If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck…it might not be a duck. It could be a particularly duck-like loon. In the case of Yamaha’s quirky TMAX super-scooter, it’s a loon that can fly faster, dive deeper and honk the crap out of any duck on two flippers. Leaving feathery analogies behind completely, the TMAX is the fastest, best-handling scooter I’ve ridden, and in fact may be in my top ten for best-handling streetbikes. Period.
At first glance, the Yamaha TMAX may look like a scooter, but it handles like a sportbike… So could this truly be a super-scooter?
“But it’s a scooter,” you say, “how can this be?”
Good question, and to answer it, I’ll tell you that the TMAX (sorry about the all-caps, but that’s how Yamaha spells it, presumably to associate it with the VMAX) isn’t really a scooter, but some kind of scooter-sportbike hybrid. To explain, I think we have to actually define what a scooter is, which is tough to do. To determine scooter-iness, we have to find more than one of the following elements: a step-through design, an automatic transmission, an integrated drivetrain/swingarm unit and whether or not the rider looks like a big old fruit tooling around town. The TMAX, arguably, only has one of these elements, the automatic transmission. If I look like a fruit riding it, it’s only because I look like a fruit on whatever it is that I’m riding.
Under that bright-yellow wrapper, the TMAX has the bones and heart of a serious sportbike. No, really. You may have heard that about other scooters, and some scooters have race-replica paint schemes, radial tires, dual disc brakes and other hallmarks of high performance. But when you flog them, they reveal themselves to be what they really are: scooters. Scooters, no matter what they look like, are usually built as cheap, reliable transportation, so scooter
Using the engine as a stressed member of the frame, the Yamaha TMAX doesn’t sport the typical scooter running gear once the bodywork comes off.
engineers make decisions sportbike engineers wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot brain. Look underneath the front fairing on a scooter and you’ll see spindly fork tubes and fork assemblies missing the top triple clamp. The frames are often sloppily bent mild-steel tubes that look like they were made for a dolly and if it’s a big scoot, the weight of the combined swingarm/motor unit exceeds that of an Olympic swimmer. Sound like a recipe for an ill-handling, wallowy sow of a bike? That’s only because it is. And since the TMAX is wrapped up in the chador of sporty-yet-bulbous bodywork, you’d assume it’s just another one of those big maxi-scoots: fast enough for freeway commuting, comfy and good for getting groceries, but nothing a serious dude like yourself ever needs to ride.
Which is why the first time I saw a photo of a nekkid TMAX my eyes popped out of my head, accompanied by a cartoonish “a-ooo-gah” sound. Feast your eyes on what is clearly a sportbike, albeit one designed for Billy Barty. The engine is a stressed member, sandwiched between two controlled-fill cast aluminum frame beams. An aluminum swingarm (with a low-maintenance internal chain drive inside) bolts to the back of the motor, and a non-adjustable, linkage-less shock holds it up. Front suspension is a non-adjustable 43mm (43mm!) fork held in a motorcycle-style triple clamp, complete with top and bottom clamps. The brakes are similarly serious: dual four-piston monobloc (monobloc!) calipers and 267mm discs up front and another 267mm disc in back with a single-pot caliper. Grippy Bridgestone BT-012 radials adorned the tester I rode: who knew they made them in 15-inch sizes? And don’t forget the hollow axles: gotta have those hollow axles for maximum rigidity. You betcha.
The motor is just as remarkable as the chassis, if not more so. It’s a 499cc liquid-cooled, DOHC 8-valve parallel Twin: most scooters get cheap, reliable Singles. It’s pretty high tech, with fuel-injection, 11:1 compression, forged pistons, ceramic-coated piston liners and a third dummy piston that works as a counterbalancer. And talk about downdraft: the injectors and airbox are mounted on top of the engine, with the exhaust ports pointed straight at the ground. The engine has all the visual appeal of a toaster oven, but it sits about as low to the ground as you can get, giving the TMAX the center of gravity of a sumo wrestler after five hours at an all-you-can-eat pasta buffet (add $1.95 for unlimited meatballs). Transmission is via CVT.
Yamaha’s media rep Kevin Foley was gracious enough to meet me 100 miles north of L.A. with a TMAX so I could swap him for another Yamaha I was testing. That meant my first impression of the bike would be on the soul-crushing boredom that is I-5 through California’s Central Valley. After loading a bit of luggage into the TMAX’s vast underseat storage (big enough for a full-face helmet and then some: there’s also a luggage rack that’s plenty big for the 46-liter trunk in Yamaha’s accessory catalog) I straddled the bike, noting the tall, wide seat and high center portion of the bike: it’s not a step-through, meaning you have to mount it like a motorcycle by throwing a leg over, and shorter riders aren’t going to be flat-footing it at stops. But the difficulties stop there: make sure the parking brake is disengaged and twist the throttle—the bike leaps forward with a not-quite-Single, not-quite-Twin exhaust note that probably would sound pretty sweet with an open muffler (our friends at Leo Vince just happen to make one…).
The TMAX has a gracious amount of space under the seat for storage, with a full-face helmet fitting with room to spare.
It’s fast, plenty fast enough to charge past any kind of traffic you’re mixing with. The long-stroke motor means plenty of torque, and it’s kept in its sweet spot by the CVT’s tuning. Fueling is good, although there is a slight hesitation off idle: no big deal if you’re used to scooters. Top speed is somewhere around 100 mph, although it’s hard to tell; when I compared the speedo to a motorcycle-mounted GPS unit it read at least 10 percent optimistic. But it can cruise at a steady 80-plus indicated without breaking a sweat, and that broad seat means you’ll be comfy for a few hours. Longer than that and the feet-forward riding position will put your ass to sleep. The windscreen provides good protection, although the wind noise is pronounced. Yamaha’s accessory catalog has a larger replacement which should help. It’s not a bad place to pass an afternoon, and the four-gallon tank will let you go over 150 miles between fill-ups. Yamaha claims 47 mpg, but I averaged 42. So I like to ride fast. Save the hate mail for Consumer Reports, hypermilers.
Economy? Range? Comfort? Any maxi-scoot has that. Get off the Interstate or city streets (where the TMAX is convenient but massive overkill) and prepare to be surprised. With a low c-of-g and smaller wheels, TMAX is very easy to toss into turns and incredibly confidence-inspiring, reminiscent of the three-wheeled Piaggio MP3 I rode not too long ago. Except the TMAX isn’t hampered by the unsprung mass of the MP3’s engine and drive unit, meaning the suspension works better and the scoot can accelerate quicker. On a very twisty road, I found myself carrying much more corner speed and keeping up with guys on faster, lighter bikes.
“This is ridiculous,” I found myself thinking, “I’m riding a scooter!” “Say,” the guys said at the rest stop, “you were
going really fast on that scooter.” I let a couple of them ride it, just to make sure I hadn’t been bitten by a radioactive MotoGP-racing spider, giving me super-scooter-riding powers. Nope, the other guys noted it too, remarking on how low and stable the bike felt in turns, like a two-wheeled go-kart. Conceptually, it’s not too far away from Dan Gurney’s thumper-powered Alligator recumbent motorcycles, and everybody raves about those, too. The rigid chassis components, long wheelbase and good suspension (although the back would be better with a linkage) help you go where no scooter has gone before. It’s kind of scary at first. Luckily the brakes are strong (but not as vicious as you’d expect, thanks to the bike’s weight and long wheelbase) and the TMAX retains a scooter’s friendly, forgiving nature.
Of course, there are limitations. Lean angle is limited, if better than your average Maxi, and the bike’s 489-pound claimed wet weight (which sounds like a lot, but it’s about 100 pounds lighter than other bikes in this class) is always apparent. And of course, we all need…more…power, Scotty. With something around 40 hp meeting the pavement, the TMAX will stomp most any other scooter out there but wheezes trying to keep up with a single-cylinder supermoto as soon as the road straightens out. What’s a-matta’ Yamaha? Can’t get a YZF-R6 motor to fit under there? Please keep trying.
A final surprise: the TMAX’s $8490 MSRP for 2010. Seem high for a scooter? Actually, it’s on the low end of the super-scoot spectrum, compared to Suzuki‘s $8699 Burgman 650 or the $8499 Honda Silverwing. It’s also a grand less than a 600-class supersport, and this is the highest-tech scooter around, a Bimota Tesi 3D you can ride while wearing polyester gym shorts (please wear underpants). But is it a scooter? Well, it isn’t not a scooter, but it is definitely more than a scooter. Is that at all helpful? If not, you can just keep calling it a duck.