Gixxer, Downsized: Suzuki’s New 2018 GSX250R

By Fish, with Max Klein
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba
Rider: Max Klein

Of all the bikes to be handed post mini-moto race weekend, it had to be the baby Gixxer. Fresh off my race-bred TT-R125, the 2018 GSX250R had a fighting chance to not feel slow.

If you read CityBike with any regularity, you know I’m not as much of small bike enthusiast as some of the crew, unless it’s got dirt wheels attached to it. I’m also openly biased against sport bikes, so the smallish Suzuki was facing tough odds against winning my love, or even my tolerance.

But the littlest Gixxer is not actually all that little. Rider accommodations are surprisingly roomy, to the point of being big enough for a passenger. The seat offers room to move fore and aft, even. The ergonomics are not particularly aggressive, but they do facilitate proper sportbike body language. Editor Surj complained of his shoulders blocking the rearview mirrors bit, but I found them to be some of the better fairing-mounted mirrors I’ve experienced.

In fact, the entire rider interface is a good blend of function and quality. I’ve always considered Suzuki as a company to be one of the better executors of well-balanced cost and quality, and the GSX250R is a good example of that: fit and finish is excellent for the price point, and our black bike had an aggressive, real-deal sporting look to it, especially to unjaded, non-moto-journo eyes. The LCD panel adds a touch of modernity that’s mostly been confined to more expensive bikes until now, and there’s even an included tool kit that, while spare, is one of the better OEM kits we’ve seen in modern times.

In the world of entry-level beginner bikes, a grizzled and jaded old timer like me has low expectations of budget motorcycles’ chassis. More specifically, I expect bikes at this low, low price point ($4,499) to have a pogo stick shock mated to an al dente pasta fork. But this is where the Suzuki won me over.

The rear includes a preload adjustment, although it’s a bit of a pain to adjust—the owner’s manual recommends that the battery be removed. It’s possible to get around that requirement via some swearing and busted knuckles, but we’d be happier if we could just adjust the preload without any drama or disassembly. We set it to max (not Klein), and found it well-sprung and damped. I’m a 6-foot tall, 200-pound adult, and the GSXR chassis works reasonably well for me.

The old “riding a slow bike fast” adage does apply here. In order to keep a spirited pace, you really have to conserve momentum. It’s not the lightest of the 250-300cc sportbike class, at 392 pounds, but its pork is well-placed and the bike behaves well when you get it rolling.

Interestingly, it sports a long-ish wheelbase at 56.29 inches. For comparison, the 2018 GSX-R600 is substantially shorter, at 54.5 inches. The length does make for a forgiving, comfortable, and stable ride. Turn-in is still crisp and feedback is sufficient. The overall package is confidence-inspiring and genuinely fun.

So, here’s where I drop the bomb. The GSX250R is the heaviest and lowest displacement bike in this genre. It’s quite low on power by almost any measure, which means that you have to be on your game with line choice and braking points if you want to ride it quickly. This may not be a concern for a new rider, but it certainly is for someone riding a new rider’s bike quickly.

The 248cc, SOHC cam P-Twin is quite smooth, which encourages you to hang out near the 10,500 rpm rev limiter. That’s right where you need to be, if you want to extract the most from the bike. The transmission and clutch enable this task well—the six-speed box has well-matched ratios, and the light clutch pull facilitates quick shifting up and down. It wouldn’t be fair to call the powerplant disappointing, but I did occasionally long for more umph in the hills.

Suzuki calls this a global bike, which is corporate talk for something like, “We didn’t want to make a special engine for the US market.” That decision leaves the baby Gixxer in the dust when it comes to drag racing, but does still give the US market another option in the beginner sporty-bike segment.

The other bikes seeking attention here are Yamaha’s $4,999 YZF-R3, Honda’s $4,699 CBR300R, and the venerable, $4,999 Kawasaki Ninja 300. The Suzuki is the only bike that’s not available with ABS, which of course adds $300 to the price of the other models. Manufacturers seem to think the entry-level sporty-bike market wants ABS, which is arguably a benefit for new riders. It may put the GSX250R at a competitive disadvantage to not offer it as an option.

While “Sweet Gixxer, bro” Suzukis have long been seen as the bike of choice for the worst of the worst anti-social sportbiker behavior, the baby GSXR seems to be the most sane and grown-up of the small sportbikes. It doesn’t make a particularly strong case for itself on paper, but the spec sheet doesn’t do it justice. Suzuki has shown a lot of forethought with the choice in spring rates, damper settings, material choices, and overall construction. This beginner bike, like the others in its class, is less disposable than the 250s of old, and offers more than just a learning experience.

Fish says he’s not a small bike fan, but ask him what he just bought. Never mind, we’ll just tell you: a CRF250L Rally. And what about that time with the Grom?

Max: Just Right?

I first laid eyes on the GSX250R back in 2016, at IMS Long Beach. I thought it a little odd that Suzuki chose a 250cc displacement when Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha, and hell, even KTM had gone to 300+ power plants. But my confusion was overshadowed by my excitement for another sporty entry level option, and I waited patiently for our turn to ride one.

Unlike Fish, I love little bikes. I started racing on a Ninja 250, continued with a Ninja 300 and spent some time on a 450 and a 500. I have taken a stock R3 to the track, and both the Duke and RC390. There are few things more giggle-tastic than holding the throttle of a little bike wide open in sixth gear and blowing by a guy on a liter bike through a fast corner (like turn 1 at Thunderhill), especially when they passed you like a pedestrian 15 seconds earlier.

Suzuki is quite adamant that the GSX250R is meant to carry on the tradition of the Katana, and should not be confused with the Gixxer line. That makes perfect sense to me after spending a little time on it. Just sitting on it, I got the impression that it was a mild mannered, beginner-friendly-yet-still-fun machine and not a flat-bill-check-out-the-rev-limiter Gixxer, although that won’t stop us from throwing around the Gixxer designation. The low seat height, taller bars, and less aggressive pegs were a nice contrast to the sportbike styling.

The first thing I noticed about the li’l fella once I started rolling was just how planted it feels. Turn-in is easy and it holds a line—any line—for as long as you ask it to. I actually got off the thing up at The Wall to double-check that I hadn’t been riding a different bike. Nope—the typically-spindly 250-300cc class fork immediately verified that I’d arrived aboard the GSX250R.

As Fish said, it’s a longer wheelbase, but not so long as to fuck with the handling. Any shorter and I don’t think it would have been as manageable, any longer it would have not been any fun. It’s a good compromise for a machine that has two potential personalities: new rider and low-power track bike.

Brakes are not great, even by entry level standards, but they stop well enough to reveal that the fork is a little bit spongier than I’d first thought. The two-piston, single-disc front and single-piston rear always got the job done, and under emergency or even late braking I often experienced a bit of front end dive. I’d sure love a second disc (on any of the bikes in this class), but the suspension would need to be swapped out as well. But overall, Suzuki seems to have channeled their inner Goldilocks and made things just right.

The motor is mild-mannered and surprising buzz-free, even when you’re winding out sixth gear on the freeway, at a whopping 85 mph. It’s so smooth that I caught myself looking for 7th gear more times than I can count—partly because the shift light warns, “Up! Up!” at 82 mph.

The 250 engine is based on an existing platform, but changed enough that I have to wonder why Suzuki stopped short of bumping it to 300cc. Roller rocker arms, a new cam profile, new intake valves, new piston ring shape, and a special oil retention honing on the cylinder are all great improvements, but if Aprilia can turn a 750 into a 900, surely Suzuki could have figured out how to gain an extra 50 ccs. For whatever reason, they decided that Baby Bear’s bed was comfy enough.

Sadly, I did not get to wring the neck of the Tiny ‘Tana at the track. I think it would have been a fun machine out there, even with my 200-pound frame on it. There’s no way it will be a competitive race bike given the aforementioned displacement advantages of every other manufacturer, especially true now that Kawasaki, the OG in little bike madness, has moved on from the Ninja 300 up to a 400.

It will probably still be a good-enough track bike for those just getting their feet wet, or even for some fast guys to really embarrass Gixxer Thou-wow-mounted noobs in the corners. As a beginner street bike it’s surprisingly good, probably the best set up out of the box little bike I have ever ridden. If only it could get out of its own way.

This story originally appeared in our February 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

Max is the SF chapter Director of the AFM. He dares Suzuki to prove him wrong on the whole “not a competitive race bike” thing by sending us a GSX250R to race for a season.