In the mid to late 1980s, Honda’s TRX250R was one of the best-selling sport quads. Throughout the 1990s, even though they weren’t being sold, the two-stroke 250R dominated the woods, desert and MX racing scene. Today, Honda’s top high-performance sport or race quad is the four-stroke 450R. However, Honda recently stopped producing the 450R due to a high volume of leftover 2009 models sitting on dealer floors. In time, Honda will restart the 450R assembly lines. But what rolls off that line may be radically different and much more technologically advanced than the 2009 450R and the 1989 250R. Before the current 450R becomes old news and the last 250R turns to dust, we decided to put the two head to head to see how they compare.
In a drag race, the four-stroke would always get a slight jump. It never pulled away, and both machines topped out at 74 mph, according to our Garmin GPS.
In 1989, the 250R sold for a rather expensive $4098, considering the 1988 250R was priced $1000 less. Any way you look at it, with inflation that’s about the same MSRP of the 2009 TRX450R at $7650. However, dealers are so hot to clear their showrooms of 2009 models, it’s not hard to find one discounted $1000-$2000. On the other hand, you can pick up a used, run-of-the-mill 250R for $3000. A cherry-colored one might fetch $8000-$10,000 as a collectors item, and a roached-out unit can be rescued for under $2000. Keep in mind there are still tons of aftermarket companies selling components for the 250R, and this two-stroke is a heck of a lot cheaper to rebuild than any modern four-stroke 450. However, many of the stock components, such as bodywork, are becoming increasingly difficult to come by.
According to CT Racing’s Allen Knowls, “A top-end rebuild on a 250R engine costs $310, versus $660 on the 450R. A bottom-end rebuild is about $630 on the 250R and $880 on a 450R. Service life of the both machines is about the same at approximately 80-100 hours, or half that for a high-compression race engine. However, keep in mind a four-stroke should also have its valves adjusted every 20 hours. Most shops charge $100 for a valve adjustment. About the only thing you go through more on a two-stoke engine versus a four-stroke mill are spark plugs.”
To make this comparison happen, we convinced Knowls to let us ride his own personal cherry 1989 250R. To make sure our machine was running as well as it did when new, we gave it a fresh top-end, a new air filter and installed a $350 CT Racing exhaust pipe and silencer. We also replaced the crusty front shocks with a set of shocks off a 400EX. This is a typical, cost-effective setup you might see the casual trail or track rider do. Our new 450R was also equipped with a CT Racing full exhaust system at $510. Both machines were shoed with new, stock 450R tires and wheels, and topped off with a $139, CT Racing graphics kit. You can contact CT Racing at (562) 945-2453.
CT Racing freshened up this 250R engine for us. It ran like a top. According to CT, a top-end rebuild is $350 less on this two-stroke versus a four-stroke 450R.
The single cylinder in the 250R is liquid-cooled with forward kick-starting, and you do have to hand mix the gasoline with two-stroke oil at a 32:1- 40:1 ratio. Honda’s 450R is available in electric or forward kick-staring models. Liquid-cooling is also found on the four-stroke 450R along with an electric radiator fan. In addition, the four-stroke head is equipped with four valves operated by a single overhead cam.
Fuel and air is still fed to the 450R engine through a conventional carburetor similar to the one on the 250R, which is over two decades old. All of the other Japanese 450 sport quads built today are equipped with electronic fuel injection. No one ever accused Honda of being the first to try things in the ATV world. However, using proven methods and components is what gave them that great reliability record they are known for, not to mention many race wins and series championships over the years.
According to the dyno at CT Racing, the old 250R puts out an impressive horsepower number of 36 with 27 foot-pounds of torque. A dyno run on the 450 showed slightly more ponies with a 44 horsepower reading and an impressive 31 foot-pounds of torque. What’s even more notable is how early the torque builds and peaks on the 450R (5800 rpm) versus the 250R at 7800 rpm. There is a 4000 rpm range of usable power on the 450R versus less than 2000 on the 250R An average rider or even racer spends most of his time in the middle of the rpm, and that’s where the 450R excels over the 250R, according to the dyno. Keep in mind, just about every engine hop-up shop still sells pistons, cylinders and exhaust systems to improve both sets of numbers on the 250R. Our dyno runs were completed with CT Racing exhaust systems installed on both machines.
With CT Racing exhaust systems installed on both machines, the 450R put out 44 horsepower, versus only 36 for the 250R. The torque numbers were also impressive on the thumper, with 31 foot-pounds versus 27 foot-pounds.
In the chassis department, the differences are a bit more subtle. Up front, both machines are dual A-arm equipped, along with dual-hydraulic disc brakes. The shocks on the 450R are not decades better than those on the 250R, but they are better. In 1989, Honda equipped the 250R with front shocks that were pre-load-only adjustable. What is different is that the front shocks are now rebuildable, internally tuneable, and have compression and rebound adjusters. They offer up a half-inch more travel with 8.4 inches up front and only a quarter inch more in the back with 9.3. The front brakes have been improved as well, with the addition of smaller, lighter, dual-piston calipers versus the single-piston binders of old.
On the back end, a standard aluminum swingarm is found on both machines. The old metal engine and swingarm guards on the 250R have been replaced with light, plastic units.
Tires size on all four corners are the same on the two machines with trail-ready 22-inchers up front and 20’s on the back. However, tread pattern and brand name have changed. In fact, tread design even changed slightly from year to year on both machines. Honda has always been known for having very durable tires and even more durable aluminum wheels. That statement holds true today.
Overall measurements on both machines are very similar. The 250R extends the tape 72.4 inches from bumper to bumper, with a 49.8-inch wheelbase. Length-wise, the 450R reads a tad longer at 73.3 inches. Wheelbase is again a bit longer at 50.2 inches. The biggest number difference is the weight reading. A 250R only tips the scale at 350 pounds full of fuel, while the kick-start version 450R weighs in at 381 pounds. The electric-start version is seven pounds heavier than that.
Kick-starting the 250R is a piece of cake. You always want to make sure the fuel tank petcock is open, and you only give it a touch of throttle before the kicking begins. If your filter is clean and jetting is correct, a swift kick will get a stock 250R buzzing instantly. Bump up the compression, however, and things get a little tougher. Kick-back and racked knees are common place back in the world of the high-performance 250R.
Honda’s 450R is the only four-stroke ATV available with a kick-starter. By the time this four-stroke engine made its way into a production ATV, there were no starting issues. Keep your thumb off the accelerator, and your mill should be thumping in no time. However, a hot engine is a little tougher. Honda added a hot-start lever that needs to deployed if you stall your engine in the heat of battle and you want to get it started quickly. The electric-starting 450R has an automatic hot-start feature. The two-stroke starts easier the hotter it gets.
Honda equips the newer 450R’s with pre-load, compression and rebound adjustable shocks. The top A-arm length and front-end geometry is great for trail riding and very controllable at high speed.
ODDS AND ENDS
It took us getting both of these machines together to remember some of the issues the older 250R has. Up front, the top A-arms were a bit too long, giving it too much positive caster. The first adjustable A-arms were created to solve this problem. Companies like Laeger’s (www.laegerracing.com) and Roll Design (www.rolldesign.com) may have never been created if the 250R did not come out.
1989 was the first year Honda added heel guards to their sport ATVs. It was a welcomed addition to all of the test riders of that day. Companies like James Lucky, (800) 233-2637, were responsible for coming out with the first full nerf bars that made this quad even safer. On the back end, Honda gave the 250R a seat and rear fender combo that was a pain to install. It was such a pain that OMF Performance ( 354-8272) designed a dual knob attachment system that nearly every 250R still alive today uses. Nowadays, on the 450R, the seat comes off separately from the rear fenders.
In a drag race, the result were very close. Off the line, the 450R would get a slight jump. Depending on traction, you had to be very selective on what gear you started in with the 250R. Also, the tranny on the old two-stroke was a tad notchier, so shifts had to be positive and you really needed to use the clutch. In our high-speed runs, both machines topped out at about 74 mph. However, the 450R is a lot more stable at those speeds.
In the woods, gear selection was also very important on the 250R. We spent a lot more time shifting and clutching than we did on the torquey four-stroke. On the 450R, you could lug the machine around a gear or two higher without the fear of stalling.
On the test track we set up, lap times were about a second or two quicker on the 450R. It wasn’t a night-and-day difference, but you did lose ground if you were riding the 6-speed, 250R. It was easy to slide your body around on the older machine. It’s a good thing, because you had to slide forward to keep the lighter front end from coming up out of the corners, then you had to quickly slide back to gain traction. The 450R wasn’t far better than the 250R, it was just a little bit better in a lot of places.
As our testing came to an end, we added up how much fuel we used in each machine. Under a wide variety of riding conditions, we ended up using the exact same amount of gas in the two-stroke 250R as we did with the 450R thumper. Since the 250R holds only .1 gallon less than the 450R, riding duration between fill-ups is not noticeably less on the 250R.
Cutting a ride short is a big deal to some, but then again, for others it might not be an issue. The big question is, are you being cut short on performance? Dollar for dollar, they are both excellent choices. In some places—like the pocketbook—the 250R does perform better than the newer 450R. And maintenance-wise, the two-stroke 250R is a lot easier to take care of than today’s technologically advanced four-stroke.
While we don’t always follow the latest trends, we are interested in new technology. Unfortunately, Honda’s latest high-performance offering has not advanced enough in two decades to say it’s light years better than the 250R. So, instead of choosing a clear winner, we are going to continue having good time on both machines and eagerly wait to see what Honda comes out with next.