Cycle Torque Test: Yamaha XSR900

When Yamaha re-released the SR400 in Australia in 2014 the company made a big statement.


Retro is back!

You see Yamaha, like many manufacturers at the time, had their spider-senses tingling that retro and custom style is back in a big way… but each had a different approach. The tuning fork company put its money on the table with one of its most successful models ever built. The SR400. It made sense because riders have been customising SRs since day dot and it was still technically being produced for the Asian market. What they maybe didn’t realise at the time was another model, the XS650, was arguably more popular with budding builders and customisers because second hand models weren’t as sought after as SRs.

The XS650 variants have been well and truly out of production for decades, but it was significant at the time – one of the first bikes to feature horizontally-split crankcases, and the gearbox and engine were constructed as one unit.

For 2016, Yamaha decided to harness the ethos of the XS in one of its modern nakeds, the MT-09, calling it an XSR (the R is for Yamaha’s sports heritage), and on looks alone, they have done fine work.


Retro modern or modern retro?

Unlike the reborn SR and antiquated XS, this XSR is completely postmodern. It looks like brand new bike, with new styling, tipping its cap to yesteryear rather than replicating it. Aesthetically, the classic silhouette drawn from the tank to the seat, as well as the round headlight and lack of wind protection are the biggest points of difference. Look further and you will see many parts which wouldn’t be out of place on any modern bike. There’s upside down forks, a twin disc front end, cast wheels, banana swingarm, diamond section aluminium frame and digital instruments. This XSR is mostly blacked-out except for effective touches of hand-finished aluminium with the tank, radiator side covers, rearsets, headlight bracket, seat bracket, rear fender and exhaust tip. Yamaha calls it ‘Garage Metal’. Another scheme is available in blue called ‘Rock Slate’ and both look equally as good. Overall, the styling definitely reserved, which should see it appeal to a wide range of motorcyclists.

YAMAHA XSR900: Garage Metal cool

My initial feedback from the bike is the XSR’s seating position and ergos are spot on. My legs’ insatiable thirst for an accommodating ’peg to seat distance has been quenched, like bucket of Gatorade being poured over a grand final winning coach. Likewise the distance to the ‘bars – which work in unison with the ’pegs and seat to lock in the rider’s lower half, sitting slightly forward of upright and into the wind. This makes riding in all (relatively) civilised conditions that much better: commuting isn’t a compromise; longer distances are much more achievable and forgiving; and approaching the twists with fervour is a delight, because you haven’t contorted yourself to get there. But the XSR900 needs more than just a great riding position to be able to achieve the task most people need three bikes for…


Rider modes

For a modern retro bike to be taken seriously, it has to have the ability to put the fear of god into the rider. As most parts come from Yamaha’s MT platform, feel rest-assured the XSR’s performance is abundantly wild. In A Mode, the throttle response is diametrically opposed, and I’m not sure if it’s because almost every other modern retro doesn’t pack this much punch, but A mode borders on too much stonk for this style of bike and how it will be mostly ridden. If you know what you’re doing and where to do it, you will absolutely love A Mode. But still, I think you will only use it sparingly. If you don’t, you will find the XSR has a tendency to chain snatch and be an uncooperative, cranky beast.

Standard Mode is much more user-friendly and is where I would spend just about all of my time riding. It still stirs the soul with low to mid-range grunt, but the throttle response is more intuitive, the map like a slingshot, allowing the rider to be less critical over its input at low speed. The cantankerous nature of the bike from A Mode to Standard all but disappears too.

B Mode is no slouch either, again it’s tamer than Standard, and to be honest I wouldn’t be disappointed with this setting if the XSR arrived out of the crate without rider modes. For me, B Mode is also pretty well suited for all riding conditions, specifically ordinary roads and wet or other poor conditions.



Whilst a modern retro should be able to go extremely fast, it must also handle. And handle it does. The high wide ’bars are not only accommodating but provide plenty of leverage to make low speed handling really easy with good throttle control. At speed, tipping into corners requires little thought or effort and banging down the gears with the new assist and slipper clutch is a guilty pleasure.

The front suspension felt complaint over most surfaces, and riders of the MT-09 will find it has stiffer forks and updated valving. I haven’t ridden the MT-09, so I can’t compare them, but I think Yamaha has gotten it right. Same goes with the rear, there’s no squatting from a lack of compression or a broken tailbone from too much, nor is there a lack of feel from the rebound damping. Like the front, the XSR also has revised valving on the rear shock.

The 180-section rear tyre is a great choice and is a good compromise between authenticity, handling and performance. It makes enough difference to feel it’s not a 190 rear when you look to gas it towards the corner-exit, but the lack of confidence I felt was simply a case of mind over matter with the A Mode throttle on my behalf.

ABS is standard on the XSR900 which is a great safety backup, as are the brakes great themselves. The initial bite is solid and feedback through the adjustable lever is superb.


Electronic intervention

The traction control system is simplistic which I really like for this style of bike. There’s no menus to navigate, which would in a way ruin the experience of the retro side of things. Instead a switch on the left block controls low (1) and high intervention (2), and a button on the dash turns it off altogether. High intervention hits the nail on the head, which was too intrusive for me. It made controlling a wheel stand from a take-off much harder than expected (I thought traction control was off!), with the front end pogoing because it would intervene every time the front lifted, repeating itself as soon as the wheel touched down again. Combined with the twitchy A Mode throttle, this made it increasingly harder to get off the gas, so kept popping up until I managed to regain control. Felt less at higher speeds with taller gears, the front end lofted over a crest in the road nicely beforehand, coming back down to earth, and staying there.

After that experience, I switched traction control to its lowest intervening setting at level 1, but I didn’t have the figs to take it to the limit on a public road again.


A great platform for customisation

I suppose you only have to take one look at the other bikes made from this platform to realise why it is as capable as it is in a variety of settings. If I could only own one bike, at the moment, I’d have to say this would be it. There’s everyday good looks for city riding, enough comfort to cope with long days in the saddle, as well as enough output to be taken seriously in the twists. One compromise is the 14-litre tank which would certainly break up a long day in the saddle with re-fuelling. The only thing I would immediately change is add some wind protection in the form of the sexy bikini fairing… I think you might know the one. It’s degree of effectiveness may only be slight, but nothing else would suit the bike as well. I would possibly look to see if the MT-09/Tracer panniers could be fitted too. If not, a set of throwover panniers for me would possibly see the XSR the closest bike to a unicorn yet.

In a way, Yamaha can be criticised for playing it too safe with the XSR900 by completely basing it off the MT-09. Yep, it is reserved, a styling exercise, building it out of another bike is a way of cutting costs… Though in many other ways, it’s not. With what is presumably better suspension, a slipper clutch, traction control and ABS brakes, the XSR900 has more modern features than the ‘modern’ MT-09 did when it came out, two years ago. The 2016 MT-09 now has most of these features too, but won’t completely until the 2017 model.

In reality, as a complete bike, does it really matter? No. This is the way a modern retro should be built. Not in the looks department, because they all look good… but in the modern performance side of things. A digital tacho and ABS is about as ‘cutting edge’ as you will find on some other modern retro bikes and with the XSR being at the pinnacle with the most modern of them all, it might just be enough motorcycle to make us remember why all those old ones died in the first place.

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