Sport or Heritage? Yamaha’s XSR900

By Sam Devine, with  Fish & Courtney Olive
Photography: Max Klein
Rider: Fish

We should set the record straight right up front: that sweet black, yellow and white, speed-blocked color combo Yamaha puts on special bikes like the 2016 60th anniversary XSR900? It isn’t available any more—unless you can find a leftover ’16 XSR at a dealer somewhere. But we all love that color combo, and when Yamaha inquired as to our preference for our XSR, I said “give us one of them sweet anniversary ones, please.” 

So, sorry to lead you on. But hey, that King Kenny regalia was an extra $500, and 2017’s Titanium Blue ain’t bad lookin’ either. 

– Editor Surj

Sam: The XSR As Escape Vehicle

It’s late in the day when I leave. I lube the chain while the XSR warms up. It idles rather high at first, almost impatiently. I close the garage door and pull out into traffic. The bike is in rain mode and as I pull away I can feel the fly-by-wire messing with the power, although I’m not sure what’s going on yet.

At the corner of Warren Drive and 7th, after putting through the chicane of 6th Avenue, I tuck the flashy yellow bumble bee bike into the left hand turn lane. When the light changes, I look at the approaching SUV in the opposite lane. It’s slow to draw. Leaning and twisting the throttle, I become that guy, blasting a left through the intersection before anyone else has rolled forward a foot. The rear end slides to the right as it touches the slick paint of the crosswalk—even though the bike is set to rain mode and traction control is on.

The bike kinda wants to throw its rear end to the right now and then, surprisingly reminding me of Moto Guzzi’s Griso in that regard, giving me pause as I twist the bike up Laguna Honda and towards O’Shaughnessy.

There’s a clear shot at some of the best in-town twisties this side of Mulholland Drive and the XSR spoons them up like cereal on Sunday morning. “This is nobody’s first bike,” I think as I roll down the final curves into Glen Park, passing over the pinstriped asphalt that’s perpetually wet from some paved-over creek that still trickles down the crevice of the hillside. “It can be made to perform—and well, damn well—but it’s not volunteering much, not making it easy.”

At $9,499, the sticker supports the intermediate-to-advanced demarcation. But further, it feels like this thing really wants to toss me into the gutter. I get the distinct sensation that it’s annoyed with me for slowing it down. 

But in a good way. It brings to mind a past lover that would get aggressive in the bedroom, also in a good way. A tattooed beauty, I often think of trying to track her down in Portland, just to see those stars fly around my head again.

The indomitable stature of the bike also brings to mind a fantastic, muscle-rippled former coworker. He was built like an extra-tall brick shit house and packed an attitude to rival any prima donna singer, heiress or debutante, declaring “Oh, helll no!” at the slightest inconvenience. When a young kid asked if the man was single, we snickered amongst ourselves that the youngster was inquiring about “no beginner ride.”

Like those two formidable personalities, the XSR is no first-timer’s coaster bike to be toyed with like a party pony. But if you’re willing to hang on and take some bumps, you’ll never want to forget the ride.

Gliding through Glen Park, the bike is all too willing to hop onto the freeway. A bagger braps past as I crest the top of the on-ramp. The XSR’s highway capability brings the Ninja 1000 to mind—but this one’s more my style and it’s meaner, too. Dropping the hammer, there’s a yellow and black streak doing 80 down the superslab, with still a good gulp of third gear left to swallow.

In short order the streaking bee has caught up to the bagger. There’s no real need to pass until it becomes opportune for maintaining the bubble. You know about the bubble, don’t you? That area around you that you keep free of cars? That positioning that allows for more escape paths, more routes of egress than could ever be necessary? You know about the bubble, don’t you? Well it’s great to maintain it whenever the opportunity presents itself , lest you catch a Prius in your keister at 65 mph.

A pack of traffic starts edging up and a bubble starts to form a few cars ahead. The bagger is afforded a short chance to take advantage of its positioning. After that, the whining yellow insect passes the big Harley like the pioneers passed Kansas. Yeah, thanks, bye.

Now comes the first real decision of the trip: which route to take. The Doppler said it was clear down south, and avoiding the Bay Bridge is always nice… the path becomes simply “do what feels right” because this is an “eat-any-pavement” kind of bike. It can sustain the type of open highway exploring that leaves a rider wondering where they’ll wake up the next day. So I spun the rear tire like a roulette wheel to find out where my head would rest that night, and today, the only planned destination was: south and twisty.

So the bike is pointed towards Highway 1. This adds about an hour and a half to any escape from the City but the XSR900 makes a damned fine escape vehicle. And that’s what we’re supposed to be focusing on. The vehicle. The gnarly, yellow, black snarling robo-hound that leaves intersections like metal kids leave raves, like politicians leave morals, like bats leave caves at night, like adulterers leave marriages, like Britain leaves the EU.

The XSR is ready to take me wherever I want to go. It’s a brand-new, fuel-injected, chipped and tuned, near-liter bike that’s ready to outpace any roadster or creeping boogeyman car. As an impatient commuter passes me on the right approaching Salinas, it seems almost too easy to just treat the car like a running back and head for the end zone. It would be reckless and silly, but the bike is more than up for it. Just drop a sprocket, twist the throttle and ride the bumper like the booty at a get-down.

If you’ve never ridden the booty at a get-down, well, I’m just well sorry for yah—remember: the key is to pretend you’re just dancin’.

After many an interstate merger solved by a quick dart to the left and a hearty twist of the throttle, we find ourselves exactly where we were meant to be: a family-run motel just off the highway with a restaurant and pool.

The next day is spent in the saddle. The whole day. Nine to nine. Four hundred miles. Four hundred luxurious, curving, ocean-swept, rock-encrusted, evergreen adorned, blacktop switchback glory, photogenic miles.

In standard mode, the XSR is smooth and responsive with a fairly linear power delivery. It was a drizzling night when I first touched it, so I left it in rain mode. Rain mode is jolting. It holds you back, only allowing the rear tire to spin just so fast; it’s a granny gear in the most doting sense, holding your hand, keeping you from twisting the throttle. It restricts acceleration so much that a rider might bang knees and waist against the tank after prepping for acceleration but not getting any. Doncha hate not getting any?

As soon as it was sufficiently dry, rain mode had to go.

Standard mode feels like a rejuvenating tune up after coming out of rain mode. A snappier, peppier, smooth-throttling bike is a nice reward for pressing a couple buttons. Who needs carbs when you’ve got buttons?

The bike weaves through traffic like a specter amongst mortals, freely going wherever it pleases. It’s certainly a little windswept, but that’s one of the luxuries afforded while traveling on a “naked” bike. It’s only natural.

Crops of cabbages whizz past in the corner of vision as the torn paper edge of the mountains hangs in the sky. The barren stretch feels like a fine, impromptu, high-speed test track. A twist of the wrist releases the yellowjacket. It leaps forward, blasting another 20 mph faster in a heartbeat. A flood of air dumps from behind the mountains and streams over the road, filling the valley. The fairing-free bike is submerged in the waves of rushing air, its acceleration tapering as it edges into triple digits. Eyes scan the horizon for signs of life. The wind blows the mountain tops off. The throttle relaxes. The heart beats with a subtle song from the cheap thrill in the morning mist of the fields. The early light glistens on the asphalt, the bike hums.

Late morning finds the bike parked in front of the fabulous Madonna Inn. After a delicious breakfast, the path meanders through town and towards Highway 1 again. Leaving stop lights and stop signs, the bike behaves smoothly. It hasn’t yet proven itself to be the suicide machine it was promised to be, but it hasn’t been given a long leash, either. Max and Fish have both done many wheelies on it and a respected co-worker warned of a near-loop wheelie as well. So this little, average rider, reporter-type typing these words keeps things within reason: like leaving it in standard EFI mode with traction control on (minimally but still on).

And the XSR makes it clear that this is a reasonable policy. It may be tethered in, but it’s still a monster, gunning through intersections and killing on-ramps while hardly raising an eyebrow, barely flicking a finger. It idles imperceptibly at stop lights, only to raise to a high-pitched whine after a polite throat clearing brap.

Though it is manageable and nimble, it’s still like a predator pet: you gotta treat it with some deference and avoid certain danger zones. This is part of the fun of ownership for both bikes and boa constrictors, but you want to have ingrained expectations before you start messing with either of them. Don’t go pulling any wacky shit and don’t go jamming your finger down its throat—‘cause it just may bite.

Heading into Big Sur, the XSR is a constantly pulling machine. The twelve-valve, double overhead cam, fuel-injected, inline triple-cylinder, 847cc engine gives the thumpy jolt akin to a v-twin crossed with the smooth delivery reminiscent of an inline four-cylinder. Over-simplified: it pulls smoothly, but it always pulls.

Since there’s a good amount of torque no matter what gear you’re in, passing a Winnebago in the coastal crags is as easy as drifting into the next lane and sweeping back. It literally takes no more time than rocking the bike over and back to pass a seventeen-foot vehicle. And while that may not be very remarkable in and of itself, it’s worth noting that the XSR does this all smoothly and with a certain style. It’s not just another black sportbike wrapped in plastic that passes Winnebagos, it’s a high-powered, retro, semi-upright, pseudo-scrambler that elicits: “Hey, what was that?”

It’s amidst the cliffs of Highway 1 that a few more buttons get pressed, A mode engaged. This sport mode is ripping, slowing down for nothing, furious. Engine braking all but disappears. Relaxing the throttle reduces the pace only slightly, giving a sense of impatience. The tailpipe crackles ever so slightly and the engine zips and zings, gasoline seeming to drip out of its fangs.

In sporty-mode, the 430-pound (wet, claimed) XSR900 would make a formidable and fun track bike, easy to dip, quick to deliver power, no matter the gear. You could warm up in standard mode and then flip the EFI into Kick-A mode for a little spice once you’re feeling limber. A clear, wide left curve heading north by the ocean is a sublime thing on a machine like this. As the whirring and rumble of the engine and the whooshing of air move all around, there’s a feeling of rest inside the pocket of the turn. This is probably due in no small part to 5.4-inch-travelling inverted 41mm front shocks with adjustable preload and dampening. As the bike accelerates away from the apex, there’s a wide-eyed sigh of relief and then the mixture of tension and focus as dual-disc anti-lock front rotors drop a G-force and eyes point through the next corner.

After consuming the rocky redwood roads, the bike burbles around the darling, picturesque roads of Carmel and meets up with one of its relatives, an FZ-07. Its owner had considered the FZ-09 but heard bad things about the mapping on the throttle modes. Rumor is that Yamaha listened, and straightened things out for the XSR900. The power delivery of the XSR seems pretty ship-shape to me. There’s really very little I would change about the bike. Even the probably-a-good-idea-but-seems-so-slow rain mode as well as the bike’s wild potential for biting back are endearing, lending character.

Tucked between the quaint cottages and colonial revival storefronts of Carmel, it’s plain to see that the XSR is a damn pretty bike. It’s got circles everywhere in its design. The retro-racing paint job gives it a timeless flash that turns heads, but isn’t obnoxious. It’s the type of bike that someone is excited to get a ride on. It looks fast, fun and hints at old school cool. Its components have a voluptuous roundness that evokes the line-concerned focus of Art Deco and eschews the stark blocks and lines of moto-nouveau, although the exposed engine remains starkly modern. The machine streaks around the curving cliffs, leaving a yellow and black stripe in its psychic past.

The sun vanishes behind the ocean as the bike leaves the white sand beaches and zooms north on 101, splitting through traffic in the red, white and black chaos of winter rush hour. It handles lane splitting with aplomb, though perhaps a little wide at the handle bar.

Fish: I’ll Have Mine With A Topcase, Please

I don’t really judge bikes based on looks. I know motorcycling is supposed to be built on emotion and impulse rather than sense and utility, but I’ve learned that I can’t see the bike while I’m riding it, and I hate carrying a backpack. 

That’s the kind of thinking that places us all on Super Ténérés. Not a pretty world, but we’d be getting shit done.

The consensus around CityBike World Headquarters is that Yamaha’s FZ-09 and FJ-09 are some of the best things to happen to post-Great Recession motorcycling, and you may recall the long term FJ project that wrapped up last year. I’m new to Yamaha’s CP3 triple, and missed out on the Transformer-styled FZ-09, so this circle-adorned edition “sport classic” served as my intro to Yamaha’s modern triples.

The XSR is an attention seeker in the no-longer-available King Kenny paint scheme, and the mild XS650 influence is noticeable. I’m not opposed to the (insert hipster ad campaign tagline here) design, I suppose, but I wonder why they bothered. The XSR is not a full on retro-posing bike, but it’s also not “just a regular old motorcycle.” 

I’m not calling the Yamaha ugly, but the modern frame design, inverted forks with radial brakes, and that beefy aluminum swingarm are more go than show. The overall shape, size, and lines of the bike are unremarkable, so while the XSR is a bike that makes a statement when you arrive, I’m still trying to figure out what that statement is. 

It’s just kitschy enough to not be ignored, but not subdued enough that the addition of a topcase doesn’t look really wrong.

When I moved on from my DRZ 400SM some years ago, I learned what life was like for people with bikes equipped for more than getting into trouble, and I vowed that I would never ride with a backpack again. This bike actually forced me to dig deep in my closet and return to that time in my life, in the name of journalistic integrity. 

To be honest, the first couple rides were almost worth it. That CP3 has a sense of urgency in acceleration. It’s not some face melting rocketship, but you’ll never have to tolerate a Tesla driver leaving you at a light. At least none I encountered. 

The bars are at that just right height that makes wheelies manageable, but you can still see far enough forward to know that you’re clear of visible law enforcement. It doesn’t tolerate poor technique setting down the front, however, because your backpack and all the shit in it will hammer down upon you a swift reminder of your poor skills.

If only errands could consist of stoplight to stoplight wheelies, this would be a perfect bike. Sadly I don’t live in that reality—my travels require regular freeway time. Naked bikes and freeway are not for everyone, but I’d like to think that I haven’t sold my soul for a V-Strom yet. Bar height comes into play here as well, encouraging a forward lean into that sweet spot where the wind just holds you up. 

One thing that can ruin a freeway experience is a period-correct, flat, smooth seat that requires you to cling to the bars. Fortunately, the XSR has just enough backstop and a grippy seat cover. 

The freeway also showed the XSR to be a bit thirsty. I definitely travel with a sense of urgency, but the little bars on the fuel gauge weren’t real interested in sticking around. The tank is visually large, but only holds 3.7 gallons. The off-center gas cap also made tank bag installation more difficult, so again with the fucking backpack.

As much as I bitch about the lack of easy cargo capacity, a tour of the top secret CityBike testing grounds showed me what the XSR was really made for. That oddly long tank was a great place to hook my knee while guiding the 900 through a nice sweeper. The chassis’s sportbike architecture shows its mettle here, with great turn-in and fantastic brakes. I have an unpopular opinion of the powerplant amongst the Wrecking Crew, as I wanted it to be more frantic. Power builds smoothly, corner drives are easy and predictable. Top end punch is lacking, but overnight jail time speeds are readily available. 

The bike that’s so immature in town becomes a very cooperative partner in the twisties. It’s not one to be trifled with, though. It’s got enough weight and power that spinning up the rear in the super tight switchbacks results in less giggles and more pucker. Sometimes traction control is amazing, and it saves you from your stupid. The XSR’s TCS seems more interested in laughing at you when you run out of talent. It’s not useless, and it’s certainly not invasive. It’s just not really concerned if you manage to pull off backing the bike in gracefully.

I am a child, so I only rode it in A mode. I’m sure the less aggressive modes are delightful. 

Authenticity-focused marketing has brought us the new Bonnevilles, various Scramblers, glitter helmets, Kevlar-lined skinny jeans, and apparently the XSR900. I can’t say I’m particularly fond of all those things, but you take the good with the bad. If it means we get competent bikes with modern capabilities that don’t look like they came from a plastic recycling facility, I can live with it. 

And hey, maybe they’ll start including topcases as standard.

Courtney: An Out-of-Towner’s Take

The resurgence of the “standard” motorcycle is great to see. I’m a believer in the elemental, upright, unfaired nature of such machines, having owned a litany of these bikes, including Honda’s CB400, CB750, and 919, Kawasaki’s GPz550 and ZR-7, Suzuki’s SV650, and my current Triumph Street Triple R. Recently, to satisfy my longing for a long-overdue Highway 1 run, I journeyed to San Francisco from my distant outpost as CityBike’s Pretty Far North Correspondent in Portland, OR. As luck would have it, Editor Surj had a shiny, modern “standard” bike in need of riding—a Yamaha XSR900.

He walked me through its impressive resume as he handed over the bike: switchable power modes, traction control, ABS, even a slipper clutch. No such accoutrements have appeared on any of the standard steeds in my stable, and my jacket has the high-side scars to prove it—candidly, I wouldn’t have minded a little electro-nannying when making the jump from 50hp bikes to 110hp bikes. For today’s advancing riders who are making a similar transition, it’s wonderful that big power bikes like the XSR (hey, anything over a hundo is big in my book) are available with electronic aides as standard.

Leaving the parking garage on the XSR, the first impression to hit me (besides the drool over that dead-sexy Yama-Yeller tank) was the smooth power delivery. If anything, the bike feels geared a bit tall, sort of gooey when starting off. I later found this was a symptom of the “standard” power mode. Switching to the more powerful A mode gave the bike the starting line snap I was expecting. The switch to A mode also deepened and sharpened the exhaust note. 

Which brings me to another early impression: the XSR sounds amazing! Easily one of the best stock exhaust notes I’ve heard. At idle it has the same “Jetsons’ car” sound of a Triumph 675. But upon roll-on, the XSR is less blatty, deeper, throatier, with a touch of inline four yowl. It reignited something that my impressionable 16-year-old brain filed away from the early 90s, when I first heard an unmuffled Porsche flat six. On Highway 1 I found myself enjoying the (few) straights—where I could listen to the XSR’s pin-and-grin symphony—almost as much as the corners.

Well, not quite, since cornering on this bike is a joy. Maybe I’m biased as a “standards” man, but the XSR provides such a natural balance combined with a confidence-inspiring riding position that a couple times I found myself gently sliding both tires in damp patches and not being the least bit startled by it. Almost as though the XSR and its excellent Bridgestone S20 tires were saying, “Oh, pardon us, a little two-wheel slide, but, please, do continue.”

Day two on Highway 1, I spent breakfast staring at the XSR. I’d pushed it to a parking spot just outside the hotel café’s window expressly for this purpose. Say what you will about pandering to a hipster market, but all-in-all this is a dang good-looking bike, at least when dressed in the Yama-yellow tank and be-speedblock’d. Sure, some of the design is too busy, with faux aluminum pieces and silly decorative holes (in groups of three, naturally). But many of these distractions could be removed, or easily painted. Just keep focusing on that tank, its fastback shape, channeling images of Kenny Roberts at the ’75 Indy Mile on his famous TZ750 flat tracker—yep, that’s why this tank looks so good.

Leaving the hotel, I grab a handful of throttle and the front floats up. Come to a stop sign, repeat. Much has been written about this motor in the FZ-09 and FJ-09, so I won’t belabor it—but it’s a stunning mill. Gobs of see-ya! torque at nearly any RPM, with a top end hit strong enough to make me admit that fairings have their virtues on occasion.

I spend the morning revisiting the lower portion of Highway 1, up to Skaggs Springs Road (three passes up and down the eastern side for good measure), then bomb 101 back to SF. In all these environments, the bike is happy as a lark. The suspension feels good; no wallows in fast sweepers or bobbles over sudden rises in the pavement. I’m even impressed with the XSR on the freeway slog, where the motor is not buzzy and the seat feels surprisingly good after a nonstop three-hour stint.

Complaints are few. The flashing “eco” light on the dash is distracting—yes, thanks, I know I’m droning along a freeway at under 1/8th throttle… you don’t have to remind me. And the horn is ill-positioned so that every other time you cancel the turn signal you accidentally hit it too. But, hey, maybe this is Yamaha marketing at work: “Beep! Hey everybody, look at me on this bitchin yellow Yamaha!

This story originally appeared in our April 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.