If 4-strokes continue to progress at this rate, there’s a good chance sales will determine the inctinction date of 2-strokes, not the EPA.
The KTM came out swinging in our shootout with a liquid cooled 449cc 4-speed powerplant that churned out plenty of torque and more than enough power for the majority of our testers.
“The power felt good on the KTM,” said our young fast guy, Mikey Mandahl. “It wasn’t overwhelming like the YZ or as smooth as the CRF, but overall it was good.”
One area where we did find a glitch in the KTM was in its stock gearing. We couldn’t bog the KTM down as low as we could the other three bikes, so shifting down to access more power was common on the KTM.
“I think if I had the KTM I would change the gearing,” said Drew. “Second gear starts were nearly impossible and I also had to shift into first a couple of times to get a good drive out of the corners.”
None of our group believed that going to a 4-speed transmission like Yamaha was worth the slight weight advantage. On some tracks the extra gear was overkill, but few wanted a four-speed tranny simply because 5-speeds offer more flexibility on longer, faster tracks and in the trails.
Our test notes are remarkably devoid of comments about the clutches and the quality of gear shifts. This speaks volumes about how good contemporary bikes are made. Neutral was hard to find a couple of times on the CRF, but it was the YZ that drew the most obvious complaint.
“The transmission is smooth and the clutch feels good,” said Chamberlain. “However, on several occasions I missed shifts going from first to second. It didn’t happen every time, but it was something I noticed.” Chamberlain wasn’t the only one in our group to miss the one-two shift.
Honda, Yamaha, and KTM all made significant strides in reducing the overall size of their bikes. Our testers noticed on the decreased size of the 4-strokes in our test, and even the Cannondale felt smaller than previous efforts.
The KTM was most often praised during our test as feeling the smallest. The Austrian motorcycle manufacturer squished the 449cc mill inside the 2-stroke chrome-moly backbone chassis of their 250SX. The decision to put the Thumper powerplant into the 250 SX chassis proved to be a winning decision with our group, and especially our resident 125cc expert.
“I felt right at home,” said 16-year-old Mandahl. “I usually race 125s and the seat height (of the KTM) was lower and the bike was much thinner. It was really light and I could flick it around pretty easily.”
The KTM 450SX and the CRF450R were both praised as feeling the smallest of the bunch. Some even likened them to 125s.
Like the KTM, the CRF received praise for its small size. The aluminum twin-spar frame that debuted on the CR250 a few years ago has drawn criticism in the past for being too rigid and vibrating more than a traditional steel backbone frame. However no one in our group felt the detrimental effect of either. For ’03, stronger frame downtubes and stiffer engine hangers help increase chassis rigidity.
“The Honda felt really small like the KTM,” said Mandahl. “It felt good in the air and I could do just about anything I wanted with it.”
Opinions about the best riding position were mixed. For 2003, Honda recontoured the CRF’s seat and moved the handlebars forward by 3mm. Unfortunately, our test bike was fitted with Renthal bars for our evaluation so we can’t say for sure how you’ll like the stock bars. On our bike, the rider sits back and in, and it is both comfortable and effective. It was our democratic choice as the ergonomic winner.
While the KTM felt good, our testers felt the front end was a little unpredictable at times. A rider needs to get his weight over the front wheel to get it to bite.
Meanwhile, the YZ allows a rider to sit forward and on which was preferred by some. Yamaha made several changes this year so a rider can shift his or her weight forward over the front wheel. The seat and fuel tank are flatter this year, and the radiator shrouds are slimmed down. Some riders liked being able to move so far forward, but others couldn’t get comfortable because they were fighting with the bottom end of the YZ powerband. Either way, the YZ is the quickest steering bike in the group.
While the other three bikes seemed to be much closer to the size of a 250cc 2-stroke, the X440 is beefier and heavier than the rest because of the attendant weight that comes with the magic starter button. However, it is super stable, loves to rail around berms and would be an excellent desert bike.
“It’s definitely bigger than the rest, but I think it was pretty comfortable,” said Content Manager Ken Hutchison. “I thought it would vibrate a lot more because of the aluminum frame, but that didn’t seem to be an issue at all.”