A year on from the launch, just how good is Yamaha’s flagship enduro machine? Ride Expeditions took a trip to Wales to test the 2017 WRF450.
YAMAHA WRF450 REVIEW
In 2014, Yamaha became serious about enduro again. For years, they’d given us chunky and dependable machines, but nothing to set the pulse racing. But that all changed when they revealed the 2015 WRF250. Armed with an engine and chassis straight off their incredibly successful motocross range, the bike was an instant success, winning over every single journalist that attended their press launch in Sardinia. A year later, the 450 version was launched, this time in southern Spain.
And of course the marketing guys at Yamaha must have been expecting much the same reaction for the bigger sibling. It shared all the same features, just turned up a notch or two, so on paper their expectations were not unreasonable.
But tests are not carried out on paper, and in what was a fairly spectacular home goal, all the journalists that had turned up expecting to like the bike, left Almeria with an entirely different impression of the flagship enduro machine. Where the 250 was supple and compliant, the 450 had been brutal and unforgiving. Where the 250 had been surefooted and predictable, the 450 was skittish and nervous. In short, we found the bike really difficult to love.
Yet in the Australian launch, the impression had been entirely different. Everybody that rode the bike loved it, and the resultant reviews were emphatically positive, confirming that Yamaha had continued the 250s winning formula onto the 450. So what had gone wrong in Europe – had we been sent a different model?
The answer was all about set-up. In an effort to prove that this bike had been developed to race at the highest level, the European team had set up the bike as if we were all about to ride the Dakar. The suspension was set up stiff enough to take on boulder-sized piste at 80 mph; the standard power map was powerful enough to tow a pick-up at the same speed. Add in new mousses at both ends and the resultant package was just not what was expected, or indeed the market really needed. It was just too much.
But the Aussies had been far smarter – they’d set the bike on a soft map to start with, allowing for testers to ask for more power if they needed. They’d set the suspension to a fairly standard and soft enduro setting, again allowing the faster test riders to ask the techies to stiffen things up as and when necessary. And they’d left tubes in the tyres. And everybody loved the 450, just like they’d loved the 250.
TIME FOR A REMATCH
Despite the fairly disastrous Euro launch of the 2016 model, in the territories where previous versions of the bike had always been popular – namely Australia and America – the 2016 bike was hugely popular. The massive power available in the reverse slanted engine coupled with the fantastic chassis was always going to be a winner in places where the trails are fast and long. Yamaha have a strong following in the Australian market, and the all-new WRF450 soon had legions of fans, providing that they could afford the steep initial investment needed to add one to the collection.
So for 2017, the changes to the bike are relatively minimal. Even in Europe, the issue had only ever been about set-up, rather than any fundamental flaws with the bike. It’s a beautifully made machine capable of taking on the world at landscape blurring speed. We had to go for a re-test.
The Yamaha Off-Road Experience is nestled deep in a valley a few miles outside the town of Llanidloes in Mid Wales. It’s run by the Jones family, who in terms of British enduro, are pretty much royalty. Geraint Jones, founder of the centre is a 10-time British Enduro champion and multiple ISDE medal winner, including 8 golds. He was perhaps most memorable for racing on the brutal Maico 440 in the 80’s, and although long since retired from racing, he can still ride far better and faster than guys half his age, and truth be told, a good proportion of every enduro club in the world! Geraint is assisted at the Yamaha facility by his two sons, Dylan and Rowan, both extremely successful enduro riders in their own rights with titles and successes on the British and international stage. In terms of off road riding, there’s nothing to know that the Jones family can’t tell you.
So with a few calls and a chat at Motorcycle Live, the arrangements were made to test the bike at the start of December. It was always going to be a gamble in terms of the weather, and the previous weekend’s thick ice and freezing conditions dis not bode well for trail testing an extremely powerful enduro machine. We rolled the dice, packed up the car and headed for the hills.
INITIAL IMPRESSIONS OF THE WRF450
Faced with a decidedly mild and almost unseasonal December day, the prospect of riding the big Yamaha took a decided upturn. Dylan had prepared a 450 for me and I was joining a group of riders from the Mercedes FI team who were on an unofficial away-day to the Yamaha Centre. The Merc boys were on the WRF250s and with the prospect of Welsh forests ahead of us, I was still pretty sure they had the better option.
Sitting on the bike, there is little to choose between the 250 and the 450. Platform engineering has come to most of the manufacturers, so the ergonomics and component of basic bike remain largely unchanged – it’s just the size of the motor that varies. The Yam is a tall bike as stock – not good if you are short in the leg, although you can make adjustments to reduce the stance if that’s the body you’ve got! And it’s got some presence about it – this bike feels like it’s already rolled up its sleeves and is saying ‘Right then – let’s have it!’
And that impression is enforced when you thumb the starter. You need a tug on the cold start button before you do that, and then the bike barks into life with an angry roar. Even on the standard exhaust system which curves round the barrel beneath you, the noise is powerful and loud, and is backed up by the induction suck from the high mounted air filter. This bike means business from the off.
Mindful of and somewhat frustrated by Yamaha’s set-up faux-pas on the launch, Dylan has the bikes at the centre set up far more suitably for UK enduro riding, with the suspension backed off and a softer map than standard already dialled in via Yamaha’s handy little plug-in EFI tuner.
And it’s a huge improvement from the Spanish set up. Yes the bike still has a massive reserve of power and it’s best to avoid being too heavy handed as we leave the Jones farm and head up the hillside, but it’s a country mile away from the angry bike we rode on the soft Iberian sand in 2015.
WRF450 OUT ON THE TRAILS
The first of the trails travels up onto a ridge and follows a long and shaly track through the fields and sheep. The Yamaha is joyfully powerful, twist the throttle and the front quickly goes light and begins to ride up. Dips and bumps on the track can be powered over but just a slight tweak and the front just lifts over and pressed forward. Give it a bit more and those same bumps become fantastic jumps that bring out the big grins behind the chin piece of my Suomy helmet. The track has been repaired in a couple of places with shards of sharp and deep flint gravel, but the bike is sure footed and follows exactly where you want it to. Crossing cattle grids had to be done with care, as the back end would break out if you were not careful.
After a tricky descent and climb back to the ridge, we reach the gate and are into the dense forestry that covers most of this area.
Straight away we are into territory that the stock setting for the bike would simply not work. The trails are tight and at times snotty, the inclines steep and the bumps regular and punishing. If you’ve ever ridden in mid Wales you’ll know what to expect – lots of rain gullies that cross the trails, deep water, slippery rocks and dense forestry with super soft mud. It’s certainly not the perfect terrain for a bike making in excess of 50 bhp, but the way that Dylan has set this bike up makes it work surprisingly well. Yes you have to exercise a light touch on the tighter bits, but the unremitting power of the bike meant it cannot be defeated by anything you throw at it. Where the 250 might need a bit more thought when faced with near vertical rock climbs, the 450 is very much the ‘little train that could’. Point it in the right direction and it will get to where you want without complaint of issue. Period.
OK so it may have been a tad more tricky if the rain had come in hard, but faced with the cold and crisp conditions the bike never misses a beat. And when the trails opened up or you needed to wind it on for a long and rooty climb, the immense power is there to get the job done.
GETTING YOUR DRIFT ON
While a lot of the trails we encountered were tight and rutty trails within the woodwork, connecting these were the fire roads used by the forestry machinery. These sweeping and fast tracks are absolute catnip for the big Yamaha, and you can wind it on like you are Toby Price, hanging out the back end like a rally hero. Once it’s straight again, the bike lays down the rubber with a brutal efficiency that has you power wheelying at every available opportunity.
It’s this type of capability that no doubt makes the bike so popular in the big country setting of Australia and the US. Faced with such fantastic reserves of power and near faultless handling, you can see why the boys of WA head for the big blue bikes in droves. This is a big country bike!
When we’ve spent a good time in the forestry, the guides take the group out to an open area at Sweet Lamb in the centre of the Army firing range. While it doesn’t sound like the safest place to ride, once we’re assured the guns are elsewhere, we can stretch the bikes legs on a motocross style track. It’s immediately evident that the bike has embedded mx DNA – it’s just so good in this setting. Slam the bike into a berm and hit the throttle and it powers out pawing at the air. Hit a tabletop and the bike flies over it and lands effortlessly, ready to press on to the next obstacle.
And it’s no wonder; this bike is based on the same bike that took Romain Febvre to take the MXGP 450 motocross title in his rookie year, defeating everyone from eight-time world champion Antonio Cairoli down. In the same year, the 250 version of the bike took Jeremy Martin to a 250 AMA National title and Cooper Webb to a West Coast Supercross crown.
And while the big power needs a bit of respect in the tight trails, once in the open, the big hit is exactly what makes this bike so popular. Translate the setting from a Powys firing range to a whooped out trail on the edge of the outback, and you are just going to love this bike.
Although the power on the bike was manageable in the trees, I still wanted to see whether we could bring this down a tad to improve the bike for the Welsh setting and general trail riding . On a few of the steep downhills, I’d been sent into ‘clench’ mode when a bit too much throttle blip had headed me towards imminent disaster. At lunchtime Dylan plugged in the Yamaha mapping tool and simply tweaked the figures, to keep the top end but reduce the low end hit. The process is incredibly simple and the unit so compact that you could stick it in your backpack on a long ride and adjust it if you came across different terrain, as is often the case with trail riding. And with people developing their own maps and sharing them by text, adjusting your bike’s mapping could hardly be easier.
Back out in the afternoon, the slight tweak had the desired effect, smoothing out the delivery in the snotty stuff without affecting the life-affirming power that makes the bike quite so good. The faster riders had been separated from the less confident, meaning that we could take on steeper, faster and more challenging trails. From stone riddled inclines to declines so steep that it would have been hard to walk on, the 450 coped with everything without feeling like a 450. The lack of perceived weight and great balance is doubtless down to Yamaha’s obsession with mass centralisation. The backward slanting engine and centralised petrol tank are all part of that, and it’s really effective. Back to back on the 250 and 450 versions down the same downhill it’s really hard to tell exactly which bike you are on – that’s a pretty big achievement.
No enduro bike is going to score the full 5 out of 5, but the big Yamaha comes as close as you can get. The ergos are great and the seat is pretty damn comfortable
As the Yamaha borrows it’s engine technology from the motocross machine, the motor is pretty strong and the frame is well designed and built. We think it will last well
OK so only three here as Yamahas are not the cheapest on the market. But if you are talking power for your pounds, the WRF450 would take the full 5 stars
A big 5 for this one – the Yamaha looks completely killer from any angle – love it!
YAMAHA WRF450 – THE VERDICT
OK so testing a powerful 450 enduro bike in the winter in Wales could have been a total mudfest disaster. Yet thanks to a break in the weather and a team that know how to set up a bike correctly, the overall impression from testing the YamahaWRF450 this time round was so much better than the last time. Gone was the angry animal with an attitude problem and stiff handling, and replacing it was a powerful bike with great handling that could be adjusted to suit the conditions.
But inevitably, this is a bike that will not find that many fans within the European market. Yes it’s a great package, but when the 250s are quite so good, easier to manage on single track and the slow rocky stuff that tends to make up trail riding and enduro over here, there seems little point in investing in that extra capacity and power and then not really need it. The situation was summed up by the man himself, Geraint Jones.
“With these 450’s, you have to be going some pace to get the best out of them. It’s no good keeping them in first and second and thinking they are going to be happy. You need to be in third and above and pressing on for them to perform at their best.”
Which is of course why they make such sense for the Australian and American market – or indeed anywhere where the trails are wide, open and fast.
Would we want one in our garage? Hell yes!
RIDE EXPEDITIONS REVIEW RATING : YAMAHA WRF450 2017
The Yamaha WRF450 is a truly epic motorcycle, and as a company that does truly epic adventures, Ride Expeditions like that. It’s got superb suspension, great design and an awesomely powerful engine – what’s not to like? If we were just assessing the bike for the US and Australian market we’d probably head for the full 5 stars, but if you are riding this bike in Europe, the amount of power is just not necessary and you need to dial it back to really enjoy the bike, in which case the 250 seems to make more sense …
SPECIFICATIONS, CAPACITIES AND DIMENSIONS
WHEELS / TYRES
DIMENSIONS & CAPACITIES
Do you / have you owned any of the Yamaha WRF range? Please let us know your comments below.
Share this Post