Yamaha’s 2016 XSR900 proves that being the same yet different can make for an excellent alternative.
9 Out of 10
Amid the lakes, rocks and trees of the Muskoka region of Ontario, Yamaha launched the retro themed XSR900. Having always ridden east or west of Toronto I had never been to this particular neck of the Ontario woods making the riding a pleasant surprise and the XSR900 seemingly handpicked for the roads. Winding roads through rockcuts and around countless lakes. Winter sand still on the road. Winter frost heaves and cracking pavement on secoundary roads. The XSR proved to be in its element.
When a motorcycle is right, there isn’t a need for change but that same success encourages expanding the audience. Taking the same platform and tweaking it isn’t a new idea but the XSR proves succeeding beyond the dreaded “bold new graphics” stage is possible. The one-platform-different-bikes approach keeps costs down which keeps the consumer happy. Yamaha hit a home run with the FZ-09 in 2014 and much of it was due to value for the dollar, but the engine choice of a triple was inspired—a configuration known for an abundance of torque, smoothness and when equipped with the right exhaust system, great sound.
Previous to Yamaha dipping a riding boot into this genre pool the other major proponent of the architecture was Triumph so there was room for growth as the triple was not only a good engine it was unique for the price point. The FJ-09 came soon after the success of the FZ but there was room for more.
Retro may be the flavour du jour but the XSR is an amalgam of retro, steampunk and custom: a broad spectrum, but one that works. There are two versions of the XSR900. One is intended to cater to the urban hipster with an eye toward customization with a paintless brushed aluminum tank and two-tone seat. But the nod goes to the black and yellow heritage paint scheme with the 41mm gold inverted forks that better emphasize the bike’s lines while evoking a stripped down race bike rather than a pretty garage custom.
Beyond the finish choices for the tank, fork and seat, the bikes are identical. The detailed accents including the milled, three-holed headlight and seat support pieces and the Bolt style taillight and single headlight provide cohesion for the theme. Our test bike was fitted with a nifty rear seat cowl to further emulate an old race bike. The XSR900 is a bike that looks better in person with the realization that where there are many plastic pieces on the FZ, the XSR is made with genuine metal parts giving it a handbuilt aura.
The 847cc inline triple is exactly as in the other bikes—strong, smooth and responsive. Its 64 ft/lb. torque and 115 hp make for power that is more than adequate and will even do for racers in 20 years hence when the bike will look good in a vintage class at Mosport.
The throttle is Yamaha’s ride-by-wire system, which allows for a myriad of other possibilities due to the computer interface including three riding modes. It is little wonder that the motor also made its way unchanged to the FJ-09. What else Yamaha could do with the engine is unknown but the possibility of using the narrow engine in other platforms is intriguing.
Instrumentation is limited to a single round nacelle with a white-on-black display stuffed with a surprising amount of information, which is the benefit of a digital over an analogue display. The tach sweeps around the outside while inside you can find your ECO mode indicator and average fuel economy—if you’re interested—plus gear, trip meters, modes and more.
For the XSR900 in brushed aluminum trim, MSRP is $10,699, while the 60th Anniversary colours will set you back an additional $300 at $10,999.
Up to $2,000 more than the bargain that is the FZ-09 but for the extra cash you get ABS on the dual front 298mm front discs and single 245mm. The XSR900 also gets a slipper clutch allowing the XSR to better live up to its retro racer good looks.
Should you feel the need to hammer through the gears heading into or out of corners the bike will smooth out your aggression while keeping the rubber planted on the road. The same can be said for the traction control system the bike gets as a side benefit of the ABS system—although in this case the rider can reduce or eliminate the bike’s ability to assist with that aggression problem as the TCS has both on, off and “sort of.”
The intangibles are in the custom paint (or the brushed metal if that is your fancy) and styling that won’t go out of favour nearly as quickly as “modern,” which in itself is worth a few dollars. The XSR900 fit in the same mold as bikes like the Triumph Thruxton that pay homage to a race style while keeping the machine comfortable. Feeling good is as important as looking good.
The XSR900 has a light steering feel from the broad bars and an easy reach to the ground although the seat is higher and wider than the FZ-09. Which brings us back to those frost heaves. I don’t know what the standard for frost heaves is but on the backroads of Muskoka they seemed prevalent. The upright riding position of the XSR minimized the roughness of the ride—that and the five plus inches of travel at either end. I didn’t realize how punishing the roads could be until I jumped aboard a low-slung cruiser for a brief ride to compare the difference—and it was a world of difference. Yes it was the difference in travel (2.8 inches versus 5.4) but it was also the ergonomics. While adjustable, the suspension is very compliant, which fits with the need to keep the bike comfortable. Making the bike firmer would detract from its everyday utility.
Don’t look at the specs and think because much of the bike is the same as the FZ-09 (frame, subframe, forks, wheels, swingarm and motor) that the choice is a toss-up. The extras that come with the XSR900 are almost as much of a bargain as the price of the original bike. With a few modifications post purchase the XSR900 is bound to find itself pared down to its even more basic essentials—the floppy rubber stalks for the indicators would probably be the first to go.
The XSR checks all the boxes in the fun column. It isn’t heavy, it isn’t cramped and it has three cylinders, which might be my favorite engine configuration: the growl of a twin combined with the smoothness of an inline four.
Not as hard edge and bruising as a big bore streetfighter but far from too soft to hold its own, the XSR900 will satisfy nine out of 10 riders, 9/10th of the time. If you are on that last tenth Yamaha has the FZ-10 waiting in the wings but you really have to want to take it up that last notch to not make the XSR900 the choice.
With the addition of ABS the XSR might come as close to perfect as a street standard gets. It is comfortable enough for a long ride and if you are enamored with the architecture of the bike and really want to pack on the miles, there is the FJ-09. But around town and around the neighbouring back roads the XSR900 excels and hey, it is better looking.
The downside, if there is one, is that you are going to have to travel light. There isn’t much room for gear but as the bike is stripped down perhaps you should be traveling the same way. That and the bike is comfortable and enjoyable enough to easily outride its 14-litre tank which might with a gentle throttle hand make 235 kilometres—a pity as this Canadian shield beauty seems to stretch a long way and gas stations may be hard to come by. But a little planning would be worth it to overcome that obstacle.
by John Molony