Yamaha XT1200Z Super Ténéré | First Ride

From Dakar with love

By Roland Brown, Photography by Paul Barshon, Alessio Barbanti, Friedman Kirn

Riding Yamaha's new XT1200Z Super Ténéré to the South of France in May wasn't supposed to cause frostbite. But here on a steep mountain pass on my way to the acclaimed vacation spot, I'm wiping snow from my visor with a frigid hand. The entire trip has been cold and wet, and now the sleet has turned to swirling white flakes that are ruining visibility and reducing traction.

The Ténéré's name stems from the Ténéré region of the Sahara, where this bike's predecessor dominated the Dakar Rally with seven wins in the '90s. It's labelled an adventure bike, and it's hard to deny that this launch is becoming an adventure. The XT's steel crash bars, spoked wheels and shaft drive convey the bike's purpose, and the go-anywhere image is emphasized by this Special Edition version which incorporates an aluminum skid plate and saddlebags that will be options when full production begins next year.

In Super Ténéré tradition, the XT is powered by a liquid-cooled parallel-twin, though at 1199cc this dohc eight-valve unit is much bigger than that of its predecessor. It has been given that capacity to compete with BMW's R1200GS, and the Yamaha's stated output of 108 horsepower matches the GS's almost exactly.

Inevitably the Super Ten is a big bike-flirting with 580 pounds fully fuelled-but much of its weight is held low and the Yam didn't feel particularly bulky as I climbed aboard outside our Parisian launch base. The adjustable seat has a choice of 33.3 or 34.3 inches in height that will allow most riders to plonk both boots on terra firma. An optional low seat drops those figures by about an inch and a half.

The Ténéré's big twin is wonderfully flexible, and thanks to twin balance shafts and a 270-degree crankshaft it remains smooth throughout the rev range. Carving through manic Paris rush-hour traffic to our trip's official start beneath the Eiffel Tower, the Super Ten felt almost indestructible as it stormed effortlessly away from the lights, muscled past autos and floated over drain covers and bumps.

Despite its rough-and-tough image, the Yamaha is a sophisticated bike. Throttle control is via ride-by-wire YCC-T, and the system gives a choice of two modes: Sport for crisper throttle response or Touring for a more gentle delivery. There's also a traction-control system that can be set to one of two positions or turned off.

In traffic I was happy in Sport mode, which gave crisp response without being remotely harsh. In either mode the bike impressed with both its low-rev delivery and feel. It pulled cleanly off the bottom and only got stronger as the revs rose toward a 7800-rpm redline.

Comfort was impressive, too, although the air was cold enough to chill my hands despite the standard-fitment hand guards. The riding position is roomy and upright, with hands out to the wide bars and feet fairly well forward. That near-vertical screen does a fine job of blocking the breeze.

To test the Ten's all-around abilities, we took a diversion onto some twisty country roads. For a big dual-purpose bike its handling was ... all right. The wide bars' leverage helped give fairly light steering despite the laid-back geometry and 19-inch front wheel, but all that suspension travel makes the bike feel mushy and vague. There is certainly room for improvement.

One area that would be hard to improve upon is the Super Ten's brake system. Big four-piston calipers and large wave rotors provide fierce stopping power, distributed and controlled by the Ten's linked ABS system. The linked system distributes stopping power between front and rear depending on speed and weight distribution, and it has the sense not to add front brake if you use the rear pedal first; for example, when making a U-turn.

The ABS was particularly welcome after lunch when rain arrived and drenched the roadway. I softened the throttle response with Touring mode, and was glad of the reassurance of the traction control, though I didn't notice it cutting in. Normally the Ten's 200-mile range would be welcome, but the inclement weather meant I was counting down the miles until I'd be able to stop and warm my hands on the cylinder head. By the time we reached our hotel it was after 8 p.m., and we'd covered more than 300 cold, wet miles. I'm pleased to report that despite the overall discomfort of the ride my posterior was fine. The Ténéré's broad seat is one of the most comfortable I've known.

Light rain began again just in time for our departure the following morning, though we'd soon climbed high enough to be riding through a landscape made white by snow. Before long we turned onto a section of dirt road that gave the Super Ténéré the chance to show its off-road ability.

The bike didn't disappoint, handling the gravel-covered, bumpy and potholed surface with an ease that belied its size and weight. Here, the bike's long-travel suspension was put to good use, and did a fine job of smoothing out the rough roadway. Again the motor's flexibility was a big asset, giving the Yamaha the grunt to chug forward almost regardless of where the analog tach's needle was pointing.

Turning down the traction control to its less intrusive setting allowed some rear-wheel movement while retaining welcome security. Although the ABS can't be turned off, I had no problems with it and was happy to trust the electronics rather than my numb fingers.

This Super Ténéré trip was about as far from Saharan sand and sunshine as possible, but it served its purpose and proved that the new Ténéré is truly an all-road adventure bike. The First Edition Super Ténéré is currently slated to be sold in Europe via the Internet only for a reported $18,000. For that price you might think that heated grips and electronically adjustable suspension would be included, given that the proven R1200GS can be bought with those and other useful accessories for comparable money. Even so, Yamaha's newcomer is a fine and distinctive bike that will give the ubiquitous BMW and the latest Ducati Multistrada serious opposition as a tourer, commuter or globe-shrinking all-rounder.

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