First Ride

First ride: Yamaha XSR700 review

Visordown's only road tester with a 'man bun' is sent to Sardinia to ride Yamaha's XSR700

'WE'VE seen our friends in Bologna doing well so we're jumping on the hipster band wagon,' joked Shun Miyazawa, Yamaha's project manager during the presentation of the XSR700. The joke fell flat... perhaps because there's truth said in jest.

Yamaha - with its longer development times - might have started working on its modern retro first but Ducati's Scrambler beat it to the showrooms and in doing so helped carve out an entirely new segment. Divisive as it is, the Scrambler has been a sales success and it is the benchmark by which the XSR will be judged.

Essentially the XSR700 is the MT07's trendy twin, barring a few tweaks here and there the frame and engine are the same.

So the XSR is built on strong foundations; the MT07 is a versatile bike, great fun to ride and built to a tight price point, all factors helping to make it Yamaha's second best-selling bike behind the Tracer

The XSR promises more of the same winning formula, most crucially its price. At £6,249 it's just £500 more than the ABS MT07 (the XSR is only available with ABS). More importantly still, it undercuts the cheapest Ducati Scrambler by £1,000 and is £2,150 cheaper than the Scrambler Full Throttle I rode a couple of months ago. It's hard to enjoy yourself in the Land of Joy when your wallet is a grand lighter from the start.

But the XSR is more than just a restyled MT07. For a start its four kilograms heavier and 10mm higher in the saddle. The bars are wider, higher and closer to the rider for a slightly more relaxed riding experience.

I'd spent a few days riding an MT07 before the launch and jumping straight on the XSR700 felt familiar – it's the same language, just spoken with a different accent. That said, the XSR is a much more comfortable bike to ride. I'm well over 6ft tall and can recommend the riding position, a day in the saddle didn't leave me aching in the slightest.

The punchy engine that helped make the MT07 so popular works just as well in its new home. It feels more willing than the Scrambler's L-twin motor and is smoother when you open it up through the gears. It makes the same power as the Scrambler (75hp) and, strangely, exactly the same torque (68Nm) although the XSR is six kilograms lighter.

We had a damp day on the snaking mountain passes of Sardina with perilous drops that inspired a steady right wrist. Overshoot one of these hairpins and it's a Wile E Cayote moment. It gave plenty of opportunities to test the ABS because as well as the rain we were also negotiating front-wheel gnashing farm dogs and gravel. The ABS cuts in smoothly and predictably and inspires confidence even when riding in tricky conditions.

The XSR handles just as well as the MT07 and loves to be thrown around. It probably feels like you're going faster on the MT07 just because the riding position and image is slightly sportier.

Ultimately the XSR is going to live or die by its looks. There's no escaping the fact that this is a styling exercise first and an MT07 second.

I was talking to German bike builder Jens vom Brauck, who's created his own XSR custom, about the bike's styling hits and misses. He finds the standard machine cluttered and without a flowing line to connect the sum of its parts.

He also dislikes the protruding headlight which was inspired by the Japanese designer's 1930s fixie bike. However, with only a few tweaks here and there (all of which he'll be happy to sell to you) Jens created this head-turning custom on the right... and he's planning to build a scrambler version over the winter.

But it's important to recognise the clever cost compromises being made by Yamaha to deliver a bike that significantly undercuts Ducati's Scrambler. Take the tank for example, it hides an ugly, cheap steel tank beneath the bolt-on aluminium panels. This helps keep the cost low but also provides an easy custom solution to give the bike a completely different look with the twist of just a few bolts.

The headlight too is a compromise forced on the designers as a way of hiding the ignition and wiring and yet retaining the single headlamp, key to its heritage look. Personally I like the headlight, it's a bold statement and sets the XSR apart from its rivals.

If you're not entirely satisfied with the standard bike then the XSR comes with a parts and accessories catalogue already containing over 40 custom options. Yamaha even has an app to design your own bike in a 3D workshop. Expect Yamaha to be supporting and promoting some crazy yard built XSR's over the next year - you won't see a standard XSR at a major bike show in the next year without some custom chop parked beside it.

I think crucially, and this point will certainly be missed, the XSR isn't just another retro rehash. It isn't trying to mimic a predecessor in the way Triumph's Bonneville does, it is something new. It takes inspiration from retro bikes but the engine, frame and design philosophy are completely modern. For example, the engine as a stressed member of the frame helps make the XSR 40kg lighter than the Bonneville. Guess which is more fun to ride?

For me, there's something disingenuous about simply ripping off a historic model, it's fake and fancy dress. I like the way the XSR looks, particularly in the matte silver option. Your only other colour choice is British racing green, which just felt a bit too predictable and clumsily retro - why not yellow Speedblocks? (SPOILER ALERT) I'll be waiting until the inevitable Kenny Roberts promoted flat-tracker variant before I get my wish.

Yamaha promises a tank range of just over 190 miles but I rode for 125 miles and the 14 litre tank was almost dry. It's true, the ride crossed a couple of mountains but the heavy rain certainly kept my throttle steady and I'd have expected a slightly better economy than 40.5mpg. 

So why splash out an extra £500 on an XSR instead of an MT07? Other than a more comfortable riding position and a taller seat height you'd have a job justifying your purchase. But the answer is simple really, because you think it looks cooler... and it probably does.

More crucially, why would you spend an extra £1,000 on a base model Scrambler (and another £100 on top of that if you want it in yellow... which of course you do)? I've ridden both bikes recently and the smart money is on the XSR. It has Yamaha's reputation for reliability behind it, it handles, stops and goes as well, if not better, than the Scrambler. It's more comfortable. There is a lot of weight tipping the balance of judgment towards the XSR. So it's a no-brainer? Not quite.

Ducati has done an incredible job marketing the Scrambler. It hasn't just sold us a bike, it's sold a lifestyle and an image. Of course, the internet loves to laugh at the hipster Land of Joy and Ducati loves to laugh at the internet... because Ducati is laughing all the way to the bank, the last laugh.

Yamaha is trying to sprinkle this hipster magic fairy dust on the XSR, even launching a lifestyle brand called Faster Sons to complement its retro bike scene. Will it work? Well that remains to be seen but Yamaha's biggest problem is Ducati not only got there first but it did its marketing flawlessly. It's going to take more than a few washed out, lo-fi photoshoots of beautiful models who have clearly never replaced a spark plug to beat Ducati at its own game.

But... if you're capable of putting 'cool' aside (because this is a much harder to quantify substance than cash) then choose the XSR700. With the money you save you can spend it on actually living the carefree lifestyle the Land of Joy so espouses.

Model tested: Yamaha XSR700

Price: £6,249 on the road

Engine: 689cc parallel twin

Power: 75hp @ 9,000rpm

Torque: 68Nm @ 6,500rpm

Weight: 186kg (wet)

Frame: Diamond with engine as stressed member

Tank capacity: 14 litres

Seat height: 815mm