From the June 2016 issue of Dirt Rider Magazine.

What’s gotten into these kids today!? They’re fast, they’re fearless, and they never want to stop riding. We gathered six talented 85cc racers and put them on six of the 2016 racebikes. When the dust settled, one bike, like the really tall kid in class, stood head and shoulders above the others, and in 2016 that bike was the KTM 85 SX. It’s one of the newest, it’s one of the fastest, and it was the first choice overall at both of our test days.

How We Tested

We went first to Glen Helen on a Thursday for its fast layout and big hills. A rainstorm pushed our second test day to a high-desert test track that was choppy, tight, and snaked across two shallow hillsides. For both days, the dirt conditions were great. The riders filled out evaluation forms, including overall rankings at each location. This little shootout gives a huge thank-you to the manufacturers and importers who came out to help: KTM, Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and TM. The Suzuki was supported by a DR pro-level test rider. Unfortunately, Husqvarna did not have its TC 85 available. Another big thank-you goes to the mini riders for showing adult-level professionalism and kid-level energy and to the parents for supporting their riders and stepping back to let them do their jobs—and to let us do ours.

85cc Shootout KTM 85 SX
Pictured: Jack Carrig // "When in doubt, KTM all out." –RJ Warda Age:12 /4'10"/80 lb.Photo by Drew Ruiz

Winner: KTM 85 SX

The KTM dominated the test scores at Glen Helen and followed that up with another victory at the desert test track. The bike has had some very recent updates with a new fork and axle in 2014 and a revised cylinder and swingarm in 2015. It is the only non-linkage rear end, which does give dad fewer parts to service.

The Austrian bike got very high marks for its motor’s power. Even in a shootout with a “cheater” four-stroke, the KTM stood out in the power category with an engine that put out tons of smooth, fast, yet controllable power that pulled from bottom to top and with good throttle response. Several testers remarked that the bike felt especially fast charging out of corners. Other comments said it had the best over-rev in the test. Riders liked the hydraulic clutch and unanimously praised the transmission for being smooth and easy to shift.

There were a couple of comments that the KTM’s suspension was too stiff, with one rider blaming the fork while praising the shock. Most of the testers felt the action was outstanding (there were several notes that it was the best suspension in the test) with a balanced ride that worked well to smooth out both the small chop and bigger bumps.

The orange bike’s chassis was fun to ride and some testers said it had a good, solid feel, yet there were complaints about headshake. Riders felt the bike cornered well, though one guy mentioned the back end didn’t track great on entrances and then wanted to push out in corners (this rider still rated it first on the day he mentioned this). Most comments were that the bike laid over well, settled into turns nicely, and the suspension remained balanced throughout. Riders like the brakes’ feel and power. On first jumping onto the bike, the KTM felt tall to our testers; the KTM also seemed narrow—so call it tall, not big. One rider wrote that the slim bike was hard to get a grip on.

The biggest setup change most riders liked was to lower both ends by raising the fork in the clamps to the second or third line (first line is stock) and going from stock 100mm of sag to 105 to 110mm. This made the bike more comfortable but also helped the chassis corner better. Riders looking for plushness went four to eight clicks softer on fork compression and four to six softer on shock compression.

85cc Shootout Honda CRF150R
Pictured: RJ Warda // "The Honda came on so strong it would surprise a bull rider." –Carter Dubach Age:12 /5'0"/85 lb.Photo by Drew Ruiz

First Runner Up: Honda CRF150R

The Honda is the only four-stroke in the group, and the mini riders were excited to ride it. It was different, it was powerful, and it managed a second overall on both days. The bike that came out in 2007 was given an update in 2012 with a new head, cam, piston, and carb and revised suspension valving. It still stands alone in the mini-thumper racebike category.

The 150R puts out strong, smooth, and usable power, and the Honda has enough of a torque advantage over the 85s that riders were using the clutch much less coming out of corners. As broad and strong as the power was, most testers also pointed to the bike’s lack of top-end compared to the strong screamers in the test. The riders loved the smooth transmission, and some commented how the engine “didn’t lose a lot of power” when shifting.

Most of the criticism of the Honda was directed at its suspension. Some riders got along great with the fork and shock action, but several felt the bike kicked. Most of the issue was felt on high-speed chop or in braking bumps. The symptoms were hard to trace, as some riders felt the fork was too stiff; others blamed the shock. As the “moderators” for this test, we can tell you that this points to an overall lack of balance in the bike, which may in part be due to the added weight and different inertia of the four-stroke package, which affects handling in ways our kid testers had trouble articulating.

The heaviest bike in the pack didn’t suffer from the extra weight; the Honda was easy to ride and cornered great. Many commented the bike was well balanced in the turns. The CRF felt planted and was stable at speed, though a few notes called the red machine wide feeling at the shrouds. The riders found this machine to be fun to ride.

The Honda was the hardest bike for our two-stroke-oriented testers to start, and the tip was to give just a little, steady crack of throttle as the riders kicked. The four-stroke was starting easier after two days of riding. To alleviate the suspension kicking, riders went a quarter- to half-turn stiffer on fork compression and a quarter-turn stiffer on shock compression. One of the bigger, faster riders also liked a half-turn slower on fork rebound and a quarter-turn slower on shock rebound.

85cc Shootout Yamaha YZ85
Pictured: Cody Simpson // "On the top-end the Yamaha pulled like a rocket ship. I thought I was off to the moon." –Cody Simpson Age:11 /5'0" /100 lb.Photo by Drew Ruiz

Second Runner Up: Yamaha YZ85

The YZ package has been around since 2002, but the bike got a clutch and transmission update in 2014 and then a new cylinder, bodywork, and clutch lever in 2015. The Yamaha is the only two-stroke that does not have a power valve, which shows up in less-broad power.

The Yamaha’s engine lost points for its weak low-end, but once into the power the blue bike pulled hard. The Yamaha needed more clutch to get up in the revs and more shifting to stay in the mid and top-end, but many comments said the bike was tuned perfectly there, though a few found a slight bog down low. Riders were split on the shifting; many found it smooth, some complained it wasn’t, and one said he had to let off the gas to shift. A few riders remarked the power delivery of the YZ was abrupt, one using the dreaded “like a light switch” metaphor.

The fork and shock soaked up bumps better than the other bikes and worked great in both high- and low-speed track sections. One rider described it like flying over the bumps on the straightaways. The suspension didn’t move too much and was very well balanced. One rider experienced some headshake but tuned it out with clickers. (An interesting side note: Our kid testers were good about feedback when making changes to the bikes. Typically, after a change was made the kid would comment that the bike was much better, but we heard more than a few kids say that changes to the clickers resulted in “no difference” or were a step backward.)

Most riders praised the YZ’s cornering (some labeled it as the “best in class”) and for being very nimble, while others felt it didn’t like to lean in or wanted to stand up. All found the chassis’ stability was top-notch under accel­eration or braking. There were complaints the brakes were weak, and two noted the bike vibrated more than the others. The overall feel was a compact and low bike. Riders liked the Yamaha’s sag between 80 to 82mm, and clicker adjustments did not go more than one or two clicks in either direction.

85cc Shootout Kawasaki KX85
Pictured: Anthony Gonsalves // "The KX Cornered so good it felt like you could drag the bars at will." –Anthony Gonsalves Age: 12 /4'10" /88 lb.Photo by Drew Ruiz

Third Runner Up: Kawasaki KX85

The green bike got a recent redesign in 2014 with a new frame and plastic as well as suspension valving and engine updates. The Kawasaki scored poorly at Glen Helen but won over the riders at the tight test track.

Most of the criticism on day one was directed at the green machine’s powerplant. It was deemed low on power and riders had to get up into the rpm before catching the next gear. Most riders felt the mid was the sweet spot, and when it was in the power it was well tuned and the power was crisp. At the tighter desert test track the weak engine was less of a detriment to overall bike performance.

The Kawasaki’s suspension got mixed reviews, with some riders calling it too stiff, one feeling it was too soft, and several comments told us the bike is very sag/fork height dependent to get a balanced feel. The shock got marked down for hopping around in acceleration bumps, and the Glen Helen track bottomed the suspension harshly for some riders. Most testers agreed the suspension smoothed the low-speed chop better than the chop on the high-speed straights.

Some riders said the Kawasaki felt heavy, and some said it handled great—both of these might be attributed to the engine’s weak output. The chassis was predictable and had a low feeling with a compact cockpit. Riders seemed pickier about this bike’s stance than other bikes, with some calling it rear high and others saying front high. With the balance sorted, riders believed that the chassis was nimble and easy to lean into corners.

The starting point with the KX’s setup is sag and fork height. The stock sag range is 80 to 85mm, but our testers ran it mostly at 85mm or above, up to 100mm. The hot clicker setup was with the fork softened two or three clicks on compression, and the shock one to three clicks softer on compression and its rebound set stock or up to two clicks slower.

85cc Shootout Suzuki RM85
Pictured: Landen Gutterud // "The Suzuki was a comfortable cushion." –Jack Carrigg Age:10 /4'6"/ 82 lb.Photo by Drew Ruiz

Fourth Runner Up: Suzuki RM85

The current RM was introduced in 2002 and has not had a significant update since. The Suzuki was better liked at Glen Helen, and at the high-desert track it lost its podium spot.

The Suzuki’s power output was below the class average. It was praised for being smooth and also fun to ride, and most riders felt its sweet spot was in the low to midrange. Several riders felt is was a great shifter, though one big-footed tester had trouble catching the next gear.

The overall complaint with the RM’s suspension was that the bike was loose and at the same time a little too stiff over the small bumps. The worst criticism was that it bounced off (rather than absorbed) bumps, but then the next evaluation sheet would show a tester who got along great with the bike’s suspension. The shock drew more praise than the fork; bottoming was not an issue on the RM.

Suzuki has earned a reputation and a following for building bikes that turn well, and the RM upholds this brand personality. The chassis was easy to corner, was maneuverable, and had a light feeling. At Glen Helen there were some comments the bike was a little twitchy at speed, and one tester felt its cornering abilities didn’t shine at turn entrances. The engine’s smooth power helped here, as the RM was easy to put where the rider wanted it. The cockpit was cramped, and the bar was narrow with too much sweep; one rider noted that the pegs felt too far forward.

Bike changes to the RM centered mostly on trying to find stability. Stock sag is 85 to 95mm, but our testers did not stray from the 90 to 95 range. Two testers also lowered the fork to raise the front end at Glen Helen. To improve small bump compliance the fork came out two or three clicks softer on compression.

85cc Shootout TM 86 Junior 17/14
Pictured: Carter Dubach // "The TM may be missing a K, but it will put off a gnarly spray." –Landen Gutterud Age: 11 /4'10"/ 82 lb.Photo by Drew Ruiz

Fifth Runner Up: TM 85 Junior 17/14

This exotic mini is also the freshest model; the TM got a complete redesign in 2013 and has received some updates and changes since then. TM is a boutique motorcycle factory in Italy, and the company makes updates and refinements without being tied to calendar-specific model release dates. The TM is the only machine here with an aluminum frame, and it was also the only kid in class with dietary requirements: a 3-to-5 mixture of race/pump fuel (1.5 gallons C12 to 2.5 gallons pump).

The TM dominated the score sheets when it came to overall power output, but many of our riders felt the delivery was too abrupt. The bike started day one with an initial jetting bog, but after a quick carb adjustment the TM charged up the steep Glen Helen hills like nothing else in this displacement class (yes, even the 150!). Most riders felt the power was focused in the mid to top-end, while a few felt it was strong and smooth all the way through. The majority of riders felt the shifting was very smooth, with one saying it took more effort to shift. All comments on the hydraulic clutch were very positive.

The TM got a demerit for its too-stiff suspension. One of our bigger and faster riders clicked his way out to the conclusion that the fork was oversprung. The bike was twitchy until dropping the fork a bit, then some riders felt that the Italian machine was well balanced. A few kids felt the rear kicked, but generally most were saying it was too stiff. One rider concluded the rougher the track got, the better the suspension performed.

The oversprung fork sensation hurt the TM’s handling, with a front end that could be vague on corner entrances and would push in turns, and with a power delivery that sometimes had the bike going wide on exits. Some riders got along well with it, and most said it felt light. The majority of our test riders really liked the bike’s ergos.

The main adjustment that helped the TM was the jetting, which was one step leaner on both the pilot and needle clip. Compression on the fork was dialed out about five clicks softer and three clicks softer on the shock. Riders liked three clicks slower on the shock rebound, and sag ranged from 100 to 110mm (this is the stock range).

2016 KTM 85 SX
The winner of the shootout goes to the 2016 KTM 85 SX.Photo by Drew Ruiz
Test Sheet Points (Scored Like Moto Finishes)
Glen Helen
Honda 16
Suzuki 23
TM 25
Yamaha 25
Kawasaki 28
Desert Test Track
KTM 16
Honda 18
Kawasaki 18
Yamaha 19
Suzuki 24
TM 31
Total Points and Order
1. KTM 25
2. Honda 34
3. Yamaha 44
4. Kawasaki 46
5. Suzuki 47
6. TM 56
Brand Weight (lb.) (Tank Full) Front/Rear Weight Seat Height (Inches) Peg Height (Inches) Tank Cap. Price
KTM 159 78/81 33.5 13.5 1.3 $5599
Honda 185 89/96 32.5 14.4 1.1 $4990
Yamaha 164 79/85 32.5 14.5 1.3 $4090
Kawasaki 165 79/86 32.5 13.9 1.3 $4349
Suzuki 165 80/85 33.25 14.25 1.3 $4099
TM 163 79/84 32.5 14.5 1.6 $6450

Want more? Check out our 2016 85cc Shootout Videos below: