Yamaha Super Tenere: Indelible Impression

2012 Yamaha Super Ténéré Review

“What took so long?” I asked myself this over and over in my head as I wiped the red clay dust from my exposed front teeth, compliments of the gaping devilish grin emblazoned upon my face.

After tens of thousands of miles of big enduro experience and countless expeditions beneath my boots, I am finally blasting my way through the American southwest on a Japanese adventure machine.

It is a motorcycle inspired by Dakar Rally success, constructed for trans-continental touring, and perfectly harmonized with a rich sport bike pedigree. The Euro-sourced 2012 Yamaha Super Ténéré is a bold move aimed at competing directly with the class-defining and industry-leading BMW R 1200 GS.

It is no secret that the Adventure Touring segment of the motorcycle market has seen consistent growth over the past five years, in spite of overall macroeconomic conditions. Coupled with the statistic that large dual-sport categorical sales have grown more than sevenfold since 1997, there is an obvious fiscal incentive for manufacturers to aggressively pursue the Adventure Touring market. While dethroning 30 years of BMW Gelände/Straße dominance is a daunting task, there may be a second mover advantage for those constructors looking to muscle into the space.

Yamaha’s entry strategy was simple-build the ultimate long-distance touring machine, combining versatility and toughness, and that will ensure a thrilling rider experience. The achievement of this goal is vitally dependent upon a very potent power plant. Yamaha’s solution was the design of a new 1199cc oversquare parallel-twin engine distinguished by a unique uneven firing order.

Leveraging the expertise gained in the development of the revolutionary crossplane crankshaft bred from MotoGP and commercially realized in the YZF-R1 production sport bike, a 270-degree crankshaft was conceived that places the power pulses in close proximity to one another to emulate the torque profile and direct power delivery of a single-cylinder “thumper” configuration. Yet, it is cleverly counterbalanced to remove inherent vibration-a typical tradeoff for increased traction.

To further enhance grip, a three-position traction control system is integrated into Yamaha’s fly-by-wire throttle. A thumb-controlled throttle response mapping selector adaptively measures rear wheel traction and modulates ignition timing and fuel injection volume 1000 times per second in both Sport and Touring drive modes.

This precision-controlled power is then fed through a six-speed wide-ratio gearbox, turning the low-maintenance shaft drive through a cast aluminum swing arm that utilizes hypoid drive gears for a very compact design, minimizing unsprung weight.

Additional technological assistance is provided through an ABS system that links rear-wheel braking actuation to the front brake lever when the front brake is initiated first, or allows them to operate separately if the rear brake lever is initiated first. The ABS measures the input force applied to each of the controls, and then automatically adjusts for vehicle weight and modulates the pressure pump accordingly.

Obviously the Super Ténéré has all of the necessary features and specifications on paper to successfully compete in the Adventure Touring market, but the harmony of functionality and its road and trail mettle has yet to be tested.

Rider fitment is paramount, so I muster five minutes of patience to adjust the clutch and front brake levers to my liking, and move the seat from the low 33.25-inch setting to the inch-higher position. Even with my 31-inch inseam, the higher seat position provides me with the knee articulation in the seated position that I find most comfortable.

On the pavement, the initial sensation is one of complete confidence. Although fairly slender in the midsection for a 575-pound vehicle, the Super Ténéré has a substantial feel and a solid road presence. Clicking up through the gearbox is a slick process with wide ratio spacing that is well matched to the torquey characteristic of the engine.

A quick glance down at the digital display informed me that I was 30 mph over the highway speed limit-an absolute surprise to my senses, which were comfortably cruising at a perceived 60 mph. I instantly made a mental note to do some two-up testing, as I would imagine this would be a great touring experience from the pillion perspective.

Smooth, predictable power delivery is essential for lane splitting and wrangling your way through dense city traffic, so the somewhat subdued demeanor of the Ténéré works exceptionally well. The ability of long travel suspension to soak up obstacles also provides convenient access to “short cuts” in the form of curbs and medians, which are not available to most other vehicles on the road.

Freeway cruising comfort is spot on with minimal wind buffeting when the windscreen is in the lowest position. This is fortunate, as any adjustment requires a Phillips screwdriver, plus a few minutes of wrestling around with fasteners and mounting brackets.

Negotiating twisty sections of road is nearly effortless as the Super Ténéré-spec Bridgestone Battlewing’s profile has superb fall-in feel in the corners, and provides for a great on-road experience. Sized at 110/80 19-inch up front and 150/70 17-inch in the rear, the wheel selection is optimized for nimble road handling rather than off-road obstacle rollover capability. The Ténéré’s suspension travel and wheel size fit the standard for long-distance adventure tourers.

The start-up default of full traction control gives an added level of confidence when powering out of gravel or tar-sealed corners, especially on a fully laden bike. Surprisingly, the non-slip seat is very roomy, allowing the rider to scoot fore and aft and re-adjust in the saddle on long rides. This is an oft-overlooked convenience when a few state lines separate you from your end of day destination.

Twisting the grip a bit further than perhaps the owner’s manual recommends, the usual comfort and convenience of long travel suspension metamorphose into the signature wallow of an adventure bike on a GP circuit. Of course, when utilizing a machine in a manner that was never intended by the engineers, and obviously contradicting the physical laws of compromise, one can expect to get less than stellar results. Fortunately the goal of my mission is feeding an appetite for unbridled adventure, and in this regard, the big Ténéré scores well.

As the tarmac slowly deteriorates, uncovering red clay soil, the Super Ténéré confirms the Adventure moniker stamped throughout its brochure. Many street bikes have been outfitted with protective guards and an upright riding position, and then marketed as Adventure bikes, but very few are truly dirt-worthy vehicles.

In the stand-up riding position the ergonomic spacing of pegs-to-bars and knees-to-seat/tank junction are perfect, which is an absolute imperative in big enduro bike handling. The rider’s legs become an extension of the suspension, and steering inputs are initiated through the feet by weighting the footpegs and followed by countersteering inputs at the handlebars.

Squeezing the knees around the mid-section of the bike must be comfortable and afford the rider the ability to relax his grip on the handlebars, provide more delicate steering input, and save upper body energy in the process. Any bike labeled Adventure that does not provide for precise foot, knee, and hand inputs is not going to reward the rider with the full arsenal of handling capability. Happily, the Super Ténéré does not disappoint.

I was immediately invigorated on my first off-road foray. I quickly stopped to turn the traction control to the middle, limited-slip setting and remove the rubber comfort inserts on each footpeg. The electronics allow for just enough rear-wheel slip to steer with the back wheel, but enough governance to avoid a nasty high-side from losing the rear.

Disabling the traction control turns the Ténéré into a roost-throwing machine, projecting dirt and rocks in every direction. It doesn’t ride any faster than in the limited slip mode, though it is great for photos, and sure is fun.

Riding at fairly high altitudes, the power from the 11:1 compression-ratio motor felt more than adequate, though not overwhelming. With traction control in the off position, lofting the wheel in first gear is an ever-present option; second gear wheelies require a slip of the clutch in the right situation. The motor and the accompanying electronics are definitely designed to complement the rider experience and facilitate traction, rather than potentially complicate it with an unwieldy delivery.

Hits to the front wheel are soaked up through 43mm inverted KYB cartridge forks; the spring preload and rebound damping adjusters live beneath the handlebars, and the compression damping adjuster is located near the wheel. A YHS shock is utilized in the rear with adjustable rebound controlled by a hand-operated knob that hydraulically changes the rear spring preload to compensate for the weight of a passenger or luggage, or simply to increase the ground clearance and initial suspension action for the rigors of off-road riding.

Adding three clicks of compression damping to the front forks, and a couple turns of spring preload front and rear, I ventured off the fire-roads and onto nastier jeep trails. The additional ground clearance helps the Super Ténéré roll over bigger rocks, however the uncomfortably familiar huck ‘n’ buck sets in when negotiating whoops or other bigger obstacles at speed. Fortunately, the bike reacts in a predictable manner, reminding the rider that 7.5 inches of travel cannot magically become 10 inches and that 200 of the bike’s 575 pounds will not disappear; the solution is to simply reduce speed. Even though the deep-cut tread of the Battlewing tires are great performers off-the highway, it is, after all, an adventure, not a race.

Eager to play with additional bike settings, I realize that the ABS cannot be turned off, which is of little consequence for fire-roading and burning up the pavement, but for aggressive rock-strewn downhills, I want to have the option to manually control my speed, slide the rear wheel when necessary, and avoid the “out-of-control train” that is all too common on other adventure bikes when the ABS brake functionality is accidentally left on when negotiating the gnarlies.

I questioned the Yamaha techs about the ability to remove a fuse or otherwise disengage the ABS, and they were fairly tight-lipped. However, the insiders did share that full-time ABS was a conscious decision to protect riders from locking up the fairly strong 305mm dual disk front end. Personally, I like choices.

Back on a hard surface, switching the adjustable ignition mapping from Sport mode to Touring mode on-the-fly results in smoother throttle response and rpm roll-on without making the bike feel overly hampered or crippling the performance. Touring mode is a great option for two-up riding, nasty conditions, or the constant stop-and-go traffic in overly congested Central American cities.

Vibration from the Super Ténéré is negligible by my standards and I decide to permanently do without the rubber footpeg inserts. I have side panniers with 7.5 gallons of storage space (a 3.6-gallon top case is also available), a six-gallon fuel tank with nearly 300 miles of range, and a dash mounted power outlet for my GPS.

Truly, the Super Ténéré tempted me to leave my demanding world behind for a few months. After hemming and hawing, I decide against living a Second Life and return to my current, hectic existence-I know the option is there, and did I mention, I like choices.

The 2012 Yamaha Super Ténéré is absolute wrist-twisting fun-I am still astonished by the fact that a fully capable, fully functional, go-anywhere-with anything-for-any-period-of-time, Japanese adventure machine has been produced. Is this the bike to begin a new reign of dominance in the Adventure touring market? Potentially yes, as it has definitely made an indelible impression on me.

Story from previous issue of Ultimate MotorCycling…to view the digital edition, click here.

Photography by Riles & Nelson