In many ways, the development and subsequent announcement of this motorcycle was an inevitability. More and more manufacturers are embracing platform sharing as a way to reduce both the costs and risks of bringing an extended range of models to market. After the tremendous critical and commercial success of the MT-09 and its half-faired version, the Tracer 900, it wasn’t a question of if, but when we’d see its lightweight little brother get the sport-touring treatment.
Yamaha have done more than drop the Tracer 900’s half-fairing onto the nose of the MT-07 however. I’ve personally never been a fan of the larger three-cylinder sports-tourer, various practical and aesthetic issues combining to completely put me off what is, on paper, an amazing motorcycle. I’m therefore delighted to report that every single complaint I had about the 900 has been addressed on the 700, to the point where it became a seriously interesting proposition to rival my own Suzuki V-Strom 650.
Firstly, the fiddly mess of plastic masquerading as handguards on the 900 has been simplified, cutting far cleaner lines visually, and improving functionality to boot. The blocky Teneré-derived dashboard is gone, leaving the neat, single-LCD unit from the naked MT-07. The tail is nicely designed, neatly integrating luggage mounts and grab rails into stylish lines, instead of resembling a rectangular piece of LEGO as in the 900.
But lastly, and most importantly, Yamaha will sell you proper lockable hard-luggage for your Tracer 700, something that was only available for the 900 if you were paying in US dollars. American health and safety legislation, if such a thing even exists, apparently didn’t care that the top speed of the bike was far higher than the maximum safe speed of the panniers. No sign of the promised top-box yet, although word from Yamaha is that, like the FJR, they’d rather you didn’t equip all three pieces of luggage at once.
“…remind yourself just how effective, and much fun small, simple, light bikes can be.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the MT-07, here’s a quick recap. Take one 70bhp, 270-degree parallel twin, drop it into a steel-tube chassis with 17” wheels at either end, throw on some slightly cheap suspension and basic two-pot brakes and call it a day. Combining a bespoke, mid-capacity twin with a lightweight chassis and a minimum of weight was Suzuki’s recipe for the revered SV650 almost two decades ago, and the formula clearly still works.
The arrival of Yamaha’s naked twin caused a near panic with their Japanese competitors, whose models in the segment were around 30kg heavier and seriously outpriced by the £5,300 of the more stylish newcomer. Honda is apparently still in shock, their far less powerful, less involving 500cc models still priced higher than the entertaining MT-07. Adding a fairing and stronger pillion/luggage-friendly subframe has added a bit of weight to Yamaha’s naked bike, but it still undercuts the competition fully-fuelled at just 196kg.
In fact, once sat behind the wide, raised bars, the Tracer 700 feels like a bit of a toy. If told this was an alloy-framed 350cc single from KTM I’d have been completely fooled, whether moving it back and forth with my knees at a standstill or throwing it into a roundabout. The non-adjustable clutch lever is feather-light, but the engagement point is at the extreme end, making it a little tricky for those with tiny hands.
Equally light is the cable-driven throttle, frequently causing the front wheel to become similarly weightless if used enthusiastically while in first gear. This is a very torquey motor. The dyno charts confirm this, losing a tiny amount of top-end power to Suzuki’s similarly-sized v-twin, but beating it on torque across the whole of the rev range. Fuelling is precise, with a smooth pickup at low revs, all adding to the extremely learner-friendly package.
The windshield is adjustable by loosening a couple of knobs inside the cockpit, but this can only be done when stopped and at my height serves exclusively to introduce buffeting and noise to my helmet. The riding position is excellent, combining a mostly-upright stance with plenty of legroom, yet still providing a low, comfortable seat for those of shorter stature.
The dashboard is information-rich, and surprisingly easy to read, even in direct sunlight. I normally dislike digital tachometers, as numbers don’t mean as much at a glance as an analogue needle position, but the bar-graph design solves this problem very neatly, allowing a compact dash in the compact cockpit.
All UK bikes feature ABS as standard, but that’s it for electronic interference. No mode switches to distract you, no traction control to give you a false sense of security, just standard-fitment Michelin Pilot Road 4 tyres on a 180-section rear wheel to drive you through corners, come rain or shine.
And drive through corners you will, because the Tracer 700 handles extremely well. Provided you keep the speeds realistic and can ride around mid-corner bumps, you shouldn’t have any cause for complaint once you get to your favourite B-road. Yamaha have addressed a common complaint of the MT-07 and specified much firmer springs and better damping for the front forks. I can imagine many owners of the naked bike upgrading for this reason alone. The brakes are excellent, four-pot callipers from the larger MT-09/Tracer 900 bringing the lithe machine to a halt very quickly, and with excellent feel.
So, is the Tracer 700 perfect then? Well, no, of course not. The ABS panics far too easily, cutting in even on grippy, dry roads during progressive braking. Pushing hard through corners eventually upsets the suspension, causing understeer when the front wheel is deflected while leant over.
Faster riders may also complain about the power, the meaty-sounding 689cc engine’s output of just 70bhp a step down from whatever 1.2-litre monster they usually ride. But I found motorway riding easy and overtaking a piece of cake, with the light weight compensating admirably for the smaller power plant. My experience with more powerful bikes is that they just allow you to be lazy, executing 90mph overtakes without ever needing to shift gear. If that’s your preference, then by all means buy an automatic.
The biggest problem with the Tracer 700 is the fact that, while Yamaha have done an excellent job economising to bring a fully-featured sport-touring motorcycle to market for just £6,300, there are always going to be things no manufacturer can offer at such a price point. Reports suggest that these cheaper Yamahas are not terribly rust-resistant, and while the plastics feel sufficiently substantial, the depth and quality of the paint certainly won’t match BMWs and Hondas.
When I said earlier that the bike feels like a toy, I meant it. We forgive that in something small, light and cheap like a 125cc scooter, but it’s a bit of a shock in a full-sized Japanese motorcycle. I don’t know how long a bike such as this would stay looking nice if subjected to the sort of year-round mileage some of us rack up, and with the excellent fuel economy and all-round practicality the Tracer 700 offers I wouldn’t keep mine tucked away in the garage very often.
Will I be replacing my V-Strom with a Tracer then? Yamaha have built a cheaper bike that handles, rides, stops and goes better than an equivalent V-Strom 650, weighs and costs less than the Suzuki, yet matches it on fuel economy and general usability. But my example has been elevated to another level by both practical and performance modifications, all of which would add significant cost to a new Tracer 700. What’s more, I suspect the V-Strom is a better bike for carrying pillions, with a wider, flatter passenger seat, and a generally larger frame.
Plus, I’m still not sure an NC750X wouldn’t better fit my needs. The Honda provides less power, weighs more, but feels better quality, has better weather protection, uses even less fuel and has a lot of unique points such as the DCT gearbox and lockable tank storage. I’ve also demonstrated its ability to run rings around a Ducati Monster 1200 on my local B-roads.
There’s also the Kawasaki Versys 650, which I’ve not ridden, but offers an extremely similar package with three-box hard luggage and proper handguards, all for not much more than the Tracer 700. In any case, if my V-Strom exploded tomorrow, I would definitely be taking a very serious look at Yamaha’s new gem of a bike.
And to those of you who can’t possibly imagine living without a fire-breathing 150bhp engine, give a Tracer a try. Admit to yourself that you do not need, and cannot use, anywhere near that kind of power on the road and instead remind yourself just how effective, and much fun small, simple, light bikes can be.
First published in Slipstream, October 2016