Which Dirt Bike is Which
There are dozens of dirt bike models on the market and figuring out which dirt bike is best for which rider isn't easy, especially for beginner riders who aren't very familiar with dirt bikes. Comparing different models can be tough if you don't know what the model designations means, so we're going to take a quick look at some of the dirt bike manufacturers' abbreviations.
Decoding the code:
Dirt bikes aren't given names like cars; they're given numbers and initials (i.e. YZ250F), and each manufacturer has their own way of identifying each model. There are generally four categories of dirt bikes: motocross, trail (competitive), trail (beginner dirt bikes), dual-sport bikes, and trials bikes. For simplicity's sake we're only going to look at motocross bikes and trail bikes, but the abbreviations work the same for the dual sport and trials bikes. They all use a letter/number combination to identify the bike's characteristics and category. The initials tell you the manufacturers' model, the number is the engine's cubic centimeter displacement, and any other letters denote additional bike characteristics.
Fortunately, most manufacturer's websites will have the bikes listed by category (i.e., motocross, off-road, trail, competition, etc.), which will make your research easier. The other clue is the price - beginner bikes run from about $3100 for the 125cc bikes to $4599 for the full-size bikes. The competitive bikes start at around $7k and go up from there, so if the bike you're looking at has an MSRP of $8100, it's probably not a beginner's bike. There's a method to the model naming madness so let's look at some examples to help you decide which dirt bike to buy:
We'll look at the new Honda CRF250F. The 'CRF' tells you it's a Honda four stroke dirt bike, model CRF. Honda's two stroke dirt bikes were called CRs, but Honda doesn't make two strokes anymore so there are only the four stroke CRFs. The number '250' refers to the engine displacement of 250 cubic centimeters (actually 249, but that's not relevant at present). The second 'F' after the 250 indicates it's a beginner's bike. Looking at the CRF250R which is a full-on motocross race bike, or the CRF250RX which is a competitive trail bike, you'll see a different letter after the 250. The 'R' denotes a race bike built for the motocross track, and the 'RX' denotes a race bike built for the trail.
If you look at the smaller CRF125F you'd know it's a four-stroke because of the CRF prefix, the 125 tells you it has a 125cc engine, and it's a beginner bike because of the 'F' after the 125. There's also a CRF125FB which is the same bike only with bigger wheels, so to differentiate it from the CRF125F, Honda named it the CRF125FB with the 'B' denoting the Big-Wheel version.
Each manufacturer has its own letter/number combinations. While Honda uses CRF250R to designate a four stroke motocross bike, Kawasaki uses KX250F, preferring to put the 'F' (four-stroke) designation after the engine displacement number instead of in front of it. Kawasaki still makes the KX100 two-stroke motocross bike (which is an awesome little bike!), and the absence of the letter 'F' after the 100 tells you it's a two-stroke.
Note - As of 2019, Kawasaki decided to drop the 'F' from the KX250F so if you're looking at an pre-2019 model it will be a KX250F, but moving forward in 2020 their 250cc four stroke motocross bike will be a KX250.
The Kawasaki beginner dirt bikes are the KLX140 series. There's the KLX140 which is the smallest beginner bike, the KLX140L which is the same bike only with bigger wheels, and the KLX140G which is a full-size beginner bike. In 2020 Kawasaki has added the KLX 230R and the KLX300R, and both are beginner four stroke bikes.
Like Honda, Suzuki no longer makes two-strokes. Their competition motocross bikes are the RM-Z450 and RM-Z250. The old two-stroke Suzuki motocross bike was simply an RM without the 'Z'. For whatever reason, Suzuki decided to use a 'Z' to denote their four-strokes instead of an 'F'. Suzuki currently offers two trail bikes - the RMX450Z which is a full-size trail bike for more of an intermediate rider, and the beginner-friendly DR-Z125L which will fit smaller adult riders, but there's no Suzuki 250cc beginner trail bike for 2020. There used to be an even smaller DR-Z125, and Suzuki added the 'L' suffix to differentiate the large-wheel model from the small-wheel model. The smaller DR-Z125 has been discontinued but they kept the 125L model designation for the current DR-Z125L model.
Both four-stroke adult beginner bikes from Yamaha are easy to recognize because they start with the TT-R prefix instead of Yamaha's typical YZ prefix. There's the TTR-230 for larger adult riders and the TT-R125LE for smaller riders. There used to be a TT-R125L that had a kickstarter, and when they released the current model with an electric start, they added the 'E' to differentiate the two models. The TT-R 125L has been discontinued and now there's only the TT-R125LE model.
The rest of Yamaha's dirt bikes are made for intermediate to advanced riders but if you look at the model names, they follow a similar convention. The Yamaha four-stroke motocross bike is the YZ250F, and the two-stroke motocross bike is the YZ250 (no 'F'). Yamaha's competitive trail bikes are the YZ250FX and the YZ250X. Dirt bike buyer's pop quiz: Which of those two models do you think is the four-stroke? Yep, the YZ250FX.
Starting to make sense? Told you there was a method to the madness. And just to make things interesting, Yamaha also offers a four-stroke trail bike with yet another prefix - the WR450F and the WR250F which are for intermediate riders, or maybe an advanced beginner rider. The images below show how Yamaha has the bikes listed on their website. The top image shows the competitive bikes listed under 'Cross Country', and the bottom image shows the beginner bikes listed under 'Trail'. As mentioned earlier, most manufacturer's categorize their bikes in a similar way on their websites.
KTM and Husqvarna: (orange) and (white, yellow, blue)
KTM and Husqvarna don't offer beginner bikes but we'll take a quick look at the naming convention anyway. Way back in the day KTM used to be white, then they switched to orange in the mid-'90s. The Husqvarna dirt bikes are mostly white with yellow and blue highlights. KTM has their trail bikes listed under 'Enduro', and Husky has them listed under 'Off-Road' on their respective websites.
Husqvarna makes it very easy to tell their bikes apart. Here's another pop quiz: If you were looking at a TX300 and an FX350 trail bike, which do you think is the two-stroke, and which is the four-stroke? Yep the TX300 (no 'F') is the two stroke and the FX350 is the four stroke. It's the same with their motocross bikes - TC250 and FC250. Pretty straightforward.
KTM isn't quite as simple to sort through because most of their trail bikes have several versions of each model. For instance there's the two-stroke 250 XC that has close-ratio transmission, the 250 XC-W which is a two-stroke with a wide-ratio transmission, the 250 XC-F which you should recognize as a four-stroke model, and the 250 EXC-F which is more of a street-legal (in some States) four-stroke enduro bike. We'll cover KTM and Husqvarna in a future article.
Stick with it
You're the only one that can answer the 'Which dirt bike should I buy' question so if it still seems confusing, stick with it and the model names will start to make sense. If you need more info about adult beginner dirt bikes, you can check out our Beginner Dirt Bikes (125cc-140cc) article, Kawasaki 140G article, or TT-R230 vs. CRF250F article.