Rated – Yamaha XT 660 R

A simple design classic for 40 years? Legendary status? Overland hero and learner bike legend? Surely Yamaha’s XT has earned some Brake time? 

There is nothing remarkable about this bike. It does nothing exciting, doesn’t go very fast and won’t make your heart race. It has no electronic gizmos or technology to speak of at all and doesn’t stand out from the crowd in any shape or form. What a way to start a test report. I sound like I’m giving the Yamaha XT660R a real slating but I’m not. I offer all the of the above on a plate and say: look, you don’t need much more than that do you really?

Just over ten years ago when I rode the new generation of XT660s for the first time it was the X model, in basically the same form as the R we have here but with supermoto wheels bolted in. At the time I lived up one end of London and worked in the other, blasting through the centre of the city for a week or so on the 660X was a bit like someone had let me off the leash. In a world of constantly dodging cars, taxis, buses, cyclists and pedestrians it felt alert like a cat chasing a butterfly. Deceptively so if I recall because, in reality it shouldn’t be. I found myself bouncing off curbs like they were jumps, popping wheelies off speed bumps and more or less enjoying what was ordinarily a shitty ride. I shouldn’t have been because this single cylinder engine has a lazy, old character, less than 50 horses to pull it along and all the excitement of cat sleeping on a hot tin roof.

A friend of mine, let’s call him Dan Walsh, did “16,000 miles across 18 (or is it nineteen?) countries in twelve dusty, sandy, swampy, sweaty months.” After enough abuse, frightening close calls and half-arsed wheelies to last 12 years, Dan’s XT (an XT600E model by the way) came out the other end battered but in his own words “king of the road” and a bike with “perfect poise and the built-in balance of a ballerina. Even when ridden by a chimp.” Which is exactly what the XT660R (any XT) is all about.

Especially when ridden by a chimp I’d add, which is no disrespect to Dan but more respectful of how well Yamaha designed the bike. A bike that can get you across Africa, albeit without too much excitement, is a bike worth taking note of. A bike that will tackle half-arsed attempts on sand dunes, bumble along endless stony tracks and despite some overloaded, lop-sided and badly tied saddle bags (with spare boots and tyres slung on top) still carry a fat man carefully across a rusty bridge above a raging river.

I’m thinking of some of these memories when we trundle out of Bristol city centre, away from Fowlers Motorcycles where we plucked this beautiful showroom condition 3000mile bike (you’d never know it) and out through the suburbs. I was thinking about that week on the updated 660-engined model in London but also about Dan’s reports back from all over Africa and how the hell it, the poor bike, coped.

It coped because right from the off this 660R feels completely in my control. Small, low seat, decent steering lock, quite a light and balanced feels and easy to control in a way I hadn’t really felt from a bike in a while if I’m honest. I wasn’t expecting much to be but the XT is a pleasant surprise.

It’s still useful as a city bike in X form the bigger front wheel size (21-inch) makes little difference – though this one had been so carefully owned by its one previous owner he or she’d forgotten to lean it over or use the brakes, ever.  It felt so new it was almost like the engine was tight still and the brakes needed getting warm and wet to bed the pads in again. Clearly it was used as a simple, cheap and economical ride.

Off the beaten track even further and it stays exactly that way – easy, comfortably simple and never flustered.

The XT660 is never going to get your pulse racing too highly unless you do take it across Africa. You can, as Dan proves, have an enormous horizon to aim at as your journey’s end but what the XT does so well is help you think more about the journey and less about the thing taking you there. Which is to say it lives under you selflessly just plodding away and lets you get on with other stuff.

It’s condescending but it’s true to say this XT never feels like it doesn’t want to just be there by your side easily tracking a steady path on any terrain. We hit upon a pretty but rocky track for the pictures in this test. At one point it got narrow and inclined uphill – nothing too bad but the kind of thing that would have been called a trials section 80 years ago. The XT plodded up there in first gear like there was never any doubt that’s the way we were going. Some bikes baulk at the idea of something a bit more technical but the 21-inch front tyre was being pushed along by a soft chug of 660 power.

The controls are light enough to use and with such a soft power delivery the throttle keeps everything, well, in hand. The only negative really is a slightly heavy clutch. It feels old-skool heavy, like the plates are too big and the springs are too strong so when you’ve been on the lever in heavy traffic for a spell you start to notice your forearm muscle.

In fact there aren’t too many times when the 660 becomes consciously ‘there’ under you, in town that clutch lever made itself known to me but it also shrinks like a violet when you take it on a big, fast road. On motorways it feels small and lacks power to the point where you feel vulnerable. With barely enough oomph to get into the fast lane and sitting at eye-level with flatbed truck trailers makes you and it feel like small-fry all of a sudden. Out of context. The XT will do it for sure but you have to be alert to the fact not everyone can see you too well.

You’re better off, as we did, staying on the more interesting roads and enjoying the ride. On country lanes the XT660R is perfectly adapted, if still a little soft-edged. Take it off the beaten track even further and it stays exactly that way – easy, comfortably simple and never flustered. Keep going down those beaten tracks until the asphalt has run out and the river rocks have algae on them and it is still exactly the same forever doting companion.

The XT500, legend has it, blazed a bit of a trail back in 1975.

Yet this is a classic motorcycle and even though the design of body panels and headlights has changed dramatically these days it is still a bike with credibility. A long and distinguished family tree led to this current 660 single-engined XT. The XT500, legend has it, blazed a bit of a trail back in 1975 when it was originally launched as a cross trail (hence the XT) bike for the masses. Some say it was all down to the Americans who asked for a big single trail bike to cover great open spaces. In fact it had decent enduro success back in those seventies as well as spawning a road version (SR500) which, along with the XT500 models from the era have both become classics. Expensive ones at that if you browse eBay.

Yamaha has literally sold masses around the globe ever since. It’s been a particularly popular model in countries like America and Australia where, despite the world moving on somewhat and on the whole getting more exciting in terms of engine character, brake and suspension performance, the XT remains a popular, useful tool.

The reasons for that are bloody simple, because it is bloody simple. The engine character is soft, as I’ve said probably enough by now, but it is linear and does allow you to explore more or less throttle in different situations. For a less experienced rider these things are invaluable, especially if you’re going to use this bike as a stepping stone to bigger things.

From a learner point of view it is perfect fodder but even with a few more miles under your belt this is a capable bike. Whatever your level it is in your control, particularly alongside so many other adventure bikes, many of which can be daunting prospects. Sure they have more performance and more buttons to press but there’s definitely a place in the world for less complicated and smaller motorcycles which don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t.

there’s definitely a place in the world for less complicated and smaller motorcycles which don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t.

Look around the 660 and clearly there are some parts which haven’t been developed much in twenty years. Very simple, cheap to produce parts litter the chassis and you can pretty well see why the cost is so relatively low. Some reports claim the XT600 is a better round the world tool because the newer 660 models are cheaper build. But it kind of doesn’t matter, you don’t expect anything more and it is surely a bike to work on a bit if you’re going to go travelling.

Having a cheap price tag allows you to add-on a few extra stronger parts of your choice – I’ve seen a few knocking about with saucier exhaust pipes and upgraded handlebars too. The pipes would help the 660 engine breath better, as well as sound better. The bars would be useful too because although the standing position is good on the pretty wide standard footrests, my hands do feel a bit low riding the XT around. A bit higher, possibly further forward would help with control, on and off-road.

From an overlanding point of view, as a travel tool, the XT is a capable old cult-classic. Sure, you could want more power, more miles from a tank, more bike even but you’d be hard-pushed to leave me behind if I said to you on your KTM 1290 Adventure, “right, I’ll see you in Cape Town.” I found the XT660R comfortable, though we didn’t spend a million miles on it, the seat is broad and the riding position fine. It’s a robust and practical bike too which evidently adapts well to being treated like a workhorse.

It’s popular as a travel bike because it is so easy to ride and live with but also reliable and basic to maintain. The uncomplicated single-cylinder engine is, as we often say in motorcycle magazine world, a ‘bullet-proof’ design which welcomes a regular oil change to chuff along for years and miles. You can read reports online but frankly you can read things online about any bike you choose. In principle you can’t go far wrong with an XT.

A common aftermarket fitment is a stronger shock absorber, not an uncommon modification on many bikes of this ilk. If you’re going a long way on an older bike a bit better support from the back suspension will help simply because in standard form it is a tad too soft. Cuddly is welcoming for a while but if this were my bike I’d be seeking out a bit more damping and some stronger springs front and rear to support the bike better off-road.

Aftermarket specialists make over-size tanks for the XT and if you bolt-on some handguards and possibly a bit more engine protection then you could have innocent spills all day long to no effect. The standard bashplate is pretty good as it goes, way better than some adventure bikes which cost double the price. But I’d want a bit more protection around some of the sticky-out engine parts personally than you get as standard. Fish around and you’ll find some really good parts available for the XT660 including rally fairing kits which look the bomb.

I think I’ve made it pretty clear the Yamaha XT660R is a great bike, and clearly makes a good adventure bike. Never, ever will it get your heart racing, it’ll leave that up to you to frighten yourself crossing wobbly bridges or attempting to tackle sand dunes. But it’ll get you to those river crossings and deserts a thousand times.

Being impressively simple in a world that gains technology with every step sounds like a negative but for many, simple is better because it is reliable and easily fixed. Factor in the price of the XT660R (you could buy five of these immaculate used 660s for the price of a new KTM 1290 Super Adventure), of service intervals, running costs, parts availability, parts needed to make it useful adventure bike and so much is stacked in its favour. Let’s hear it for the little guy.

With thanks to Fowlers Motorcycles for the kind loan of this barely run-in 3000mile XT. www.fowlers.co.uk

Did you like this article? Brake is an independent magazine, producing free content online. We aim to make detailed, honest, quality content. The downside being that it comes at a cost. If you would like to support our reviews and travel stories, you can do so for a little as the cost of a coffee. Thanks for reading!