Blue Thunder: Yamaha enforces the off-road spirit

The 689cc parallel twin that powers Yamaha’s MT-07 has arguably been the outstanding motorcycle engine of recent years. Powerful, flexible, economical and reliable, the dohc eight-valve unit also has an appealing character that makes the naked middleweight fun to ride – which helps explain why it has sold in huge numbers and spawned a family of identically powered models including the sports-touring Tracer 700 and retro XSR700.

Two recent additions push the envelope further – much further in the case of the Ténéré 700, the dual-purpose derivative that was rumoured from the moment the MT-07 was launched in 2014. The XSR700 XTribute also has a hint of off-road potential in its name but that’s because the retro-styled roadster is inspired by the XT500 single that earned cult status in the Seventies and early Eighties, not least by winning the first two Paris-Dakar Rallies.

When planning the Ténéré, latest in a long line with that Dakar-inspired name, Yamaha must have been tempted to follow the trend towards high-tech, electronically sophisticated middleweights like KTM’s 790 Adventure and Triumph’s Tiger 900. Instead the Japanese firm kept that 689cc engine unchanged, and designed the Ténéré around the MT-07’s principles of simplicity and value for money.

That means it has a modest maximum output of 72bhp, with no alternative engine modes or traction control. Yamaha did however design a new airbox and exhaust, shortened the gearing and uprated the cooling system. Then they bolted the engine into a new chassis featuring tubular steel frame, long-travel suspension and wire-spoked wheels, the front a dirt-friendly 21 inches in diameter.

The Ténéré’s simplicity extends to its range of models: unlike the KTM and Triumph there’s just one, with a choice or blue, black or red/white paint. What it does have is handsome, desert-racer inspired looks. Its tall screen sits in front of a quartet of LED lights and a high-level instrument panel with a hint of rally road-book. Neat details include a height-adjustable front mudguard and the seat’s built-in luggage hooks.

On the road the Ténéré is lively, managing to supply much of the MT’s zip and charm despite weighing 23kg more at 205kg. The torquey engine pulls from low down and stays smooth at high revs, its 270-degree crankshaft giving a pleasingly lumpy character. The tall seat means shorter riders struggle in town but it gives reasonable comfort, in conjunction with the generous suspension travel.

The roomy, upright riding position and reasonable wind-protection allow effortless cruising at 80mph and a top speed of about 120mph. Suspension has sufficient damping to prevent excessive pitching under braking or acceleration. Although the front brake isn’t particularly powerful, the Yam slows hard in response to a firm squeeze of the lever. Its impressive fuel economy gives a range of 200 miles from the 16-litre tank.

Off-road the Ténéré is excellent, its torquey twin-pot motor supplying sufficient low-rev grunt to negotiate tricky terrain. A good traction control system would be a benefit but the sweet throttle response aids control without one. Chassis performance off-road is very forgiving, aided by the quality of the suspension, notably the shock which has a remote preload adjuster. Accessories including engine bars, a thicker bash-plate and aluminium panniers add to the Yamaha’s go-anywhere ability, albeit also to the price (£9147 in the UK) that gives it a key advantage over those high-tech rivals.

The XSR700 XTribute can’t match the Ténéré’s versatility but it broadens the firm’s range despite being heavily based on the standard XSR700. It’s essentially a scrambler-styled XSR, inspired by the XT500 single because Yamaha’s late start as a four-stroke manufacturer leaves few alternatives for a tribute model. The polished tank with red and white lettering mimics the 1981-model XT that was among the most popular variants.

Gold coloured wheels are also an XT500 reference, albeit they’re cast not wire-spoked. Block-tread Pirelli tyres add scrambler style, as do serrated footrests. Other XTribute-specific parts include fork gaiters, black handlebar and a taller seat. Plus, ideally, the test bike’s accessory high-level Akrapovic exhaust, which replicates the original XT500’s system, gives a throaty bark and adds to its character.

The wide, one-piece handlebar is quite low but the riding position is very upright. Like the XSR, the XTribute is very responsive and well balanced, and most at home on twisty minor roads. Its engine’s broad torque spread helps make the bike easy to ride, and it’s sufficiently powerful and responsive for wheelie-happy hooliganism if you’re in the mood.

The XTribute’s light weight, sporty geometry and well-controlled suspension give enjoyably easy handling, boosted by the wide handlebar and backed up by a powerful front brake. What’s less welcome is its price (£8147 in the UK), which is almost ten per cent up on the XSR’s and over 20 per cent higher than the MT-07’s.

For those who were inspired by the XT500 in its continent-crossing, Dakar-winning heyday four decades ago, being able to recreate some of its style with such a quick and capable modern model might make the extra outlay worthwhile. But of these two identically-engined models it’s the Ténéré that makes the stronger case. With its blend of all-round ability, character and competitive price it’s another big hit for Yamaha’s parallel-twin format.

By Roland Brown @rolandbrown1

Photos by Jonathan Godin, Francesc Montero and Henny Stern.

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