EASY-RIDER MEETS SPORTS-TOURER
I took the Yamaha TDM 900 for a test-ride as part of my quest to find my choice of affordable sports-tourer bikes. I already had favourites from Honda, Suzuki, Triumph and Ducati, but when it came to Yamaha the choice wasn’t so easy. Sadly, (because I’ve owned quite a few Yamahas and so have a certain affinity with that brand), Yamaha don’t really have a direct equivalent to the likes of the Triumph Sprint, Ducatil ST3, etc. There is the FJR1300, but that's grown to be a bit big and heavy, as well as a bit too expensive. The FZ1 used to be a good option, even though with that big prominent engine it was a kind of muscle-bike sports-tourer. I liked it though. But then it became even more sports-orientated. A “road-burner with a half-fairing” was how it has been described. And I’d found it quite uncomfortable to sit on. So that left the TDM900. But that was certainly worthy of consideration. Some people regard the TDM as a sort of “poor-man’s BMW GS”, but despite it’s tall stature and slightly larger front wheel (it’s only an 18”; the rear is the usual 17”), it was never meant to be that, and Yamaha don’t promote it as such. They describe it as an “all-purpose sports bike”, capable of “blasting clear of traffic, lunging up a winding mountain road, or sports touring with luggage and a friend”. So, at least in their eyes, it meets the bill pretty well for what we’re after here. Although the reality is that it is quite different to most other sports-tourers. I rode this the same day as I rode the Honda VFR800; and the two bikes couldn’t have been further apart within the boundaries of the sports-tourer class. Where the Honda tended more towards the “sports” end of the equation, the Yamaha was much more “touring”. It’s meant to be an “easy-riding” sort of bike. This was most evident in the seating-position; the Honda being "lean-forward-sporty", while the Yamaha was very up-right; almost like sitting on a cruiser. It’s quite tall (seat height is 825mm) but not uncomfortably so; well, not for my long legs anyway. The seat itself is fairly narrow (which helps disguise the height), but is quite comfortable; not “plush”, but comfortable. It’s very different in appearance too! Even the dealer admitted that the bike’s styling is one thing that has effected it’s sales. Personally, I think it’s quite okay from the side; it’s just the screen that looks weird! It looks like they forgot the screen, and then decided to put one on by just whacking it on top, squashing the headlight as they did so. It looks like an after-thought; and a fairly ugly one at that! But Yamaha are going to fix this. The “2007” model (which will be released in the first half of the year) has come in for a re-style which improves the appearance quite a bit. At this point I should mention that the bike I rode wasn’t actually a new one; it was 2nd-hand. But as the dealer said, the only difference between this and the current (2006/2007) model is the colour (which is probably a good thing; “canary-yellow” isn’t my favourite colour for a bike, and doesn’t suit the TDM much either!). “This is exactly the same to ride as a new one,” he said. All specifications etc are the same. The bike seems well-built and solid. The fairing, for example, was sturdy and well-bolted into place (unlike the FZ6 which I rode shortly after). It’s solid, but not heavy; weight is 192kg. Instruments are dominated by a big central analogue tacho, with a smaller digital display to the left housing speedo and fuel-gauge (and other things, which I didn’t try, at the press of a button). On the right is an analogue temperature gauge. Start the bike and the easy-going nature continues. The first thing you notice is that it’s fairly quiet; with just enough sound there to make it interesting. The TDM is a parallel-twin, producing 63kw and 88Nm of torque. Yamaha have designed the engine with a 270-degree firing-angle, allegedly to capture the feel and vibes of a V-twin. But there aren’t any real vibes there. Well, there are I suppose, but they’re very well damped. Rev the bike at standstill and you can hear the characteristic twin sound, and feel it slightly, but the vibes are never intrusive. The TDM is very different to the Honda in character too. The Honda is more focused; it says, “Keep your mind on the job, and we’ll have a great ride together!” The Yamaha is much more easy-going; it says, “Just sit back and relax, and we’ll have a nice relaxing ride together!” Where the Honda can protest if you don’t treat it properly, (like not having enough revs on take-off or down-shifts etc), the Yamaha doesn’t complain if you’re a bit sloppy with gear-changes or try taking-off at near-idle-speed. I intentionally did the same down-change-with-closed-throttle that I’d done with the Honda, and the TDM just pulled back a bit as the revs rose and went happily on it’s way. The easy-to-ride nature is evident right from the moment you pull out of the driveway and it continues the further you ride it. The controls are all easy and light to use, the gear-change is smooth, and there’s plenty of go right from idle speed. It’s very forgiving if you get caught in the wrong gear at a roundabout etc. The engine is impressive! It’ll pull cleanly from under 2,0000rpm, but still has good acceleration if you give it some throttle. It’s the type of bike where it’s smoothness disguises how quick it actually is. But it is quick! As an example, I took the TDM along a familiar back-road to some farms. Along this road there's a short straight, exactly 500m long, with a right-angle bend at each end. Ever since the first XJ600 I owned I have occasionally gone along that road, turned onto the straight and gunned it up to 110kph, (which even on the XJ was reached at about half distance), then sat on that for a few moments before braking for the next turn. To me, it’s impressive performance in a short distance; especially when you start and finish at almost walking pace. So I did the same on the TDM; turned slowly onto the straight then opened it up. I saw 140 on the speedo, which I held briefly, before backing off and braking to turn around at the next corner. Yep, it goes! The bike is surprisingly high-geared. You notice this even from 1st gear pulling out of the driveway. Top gear (of 6) pulls 28kph / 1,000rpm. So at a cruising speed of 110 it’s doing just on 4,000rpm. (5,000rpm comes up at 140!). And it doesn’t really like being under 4,000rpm in top. So you reserve top gear for open-road cruising. With the bike being 2nd-hand, I wondered if that was the original gearing; but later, when I rode the Ducati ST3, that ran exactly the same gearing. So I assume it’s standard, and is intended to give easy cruising. And easy cruising is something it certainly does. The bike is very relaxed and stable at high speed. Despite the high gearing there aren’t any noticeable gaps between the gears. The engine’s torque and general flexibility mean that it goes easily from one gear to the next, without wanting another one inbetween. I was enjoying the engine and the solid feel of the bike; but there were aspects that I wasn’t enjoying. The bars felt a bit strange – kind of tilting upwards at the ends. And the "sit-up-straight" riding position is something I don’t particularly like. I’ve mentioned this in a couple of other articles, but the problem with this is that when your spine is vertical to the road, any road shocks are sent straight up your spine. Another problem is that it tends to encourage you to slouch; not a good posture for the old back! (Or a young back, for that matter!). The ride isn’t as good as you’d expect. I’d read criticisms of this in some road tests; so I deliberately took it along a section of road that is patched bitumen, and where the patches just about out-number the spots of original surface. And the patches are pretty rough. Along here the ride was quite jiggly – not what you’d expect from the long-travel suspension. Larger bumps are absorbed okay, but the smaller ones get through more than they should. Handling is good; although again, it’s very different to, say, the Honda. You can corner it quite quickly, and it feels very stable and holds it’s line well, but it’s not quick to turn in. With that slightly larger front wheel there's a tendency for it to run a bit wide on entry to corners. Brakes are good, but not overly strong. So, a bit of a mixed-bag. I liked the engine, the build-quality, and the easy-to-ride nature of the bike. But I didn’t like the riding position, which was a bit too up-right for my liking. And the ride isn’t as good as it could be. Ditto the handling. I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s a bit too “tourer” and not enough “sports”! I still think that an upright riding position isn’t a good thing, but if you like this cruiser-style position, and if you’re after a tourer (and you can load it up with optional panniers and heated-grips etc) that goes well and handles well, then it would be worthwhile considering. In fact, I reckon it'd be a great bike for someone coming from a cruiser and wanting to get onto a sports-tourer. It has the cruiser-style riding-position, it's got the same sort of relaxed, laid-back nature, but it performs, handles, and rides better than most cruisers. It’s also good value, at $12,999.
I was interested in having another ride on the TDM. Partly to ride an actual current model (although the only difference between the one I rode above and a new one was the paint!), and partly to re-assess things I originally had issues with, such as the ride. I had a good look at these, and a good sit on them, at the Sydney Motorcycle Show, and found the riding-position more acceptable. And it was a bike that I was actually considering buying. The riding-position is very up-right (actually, most Yamahas are, apart the full-on sports-bikes). It's actually quite comfortable though; and of course a matter of personal taste, whether you like this up-right position or not. The seat is quite comfortable too; not plush exactly, but it's pretty good. The bars still feel a bit weird to me. I described it above as feeling as though they were "tilting up at the ends"; they don't, of course, but they aren't angled down as much as usual. The bike is quite tall, but I found that, with my lanky legs, I could easily put both feet flat on the ground on the bike. (Interestingly, on the Suzuki V-Strom I could only just flat-foot the ground, although the seat is actually 5mm lower. Seat width is probably the reason). I took the bike on a fairly short, but varied ride that included city traffic, suburban side-streets, and expressway. The bike handled all these conditions with ease, although it has it's own characteristics. At low revs the engine wasn't as smooth as I recall, and it was also quite snatchy coming on and off the throttle. Get it above 3,000rpm and it was much smoother and happier. The vibes are always there though; it's not as smooth as a 4-cylinder. Cruising on the highway at 110kph it was easy and pleasant, with the screen doing a pretty good job of keeping the wind away. Handling was better than I recall with the one above. (Tyres, perhaps?). This bike handles well! It turned-in easily and steered very accurately. Easy to change line through a corner, and easy to tip in. Another thing that was better than the example I previously rode was the brakes. Brakes (front ones anyway) are straight off the (earlier model) R1 and are excellent! Although the rear suspension was set-up towards the softer end of it's adjustment, the ride was still not as plush as you'd expect from the long-travel suspension. It's not harsh, but neither does it absorb the bumps as well as you'd think it would. So, in summary, it's a good bike. And the graphics on the fairing, and different treatment of the screen, improve the appearance quite a lot. In fact I've grown to quite like it! So, a good bike, but I do still have some issues; mainly with the ride, and the snatchy throttle action at low revs. I'd also prefer the smoothness of a multi, but that's just personal preference. I said one of the reasons I re-tested this was that I was considering buying one. This ride kind of re-affirmed my earlier decision that this bike just isn't for me. But it's still a good bike; and as several testers have said, it deserves to be more popular than it is.
Again, no changes are listed for this long-running model. Except for paint. The current models come in either "Gun Metallic", (which is a kind of metallic grey, with a dark red seat), or black. Go for the black one, which has a normal black seat. This is a bike that should be better than it is; although it is still good. Far better than its (lack of) popularity indicates, in fact. Jiggly ride on low-amplitutde bumps, and with the last one I rode, low-speed fuelling, were the main criticisms. The suspension is fully-adjustable, so that can cure the ride to some extent, but not totally from what I've heard.
P.S. Weight (wet, with 20 litres of fuel) is stated by the manufaturer at 223kg.
Owner's Comment. According to an owner I spoke to recently, the fuelling problems at low revs is a common problem, but can be fixed - by fitting a Power Commander after-market ECU. Actually, his had a Staintune exhaust and this comes (optionally) with their own version of the Power Commander, and cures the low-rev fuel injection problems. Good to know! (Although you'd think Yamaha could've got this right themselves, wouldn't you!). Thanks, Greg.
No changes from the one I rode in 2008, and not even paint changes since 2010.
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