Yamaha XT 660 Brake Magazine © 2015

Rated – Yamaha XT 660Z

Images Crafted by Philipp Steinhardt.

Unchanged since 2008 the Yamaha XT660Z is a Dakar-aping, all-terrain adventure bike of the original order. Big with overland travellers and city commuters alike – what’s all the fuss about?

A softer, blurred version of a Dakar bike. Are you really sure you want to go THAT far? You think this bike is comparable to a Dakar bike? Really? That is stretching things a bit far I’ll grant you. There are Dakar racers about these parts and chances are they’re already calling me a dick for saying so, but hear me out.

There’s definitely something about Yamaha’s XT660Z Tenere. Maybe it’s the Dakar-mimicking console and screen sitting up in your line of vision that does it?  Maybe the sweet riding position or possibly it’s simply because everything kind of feels like it should do on an all-terrain bike. When you’re so used to off-the-shelf adventure bikes having niggly ‘issues’ with a riding position closer to a cruiser than a dirt bike and with all the agility of a fat sheep then the XT660Z comes as a surprise.

The reasons I’ve blurted out such an unbelievable statement are basic ones: Yamaha’s mini Tenere feels good to ride on and off-road. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at our images from this test. We spent so much time taking pictures off-road because it felt great riding it off-road. It’ll happily burn through the middle of London as an agile, learner-friendly economical commuter or filter through the giant car park which circles Britain’s capital (aka the M25) but it’ll also do pretty much all you can throw at an adventure bike off the road too and with a skip in it’s step. What more could you want?

An unavoidable fact in life is progress marches on. Passing of time means evolution of motorcycles and we get better bikes than we had previously. The Yamaha XT660, in all its guises hasn’t moved on since its launch in 2008. While some bikes change for the better every couple of years, Yamaha definitely got things right with the XT660Z and stuck right there and then. The ‘ain’t broke don’t fix’ it cliché rarely meant so much on a motorcycle.

I imagine the Yamaha design team have sat back in their chairs after hitting this nail on the head so accurately in ‘08. I’m guessing they set aside an annual couple of weeks for the annual XT660Z change of graphics: “shall we just give it a few tweaks this year? Maybe flames up the side? No?” There’s very little doubt at all in my mind they spend much of their year playing Mad Skills Motocross, eating nachos and dreaming of their annual leave. Yamaha is just happy to let the XT range tick away selling in decent numbers around the world with nothing but a new colour to distinguish differing model years.

Yamaha’s liquid-cooled, four valve, four-stroke single cylinder motor really doesn’t need much talking about either – there’s very little to say other than it is mechanically simple and as reliable as old dogs. The EFI system on this model is smooth and helps the tried and tested motor be economical as it should be. The 24 litre tank is good for 200-plus miles of normal riding and with regular servicing, much of which you can do yourself with a moderate amount of mechanical skill, you’ll keep this single-cylinder motor running for years. It is one of the strongest reasons why the XT is such a popular adventure bike, if you’re idea of travel is to go a long way and be off the beaten track a tad, then you do kinda want a capable chassis and an engine you can rely on to get you there and back with a grin and a memory card full of images. “If you got stuck in a muddy shit-hole in the middle of Africa, I’d rather be on one of these than a Super Ten, GS or Super Adventure.” So says photographer, Phil. It’s a fair point and not just because it is mechanically basic but because it is manageable to ride too.

The single cylinder motor is reliable but you could describe it as soft, maybe even stifled too. Restricted by its airbox and EU-conforming muffler it can’t breath well enough. It’d be something I’d look at if this were my bike. Owners of various shapes and location around the world seem to settle on a small list of upgrades but a better air filter along with an exhaust to help the single cylinder pump out the power better are a popular upgrade to liven it up. The exhaust has a lovely habit of burbling away on the over-run, especially on downhills, but it’s literally muffled with the stock pipe.

 You don’t have to ask that much off-road, most people won’t, but I couldn’t help myself. Yamaha made me do it.

We arrived at notions of muddy shit-holes in Africa because I’d been musing how nice it was to simply get on a bike, turn the key and ride away. It’s rare and genuinely refreshing to live with. You’re more likely to turn the key on and spend [what feels like] half an hour pressing, holding, switching, clicking and scrolling through menus to turn off ABS and traction controls systems. Simple is good and on a bike this user-friendly you don’t really need all the bells and whistles.

It’s a cliché to say too many electrical components makes a bike unreliable, it’s rarely backed-up these days, what with modern motorcycles being so reliable. There are plenty of reasons why the march of progress is a massive positive of course. But still, it is a fair point, if there are less components then there are less things to go wrong and I surely did like the simplicity of riding the XT.

The mini Tenere is relatively cheap too. It costs the same as a Suzuki V-Strom 650 here in the UK (though £500 less than Suzuki’s XT model which his arguably a closer rival). The BMW G650 GS is a similar amount cheaper than the XTZ but, though fundamentally a match, frankly it’s not as capable out the crate as the Tenere. What else? KTM’s closest match is the 690 Enduro, a slightly different, less ADV ready option. Kawasaki make the KLR650 which costs less dollars but isn’t as refined feeling.

What all of the above bikes have in common is the feeling they give the rider of being in control. Like all XTs I’ve ever ridden, and despite this being the tallest on that list, it feels relatively light and controllable. It boils down to the standing riding position, which basically puts my hands and feet right where they should be. With the bars turned forward to a more upright position it worked comfortably on-road for me too. A taller seat height than, say, the G650GS, will be an issue for some (though the XT660R exists and is lower) but it works in your favour once the ball’s rolling, especially off-road where the suspension travel is far better than its rivals.

It feels good to ride off-road, which is what swings it towards that fantasy of being like a Dakar bike. It’s all in the standing riding position, which is comfortable and ‘right’. As a result of that ‘rightness’ the XTZ’s chassis responds to input and that’s all we need as a rule.

There are a few ‘cheaper’ adventure bikes on the market and none of them is really good enough to make me think, “I could set off across Africa on this.” So many times bikes don’t quite work in one or often more ways. Particularly when you stand up and start asking more of it through the footrests and bars. Bikes in this class can suffer with crappy handlebars, poor weight distribution, brakes without enough feel, a chassis that won’t won’t let you take control, a lack of suspension travel…the list could go on. The little Tenere answers these queries with a cheerful, ‘yup!’

Like a slightly over-weight Spaniel it’s surprising how lively and agile the XT660Z can be if you encourage it. The suspension works well enough on some of the whooped-out sections of trail where we tested. The amount of movement from the suspension is a bit much at times and the shock can kick back up off bumps if you’re too giddy but if you don’t ask for more than you should it soaks up off-road comfortably enough.

The good thing is it does nothing untoward, nothing scary happens if you push too hard. With its limited amount of power (just under 50bhp claimed) you have to work a bit harder to get the front wheel to lift over obstacles or through a whoop to help it ride the bump. But the suspension absorbs the shock better than expected and certainly better than many of its rivals can muster off-road.

This is definitely an area where some of its 650cc rivals in the market are lacking. I couldn’t have ridden the BMW and Suzuki 650s in the same manner. They can’t match the fork/shock travel, haven’t got the ground clearance or agility of the mini Tenere and simply I don’t think they are as much fun.

Having said that, a bit of cash spent on the suspension wouldn’t do much harm and is a relatively common tweaks for owners who want their forks and shock a little stiffer to carry pillions or luggage. The shock ultimately couldn’t cope with the way I was riding on the rougher terrain either and needed more damping and a little more stiffness in the spring if you want more than average trail riding from your bike. You don’t have to ask that much off-road, most people won’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself. Yamaha made me do it.

On the front of the bottom triple clamp sits a neat, largely pointless (until you need it, then it would be the most useful thing in the world) towing hook.

The aluminum bashplate in the pictures isn’t standard but the Yamaha optional one and it’s a good aftermarket fitment. The handguards shown are optional ones as well. You wouldn’t know it by looking but they are pretty strong and proved their worth when I whacked a fence post. They clearly work because the fingers on my left hand still work too. I’d be looking out for some wider footrest because the standard ones are a bit too narrow.

There’s also something lurking on this bike which not too many others have fitted – though you have to look to find it. Just under the front light cluster, between forks on the front of the bottom triple clamp sits a neat, largely pointless (until you need it, then it would be the most useful thing in the world) towing hook. How many other bikes have one?

On that similar note details like a sprung gear lever is a practical touch you definitely don’t find on many a ‘budget’ adventure bikes because it’s more of a dirt bike fitment which is a view point too few bikes adopt. The extra metal plate on the clutch cover to protect the brake pedal from catching is a neat touch, as are the detachable pillion pegs and fork gators. They are practical touches and useful.

Various adventure and off-road specialists do a range of bolt-ons for the XTZ – as ever, some of it useful, some of it not so. For example some people will miss not having a centre-stand. A couple of companies make their own water pump protector plate, which would be handy too. Otherwise things are designed well and the lines of the engine are neat and tidy.

On the open road and motorways it is useful, again surprisingly so. Things gets a bit vibey in general if you rev it too much (taking the rubbers off the footrests didn’t help but some vibration is coming through the bars). Keep the revs lower and it purrs away comfortably enough though. You wouldn’t want to sit on a motorway all day on it anyway, I don’t think. You can tackle motorways easily and at about 70 to 80mph I sat comfortably enough behind the screen and console but, like so many great bikes, the XT660Z begs to be ridden somewhere more interesting. There’s enough protection to keep the wind off your body but I did find a bit of extra helmet wind noise. Again, you can get taller screens aftermarket.

What else wasn’t so good? Well, I must admit I did stall it a lot which is unusual for me. It was a hot 30+ ºC summer day in the woods where we did the pictures for this test so we’ll forgive it a little. Metzeler’s Tourance tyres fitted as original equipment to this press bike are fine and dandy but if ever there was bike crying out for more dual-purpose set of hoops this is it. How much better would it look with a set of knobblies fitted?

I hope I’m not getting too giddy about the XT660Z. There’s nothing special here, just a plain, simple bike which did a good job on and off-road without doing anything outstanding. It is set apart from its rivals because it does most things without question and with more skills than most.

It didn’t only meet my memory of the last time I rode one (which would have been when it was launched in 2008) but bettered it – I enjoyed it more than I expected. I did a few miles thinking, this is alright. Got off, moved the bars forward in the clamps, removed the rubbers from the footrests and then happily chased KTM enduro bikes through the woods for hours. Honestly, that ticks a lot of boxes for me.

There’s quite a following for the XT in all its model forms but the 660Z is surely top of the Brake Magazine list. They go for good secondhand prices and there is a ready list of parts suppliers as a well as aftermarket accessories should you really want to turn it into a proper Dakar-a-like.

I was stretching things a bit far to say the Yamaha XT660Z feels like a Dakar bike. Not least because every Dakar bike I’ve ridden has been post-event and therefore utterly shagged. But it does a decent job of mimicking the riding position and to some degree the look. Stood up and blasting down a dusty track flat-out in fourth you’d feel like a Dakar racer too. Aping the bikes which cover the greatest overland event in the world is no bad thing. Having the skills to take you places reliably is no mime act though, it really can get you to a muddy shit-hole in Africa, and out again.

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