Bikes we love Test rides

Ride review: 2014 Yamaha XV950

Yamaha XV950
Imitation, Charles Caleb Colton famously noted, is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s true, the flattery the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 receives from Yamaha’s XV950 is enough to make one blush. Put the two bikes side by side, and the inspiration for the latter is undeniable. Yamaha claims its bike has a “new neo retro Japanese look,” but that’s clearly just nonsense –– lorem ipsom that was used instead of “totally looks like a Harley-Davidson Iron 883.”
Certainly the XV950 –– known as the Star Bolt in the United States –– isn’t the first example of a Japanese OEM adhering faithfully to the styling cues of America’s best-known motorcycle manufacturer. The orthodox members of the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-day Davidson write these bikes off as “wannabes,” and tend to be pretty dismissive of anyone who would dare consider purchasing one. But I’m going to commit blasphemy here and tell you that the XV950 is unquestionably the superior machine. In look, sound, feel, and, of course, performance.

I’ve now had a chance to ride both bikes, having loved my experience on the Harley-Davidson 883 last summer, and certainly it’s true that the similarities between the bikes are not just cosmetic. Both are 5-gear air-cooled V twins that have the kathunk-style gear boxes that I think are part of the fun of such machines. There’s something cool about having your gear changes punctuated in that way, reminding you that you are on a machine, that your fire-driven dandy horse is a great big hunk of metal. Especially since, in both cases, that kathunk doesn’t have any negative effect on your ability to change gears. Though things are just a teeny bit smoother on the Yamaha.

Once you hit your gear, both bikes are torque-happy and loads of fun to twist the throttle on. In the United Kingdom and other places where filtering is legal, these bikes are fantastic ways of reducing your TED (Time Exposed to Danger) to milliseconds when launching from a red light –– you won’t have to worry about being stuck between two accelerating cars, you’ll be ahead of them.

And though both machines weigh in upward of 550 lbs., their low seat height and low centre of gravity make them far more manageable than you might think. OK, sure, you’ll never out-maneuver a dude on a scooter, but they are really easy to move at a crawling pace and would suit the needs of just about anyone in an urban/suburban setting.

With mid controls, the seating position on both is chair-like: your feet are forward but not so much that wind blows up your trouser leg. Additionally, the seating position means that when you encounter rough road you can stand up on the pegs.

Both the Harley and the Yamaha are available with anti-lock brakes. Both are belt driven. Both are fun to ride and incredibly popular. In the guise of the Star Bolt, the Yamaha XV950 is presently the best-selling metric cruiser in the United States. And, of course, through its various faces (Iron, Roadster, Super Low) the 883 Sportster is Harley-Davidson’s best-selling machine.

I love the XV950’s lack of chrome

But Yamaha does it better

I was genuinely surprised at just how much I enjoyed riding the XV950. I was expecting it to be more or less a carbon copy of the 883 Sportster experience, which is great… but the XV950 experience is better.

Performance superiority is usually a given when it comes to comparing pretty much any bike, save a Royal-Enfield, against a Harley-Davidson. People don’t buy Harleys for performance. And that’s OK. I get that. In the world of four wheels I am, unabashedly, a pickup man (a). You don’t go fast in pickup trucks; you don’t tear through corners; you don’t travel in plush comfort. So, I can understand that when it comes to motorcycles some people just don’t care whether they’re on a machine that could keep pace with Guy Martin.

Still, it is possible to make improvements without detracting from the experience of a thing. Again using pickup trucks as an example, no one (save those blinded by misplaced allegiances) would deny that a Toyota is superior to a Chevrolet or Ford. If you’ve never seen the “Top Gear” episodes in which they try and fail to kill a Toyota Hilux, take the time to be amazed: Part 1Part 2Part 3. I’m not sure the Yamaha XV950 could take that much a beating, but it definitely outmatches its Harley-Davidson inspiration in a number of ways.

Although a Motorcycle.com comparison last year saw the Harley producing 0.1 horsepower more on a dyno test, the power of the Yamaha seems a hell of a lot more usable. Whereas things get pretty challenging above 60 mph on the Harley, I found that on the Yamaha 85 mph (b) was perfectly easy to reach and maintain. Actually, it was more than just easy, it was fun. Getting up to speed on the motorway was like being fired from a cannon, and I actually had to slow down to match the flow of traffic.

And at that speed things are a lot less hectic on the Yamaha. The seating puts you just a bit more “in” the bike and its big headlight blocks a decent amount of wind, the blast hitting me (I’m 6-foot-1) just below the xiphoid process. Though, I would still want the optional bullet cowling for additional protection.

I have no doubt the XV950 has it in her to do the ton (as could the Harley, maybe) and perhaps a little more. MCN says it has a top speed of 110 mph. But with the engine producing roughly 52 bhp, it’s fair to say that getting there would be a more gradual process.

I kind of like the exposed frame.

If you do, though, you can take comfort in the fact that the XV950’s brakes are up to the task of delivering enough whoa for all that go. Although the H-D Sportster’s brakes are perfectly good, and far better than what you’ll experience on the Triumph America or any larger cruiser, the Yamaha’s are even better. I made a point of bringing the bike to a very quick stop on a few occasions and came away pleasantly surprised. And, as with the 883 Sportster, anti-lock brakes are available for a bit more cash.

Adding that option to the XV950 results in your getting the R-spec version, which has a few extra bells and whistles. Along with ABS, the XV950R / Bolt R-Spec has, in my opinion, cooler paint options, a slightly plusher seat, and better shocks. Though, even the standard XV950 shocks are superior to the Sportster’s. Sure, 110 mm of rear travel isn’t exactly off-road worthy, but it’s pillowy bliss compared to the 40 mm of travel found on the Sportster.

Less than an hour on the Sportster had left me in a certain amount of pain, but the XV950 seemed perfectly capable of handling a typical British road. Plus, as I say, the seating position allows you to lift up on the pegs when hitting particularly nasty stretches.

Speaking of seating position, I found the ergonomics of the XV950 a little roomier and more comfortable, though still “sporty” enough that corners were easy and fun. Indeed, those last two words –– easy and fun –– probably best describe the overall experience of the XV950. Riding it is simple, intuitive, effortless and just so much fun.

Another good word to use is “cool.” This is a bike that you’re happy to be seen on. As well as heard. The stock exhaust has a nice, aggressive growl that is fun to hear but not so loud that it will annoy your neighbours or drive you crazy on long rides.

A matter of opinion
Some of the things that make the XV950 better, though, are very much issues of individual taste. For instance, the indicators. Harley-Davidson’s system is to have a button on each grip. Want to turn right? Push the button on the right grip. I find that system confusing and prefer the more standard method of having the indicators controlled by a single button on the left grip. Yamaha does this and to me it’s just easier.

You can see my Honda in the background trying not to be jealous.

Although the XV950 is very much modelled on the Iron 883 it does go off script in a few places. It is less refined in certain ways. There’s that awkward bit of frame that juts out at the front, the gap between the tank and the seat, and the fact that all the wires are lashed to the bike with zip ties. Obviously, one way to interpret that is laziness on the part of Yamaha’s designers. But to me it gives the bike more personality. It adheres to the bobber spirit, I think, retaining much more the feel of being a machine that was put together by human hands.

And, of course, that fits with Yamaha’s philosophy of the bike. They really want you to mess with it –– to tinker with stuff, to add things, to reshape the XV950 so it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Yes, they got that idea from Harley, but there’s something about the Yamaha that makes you more willing to tamper.

Another facet of the bike that I prefer is its size. It is bigger than the 883 Sportster. That benefits me because I’m 6 foot 1. If you’re a little shorter in the leg, the XV950 still has a very low seat (27 in.) but you may prefer the more compact nature of the Sportster. 

Some room for improvement
Though the XV950 is a great bike and I find myself now very seriously considering getting one, I have to admit that there are a few tiny foibles. The wind issue, for example. Even with the bullet cowling a winter ride is going to demand a good, thick sweater. And I suspect the “avoid motorways” box would be ticked more often when planning trips on Google Maps.

But that’s just part of the experience, I suppose –– something to get used to. The same is true of the heat that comes off the XV950’s air-cooled engine. You definitely notice it –– especially on your right knee/calf. Admittedly, that’s probably an added benefit in Britain for 48 weeks of the year. I can imagine it being incredibly helpful in combating my notoriously cold hands. But for that month that we get something resembling a summer I suspect that suffering traffic on the XV950 would be a little uncomfortable.

On the issue of comfort, although the rider’s seat and ergonomics are great, the same can’t really be said of passenger accommodation. At least it exists, I suppose; pillion seats are add-on options for the Iron 883 and the Star Bolt in the United States. For some reason, in the UK the XV950 comes standard with a cushy brick of a seat that is long enough for a normal-sized human being, but not so terribly wide that he or she would want to go on really long journeys. Add to this the fact that the passenger pegs are quite high. I suspect the seating position would remind Jenn of a visit to the gynecologist.

Meanwhile, I am somewhat on the fence when it comes to the XV950’s digital speedometer. I suppose the accuracy of a digital display helps one avoid speeding tickets but I just can’t decide if I’d prefer a good old-fashioned analog speedo. I know that I would like a tachometer, though, as well as a gear indicator and fuel gauge. But none of those things are really deal breakers for me.

My main complaint is the price. At £7,800, the XV950R (i.e., the version with anti-lock brakes) costs £300 more than an ABS-equipped Iron 883. OK, yes, it is still a fair price. And the cost of the Harley would go up considerably if you added the pillion seat and better shocks that are standard on the XV950R. But, still, £300 dude. Especially considering the Yamaha won’t have as good a resale value.

The three questions

In order for me to seriously consider a motorcycle it needs to answer in the affirmative to the following three questions:

1) Does it fit my current needs and lifestyle?
Yes. Long hauls to Scotland or the like would probably demand one or two additional pit stops (if not simply because the tank’s range is only about 120 miles) but by and large I can see this bike taking me to all the places I want to go, doing all the thing I want it to do.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. It is loads of fun in acceleration, moves fluidly through corners, looks cool and sounds great. Over and over on my test ride I found myself whooping at the bike’s torque and quietly, vainly delighted by the idea of how I looked on it. As much as I love my Honda, this bike offers the same levels of reliability with the addition of having a look that is more in line with my traditional view of what a motorcycle should look like.

3) Is it better than my current motorcycle?
Yes. Pretty much. Obviously its engine delivers fewer horses than my CBF600, and that means achieving outrageously illegal speeds would be more of a challenge. Additionally, it lacks the fairing of my Honda. But otherwise, as I’ve just said, it delivers all the fuel efficiency and reliability of my bike, but in a much cooler, more fun-to-ride way.

Perhaps I don’t need any other bike than my CBF600, but the Yamaha XV950 really makes me want one.

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(a) When I was 18 years old that song was my mission statement; my raison d’être expressed in musical form.

(b) If you are a member of South Wales Police, please note: the claim of 85 mph is a lie. I never ride above the speed limit.