You will all be pleased to know there is now a new segment of motorcycling called Sport Heritage. And there are beards involved, and probably grinders. But there are also very good motorcycles involved, and very good motorcycles tend to make the world a much better place.
As does heritage. So the fact that Yamaha is celebrating its 60th anniversary and laying claim to a rich “heritage” makes me feel a trifle old about the heritage areas myself.
But Yamaha does indeed have a rich motorcycling heritage, and it has every right to make that claim.
A big part of that heritage has been its iconic XS range, which first saw the light of day in 1968, after Yamaha purchased Showa in 1960. Showa had previously bought a company called Hosk, which first produced a SOHC 500 twin in 1955 and later made a the 650 version, which eventually evolved into the XS650 under Yamaha’s ownership.
It was one of the most advanced upright parallel twins engines of its time. While everyone else was making either pre-unit donks with separate engines and gearboxes, or unit engines which had to have their crankcases split vertically, Yamaha’s XS was a unit construction item which split horizontally and made it easier to assemble and maintain.
The XS650 went on to find racing glory with Kenny Roberts in the saddle kicking up dirt all over the AMA pro dirt racing circuit.
In the years that followed, Yamaha produced many and bigger variants under the XS badge, culminating in the glorious shaft-driven XS1100, which contested podiums against Gixxers and GPZeds every weekend on public roads around Australia.
The XS model line has been in abeyance for a while now, but it has resurfaced for 2016 with two models, both of which are based almost entirely on Yamaha’s very successful and hugely able MT range – specifically the MT-09 triple and the MT-07 twin.
Which brings me to the bearded elephant in the room.
It is impossible, in the context of this review, not to mention the Hipster. After all, Yamaha has created a niche for the XSRs within its model ranged called ‘Hipstar, so it’s pretty obvious where these models are aimed.
Yamaha is the second major manufacturer to turn its gaze upon a market (if it is indeed a market) still considered by most motorcyclists as something more akin to a craft beer-flavoured fashion show with beards.
Two years ago, BMW launched its BMW RnineT, and spent most of its marketing budget targeting hipsters. How successful it was can only be measured by the amount of hipsters riding around on tricked-up RnineTs, and I have no way of measuring that.
I spoke to Stephen Broholm at the XSR launch. Stephen has been involved in the hipster scene since its inception, and is part of the team that runs the hugely popular Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, Throttle Roll and most recently the marketing for the Barry Sheene Classic. He rides an old pseudo-chopped old XS and a more recent FJ1200 to which he’s fitted knobby tyres. I like Stephen. He is earnest and well-intentioned. And since he is neck-beard deep in the Hipster paradigm, there was no-one better to speak to about the market the XSRs are aimed at.
“Tell me, so I am clear, what this hipster motorcycle thing is all about for you. When did it begin?” I asked.
“I started riding bikes because I could not afford to run my old V8 F250. I couldn’t afford a new bike so I bought an old one and started customising it.”
“I get that. So buying new bikes is not where it is for you and your scene?”
Stephen pondered this for a second.
“No, not really. We like the old stuff.”
“So you would not buy a new XSR?”
And fair play to him, his mates and to the marketing gurus who see them as a market.
Let them do as they do and be as they may be. Their stylings and caperings are of no concern to me.
What concerns me is the rightness and integrity of the XSR as a motorcycle. To whom and how it’s marketed is incidental to its abilities for people who want to ride them hard, fast and handsome.
Which is pretty much how they should be and actually can be ridden.
The two XSRs come off a great platform, and are consequently hard to fault. The MT-09 and MT-07 are wonderful bikes and amazing value for money if you’re on a tight budget. Despite this, there is nothing cheap about them, or the two new XSRs. The XSRs, in fact have less plastic bits and more aluminium bits than the MTs. They weigh a touch more as a result, but not so’s you’d actually notice.
I like them both, for different reasons, but I am quite taken with the 900. Not so much by its looks, which are a purely subjective thing. Like Yamaha, I see the XS900 as a canvas upon which I could paint a masterpiece.
In its stock form it looks rather bitsy and seems to be saying ‘take this off and throw it in the bin’ or ‘replace this as soon as you can with something made out of polished venom’. The XSR700 occupies the same state of readiness for my jaded eyes.
But this is precisely Yamaha’s intent. These bikes are not meant to remain stock.
Happily the good bits are already there. The 900’s crossplane motor with its 270-degree crank is just superb. It happily revs hard to its 11,200rpm redline, and is all about mid-range and bottom-end grunt. The engine is itself is light and very narrow – a man might feel he’s sitting on one of them fancy Italian twins if he didn’t know better.
Lane-splitting in heavy traffic is a doddle. The XSRs are wafer-slim and get off the lights quick, thanks to the perfect clutch take-up.
Both bikes share their respective MT counterparts’ frames.But the suspension is actually better on the XSR900 than on the MT-09. The springs are stiffer at both ends, and adjustable for rebound and preload on the rear and rebound on the front.
There is now a slipper clutch on the XSR900, as well as Yamaha’s D-Mode engine mapping system, which is changeable on the fly. There is B mode, which is fluffy and soft and nice about the throttle. Then there is Standard mode, which seems perfectly reasonable, and probably the mode a normal person would use the most. And then there’s A mode. You want a light-switch throttle response? Then A mode is for you. I tried it in heavy morning traffic and decided very quickly it was not for me.
I left in in Standard and therein lay my happy place. And my happy place was quick and smooth. The only time I put it in A mode was when there was a podium at stake in the Royal National Park. My heritage jelly was thrilled to bits at how hard it came on the gas out of bends.
Thus is the XSR900 a joy to ride. The package is very complete. I didn’t find myself wishing for more of anything, and it would be impossible to find a better-handling bike in that price range.
Much the same can be said of the smaller XSR700 twin. It’s so well-mannered, it’s like a Pommy schoolchild raised by monks. It wants to please you all the time, no matter how outlandish your requests might be.
Yamaha also seem to have more pull with their boffins and beancounters back in Japan than the other manufacturers. We benefit by scoring a special tune for the XSR700 designed for our LAMS market, which delivers a great ride and power delivery. It’s done properly, not just fitted with a restrictor plate in a throttle body or throttle stop.
If there’s a better LAMs bike on the market, I do not know what it is. Sure, a 1979 Shovelhead comes close if you want something that will teach you how to ride and cry at the same time, but if you’re just starting out, the XSR700 will delight and impress out of the box – because it does exactly what it says on the box.
It has a friendly seat height (Sure, neither of them have seats you wanna spend long hours in, but they are otherwise ergonomically sound), and is quite light, so you only have to think it into corners. And once it’s in the corner, it is very well behaved and predictable. The odd bit of uneven bitumen doesn’t unsettle it, which is nice to know if you’re just learning how to deal with our roads.
When you get the hang of it, your corner speeds will be the envy of blokes on much bigger-capacity bikes. Yes, you can be THAT L-plater.
The motor is strong and willing and shares the 270-degree crank arrangement with the 900, so it makes its power lineally and abundantly. Having 39kW at 8000rpm and 57.5Nm at 4000rpm at your Learner-fisted command is a great and good thing. Sure, they might smash you out of corners, but you will certainly be there in the bends if you practice hard enough.
It’s good to see Yamaha leveraging new models off its MT base. Like I said, it’s a great base to do that off, and I’m hearing all kinds of things about an MT-based Adventure bike in the wings.
I am also very pleased the XS range has been resurrected. Sure, it’s a bit of a fashion thing in terms of how it’s being marketed, but the fact a factory is providing bikes it encourages you to change to suit yourself is no small thing. It’s actually quite a beaut thing. Just like the XSR.
The 700 is quite the ideal LAMs bike and the 900, with its slipper clutch and variable rider modes is a bit of a weapon in its own right.
Two more kicks right between the goalposts by Yamaha.
Breaking out the bling….
Yamaha wants you to make the XSRs uniquely yours. There are a large range of optional extras, which I’ll get to in a sec, but the cleverest idea was to make the aluminium tank panels removable. And once you remove them, you can paint them, buff them, put stickers on them, vinyl wrap them, or even get the Yamaha 60th anniversary yellow-and-black panels and stick them on. You can always buy lots of them, and make your bike look different every day of the week.
The XSR 900 list of genuine Yamaha aftermarket goodies is long, and includes a cool seat-cowl, a seat made from ‘ultra suede’, three different Akrapovic exhaust systems, a carbon-fibre headlight cowl, a canvas tool roll and saddlebags with brackets. There are also radiator covers, clutch levers, risers, bar-end mirrors, two different screens, footrests, and an assortment of blingy bits.
The XSR700’S list of goodies is even vaster, and its subframe is easy to take off, even without a grinder. You have four exhaust options, two seat options, two screen options, and an array of billet bling. If you’re looking for that scrambler effect, there are fork boots, stickers, handguards, as well as aluminium sidecovers, a front competition number screen, and rubber tank pads.
Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.
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