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First Ride: 2001 Suzuki DR-Z250

It has been raining almost non-stop here in Southern California lately (just look at the pictures in this article), but we couldn’t resist the chance to ride Suzuki’s new U.S. model DR-Z250. Suzuki’s DR-Z250 competes straight-up with Honda’s XR250R and Yamaha’s TT-R250 trail bikes. All three carry an U.S. MSRP of $4,699.

Suzuki describes the DR-Z250 as a “new 250cc four-stroke, off-road model with performance and features suitable for a wide range of riders“. In other words, a bike that a beginner or novice will be comfortable on, and that an experienced rider can enjoy.

To be honest, I was skeptical about the DR-Z250’s ability to entertain an experienced, faster rider. I was clearly wrong. This is not just another old-tech, budget trail bike. It has stock features that are missing from some of the competition, including components that are extremely expensive to purchase and install. Here is a partial list.

  • Modern Mikuni, flat-slide carburetor with accelerator pump.
  • 43mm cartridge fork with fully adjustable rebound and compression damping.
  • Electric start and kick start (for back-up).
  • Three-way adjustable shock (compression, rebound and spring preload).
  • Large, modern, motocross-level disc brakes, calipers and master cylinders.
  • Large capacity fuel tank that doesn’t prevent the rider from moving forward to weight the front-end.
  • Four-valve motor with more than just air cooling.
  • Zerk fittings for easy linkage lubrication.
  • Air filter access without tools and without removing the seat.
  • Magnesium cylinder head cover to reduce weight and lower the center of gravity.

The 249cc motor is a double overhead cam, four-valve design with Suzuki’s TSCC (twin swirl combustion chamber). With relatively steep valve angles, and a slipper-style piston, this Suzuki motor is hardly "old tech".

Unlike the competition, Suzuki’s engine is more than air cooled. It is both air and oil cooled, giving it a greater capacity to maintain its horsepower throughout a race, where an air cooled unit tends to loose horsepower as heat increases. You may remember that Suzuki had great success with air/oil cooled street bikes, including its GSX-R1100 motor that was bored, stroked, turboed, and modified in every way, shape or form for high performance. That motor was bullet proof, and the DR-Z250 employs much of the same technology.

The claimed, dry weight of 253 pounds is six pounds lighter than Yamaha claims for the other electric start model available in this class (the air cooled TT-R250).

The wet sump design of the engine allowed Suzuki greater latitude in centralizing the mass of the motorcycle and lowering the center of gravity. In the picture here, you will note that the battery and shock gas canister are both located in front of, and slightly below the airbox. The battery is a 4.5 amp, 12 volt, maintenance free type that not only powers the electric start, but a taillight and a bright, 55 watt headlight.

The brakes on the DR-Z250 also set new standards for the class. With a 250mm rotor up front, there is more swept area than most modern motocross machines, with the exception of Yamaha (which moved up to a 250mm disc for its MX bikes this year). The front brake is simply awesome, and is an item that will need no upgrades whatsoever as the rider gains experience and speed.

The rear brake is also a modern disc, and its design is based largely on that of the recently introduced DR-Z400. It is powerful, but not too touchy.

At 2.8 gallons, the fuel capacity of the DR-Z250 is larger (by 4/10ths of a gallon) than either the XR250R or the TT-R250. Nevertheless, I found it easier to move around on the Suzuki than even Yamaha’s new WR250F (a bike we are concurrently testing). Suzuki has a knack for designing slim, ergonomically correct dirt bikes, and the DR-Z250 is no exception. Despite the large capacity gas tank, you can get forward on the seat for turns quite easily.

At 35.4 inches, the seat height is lower than both the TT-R250 and XR250R, but the ground clearance (11.8 inches) falls between the two competitors.

The six speed transmission has well spaced ratios (and a pretty fast top speed) and, like most Suzukis, shifts well and positively. The DR-Z250 is the only bike in the class that features both kick and electric start. The XR is kick only, and the TT-R is electric start only.

Okay, so the DR-Z250 sets new standards in the class for componentry and engine design. What is it like to ride?

Totally stock, the DR-Z250 has extremely plush suspension. The stock settings and spring rates are soft, but not nearly as soft as you might think. Perfect for the novice trail rider (including my wife Kim, who will write her own review on this bike later), dialing more compression and rebound on the fork and the shock allowed me to ride the bike aggressively and fast (and I weigh 200 pounds).

I am an aggressive and fast trail rider with racing experience (including motocross). Frankly, I expected to be underwhelmed by the DR-Z250. I wasn’t.

The stock engine performance is torquey and smooth, and revs out relatively well. The bike pulls well from low rpms (largely due to the pumper carb, I expect), but has a broad powerband. Nevertheless, the bike is whisper quiet (like its bigger brother, the DR-Z400).

The chassis balance is really quite good. Ridden hard, through rough terrain, the 43mm cartridge fork really did its job. Fork flex is not that noticeable, and high speed stability was surprisingly good. The frame and swingarm are obviously pretty stiff.

At one point, I rode the bike flat-out in sixth gear along a familiar dirt road with 8 inches of mud, truck tire ruts, and other weather-related obstacles. I had a blast keeping the throttle pinned and the front wheel light, as both wheels drifted and slithered occasionally. A pretty good handling test, and the DR-Z250 passed it with flying colors.

I really can’t tell you how much I appreciate the electric start button. I’ve been riding four-stroke dirt bikes quite a bit lately, and the occasional frustration and anger generated by a four-stroke that is difficult to start can really ruin your day. The electric start button on the DR-Z250 makes me feel like I am cheating. It makes me feel better about the bike, in general, because the machine just never lets me down in the starting department. Having a kick starter as a back-up is also comforting and a bit unusual (it is an optional, extra-cost item on the DR-Z400, for example).

We are keeping the bike for an extended test. We want to try a few relatively inexpensive performance modifications on the DR-Z250 to see just how well its performance can keep up with the skills of a more demanding rider. Stay tuned.