Suzuki DR 250

Honda XR250L vs Suzuki DR-Z250 (August 2002)

There’s nothing too grandiose about an entry-level dirtbike, but they are certainly more fun than the sum of the parts would suggest

History would suggest that I’m not the most imaginative person on earth – my underwhelming creative writing efforts at school attest to that – but that mind-set was recently put to the ultimate test during a day’s dirtbike riding through the labyrinth of trails around Anglesea (Vic).

Well, a full day’s trail riding is slight rhetoric, as the last small part of it was spent standing abandoned under a flimsy tree in three-degree conditions – with a liberal dose of sleet tumbling down at a 45-degree angle – waiting for my colleague Simon ‘fearless’ Swan to return with imminent tidings of emancipation.

A hiccup with one of the bikes had forced me to seek salvation under the tree, and that’s when the imagination kicked into overdrive – given added impetus by the fact that the amount of sustenance on hand added up to pissy little Mars bar and there wasn’t a sound to be heard.

You know, thoughts like crazed strangers passing by and wanting to check my prostate, grizzly drop bears, deranged backpacker murderers, the likely outcome of the next Chinese Communist Party Congress, and how my wife and children would manage without me, let alone be able to afford the funeral expenses.

Well, after eight minutes of mental anguish Simon did return with enough reinforcements to get us back to the Volvo at base camp – which as it turns out was just 700 metres down the road. Alone – yes. Abandoned – well not quite.


And the reason for my eight minutes of self-flagellation – a flat battery on one of the testbikes, the Honda XR250L. To be fair, the conditions were abysmal, and when I parted company with the XR in some mud, the switchgear welcomed aboard some of the paste. That was fine, but when we fired it again, the starter button locked on, and drained the battery almost immediately.

Still fine, except that it was nigh on impossible to push-start the XR on the clay-based slush – we hadn’t taken up on the bike’s kickstarter option. Hence the Swan mercy dash.

Until that point, the $7990 XR250L – with soft-terrain Pirelli MT 32 knobbies to replace the standard road-orientated hoops – had proved to be a valuable ally in the network of light bush trails we had traversed, which undoubtedly represented the outer limit of its design brief.

The second bike on test was Suzuki’s $7990 DR-Z250, which is now into its second year of higher-spec living after five years of frolicking with just a DR prefix. In DR-Z guise, the bike now has fully-adjustable suspension, a thicker and raised seat (920mm), a plastic 10.5lt fuel tank, revised ergonomics and new graphics.

Similarly, the XR250L is a second-year model for Honda, and follows on from a precedent set with the XR650L, which was designed as a bespoke release for those who harboured electric-start on their XR – and had never received it. However, the 650 was powered by the ‘old’ Dominator (NX650) engine, which fell well short of the benchmark set by the ‘real’ thing.

Those looking for a fresh interpretation on the L concept with the quarter-litre bike may be in for a surprise, as the XR250L is powered by the old XL powerplant, which was last sold in Australia in 1999 after a five-year tenure. But at least it does look and sound like a traditional XR250 – save for smaller header pipes on the L.

And to the thousands of Japanese folk who have bought the XR250L in the past couple of years, my protestations about the ‘old’ engine would probably be rejected out of hand. That’s because hybrids of this nature are common right across the board in the congested archipelago, and sell in mass quantities – they are more buxom than a scooter, but are still reasonably priced.


Producing a claimed 28ps at 8000rpm and 2.6kg-m of torque, the XR250L is not a panacea for the horsepower starved, and was definitely felled by the DR-Z. The latter is powered by a similar vintage air-cooled DOHC engine, fed by a 28mm CV-type carburettor.

Strong, predictable power generation is the DR-Z’s strong suit, which was particularly evident on the tighter trails, where some nasty little low-speed switchbacks required some sublime throttle work to maintain the rage.

That’s not to say the DR-Z is light years ahead, with the small carb providing a perfect foil for an ample midrange at the expense of a stonking top-end. However, a ballsy top-end is not what the DR-Z or XR250L is all about – that’s a function more suited to the latest liquid-cooled bikes such as the Yamaha WR250F, which are derivatives of purpose-built racers anyway.

That frail top-end perception was confirmed when we took in some tarmac between the bush trails, although with a few extra teeth on the respective rear sprockets (for more low down clout in the sticks) the conditions weren’t conducive for speed shootouts.

Still, for the more road-savvy XR250L, a top speed of around 110kmh is within reason – with standard road gearing. For the DR-Z you could probably add another 10kmh to the mix.

As mentioned previously, there’s a kickstarter secondary option on the Honda, which isn’t a problem on the Suzuki – it comes standard with both modes.


Part of the reason the champion yellow DR-Z felt so bullish in the bush can be ‘blamed’ on its nimble handling. It felt appreciably tighter than the XR250L, with more progressive suspension damping inspiring greater confidence. And it’s also a claimed 13kg lighter (128 versus 115).

The DR-Z is appreciably taller than the XR (920mm versus 870mm), with the difference in height on the bush bash compounded by the latter’s soft-ish preload setting – which, if you want to change it, is difficult to access compared to the Suzuki’s.

Still, there’s not a lot in all that height business, although in the bush a taller set-up helps in pinpointing any hidden nasties lying ahead – but nothing’s full-proof, as I found out after hitting the knoll of a broken tree and sailing through the mulga.

Just on those unexpected collisions, both bikes come standard with bash plates – steel in the case of the DR-Z and a tubular design for the Honda. Still on the niceties, the Honda’s toolkit is the standard XR250 mudguard-mounted fare, while the Suzuki’s lives behind the narrow seat. The air filters are also a cinch to access on both – just a couple of clips and the job is done.

Sure, the Honda felt a little doughy compared to the Suzuki in the bush, but with a short 1405mm wheelbase, there’s still some of that signature XR250R sure-fire handling just bubbling below the surface. And the ‘difference’ between the two was negligible on the blacktop – I say it again, that’s where the XR250L feels more at ease.

That’s in a practical sense, but with the Honda also priced at $7990 (exactly the same as the higher-spec XR250R), there’s a perception that the XR250L should be able to hold its own against the DR-Z on all types of terra-firma.

To steal AFL commentator Dennis Cometti’s thunder, I believe Honda’s pricing policy is ambitious – a slot somewhere in between the now discontinued SL230 ($5790) and its current price would be more centimetre perfect. Obviously, the market will eventually tell me whether my call is on the mark.

Competitors of the Suzuki and Honda include the Yamaha XT250 ($6199) and Kawasaki KLR250 ($6690).

Both the DR-Z and the XR-L have easy-to-read digital instrumentation, which includes adjustable trip meters and stop watches. The Honda also has a clock.

Scuffing on the duo proved to be a problem on the strength of our full off-road ensembles, especially on the frame rails – and the metal fuel tank in the case of the Honda.

Frame rails are a sure-fire remedy for the former, and maybe some duct tape would serve as an ad-hoc fix on the 9.7lt Honda tank when dirt beckons.


As my introduction alluded to, entry-level dirtbikes possess more fun vouchers than they probably have a right to. That was amply illustrated when we were trying to get up a rain-soaked clay embankment late in the day – it was only about a 15-metre rise, but it was probably the highlight of the outing.

With the assistance of the soft-compound knobbies – with the tyre pressures way down – we all eventually reached the summit – although dirt fledgling Simon needed a little bit of poking and prodding from myself and compatriot Sam Maclachlan.

Yes, pure enjoyment – but the DR-Z just manages it better than the XR250L. On the dirt and road.

Story: Mark Fattore

Photos: Captured by Cal

Published. Friday, 23 August 2002

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