Bandwagons bother me. Trends too. They bother me because there’s nothing particularly organic about them. Few, if any, bandwagons have ever been unsolicited or just ‘happened’. There’s often a hand at the tiller, steering these ‘happenings’ into the public consciousness. Being very clever at manipulating the masses into wanting whatever it is at the centre of the maelstrom.
Furbies, big beards, One Direction… doesn’t matter which. And so to the world of motorcycles and the trend for the retro superbike. Big machines from the 70s and 80s with bouncy suspension and spongy brakes. Lots of aggressive big power delivery and little in the way of either flim or flam to spoil the vibration- laced view of the horizon speeding towards you.
This a popular trend right now. And it’s easy to see why. Riding those type of bikes back then was without much charm or appreciation simply because there was nothing better as an alternative. This is what you rode if you wanted to go fast and that was it. Today though we have that hindsight, the ability to have some appreciation for the innate charm of those old bikes because there are many, many bikes that have better handling, brakes, manners, tech and speed than the old stuff from a few decades back.
So we see the old stuff for what it is – real, involved fun at a slower pace all-round than the ultra modern options out on the road now. And it’s here where the problem can lie with this sort of modern offering, the type of thing where there’s a corporate hand on the tiller steering a modern version of a bike that should really only ever be about being authentic and real. Imagine you’re the designer of a new retro superbike roadster. How much new suspension do you put on the bike? Too much and you lose that old-school charm, too little and the bike’s a pogoing mess over the bumps and overbanding. Then there’s the motor, do you smooth out power delivery with finely tuned fuel injection or leave some lumpiness to give the motorcycle a bit of ‘character’? Brakes like the bike’s been run into a brick wall or little-feedback sponginess? You get the idea.
It’s authenticity that we want on our bikes. An authentic cruiser is fine, as is an authentic scooter, trail bike, anything. Authentic will find the audience it deserves for no other reason than it’s the real deal. And folks will always like the real deal, they appreciate the honesty. So for Yamaha to revisit the XJR in its 20th year and give the venerable air-cooled motor a revamp that ties in with the trend for funky customs seemed like a no-brainer.
It seemed that way because in the XJR, Yamaha has a bike that epitomises and genuinely does come from the latter part of the era which the ‘retro modern customs’ trend is chasing. This truly is an authentic motorcycle. And if Yamaha gets it right, knows when to stop the twiddling and the fiddling, then it’ll hit on one corker of a machine.
So now we’ve established the marketplace and the wants of the buyer, to an extent, let’s say what’s different about the new XJR1300 in comparison to the old version. Well, the changes to the bike are effectively cosmetic. There’s a slimmer petrol tank, a new solo seat option, funky side-covers where numberplates would go, new handlebars with three different options of bend, the blacked-out 4-2-1 exhaust and other tweaks for looks here and there. There are also two versions of the new XJR available; the standard and Café Racer. The Café Racer gets a host of parts to change riding position and looks.
A host of other features remain the same as the 1999 model, from the five-speed constant mesh transmission, 298mm dual disc front brakes and single 267mm rear to the double cradle steel frame and telescopic fork. During the world launch of the XJR, I rode both the standard and the café racer versions of the bike and it’s amazing how different a bike can feel with just fairly rudimentary changes to riding position.
The Café Racer pitches you much more forward and prone on the bike, thanks to the clip-on handlebars. While the riding position looks great (arguably it’s THE rider silhouette for this type of bike) it puts too much weight on your wrists. The knockback being that your hands and wrists get increasingly tired and become prone to things like vibration – there’s a fair bit on the XJR at low to midrange revs as you make your way through town traffic at peak times.
I could manage about an hour on the bike before the odd shake of the arm came along to negate the numb wrist action. The prone position keeps you out of any windblast at higher speeds but there’s a problem with the very-custom-café cut-down fairing if you decide to really wind the 1300 on and want to tuck in on the bike.
Getting really low on the XJR is easy but the café racer fairing is too full of fittings so you can’t actually see in front of you. The answer is to hover your head about five inches over the tank when properly tucked in. But it couldn’t have been too hard to sort this issue out in the early stages of design. Mind you, I’m not entirely sure if any owner of this bike would want to ride like that anway, the fairing is more aout taking some of the windblast away at motorway speeds than going flat out.
On both versions of the bike, the seat is terrific. Its narrowed-down profile and good support make the XJR a doddle to paddle around at standstill and the set-up really lets you get hunkered-in to the bike in the corners. It’s a treat.
The suspension can feel a touch crude at times – cranked over in fourth gear for a long series of sweeping corners saw ripples and bumps in the road that the suspension was struggling with a bit, but the bike’s overall chassis is so well-refined that it shrugged off the pogoing front end and just rode through the issue straight and true.
As far as the chassis goes, it’s great. The XJR actually feels like it should be a wallowy old Hector into the corners because on the straight bits of road there’s an inherent easiness to the ride – like it has a monstrously long wheelbase or something. But get into the twisties and the bike’s character really comes through. The previously muted new exhaust goes from obedient puppy to angry lion snarl at the click of a finger and the XJR is terrific to turn in pretty hard while still hitting the brakes. It’ll stick to the line easily, it’s a very forgiving machine.
There’s no ABS for the brakes, which might worry the newer rider who is used to such affordable things on virtually every bike these days, but if, like me, you’re of a certain age where you grew up – literally – on bikes with decent brakes bereft of modern trickery like ABS then these brakes will be a welcome return. There’s plenty of feedback and feel from the stoppers and locking them up is incredibly easy for the ham-fisted, for the rest of us what this means is that you can really use front and back brakes as you want. Lock ’em, don’t lock ’em – lift the back wheel off the floor, all stable and under as much control as you can muster, mister.
There’s some nice touches to the dash on this model too, the two analogue dials tell you speed and revs, there’s a small digital screen with fuel and temp information on it and other than the usual run of idiot lights that’s about it. Keeping it simple without even a gear indicator to worry about, but then who of a certain age really needs a gear indicator these days?
As you would expect from this air-cooled engine, a lot of heat comes off the cylinders, so much so that during fairly low temperatures and soaking rain I used the warmth from the motor to warm my hands for a few seconds during stops at junctions. On a hot day you can’t feel the engine heat while on the move but once you stop it is instantly there to remind you of the type of motor and cooling system you’re working hard.
Pillions get a cursory nod with a fairly small seat and quite a big leg bend to the footrests. Big miles on an XJR two-up will not be the sort of thing you’re likely to end up doing. But one thing that you will end up doing a lot is filling up. At just 14 litres (down from the previous bike’s 21) the tank looks a real proper part of the retro scene because it’s small and slim… but 14 litres really isn’t anywhere near enough for this type of bike and I’m sure that owners will quickly become frustrated at the frequency of petrol stops too.
On the subject of feeding the motor, the XJR’s fuelling is basically unchanged since the last upgrade in 2007, it’s still as smooth as silk and makes power from low-down to 10,000rpm but be aware that the torque curve on this bike doesn’t really get going until about 4000rpm. Drop below that (in a higher gear on a switchback mountain bend, for example) and the XJR will just fart and burble into trouble. You still need to stir the gearbox on this bike to get it to hustle along. For me, that’s part of the pleasure of riding it.
After the Yamaha Tracer launch last year I said that it felt like Yamaha had its mojo back. That it was making motorcycles again that needed a rider to ride them. Yamaha used to be about being good at lots of things but being best at complementing the rider’s style and skill. And that stands true with the XJR. It’s a bike that has the look, the real heritage and the style. It’s got presence and attitude when needed. But it all counts for nothing unless there’s a pretty switched on rider on its back hustling. Get that and the XJR cannot only walk the trendy line of fashion with the most cred of any of them out there but it also puts its superbike tracksuit on and goes a few rounds on a Sunday morning. And that’s a pretty rare thing, these days.