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2014 MXA 250 FOUR-STROKE SHOOTOUT: CRF VS. KXF VS. SXF VS. RM-Z VS. YZF

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Believe it or not, the best 250 four-stroke for you is in these pages, but only if you answer the following questions truthfully: (1) Are you willing to spend $8000 on a new motorcycle? (2) Is a 250 four-stroke your best choice, or would a two-stroke or 450 four-stroke better suit your needs? (3) What are your actual stats (skill level, weight, riding preferences)? Lying will lead you to the wrong color bike. (4) How long do you plan to own your new motorcycle? There’s a lot to be said for resale value.

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The MXA wrecking crew tested, documented, inspected, theorized and calculated every conceivable facet of the 250 four-stroke class for 2014. There are three monumental areas that determine the strength of each machine. The most obvious factor is engine performance. Powerband is king in the 250 class, but don’t mistake monster horsepower numbers on the dyno for guaranteed success on the track. Suspension is the next key to building a good bike. A poorly suspended bike wreaks havoc on the overall package. We have tested plenty of fast bikes that were downgraded in the shootout rankings due to inferior suspension. Lastly, handling is an important part of the package. Poor handling, especially in conjunction with atrocious suspension, can turn a rocket ship into a dud.

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We should mention that there is no such thing as the perfect 250 four-stroke. It doesn’t exist. Why? MXA test riders know that one rider’s preference is another’s problem. So while test riders might like certain aspects of a given bike, they have to decide for themselves if they are willing to sacrifice other traits (brakes, clutch, weight, etc.) to benefit from one element alone. The MXA wrecking crew has tried to provide a fair description of each bike’s positive and negative qualities. From there, the choice is up to you. Choose wisely.

2014 MXA 250 SHOOTOUT DYNO CHART

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FIFTH PLACE: HONDA CRF250

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IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT MXA TESTS BIKE FOR MOTOCROSS RACING—AND THE CRF250 DOES NOT PUT A PREMIUM ON THE KIND OF POWER IT TAKES TO GET A GOOD START, RAIL THROUGH SAND WHOOPS OR CLIMB BIG HILLS. IT’S A GOOD ENGINE—IT’S JUST NOT A RACE ENGINE.

The 2014 Honda CRF250 has the distinction of receiving the second-most updates for the new model year (the Yamaha YZ250F is totally new from the ground up). Honda lowered the frame spars, increased the engine compression, incorporated dual-timing programmed fuel injection, strengthened the transmission, added a secondary muffler, tweaked the suspension and tucked the whole kit-and-caboodle into a modified CRF450 chassis. We forgive you for thinking that the sheer number of changes would automatically result in a bike that feels supremely different from the machine it replaced. Wrong. If you liked last year’s CRF250, you will still like last year’s bike better.

There is no kind way to say this—the 2014 Honda CRF250 is the slowest bike in the class. Luckily for Honda, slowness has its advocates. MXA test riders were pleased to discover that they could ride the CRF250 as hard as humanly possible and never get tired. The soft engine also put less strain on the clutch and load on the suspension. Though the CRF250 powerplant isn’t a fireball, its upside is that it is easy to use.

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It should be noted that MXA tests bike for motocross racing—and the CRF250 does not put a premium on the kind of power it takes to get a good start, rail through sand whoops or climb big hills. It’s a good engine—it’s just not a race engine.

HORSEPOWER?

37.25 horsepower at 11,200 rpm.

DOWNSIDES?

The 2014 CRF250 retains the same level of comfort and familiarity in the ergonomics department, along with the sharp handling and light feel, we’ve come to expect from Honda. However, every MXA test rider thought that Honda took a step backward with the 2014 model. How so? Let us count the ways.

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(1) Engine. An exceptional powerband for Beginners, the Unicam engine is very meager through the midrange and into the top end. Apparently, Honda is catering to slower riders.

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(2) Suspension. The CRF250 retains Showa’s 48mm cartridge fork and Pro-Link shock, which isn’t a complaint; however, the suspension is too soft for anyone faster than a Novice or heavier than 160 pounds.

(3) Philosophy. Honda must know that they are making 4 horsepower less than the YZ250F, KX250F and 250SXF—and, if this is true, then they are building mellow engines on purpose. But what would the purpose be?

THE WORD ON THE CRF250?

It pains us to rank the Honda CRF250 last in our shootout, because not so long ago it won the “MXA 250 Four-Stroke Shootout” (2009). As it sits in 2014, the Honda CRF250 is an excellent Novice or Beginner bike.

FOURTH PLACE: KTM 250SXF

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THE ENGINE PRODUCES NEARLY 43 HORSEPOWER—THE MOST OF ANY PRODUCTION 250 FOUR-STROKE—BUT HORSEPOWER CAN’T WIN SHOOTOUTS IF THE POWER IS IN THE WRONG PLACE AND THE SUSPENSION WON’T LET YOU PUT IT TO THE GROUND.

This bike should win every 250 shootout, but it never will as it is currrently configured. The 250SXF is the black sheep of the KTM lineup. Yes, the engine produces nearly 43 horsepower—the most of any production 250 four-stroke—but horsepower can’t win shootouts if the power is in the wrong place and the suspension won’t let you put it to the ground.

There are a lot of upsides to the 2014 KTM 250SXF. The hydraulic clutch is buttery smooth and bulletproof. This is the only bike in the class to come with an electric starter. The brake package is second to none. And due to excellent craftsmanship, the 250SXF has one of the highest resale values on the market.

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The KTM 250SXF could easily win “MXA’s 250 Four-Stroke Shootout,” but first it needs to fix its most glaring flaws—power placement, suspension settings and weight.

HORSEPOWER?

42.89 horsepower at 13,500 rpm.

KTM 250SXF_ENGINE

DOWNSIDES?

Here are the KTM 250SXF’s weaknesses.

1. Powerband. The KTM 250SXF has a high-rpm, rev-it-to-the-moon, Pro-level powerband. That is great for AMA National riders, but the slightest bog by a Novice or a Vet is a death sentence. The meat of the powerband needs to be brought down into the midrange.

2. Suspension. The 250SXF is easily one of the worst suspended bikes in the class. Sadly, the WP suspension is extremely harsh. Even our Pro testers complained about fork and shock performance.

 

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3. Weight. At 231 pounds, the KTM is the heaviest bike in this shootout. The YZ250F weighs 10 pounds less. It is true that the 250SXF’s electric starter is a nice touch, but it is a luxury that KTM can’t afford.

THE WORD ON THE KTM 250SXF?

How many times have we said that the KTM 250SXF is oh-so-close to being the best bike in the 250 class? Yet every year the Austrians insist on producing a European-flavored bike instead of one tuned to American tastes. Give us a potent midrange powerband and supple suspension and we’ll live with the weight of the electric starter. But, a powerband that makes max power at 14,000 rpm and forks that knock your teeth loose will never cut it on our shores.

THIRD PLACE: SUZUKI RM-Z250

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IT HAD THE SECOND-BEST ENGINE LAST YEAR, BUT WITH THE ADVENT OF THE ALL-NEW YAMAHA YZ250F, IT DROPPED ANOTHER STEP DOWN THE LADDER FOR 2014. IT STILL HAS A VERY GOOD ENGINE FOR THE LESS-SKILLED RIDER, BUT IT DOESN’T HOLD A CANDLE TO THE YZ250F OR KAWASAKI KX250F.

Suzuki must have been happy with their “MXA 250 Shootout” results from last year because they rested on their laurels this year. Aside from a few minor plastic color changes and an ECU update, the 2014 RM-Z250 is a carbon copy of the 2013 model. Although we were happy to see that Suzuki didn’t mess with the good stuff, we were a little concerned that they didn’t do anything to fix the bad stuff.

At a time when Kawasaki, KTM and Yamaha are boosting their engine packages beyond the 40-horse mark, the RM-Z250 powerband is starting to feel a bit anemic. It had the second-best engine last year, but with the advent of the all-new Yamaha YZ250F, it dropped another step down the ladder for 2014. It still has a very good engine for the less-skilled rider, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the YZ250F or Kawasaki KX250F.

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On the good side of the ledger, if you’re looking for the best-handling bike in the class, this is it. Suzuki discovered the perfect blend of chassis balance and geometry years ago and has never messed with it. This bike can hit inside lines with ease. It can also sweep through high-speed corners with nary a front-end wiggle. Unfortunately, all that precision means that it does suffer from headshake in a straight line.

HORSEPOWER?

39.23 horsepower at 12,200 rpm.

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DOWNSIDES?

Out of the crate, the 2014 Suzuki RM-Z250 is an amazing bike. Unfortunately, as the ride hours build, the bike begins to show serious signs of wear. The clutch cannot handle the day-to-day rigors of riding. The brakes are pathetic. Additionally, we are bothered by the cheap bolts and flimsy hot-start lever.

These issues, however, are trivial compared to the biggest issue: on past RM-Z250 test bikes, the engine gave up several horsepower once the hours stacked up. If you are a Suzuki RM-Z250 owner, pay close attention to piston, ring and valve wear.

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THE WORD ON THE RM-Z250?

The Suzuki RM-Z250 won our shootout in 2011. Since then, it has slowly fallen from grace. This is a great bike for a wide range of riders, but it is getting long in the tooth. Still, if you’re looking for the best-handling bike with a solid engine, the RM-Z250 is up your alley.

SECOND PLACE: YAMAHA YZ250F

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THE YZ250F HAS JUMPED FROM AN ALSO-RAN TO A FRONT RUNNER. THE 2014 YAMAHA YZ250F CAME VERY VERY CLOSE TO EDGING OUT THE KX250F FOR TOP HONORS (ON THE TEST RIDERS’ FORMS, IT GOT ITS FAIR SHARE OF FIRST-PLACE VOTES).

After years of incessant nagging by owners, dealers and MXA, Yamaha finally addressed the universal complaints about the YZ250F by unveiling an all-new YZ250F. The YZ250F had been showing its age for the last decade, but Yamaha didn’t do anything about it. The YZ250F had the distinction of being the last carbureted four-stroke from the “Big Five.” Not anymore.

The 2014 Yamaha YZ250F is as new as new can be. What did the blue crew do? (1) The cylinder is slanted rearward and blessed with a four-valve layout instead of five. (2) Electronic fuel injection has finally replaced the Keihin FCR carburetor. This opens up infinite mapping options. (3) Although the frame geometry is identical to the 2013 YZ250F’s, the frame, subframe and engine brackets are all new. (4) Yamaha went stiffer on the spring rates and adjusted the damping. (5) It doesn’t take a graphic artist to see that the YZ250F has new styling.

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In a single model year, the YZ250F has jumped from an also-ran to a front runner. The 2014 Yamaha YZ250F came very very close to edging out the KX250F for top honors (on the test riders’ forms, it got its fair share of first-place votes), but the general consensus was that it was the second-best bike in the class. Still, there’s no denying the explosive engine and race-ready suspension.

HORSEPOWER?

40.61 horsepower at 12,100 rpm.

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DOWNSIDES?

The YZ250F is the spitting image of the YZ450F. That’s not bad, but it’s not good, either. The YZ450F has a tendency to feel very loose at corner entrance, and the YZ250F also hunts and pecks for traction. The difference is that the uncomfortable looseness isn’t as apparent on the YZ250F because the 250 engine doesn’t have the thrust of the YZ450F engine. Test riders struggled to find the proper race sag and fork-leg height to balance the chassis. Even then, test riders still had a hard time with vagueness at turn-in, the weak front brake and the handlebar bend.

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THE WORD ON THE YZ250F?

The 2014 YZ250F is a great choice for those who don’t like green. It is well equipped to win off the showroom floor, and at only 221 pounds, it’s the lightest 250 four-stroke in the field. If not for a few peccadilloes, the YZ250F would be back on top of the podium after years of exclusion. Regardless, this is a great motorcycle.

FIRST PLACE: KAWASAKI KX250F

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THE 2014 KAWASAKI KX250F IS JUDGED BY THE STRENGTH OF ITS ENGINE. SHOULD SOME OTHER BRAND EVER BUILD A BETTER POWERBAND, THE KX250F WILL FALL OUT OF GRACE. UNTIL THEN, WE’LL LOOK PAST ITS AVERAGENESS TO ENJOY ITS SINGLE ATTRIBUTE OF GREATNESS.

This is the third straight year that the Kawasaki KX250F has won MXA’s illustrious “250 Four-Stroke Shootout.” It marks the seventh win for Kawasaki in the 14 years since MXA began testing 250 four-strokes. Why has the KX250F remained such a superior machine since it first took top honors back in 2006? For starters, the engine has been incredible. Adding dual fuel injection, with an upstream injector for better atomization at high rpm, bolstered performance even more.

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The KX250F has the best engine in the class for 2014. We should point out that the KX250F isn’t spectacular anywhere else. The suspension is workmanlike but not special. The chassis makes the bike feel long and bulky, and there’s a consistent tendency to stand up in the center of the corners. The brakes, clutch and transmission need updates to be considered in the same realm as the KTM 250SXF’s parts. Yet, the KX250F does virtually everything okay and one thing especially well. And, the one exceptional thing is super important. It has the best race engine—with the right amount of power and all of it in the right place.The KX250F is the best race bike.

HORSEPOWER?

41.14 horsepower at 12,200 rpm.

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DOWNSIDES?

Sooner or later Kawasaki will need to address the elephant in the room. The KX250F chassis needs to be updated. The KX engineers’ first objective should be to eradicate the bike’s tendency to understeer. We are fully aware that we should be careful for what we wish for (just take a look at the Honda CRF250 and Yamaha YZ450F), but the KX250F frame can be improved. We also think that Kawasaki would do well to look closely at the notchy transmission, weak brakes, frail clutch, bulky styling and borderline durability. That is a big wish list, but it needs to be targeted before our testers fall head over boots in love with the KX250F.

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THE WORD ON THE KX250F

This is a machine that anyone can win on. Not a single test rider was disappointed in the performance of the 2014 Kawasaki KX250F, and they were enamored by the broad and powerful engine. The 2014 Kawasaki KX250F is judged by the strength of its engine. Should some other brand ever build a better powerband, the KX250F will fall out of grace. Until then, we’ll look past its averageness to enjoy its single attribute of greatness.

2014 250 FOUR-STROKE DYNO CHART

 

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