We, as riders, all have our favorite types of motorcycles to ride. For some, it’s tucked down low over a fuel tank, screaming down the front straight of the local track. For others, it’s the shaking rumble below and in front of them as they devour the miles cruising down the open road. For others, it’s all in the enjoyment of small, nimble motorcycles that can be a great distraction from the stresses of life in an empty parking lot on the weekends.
However, one of the most common types of motorcycles that many riders around the world ride are off-roaders. The types and varieties of off-road bikes are mind-boggling, and range from high-performance motocross and supercross bikes, to mile-munching endurance adventure bikes, to balanced in-between enduro style bikes. What matters, however, is that all of them are ready to get dirty and have some fun in the mud.
For this list, we’re going to be looking at some of the best off-road bikes you can buy, either new models or continuing models, in 2021. A special note here is that while many adventure bikes are road tourers that are touted as being able to handle “light off-road use,” any that we mention below are the ones that have a proven record of being proper off-road bikes.
Best Motocross 2-Stroke: 2021 Husqvarna TC125 MX
The 125cc two-stroke motocross class is one of, if not the, most popular class in dirt circuit competition. It is only fitting, then, that having a bike designed to tackle pretty much any banked corner, whoop, or tabletop is paramount. Husqvarna (owned by KTM) has the TC125 MX, just such a bike.
A high-revving, low-weight (just 38 lbs!) 125cc single chucks out a hell of a lot of torque and more than decent horsepower. Mounted in a chrome-moly steel frame, with a carbon fiber rear subframe, the entire bike weighs just 192 lbs dry, with an 8L fuel tank. With a Brembo wet multi-disc hydraulic clutch and Brembo brakes both front and rear, with WP competition suspension, and a 38mm flat slide Mikuni TMX carburetor, the TC125 MX doesn’t play around.
This is a serious competition bike, for everything from practicing at the local dirt track, to flying across the finish line at the World Championships, and everything in between.
Best Supercross 4-Stroke: 2021 Kawasaki KX450
The 2021 Kawasaki KX 450 is pretty much in a league of its own in the world of supercross. Kawasaki has more wins and has had more championship riders on their 450’s than any other manufacturer since the 450SX class was introduced, and if that isn’t telling enough, then the fact that they come pretty much from the factory ready to race is another huge point.
The 449cc four-stroke single is liquid-cooled, and chucks out a beefy 33 lb-ft of torque and about 53 HP, for a bike that weighs 246 lbs wet. A rough and ready 5-speed transmission gets the bike motivated, and the 21-inch front, 18 inch rear wheels ensure performance and handling. As well, being the “non-competition” version of the bike, it has an electric starter. And that, really, is the only difference at first bluish from the actual 450SX bike.
Best Trail: 2021 Yamaha TT-R230
For years now, Yamaha has been known as one of the best sportbike makers from Japan. However, they also develop and produce some of the best non-competition off-road bikes specifically designed to make trail riding as enjoyable as possible. The 2021 TT-R230 is just one such bike, sharing a lot of its DNA with its YZ250F competition motocross cousin.
What makes the Yamaha the best is that it has a superb engine derived from the 249cc competition four-stroke in the aforementioned YZ250F. Coming in at 223cc, it has two valves, a single overhead cam, four-strokes, and provides just about 14 lb-ft of very linear torque at any point in the rev range. Basically, it follows the “keep it stupidly simple” philosophy while also touting fuel injection, reliability, and a nearly bulletproof reputation on the track.
Additionally, being only 250 lbs wet, and coming in at less than $5,000 USD, it is extremely easy to ride, will tackle pretty much any trail, and has a large 2.1-gallon fuel tank for all-day fun.
Best Large Displacement Enduro: 2021 Honda CRF450RX
The 2021 Honda CRF450RX was heavily reworked over the 2020 model, to the point that it can be considered an entirely new evolution. A new frame, moving to a hydraulic clutch, steering and suspension geometry worked on with HRC (Honda Racing Corporation), and a reworked engine management system makes it the superior large displacement enduro for this year.
Part of that engine rework on the 449cc single is a decompression system at very low revs that works to prevent engine stalls when you are rock crawling or using engine braking to assist with a steep downhill. The hydraulic clutch also helps widen the torque and power bands, giving a rider the down low, on-demand torque they want to clear hill lips and larger obstacles.
Best Small Displacement Enduro: 2021 KTM 250 XC-F
It is quite well known that KTM is one of the best manufacturers of off-road machinery in general, and the 2021 KTM 250 XC-F upholds that reputation. While not being the biggest enduro, or the most powerful, what it does have going for it is a superb combination of both lightness and maximized power.
With the 249cc four-stroke single, the engine management system allows on-the-fly map switching through a handlebar switch. This allows for multiple maps for different situations to be programmed, for example, a high-torque, low-HP map for hill climbing, and a balanced map for flat surface riding. The fact it also comes with WP shocks, competition brakes, and a Brembo hydraulic clutch attached to a 6-speed transmission only makes the nearly $10,000 USD asking price worthwhile.
As more than one reviewer that has ridden the bike has commented, it has the lightness of a 250 class enduro, with torque and power that feels well beyond its 250cc engine.
Best High Displacement Off-Road ADV: 2021 KTM 890 Adventure
KTM, for many years, dominated the off-road-capable ADV world with the 790 Adventure, a bike that had everything you needed, and a few things you didn’t know you needed, to be able to cruise both on and off the road. So what did they do for 2021? Gave it a bigger engine, mostly, giving riders the 2021 KTM 890 Adventure.
However, what an engine it is! 889ccs, four-stroke, 8 valves, parallel-twin. 105 HP and 73 lb-ft of torque. It also has a totally reprofiled crank, different springs, redesigned valves, and a better intake system, allowing for the bump in displacement to be outpaced by the bump in performance the bike gains. As well, the engine is now included in the frame as a stress-bearing member of the bike, giving instant throttle response and linear, but not overpowering, torque on demand.
Best Low Displacement Off-Road ADV: 2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan
As much as they are scoffed at, Royal Enfield has really been turning itself around from being a “built cheap, cheap to buy” brand to “inexpensive and impressively well built.” Nothing really demonstrates that quite as much as the little 2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan, a street-smart ADV that will just keep chugging along when the road ends.
Introduced in 2017 to the North American market, demand for the bike made it Royal Enfield’s best-seller year over year. This is keeping in mind that every other Royal Enfield model in the US and Canada are street-only bikes, often with a 500cc or 650cc parallel-twin engine. Yet the Himalayan, with its 411cc, four-stroke, fuel-injected single puts out about 26 HP and just about 26 lb-ft of torque, in a bike that weighs 440 lbs wet. What that little single can do, however, is what sells the bikes.
You will most often hear the Himalayan referred to as “the little tractor,” and it summarizes it in 3 words. It doesn’t give up when going up hills, it can haul an amazing amount of weight in panniers or saddlebags, it has front and rear ABS, and, most importantly for 2021, has a rear-ABS-off switch that doesn’t just disable some functionality. When you hit that switch, the rear ABS is off, which is important when off-road to be able to slide the rear wheel out for tight, technical paths through off-road terrain.
Of note, this was an extremely close decision between the Himalayan and the BMW 310 GS. What eventually won was that the Royal Enfield offered similar power and torque numbers, but crucially had the full ABS disable for the rear wheel, as BMW’s “ABS off” still keeps it partially on, making rear-lock slide turns very difficult.
Best Junior Bike: 2021 Kawasaki KLX 110R/110R L
What do you get when one of the winningest supercross and motocross manufacturers in history designs an all-around dirt bike, that can also handle a few jumps here and there, for older kids and young teens to learn on? You get the 2021 Kawasaki KLX 110R. 112cc of four-stroke fun gives the young rider 7 HP and 6 lb-ft of torque to play around with, which for a 168 lbs bike with maybe another 100 lbs sitting on the seat is quite a bit of grunt. It’s small, but it’s one of the most formidable machines in the 2021 Kawasaki line-up.
The biggest thing is that there is a lateral model, the 110R L. They share the same frame, engine, throttle, but the 110R has a centrifugal clutch automatic, and the 110R L has a proper, left-hand, hydraulically actuated clutch with a four-speed transmission attached. The clutch on both is a wet clutch as well, giving a lot more leniency in shifting than a dry system, allowing the younger rider to learn the feel of shifting at the right revs, something important when you can’t afford to look down at the bike when you’re leaping tabletops later on in your dirt career.
Best Dual-Sport: 2021 Suzuki DR-Z400S
When you look up the term “bulletproof” in the dictionary, you will quite possibly find a picture of the 2021 Suzuki DR-ZX400S next to the definition. This is mostly because it has been produced since cavemen grunted at each other about the bike, and its 398cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke single can quite literally be hit with a sledgehammer and will keep running smoothly.
With 39 HP and 29 lb-ft of torque, this venerable beast will get even the tallest and largest of riders moving on the road, and with a foot of ground clearance, will also be able to carry them over obstacles on trails. It’s that suspension that also gives the DR-Z400S its road manners, known quite well among riders as one of the most agile dual-sports ever made.
These road manners are so well known that, in fact, Suzuki also makes a road-only supermoto version of the bike known as the DR-Z400SM. That version comes with stiffer suspension, more aggressive gearing, and 17-inch wheels and tires for sliding the tail around to your heart’s content!
Best Electric: (Tie) 2021 KTM Freeride E-XC & 2021 Zero FX
2021 KTM Freeride E-XC
KTM, as mentioned before in this article, is known as one of the best off-road manufacturers, and they are also quietly pioneering in a few areas. The 2021 KTM Freeride E-XC is the first electric off-road motorcycle specifically developed for competition, either in Rally-E or Motocross-E. The electric motor in the bike is roughly equivalent to a 125cc engine, with a nominal 24 HP at maximum output, and 18 HP as its cruising output.
With a 3.9 kWh lithium-ion battery, enough juice is on board for a good two or so hours of cross-country riding, or about 45 minutes of hard riding, as in motocross or pure hill climbing. Racing suspension, a quick charge system that can use anything from 110 to 240 Volts, and for 2021, Formula brand brakes have been fitted to give the bike even more stopping power.
2021 Zero FX
Zero is one of the few manufacturers that make only electric bikes, instead of producing both electric and gas-powered variants. As such, they focused their specifications for a dual-sport bike that could transition pavement to dirt without needing any changes in settings. The 2021 FX is pretty much the ultimate distillation of what Zero can put into the dual-sport.
The performance of the FX is nothing to scoff at, despite it being the lowest rung on the Zero bikes ladder. It produces 78 lb-ft of torque from 1 RPM upwards and weighs only 247 lbs if you opt for the 3.9 kWh model. If you go with the 7.2 kWh model, you’ll still be riding a bike that only weighs 289 lbs. With a max speed of 85 MPH, and torque absolutely and completely everywhere on the clutchless direct-drive motor with just one speed, this is a dual-sport that you can ride to the trail, thrash the trail, and then ride home with a grin under your mud-caked helmet.