As the tach needle swept past 8,000 rpm, the sound of the accelerating Honda NSR250 swept me back 27 years to a wild ride through the Hollywood hills on gray-market 250cc two-strokes snuck into the States from Japan. Within six months of that day I lapped Willow Springs Raceway on Keith Code’s Yamaha TZ250 with Wayne Rainey as my coach. That period for me at Motorcyclist magazine sunk the needle of 250cc two-stroke addiction deep into my arm, and many American enthusiasts drooled with me.
By 1991, 250cc smokers were coming of age. Twin-spar aluminum frames had replaced the steel trellis or backbone and parallel-twin engines were being set aside for vees. Manufacturers were truly mimicking their race-only bikes in chassis and suspension, while the street-version engines were relatively anemic and restricted by Japanese law to 45 hp. But the hit was still a thrill. And uncorking the bikes’ performance potential by removing the factory restrictions on output was pretty straightforward. Too bad the bikes were illegal in the US...
Now, it seems their day has come again. We had our doubts when Tim Hope of Moto2 Imports pitched us on a 250cc two-stroke retro-comparison. Why retest bikes nobody can buy?
Hope explained that vehicles over 25 years old can now be imported, titled, and registered in the US, and his company was doing just that. Not only does Moto2 Imports do the complicated DOT/EPA paperwork, he added, but it also provides service and parts for the bikes being brought to the States.
We devised a simple plan: Hope and Steve Long of SpeedWerks, the shop that prepped the 250s, would bring one each of the model-year-1991 Honda NSR250, Suzuki RGV, and Yamaha TZR to New Jersey Motorsports Park—and my cadre of YCRS instructors would ride them around and around. I had no shortage of volunteers, and in total five of us lapped on all three 250s: me (56, expert-level roadracer, AMA 250cc GP winner, street rider), Josh Siegel (44, expert-level roadracer, street rider), Keith Culver (45, expert-level roadracer, street rider), Eziah Davis (22, expert-level roadracer), and Anthony Mazziotto (17, KTM RC 390 Cup and 600cc Supersport MotoAmerica winner). Each tester would fill out a detailed sheet after lapping each bike, measuring fit and finish, streetability, trackability, powerband, ergonomics, ease of use, desirability, and anything else the tester wanted to mention. Each tester would rank the bikes.
Third Place: Suzuki RGV250
But wait—there’s more than simple rankings alive here because we’re dealing with 27-year-old bikes with varied and unknown backgrounds and in various states of modification. Each tester felt that the differences between the bikes could be easily balanced with tuning and simple upgrades, such as new brake pads. Put more plainly: These bikes created smiles and desire no matter what brand was on the tank.
The RGV got poor marks for carburetion, as it couldn’t accelerate off the bottom as smoothly as the TZR or NSR, but got rave reviews for its unrestricted surge to and past the 12,000-rpm redline. “Unrestricted power is in the mid-50s to low-60s horsepower range,” Hope tells us, answering one of the most popular questions from bystanders at NJMP. The Suzuki wore aftermarket Jolly Moto pipes and was only at the SpeedWerks shop for one day before being trucked down to NJMP. In that day, Long did a cleanup and safety check but wasn’t able to adjust the carb needles to our track’s sea-level elevation.
"The Suzuki's crisp, blocky lines whisper "Kevin Schwantz" in the rider's ear, and the banana swingarm is gorgeous."
Our tallest tester (6-foot-1) gave the RGV the best marks for ergonomics due to the lengthier reach to the wide handlebars and comments on the brakes varied from “wooden” to “on and off switch” with low marks from all riders, as if the master cylinder needed a tune-up. Gearing was the other issue that received consistent low marks, as the bike was into sixth gear before exiting NJMP’s final corner. Mazziotto wrote, “This gearing would be lots of fun on the street but doesn’t work here.”
The Suzuki’s crisp, blocky lines whisper “Kevin Schwantz” in the rider’s ear, and the banana swingarm is gorgeous. If forced to sum up the RGV, our testers would say, “Awesome power on top, poor midrange carburetion, crappy brakes… I want one.”
Second Place: Yamaha TZR250
The first year of the Yamaha V-twin was 1991, and this restricted, stock engine gained across-the-board praise for drivability, beginning to make strong-ish power from just over 6,000 rpm, where the other two came on the boil around 8,000 rpm. Like the NSR, the TZR quit making power about 1,000 rpm short of its 12,000-rpm redline, and I know what all you smoker fans are thinking: That’s just tuning but also that the TZR is still restricted.
The low-end power really helped the TZR roll off the apex and, naturally, left us all wishing for a top-end kick to match. “Derestriction on the Yamaha is a bit tougher than on the Honda and Suzuki,” Hope tells us. “Basically you replace the black box, and we can do that if the buyer desires.”
The brakes and the soft top-end power delivery got the lowest marks. Who knows the brake-pad history, but they felt wooden, old, hard… You get the idea. Squeeze them with all four fingers or you’re not gonna make the corner. Each of these chassis, plus the grippy Dunlop and Michelin tires SpeedWerks fit to each bike, encouraged headlong corner approaches, but a person still needs some brakes!
This TZR is typical of what you will find in this class of motorcycle (quarter-century-old imports): nicely done aftermarket paint in the Marlboro scheme but not quite the right color of red. Stock chassis and engine but a shock that could use a rebuild (Moto2 Imports also brings in aftermarket performance parts like suspension, pipes, and bodywork). You get the idea: If you’re a tinkerer, you will be in love. If you’re hands-off and shy in the garage, go buy a new 600 four-stroke, but don’t be surprised when a well-ridden, well-tuned 250 streetbike goes by you on corner entry, smelling like a ’90s GP paddock and sounding like a swarm of insects.
The TZR received consistent second-place rankings except from racer Davis, who placed it first. “Doesn’t have as much power on top, but it’s smooth coming on—I felt right at home on this bike,” the 5-foot-7 rider wrote in regard to the TZR’s power and ergonomics. He felt it would make the best streetbike and Siegel backed that by remarking about the TZR’s comfort, “though all are cramped,” he added. Siegel stands 5-foot-10.
The TZR was parked early when it started to make some unhappy noises in the engine bay. Moto2 Imports had received this bike only two days before the test, so preparation was limited to cleaning and new tires. Hope told us that SpeedWerks would have the bike running perfectly again in short order: “We stock a lot of necessary parts and have a direct line to Tokyo.”
First Place: Honda NSR
This NSR swept the test, gaining high marks in fit and finish, trackability, desirability, and power. Everyone noted that taller riders would be folded a bit tight, but that might be stating the obvious for all three machines.
Riding the Honda underlines one universal truth for this class of bikes: You better be nimble on the shifter! Get caught with your revs down and swift forward momentum is not going to happen anytime soon. The light and willing gearboxes in these bikes make beautiful shifts, a good thing since you will shift a lot.
The TZR gave us the lowest useable power, but the NSR was second best. While the derestricted RGV stormed past 12,000 rpm, the derestricted Honda quit making power at about 11,600 rpm. A little fine-tuning on the main jet, perhaps?
New brake pads were fitted before the test and, once bedded, added that all-important confidence to this Honda’s corner entries, but none of us were much impressed by how any of these bikes stopped. The master cylinders could be glazed, as all these four-piston-caliper machines should stop with authority.
Mazziotto couldn’t get enough of this 250 and lapped through three tanks of gas. Despite spending time on a Ducati Superleggera and Hypermotard, the 17-year-old racer ranked this NSR at the top of his must-have bike list. He felt the bike was one to two seconds quicker a lap than his KTM RC 390, on which he held the NJMP class lap record only a year ago.
Siegel, used to winning on a 2016 Graves Motorsports YZF-R1, was blown away by the handling precision of these bikes, especially the Honda. He felt the Honda’s fit and finish was almost collection-level but made several notes reminding taller riders that this is a small bike designed by small racers. Not too many 250cc Grand Prix riders over 5-foot-10 in the history of roadracing, and none of them were built like linebackers! If you need encouragement to get skinny, these bikes are it.
"What if my memories of 27 years ago were just the nonsense of a rider caught in the rosy haze of yesteryear?"
When the Smoke Settled
I restrained my own personal enthusiasm for this class of bikes because the four testers who joined me were significantly storied riders and racers. What if my memories of 27 years ago were just the nonsense of a rider caught in the rosy haze of yesteryear? So I played it cool.
But not for long. Siegel, Culver, Davis, and Mazz raved about the bikes right away. They had never felt a 300-pound motorcycle with the addictive two-stroke power delivery. Yes, they have all ridden two-stroke dirt bikes, but only Davis had ridden a smoker on the track, and that was a short time on an RS125 with ergonomics that just don’t relate to most motorcycles.
And these riders got quicker and quicker as they realized the entry speed possible on a two-stroke 250. Yes, they all wished for more power, but that is the typical wish when you ride a bike that handles well.
But, let's remember that a fun day in the saddle does not paint the entire picture of ownership. You’ve heard most of the good; let me also introduce the realities included with this class of bike. The cost of a legally imported titled 250 is between $6,000 and $10,000, according to Hope.
Parts availability in terms of clutch plates and other maintenance items won’t be “four-stroke easy,” which extend to reeds, piston rings, pistons, and jetting. Tens of thousands of these bikes were built, so parts exist—but probably not at your local Honda, Suzuki, or Yamaha dealership. Moto2 Imports has many parts and a direct line to the rest, but it won’t be GSX-R-easy or cheap.
We’ve all heard of violent two-stroke engine seizures, but each of these bikes features an oil tank and oil pump, so the premix ratio should stay on the safe side. In Japan, two-stroke streetbikes have roamed the country for decades, and violent engine seizure is not part of this class of bikes when left in stock or near-stock trim.
Having dealt with many years of endless TZ250 tuning with Steve Biganski on the national circuit, my advice would be to derestrict these bikes, update any maintenance items, and leave them otherwise stock and unmolested. One reason a four-stroke 600 is such a joy is because it’s relatively low maintenance. These streetbike 250s can be close to that but not if they’re heavily modded. That’s my opinion, anyway.
Lapping NJMP on these previously illegal 250s was addicting for all five of us. They are fun and easy to ride well, as long as you keep them on the boil. I’ll close with Mazziotto’s final comment on his ranking sheet: “If I were in the market to buy a brand-new motorcycle or an old-school two-stroke street-legal 250, I would buy the red-and-white Moto2 Imports NSR250. I’ve never smiled so much on a bike before; it sounded like a swarm of bees. It was an awesome experience.”
|THE NUMBERS||1991 Honda NSR250R MC21||1991 Suzuki RGV250 VJ22||1991 Yamaha TZR250 3XV|
|Tires||Dunlop GPR300||Mich. Pilot Power||Dunlop GPR300|
|Engine||90° V-twin||90° V-twin||90° V-twin|
|Exhaust||Stock||Jolly Moto Full||Stock|
|Derestrict?*||Y (Wire Splice)||Y (Ignition Box)||N|
|Dry Weight (lb.)||290||305||280|
|Wet Weight (lb.)||330||345||320|
|Wheelbase||52.8 in.||54.3 in.||54.1 in.|