2004 125cc Shootout - First Test & Review - Dirt Rider

A little more than 30 years ago the starting lines of 125cc-class motocrosses were jammed with machines from factories in Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, England, Sweden and then Czechoslovakia. Some were purpose-built as lightweight race machines, but many more were saddled with full-size 250/Open chassis. Some so-called serious race machines tipped the scales at nearly 270 pounds! Countries that had a class for 125cc machines treated it as a support class at best. Even the 250cc class was something of a support class. Nevertheless, the Euro bikes owned the field, and anything from Japan was considered a converted trailbike and a joke. A year later, every 125cc-class starting line in the world was 75 percent Honda Elsinores, 20 percent other Japanese brands and 5 percent used Euro bikes their riders got a killer deal on while they saved for an Elsinore.That shocking change, when the balance of moto-power tilted eastward toward Japan, was the last time the face of the 125cc class changed as much as it has between 2003 and 2004. In 2003, there were five two-strokes and one four-stroke 250cc in the class that were "players." Our 2004 125cc-class shootout rolled out nine machines, and that was without the way-too-late Honda CR125R, the other CR125 from still-getting-restarted Husqvarna or the limited editions such as TM. The change of face is more than a numbers game, though; the big difference is four colors of four-strokes in the class. Considering that the YZ250F won our 2003 comparison, we had the potential of no actual 125s on the podium of the 125cc class. Talk about an oxymoron.

||| |---|---| Overall Rating |1st|Honda CRF250R| |2nd| Yamaha YZ250F| |3rd| Suzuki RM125| |4th| Suzuki RM-Z250/ Kawasaki KX250F| |5th| Yamaha YZ125| |6th| Kawasaki KX125| |7th| KTM 125SX| |8th| Gas Gas MC 125|

Even when the YZ250F was the only four-stroke in the class, the contest was somewhat a four-stroke versus two-stroke situation, but now this is war. Even when the Japanese brands are competing against themselves, the cams versus premix choice is as much the question as which bike is best.Generally 125cc-class pilots are younger, lighter and, partially out of necessity, more aggressive than riders shopping for 250/450cc machines. We wanted to make things as fair and unbiased as possible, so we weighted the test crew heavily with young, light riders. We included pros Danny Carlson (second lightest at 145 pounds) and Kris Keefer (second heaviest at 170) and intermediate Tyler Keefe (160) from the 250 test, but added intermediates Jeff Bell (155) and Cameron Heisser (150) and our lightest rider, beginner Johnny Lovett (140). Karel Kramer repped for the staff, and he is neither young nor light, which is why we needed so many youthful, slender riders to balance the scale. All but Kramer are regular 125cc-class racers. All have ridden four-strokes, but only Keefer races one in the 125cc class. The others own 125cc two-strokes.We chose tracks that would give us a great comparison yet keep things civil. We started at Piru Motocross Park, for the tacky dirt, hilly layout, technical jump sections and diabolical downhill braking chop. Next, we returned to Perris Raceway for its rutted turns, technical layout and prime traction. We selected LACR's back sand track for the deep, power-sucking dirt and short-approach jumps that really sort out motors and traction. Our final stop was Joe Sutter's private track. It's rough, long and technical with everything from sand to hard clay: the perfect place to make those final decisions. We didn't think that any comparo could be tougher to judge than the 250cc-Class Shootout (Dec. '03); we were wrong. When all the votes were counted, the four-strokes didn't fill the podium, but it is an understatement to say that they made their presence felt.As you might expect, the suspension ratings for the 125cc-class motocrossers didn't shake out much differently from their larger siblings in the 250cc-class motocross shootout. As always, though, 125s feel as if they have even better suspension than the larger bikes, since they are usually lighter and have less power. Those factors affect the entire dynamic of the package. And even though the numbers show the same spread of about one point from first to eighth-or roughly from B+ to A+ in letter grades-the whole group is at a higher level than the 250cc-class machines. The new Honda CRF250R fork was the favorite among our riders. Showa and Honda seem to have the twin-chamber design dialed in. It was rated first by beginner Johnny Lovett, who was our lightest tester, but tied for high score by pro Kris Keefer, who is the heaviest of the true 125cc-class test guys. Honda came up with stock settings that worked well for average riders yet have the adjustment for riders at the fringes of the weight and speed envelope. The Honda handles all sorts of track chop and whoops with style, soaks up braking bumps and shrugs off big landings. At the same time the fork is crisply controlled, so hitting lines is not a problem.Suzuki's RM125-also a Showa twin-chamber design-ranked second. The RM fork is even plusher than the CRF under acceleration, but it is on the soft side and the settings are aimed at plushness at the expense of big landings. Also, while the RM erases most braking hack effectively, it rides a little deep in the stroke for most; add the load of downhill braking and the RM passes more hits to the rider than we like. It's still a great fork, but greater for smaller or lighter riders.The new-for-2004 48mm KYB fork on the Yamaha YZ250F earned numbers just a hair higher than the other KYB-equipped bikes. The move away from an elastomer bottoming system seems to have been a smart one. The fork offers very good bottoming resistance and solid damping character. You are never in doubt about what the front wheel is doing. You get plenty of feedback in a good way, but also feel more of the track surface than with the Showa bikes. All of the four-strokes had suspension that felt a bit more supple on small bumps than the two-strokes, so in general they rated a little higher. The lone exception is the RM125. Right behind the YZ-F are the Kawasaki and Suzuki thumpers. Kawasaki came up with the suspension settings, so the bikes are identical in all aspects of performance. The KX-F/RM-Z fork has a fairly plush initial action that was even less-crisp feeling than the YZ-F yet didn't display the same level of bottoming resistance. Also, the bottoming feel is a shock to the hands compared with the bikes ahead of them on our rankings. It doesn't clank or make metallic bottoming sounds, but it doesn't baby your mitts, either.Yamaha's YZ125 ranked only .05 behind the four-stroke twins. It has better bottoming resistance than the twins, but the feel of its suspension is more sharply controlled. That means you feel a bit more of the track than you'd like in exchange for 100 percent knowledge of what the front wheel is doing at all times. Kawasaki's KX125 fork has the same hard bottoming feel of the twin four-strokes but feels a bit soft. The lighter fast riders tended to love the suspension on the green bike. Both Danny Carlson and Cameron Heisser liked the suspension, and they rated its fork higher than they did the CRF's, but the KX polarized opinions in ways the other bikes didn't. It wasn't a case of being bad but of some riders preferring other bikes.KTM made huge strides with its WP suspension for 2004. We'd say the action is 50 to 70 percent improved in how well the fork handles choppy bumps. KTM also made a concerted effort to make the bike more appealing to riders in the weight window of the 125cc class. The result is a much better-handling bike. The fork alone is much more compliant, and it works pretty well on braking bumps and under acceleration. The pros felt it bottomed too easily, and so did some of the slower riders who landed short or flat on jumps.Trailing the pack was the Gas Gas. It comes with a works-looking Marzocchi inverted fork with a black friction-reducing coating on the lower legs. It looks a lot like the works fork the Fast by Ferracci Husqvarna race team used. The fork feels as if there is no stickiness to the action, but it uses up the initial travel easily then hits a wall of damping. The character of the action is very Euro feeling. The bike had other issues that kept our riders from even exploring the fork's capability.There was an even smaller point spread for the shocks than there was for the forks, and we thought the forks were sardined! As with the fork, the Honda led the way. There is no doubt the Honda's Showa shock is well set up, but rear suspension feel is affected by other facets of the machine's performance. For one thing, the CRF has the smoothest and most-linear power of any of the bikes, and power like that makes life easy for the shock under acceleration. The seat adds to the plush feel of the rear end when the rider is seated and accelerating. The bottoming resistance is good, the action is smooth and controlled and there are few bad habits to point out. Perris Raceway added a new set of man-made whoops shortly before we arrived with these nine beauties. They were shaped something like saw teeth, or even small ocean waves. The rounded sides were facing the bike as we entered the section. In the morning when the dirt was soft, the whoops weren't much trouble, but later in the day the soft dirt got packed in and the whoops became much tougher. The Honda was the only bike that seemed to let the rider enter at speed and wheelie through.The YZ250F shock may not be as plush as the CRF's, but the Yamaha does have smooth four-stroke power. As with the fork, the YZ-F shock has good bottoming resistance and never feels vague or wallowy. Whereas the Honda wanted the rider to wheelie through that whoop section at Perris, the YZ-F's harder-driving engine demands the chassis skip across the top of the whoops under power, so it rated a bit behind. The Yamaha seat is very firm, thus even if the shock action were identical to the Honda's, the YZ-F wouldn't feel as plush to the rider.Suzuki had the best rear end among the two-strokes. It offers a very plush feel under acceleration and a soft and cushy seat to enhance that feel out of turns. Like the front, the rear of the RM felt as though it rode deep in the stroke for heavy or aggressive riders. The bottoming feel is pretty nice, but the RM did bottom and that hurt its rating a bit. Despite a pretty different feel, the Bobbsey twins KX-F and RM-Z and the YZ125 ratings averaged out at the same number. The Yamaha has good bottoming resistance and great control but felt a bit hacky in acceleration chop and over square edges. The twins had a bit more supple feel, and their smooth, long power aided them in driving through acceleration chop. They were also fine in rolling bumps, but the bikes do bottom when landed hard. It isn't as pronounced as with the front end, though.The KX125 shock was like the fork in some respects. It tended to polarize our riders more than the other bikes. Carlson and Heisser liked it; Lovett and Jeff Bell didn't. Overall, the fork felt soft but not plush. It isn't far behind or even a problem for most riders to race stock, but the difference was noticeable when switching from bike to bike. The KTM is a different case, though. Its rear end is a vast improvement over previous renditions, but our riders felt it bottomed too easily, wasn't plush enough and kicked up a little under braking. When we rode only the KTM, the riders raved about the suspension, but in this group small differences add up. Remember: If we were talking letter grades, the KX and the KTM would be in the high B+ area, just a hair away from getting an A. These are not fatal flaws in performance, more like traits that you understand and use to an advantage. The Gas Gas comes with an expensive -hlins shock, but the settings felt Euro. The initial movement is smooth and easy, but then the rear feels as though it hits a wall of damping force. The Gas Gas has a KX-like link setup and the -hlins shock is a fine piece, so it should be capable of excellent performance. Again, the power delivery has a large effect on the rear shock feel, and in this case, not a positive one.Bikes in this class have always been fine-handling machines since they are light and don't have excess power, and this crop is no different. This is another category dominated by the Honda four-stroke. You can't discount the role the excellent suspension plays here, but we had none of the complaints with this aluminum chassis that dogged Honda's earlier models. The CRF250R has the latest-generation aluminum frame, so it is a full generation ahead of the 2004 CRF450R and the CR250R two-stroke. It feels narrower between the rider's boots and knees than their progenitors. The rubber-mounted handlebar and the new Renthal aluminum handlebar both add to the feel of the CRF. Riders praised the stability, turning and jumping, and the bike earned several perfect scores from riders in those categories. Slightly behind the Honda comes a trio of very nimble machines in three different colors. The only four-stroke in the group is the YZ-F, and it would have scored more favorably but some riders felt its center of gravity is a bit high. They thought the bike dropped rather than leaned into tight or rutted turns. If anything, the steering is even more accurate than the Honda, and the bike jumps well, too. It rated evenly with the RM125. As with the Honda, the RM's handling benefited from exceptional suspension, but the bike feels light and easy to toss from side to side. The only consistent demerits it earned were for instability, but even those criticisms were not universal.It is noteworthy that the KX125 is also part of this group, even though it was not rated as highly for suspension action. The KX can't really have that much lower a center of gravity than the other two-strokes, but it feels as though it does. As a result, it shreds in berms or rutted turns. It doesn't slice the sharpest when the turns are flat, but it is no butter knife, either.Only a tenth of a point behind are the twin KX-F and RM-Z four-strokes. The fractional deduction can be attributed to the fact that while riders tended to rate these four-strokes well, they earned no perfect scores, and at least one rider went gaga over the KX125/RM125. Both thumpers handle very well and perhaps even steer a bit better on flat turns than the two-strokes ranked above them. KTM's 125 and the YZ125 are back another two-tenths of a point. Those scores would be a solid "A" if we were grading, and we chalk the small deficit up to riders whose style didn't suit these machines' suspension. Neither of the bikes has serious handling flaws. Even the Gas Gas, which scored considerably behind, does not really handle poorly, but the suspension and ergonomic glitches hurt rider confidence in its handling.Hand another one to the CRF. Honda has long been at the forefront when it comes to rider comfort, and this latest-generation chassis contributes plenty to that. Nice wide pegs, a rubber-mounted aluminum handlebar, smooth and snag-free bodywork, a roomy riding position and the best seat in the business add up to winning ergonomics. Riders were also asked to consider control efforts and placement for this category, and everything is great in those areas. This is the first category with a significant point spread. The CRF has a substantial lead here, though most of the other bikes rate pretty close to each other.Next up is the RM125. It has slim bodywork with a seat that is softer and cushier but not as supportive as the Honda's. The Yamahas are right behind, with the YZ125 rating slightly better than the YZ250F. We're chalking that up to the seats. The 125 is slightly better padded than the four-stroke. Batting fifth, and ahead of the Kawasakis (even the yellow one), is the KTM. The hydraulic clutch-which pulls even easier for '04-and a seat that finally sports foam aid the KTM, but it is also the slimmest bike in the test. Some riders think it may even be too narrow to get a good grip on with your legs. The KX, KX-F and RM-Z have nice seats, but they feel a little small whether the rider is seated or standing. Tall riders noted this most, of course. The riding position didn't bother some riders at all, including Heisser, who is fairly tall. The Gas Gas really got hurt in this category. The bodywork is a total boot magnet, and riders would regularly get "locked in" the bike when the bodywork prevented them from getting their boots off the footpegs. The no-tools airbox cover would hang up as well. We'd come in from riding and the air filter would be exposed. The Gas Gas had no technical support, and a mechanic experienced with these machines may have made a big difference. As it was, the hang-ups made it difficult to push the Gas Gas on the track.Were you beginning to think the CRF would top every category in this shootout? When it comes to the engine, it's time for others to shine. On the track and on the dyno, the KTM 125 SX is king for sheer power output. The four-strokes have longer spreads of usable power and the Yamaha YZ250F tied the KTM in the ratings, but the KTM positively crushes the two-stroke competition. At more than 36 horsepower, the 125 SX corrals roughly the same amount of horsepower as the KTM 250 was making 10 years ago! The engine is a little soft right off idle, but anywhere else in the rpm range the Katoom is singing loudly and proudly. You can't find a berm deep enough to bog this engine. Just hit the clutch and you are gone. The other truly muscular and gnarly motor in the group is bolted in the Yamaha YZ-F chassis. The F barks hard off the bottom and pulls strongly through the midrange. It seems to go flat compared with some of the other bikes, especially the four-strokes, but riders found it cleared jumps the other bikes shorted in the same gear. It starts effortlessly, has a strong clutch and shifts well. The clutch could be a little easier to pull, but aside from that minor point, the YZ250F has a great powerplant. It is both fast and easy to ride. If you ride tracks with obstacles right out of turns, you'll want the YZ250F.All of the four-strokes ranked well in the engine department. The Kawasaki KX250F/Suzuki RM-Z250 were next. Early in the test the RM-Z was jetted leaner than stock and the KX-F was significantly stronger, but Suzuki returned to stock jetting, and its bike also ran strongly. The twin four-strokes hit hard down low, though not as low in the rpm range and with less meat to the acceleration compared with the YZ-F. Also, in the morning at LACR when the sweeping turns were flat, the twins would get sideways when the power hit. Mostly, though, this engine runs pretty strongly. It seems to rev well, too. The engine is easy to kick and usually starts effortlessly, but sometimes it needs only the tiniest throttle opening to light. When it gets like that, a delicate hand is required. Both bikes required new clutch plates during the test, so they seemed a little more fragile than the YZ250F.Bringing up the rear of the four-strokes is the CRF250R. The bike feels like a baby CRF450R, but that smooth, Open-class delivery that is so sweet out of the 450 is a bit too tame when you have only three-fifths of the power output. The power builds smoothly with no hiccups or sudden jumps, but the CRF250R is a little too calm for this class. It isn't slow by any means, but there is no zap to the delivery out of tight turns. You end up generating the zap you need with the clutch, so the clutch went soft at Piru with the track's sticky traction and jumps right out of tight turns. The CRF required plates and springs to get the solid hookup back. The Honda rocked when we were at tracks with turns that allowed some momentum, such as the track at LACR.Rated just behind the Honda is the RM125. It wasn't super-impressive on the dyno, but on the track the RM feels fast and responsive with a solid hit to its power. It picks up power nicely when you shift gears, and the clutch displayed none of the chatter and squeal we got from the RM250 clutch in our 250cc-class shootout. Some riders felt the RM fell off the power easily at low rpm, but others felt it was fine. Remember that the Suzuki and the Kawasaki KX125 are the only bikes that still have six-speed transmissions, and the closer ratios seem to help.The YZ125 has a hard-hitting and strong-pulling engine that was loved by some riders and not others. The critics claimed the power fell off too quickly at lower rpm and that this happened too often. Ever since Yamaha moved to the five-speed transmission, the YZ transmission has felt a bit gappy, and that feeling is magnified by the excellence of all the 125cc-class engines. The shifting is fine and the clutch held up very well. We ran this bike with a one-tooth-larger rear sprocket at nearly every track.For a second year the KX125 is impressive on the dyno but not especially on the track. It certainly isn't a weakling and is the strongest KX125 we've ever ridden, but in this group its power seemed a bit meek and the meat was a little harder to find. The difference is not so great that the KX can't be raced stock. Lighter riders will certainly find the power is plentiful enough to compete heads-up in the class.The Gas Gas is geared taller than the other bikes and offers very little bottom power. Once you get the engine wound up, it feels fast, but then you need to shift. That is something the transmission is very reluctant to do under power. On full-traction uphills at Piru the bike simply would not go into third gear. The shifting improved somewhat with time but still was not up to contemporary motocross standards.Who would have thought the most-powerful brakes would come from Europe? The KTM's large front rotor and Brembo brakes are both controllable and powerful. Step onto the KTM after the RM or KX and you might scare yourself on a tacky track such as Piru. The Honda is the other star in the crowd, with very good power and superb feel and engagement. The rest of the bikes are pretty much in the same arena, with none standing above the rest significantly.This category was judged on the quality of the products found on the bikes stock, how all the parts fit together and the overall finish and appearance of the bike. Honda and KTM rule here. Both bikes look sharp, though the Honda has super-techno style and the KTM that stark, purposeful appearance. Both are built well and come with premium tires and parts. The KTM has a better chain, a tapered bar and powdercoating on the frame and hubs, but the radiator cap impedes fork lock and the neat-looking gray/orange grips wear out much too quickly. We prefer the plain black ones from '03. The Honda now has a Renthal bar standard as well as no fit glitches, so the points evened out.Our riders were impressed with the other four-strokes and ranked them all the same. The four-strokes have a solid, tight feeling we liked, and with the jewellike motors and exotic exhaust pipes, they rate a little higher here. The Yamaha has those titanium footpegs, too. The YZ-F might have rated higher except the thinner plastic that saves weight makes the parts feel a bit flimsy.The rest of the two-strokes rated the same-even the Gas Gas. It has some fit and finish flaws and floppy fenders, but it also has that works-style fork and Öhlins shock and is the other bike to come standard with an aluminum handlebar and a good chain and sprockets. Those quality parts offset its flaws.Wrapping UpIt is clear that from a sheer performance standpoint, the four-strokes are here to stay. Add in the fact that four-strokes are more emissions friendly, and the outcome of the two-stroke versus four-stroke contest seems inevitable. The manufacturers have pledged to continue two-stroke development, but four-strokes already consume much of the R&D; budgets of the world. What manufacturers are not saying is that they will support two-strokes as long as they have a customer base. Look at what happened to two-stroke 500s. They faded because riders started ignoring them and buying 250s, and now that the 450 four-strokes are here, they aren't missed all that much. Two-stroke 500s had a bit more than 50 horsepower, and new 250cc two-strokes and 450cc four-strokes are between 45 and 50 horsepower. If the same thing happens with 125s, it will more likely be a choice that riders make with their checkbooks rather than an option forced on us by the government.The key differences between 125cc two-strokes and four-stroke 250s
The peak power numbers are almost the same, but four-strokes make much more power at other parts of the rpm range. Looking at the dyno chart could make you wonder what the point of even making two-strokes is. Two-strokes are lighter, but honestly the difference is only 8 to 11 pounds. It is more likely that where the weight is carried and the gyro effect of the larger crankshaft have more to do with how easy or hard the bikes are to snap from side to side for quick transitions on the track. Four-strokes don't really take less maintenance, just different maintenance than two-strokes. It isn't even a given that you will save on oil, since the thumpers require frequent oil changes. There is a difference in prices, and the four-strokes are generally more expensive to buy. If you don't abuse the engine, two seasons or more without an engine rebuild are not out of the question, so they may be much cheaper to own. Plus they need little spent on engine performance mods. However, if the engine does break, it will cost much more to cure than an ill two-stroke does.At this point it does not appear that four-strokes hold an all-conquering advantage, but two-strokes do need to be at the top of their game to stand up to four-strokes.The Gas Gas is clearly a bike best intended for riders who demand something unusual and who like to tinker. The other eight bikes here are box-stock serious racers that deserve a hard look. Few of our riders said they liked the same bike the best at every track, and four different bikes were chosen as winners (see Ratings chart on page 70). That only happens when all of the bikes are good. The better the competition is, the more little things grow in importance. Take a look at what you need and want in a 125cc-class motocrosser. If you are heavy, or you ride tracks with jumps right out of the turns or deep, loamy tracks with lots of available traction, you need a bike with big power, and you should be looking at the YZ250F and the KTM 125 SX, or perhaps the KX-F or RM-Z. If you struggle more with the rough sections of a track, look for the bikes with suspension characteristics you like. With the performance gap getting smaller, those factors become less important and comfort plays a bigger part in selecting a winner. Go sit on all the bikes. Stand up on the pegs if you can. You want a bike you are comfortable on.The Honda CRF250R is a winner here in large part for its comfort level both in how the rider actually feels sitting and standing and in how easy the bike is to get used to. The KX125, YZ125 and especially the KTM 125 have stellar performance, but each was shaken down the standings by some comfort issue. The KX feels small and the fork jolts the rider's hands on landings, and the YZ125's suspension felt jittery to some riders. It isn't that the bike kicks or swaps, or that the wheels aren't on the ground, but the feel is not what the other bikes offer. The KTM simply suffers in shootout situations. It is a great bike with the strongest peak power in the class. It has both fast and easy-to-use power, so what could be better? The chassis for '04 works very well, and it is easier than ever for Japanese-bike riders to get accustomed to it, but the Austrian bike is just different enough to get hurt in ratings when riders have to adapt quickly from bike to bike. And you had better believe that when you have to set up and test nine bikes in a day, you have to hustle.Sure the Honda is the winner, and it is a great bike that is big fun, since it treats the rider to a luxurious ride and effortless handling. But it won in spite of a too-smooth engine, rather than because of the engine. It is a far sharper weapon when the track flows than it is when a track requires a lot of stop-and-go. It also won for how many riders picked it second or third as much as it did for the riders who picked it first; neither of the pro riders ranked it first. Woulda's, coulda's and shoulda's, but if the YZ250F had the Honda's plushness and seat comfort, the outcome would have been much different. And the same goes for all the bikes.It may have been 30 years since the face of small-bore motocross changed this much in a single year, but just like the last time the sport saw such radical change, the transition is all good for the riders in the class. Freedom of choice is a precious gift, and what a choice!Opinions

The 2004 eighth-liter shootout was an awesome experience with amazing tracks and even more amazing bikes. We spent many hours a day trying to figure out a winner, and even though I race a two-stroke, my choice was very close between the YZ250F and the all-new Honda CRF250R. In the end, the Honda slipped into number one. The Honda handles very well over jumps, handles braking bumps easily and felt very light and maneuverable. It always sticks to my intended line, the suspension is plush and tunable and I was amazed at how comfortable I got on the bike in just a few laps. The motor is fast with smooth, usable power from the bottom to the top. Best of all, it starts on the first kick. The YZ250F is known for its powerful engine, and I wasn't disappointed. It has a strong motor with plenty of torque. It corners well and handles jumps and bumps on the track easily. The suspension feels stable and it did not bottom. Third on my list is the surprising RM-Z/KX-F. I didn't expect it to be this competitive in its first year. It feels strong out of corners and pulls well up hills. It felt steady enough through the bumps, but its suspension isn't on par with the CRF or YZ-F. With a few suspension changes, this bike could be the one to watch.In fourth is the first two-stroke (the RM) on my list. It corners well, and the suspension is easy to set up. The only weakness is a motor that felt a little slow at some of the tracks, but the handling almost makes up for it. The KX125 took fifth, but it was a tough call because it handles very well yet doesn't have the most-powerful engine-the KTM 125 does. Yet the KTM suspension skates around a little too much for my liking, so I chose handling over motor in this case. Surprisingly, the YZ125 came in seventh. I never really clicked with the bike, and the motor didn't seem to suit my riding style. Eighth on my list is the Gas Gas. It has all the midrange you need, but that's about it. It had a sketchy and unstable feel on the track, but it felt fast, and the Spanish company can work from there.
Jeff Bell/5'11"/155 lb/IntermediateThe RM125 worked well at all four tracks. It handles just fine, the engine is great and the bike was really consistent whether I was jumping, standing up through the rough or carving flat turns. The jetting was clean every time I rode it, and the most it needed was a little air-screw adjustment. I picked the Honda CRF250R second because it was the second-most consistent bike at all the tracks. Yes, it is a four-stroke, so it is a little heavier than the RM or it could have won. The two-strokes are a little more flickable for a rider my size. The YZ125 is third, but it is right in the hunt with the lead, too. The only problem I had was shifting under load; I had to pull the clutch in, and I don't want to do that on the face of a jump. Fourth was the KX125. It isn't the fastest bike, but the chassis lets you ride it for all it is worth. The YZ250F isn't a bad bike, I just felt more comfortable on the others. The KTM's suspension is much better, but it still needs some work. The motor doesn't need any work! It is just flat out faasst! The KX-F and RM-Z 250s are great bikes and I hate to rate them this low, but the others just suited me a little better. I could race any of these but the Gas Gas, and my selections have more to do with how I feel on the bikes than performance differences.
Danny Carlson/5'9"/145 lb/ProThis was a very difficult test for me because all the bikes are totally competitive, and each excelled over the others in some area. I'm not a four-stroke rider but I have ridden the YZ250F, so it was interesting to add three other four-strokes into the mix. I came into this test thinking I would definitely be choosing a 125 two-stroke, because I have been so comfortable on one. So I surprised myself when I took a liking to the four-stroke. I picked the KX-F/RM-Z second, though it would have tied for first if a tie was allowed. It feels more like the two-strokes than the other four-strokes do. It has a light feel, revs out like a 125 and has the least compression braking.As for the two-strokes, Kawasaki made big improvements to the motor from last year. It has great low-end power, carries through the mid and revs out on top. It also felt nimble and light compared with the other bikes. The suspension is great over bumps and jumps, and it cornered really well. It is fun and easy to ride, and that made it my favorite. Both the KX125 and the KX250F/RM-Z250 suited my style of riding better than any of the other bikes. They gave me more confidence than the other bikes. The KX-F/RM-Z is a great all-around package. It felt really light and nimble for a four-stroke, and I could throw it around like a 125. I like the way the motor revved out as if I were riding a 125. The suspension worked really well over everything and sucked up the big bumps especially well. The other bike that was close for me was the KTM. The KTM's motor was really strong everywhere from bottom to top. It is probably the strongest in the class, and just a little stronger than the KX125. The suspension is busy over the big bumps, since it has a tendency to kick. The cornering is good, and I loved the hydraulic clutch. The other bikes are back a little. The CRF250R cornered incredibly-really stuck its line and went wherever I pointed it, so it cornered better than any bike in the shootout. It also handled bumps and jumps. I especially liked the balanced feel it had in the air. The motor is lacking power everywhere in the powerband compared with the other four-strokes.The Suzuki RM125 has great midrange and top-end power, but lacked a little down low. The brakes worked fine, and it cornered nicely also. The suspension has an extra-plush feel, less rigid than the others, but handled the big bumps well with no major bottoming.The YZ125 didn't feel much different from the '03. It's the bike I should have been most comfortable on, because I've never raced anything else. It had decent power everywhere from mid to top but not as strong as the KX or KTM. The suspension is good, but the fork bottoms over big jumps. It didn't corner as well as the KX, either. The YZ250F is a great bike. It has oodles of power, especially on the bottom-end, but it signs off a little early for me. The suspension works great over bumps and is very stable at speed. It didn't corner as well as the other four-strokes, and it actually felt a little top-heavy compared with them. If the Gas Gas had a transmission, a clutch that would disengage properly and a little bottom-end, this bike would rip! The suspension is not to my liking and the brakes didn't work well, so it was extremely hard to ride confidently. The fenders are very floppy and distracted me while riding.
Cameron Heisser/5'10"/150 lb/IntermediateThis has to be one of the most-difficult shootouts ever. The tracks were awesome testing grounds for these bikes. All of the bikes and technicians did a great job, but I had to choose a winner and the winner is the new CRF250R. The bike is plush, handles awesomely and is fun to ride. The motor is strong and fast. It's just an all-around good bike that is surprisingly easy to start. Second came the RM125. This bike is soooo much fun! The power is there and the suspension is there, but on longer tracks the bike doesn't run as fast as the Honda. Still, the RM is the most improved from last year's group. Third was the YZ125. The YZ is still a really good bike but just wasn't as plush as the other two. Fourth was the YZ250F. This bike is also good and better than last year's, but it didn't jump out at me like the CRF250R and RM125. It has a great motor but still isn't at the top. Fifth was the RM-Z/KX-F; the bike is strong but still needs a little polish. I think it will be a front-runner in the years to come. Sixth was the KTM 125. The motor is the fastest of the group, but the bikes are all so good that you need the whole package, including suspension. The KTM is getting better but needs some work with the handling. Seventh is the KX125. This bike handles really well, but without a strong motor it can't rank any better. Put in a strong motor next year and watch out! Eighth is the Gas Gas. This motor pulls for days on top, but the suspension and ergonomics are not close to the others.
Tyler Keefe/5'10"/160 lb/IntermediateThis was a fun year for the shootout, with three new four-strokes arriving (or should I say two since the KX-F and RM-Z are the same?). Since I weigh 170 pounds, the new four-strokes suit me really well. They have more torque than the 125s, and I could come out of corners a gear higher than with the two-strokes! The YZ250F was the best bike in our '04 shootout. It revved out further and pulled longer down straights than the other four-strokes. The CRF250R is like a smaller Honda 450 to me. It is smooth coming out of corners and builds rpm quickly after that. It just pushed a little in the front in flat corners. The RM-Z and KX-F are really good four-strokes for first-timers in the small-bore class. They felt as if they didn't pull quite as far on top as the others did.As for all the other two-strokes, wow, they are really close. Every brand has stepped it up! Each has different qualities I liked, so I'll just break down a few of them in no particular order. The KTM has an awesome motor with better suspension than the previous year's. It is the only 125 that will keep a 250F honest! The YZ125 also has a fast motor, but it needs a wider midrange. The RM125 is super-plush in the suspension department; on small braking bumps it does not kick or push. Did I say that the motor was fast also? It is! The KX125 makes you turn like Bubba! You can go into a corner fast, and it sticks. The Gas Gas has great top-end, but it takes way too long to get to it. Also, vibration was noticeable. It wasn't at the same level as the other bikes in stock form. The other eight are race-ready; all you need to do is make sure you pick the right bike for you.
Kris Keefer/5'11"/ 170 lb/ProI'm light enough that all the engines are fast enough, but I need a bike that will help me deal with the obstacles on the track. The Honda CRF250R did that the best. I always felt in control of the bike; it is awesome in turns, it glides through ruts and it is smooth through the bumps. It has smooth and strong power all the way through the rpm range. The YZ125 is a close second. It landed smoothly from every jump and took the bumps well. The engine has four-stroke power in 125 form; the power feels strong and torquey off the bottom, through the mid and on top. The thing rips! The RM125 is a little quicker handling, but it turns on a dime and it has great suspension. The YZ250F is fourth, though it was my favorite bike at Perris. I just preferred the handling of its two-stroke brother. On the first day of the test I thought the KX-F and RM-Z would be my favorites, but as the tracks got faster and rougher, the twins dropped back a bit. They didn't feel as good at LACR, which is my home track. The KX125 handles great in turns. The engine lacked a little bottom power at some tracks, but it hauls through the middle and high rpm ranges. The problem is the fork hits pretty hard on landings, and with these bikes so close that cost it a bit. I love the clutch on the KTM and it has great power from the mid on up, but the suspension took more getting used to than the other bikes, and it hit hard on flat or cased landings. The Gas Gas doesn't turn, stop or land as well as the other bikes, so it wasn't a player in this group.
Johnny Lovett/6'0"/140 lb/BeginnerRiding eight of these bikes was a pile of fun, but riding the Gas Gas was pure frustration. I know firsthand how good they are as off-road bikes, and the MC 125 seemed to have all the right ingredients, but it needed more factory setup and attention than the other bikes rather than less. What it got was none. That is the reality of a small company, but I hated to see it. It was also tough to rank the KX125 and RM125 near the bottom of my list. I prefer the handling and power delivery of the KX but like the meat to the power and super-plush suspension of the RM. The KX feels small, though, and my size rules that out. The RM hits a bit hard and is more difficult to keep on the pipe.I like the KTM and YZ125 a notch better. Both have engines that are easier for me to get along with, and the KTM is the horsepower king of the test. The KTM is too soft for me, and the YZ passes along too much feel of the track. Frankly, any of the four four-strokes would be fine with me. I love them all, though the green and yellow duo are a bit small feeling and the fork hammers my hands on landings. The Honda's chassis is perfection, but the engine needs to be whipped out of tight turns with the clutch. That leaves the YZ250F. The suspension is a bit crisp, and don't get me started on that seat with only an inch of padding, but once the engine starts I forget all that. It hits hard and strong out of turns and makes the toughest jumps doable for me. Best of all, it makes me smile all the way around the track.
Karel Kramer/6'1"/200 lb/Novice

Watercraft hero Victor Sheldon on the YZ250F at Lake Elsinore.
2004 Yamaha YZ125
Jeff Bell, nephew of former supercross champ Mike Bell, took to the air on the KX125 at LACR.