Same route, same weather, same pilot, same pillion, two bikes…
YAMAHA MT-09 TRACER
According to the mainstream bike press, the Tracer was the one to be on. For a start it is cheaper and lighter than the Honda: a lot cheaper (by nearly £2k) and around 30 kilos lighter at the kerb. Those are objective differences, but more subjectively commentators have found the Yamaha to be more fun, more of a blast than the Honda, some going as far to herald the Tracer as their bike of the year. You can’t measure subjectivity, but you can scrutinise the claims.
In some ways the Tracer concept (full spec here) is reminiscent of another lauded, budget Yam: the excellent FZS 600 Fazer. Both machines took as their starting point motors from extant production bikes – the latter utilised a modified Thundercat lump, while the Tracer shares its power plant with the naked MT-09. And in many ways the Tracer and the first generation Fazer are both better real world bikes than their donor relatives. There can be no disputing the Tracer’s superiority to the original MT-09 , whose combination of iffy suspension and poor fuelling are well documented (not least on these pages).
The Tracer fuels like the MT-09 should have done first time around, but still isn’t perfect in sports / full power mode, where some snatchy vibes coming off a neutral throttle are evidenced. Nevertheless, it represents a massive leap forward in comparison with the original 09. The suspension feels better damped in this incarnation, although when push really comes to shove most adventure bikes require a leap of faith – that front wheel can feel remote, the distance magnified by long travel suspension. The Tracer is no exception in this respect, despite otherwise handling with aplomb.
This relative lack of weight for a quasi adventure bike, plus the Tracer’s rev rewarding triple, made us regret that Yamaha weren’t brave enough to step away from a trend, and style the bike as a contemporary sports tourer. The 17 inch front wheel and lack of any real off road ability – also evident in the non switchable ABS – render the relatively high and wide bars and general ergonomics a distraction rather than a boon. They undermine some serious potential. It’s like the bike is wearing the wrong drag: this could have been the true successor to the old FZS, a machine Yamaha never succeeded in replacing convincingly. Instead we have yet another adventure clone whose styling hinders rather than helps the bike’s undoubted ability. We’ve said it many times: all motorcycles are compromised, courtesy of the laws of physics, but adventure bikes are compromised conceptually. This does not mean the Tracer is a disappointment: it just means that maybe Yamaha’s triple has yet to be housed in the home it deserves.
Seat height is adjustable but you begin at a relatively tall 845 cm, another nod to adventure styling. Despite adjustability, riders have reported the standard, lower screen to be ineffective. Unfortunately the taller one looks like the hastily thought out bolt on it is, and the upper rim kept bisecting my line of vision when riding, something initial adjustment failed to banish. Sure, one adapts quickly to this kind of predicament and a workable solution would have been found, but adaptation to the look of the thing might be harder to come by. The riding modes work well, and allied to the switchable TC meant the bike could be confidently gassed out of bends in all conditions, something which felt like an unpredictable gamble on the original MT-09. Unfortunately, ride modes can only be switched from a closed throttle – a minor irritation but an irritation nonetheless.
The radial brakes worked well enough, but the ABS seemed on the intrusive side when called into play, with a lot of old school judder present. My pillion noticed plenty of weight transfer – more compression damping might have helped (although the rear seemed plenty firm enough to the pillion), and both of us found the saddle a pain in the arse after a 90 minutes in situ. The Tracer is essentially a fun, solo rider conveyance with a motor that responds to hard riding, although in doing so you will find limits which could have been avoided in a more conventional, less fashion orientated set up. So how does the Crossrunner compare?
HONDA VFR 800X CROSSRUNNER
The Honda feels more composed, smoother, more refined – but despite hauling those extra kilos the Crossrunner handled every bit as well as the Tracer. Bg tested the VFR 800 whose V4 motor powers the Crossrunner, and the latter boasts pretty much identical power and torque figures – full spec here. The strange thing is that the V4 feels more integrated and more refined in its new home: vestigial V-Tec kick was still discernible on the new VFR 800 – on the Crossrunner you simply don’t notice it. What you do notice is a glorious induction rasp when all the valves kick in at around 6k revs. The bike sounds proper, aided to some extent by the Akrapovic end can.
The three stage traction control and ABS felt more sophisticated than on the Tracer: Honda are old hands at ABS and when it arrives it does so smoothly. The TC retards ignition and alters fuel input: the result feels integral, and not as though some mysterious force has snapped the machine back into line. The Honda does a better job of warding off wind blast than the Yamaha – the bars are narrower, and the bike feels more sit in than sit on, offering a lower start point than the Tracer, while the saddle itself is more comfortable. For all these reasons, plus a more compliant (and more easily adjustable) rear shock, the pillion preferred the Honda.
Nevertheless, the two factors in which the Honda struggles in comparison with the Tracer – excess mass and excess cost – are harder to shrug off, although both problems are mitigated to a certain extent. Those extra kilos aren’t so noticeable when you’re up and running, although with a pillion at slow speeds you are occasionally conscious of the bike wanting to plunge into a corner, albeit not to an alarming degree. But what do you get for your extra two grand? Quality detailing, an Akrapovic end can, a remote rear reservoir, Tom Tom sat nav, a topbox and LED lighting. And a bike which feels developed: Honda have transformed the Crossrunner compared to the bike’s mk.1 incarnation, but a weight loss of just 1.5 kilos still leaves the bike one of the heaviest in an increasingly overcrowded class. It is to Yamaha’s credit that with the MT-07 and 09 variants they have demonstrated that budget bikes do not have to be compromised by excessive tonnage, and in doing so started to reverse a depressing trend.
From an aesthetic point of view, the Crossrunner looks more restrained and better finished: the Tracer has a bit more of the ‘look at me’ factor about it. It is visually the louder bike. If you like being the centre of attention, the Tracer will catch the eye. The things that look well on the Honda – the wheels, swing arm and paint quality are particularly satisfying – are more likely to be noticed by bikers with an eye for detail. The difference in appearance between the two machines serves as metaphor for the totality of their differences: brash vs. restrained, new vs. developed, surface vs. depth, cheap vs. expensive…
The thing about comparative bike tests is that immediate fun counts for an awful lot: the machine which feels lighter, more rev happy, with more ‘aggressive’ geometry (like a low caster angle, smaller rake, shorter wheelbase) is likely to find favour – when in reality more a more relaxed, stable ride can actually allow the pilot to go faster in the long run, a point often lost in all the excitement. In a recent UK test (MCN, 26/8/15) the Yamaha came out on top, but tellingly the testers preferred the Honda for mile busting and all wanted to be on it when the inevitable rain came. It is up to the individual reader to decode this mixed message.
In the final analysis, any prospective buyer has to draw his/her own conclusions: which is the bike that feels most like it was designed to meet your needs? There’s not a lot of point in saving money when experience tells you the other bike would have suited you better more of the time. On that subjective basis, the Crossrunner got our vote. The quasi Adventure market is a crowded place these days – it’s easy to loose count of the Triumph contenders on their own – and anyone seriously interested in investing in it is going to have to put a fair bit of time aside for testing. But it remains the only way…