I lashed a dry bag to the rack on the tail and let out a sigh.
I was heading out on a company-sponsored trip to go ride off-road on a beautiful BMW F 800 GS. I had a day off from office work, a merry jaunt planned that included camping and beer, and there was just one little thing wrong: I had to leave the XSR behind.
Over the period of a few short days, I had begun finding all manner of excuses to take the XSR out for “testing.” Need to bring a bunch of stuff somewhere? Skip the truck, lash it to the Yam. Raining? I need to see how the tires do in wet weather. Wife wants to take a ride? #whynotXSR. The XSR has shortcomings, but the bike was simply endearing. If the XSR900 had a tail, it would wag a lot.
Yamaha gave me quite an earful about the XSR on the press launch. Apparently the bike has “neo-retro styling” and it uses “authentic materials” like aluminum. (In an effort to appear professional, I suppressed my urge to ask what materials would be “inauthentic.”) The XSR is a derivative of Yam’s 2014 smash hit, the FZ-09. The bikes share plenty of underpinnings, most notably the 847 cc three-cylinder engine that motivates them.
Yamaha classifies this bike as a “sport heritage” machine, and I think that’s actually a legitimate claim. The 750 triples (which were later 850s) were the biggest four-stroke bikes Yamaha had made until that time, and the first bikes they made with more than two cylinders. They were a response to the then-superbike CB750. The triples were late to the game by seven years. They were down on power, and a bit heavier than other bikes on the market, like the Kaw Z1 or the ‘Zuk Water Buffalo.
But, like the current XSR, those bikes were well thought out. The triple was narrower than a four-cylinder and made for a better-handling bike. Alloy wheels were standard in a time when that was a brand-new innovation. Triple discs were standard. The XS series was — and is — the thinking man’s version of a sporty machine.
Yamaha triples weren’t the fastest bike you could buy way back when, and today's XSR ain’t either, but they are some of the most rideable. XSR’s claimed 115 horsepower hardly makes it a heavy hitter in the power wars, especially at 430 pounds. wet. Electronic doodads like traction control and multiple throttle modes (D-Mode), though, are a nice standard addition to a conservatively priced bike ($9,490 for Matte Grey). Those inclusions are reminiscent of the early triples. The bike offers a neutral riding pose because its controls are only modestly set to the rear and it wears a wide handlebar with a mild rise. “Sport heritage,” in this case, is code for “fun standard bike that’s good for riders who don’t give a rip about a spec sheet.”
Testing the XSR
The XSR is a lively standard bike. Because of that, piling real-world miles onto the bike was not difficult. In San Diego, the first thing I noticed before I even put a key in the iggy was its height. Too many of the “hip” bikes kowtow to the new rider: They look the business, but they make no power and they have low seats, courtesy of crappy suspensions and engines so n00bs feel in control. That ain’t the case with the XSR. It’s good and tall, with a seat height of nearly 33 inches. (That’s half an inch closer to the sky than the FZ-09.)
The sliding stop-start switch is a bit different from standard switchgear. It’s a bit gimmicky, and I think I’d prefer a true rocker switch, but it’s intuitive. Before the bike purred to life, the neat, bright instrument dial grabbed my attention. There’s a lot of information packed intelligibly into a small area. I’m a huge fan of analog needles, but for a digi-dash, this one ain’t bad. The screen is bright, which I feel makes a big difference in its usability. Unlike other dashes I’ve suffered with, this one does not wash out in bright sunlight. The converse of that, though, is it must be dimmed at night, a process that is a minor pain in the ass, and you can’t actually get it dim enough to not cause glare. First-world problems, right?
Most of the miles I put on this bike were of the commuting variety. My commute is a bit extreme — about 70 miles each way. It’s actually great for bike testing, because I get some tortuous backroads, a big serving of highway, and also a little bit of gritty city; it’s a very well rounded route, considering it’s not handpicked.
The FZ-09, XSR’s relative, was praised for its engine and bang-for-the-buck, largely due to the powerplant. On paper, a triple makes sense. It would seem to offer the low-end oomph of a parallel twin with some of the upstairs power of an inline four. In real life, it works exactly like that. The engine is a sweetie. It sounds good, it behaves well, it has the right amount of power. I’m one of those fruitcakes who values torquey engines over ones that make a snotload of horsepower. Yam’s triple basically comes online at 3,000 rpm and pretty much stays there ‘til the five-digit redline. Seriously, the torque curve is flatter than a flapjack. Short shift it, wring it out, it doesn’t matter. If you’re not idling, you’re in the sweet spot. Thanks to that engine, this bike blows the doors off the retro competition. Imagine a bike that's somewhere between a Triumph Street and Speed Triple but wearing Bonneville clothes. XSR is Uncle Drew.
The six-speed trans is stereotypical Yamaha sportbike: crisp clicks up and down the range and positive-feeling shifts. Lovely. The slipper/assist clutch is a boon to have and means you can have your cake and eat it, too — downshift with aplomb, yet enjoy light clutch action. (I was actually practicing for weekend excursions in the dirt on a different bike. Most of the time I was testing the XSR I ran the bike with two fingers on the levers!)
The bike gets down the road just like you’d expect a potent — yet relaxed — motorcycle to. The handling is reasonably predictable, but the front end will get light (or airborne!) if you’re throttling away without traction control in Mode 2, the equivalent of a “rain” setting. Kudos to Yam for spec’ing this thing out with real tires. The Bridgestone S20 Evos took everything I threw at them in rain or shine, though I wasn’t pushing too much in the wet. Short of going to a track, I couldn’t make these tires fail. In better than the 2,000 miles I rode this bike, wear was sufficient. Factory tires that aren’t awful. What a novel concept!
Suspension is commensurate with the cost of the bike. Both ends of the bike’s suspenders are adjustable in terms of rebound and preload. I left all settings at Yamaha’s “standard” recommendations with the exception of the front rebound, which I eventually set to their “hard” setting (one click out from maximum). The ride was taut, but I was also riding this bike like… like a dickhead. Shoring up the front end (that pogoed under my weight) made the XSR slightly harder to wheelie, but way faster through corners. With the bike set up soft, I could love-tap the brakes and bring up the bike in second gear with the engine. After firming up the front, I had to use the handlebars to pull it up, but it would boogie through the turns as fast as I needed it to for non-competition use. Let’s be realistic, though. This bike has suspension that’s never going to see the track, and this is light-years better than the FZ-09 fork. Any bike that can deal with 275 pounds of very angry man crushing it is OK in my book.
Braking was better than average, but the XSR’s cost definitely must be considered. The brakes are plenty adequate in terms of efficacy for all street situations I encountered. Feel, however, could be improved. My suspicion is that the pads on here are pretty good, but the rubber hoses are numbing some of the feedback from the dual 298 mm rotors up front. True feel-o-philes might take umbrage with them. Another thing I noted (that didn’t bother me but might bother some of you) was the ABS cycling. Lord, is it noticeable. It might be the most conspicuous of any bike I’ve ever ridden. It’s not overly obtrusive in terms of when it activates, but when it’s kickin’, you know all about it. Still, though, even when stamping my hoof on the rear disc (245 mm disc out back), I could not get the tires to so much as chirp. Long story short: great stoppers, slightly above-average feel.
The bike is so much fun to ride. I feel like it took 10 years off my riding age! The bike was playful enough to keep me hooked the entire time we had it. The XSR delivered the goods. If you consider the price, I’d even go so far as to say it overdelivered.
This may sound strange, but this section will be really short. Not because I didn’t like the bike, but because I did! The XSR is a parts-bin special. The taillight is from a Bolt. The turn signals sure look like R6/FZ6 units. The running gear is FZ-09. But it all works. I don’t need my bike to be shiny and new and special, I need it to get me from A to B. The seat is crazy comfy, the suspension and brakes do a bang-up job for economically chosen items, and the electronics work well and are simple enough for a caveman like me to use and enjoy. And the bike doesn’t even hit five figures price-wise.
Another up for the XSR was a gee-gaw I normally would sniff at: the assist-and-slipper clutch. It uses three springs to the FZ-09’s five, and the lighter clutch is both noticeable and appreciated. It’s another nicety that makes the XSR feel like you're getting a little more than your money's worth.
The biggest highlight for me was the fact that this bike is a sleeper. I look like I’m on some poky form-over-function machine, but here’s the thing: the XSR hauls the mail. I rode with some folks who didn’t have a clue what kind of oomph the XSR is packing. In a sane street scenario, the XSR has all the guts you need, and looks a little less flamboyant than most of the other packages containing this kind of giddy-up.
I penned an article telling y’all how I review bikes, and a recurring request was more information on fuel usage. I had the XSR for long enough to really research it, so this is my attempt to give you, Dear Readers, what you asked for. Consider this beta testing of the concept.
XSR’s manual calls for 91 octane-rated gas. (AKI, technically.) Premium fuel, ugh. Now, I’ve been known to deviate from OEM recommendations from time to time. There may or may not be av-gas in my chainsaw. I paid more attention than usual to the gas situation on the XSR and put all sorts of crap in the tank. Results were mixed. Even on hot days, I had no pinging, so I assume the computer electronically retarded the ignition if detonation began occurring. I certainly didn’t feel any power loss in the seat of my pants, so perhaps the XSR could get by on cheaper fuel. I’m not recommending it, just musing.
|Fuel Type||Indicated MPG||Actual MPG|
Most of my complaining about the XSR is really very petty. The hole in the rear fender for the taillight is enormous; it will make swapping fenders or taillights more difficult than it should be. The maroon seat makes changing the bike’s color a pain without a reupholstery job to join it. That display is a bit too bright, as I mentioned earlier. To be quite frank, the only real complaints I have with the XSR are aesthetic. I’m probably not the intended market for this machine, so my opinion is probably somewhat irrelevant. However, I think the styling is effete. I will say, though, Yam could slather that speed block paint all over an AG200 and I’d still line up to pay.
Functionally, I wish the XSR had the wasp waist the FZ-09 wears. It’s hard to dig your knees into the XSR’s wide tank, and if you do, the tank covers bite into your thighs. I guess that slimming the tank might cut into the already-shitty range. All in all, I cannot complain loudly about the XSR. The smile-to-dollar ratio is pretty damn high.
I get that the marketing is not aimed at people like me, so I can let that slide, but one thing I cannot is the timing cover, which bears the inscription "CP3", presumably for "Crossplane Triple." This irks me to no end. Is Yam's crossplane four innovative and awesome? You betcha. But the truth of the matter is that all triples with an even firing order are inherently "crossplane" crank engines. That little bit of marketing hype makes me irrationally mad.
The fuel gauge on the Yammer sucks. First, it has four sections. Just four. So if you see a bar disappear, you know how much fuel is there, but if you miss it, you could be off by a quarter of a tank. That is extra important because the bars, which one would assume measure the tank in quarters, don’t do such a thing. The second and third bars vanish quickly. Conversely, the first and last quarter of the tank do not. I discovered I could ride up to 50 miles before that first bar would indicate any fuel was gone. That’s sort of a problem for a bike with a 3.7-gallon tank! (That includes the three-quarter-gallon reserve.) The farthest effective tank I ever got was 130 miles before seeing the fuel gauge flashing at me. Again, that’s Lem-lem riding. Mixed highway and city, and a mixture of behaving and being a buffoon. I’m sure a hyper-miler or someone who paid attention to the little “Eco” symbol that occasionally flashed on the dash could beat it, but in a real-world scenario, you better start thinking about fuel after you make triple digits.
Speaking of which, the “Eco” indicator acted like it was affected only by the throttle position and vehicle speed in a given gear. If I got my wrist into the throttle too much or exceeded 77 mph in top gear, the Eco indicator would go out, indicating that I was being a filthy fuel waster. Oh well. Another dashboard oddity was the reserve counter. When the computer flips you into reserve, a separate tripmeter opens up. (Trip “F,” which I can only assume means “fuel,” or, in the event you can’t find any, “f*ck!”) Here’s where it gets hairy: it counts up. No idea why. I never got beyond three or five miles on it, but it was strange to see this bike telling me how far I had gone, as opposed to how far I could go. I guess realism beats optimism.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the FJ/FZ series of motorcycles had undergone four technical service bulletins (TSBs) relating to the cam chain tensioner. This article has been corrected. Only two TSBs have been issued, but the part has undergone four revisions.
The turd in the XSR’s punch bowl is the timing chain tensioner. Two technical service bulletins (TSB) on the tensioner on FJ/FZ bikes have been issued. Clicking and premature parts wear seems to be the the best-case scenario in the event a bike has a faulty unit. At least one rider on a forum is claiming a faulty CCT lunched his motor. I’ve looked into the issue at great length, and even gone so far as to exchange emails and phone calls with a Yamaha engineer who’s very close to the topic. I’m not an engineer, but I’ll tell you this much: I would absolutely trust the XSR engine — right after I installed an APE manual CCT, which you can get from my good buddy over there at Stoltec Moto.
Competition for the XSR ($9,490 or $9,990 for 60th Anniversary yellow) depends on what the rider prizes. If a sporty triple-powered machine is the requirement, Yam’s own FZ-09 ($8,190) gives you basically the same engine for less money, and the Triumph Speed/Street Triples ($13,200/$9,400) are other options. The XSR sits between the Triumphs in terms of power. A rider looking for a retro-styled naked, however, could be taking a gander at the Scrambler Ducati ($8,895), BMW R nineT ($15,095), Moto Guzzi V7 Stone ($8,990) or one of Triumph’s Modern Classics ($11,500 and up), depending on how well-heeled he or she is. Of course, this rider may just be considering an affordable sporty bike with comfy ergos that’s not a race-rep, in which case the XSR is pitted against the likes of the Kawasaki Z800 ($8,399), Suzuki GSX-S750 ($7,999), or maybe a Honda CB1000R ($11,760). There are many competitors. Why? Because it’s a bike with wide appeal that riders of many ages and experience levels can identify with.
The XSR made me happy to ride. I’m glad I was able to spend so long on this motorcycle. Simply put, if I needed this hole in my arsenal filled, I would gladly plunk down the asking price for the XSR. And that's one of the best things I can say about a motorcycle.