funny how before I rode the new 250cc four-strokes, I used to think that the YZ250F handled great! In comparison to the new bikes, it feels like a YZ1000 in the turns and in rough sections.

I like both the Suzuki RM-Z250 and the Kawasaki KX250F because they handle so well. The suspension was not as plush and predictable as the Honda’s, but the bikes did work very well on the jump track at El Cajon. Cornering on both bikes is like a dream come true; I could blow up the outside line or slide through the inside like Jay Springsteen. I think that there isn’t a bad choice in the 250cc four-stroke class, and that all four bikes can be winners in the right hands. For me, however, the Honda was the bike that did it all.

Pick a Powerband, Any Powerband

While the Honda CRF250R and Yamaha YZ250F seemed to come perfectly jetted right out of the crate, we did plenty of experimenting with the Kawasaki KZ250F and Suzuki RM-Z250. Ironically, though the green and yellow bikes are identical, the carburetor settings that each respective manufacturer technician arrived at produced radically different results. For our sea-level location, here is what we ran, and what the settings produced…

Fast-Revving, Hard-Pulling Power

175 main jet

TK pilot jet

TK needle (TK) clip position

2 _ turns out on air screw

Torquey throttle response, big mid-range

175 main jet

TK pilot jet

TK needle (TK) clip position

2 _ turns out on air screw

(END SIDEBAR)