Memorable Motorcycle: XT660Z Tenere

March 17, 2014
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Life, it seems, is composed of a series of bizarre contradictions. For the first time in the history of the human race, many of us can live without fear of starvation – and the result is an epidemic of obesity. At a time of great religious tolerance, swathes of humanity are killing each other in the name of their brand of God. And when we have the absolute knowledge that our world’s resources are finite, we waste them, producing trinkets which serve no purpose other than to make a tiny number of people very wealthy.

All these are interesting and thought provoking conundrums but not nearly so much as this one: Why is the XT660Z Tenere not the best-selling dual-sport bike in America?

Let’s run through the Tenere’s resumé. Stone axe reliable; capable of dealing with serious off-road going; handles extremely well on the road; cruises at a real 80 mph all day; light on fuel; easy to fix and drop dead gorgeous – if you are into dual-sport bikes. All this, but no Oscar…

The Tenere is named after a particularly nasty bit of desert in the southern Sahara which enjoyed a formidable reputation as a bike killer in the early Paris-Dakar rallies. Yamaha, through their French distributor Sonauto, really had the Dakar on their radar after winning the first two events in 1979 and 1980 with tricked out XT500s ridden by Cyril Neveu.

With the French foaming at la bouche for beaucoup des répliques of the winning bike, Yamaha in Japan was persuaded to produce a desert-styled single, so that tous les garçons, and the occasional jolie fille too, could head out on a Sunday looking as if they were on the way to the first stage of the Dakar when, in fact, the road book only went as far as a favorite restaurant. Quel dommage!

In making the Tenere, Yamaha inadvertently created a whole industry aimed at those of us who really are going to make that trip across the Sahara – just as soon as we have collected the dog from the vets, mowed the lawn, answered the emails and finished our third glass of Chardonnay while watching a re-run of MotoGP on TV.

We are the wannabee adventurers and we are good news at bike dealerships all over the world spending truly silly amounts of money on “adventure” equipment we don’t need and won’t use.

The Tenere went through numerous incarnations until 1991 when the granddaddy of the current Tenere was born. This date needs stressing. We are currently in 2014, so Yamaha has been serving up the XT660 engine, in various suits of clothing for a whacking 23 years. That makes the five-valve, single-cylinder engine seriously successful.

The latest manifestation of this remarkable motorcycle was launched in 2008 and the bike has been virtually unchanged since. At its heart is a technologically dull, but very effective, 660cc short-stroke Single. The bore is 100mm and stroke 84mm, which helps keep the engine short. The minimalist height theme is further enhanced by a dry sump so that there is no need for the engine to also be the oil reservoir.

Yamaha has been serving up the XT660 Engine, in various
suits of clothing for a whacking 23 years.

Yamaha’s very well established, five-valve cylinder head feeds the engine. It’s all basic modern engineering and the result is only 48 horsepower at 6000 rpm – a figure which would make KTM engineers fall off their designer chairs laughing. Peak torque is 500 rpm lower and again the figures, at 36 lb-ft are not astonishing.

What the numbers don’t reveal are the real life results. In practice, on the road or dirt, you never feel that the Tenere is lacking. If the bike was being used for serious off-road riding, you might want to drop a couple of teeth on the gearbox sprocket but, as it comes out of the box, the XT works very well and in a very wide range of conditions.

The gearbox is five speed – how dated is that these days – but there is never the feeling that six or seven ratios are needed because the Yam simply gets on with its job without making a fuss.

The Tenere theoretically has a top speed of 100 mph but, with the aerodynamics of a shipping container, this is only ever achievable downhill – and with a following wind. Add panniers and a top box and you really can forget ever achieving this speed – except through a gross miscalculation on a mountain road resulting in free fall to the valley below.

The old fashioned theme continues with the steel frame but again the same story pertains. The steel frame is very retro, but it works. On or off-road the Tenere handles well and it is a real wolf in sheep’s clothing on the road. Okay, so it boings up and down like a sail boat in a stiff breeze, but the Yam is surprisingly competent on tarmac – almost embarrassingly so when compared to conventional road machines which ought to leave it for dead.

All this basic engineering leads to a motorcycle which is utterly and totally reliable and which, given a hint of tender loving care, will run for ever and a day.

The Tenere has been eating a lot of super-sized burgers over the years so, now, it is winding up towards 450 pounds ready to go. Add the mandatory toys and accessories, so that you look tough enough to actually ride across the Sahara, and the magic 500-pound mark is comfortably surpassed. That’s a lump of bike for a dual purpose, single cylinder machine.

Perhaps this is why Yamaha has equipped the Tenere with killer twin, 298mm disc brakes? Certainly, a single disc would make the bike handle much better, but add 180 pounds of rider, a further 20 pounds of clothing and 500 pounds of bike and you can see why Yamaha went down the dual disc route.

A further challenge is the 5.5-gallon fuel tank. Fully loaded, this will take the Tenere comfortably over 200 miles on any terrain, but filled to the brim there’s over 46 pounds weight of gasoline between the rider’s legs and this needs stopping.

Although the Tenere is, in some ways, old fashioned it really does look the part. Yamaha’s styling department have really captured the essence of AT bikes. In the Yamaha racing blue color scheme, with some aluminum panniers, the Tenere is a real head turner wherever it is parked.

So far, so good: now you want a Tenere. The problem is that Yamaha won’t sell a bike to you in the US: why is beyond my comprehension.

The apparently easy fix might not be as simple as it seems. The Tenere is available in Mexico and Canada but, and I can’t get accurate information in this respect, might not be emission compliant in the US.

British bikes are emission compliant, because they meet Euro 2 standards which are some of the harshest, and most unnecessary, in the world.

Further, British dealers are happy to ship bikes to the US. CMC Motorcycles, who are Britain’s biggest Yamaha dealer, will happily pack a bike up and send it to the US. Their contact address is:

The question is, how much do you want the cost of importing a single motorcycle and getting a license tag even for a bike as good as the Tenere? For sure, it’s not an exercise I would undertake.

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