Motorcycle racing was reaching its peak of popularity in Japan during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Suzuki’s legendary GSX-R series played a huge role in that movement, and while the world remembers the original GSX-R750 as the game changer that started the “racebike for the street” design in 1985, the one that really started it all was the Japanese-market GSX-R400 the year before. In fact, the Japanese domestic market was a hotbed of race-replica engineering long before it caught on with the rest of the world. And with licensing restrictions that made it difficult and expensive to own a motorcycle over 400cc, the smaller-displacement machines dominated sales in Japan.
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The 250cc category was another hot seller in Japan, and it wasn’t long before the Big Four OEMs found out that buyers were looking for supersport bikes in that class as well. Thus began a war among the manufacturers to compete for the Japanese public’s fascination with racing in the quarter-liter class. The 1988 Suzuki GSX-R250 is a classic early example of that trend.
Four-stroke, DOHC, inline four-cylinder engines were the only way to show you were serious about the class back then (no simple single or twin-cylinder engines here), and the GSX-R’s powerplant fits the bill. With four tiny valves tucked into each 49mm bore—that’s about the size of a large wristwatch—and a stroke of 33mm, the only way to generate decent power is rpm…lots and lots of it. One look at the Suzuki’s tachometer shows you it’s got plenty of that commodity; the engine redline sits at a dizzying 17,000 rpm. As if to drive that point home about lots of rpm, the tachometer doesn’t even begin reading until 3,000 rpm.
With such a sky-high redline, it’s easy to assume the Suzuki requires massive clutch work to get off the line, but that’s not the case at all. That high-rpm capability means first gear can be kept short to reduce the need for more torque to pull away from a stop, so the GSX-R doesn’t require any more clutch slip than any current small-displacement motorcycle.
Of course, there’s not much torque until the 248cc engine gets spun up to five-figure rpm, and so the Suzuki doesn’t really start pulling hard until 13,500 rpm. Accompanied by a wailing symphony not too far removed from the heralded F1 auto racing era of the early 2000s screaming V-10s, the GSX-R continues its run until around 16,000 rpm when acceleration tails off. This means making time requires some tap-dancing on the shifter to keep the engine on the boil.
The steel square-tube double cradle frame isn’t quite the same as the 750’s aluminum masterpiece, but the swingarm is an extruded aluminum beam piece just like its bigger brothers. Steering geometry is on the conservative side, with a 26-degree rake angle and 103mm of trail providing stability at the cost of some agility, but rest assured that the 53.9-inch wheelbase ensures the little GSX-R’s cornering lines are still plenty tight. The Suzuki’s riding position isn’t full-race like the 750, so the higher-set clip-on bars offer more steering leverage, and the pegs aren’t as high and rearset, so some ground clearance was sacrificed for comfort. Despite the primitive spring-preload-adjustable-only suspension, the chassis is competent enough to easily ramp up cornering speeds to the point where the footpeg tips will touch the ground frequently.
The brakes are one of the few areas where the GSX-R250 comes up short. Apparently not wanting to upset the chassis too much in novice hands, the dual 275mm disc/two-piston slide-pin caliper setup is very numb on feel, and demands a lot of lever pressure for any real stopping power. Although not up to the standards of the rest of the Suzuki, it’s an issue likely easily handled with a good set of aftermarket brake pads (but perhaps finding some to fit a 1988 machine might be difficult).
Another aspect where the GSX-R250 shows its age are the wheel/tire sizes. Although both hoops are 17-inchers, the Suzuki was built when bias ply tires were still the usual fitment, and so the rims are narrow by today’s standards. Both the front 110/70R-17 and rear 140/70R-17 Dunlop GPR-300 radial tires we had fitted on the GSX-R for our track test were pinched over a bit by the narrow rims. While nothing to be concerned about, it shows how performance technology has progressed in the past three decades. And how keeping a 30-plus-year-old motorcycle in safe running condition today has its own set of challenges.
While the market and customer profile of the latest 2019 Suzuki GSX250R and the 1988 GSX-R250 are obviously worlds apart, we can confidently state that the 1988 GSX-R250 is more than a match for its modern counterpart. It shows how much the competition between the Japanese manufacturers during that time drove the engineering design and production manufacturing capabilities of motorcycles to dizzying heights. Racing really does improve the breed. Here’s to the hope that same enthusiasm for racing will someday rekindle itself and bring that same excitement to the smaller-displacement classes.