Saturday, November 9, 2013

Yamaha XT660R review

Update 06-02-2016: The Yamaha XT660R after 110,000 km

Sometimes it's good to be able to see things in perspective, in order to fully appreciate what you have... in our case a crashed KTM 690 Enduro did the trick. You see, for a long time we had wondered if the KTM 690 would perhaps be a better alternative to the XT, for what we are doing (i.e. travelling over bad roads). We had heard about high mileage 690s, which sort of suggested it could be a viable option for long distances. Having seen a crashed KTM from up close, we have come to the conclusion it's not even a match for the XT... 

Before you explode and start bashing the keys on your keyboard explaining how wonderful your KTM is, how much better it is off-road, how much more power it has and that it's so much lighter too... read on and understand why we find the XT better for what we are doing... it does make sense, believe me! 
First of all we don't care for the motocross capabilities of any bike, because we don't motocross. We don't need anything more than the XTs 48 hp either. Sure the Bonneville pulls away from the XT as it has 22 more horses to play with. But do we need it? We think not. I personally would gladly exchange the Bonnie engine for the less powerful but torquer Scrambler engine. We are travelling, we don't ride fast because we want to see where we are and experience it.

What we were looking for when Mike needed 2 wheels to ride around the world was a travel bike. Not a motocross or sports bike but a travel bike. Something that would be good both on-road and off-road, be affordable, ride well on long distances and which would be reliable. To be honest we could only base the reliability part on Yamaha's long history with the XT, starting way back with the first XT500. We had read comments on forums about the older air-cooled versions up to the XT600 being much better. Maybe, but starting a 100,000 km trip around the world on someone else's reject which could easily have been neglected and mistreated, was not what we wanted. Again, we wanted to travel, not fix someone else's stuff-ups. The plan therefore had been to buy something new, but as luck had it we found a pristine XT with most of the accessories that we wanted and just 2300 km on the clock.

As you can read in our previous reports we have had some issues with the Yamaha, most of which had more to do with poor quality control and poor service than the bike design. But we had really began to like the Yamaha... and then we found more evidence of poor quality control and manufacture which again cost us a bundle. So, were we back to the beginning then or was the XT beginning to earn its keep? 

To start with the last question, this part of the trip the XT has been absolutely brilliant! It has proven to be a real long distance travel bike, capable of overlanding. It has also proven to be nothing short of amazing on bad roads, which to be honest has more to do with the YSS suspension upgrade than Yamaha, but still. It simply eats up the miles in comfort and when the roads turn bad, the suspension just soaks it all up. I must admit that I have been jealous at times, especially so when my eyeballs were bouncing in their sockets on bad roads while junior in front of me was just sitting there comfortably, floating on his sofa...!

Apart from flat tyre number 10 and the bottom chain guide roller disintegrating, nothing went wrong or needed replacing since our previous report. All it needed was a set of brake pads, fuel and servicing. Not bad going, especially as the roads we've had were so bad that the top box rack has broken 3 times(!) and we'd been through the 48°C Kazakh desert for days. It seems the teething problems are over and the changes we've made work. What we have noticed is that the mechanically never quiet engine has become somewhat noisier. It's not the proverbial bag of nails yet and it doesn't use any oil. If it keeps going the way it does now then it will easily make it back to Australia before needing any attention.

The new tyres, Avon TrailRider, suit the Yamaha well. The cupping on the front tyre, which we experienced with both the original Metzler Tourance and the Distanzia, has disappeared since we have the TrailRider fitted. The same tyre also made it much easier riding in sand and we're getting much better tyre life too. The chains last longer with the Tutoro chain oiler, which is a blessing as getting parts in this part of the world is problematic with Customs. The Yamaha is still quite picky on fuel quality, sometimes hard to start even, but is very frugal. The cooling system, with the additional temperature sensor and manual override switch, works fine (even in the hot deserts we have been through).

So what's this about us preferring the XT over the 690, I hear you think. Well, like I wrote above: it's amazing how we take things for granted when they just work... isn't it. We turn the key, press the button and expect the bike to start and take us another day over terrible roads and long distances. Simply because that is what the Yamaha has been doing every day for the last 110,000 km. It's something you can get used to quite easily :-) Sometimes it's good to see it a bit in perspective though and be able to compare it to another bike, like we did the other day when we had the opportunity to have a close look at a KTM 690 Enduro R with accident damage. The flimsy frame made from wafer-thin tubes was broken in three places behind the headstock, one of the tubes was folded up like it was a water hose. Must have been a heavy crash you'd think, but it wasn't. The forks had hardly any damage at all and the aluminium rim had only a slight wobble. But it did need a complete new frame... Imagine the same accident but then with a bike loaded up with panniers and camping gear like the XT is... Imagine it happening in the middle of no-where... trying to get a frame imported and then having to strip and rebuilt the complete bike. Making it light is all well and good but there is a flip-side to that coin as well and we think KTM has taken it too far to consider it a good travel bike. Why KTM hasn't used gussets around the headstock is difficult to understand, especially as they add mere grammes to the weight at best and are used by virtually all other motorcycle manufacturers. It would have saved the frame we looked at for sure. 

We know there are KTMs out there which have achieved high mileages, but then again so has the XT. There are XTs with higher mileages even. But bikes like the 690 don't work for us, we want to travel and spend our money on travelling, we don't want to spend a lot more on a bike that is so much more fragile and much more expensive to repair, while offering little or no advantage over the XT from a travelling point of view. It might be a very good Enduro bike but choosing it for long distance travelling over the XT, doesn't make any sense. 

But there are also reasons why I personally love that bike, even though I don't ride it. Despite having more than enough speed, even with the luggage we carry, it doesn't provoke aggressive riding. Instead it has taken my son safely around the world, allowed us to see things we couldn't even dream about and experience the unimaginable. It's a fuss free bike which just works and which we could rely upon. We've never had to worry about the capabilities of the XT. Of course a big part of this is due to the Avon tyres we ride on, which improved the handling a lot, while the YSS suspension has done wonders too. But the bike handles well, the geometry is right and balance is good, which means Mike has been able to get himself out of tricky situations without ending up in hospital... As I'm writing this, he's sitting next to me... as a 19 year old, unhurt and with all these memories and experiences... and that, as his dad, is all that matters to me. The XT, as we have it now, has proven to be very good. Looking back at the other bikes we had looked at before we chose the Yamaha, we feel we have made the right choice after all. 

Update 02-01-2015: The Yamaha XT660R after 72,000 km
This is where my XT660R engine was made, Moto Minarelli in Italy which is owned by Yamaha these days
We’ve had quite a few little issues with the XT over the past two years, as you can read below in the previous updates after 38,000 and 48,000 km. We’ve covered another 24,000 km since then and, again, the XT is ‘in’ for surgery. The suspension front and rear, cush drive rubbers, swing arm bearings and chains and sprockets were up for replacement. But apart from that it seems to have settled down a bit now and in the last 24,000 km it has proved to be a dead reliable bike as well. We’ve grown to like the XT…

Like I said, there was more surgery to be done though. The suspension was well and truly worn out and has been replaced by YSS front and rear as you can read here. Personally I’m not fussed about a suspension that’s worn out after 70,000 km. The YSS replacement is a massive improvement anyway, which is always good. Vibration has caused a couple of nuts and bolts to disappear and chain and sprocket wear is higher than we’d like but the main problem with the XT is one that has plagued Yamaha for decades: rust! My own first Yamaha, an XV750, had the same issue as did my SRX600. Just as well that the XT doesn’t have any chrome to worry about as the people from MBK in France, where the XT was built, have enough problems with painting their handiwork. Rust is everywhere now, from the fuel tank to the spokes and everything metal in between. The spokes in the front wheel are pretty rusty, not at a dangerous level yet but it’s clear something needed to be done if we wanted to keep the XT alive. As a wheel rebuild with new spokes is financially not an option at the moment, Mike has sanded each and every spoke and painted them with a fine paint brush in Hammerite Aluminium. He’s done a great job and the wheel looks like new again.

Looking at his XT in bits again, Mike started wondering if it could be considered ‘normal’ that a motorcycle should need this much work to keep it on the road for two years. This started a discussion on what we should consider a normal service life. The XTs main problem is that we are comparing it to my Triumph Bonneville T100, which has done the same trip under the same conditions and has proven to be unbelievably reliable (it's on 108,000 km now and no problem whatsoever, apart from 2 batteries..). Compare that to the XTs list of 2 sets of fork seals replaced, waterpump mechanical seal replaced, rear shock replacement, front forks rebuilt, clutch cable renewed and brake pads falling apart… Add to that high front tyre wear and its love for consumables like chains and sprockets plus very poor service from Yamaha; and you might wonder if the XT is such a good bike.

To put it in perspective though, the list above isn’t all that long and the chain and sprocket life we’re getting out of our JT Sprockets and chains is pretty damn good compared with other big singles. The waterpump should have been a warranty issue, the suspension had done 70,000 km and the brake pads (Brembo) falling apart was a new one for me too.

Looking at other options, the nearest equivalent to the XT I can think of is, the BMW 650 Sertão which in Europe cost the best part of 2,000 Euro more. Having tried both bikes before we sat off, I found the Yamaha the better bike to ride by far. The Beemer doesn’t offer anything useful which the XT doesn’t have and the small tank on the XT is even smaller on the BM. I’m sure rust issues and suspension can be sorted for less than 2,000 Euro! I’m not sure how an XT compares to a Kawasaki KLR650 as we’ve never tried one, but the XT has a 13 horsepower and 12 Nm torque advantage that Mike doesn’t want to miss. Some of you will think there is also the Suzuki DR650 or KTM690 for instance. The Suzi doesn’t have a seat and rides like a tractor and the KTM is seriously more expensive. 

We left on this trip with a totally standard XT as we felt it should be up to the job straight from the factory. It is after all sold as a dual purpose bike. All we did was mount saddlebags, a bashplate and  Barkbusters. Looking at the XT now, 72,000 km on, only a few things have changed since then. The leaky Andy Strapz saddlebags didn’t work for us and were replaced with Holan Nomada panniers. Their pannier rack has reinforced the XT’s rear subframe in the process, which was a welcome bonus. We’ve also added a manual override switch on the cooling fan, which works a treat, fitted a headlight protector and we’ve just replaced the suspension. Bike wise, as far as modifications go, that’s about it. A virtually standard XT is thus capable of overlanding… 

Engine wise, once the cooling problems were sorted, it has been fine. Fuel consumption is good and works out at roughly 25-27 km/ltr on long runs, giving a respectable range of 375 km from the small 15 litre standard tank. We’ve added 4x 1 litre fuel bottles, which safely increased the range to 475 km for a minimal outlay. The inlet valve clearance of one of the valves was a tad on the tight side, which is odd as the exhaust valve clearances were fine. As long as we don’t use expensive Motorex full synthetic, it doesn’t use any oil. Another common problem on many Japanese bikes is the gear lever rattling loose on the shaft. When left untreated this will eventually destroy the splines. The gear lever has been re-worked twice with an angle grinder and now clamps properly around the shaft again. 

The other day, while painting the spokes actually, we were talking about if we would take an XT on such a trip again? And if so, what would we change? To start with the first question; yes we would take the XT again! It has proven to be a good reliable travel bike and its faults should be put in perspective to the costs. The nearest BMW has to offer would be the 650 Sertão, which everyone seems to rave about but is considerably more expensive than the XT. Having tried both we prefer the Yamaha, and that was before the YSS suspension upgrade! As much as we like Honda as a company, they simply don’t have anything on the market at the moment that comes close to the XT. There is no XR650, TransAlp or Africa Twin anymore and the CB500X is a road bike.

What would we change from standard? Quite frankly, we wouldn’t change a lot from what we have now. We would put a lot of time and effort in preparation though. For starters we would strip the whole thing down, have it sandblasted and properly repainted! As the XT’s engine is in an open frame, and thus totally unprotected, a very sturdy bash plate as we have now is a necessity. We’d change the suspension front and rear for YSS as the improved handling alone is worth it. Depending on funds we would look at different rims, as fixing a flat tyre is quite difficult with the standard San Remo rims. We’ve had to use car-tyre shops and even they had a hard job setting the tyre to the rim sometimes! We would also cut a hole in the airbox to facilitate removal of the rear shock without stripping half the bike and we’d have the seat looked at or fit an AirHawk.

Engine wise it’s fine, although Yamaha could make our life easier by having a look at what the rest of the world is doing for sump plugs… and perhaps fit them under the engine as well rather than at the side and facing the front tyre?

Update 19-06-2014: The Yamaha XT660R at 48.000 km

On long journeys, like we are on now, motorcycles tend to wear out a lot quicker than on Sunday outings. Battering a motorcycle for hours and hours over 'roads' we couldn't have even imagined before we went takes its toll on everything. They also spend each and everyday outside, no comfy shed for these bikes. We also don't have the luxury of a workshop and special tools to do the maintenance. Maintenance is done outside, with the tools we have with us and parts needed come from whatever source we can find. So how did the XT do?

Quite good, but lets get the negatives out of the way first. On long and hot days the seat is uncomfortable and there is quite a bit of vibration in the 660 single. The vibration doesn't cause numb hands or feet but does create rattles which are hard to find. The vibration hasn't caused any fractures though. The XT is picky on fuel quality. It will run on low grade or low octane stuff without pinking but will let you know that it doesn't like it by vibrating like a jack hammer :-) Rust is a bit of a problem too. It seems to appear from everywhere. Not drastic and it isn't polished to death.

The XT has proven to be a reliable motorcycle that is capable of covering long distances. I liked it from the beginning but started getting second thoughts when we had problem after problem and received little to no support from Yamaha in fixing it. When getting even the most basic parts turned out to be a problem while in the USA and Canada we wondered what was going to happen in Mexico and Central America… We needn't have worried; the Yamaha dealers we visited in Mexico were very good. Igartua Yamaha in Guadalajara and Gozaimas in Chetumal were great! We've had quite a few problems with the cooling system in the beginning, as you can read in our earlier post about the Yamaha, but since we've sorted that out we haven't had any issues. The addition of the manual switch on the cooling fan works a treat, not only when it's hot but also in mud as it stops the fan from clogging up.

It has covered 48.000 km now, doesn't use a drop of oil, is comfortable to ride, handles great and the suspension is nothing short of amazing. It's good on fuel too. I'm not a big fan of big singles but when I took it out for a run the other day I can understand why Mike likes it. It's big fun to ride!

What did go wrong? Not a lot, but funnily enough the last thing I would have expected to cause problems, did just that. The front suspension started leaking oil when both fork seals blew on a gnarly road in Belize. Why did the leaking seals surprise me? Because the Bonneville T100s forks didn't leak! That actually surprised me more than that the Yamaha seals did leak. Upon disassembly we found water had entered the forks… Both dust seals seemed fine but obviously weren't. The bike needs gaiters...

Tyre wear has been a bit of a problem. Again, big singles are hard on chains and tyres, but a front wearing out just as fast as a rear is odd to say the least. Brakepad wear is quite normal and we don't have any alignment problems either. It's cupping or scalloping which causes the premature wear. The Metzelers were wearing even faster than the Avons do. We've been struggling for a while with this but seem to have found the solution: increase the front tyre pressure from the recommended 29 to 33…! We now get 20.000 km out of a front tyre on the XT. As the fork seals had to be replaced anyway, we did a full inspection on the forks, the length of the springs etc. and they are all fine.

The valves needed adjusting for the first time too. The rocker to stem clearance was a tad too big on the inlet side and just a little too small on the outlet side. Nothing to worry about. The airfilter was finally replaced too. It had never been the intention to do 48.000 with one filter but we simply couldn't get one anywhere from Alaska to Costa Rica. The biggest job turned out to be a stripped thread in the engine block. Mike had enthusiastically tightened the oil filter cover bolts in Mexico and stripped the thread of the bottom one. Nothing much we could do there except tighten as best we could and hope the other two would hold. They did but as the filter was up for replacement, the thread needed fixing. Re-threading or a helicoil wasn't an option, what I did instead was fit a stud with slightly larger imperial thread with studlocker and a capnut.   

The XT had its problems in the beginning but has proven to be a very capable bike. Let's hope it takes him to the world record he is chasing!

Would we do it again with an XT660R?
We still think it's a very good motorcycle. It's extremely economical, very easy to work on and not a lot has gone wrong. It has some clever features, like the narrow twin muffler setup (Triumph: take notice!) and by far the best suspension setup we have seen so far in it's class. It handles well and on the twisties it's simply brilliant. So, yes, we would do it again on this XT. If it was due for replacement however we would probably look for a Honda as they have been great in helping us out while it's not even their product. The only problem we've had, but which has costed us quite a few headaches and other problems, is the total lack of support from Yamaha which is a shame as it is a good motorcycle.

First post: The Yamaha XT660R at 38.000 km

This will be an ongoing post on how the Yamaha performed on our trip around the world. Now that we have come to the end of the New Zealand, Canada, Alaska, Canada and USA part of the trip and are about to enter Mexico, it's time to have a look at how the bikes coped so far. What went wrong, what didn't work, what would we like to change and would we do it on the same bikes again? How did it perform? Did we have any issues in the 38.000km we covered, under at times difficult circumstances. Is it up to the job? Has it been reliable and most of all: Do we still like it?  With the smallest one, the Yamaha XT660R, a few things did go wrong...

First we had a leaking water pump. It's mechanical seal had failed. I assumed this would be covered under warranty but Yamaha New Zealand refused on two grounds. Firstly their tech advisor said leaking from this type of pump was normal(!) and that the seal would only need replacing when there was a continuous stream of coolant coming out of it… I have no idea where they dug up this guy but as the total coolant capacity of an XT660 is just over 1.5 litre, a continuous stream of coolant running out of it would drain the whole system in minutes, cook the engine and cause serious damage. Not to mention it would cover the rear tyre in slippery coolant. As I've repaired and overhauled quite a few big water pumps during my time as an Australian outback station mechanic, all of which have mechanical seals, I know they should not leak a drop when repaired properly. Secondly Yamaha New Zealand would not cover this under warranty as the bike in question was from Australia… as if the seal leaks because it was now surrounded by New Zealand sheep… When I asked to explain, we were told that Yamaha does not repair under warranty when their product is taken overseas on holiday… Warranty should cover factory defects and it thus should not make any difference if I'm overseas or not. The motorcycle in question is actually made in France, by Yamaha France. The engine comes from Italy, as do the wheels and brakes. It was send to Australia and yet if I would take it back to France or Italy on a holiday my warranty would be void…

Next we had an overheating issue which was the result of a poorly finished radiator, a radiator that was made by KTM! The radiator was poorly finished where the cap seal touches it and thus eventually it started to leak past the cap. The radiator was removed and the imperfections fixed, we thought all was ok. It wasn't. Firstly Yamaha New Zealand, which is where we had the problem, again refused to honour warranty… Eventhough Yamaha Australia had confirmed that there is a special arrangement between Yamaha Australia and Yamaha New Zealand to cover warranty. Then we found there was a totally new overheating issue: it started to boil in the overflow tank. Back to the Yamaha dealer who diagnosed it as an unrelated issue. The temperature sensor had failed. There was no sensor in New Zealand, none in Australia and it thus had to come out of Japan. We waited for 2 weeks, fitted it and… found no difference. I did a full diagnostic, which can be done via the on-board LCD dash (brilliant idea), cycled through all the sensors, read the temperatures and all seemed ok. Just when the temperature reached 100°C it started to boil in the overflow tank and the fan did not come on. Removed the plastics around the radiator and found the two hoses from the manifold heater and overflow tank interchanged… result: no pressurised system anymore and the overflow tank now part of the main cooling system! No wonder it boiled! Changed the two hoses and no more problem.

During all this I had made a temporary adition to the cooling system by fitting a manual switch to the fan and attaching a temperature switch from a computer's power supply to the top radiator hose. This worked so well that we kept it and called it the Mike mod (it's explained under the modifications section of this blog).

While in Canada we were confronted by another problem. As the XT660 is not sold in the USA or Canada, we could not get a front sprocket for it. We tried several Yamaha dealers along the way, unfortunately these days if the 18 year old behind the counter can't see it on his computer screen, he doesn't know what to do. I contacted Yamaha Canada twice to ask for a cross reference to another bike sold here but received no reply for my efforts. We then tried Yamaha USA, which had the same attitude as Yamaha Canada… maybe they went to the same training facility. 

The chain was literally falling apart by then. O-rings had fallen out and when we finally found sprockets for it, the chain had stretched by 1.5 links. How did we find sprockets? JT Sprockets literally came to the rescue (see chains and sprockets section)!

Brake pads were another issue we had. Again no help from Yamaha Canada or USA. The help came from a Honda dealer who was kind enough to cross reference with the European SBS book and found the pads to be the same as the BMW 650 GS and KTM 990 Adventure.

The last encounter with Yamaha dealers came when we needed a clutch cable that started fraying. Yamaha USA didn't care and as we were now close to Mexico and I had seen that they sell the XT660Z there (which uses the same cable) I contacted them too. Twice in fact, just to ask where I could order one. They didn't reply to either request.

The main Yamaha dealer in Visalia California we went to had no clutch cables in stock for any Yamaha model. I was their policy to order only when needed, no stock…! The Honda dealer a bit further on was, again, a lot more helpful. They had several cables in stock for Honda and got them all out to see if there was one we could use. What a different approach! The one for the Honda VT1100 fitted the bill. It's a little bit longer but no problem. 

There is one exception I want to mention... Yukon Yamaha in Whitehorse. They couldn't help us in getting parts for XT either, but at least they genuinely tried!

So what do we think of the XT660R now? 
It's been with us now for about 38.000km and to be fair to the bike; very little has gone wrong. If you have a look at what I've written above you'll notice that the problems we had are the result of very poor service from Yamaha and it's dealers. The bike itself is fine. The cooling issues were the result of a manufacturing fault at KTM and a not too bright mechanic making the wrong diagnosis and swapping hoses around. After that we had sprockets and a clutch cable to replace, nothing else, which isn't bad over 38.000 km. Especially considering where we have been, the very poor roads we have been on and the conditions under which it had to operate. We feel that all in all the XT660R is a very good motorcycle. A very good motorcycle let down by the Yamaha organisation. Yamaha dealers and importers we encountered have been simply terrible. Their function is to sell Yamahas and help and service. The selling bit seems all they care about. Not replying is not only rude but also disrespectful to your customers. People that parted with money they worked hard for to buy your product deserve a far better treatment. How different it can be was displayed by Honda in the USA who helped us along on more than one occasion, even though we didn't have a Honda.

Just like the Triumphs, the Yamaha has not been polished and waxed to death. There is rust on the spokes and the plastics scratch quite easily but there are no serious rust problems. The main issue we have with the XT660R is front tyre wear. It simply eats through front tyres quicker than through the rears. This is not a tyre issue as the same tyres work fine on both Bonnevilles and we've had the same result with both Metzeler Tourance and Avon Distanzia on the XT660R. The Avon is in fact outlasting the Metzeler and yet has much more grip. 

What would I change for the next trip?
Not a lot. I would try a spacer in the front forks to raise the front a bit in an attempt to make the front tyre last a bit longer. I will also strengthen the rear subframe as there is a lot of flex there giving vibration in the top box. Under the front sprocket I would make a deflector plate so that any lubricant coming from the chain won't drip on the exhaust anymore (why did they run the exhaust exactly under the sprocket in the first place?)

Before I posted this article on the blog I wanted to ask Yamaha Japan to respond. They choose not to be contactable by e-mail… another thing I hate. You want people to buy your product but can't be bothered to reply to questions they have, it's like shutting the door in your customers' face. Very rude but unfortunately quite a few manufacturers these days seem to think it's acceptable behaviour.