Growing up I was obsessed with the exploits of the heroic drivers who pedalled featherlight, rocket propelled coffins around the public roads of Sicily and mainland Italy to compete in the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia races. The underfunded garagista Abarth team fielded some of the most fabulously uncompromised machinery which, to a school boy, looked like they were travelling at warp speed at all times. But Karl Abarth started out life as a motorcycle frame designer and racer, a quick one too, whooping the factory rider's arses, aged just 16. The 1970s saw Fiat take hold of Abarth's reigns and a decade ago the two-to-four wheel relationship was cemented by the sponsorship of Yamaha's MotoGP team, and in particular the Abarth livered M1 ridden by Valentino Rossi.
So for me at least the launch of an Abarth branded XSR900 isn't too tenuous at all.
Just over a year ago we tested the more traditional XSR900 around the sublime twisted Tarmac of Fuerteventua (review here
) and the lyrical waxing hasn't waned. I still haven't met anyone who's ridden one and not tripped over their own lexicon of superlatives. The only thing lacking was a true café racer styled option. There was an attempt made with a factory option body kit but the functional frame and tank yield to riding capability rather than flowing form. The Abarth 695 aims to redresses the balance.
As you might have guessed the production run is limited, just 695 units will be released, each with a unique number and corresponding plaque. And don't think you can just snazz-up your existing XSR, the bodywork you see here isn't available from your Yamaha dealer. So what are the differences? Well, the bikini fairing is lifted from the XJR1300 Racer and the matching carbon front mudguard features an Abarth decal beneath the deep gloss lacquer.
An undeniable visual winner and the component that had us all stroking the XSR was the removable tail unit. Reminiscent of Ducati's GP12 Grand Prix racer, especially with the hexagonal LED arrangement, from nearly every angle the rear end looks the nuts. The bum pad isn't just for show either, the 115hp 847cc crossplane cranked triple beneath dishes out enough shove to pin you back in the saddle. Even if it is upholstered in beautifully stitched and grippy Alcantara.
Perhaps the simplest upgrade though is the black painted lower section of the fuel tank. The matching black cloaking strip along centre line combines to dramatically reduce the bulbous silhouette of the stock tank. A basic technique but in the flesh one's eye is drawn towards the sexier components. The tank is actually a pair of side panels, pressed aluminium clamshells hiding a steel fuel cell.
So if it's a café racer why not just bolt some clipons to the fork? Well, that would be a step towards a higher cost and one of the reasons Yamaha has sold so many XSR900s to date is that it's keenly priced. And in absence of a traditional cradle frame or wire spoked wheels the designers were keen to incorporate at least a few retro influences . The ace style bars used here are from the Racer package, equipped controls from the standard bike.
The simple dash features the tried and tested all-in-one gauge seen elsewhere on the Sport Heritage range, concise and good to look at. The asymmetric mounting via a really well finished alloy bracket enables access to the ignition key but it also looks racy and purposeful. There are three riding modes and switchable traction control is easily toggled and highlighted on the clear display, more on that in a minute.
Akrapovič are Yamaha's technical partner on the zorst front and the standard fit, stainless 3-into-2 (with an underslung fat cat in-between of course) suits the overall design well. And it sounds great. Subtle and bassy, rising to an off-beat howl ass the taps are turned. Being a factory option the man with a decibel meter will have sat behind the baffles to ensure the reading starting with an 8, so your neighbours won't hate you if bring one home.
Out on the road I was quickly reminded just how good the XSR900 is. Since the initial launch the suspension has been tuned for the weight forward positioning of the ace bars. But the rest is still the same great package. Our run was relatively short so I wasn't able to muster much more insight than outlined on my first outing but one thing did stand out - riding modes. I forgot that it's only the traction control that resets itself after each ride, my bike had been left in A mode. Which on the right roads and at the right speeds could be classed as sporty, but bimbling along at the back of the pack with bodyweight predominantly on my weak wrists taming the sharpened throttle response through a mile of cable freeplay was an arduous task.
I pulled in at the first photo stop feeling slightly dejected. Maybe the super early flight and recent workload had taken its toll. Maybe I'm just not cut out for riding relatively quick road bikes. Then I realised my error, flicked the mode button to initiate the standard fuel and ignition map and tried again. Completely different. It was like I'd swung my leg over another motorcycle. The grin returned as Sardinia's roads switched back and forward along the jaw-droppingly beautiful coast.
The CP3 engine works everywhere with plenty of torque from low down and maintains surge right until you slam into the limiter. Ratio selection isn't particularly crucial as the well balanced triple will spool-up quickly and pull hard should a corner prove tighter than it appeared on entry. Given the bar position and the Sardinian road builders' penchant for hairpins I avoided the tall gears and leant on the engine for braking.
Brakes are as you'd expect from radially mounted four-pots, sharp. I didn't grace the lever with more than a couple of digits, nor much force. And as for reporting how sticky the Bridgestone Battlaxxes were with the traction turned off...I'm not the man for such a job. The bigger boys from the fast magazines were doing that up the road ahead of me. But what the XSR 900 did exceptionally well was instil confidence allowing me to keep the gap to a minimum without feeling close to my skill limit. The run back to the hotel was good old fashioned fun, bolstered by a sonorous soundtrack. In the right hands this is an exceptionally capable bike and after seeing the grins attached to such hands when we returned confirmed that the XSR900 Abarth is more than just a smart paint job.
Only 100 of the 695 bikes are coming to the UK and half of those have been snagged already. In fact across Europe it only took 2 hours for 100 bikes to slapped with pre-order deposits after Yamaha pressed go on the marketing machine. If you're quick and follow suit there's a chance of securing a bike along with an Abarth experience and factory tour. If you don't enjoy that you need to see a doctor.
So what about the car? Well, someone from Abarth left a bunch of motorcycle journalists alone with a handful of their cars, keys in the ignition - oh dear. I pulled the long straw and got the whiz-bang Fiat 595 Pista, with 180bhp, trick differential, boost gauge with switchable modes, massive brakes and carbon fibre bucket seats. The go-kart reference is made far too often in relation to hot hatches, I've owned a few and driven a good few more. The Pista is something else! The diff is incredible and I'll give a tenner to anyone who can crash one on a normal road, it seems someone at the factory forgot to translate the word understeer into Italian. I won't go into details but suffice to say I don't think they'd lend us one again. If you can persuade your local Fiat dealer to lend you one, chew their arm off.
More Yamaha road tests can be found in the Bike Shed Archive
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Helmet - Hedon Heroine Racer
Jacket - Helstons Heat
Boots - Icon Elsinore
Jeans - Resurgence
Gloves - Alpinestars Oscar Rayburn