The 2022 Yamaha XSR900 Proves Motorcycles Still Win on Smiles Per Dollar

The XSR brings rowdy three-cylinder power and razor-sharp handling for $10,000 — a value no sports car can match.

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Photo: Yamaha

Nothing makes a noise quite like the yowling intakes of the 890-cc Yamaha CP3. With the throttle wide open, the wail of air being inhaled and detonated by this three-cylinder engine is hypnotic. Almost addictive. Imagine, as its closest analog, half a caterwauling Porsche 911 GT3. But the mighty GT3's engine signs off at 9,000 rpm, and all that rowdiness is stuffed on the other side of a beefy firewall, several feet behind you. At 9,000 rpm, Yamaha’s CP3 still has yet to reach peak horsepower, which it makes at a hair under 10,000. And all that racket and heat is happening between your knees.

Lord help you if your motorcycle business debuts a mediocre bike in 2022. You’ll be skinned — by the competition and customers alike. There’s hardly a bad motorcycle on sale today. Reliability, speed and a little charm are table stakes in the bike market. The competition hardly stops there. Motorcycle manufacturers now have to compete with automobiles for precious consumer dollars. And let’s call it like it is: Four-wheeled vehicles are safer, better suited to commuting in most every state, climate controlled, and easier to finance. They’re also steadily chipping away at motorcycles’ bragging rights on fuel economy, the last bastion of two-wheeled superiority.

Love acceleration? Buy a Tesla. Love cornering? Buy a Miata. Want to get 40 miles to the gallon all day long? Buy a Prius, an Accord Hybrid, hell, a Ford Maverick. The only unchallenged merit left to motorcycles is thrift: On pure bang for the buck, bikes still have the edge. And the XSR900 makes a strong claim as the edgiest of the lot.

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Image for article titled The 2022 Yamaha XSR900 Proves Motorcycles Still Win on Smiles Per Dollar
Photo: Yamaha

It’s a devilishly attractive machine. Where the outgoing XSR cribbed its looks from golden-era racers, the 2022 machine takes its aesthetic from slab-sided 1980s GP machines. The result is fantastic. The tail section in particular is a work of art, begging for a tidy plastic cowl over the passenger seat and a number plate.

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Up close, a few of Yamaha’s budget-friendly tricks make their presence known. The frame is made via high-pressure die-casting, creating a piece with no visible welds, a work of art and efficiency. Spin-forged wheels are a crafty Yamaha trick to save mass. Less appealing cost-cutting can be found in little bundles of taped-up wiring that peek out here and there, a slightly cheap-looking dash, and a protruding horn assembly, all of which betray a machine that otherwise punches way above its weight class in fit and finish.

Mere nitpicks. The 2022 XSR900 is a damned riot. Point it at any remotely twisty, passably paved road, and every one of your senses will have a great time. Especially your ears.

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Image for article titled The 2022 Yamaha XSR900 Proves Motorcycles Still Win on Smiles Per Dollar
Photo: Yamaha

Whack the electronic throttle open and you get a flood of sweet induction noise. Yamaha loves a cross-plane-crank three-cylinder: The XSR900 joins the MT-09, a slobbering hooligan, and the Tracer 9 GT, a classy touring bike, in using this charmingly unconventional engine layout. But like those stablemates, the XSR900 is aggressively muffled. Surely, the aftermarket (or a Sawzall) will fix this, but it’s a damned shame how quiet this thing is. Even in this hushed format, the triple sounds heavenly at full yowl.

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Thankfully, this machine has all the modern amenities to keep you safe(ish) should enthusiasm get the better of you. Six-axis stability control provides cornering ABS and anti-wheelie capability. (The latter is already efficiently managed by a longer swingarm than the one on the wheelie-happy MT-09.) And convenience wasn’t neglected either: The standard quick-shifter pulls gears like a toggle switch, and standard cruise control takes the edge off a commute or highway slog.

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Photo: Yamaha
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The XSR900 has four riding modes. Mode One is unsubtle, giving you big jolts of juice even when you try to be careful on the throttle. Mode Four is intended for wet and cautious riding, and it’s dog slow. Most riders will find happiness somewhere in between. Multi-mode traction control has your back if an experiment goes wrong.

The adjustable KYB suspension isn’t the fanciest or newest kit in the world. Neither are the XSR900's perfectly competent brakes. But Yamaha harvested thoughtfully from its parts bin, and the complete package is stellar on a back road. The excellent factory tires, Bridgestone Battlax Hypersport S22s, help enormously. So do the weight savings earned with Yamaha’s spin-forged wheels.

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This bike may have all the modern creature comforts, but that’s not to say the XSR900 is designed to be comfortable. The seat is board-stiff; the bars will stretch most riders into an athletic attack position. But despite those demands on your back and bottom, it’s a perfectly acceptable machine for a long day in the saddle — especially if you’re riding fast, and merely using the saddle as a pleasant place to rest on straightaways.

Image for article titled The 2022 Yamaha XSR900 Proves Motorcycles Still Win on Smiles Per Dollar
Photo: Yamaha
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This bike was made for California’s mountains. The dash-dive-dash rhythm of carving a canyon road becomes a sensory nirvana, the racket and velocity of that three-cylinder enhancing an already wonderful ride.

No car on earth can offer the satisfaction of nailing an inch-perfect line through a corner. They’re too big — even a Miata takes up most of its lane, leaving barely any room to adjust. A bike can carve up the 12-foot span between the stripes into a dozen possibilities, constantly changing and evolving at the speed of your decision making. The XSR keeps up. It matches you shift for shift. Few machines deliver the all-around punch, delight and thrill of the XSR900. Good luck finding something that does it for just under $10,000.

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Mostly, though, the XSR is excellent because it’s as delightful to ride as it is to look at. It’s stable but flickable. Rapid, but measured. It’s amazing what you can do on a fast bike that isn’t a handful. Lean the XSR deep into a well-paved corner at good speed, and your brain still has time to marvel at the wildflowers at the road’s edge, bask in the sage-and-tarmac smell of a desolate canyon road in summertime. It’s a bike that melts away under you, while still pushing all your buttons and coaxing you to go faster. That’s an unusual machine, no matter what you like to ride or drive. That it’s a relative bargain is just icing on the cake.