2016 Dirt Rider 250F Motocross Shootout

Yamaha defends its title, again in the 250F MX Shootout comparison.

We'll cut right to the chase, and a chase it is: The Yamaha YZ250F is the winner of the 2016 Dirt Rider 250 MX shootout for the third time in a row, but the other bikes are improving and catching up. If you're in the market for one of these racebikes, you'd do better to read up on the personality of each bike rather than just consider the ranking order. We've also included some rider opinions that sometimes contradict the majority opinions on the bikes, which just helps emphasize that the best bike for one rider might not be the top choice for another.

2016 Dirt Rider 250F Motocross Shootout
2016 250F motocross bikes and test ridersPhoto by Jeff Allen

How We Tested

Due to the late timing of several bikes' availabilities, this year we broke Dirt Rider protocol of having 10 hours on each bike at the start of the shootout. Still, each machine received a comparable break-in session, and we had a good idea of what to expect from each bike even before testing began. We received the all-new Suzuki early, so we had several trackdays on that, and the all-new Austrian bikes are both based on the 2015 KTM Factory Edition 250 SX-F, so we had a year of experience with that package before we began with all the bikes together. We're familiar with the Honda chassis and suspension from last year, the Yamaha is largely unchanged (and we've had several trackdays on the updated '16), and the Kawasaki had no performance changes from last year. In addition to the individual days, we took all six bikes to multiple tracks and gathered opinions from 14 testers from those six-bike days. You'll see several of these motorcycles in upcoming Long Haul "Fixing the MXers" and other feature stories, but here's how they perform with only stock components other than all being outfitted with fresh Dunlop MX32 tires and Factory Effex backgrounds.

2016 Yamaha YZ250F
2016 Yamaha YZ250FPhoto by Jeff Allen

Winner: Yamaha YZ250F

The Yamaha gets the 250F MX Shootout win for the third consecutive year for putting together a package that does nothing bad and many things better than any of the other bikes. The 2016 gets motor changes, the most significant of which are the new flat-top piston and new ECU settings (leaner) that boost midrange, a one-rate lighter rear shock spring, and a larger front brake rotor (from 250mm to 270mm). The Yamaha earned the most first-place votes and was the shootout favorite by a very healthy margin. Here’s a breakdown of how it fended off its challengers in each category:

The YZ-F feels stronger than a 250cc should; it has meaty bottom-end power with excellent roll-on out of turns. The power never drops off through a usable midrange and strong top-end, which continues its surge of strength almost to the very end. The Yamaha does lack in over-rev compared to the Husky, KTM, and Kawasaki, and it might be a tick less sharp in its midrange snap than the Honda and Suzuki, but the YZ-F is impressively powerful and responsive across the entire rev range. Test riders commented the blue 250F has a quick rev yet also has excellent traction, both with forward bite and with grip while leaned over in turns—a credit to the engine and suspension working well together. A couple of riders noticed a little more compression braking compared to the other bikes (and liked it). The Yamaha has smooth shifting and good feel at the lever, though one rider felt the transmission strained to shift under a load; the Austrian bikes and the Honda drew the most praise for smooth shifting. There were several comments that the Yamaha sounded loud to the rider. Overall the engine’s flexibility and outright strength had many testers saying it felt like a race engine in a stock bike shootout.

2016 Yamaha YZ250F
2016 Yamaha YZ250FPhoto by Jeff Allen

The Yamaha also dominated the score sheets in the suspension category. While not as plush as some of the bikes this year, especially the Austrian twins, the YZ-F’s fork and shock are excellent in the chop with great bump absorption and tracking. After what feels like a slight firmness at the start of the stroke, the KYB components are progressive with no mid-stroke harshness and great bottoming resistance and control at bottoming. Compared to the other bikes, none held a candle to the Yamaha once into the mid-stroke down to the end of the travel. Also, the Yamaha rides nicely up in the stroke, giving a feeling of excellent ride attitude in irregular small chop and off-camber sections. A couple of testers commented on a slightly busy feeling, but overall the front and back are well mated so the suspension is balanced; no other brand got such universal praise for the front and rear ends working well together. And, maybe best of all, the fork or shock don’t need special tuning for different conditions; the Kawasaki can also make this claim, but the air-forked bikes are always battling a balance between harshness and hold-up, and the Austrian bikes couldn’t match the Yamaha’s performance at the outer limits of suspension performance.

2016 Yamaha YZ250F
2016 Yamaha YZ250FPhoto by Jeff Allen

The blue bike has stability all day, with all testers universally praising its straight-line, high-speed manners. The KTM and Husqvarna are also stable, but at intermediate and up speeds their chassis are hampered by their soft suspension. The YZ-F also won a lot of fans for its cornering traits. The chassis lays over and stays over through corners, with great grip on both tires, though it requires proper rider technique. The Suzuki and Honda can still cut sharper corners without perfect technique, but both of those bikes feel less comfortable at speed. The Yamaha is neutral enough that riders could steer it with either the front or rear wheel. There were, however, some complaints of vagueness in the front wheel on corner entrances, and one rider said the bike had a front-wheel push. Get forward with proper technique, do your part in the corners, though, and the Yamaha will do its part.

2016 Yamaha YZ250F
2016 Yamaha YZ250FPhoto by Jeff Allen

The Yamaha’s front-end airbox makes for a wide-seeming bike at the shrouds, and the YZ-F did get a lot of demerits for its overall wide and tall feeling; a few testers also felt the handlebar was too low. All of these complaints were also heard about the KTM and Husqvarna. The Yamaha doesn’t feel heavy, but it feels heavier than those Austrian bikes, and it’s less nimble feeling as well. For sure it’s less nimble feeling than the Honda and Suzuki. Yamaha was the only bike that gave issues with riders catching boots on the plastic. The YZ250F does not have the instant tuning via swappable couplers (Kawasaki and Suzuki) or bar-mounted map selectors (CRF-R, FC, and SX-F), but Yamaha does offer its GYTR engine tuner that gives more tuning options with just a little more work (and the cost of buying the tuner). The engine got several complaints for being loud, though it is not the loudest bike trackside to spectators—the Kawasaki earns that negative distinction. Several riders loved the Yamaha’s strong brakes, but the Austrian bikes’ brakes grabbed a few more fans; all three machines have great stopping power and feel.

Most testers didn’t make too many adjustments to the Yamaha. It works great—both at high speeds in the chop and at lower speeds around supercross-style obstacles—and equally well with the same settings. The few criticisms centered around a light front end (vague on entrance), and a couple of riders commented it could stand up in turns, but most riders were happy with the sag right around 100mm (the stock setting this year because of the lighter shock spring), and only a few riders dialed out the fork and shock compression to gain a little more suppleness on chop. One pro stiffened the fork compression to get more front-end bite, but otherwise it would seem that Yamaha’s R&D team did an outstanding job of choosing the stock clicker settings.

Why It Won

The engine is strong and responsive from bottom to top, the suspension is universally loved, and the handling agrees with most in both stability and cornering.

Why It Shouldn’t Have Won

The Yamaha is wide and tall and feels big overall.

The Yamaha 250’s engine makes me want to own a small-bore four-stroke.

- —Kris Keefer, Pro, 5’11”, 170 lb.

2016 Honda CRF250R
2016 Honda CRF250RPhoto by Jeff Allen

First Runner-Up: Honda CRF250R

The Honda moves up one place from its 2015 shootout results thanks to much-improved power, and that’s where the new bike’s refinements were focused. The highlights of the 2016 bike’s engine changes are a higher-compression piston, a different cam, new head porting, a revised airboot, updated FI mapping, and exhaust changes. On the outside, the ’16 bike got revised suspension settings, 5mm-longer fork tubes, and a new shock linkage.

2016 Honda CRF250R
2016 Honda CRF250RPhoto by Jeff Allen

Some test riders felt that the bottom-end power was great, some liked the top-end, but universally every tester raved about the middle-rpm power. Combined with the crisp throttle response and the bike’s smooth, quick-revving delivery—which provides good traction—the Honda was deceivingly fast (one rider kept overjumping everything). The red bike’s responsiveness makes it easy to use the throttle to help steer the bike, and that snappy response complements the bike’s light-feeling chassis. The shifting is great, helped by a very precise clutch engagement (though it was not the lightest pull at the lever).

Some riders got along great with the suspension package, but some (mostly lighter or novice-level riders) felt harshness at the very initiation of the stroke. The fix for the Showa TAC air fork is to either lower the inner chamber by about 4 psi or raise the balance chamber by 4 psi; this overcomes the fork’s reluctance to move, but it does hurt bottoming resistance, which isn’t great to start with. One of our pro testers felt this air spring adjustment just moved the harshness to the mid-stroke.

The Honda would have won if this shootout were based only on handling. Nearly all test riders loved the Honda’s outstanding turning traits. The bike corners effortlessly and only drew a few complaints that the CRF could stand up in corners. Most testers mentioned the Honda’s lack of stability relative to other bikes, but many in the same breath added that they were willing to give up that stability for the bike’s nimble feel in turns and in the air. The red machine also feels light, and some commented that it took less energy to ride. No testers tried to tune out the lack of stability—they didn’t want to sacrifice the bike’s turning abilities.

2016 Honda CRF250R
2016 Honda CRF250RPhoto by Jeff Allen

The natural-feeling Honda won the “best rider compartment” category, though some commented that the handlebar bend felt too tall, especially while sitting. The Honda’s overall feel is small and low and lightweight. The Honda is the only bike that comes with a steering damper, it has a three-way map selector on the bar, and the red machine’s reputation for durability was mentioned on score sheets as a big selling point.

Why It Should Have Won

The CRF250R feels nimble, light, and turns intuitively. Its power is crisp, and the smooth delivery gets the power to the ground. The Honda is very fun to ride.

Why It Didn’t Win

The Honda’s fork brings a harshness to the ride that really hurt its rankings, especially with the lighter and slower riders.

This bike is the best-turning bike I have ever ridden. It turns like it’s on rails! I would gladly sacrifice stability for how well it turns.

- —Colton Aeck, Pro, 6’0”, 170 lb.

2016 Husqvarna FC 250
2016 Husqvarna FC 250Photo by Jeff Allen

Second Runner-Up: Husqvarna FC 250

Last year the Husky tied for fifth place, so a podium finish marks a nice improvement for the all-new bike. Based on the 2015 Factory Edition KTM 250 SX-F, the 2016 FC 250 is a totally different animal. It’s lighter than last year by almost 7 pounds, has a new motor and exhaust, and sports a revised and much more nimble chassis. The new frame, new shock, and new linkage allow for a lighter rate shock spring.

2016 Husqvarna FC 250
2016 Husqvarna FC 250Photo by Jeff Allen

Down in the bottom of the rpm, the FC’s engine lacks meat and revs slowly, though some riders felt that its power character took less energy to ride. The Husky has slightly more bottom than its KTM brother, but for both Austrian bikes the boost is at the top. Most testers, from novice to pro, felt the top-end surge was exciting and effective and the white bike grabbed traction well, but this type of power takes skill to stay in the upper rpm. The transmission is extremely smooth, and the hydraulic clutch is great.

If you’re looking to smooth out the chop, the 2016 WP suspension is for you. Most riders got along well with both ends, loving the “pillowy” feel at the top of and into the stroke, with only a few complaints of bottoming. One pro rider felt the shock was too stiff for the fork, and two intermediate riders felt the shock moved excessively. The Husky’s clickers got more attention than the other bikes in order to dial it in for different conditions, and one intermediate rider pointed out that he adjusted in different directions for different conditions (softer/faster for high-speed chop and firmer/slower for jump-filled hardpack). The suspension is plush without getting wallowy or giving up handling precision, but its soft settings contradict the pro-oriented engine character.

2016 Husqvarna FC 250
2016 Husqvarna FC 250Photo by Jeff Allen

The FC is predictable at speed, and it initiates turns well. One intermediate rider felt the front wheel needed something to push against, and one novice felt that the bike initiated turns great while he was standing but not while sitting (which could mean that the FC 250’s front end feels more planted when the pegs are weighted and when there is downward pressure on the handlebar). The Husky comes off as connected to the ground and is also lightweight feeling and easy to pivot or turn down on a berm.

The Husky comes with a two-position, bar-mounted engine map selector with three stock maps it can link to (it also does double duty to engage the launch control), a rubber-mounted bar, a hydraulic clutch, finger-adjustable clickers on the fork, and in-mold graphics that won’t peel off. At the conclusion of the shootout—while pressure-washing all six bikes together—we noted that the blue plastic portions of the Husqvarna’s bodywork were looking somewhat creased and hammered compared to the other machines. Testers felt comfortable quickly in the rider compartment, which is more forward, tall, and slightly wide compared to other bikes; the rider compartment has a “sit on” not a “sit in” feel, and the now-gripper seat cover is light-years better than the 2015’s slippery saddle. The brakes have great power and control, and most riders loved the electric start, though the engine does not have a kickstarter backup.

The Husky scored better in rough and choppy conditions than in smooth and jumpy conditions, which seems logical given its plush ride. The WP shock’s high-speed compression setting is very sensitive and very effective; it’s a great tool for dialing in how the bike corners, balances front to back entering corners, and how well the shock holds up on jump faces. The Husky requires suspension adjustments to work its best at each track, more so than the Japanese bikes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, yet it does mean that Husqvarna owners will be fiddling with their suspension more than the Yamaha or Kawasaki guys.

Why It Should Have Won

The FC 250’s top-end power blew riders away, and while riding in this rpm range many testers felt it was the perfect 250F race engine. Also, the suspension is plush without hurting handling.

Why It Didn’t Win

The Husqvarna’s engine character targets pros, while the suspension department has novices and intermediates in mind.

The Husky is a slice of European delight! This bike is the complete package in every regard!

- —Dominic Cimino, Intermediate, 5’7”, 140 lb.

2016 Kawasaki KX250F
2016 Kawasaki KX250FPhoto by Jeff Allen

Third Runner-Up: Kawasaki KX250F

Last year’s third-place bike slipped off the podium by one position this year. It tied the Husqvarna in its test-rider rankings during the six-bike trackdays, yet it has a completely different personality. The KX-F enters the 2016 competition with zero performance changes from the ’15 model.

The Kawasaki’s engine is outstanding but without standing out. It is a do-all powerplant with good power from bottom to top and nice, snappy throttle response. It has the best over-rev of the Japanese engines and enough torque to pull a taller gear where some engines can’t. It’s a versatile engine that is “just great,” which seems like a hollow criticism, but the engine is never amazing. For racing or riding various tracks, this could be exactly what you want. The Kawi has minimal compression braking, which many riders liked.

2016 Kawasaki KX250F
2016 Kawasaki KX250FPhoto by Jeff Allen

The Showa SFF coil spring fork received complaints of being harsh and then blowing through without enough bottoming resistance. Compounding the suspension issues, the shock was well liked, but its setting and spring rate is unbalanced against the fork; most riders felt the fork bottomed too easily, and one pro rider felt the shock bottomed easier than the fork, which he felt had a mid-stroke harshness. Most riders suspected the fork was undersprung, even though it could be harsh in the beginning of the stroke. The suspension settles nicely in corners, and the front/rear imbalance is less pronounced in high-speed and choppy conditions than in the tight and jumpy conditions.

The KX-F is stable in a straight line and likes to be steered with the rear way more than any other 250F here. Riders who praised the turning felt that the bike was nimble and precise on entrances but also commented that it took some commitment to keep it railed. Midcorner was where some riders felt it stood up when steered, and others felt there was not enough grab from the front wheel. The Kawasaki is engineered for on-the-throttle power driving around corners.

2016 Kawasaki KX250F
2016 Kawasaki KX250FPhoto by Jeff Allen

The Kawi is not sensitive to setup and reacts consistently from track to track; if you want a do-all “set it and forget it” bike, think green. The Kawi’s cockpit feels stretched out (and designed more for taller riders), but it is slim and highly adjustable. The KX250F comes with two extra FI couplers to quickly adjust the engine character; we preferred the “leaner” coupler, which extends the over-rev and cleans up the tuning all around. The Kawi has proven over the years to show wear earlier than the other bikes, and the swingarm’s chain slider has historically lasted only about 10 hours—no change on either of those points this year. Once again, the exhaust is too loud and obnoxious; we hope that next year Kawasaki gives the 250F a quieter exhaust like the one that now graces the KX450F.

The KX-F didn't not work for anyone or anywhere—that is, it just works well for everyone, everywhere. Some riders raised the fork tubes in the clamps to get more weight on the front tire for better turning, and our more experienced test riders deviated a click or two from stock in either direction on the fork compression and shock high-speed compression, depending on the tracks. But overall there wasn't much adjustment done to the Kawi relative to the other bikes.

Why It Should Have Won

The broad power and snappy throttle response are both excellent traits, and the bike has great stability. It does not require major suspension adjustments from track to track.

Why It Didn’t Win

The Kawasaki is vanilla, where the other bikes all have more personality. It’s also way too loud and has been for too many years.

If Kawi’s engineers had read ‘Good to Great,’ we’d have a green shootout winner.

- —Chris Denison, Intermediate, 5’10”, 155 lb.

2016 KTM 250 SX-F
2016 KTM 250 SX-FPhoto by Jeff Allen

Fourth Runner-Up: KTM 250 SX-F

Last year the KTM finished in a tie with the Husky for fifth, but this year the KTM and Husqvarna have more personality differences between them, leading to their being split by the KX250F. Interestingly, the riders who preferred white to orange at Glen Helen (fast, rough) all picked orange over white at Milestone MX Park (tight, jumpy) and vice versa. The KTM’s parts list difference from the Husky is only the subframe and airbox, brake discs, hydraulic clutch components (KTM has Brembo; Husky has Magura), handlebar, rims, tires, seat cover, and—of course—plastic and frame color.

2016 KTM 250 SX-F
2016 KTM 250 SX-FPhoto by Jeff Allen

The KTM is outstanding in the high-rpm power; it separated itself from the Husqvarna in that the KTM has an abrupt and forceful hit in the upper mid going into the top-end. Skilled riders could use the strong surge effectively, but it could also send the back end sideways in corners; the weaker bottom and strong middle hit of the KTM make it the hardest engine to keep in the power. Up in the upper reaches of piston speed, the KTM feels stronger for longer than the Husky. As with the Husqvarna, riders loved the KTM’s smooth-shifting transmission and easy-pulling clutch lever. The bike has a good exhaust note that is not too loud, and everyone commented that the electric starting is a superb feature that can save valuable time in the event of a mid-moto stall.

The KTM’s WP fork and shock are plush, and most riders felt that they are well balanced. Our novice and intermediate riders got along well with the suspension, but the faster riders had complaints of both ends, especially the fork, riding too low in the stroke as well as being too soft in the second half of the stroke. The KTM was regarded as slightly softer than the Husky, which gave it more plushness under acceleration and helped the motor get great traction.

2016 KTM 250 SX-F
2016 KTM 250 SX-FPhoto by Jeff Allen

The KTM has a lightweight feel and also excellent stability. It corners well, but, like the Husky and Kawi, there is a light front wheel feel and a slight front-end vagueness and push. The bike works great on hardpack, but some riders complained of a tendency to stand up midcorner if driven hard into a berm, while others said the chassis didn’t feel planted in flat turns or off-cambers. Both Austrian bikes feel very maneuverable and do what is asked, especially while the rider is standing on the pegs.

The KTM shares the Husky’s “sit-on, not sit-in” feel and a forward-feeling rider compartment, which some riders praised for giving them more control. Like the Husqvarna, the rubber-mounted bar and lower triple clamp with additional flex help make the ride more comfortable and less fatiguing. Part of the weight loss of both bikes is the switch to a lithium-ion battery, which only stuttered on starting when the bike was extremely cold. The KTM’s lightweight chassis feeling can really be felt around every track we tested at, especially in the air and when the rider needed a sudden line change.

Just like the Husky, the KTM benefits from some suspension adjustments from track to track, and the shock’s high-speed compression setting has a big effect. For those who don’t know where to begin with tuning the WP shock, a good rule of thumb is to go out at least one half of a turn on the high-speed compression in the afternoon (when the track is rougher), which will cause the rear end to better soak up—rather than deflect off of—square-edged chop. Adding 10cc of oil to each fork leg helps tremendously with hold-up coming into corners. Most testers felt this was a better setup for the WP 4CS fork. The Husqvarna was better suited to natural-style terrain, and the KTM generally outshined the white bike on supercross-style obstacles.

Why It Should Have Won

The KTM has power all day long and feels very light. The suspension is amazingly plush, yet the bike is still very stable.

Why It Didn’t Win

More so than the Husqvarna, the KTM’s power and suspension are mismatched. The power is even more pro-oriented with a sharp hit, making the KTM the hardest bike to keep in the sweet spot of the power.

KTM really impressed me this year with the motor. If you can ride this thing in the upper rpm, it will make the competition eat your dust.

- —Ricky Yorks, Pro, 6’1”, 190 lb.

2016 Suzuki RM-Z250
2016 Suzuki RM-Z250Photo by Jeff Allen

Fifth Runner-Up: Suzuki RM-Z250

Last year’s RM-Z missed the shootout podium by one spot, but this year the all-new bike fell back in the rankings. The revised engine boasts 80 new parts, including a new piston and head. Bottom-end changes minimize engine-braking, and a new exhaust was spec’d to meet a 94-decibel sound test. The suspension components switch from Showa to KYB, with the PSF2 air fork replacing a coil spring fork. The frame is new as well; about the only thing that Suzuki kept was the bodywork. Unfortunately, all the changes didn’t add up to a shootout win.

The RM-Z’s engine has great throttle response, but the meat of its power is too isolated to the middle rpm. Some riders felt the bottom-end was good and usable, while others found they needed to stay only in the mid to ride to their speed. The engine does fall out of its sweet spot sooner than the other bikes here, and some riders had to rethink their shift points. Gear selection is more critical than on other bikes, but the transmission drew a few complaints for being notchy; picky-shifting riders found that they had to be more deliberate with each gear change.

2016 Suzuki RM-Z250
2016 Suzuki RM-Z250Photo by Jeff Allen

The Suzuki’s ride was almost universally described as harsh, and everyone pointed to the fork as the problem. The harshness gives way to a fork that bottoms too easily and dives too hard under aggressive or downhill braking. The air fork’s adjustment does allow for some plushness at novice-level speeds, but faster or bigger riders could not get happy with the fork. The shock generally drew praise, though mated to the harsh fork it created some pitching issues entering corners.

Yet again, the RM-Z shines in the corners. Not only is the bike nimble and easy to turn, but it gets great traction while leaned, managing to be simultaneously nimble, highly maneuverable, and planted. The yellow bike’s chassis is connected, confidence inspiring, and intuitive; the bike’s handling is less dependent on correct technique or specific approaches, and the yellow 250F just turns and goes where the rider wants to go. Smooth ruts are where the Suzuki lives, but when the ruts get rough the suspension issues cause the bike to be unsettled. High-speed stability is not a problem spot, just not a strength. The great news is that this motorcycle did not lose that amazing Suzuki turning.

2016 Suzuki RM-Z250
2016 Suzuki RM-Z250Photo by Jeff Allen

The RM-Z doesn’t feel heavy as much as significant. The rider compartment is neutral, and the bike is nicely slim while still being easy to grip. A few riders complained that the brakes were weak; another group felt the bar bend was too swept back. The bike has three swappable FI couplers, and we found that the new S-HAC electronic holeshot control with two different three-stage modes for varying starting conditions performed adequately. There is a small difference between each setting (aggressive and smooth) that can be felt by our most sensitive testers. Those riders preferred the aggressive launch to get a better jump out of the hole.

Several pro riders were impressed by how much the lean FI coupler helped the bottom and midrange power. The major struggle with the new RM-Z is getting the suspension to work its best. Slower and lighter riders tuned out a lot of harshness by decreasing the fork’s air pressure to 33 psi, but faster and heavier riders don’t have that luxury. One intermediate found that increasing the shock’s high-speed rebound three clicks helped the bike’s balance overall even though it made the suspension more active; perhaps more than any other bike here, changes to the Suzuki’s shock have an increased effect on the fork (not a coincidence when you consider that the bike has noticeable pitching issues).

Why It Should Have Won

The Suzuki is precise in the corners and makes direction changes easy. It’s nimble and easy to throw around while still feeling planted and getting great traction while leaned over in corners.

Why It Didn’t Win

The weak power and harsh ride are too much to overcome in a class that’s this good.

The legendary cornering of the Suzuki never ceases to amaze me.

- —Ryan Orr, Pro, 5’10”, 185 lb.

Kris Keefer
Kris Keefer, Associate EditorPhoto by Jeff Allen

Opinions

The Yamaha YZ250F is nothing like the other 250Fs on the market. It's a stock bike with a race engine with great suspension, even for a bigger, aggressive type of rider. The Yamaha has so much bottom to midrange power that it immediately puts a smile on your face when you start to accelerate onto the track! It has a balanced, predictable suspension package that gives you confidence at every track you ride. The KTM 250 SX-F is not like the Yamaha off the bottom as it is most exciting through the mid- to top-end range. The soft fork held the KTM back for me in regard to making a run for the top spot. The Husqvarna was similar to the KTM in most areas, but it had better throttle response and more excitement out of corners. The suspension felt slightly unbalanced, and that left me with an uneasy feeling on rougher-style tracks. Honda did a great job on improving its CRF250R engine for 2016, but I feel the fork hurt its overall performance for the new year. On tighter-style tracks the Honda excelled, as it has very snappy response, but the fork is so harsh on braking bumps that it was difficult to cure once the track got some bigger bumps. The green machine is a very capable engine and has that excitement factor like the Yamaha down low, but it falls short on top-end pulling power. The biggest negative for me is that it doesn't feel like the front end sticks anywhere around the track. I need a front wheel to feel predictable, and the Kawasaki KX250F doesn't give me that. Unlike the Kawasaki, the Suzuki RM-Z250 does have front-wheel traction and can out-corner anything else. However, the powerband is still on the short side and forces the rider to short-shift. Bottom-end is very responsive, and it makes the yellow bike feel light and fun feeling. The fork, on the other hand, is not fun and is harsh through the mid-stroke. —Kris Keefer, Pro, 5'11", 170 lb.

In my opinion, the Yamaha YZ250F does everything that a 250F should do. The engine lugs well through turns, it accelerates toward jumps with authority, and it runs up hills like a champion up top, while the suspension is a great balance of comfort in small chop and performance over big hits. I think the bike sounds too loud to the rider (not so much when you're not on board), the shroud/tank area has a perception of being bulbous, and the handlebar is a bit low. However, I can overlook these things when I take into account the bike's high marks in every other category. The Honda impressed me at multiple tracks; once you find a great setting, the bike is nearly as competitive as the Yamaha, and I trust the CRF250R's durability more than any other bike in this comparison—I think it's the best bang for my buck out of the whole group. Perhaps the biggest challenge of this shootout was separating the Husqvarna from the KTM; for as similar as these bikes are on paper, they sure do behave differently! Simply put, I was more comfortable on the KTM on rougher tracks and more at home aboard the Husky on tighter, jumpier courses. I'd give the overall nod to the KTM by a hair. Initially, I was surprised by how close the Kawasaki was to the blue and red machines, but it began to inch backward the more we rode it. Fear not, green bleeders: This 250F is a quiet exhaust and a few mods away from being a front-runner again. And then there's the Suzuki. Sweet, sweet Suzuki, how I longed to rank thee higher. But in the end, it's too much of a chore to keep the RM-Z in the power, and in a class where motor is everything, the highly changed yellow bike still has room for improvement. —Chris Denison, Intermediate, 5'10", 155 lb.

Sean Klinger
Sean Klinger, Associate EditorPhoto by Jeff Allen

The YZ250F is sort of a conundrum because it has both a torquey, strong bottom-end and it is still quick revving and super exciting to ride. The Yamaha has more motor everywhere that let me jump certain parts of the track that I just couldn't cleanly jump on any of the other bikes. The big surprise for me this year was how close the Honda was to the Yamaha. I had to fiddle with the suspension to get it to work well, but few can bash the red bike for being slow in 2016. There is a good bit more excitement and punch over last year's CRF250R. With a diet and redesigned rider interface, the KTM was really easy to ride when I kept the rpm high. The orange bike also works better for me on rough, deep tracks where the fork and especially the shock absorb chop well. I can also turn it better in sandy conditions rather than on smooth hardpack. The KX-F didn't do anything worse than last year's bike, but it is just not as exciting as some of the bikes that got a lot of changes. The motor is still strong and has great bottom and mid. The bike still feels a little long and hard to rail inside lines. The Husqvarna is just a step down from the KTM, and the aggressive map is way more fun, motor-wise, than the standard map. I dig how quiet this bike is and how the same ergo changes the KTM got are on this machine as well. But on a smooth, jumpy track, the FC 250 felt more off-roady than motocrossy. Lastly, I really hate to say this about an almost-all-new bike, but the Suzuki was just in a whole different category than the other bikes. The motor is super bottom-end focused and is slow revving, almost as if it is a big bore. The fork is very stiff and jarred my wrists, elbows, and shoulders. On smoother tracks it handles better. Maybe really fast guys can make this work but for a novice MXer, it wasn't jelling with me. —Sean Klinger, Novice, 5'8", 210 lb.

Pete Peterson
Pete Peterson, Associate EditorPhoto by Jeff Allen

The Honda's suspension felt very harsh until I set it with more pressure in the balance chamber than the main chamber. Once that was sorted the bike was the most fun 250F I've ever ridden, mostly because it feels so light and nimble. It out-Suzuki'd the Suzuki! The Yamaha was the best performer and made a better racebike than the Honda, but its big feel and more serious nature just wasn't as fun. The Yamaha turned great for me but felt more like I was steering it rather than riding it. The Kawasaki did nothing wrong but nothing the best. I'd put it a tick behind the Yamaha in performance, with its fun-to-ride factor between the Honda and Yamaha. Between the Austrian bikes I'd take the KTM over the Husky. The Austrian off-road models seem miles apart, but the motocross 250F machines are very close. Still, I was more comfortable on the KTM and just had an easier time getting into corners with it. The Suzuki was similar to the Honda but started out with more suspension harshness and kept more of throughout different fork settings. On a rough track it felt big and heavy, but on a smoother track it made my personal podium because it was so responsive to body language and cornered great. —Pete Peterson, Vet Novice, 5'10", 170 lb.

Every single bike is really good. My first choice would be the Yamaha. It has the strongest motor from bottom to top. It's the most torquey and has the easiest-to-ride motor for me. The suspension is plush, easy to ride, and it doesn't bottom; it's the best suspension in the class as well. The YZ250F doesn't turn maybe as good as the Honda or the Suzuki, but it turns well; you do have to fight it a tiny bit. The Kawi is just a killer bike. It's not quite as good bottom to mid at the Yamaha, but it screams on top. It's also a manageable, strong-pulling motor. The Honda chassis is very easy to ride. It's not the fastest, it doesn't stop the best, it doesn't do anything the best, but it's just all-around good. The KTM is really tied for third; it's a rocket ship. If you can ride it in the top rpm spectrum, the KTM is so fast, but the fork still isn't the best. I like the Husky fork better than the KTM fork, but I like the KTM motor better than the Husky motor. The Husky motor doesn't have that same exciting over-rev. The Suzuki fork is absolutely horrible. It's harsh, it's rigid, it rides high in the stroke, and it feels stiff until you hit a bump. Then it bottoms out and clunks, which is the opposite of what you'd want a fork to do. It corners great, but the engine feels slow and mellow. —Ricky Yorks, Pro, 6'1", 190 lb.

Colton Aeck
Colton Aeck, Test RiderPhoto by Jeff Allen

Kawasaki really hit all its marks on the motor. It has good bottom, strong mid, and pulls really long on top. It's definitely one of the better motors in the class because it does everything well. It handles great in a straight line, it's super stable, but in the turns the front end was a little light, and it tended to push a little bit. I really enjoyed the Husky. It has a similar motor characteristic to the KTM. I feel like it had a little more bottom-end, but it was strong enough, with good midrange and real good top-end. I felt like it handled better than the KTM. I could hammer through anything and never had to worry about the bike. The steel frame helps the bike feel very connected to the ground; it corners well and also goes in a straight line well. The suspension is a little soft, and the engine could use a little more hit off the bottom. There's really nothing that can compete with the YZ250F's motor. It has great bottom, great mid, and pulls long on top. The suspension is also one of the best in the class. It has a really consistent feel. It's super stable. The only thing I didn't like was the turning; the front end feels really light in the turns; it has a tendency to push a little. I was really impressed with Honda's motor this year. I ride Hondas, so I'm familiar with them. The new motor really blows the old motor out of the water. It has super-strong bottom and midrange with decent top. As for handling, it turns better than any bike out there. It's a little twitchy in the high-speed stuff, but I think that's well worth the advantage you get in turning. I was really excited to ride the KTM since I've never ridden a KTM. I was surprised how normal the bike felt; a lot of people say the KTMs feel different than the Japanese bikes, but I felt right at home on it. The brakes are amazing, and the motor is super strong as well. I feel like it could use a little more bottom-end, and the fork is just too soft for me. It rides low in the stroke and bottoms on big hits. The Suzuki is definitely the best-handling bike in the class. It's not the best turning or most stable, but it does everything extremely well. The place where Suzuki really fell short for me was in the engine. To be honest, it was disappointing with the stock coupler, but I saw a huge improvement with the lean coupler. I'm not a huge fan of the PSF2 air fork; it had a tendency to blow through on the big hits, yet it was a little bit too stiff in the softer stuff. —Colton Aeck, Pro, 6'0", 170 lb.

The KTM felt like, by the end of the day when the track got the roughest, I was able to get it set up for me as if I was going to race it on the weekend. The Yamaha was the best at cornering. On the tight corners the front end dived in just right, and it didn't tuck or lose any traction through the corners. The Husky felt the best as far as tracking into the high-speed turns and drifting a little bit. I instantly clicked with the bike because it handles well at high speed. I had mixed emotions about the Honda until we softened it up and brought the bar back a little. It was very stable, and if it did kick, it was straight. It didn't get sideways and was predictable. With the Kawasaki I never could quite figure out the suspension—the front was a little harsh, and the back wanted to kick high—but the power was my favorite on the Kawasaki. I love that it pulled from the bottom all the way to the top—it just kept going. The Suzuki felt like it tapped out really quickly. But this is the first shootout that I actually liked the Suzuki. It's very rigid and doesn't feel like it squats or anything. It is still a great bike and it corners well. —Kelly Yancey, Women's Expert, 5'4" 140 lb.

The Yamaha is amazing. The spring fork is really good, the power is in a different class—it has more power everywhere. I feel like you can push the Yamaha really, really hard, and it almost gets better when you push it harder. I was really impressed with the Husky. The power is a little bit down from the KTM, and the suspension is a hair softer. But I still felt like I could push the bike harder. The KTM is good, and the 4CS this year is way better than the previous years. The engine is good, the KTM being much improved from last year in power. It has good pull from bottom to top. The Kawi is loud. I rode it with the stock coupler, and it made decent power midrange into the top, but then I felt like it flattened out and was just making noise, not going anywhere. The fork is a little harsh in the little stuff, and then it ramps up on hard landings. The Honda power is much improved from previous years; overall, the engine is better, and the mapping makes a huge difference. I didn't get along really well with the suspension; we softened the fork a little—which did make it better—but overall it was still harsh, and I got a little kick out of the shock. The Suzuki felt like it had a lot of its old traits. The rider compartment seems really cramped, and the chassis is a little harsh. The motor didn't feel that exciting from bottom to top. It was kind of blah. —Michael Allen, Novice MX rider, 6'0", 180 lb.

Scores

We scored the bikes at two of our six-bike days: one at Glen Helen and one at Milestone. On each of those days, 10 test riders had to rank the bikes first through sixth, with no ties. Think of this like a 20-moto scoring format—lowest score wins. Break-in days, test days without all six bikes, and a third six-bike day were used to get more seat time and helped us break the scorecard tie for third. We want to thank the support crews from all six manufacturers for their help with this shootout.

Overall Glen Helen Milestone Total
Yamaha 13 20 33
Honda 27 25 52
Husqvarna 34 40 74
Kawasaki 39 35 74
KTM 40 38 78
Suzuki 57 52 109

Wins

We tallied up the wins from the two scorecard days. What this chart doesn’t show is that the Yamaha never got worse than a second overall rating at Glen Helen (seven wins and three second places).

Brand Wins
Yamaha 12
Honda 4
Husqvarna 1
Kawasaki 1
KTM 2
Suzuki 0
Bike MSRP Seat height Peg height Fuel cap. Weight (tank full) Weight distribution front/rear
Yamaha $7590 ($7690 Anniv. Yellow) 37.0 in. 16.3 in. 2.0 gal. 234 lb. 113/121 lb.
Honda $7599 36.8 in. 15.7 in. 1.7 gal. 232 lb. 112/120 lb.
Husqvarna $8499 36.5 in. 15.5. in. 1.9 gal. 232 lb. 113/119 lb.
Kawasaki $7599 36.7 in. 16.4 in. 1.61 gal. 235 lb. 115/120 lb.
KTM $8399 36.7 in. 15.5 in. 1.9 gal. 233 lb. 115/118 lb.
Suzuki $7699 37.4 in. 16.3 in. 1.7 gal. 233 lb. 113/120 lb.

Conclusion

These days, with a modern machine, you can’t blame a bad day for being on a bad bike, but you can rightly blame a bad day for being on the wrong bike. You need to know what you’re looking for in order for this shootout to best serve you. Think of these pages as overhearing an enthusiastic discussion among test riders sitting on their tailgates—listen for the traits you’re looking for in each bike, and try to spot bike weaknesses you can’t live with because the biggest variable for your best bike is always going to be you.