I don’t believe for one second that I’m the only rider out there that has been waiting for a retro bike to come along with more to offer to offer in the trouser department than roll bottoms and Red Wings. Bar the very expensive BMW R Nine T, retro motorcycling has until now been a bit, limp.
Excess weight and underpowered motors are the enemy of performance but seem to be perfectly palatable ingredients for retrosexual moto fans. Weirdos. When I asked about performance accessories on the Ducati Scrambler launch back in 2014, I was offered a suck on a slip on Akky pipe and that was it. The misconception (in my opinion at least) is that retro bikes are for beginners or the fashion focused and those that actually like going fast couldn’t possibly care about what they look like. It’s complete bollocks, really. Obviously the sales success of these bikes has proved their popularity, but that doesn’t mean a retro bike that could bang out a track day in style wouldn’t be popular as well. After spending a day chasing the sun on this new XSR900, a track is exactly where I wanted to take it.
This bike is not a Ducati Scrambler rival. It’s too punchy, plus Yamaha has the XSR700 for that. I can also save you the hassle of a back-to-back test ride and tell you now that dynamically speaking, it’s also four or five corners ahead of the new Street Twin Triumph as well. What the Yamaha XSR900 most definitely is, is one of the coolest looking ways of going fast since the Sportclassic Ducati a decade ago.
Bigger brother to the XSR700 and better-looking twin to the already very good MT-09, the XSR900 is mechanically blatant, making no visual excuses for borrowing all the bits that matter from the triple cylinder MT-09. Weight is increased by a couple of pints thanks to liberal replacement of plastic with aluminium parts and the bike weighs 195kilos ready to ride. Yamaha has countered the weight gain with some tweaks to the adjustable suspension, firming up both ends slightly. Feet and hands are the same distance apart, but your ass sits 5cm further back and 1.5cm higher than the MT-09, thanks to the longer design of the 14-litre tank. Throw your leg over one on the showroom floor and you’ll think it feels like a playful toy, you’d be thinking along the right lines.
The detail touches that set the XSR700 apart from the MT-07 do the same job on this bike. The circular theme arcs from headlight through clocks, down to engine cases across the exhaust tip and stops at the taillight. Both wheels are also round. The side profile is easier on my eye than the 700 version. It doesn’t feel like the tank sits as high and the seat line is almost horizontal with the tank, important stuff to some, completely irrelevant to others. As I always say, I’m certainly not in a position to tell you whether you like the look of this bike or not, only you can answer that. I think it looks perfect with someone on it. I followed Shun Miyazawa (product manager for Yamaha Europe) for 40kms and the bike looked sweet from every angle. I also rode within touching distance of Chad from tree murdering MCN, while he wheelied the XSR for ages and it looked even better. Reminded me of an XJR1300 one minute and an RD350 the next, they’ve done a bang on job of blending authentic style with modern usability, even with that radiator splayed across the front of the frame.
There are different colour options and a fashionable mound of accessories for owners to choose from, all of which offer a warranty friendly way of making the XSR900 your own. You unbolt the bits you don’t like and bolt on the bits you do, no welding or grinding or bloody knuckles. The XSR is the perfect example of modular modification and before I’d even ridden it I was on the hook and ready to be reeled in.
The XSR900 is my hot ticket for 2016. After the tease and promise of staring at it on the sidestand, the ride delivered everything I wanted. The fueling glitch that older MT-09s suffered from has all but disappeared. Of the three riding modes available, A mode still proved to be a touch too sharp for my fancy, but STD and B modes were both useable and enjoyable. I settled on B mode and traction control level one of the two available. Instant torque and lively gearing makes it all too easy to launch the XSR900. Second gear is playful in the mid range but can quite quickly get punchy if you hang onto it into the top end. On a couple of occasions, I found I was riding along with the front wheel completely off the ground, sometimes at 25mph and sometimes at nearly 100mph. It felt like the right thing to do at the time so I went with it, you should too.
With smooth fueling, traction control that doesn’t get in the way and roads that were chewing into the tyres, we set a decent pace across the wind battered landscape of Fuerteventura. Monobloc four-pot brakes felt ideal and had me wondering when I last rode a Yamaha with brakes that didn’t feel perfect. I couldn’t remember. Even when the ABS chimed in, I still felt like control was mine and was happy to carry the front brake into the middle of slower corners before getting back on the gas. The adjustable forks are slightly firmer than the MT-09 and felt great, but would be the first thing I’d upgrade if I owned an XSR9. It’s not that they feel bad, but when we were really getting a lick on, the forks showed themselves to be the weakest link. With a cartridge kit, XSR900 owners really would have a perfectly composed fast group bike. As it is, I’d say this is still one of the quickest and enjoyable sub 100mph bikes you can buy (I know there’s no such category, but if there was…).
We were having a ball, all of us. Even when the road was firing 50mph stones into my lip, I couldn’t help but smile in my stupid helmet and beard. XSR900 is a feel good bike for sure. Back to my opening gambit though, the Ducati Scrambler is a feel good bike, as is the XSR700. I’ve been waiting for more than feel good from a retro bike, I also wanted to go fast. The XSR900 is a fast bike. 115bhp and 56lb-ft of torque in a 195kilo bike doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but then neither does the phrase ‘horse tranquilisers’. We were flying, wheelies got higher and longer, corner entry speed went up and the XSR was in its element. The first coffee stop on a launch is usually a bit of a tell tale indicator of a bike’s impact. If everyone is quiet and scribbling notes, it usually means the bike is better than expected. That’s exactly what happened with this bike, in between rubbing the stone shaped lump on my lip and checking in with the news back home in blighty. They say that you’ll always remember what you were doing when certain people die. In the case of Terry Wogan, it was about 65mph in second gear, pointing the front tyre at the sun on an XSR900. RIP, Terry.
Chasing faster friends down perfectly surfaced twisting roads in a foreign country, I couldn’t think of a single bike I’d rather be on. Actually that’s a lie. Since I spied the café racer version at the NEC show, I was looking forward to trying it out. The clubman bars, rear sets and humped seat style looked sweet and I was desperate to ride it. I grabbed the keys to the one in our group as soon as I could and was pleasantly disappointed. There was too much of my weight over the front end and the forks were too soft to cope. The bike didn’t really want to turn in and I had to hold its head under water all the way to corner exit to stop it from popping up and running us wide. The Yamaha team said that the bike hadn’t been adjusted to suit the different bars and I agreed. Some tinkering with a cartridge kit would dial it out and it showed some promise, but I jumped back on the regular bike and carried on enjoying the ride. Wind noise stopped me from hearing the exhaust as much as I’d liked, a pipe would no doubt help with that, but as it is it wouldn’t be fair to pass judgment on the sound until I’ve ridden one in the UK.
Repeated riding on one of the corners for video and pictures gave us a chance to get a feel for the updated clutch. Lighter springs meant a 20% lighter action at the lever (claimed), as well smoothing downshifts compared to the MT-09. I know it made doing gearbox skids easy as well, in case that stuff matters to you.
You might well have picked up on the fact that this bike is very good, that’s because it is. I’d happily strap the useless looking brown panniers to this bike and head for the sun for a week of touring, knowing that it’d maintain my attention along the way and wouldn’t break my back after a couple of tanks of fuel. Regardless of style, it feels like a genuinely capable bike, one that made everyone I rode with smile. Who doesn’t want a motorbike that makes you feel like that?
Easy to ride fast or slow, practical, massively capable and good looking, the danger with the XSR900 is that people will see the price and assume there must be something wrong. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this bike, including the price. It’s less than £8k in whichever paint colour catches your eye. I don’t care how Yamaha has achieved this, I’m just glad they’ve done it. If you’re a sports bike rider that has been waiting for a retro bike that can keep pace with your mates, now is the time to strike.
Words: Johnatsuperbike Images: Yamaha