Yamaha’s XS650 is one of the most popular donor bikes upon which shed and pro-builders impart their creativity, with some truly fantastic results. The engine is arguably one of the most handsome to grace a mass produced motorcycle, has race proven reliability, stacks of heritage and nostalgic charm reminding us of a simpler time when spanners and feeler gauges ruled.
Sticking some water jackets and computer wizidary around this iconic twin in an attempt to get wink and the gun from the polar bear stroking law fudgers in Brussels wasn’t going to wash so Yamaha needed a more modern approach. Luckily their much heralded MT-07 engine sips fuel and gushes character so it seemed an easy job to enter the rose-tinted retro sector. Cobble together an XS650 look-a-like, come up with a clever marketing strategy and then sit back and await hoards of hipsters waving their hand-crafted, hemp wallets.
So there we go, the XSR700, an MT-07 prettied-up to jump on the New Wave Express rolling out of Customville. Great, that’s that then, I’m off to the pool for a Campari, thanks Yamaha.
Not quite, in fact not even close. Anyone with half an idea of what goes on behind closed doors at Yamaha, and particularly with their long running Yard Built programme, will attest that the above is a load of nonsense, apart from the bit about the pretty engine. Shun Miyazawa and his team know the scene inside out having worked with some of the world’s most eminent builders and nurtured up-and-coming talent keen to flex their creative muscle. Over the last 6 years we’ve witnessed some magnificent machines rolling off benches under the Yard Built banner and despite being a huge corporation they’re schooling the other manufacturers in how to embrace and support the rapidly changing custom scene. It’s actually not too crazy to suggest that this programme has helped shape the current market and that other manufacturers owe Shun a pint, or two.
We’ve spoken before about the need for modern bikes that can be customised easily by their time-poor and facility-lacking owners without breaking the bank or voiding the manufacturer’s warranty. And for us stiff arsed Brits, the idea of chopping up a new bike to satisfy aesthetic whimsy seems a rather unsporting and audacious move. Yamaha clocked onto all this a while ago and pushed builders of project bikes to create something visually stunning but more importantly, repeatable. Chopping and grinding of frames is out, forward thinking component development is in. The idea being dealers flog bikes, builders flog parts and customers can tinker with a brand new bike until their heart’s content. The Sports Heritage range has been a hit thus far and the sales figures suggest there’ll be a degree of back slapping at Yamaha HQ.
A thinly veiled attempt to push a fat catalogue of model specific parts to bolster profits I hear you cry. Well, we’re all adults here and know that Yamaha is a big monster that needs feeding with dollar bills but what they haven’t done is make bikes that will only function with their specific line of aftermarket parts. Don’t like the all-in-one digital speedo and headlight? Well take them off, fit a tallow candle and use a damp finger for speed readings if you like. The ECU won’t care and there isn’t a finicky CAN bus system to placate. These bikes are built to be taken apart.
One significant component that highlights this is the subframe. Manufacturers must cater for the masses and therefore saddles are made to accommodate the massive but we all know long seats make for ugly bikes and it’s more or less become a given that frame rails are the first port of call for any build. If I have to write cut-and-loop again I will cry (high octane nitromethane man tears you understand). Yamaha’s designers are one step ahead and have incorporated an easily removable loop, pop the seat off with the ignition key, pull out one of the pre-installed allen keys and undo the easy-to-reach fasteners and voila, sack-off your pillion and fit a shorter seat.
Either pick one of the properly made (laser straight stitching and decent materials) options from the catalogue or make your own, it’ll only need a hook at the front and the male part for the locking mechanism and you’re done. Before the allen key is returned why not remove the redundant passenger pegs and set your XSR to selfish, canyon chasing mode. This does cause a problem for video makers though, as weld flare and grinding sparks might have to come from the special effects palette from now on.
The fuel tank is another area that’s been well thought out. The vessel itself is pressed steel with two aluminium side panels and cloaking strip down the centre. I spoke at length with the bike’s designer, Jun Tamura, about how laborious it was to achieve the complex curves using a single press mould and why he wouldn’t relent on metallurgy. His team’s perseverance and dedication to expressing heritage through use of traditional materials has paid off. Run your hand over the bike and it’s obvious that someone lied to the bean counters during pre-production. The bits that are bound to be upgraded are basic and functional with budget saved for the sexier areas.
Once the aforementioned side panels have been pressed, a subsequent heat treatment and anodising reverses the malleable nature of the aluminium and keeps mother nature and careless owners from spoiling the raw-look finish. “But if they’re going to be painted why not just use injection moulded plastic?” I asked. “On a cold morning your knees can feel the chill of metal through your jeans” was the reply. In a time when cosseting electronics and cotton-wool-tech temper the interaction between rider and machine any connection to purity is surely welcome.
Some of the launch bikes were painted in a resplendent forest green but I had the raw silver. Either way, if that’s not to your taste unbolt them and dispatch to your favourite painter for a personal touch. You could even order a few tins of One Shot and practice pinstriping, the panels are interchangeable and negate the need for re-plumbing of fuel lines and pump wiring. Don’t quote me on this but I dare say you could still ride the bike to work without the panels fitted whilst you wait for some creative to work their magic with the crayons.
The DIY theme continues. Don’t like the front mudguard or the upgrades in the catalogue? Then make your own. Sounds obvious but the XSR mounts have been designed to allow even the most untalented of measure-once-cut-twicers to have a go.
So, you get the picture, the engineers and designers totally get it and appreciate that for people like us pulling up at the lights with a slight smugness of “I built this, sort of” is as important as making an apex or pulling a perfect wheelie. Speaking of which, if you haven’t been to Sardinia stop reading this book a flight and hire a bike, you won’t regret it. Thankfully Yamaha’s people know a fine road when they ride one so as you can imagine, we had a pretty good time up in them there hills.
What’s it like to ride then? During the presentation Shun suggested that the bike is “confidence inspiring” – Well that’s an understatement of fairly grandiose proportions. Piloting the XSR is like being David Gandy’s doppleganger and walking into a club with a foot-long-dong in your 16oz denim and a line of cocaine up your hooter. It lets you take fairly massive liberties and thoroughly enjoy yourself, but won’t leave you with child support payments and a dose of the clap.
Arriving at downhill hairpin bends well above intended velocity would usually result in a clenching of buttocks and a mental run-through of one’s own funeral invite list but on the XSR you just lever it over a bit further, pass the time listening to the 270 degree twin burble on overrun and gun the throttle once more. I kept waiting for the reassuring grind of the hero blobs to indicate the impending shortage of rubber, but instead my boots now need new soles. I’d forgotten that I was on the upgraded model with adjustable rearsets and high-level Akrapovic pipe.
One finger on the brake lever was more than sufficient to scrub big digits from the easy-to-read speedo and a manly squeeze with two or more on some of the rougher mountain passes resulted in a pulsing warning from the ABS that enthusiasm was out of correlation with talent. The forks felt firm enough to resist crude inputs whilst soaking up the efforts Sardinia’s lesser experienced asphalt application technicians. However, with an additional 5 kgs of meat on board from another carnivorous session at the hotel restaurant and the more spirited riders might have benefitted from a gloopier fork oil or spring upgrade.
Although there is plenty of shove from the velvety smooth motor only the most hamfisted of throttle inputs will loft the front wheel without the clutch, as demonstrated in my utterly woeful and over eager attempt at the pre-lunch drag race. The bigger boys from the glossy analog publications appeared to have been trying to save front tyres, spending nearly the entire day on the back wheel. Rain or shine, it made no odds and at times it was like being part of the European chapter of the 12 O’Clock Boys.
There will be a learner friendly A2 licence version with a few ponies sent out to pasture but frankly I reckon I could teach my mum to ride this bike. And with all the unboltability engineered-in it’s my guess that insurance premiums could be low for the novice rider.
As mentioned my steed for the day was kitted-out with the “Fun Ride” trick bits from the accessory catalogue and for a bolt-on selection the parts combined well aesthetically and the definitely improved the overall experience. If you’ve ridden a TDM or TRX 850 from yesteryear you’ll be reminded of the off-balance rumble of the 270 degree crank but this new motor is so silky smooth that without an open pipe it feels almost electrically powered. In fact, I was lucky enough to throw a leg over Shinya Kimura’s bike, the hand beaten aluminium masterpiece that spawned the Faster Sons media campaign, and headed off for a ride down a very moist Sardinian mountain pass. Adhering to Shinya’s instruction of “No excitement!” revs were kept low and braking completed timezones ahead of the treacherous bends. The well baffled muffler did cause the occasional rev counter check to see if the motor was still spinning such was the turbine-like serenity. Or perhaps that was a transcendental state of mind, trying my damnedest not to be the guy who threw Shinya’s hard work off the edge of a 1000ft cliff.
One builder who didn’t get the memo about quiet zorsts was Jens vom Brauck of JVB Moto, his take on the XSR featured here last week. For those of you wanting something a bit more raw and ready then this could be the route to go. OK so it’s not a mega budget, free reign build, more of an exercise to show how simple the bike is to take apart and fit kit-based components but the few tweaks made a difference. Apart from cosmetics an Öhlins in the rear, thicker fork oil, sticky rubber and an Arrow pipe combine to unleash the hooligan inside. With the airport transfer looming there was just time for a rip through wide open roads sweeping through the lush green valley.
With the tolerances and slack dialled out of the cables and controls and a more revealing note emitted from the pipe the XSR’s potential became crystal clear. The motor might be a stressed member but that’s where the tension ends, it feels like there is way more poke just waiting behind the ECU tuners keyboard.
There’s no doubting both Shinya and Jens’ credentials but what does this mean for mere fabricating mortals like you and me? Well, it’s a fairly bold, and craft beer induced statement, but the XSR700 could really be playing a pivotal role in altering mainstream motorcycle manufacturing. Yamaha have removed the trepidation and concern associated with individualising a new motorcycle and replaced it with a reassuring hand holding towards building the bike of your dreams. OK, OK, Harley-Davidson have been doing this for years, I hear you. But there’s a difference between bolting-on gaudy trinkets and buying creative carte blanche direct from the main dealer.
For me I’d do a few things. The Borani spoked wheels that I heard are due to break cover soon would be top of the shopping list for starters. As JVB has already carried out the R&D on the rear shock following his lead would seem sensible. I’d lose the stock seat, subframe loop and mudguard and graft on some form of flat track unit, the Champion rather than XR style probably works better to narrow the rear. Copying Jens again I’d give the fuel tank side panels a good rubbing back and deal with the maintenance of raw metal. Tracker bars and the removal of the mounting rubbers would give a more focussed feel, comfort can wait until I’m resting in a coffin. A number board with integrated headlight set-up is nothing new but when well executed it looks great, to me anyway. For the forks, some extended stanchion guards. Hang on a minute, that all sounds like the dribble inducing DT-07 (MT rather than XSR based) unveiled a few weeks back – oh well, one can but pretend to be a pioneer.
One last thing that needs addressing is the radiator, an increasingly necessary byproduct of ever tightening emissions legislation and customer’s thirst for power. Yamaha have to offer a bike that works for a global market, in all weather conditions and therefore the rad needs to have cooling capacity in reserve. Here in Blightly the sun has his hat on so infrequently I’d be willing to wager that a smaller, less prominent unit could be incorporated slickly. If I see an XSR with a radiator masquerading as a number board I’ll be pleased to see it done, but cross I didn’t do it first.
But that’s the beauty of the times we’re in, if you don’t like something either shut up and don’t buy it or make it your own. I’m a traditionalist and love total loss oil systems or 20:1 pre-mix but I’m also a realist and know that all the moaning and petitions in the world won’t change a thing at government level and therefore accept that transportation is evolving and that after all is said and done, I want to ride a bike and laugh out loud whilst doing it. On that point the XSR700 really delivers and I for one am excited about motorcycling rubbing its eyes and squinting at the bright light of a new era.
For the facts and figures you’d expect in a grown-up road test and to see the accessories click here
Previous Bike Shed Road Tests here | XJR1300
DT-07 Photo from Cycle World