2004 250 Shootout

On the first day of Dirt Rider's 2004 250cc-class motocross shootout, our staff and test riders were the center of attention. It was an open track day at Piru, and our supporting armada of boxvans and trick trailers dominated the choice parking area. The temporary compound was staffed with enough factory technicians and reps to overfill a baseball team, and cell phone use was in sixth gear tapped. One scene repeated itself throughout the day: A rider or group of riding buddies there for track fun would watch jealously as we tested each bike and filled out evaluation sheets, then declare, "You guys have the best job in the world!" Why wouldn't the average rider feel that way? Eight brand-new 2004s with crisp-edged knobbies lined up in the shade of tents and awnings, flanked by shining tool chests and bolstered with coolers bursting with well-iced fluids. Heck, we weren't even pouring our own gas.Four test days later we were way over the mileage allowance for our trucks and rear ends, and the use-by date for our bodies had expired. Piru, Perris Raceway, Jeremy McGrath's personal sand/whoop track and Joe Sutter's marathon private track had our blisters sprouting blisters, and every test rider in the group was as snappy as a junkyard dog. The "fun" of testing eight bikes a day in 100-degree heat was finally over, and it was time to assign each machine a numbered ranking-and that part of the job can really bite. To avoid having to rank any of these bikes last, most of us would gladly have traded places with any of those envious spectators.

||| |---|---| Overall Rating |1st| Honda CRF450R| |2nd| Yamaha YZ250| |3rd| Suzuki RM250| |4th| KTM 250 SX| |5th| Yamaha YZ450F| |6th| KTM 450 SX| |7th| Kawasaki KX250| |8th| Honda CR250R|

The Honda CRF450R and Yamaha YZ250 were the top dogs of our 2003 shootout and both had been refined, so we expected them to be in the thick of the battle. Yamaha sent the potent YZ450F to charm school following its '03 debut, and that put it in the mix. Suzuki aimed its engine at four-stroke power for '04, and that raw power coupled with Showa suspension made the RM a contender. KTM returned with dyno-shaking power from both its 250 and 450 SXs but, more important, with infinitely improved suspension. Add incredible levels of standard equipment and face-plant-powerful brakes and you better believe Japan is taking KTM seriously now. Honda and Kawasaki bolstered their herds of horsepower and refined the chassis packages, so we couldn't discount them.Nothing about these bikes was going to make the test easy. Knowing that we'd be blowing off seven hotties was the source of the stress-grumpies infecting our crew. Riding the bikes was a great job, but picking just one and only one as the winner sucked.The tracks were chosen carefully, and riding order was shuffled each day. We began at Piru Motocross Park, with its well-groomed clay surface and hilly layout. The surface favored the four-strokes, but the layout rewarded the lighter, more-nimble two-strokes. It was a bit smooth in the morning but good and rough later in the day, and at times an ocean breeze cooled things down. Next we went to Perris Raceway for the excellent prep, technical jump sections and rutty turns. As if the track itself weren't hard enough on shocks, the weather was hot enough to bake bricks on our trucks' hood. Jeremy McGrath has his own track in the decomposed granite hills above Temecula; who would have guessed it would be fast, rough sand with almost no jumps? MC's was a fantastic suspension, stability and engine test, and for one rider a chest protector test. The final day was the major TV day, so we wanted a track that was a good test but also looked nice. Joe Sutter's personal track has four-minute-plus lap times, and the entire track is surrounded by green river willow or lemon and grapefruit trees. Half the track is clay supercross and half is rough and hilly natural terrain-an excellent environment to draw our final impressions.We noticed a few trends in the final rankings. First of all, just as there were no bad bikes in this bunch, there were no bad forks. The ratings depended on whether a rider valued plushness, control or bottoming. The overall competence of this group shows in that the scores varied only 7 percent from first to last! We did note that the Showa-suspended bikes clustered at the top, and that KTM/WP had a great fork for the first time since the company returned to an inverted design.The CRF450R placed first here, though, and that was a solid score. Two riders rated the RM fork higher and one picked the KX as the best, but all three were at the lighter end of the weight scale. The CRF obviously has the same fork and a similar chassis to the Honda CR250R, but the four-stroke was extra-plush. Perhaps that little extra weight overcomes stiction. Whatever the cause, the CRF fork is controlled, so it held a line well and was calm through braking bumps and smooth at speed. All of the Showa bikes took hard landings in stride with exceptional bottoming feel, and the CRF was no exception. Honda did a very nice job.KTM went from the back of the pack in the fork department to close to the front. Part of the reason is that KTM and WP rethought their basic shock theories, so the fork is doing less work. They also increased the amount of load the mid-speed valve was doing, so the base valve does not require such heavy valving. The result is a fork that is super-plush; many riders called it the plushest through braking bumps. The WP 48mm fork does not have the soft bottoming feel of the Honda or other Showa bikes, so it scored a touch lower. Still, the KTM jumped up to an entirely new level in just one year.Honda's CR250R has a more rigid feel to the chassis overall than the CRF, and the fork is not quite as plush. We can't fault the control or bottoming resistance. The Suzuki RM250 rated highly for fork performance-especially for plushness-among the lighter riders in our test. Heavier testers were more likely to vote for the CR setup and find the RM on the soft side. Despite being soft for some, the RM still had good bottoming resistance. Yamaha's YZ250 and KTM's 250 SX rated the same when the scores were averaged, but they act quite differently. The YZ has vastly more supple action and improved bottoming resistance compared with the '03 model, but it feels as though Yamaha refused to give up crisp wheel control to increase plushness. As a result the YZ fork gives the rider great feedback from the track but transmits the shock of choppy bumps through to the rider's hands. It can even make the front end busy. The 250 SX's WP fork is much plusher and less picky about square edges, but it is a bit more vague in the action and lacks the Yamaha's bottoming resistance.Kawasaki found a fan in Danny Carlson, who is both the lightest and probably fastest of our riders. He loved the suspension on the KX and rated the fork first. Others thought the bottoming feel was on the hard side and couldn't find a setting that tamed downhill braking bumps.Many of the riders claimed that shock performance wasn't as critical to them as fork action, but the spread of points is exactly the same as with the forks. The CRF topped the charts, with no tester scoring it below an 8.0, so it not only worked well but worked well for all riders. Carlson claimed it was even better than his fully modified '03 CRF450R race bike. At the same time it worked well for Karel Kramer and Ken Faught, at 200 finely chiseled and proportioned pounds. Suzuki's RM250 ranked second with mostly high scores, but Kris Keefer and Tom Carson, the two heavier fast guys at 170 and 185 pounds, felt the action was not as controlled as with the other bikes and that bottoming resistance was not as good as it should be. Lighter riders had fewer problems with either trait. The RM rear end is plush, though, regardless of the rider's speed or weight. No doubt the soft and pillowy seat foam added to the feel of the rear suspension accelerating out of turns; likewise for the CR250R. Sure, the shock works very well, but Honda seems to have the market cornered on seat foam knowledge. Big red's butt rests are simply the best, and they help the suspension protect the rider from the track.Yamaha's YZ250 rear end soaked up acceleration chop very well, but to get the best feel for it, we needed to carry a wheelie through the entire section. The fork inputs confused the feel, but if we got the front wheel up, the rear tracked great, got the power down well and kept the rear wheel on the ground. Both of the KTMs rated right behind the Yamaha. The PDS linkless system was taken a step further for 2004. The action is fairly plush with little sign of the harshness or kicking we've seen in the past. For most riders the system is fine, and the weight and maintenance reduction thanks to no linkage is well worth any drawbacks. Carlson and Keefer are our fastest and most-discriminating suspension testers, and they docked the KTMs for their action, adjustability and even spring rate. Without a linkage it is inevitable that setup, spring rates and the range of adjustability will be somewhat limited compared with a linkage bike. The reality, though, is that most riders will never know the difference. Setup on the WP shock is much the same as on any other bike, and we feel we can recommend them to anyone, but pros-especially light or heavy pros-may need a special setup, spring swaps or even valving changes for best results.Yamaha's YZ450F and the KX250 fell just below the KTMs for our riders. Both bikes actually worked very well and tracked fine in most cases. Remember that the difference between first and eighth place is a mere 7 percent. That puts all the rear suspension ratings inside a pretty tight window.It's no mistake that the point spread for handling worked out so similarly to the ones for suspension. How a motorcycle handles depends on the whole package and not merely a single trait. Isolating handling from the suspension and ergonomics completely is all but impossible. Again, the Honda leads the charge. The aluminum chassis is strong in the right places, the suspension works well and the engine lays down power very smoothly, so the CRF is very composed on the racetrack. There is still the occasional hint of front-end push, but for the most part the Honda thumper is well-mannered in all situations. Jumps are no problem. Not only does the bike generate all the speed needed to clear just about anything, the smooth power drives the bike off jump faces with little fear of a kick or swap. Once in the air, the bike is easy to move around yet not sudden or scary.The CR250R and RM250 finished a hair ahead of the YZ250, but they are all light, quick and fine-handling two-strokes. The Suzuki in particular feels very light on the track and in the air. Countering that is still a touch of nervousness to the front end. That showed up mainly in the rough sand at McGrath's track and wasn't as much of an issue at other tracks. The CR does nothing poorly, but its chassis feels somehow stiffer than its brother 450 and thus seems unyielding. Otherwise it has no faults to speak of. It turns well and jumps with ease, and at 219 pounds is one of the lightest bikes in this test. If anything, the Yamaha turns even tighter than the CR and RM, and the only hints of headshake are a fault of fork action rather than geometry.Kawasaki's new-for-'03 KX250 is revised and finessed for '04. There were far-reaching suspension changes, including a new linkage style, but the handling remains pretty much the same. That is to say, the KX is nimble and sharp but seems to respond best in the hands of an aggressive rider. Keefer and Carlson praised the handling, with Keefer claiming it carved a turn better than any bike in the shootout. We lesser-talented ground-sloth types were unable to appreciate the handling as readily, so the bike rated fairly average. Not that there are major flaws; there simply were no bright and wonderful traits for most of us to hang on to. Ergonomically the KX is compact and feels a little shorter-coupled, but at McGrath's track it rated highly for stability. That was a nice surprise. The KTM 250 SX scored the same as the KX, but by comparison it feels longer and stretched out. It steers well, but some riders had a bit of trouble coming up with a suspension arrangement that allowed crisp steering without wagging the handlebar. All of our test crew claimed the 250 SX was vastly improved and more mainstream in handling than ever before.The KTM 450 rated a little lower, since it feels a little heavier than its baby brother. Some of the light and fast riders couldn't get the rear end to track into rough corners as they wanted.If you rode only the featherweight (for a four-stroke) Yamaha YZ450F, you would never notice a single handling flaw. The bike steers accurately, jumps calmly and lands easily. It feels as though its center of gravity is higher than the other two four-strokes, though. You have to muscle the bike in tight or rutted turns, and it resists quick transitions. These are not deal-breaking criticisms, but we did notice them when switching from bike to bike, and they affected the rating in a competition this close.This category polarized the opinions of some testers but barely fazed others. Carlson is young, of average height and extremely fit. He was neither bothered nor thrilled by any of the riding positions. Other riders and body types were more picky. Think of these numbers like a grade on a bell curve. The scrunchy KX250 garnered the lowest rating at 8.0, but that is a "B" in a field where not one bike was awarded an "A." They all earned from B-minus to B-plus. In addition to the compact feel of the machine, the stock steel-bar bend lowered the KX's scores. Naturally, these ratings were much higher from the shorter riders, but it made a difference here.None of these bikes is truly flawed, but the comparison required nit-picking. We asked Suzuki to replace the seat on its 250 and Yamaha on its 450 midway through the test. The foam had sacked out enough that we were feeling the seat base-or at least the heavier riders were. As with Kawasaki, Suzuki made a handlebar switch to Renthal, and the change was very welcome.In the past their seats have crippled the KTMs in this area, but our bikes came with seats that were very comfy. In fact, by the fourth day Kramer thought they had gone too soft. With the seats finally in the running, the KTMs moved up behind the Hondas. Both orange bikes are slim with a roomy standing riding position and a fairly open seated position. The Renthal tapered handlebar has a bend that our riders preferred over the '03's Magura. Plus, the KTM offers four handlebar-clamp positions stock, so you can further tune and personalize the riding position.We've already mentioned the really nice seats on both Hondas; those seats, Honda's attention to detail and the new Renthal handlebar make both the CR and CRF winners here by a nice margin.In the engine category there were definite opinions, and a category leader finally earned an "A"! We can't argue with the crowd on this one. The CRF starts easily, carburetes perfectly at any altitude we tried and generates heaps of silky, tractable power that is easy to use. The power is so proper you'd expect the bike to speak in an upper-crust British accent. It has all the boost you need, and most likely all that you'd want. Five gears and perfect clutch and transmission action put it a bit ahead of the other four-strokes. Yamaha seems to have as strong a lock on good power in the 250cc two-stroke category as it does in the 125cc class. The YZ doesn't make the most power of the two-strokes, but it has roll-on power that sets it apart from the crowd. Since the last lower-end design, shifting has been on par, and some intelligent but simple changes to cable design and routing ease the clutch effort for '04. The engine goes a bit flat on top and can be prone to pinging. At times it felt thirsty for a shot of race gas to be added to the tank, but the YZ is a great two-stroke motor.Next in line is the KTM 250, and as in '03, it crushes the other two-strokes on the dyno and is obviously faster on the track. For two years we have apologized for the KTM 250's rude on-track manners. No more. The engineers wiped 2 ponies off the top of the powerband in exchange for some etiquette, and the engine is sweet. Fast and slow riders love it. It lacks only the roll-on of the Yamaha to be the perfect two-stroke powerplant. And the hydraulic clutch is as good as ever but much easier to pull, thanks to a new master cylinder. Slightly back in the field, the KTM 450 SX and the RM250 have averaged to the same rating. Ironically, you couldn't find two engines that act more oppositely on the track. The RM has a run-and-gun powerband that hits quick and hard and pulls through the upper midrange like a monster. Shifting is light and accurate, too, but clutch pull felt a little firm. A clutch that was slightly grabby in the pits (though not a problem on the track) combined with a hit that intimidated the less-aggressive riders hurt it a bit in points, but it isn't hurting on the track. The introduction of the bike at Cahuilla Creek's sand track proved its potency, but we worried the RM would be a handful on hard surfaces. That did not prove to be the case.The 450 SX couldn't be more different. It has the smoothest and most-tractable engine in the test and, to the surprise of many, the highest numbers on the dyno. How does 51 smooth and easy-to-ride ponies sound? Though improved for '04, the engine feels a little sleepy off the bottom compared with the CRF and the YZ-F and at McGrath's track. The slipperier the traction, the better the KTM feels. It also has traditional four-stroke engine-braking, which bothered some testers. In actual use, you just wait a bit longer to downshift and it isn't a problem, but you certainly notice it the first lap after switching bikes. Also, the KTM has always been easy to kick and start, but our bike wasn't as effortless as past models.Yamaha's YZ450F dropped a little in this ranking but not for lack of power. It still makes the rider feel like a human cannonball when there is good traction. It is a rocket! A heavier flywheel and better jetting make the '04 enormously easy to ride compared with the rough-and-ready '03. At the more-open tracks you can use the power to good effect, but it always demands careful throttle control. You'll save energy starting it-even compared with the easy-start CRF-but you may expend that saved energy and more holding on to the bike when you twist the throttle. Dr. Jekyll still has too much Mr. Hyde hiding in the shadows.We get pretty far down the list before we actually find a bike that can use more power. A little more bottom and a couple of horsepower on top would light up the KX engine, but it is perfectly competitive for '04; we couldn't say that about the '03. The shifting and clutch are also great. In terms of sheer power output and peak dyno numbers, the Honda CR250R is fine but lacks roll-on power. For '04 it pulls on top and responds to the clutch-a big step forward. A very un-Honda-like trait is a substantial vibration. Several riders asked Honda to check the engine mounts. Maybe the 45 horses inside are just chomping at the bit?Since 1992 Honda has had a virtual lock on this category, but KTM surprised us all. The front disc is already as large as aftermarket oversize discs for the Japanese machines. The front brake has been strong, but it's been mated with a rear brake that was a light switch with zero feel. Now the KTM rear brake comes on smoothly with plenty of control, so the whole package works.Naturally the Hondas ranked next, with their combo of power and progressive feel. They also have excellent brakes but without the initial power of the KTM's larger rotor. There were small ratings differences among the other bikes, but the reality is they all have brakes that work pretty much the same. The difference in feel is more related to weight bias, suspension action and even ergonomics. The exception is Yamaha's YZ450F. It has great brakes, but even when the traction isn't perfect, the bike accelerates so hard that it feels as if it isn't stopping. You just have more speed to scrub in the same amount of space.KTM is always strong in the standard-equipment category. The company knows that part of the brand's strength comes from riders who value the European craftsmanship. As a result, its machines come packed full of quality parts such as the tapered Renthal handlebar and two-tone grips, forged levers and a hydraulic clutch, a quality chain and sprockets and a nickel-plated pipe. Less obvious are the powdercoated frame and hubs and a new silencer that disassembles with a single nut at the end. The spark plug wrench that comes with the bike removes it. You can repack the silencer without even removing it from the bike. The bikes keep their looks, too.Honda has always valued quality, and these bikes have that beautiful aluminum frame, good rims and fine fasteners. The addition of the nonslip seat cover and a standard Renthal handlebar only helps its case. The Yamahas have nice fasteners and an overall feel of tightness and quality, plus that richly painted metallic blue frame. They look fabulous on the showroom floor but do display age and dirt a bit and come with steel handlebars.We've been most impressed with how tight and crisp-feeling the Kawasaki and Suzuki have remained. In the past year or so, both factories have made significant headway with quality. Our '03 KX250 was probably ridden more than any bike in our test fleet but still looked and felt tight at the end of the year-certainly welcome when you spend your own money.About That Tough JobJust as it was a difficult task for us to rank these machines, we suggest that any dirt rider considering one of these bikes put some effort into the decision. More and more our staff and test crew find that selecting a bike that fits you physically goes a very long way toward a satisfying on-track partnership. Sit on the bikes you are considering. Take along a riding buddy you trust and have him evaluate how comfortable you look sitting and standing on the bike. Some of the bikes are less expensive to crash than others, so look at the parts prices if you tend to tip over. If you ride a lot of tight, technical tracks, you will want to look harder at the two-strokes than riders on more-open tracks that flow well. Be realistic about the time, motivation and ability you have to work on your bike. The four-strokes generally take a little less work, but they do require oil filters and valve adjustments.Every year we throw out this caveat, and it is no less true: A good dealer who is knowledgeable and carries the parts you will most likely need should sway you toward the brand he carries. Serious racers will look at contingency opportunites, but we have friends who buy bikes solely on contingency programs yet don't race or win much, so what was the point?This is a point we like, though: All these bikes are fun and effective on the track. For a third year we had the most fun on a Honda. In '03 the CRF and YZ250 dominated the top of everyone's evaluation sheets. This year our riders picked four different bikes first. There are good reasons to buy any of these bikes, so consider your size, ability, type of track and preferences for power delivery and suspension action. Find a good match for you and go have big fun!Redline ReportThere were no big surprises in dyno-land for this shootout. We wouldn't have picked the KTM 450 SX as the one to make the biggest numbers, but when comparing the rest of the horsepower curve with the other bikes'-especially those of the two other four-strokes-it makes sense. Of the two-strokes, the other orange banger was the power king. The key in a two-stroke-versus-four-stroke shootout is how long the thumpers pull, especially through the bottom and middle-rpm range. In fact, whereas two-strokes have a dip in the powerband right before the power valves open, four-strokes are making their best power. You can see why the two-strokes feel as if they build power so quickly. Anytime there is a steep climb in the curve, the engine is making serious power and accelerating hard. A good example is the RM250's curve. Four-stroke power curves are usually more gradual. All of these bikes make close to 45 horsepower or better, so none are slow. The Kawasaki does taper off early, the Honda CR250R has a dip in the lower rpm and we could feel those soft spots on the track, but none of these engines could be described as weak. All are a clear improvement on their 2003 progenitors-even the KTM 250 SX, which lost top power but gained a much more-ridable engine.Opinions

The shootout this year is very close. All of the manufacturers did a great job with their homework, and each bike had its specialties. If it had been allowed, I would have ranked the KX250, RM250 and YZ250 as tied. Instead, I had to look at minute differences. The KX is a great package. The suspension rules for my weight and riding style. I trusted it the most on the scary parts of the track. The engine isn't the fastest, but it is solid and easy to control.I gave the RM second since it also has great suspension. If you hit anything on the track you wanted to, you know what the RM will do. The engine isn't the fastest, but you can always count on it, and it pulls the hills strongly and hooks up in the slick. I actually liked the YZ250 (third) engine the best, since it pulls hard and loves jump-filled tracks. It's fun, but the YZ's suspension isn't as plush and the bike is a bit swappy at times. Fourth came the Honda CRF450R. I race an '03, and the '04 is much better. I love the motor, but getting the handling perfected for a rider as light as I am is not as easy as with the two-strokes.Fifth was Yamaha's YZ450F. The motor is greatly improved, but for me the YZ-F worked better on hard-terrain tracks whereas Honda's 450 was better on softer surfaces. The KTM 250 SX came next. It is much better than the '03 model, with a way-fast motor that is easy to ride. It was a bit unpredictable at speed with my riding style. As always, I like the Honda CR250R chassis, but the fork could be harsh and the engine needs more bottom and less vibration. I really liked the KTM 450 SX motor, since you can short-shift it or rev it to the moon. I just couldn't get the suspension happy on bumps entering turns. That seemed odd since the fork is insanely plush.
Danny Carlson/5'9"/145 lb/ProOf all the Dirt Rider shootouts I've been a part of, this one had bikes that were the hardest to rank, but were the most enjoyable to compare. All the brands have stepped up with refinements over their '03 bikes, and that made it difficult to rate the seven motorcycles that didn't come out on top. I felt the most at home on the CRF450R. Everything worked very well, whether I was hammering around the track or taking it back down a notch to relax. I liked the additional torque down low, but in some situations I was caught between gears, and the '04 bike required more shifting than the '03. With more time I would try a 49-tooth sprocket. The fork and shock felt smooth and the chassis balanced, and the Renthal bar was a great touch.Yamaha's YZ250 placed a close second. The new fork has much smoother action and no harsh bottoming. Stability was good, and the bike was predictable in all situations. The motor is easy to ride; it pulled well from right off idle and revved nicely. I put the new RM next with its welcome improvements, such as more horsepower, a smoother fork, good tractability and better rider positioning. It still felt a little nervous in the chop but cornered crisply and felt light in the air. The '04 Yamaha YZ450F is a lot easier to ride. The motor still has lots of power and required less shifting than the Honda. It cornered well and stability was good. Some places the bike felt a little top-heavy and was not as easy to ride when I backed down from race speed. At McGrath's track I would have picked this bike as the winner.Rounding out my top five is the KTM 250. The addition of more low-rpm horsepower made this motor very easy to ride-and fun. The new fork was smoother and most of the harshness was gone. Softer seat foam was another welcome change. A Renthal handlebar, hydraulic clutch and good sprockets and chain make this a strong choice for '04. Probably one of the best cornering bikes for '04 is the KX250. It stayed where you put it and worked well in ruts. I was a little disappointed in the motor; it felt somewhat weak on the bottom and flat on top. I am sure with a little help from the aftermarket you could make the motor come to life. The KTM 450 is one of the easiest bikes to ride with smooth power delivery (a little weak on the bottom), nice mid and a strong pull on top. The bike felt a little heavy but overall is a great mount that allows you to put in a lot of laps without getting tired.I was really looking forward to throwing a leg over the CR250R, since RC won both SX and outdoor titles on one. The motor was weak on the bottom last year and still is on the new bike. The fork had a much smoother feel and didn't transmit as much back to your arms. Overall the chassis, fork and shock felt in harmony, but the CR250R lacked low-end torque. The motor worked well at mid to top; big red just forgot the bottom. Everything else is typical Honda quality-good looks, clean lines, good brakes and Renthal bar.
Tom Carson/5'8"/185 lb/ProWhen a shootout comes down to a situation where riders wish they could tie multiple bikes for first place, it is obvious the manufacturers have done a fine job. This year the bikes are so good that I had to really search to find things to complain about. My biggest trouble was in picking a winner. I think the Suzuki RM250 is my favorite bike to ride, but I'd probably buy a CRF450R because it's as if you're buying the fully loaded Escalade of dirt bikes. The bike has a Renthal bar, a gripper seat, one of the fastest motors and some of the best stock suspension I have ever felt. But Suzuki built the best 250 I have ever ridden. If felt super-light and flickable, and I loved the power and the suspension. Yamaha's YZ250 is known for its success, but it came in third. I felt the motor just didn't have the top-end pull of some of the others. KTM is another company that has made giant leaps with its 250. The suspension on both of the new KTMs are much better and gave the bikes a really comfortable feeling. The 250 SX motor is the hardest- hitting in its class, but it still needs to spread out a bit. I gave the 250 SX fourth, but with the new suspension and great power I could definitely find a place in my garage for one. The Yamaha 450 is quite a handful. The bike makes huge power but was hard to hold on to on hardpack tracks. I rated it fifth because I couldn't tie it for fourth. The Honda CR250R bowed out in sixth. It is a huge improvement over '03 but just seemed to be lacking in the motor department. Seventh went to the KTM 450, which can at times feel like the lightest 450 on the track. But the low-end torque was weak and caused me to stall more often than I like. The KX250 is one of the best-handling bikes of this test, but being six-feet tall, I just couldn't get comfortable.
Brad Daugherty/6'0"/155 lb/IntermediateI'm incredibly impressed with all of the bikes this year. Most of us naturally assumed this would be the year of the 250cc four-stroke, with all the new models making a debut in 2004. Fortunately, increased competition has forced all of the manufacturers to revamp their entire line. I could be happy with any one of these eight machines, but this is a shootout and I do have my favorites. I really enjoyed the improvements KTM made to the 250 and 450 SX, but they aren't bikes that I would buy for straight MX. Even though KTM insists it gave up two horsepower in the quarter-liter machine over '03, the bike is very potent. With stock gearing it's almost too fast, and I preferred to subtract one tooth on the rear sprocket. As with the new Honda CR250R, the KTM required a lot of shifting in stock trim, and I routinely found myself between gears. The chassis and the suspension dropped the two KTMs to the bottom of my list, where they joined Honda's race-winning CR. The Honda isn't torquey enough for my riding style and it preferred to be revved rather than short-shifted. Compared with the other bikes in the class, it seemed to be the least effective on the track.Kawasaki's KX250 ranks fifth on my wish list, but it's very close with the title contenders. The suspension was plush, the front brake powerful and the motor above average. Overall it's a very competitive package and fun to ride. Still, I was a bit cramped on the chassis and felt as though I didn't have much room to move around. This really hurt the bike in my book, and I'm not that tall!Yamaha's YZ450F was one of the most-improved bikes in the test. Yamaha mellowed out the explosive hit and made it way more ridable. The bike was very balanced, but the front end did seem to dance around a bit more than some of the other bikes in dry conditions. It also didn't rail corners as well as the Honda CRF450R, and it had a heavy feel. When you ride it, you feel as if you are on an Open bike-and in this class that's a big disadvantage.Yamaha's YZ250 rated third, even though it's a really fun bike. There's not a better production two-stroke motor on the market for motocross, period. If there is a weak link, it's the suspension. I know I'm not exactly the target weight, but Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki have Yamaha covered when it comes to fork and shock behavior. It still worked well enough, but I know it can be a bit better. The truth of the matter is that I really didn't make a lot of changes to the suspension on any of the bikes. I had all of them set up for my weight and then tried to ride the bikes as close to stock as possible. I played around with rebound and compression on everything, and I did just enough tuning to make sure that I had a good representation of showroom equipment to make my comparison. Suzuki's RM250 was my runner-up. The bike is an exceptional package that combines a potent motor, excellent gear ratios and a confidence-inspiring chassis with trustworthy suspension. The two things I liked least were the grabby clutch, which was noticeable more when riding through the pits than on the track, and the Bridgestone M601 front tire. We did a lot of testing with Dunlop during our shootout, and the addition of a D742 at most of our tracks made a big difference.Unquestionably my favorite stock bike is the CRF450R. This bike did everything right for me. It's fun, friendly and forgiving. It set the standard in every department, and I've been impressed at how much better the '04 version is compared with the '03. Throughout this entire experience I have been surprised at how competitive two-strokes are with four-strokes. Each of these bikes has their strengths and weaknesses, and after riding all eight machines, I found that every one of them can be made competitive with the help of a good motor man or suspension technician.
Ken Faught/5'10"/200 lb/IntermediateThis 250cc shootout was awesome! The tracks separated the bikes drastically from day to day, but in the end the bikes ended up super-close overall. It was very hard to rate them, but since I had to, this is how it sorted out:First went to the RM250 since it was a solid performer at every track. The motor is awesome for an aggressive rider, with a great hit and awesome midrange power. The top is not as strong as the KTM's but still good. The big plus is suspension that borders on unbelievable. It is so plush but still absorbs big hits. Also, I didn't need the suspension settings changed much from track to track. The Yamaha YZ250 is second on my list. The motor was wonderful with the best roll-on, healthy mid and good top rpm pull, but its suspension was still a little harsh and lacked the plush feel I prefer. The bike is still very good. I picked the Honda CRF450R third. The bike was terrific on fast, open tracks that flowed, but on tighter tracks it can be too much of a good thing. It felt heavy in some turns. Both the power and suspension were good, but the bike just didn't feel flickable on tight tracks.The fourth- through eighth-placed bikes are still close to my list of front-runners, but little things influenced my choices. The KTM 450 SX (fourth) motor is strong in a good way that won't tire you out. You can run it a gear tall, and it has the boost to get you over any jump but you do feel more engine-braking than on the other bikes. The suspension is plush, maybe too much so for major landings or big G-loads. With another year of suspension development, I see this bike as a leader. I gave the KX fifth. It was certainly improved and surely competitive, with a mean midrange. In this crowd, though, it could use a bit more bottom and pull harder on top. I had the YZ450F in sixth. With my weight and big-bike experience the YZ-F has a ridiculous amount of power. It still needs to be mellowed out. Plus, the 450 is the lightest four-stroke, but it didn't feel like it. It feels big and takes a lot out of me. Seventh is the vastly improved 250 SX. The KTM is a lot plusher and more forgiving, but it used a lot of the suspension stroke on landings and its seating position is not as comfortable as the Japanese bikes, though the difference is small now. The engine is great, with lots of easy-to-use power. The Honda CR250R is eighth despite a great-handling chassis. The engine was meek off the bottom and vibrated too much. Still, I would and could race one and rated it at 88 points out of 100.
Tyler Keefe/5'10"/160 lb/IntermediateThis 250cc-class shootout was the closest ever for me. I had a hard time picking between the Honda CRF450R and the Yamaha YZ250. I could last a little longer on the 450, so it got the nod. The fork is plush, and the engine is strong but easy to ride. It likes to be shifted rather than revved, and the front still pushes a little in turns. As a package the bike works, though, and it is very comfortable. The YZ pings a little at times, and the suspension isn't the plushest, but I like the handling and love the engine. It has strong power everywhere in the rpm range. The bronze goes to the RM250 on the strength of its motor. It runs strong and quick, handles well in turns and has plush suspension that is on the soft side for me. It suffered a little in the sand at McGrath's track but was solid at every other track.Fourth is the monster-motor YZ450F. It can still be a little fatiguing but is much more ridable than the '03. I have a lot of laps riding and racing these, so it works for me. Fifth is the orange crush 250 SX. It is leaps-and-bounds better than the '03 in suspension, handling and power delivery. It still rips, but now you can use the power. Sixth is the KX250. The engine could use more bottom and top, but it turns better than any bike out there. For seventh I chose the KTM 450 SX. It, too, is improved, but it still didn't have the suspension I was looking for. In eighth is the Honda CR250R. Notice that I didn't say "last." The chassis is great and it runs hard on top, but it lacks bottom.
Kris Keefer/5'11"/170 lb/ProEven though I was there when Dirt Rider decided on a no-ties policy for test riders during comparison tests, that rule had me feeling as if I were tied to a post getting whipped during this comparison. I would have rated all three four-strokes evenly at the head of the pack if possible, but since it wasn't, my choice came down to the fact that I trust the KTM 450 a bit more than the other two. It finally has really good, tunable suspension, and the power others called too-smooth suits me fine. Honestly, the Honda scores above the YZ450F by better seat foam. Talk about nit-picking! The CRF engine and gearing are not a clear-cut step forward and the feathery YZ-F can feel heavy in tight turns, but both rock on most tracks and are ahead of all the two-strokes for me.Nobody was more shocked than I was at how good the new KTM 250 SX is. I toyed with the idea of having KTM bring its 200 SX, since I was sure it would do better than the 250. I couldn't have been more wrong. The engine is the best of the two-strokes with gobs of ridable power. I'd love to see it have the roll-on of the Yamaha, but it is gnarly good! And now the handling and suspension complement the engine. Sweet. Yamaha's YZ250 has awesome roll-on power that suits my style, and the bike handles great. I'm not a fan of the fork, though, so it took fifth. The RM and the YZ are oh-so-close. The suspension is excellent, and the bike is powerful and nimble. The power has more hit than I like on technical jump tracks and it was a tad busy in the rough sand at McGrath's track, so it ended a hair behind. Again, I'd have tied these two if allowed. Seventh is the Honda CR250R. I liked its suspension and handling and the engine runs hard on top, but it vibrates and doesn't have the bottom I like. I picked it seventh even though the KX250 is probably a better race bike. The KX's compact riding position hurts it for me. The KX and the CR are huge improvements over the '03 models and much more competitive in the class.
Karel Kramer/6'1"/200 lb/NoviceI'm finding it very hard to rate any bike in this test below sixth. The Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki 250s all have different strengths and small weaknesses. Rating them comes down to personal preference. All are competitive with each other and will hold their own on the starting gate. If you have a preference for or experience with these brands, you won't be disappointed with any of the three. I'm going with the Yamaha YZ250 for fifth. The motor is very fast-perhaps too fast for the stock gearing-and the suspension worked well. The stock steel handlebar didn't suit me, either. I hate to lower a bike for the handlebar and gearing, but things are that close.In third and fourth are the KTMs. Both models feel much more "mainstream" this year. The suspension action is quite plush, and I had none of the problems I've had in the past getting used to the feel or handling. I was impressed with both motors as well. The 450 is smooth yet powerful. Traction is never a problem. The 250 SX is still a rocket, but worlds more ridable than the '03. The front brakes are almost too gnarly when you are jumping back and forth from the other bikes. Yamaha's YZ450F is second thanks to huge improvements in the power delivery and suspension action. It does feel a little tall in rutted turns but rates above the others anyway. That leaves the best for last. The CRF450R does everything well-and just a little better than the other bikes. It has a great motor, great suspension and plush rider accommodations. What more could you ask for?
Ed Tripp/5'10"/180 lb/Intermediate

Cameron Heisser making Karel Kramer's jersey look fast at Joe Sutter's track.
We expected this comparison to become a showdown between two-strokes and four-strokes, but it remains a contest requiring a complete performance resume.
Former National privateer Tom Carson on the Honda CRF450R at Piru.