The '06 WR is a bit of a sandbagger. Seemingly harmless, the Yamaha off-roader can tear up the trails with its strong motor and handling.
Honey Lake Motocross Park was playing host to the World Off-road Championship Series the weekend after Yamaha
invited MCUSA out for a test on its new off-road WR450F thumper. We tested the WR on virtually the same course as the WORCS guys rode, which provided plenty of challenge for the off-road version of Yamaha's vastly popular YZ450F MXer. That challenge came in the form of rocks. Lots of rocks.
Yamaha's PR guy, Terry Beal, guided me around the first lap to make sure I made it back to the pit area without getting too far off the beaten path. Well, I made it back all right, but the first lap was an adventure in itself as I ping-ponged my way around the rock garden. This was a place where suspension would be key, not only good suspension components, but personal setup and familiarity with the bike's behavior. Since we showed up to a bunch of brand new WRs that came straight out of the box, we had neither extensive personal setup nor enough time to really become familiar with how the bike acts. But, as they say, the show must go on, and for the benefit of our readers I threw myself upon the savage rocks, hell-bent on conquering the WORCS track while sparing my body and the shiny Yamaha from as much damage as possible.
As a facility, Honey Lake
really isn't that big, but good use is made of its limited space. The whole thing sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range with the motocross track placed between two draws. Our course dodged the MX track and sent us up and down both sides of terrain featuring several fast sections of dirt road before plunging back into the sea of rocks.
Once aboard the WR I noticed right away the additional weight that won't be found on a motocross version of the machine. We didn't have a scale handy to verify, but the '06 WR450F posts a claimed dry weight of 249 pounds, five pounds heavier than the claimed '05 weight. The '05 model turned out to be 266 pounds, so the '06 is surely going to top the 260-lb mark after including oil, radiator coolant and filling the 2.1-gallon fuel tank. For those of you deciding between a tuned-down YZ and the WR, a quick comparison shows the YZ-F's claimed dry weight of 220 pounds, almost 30 less than the headlighted and electric-start-assisted WR.
But, there's more to it than just weight. Our WR had a very different power delivery than a motocross machine. The DOHC, five titanium valve motor puts out plenty of power with its 449cc of displacement, but it doesn't come on abruptly with the snarling torque of an MXer. This bike is definitely built for off-road, as its engine spreads ample power somewhat deceptively across the powerband before hitting the rev limiter at 11 grand.
As a facility, Honey Lake really isn't that big, but they make good use of the space. The whole thing sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range with the motocross track placed between two draws.
When I first hopped on the WR, I had some preconceived ideas that proved immediately to be incorrect. First, the electric start was a feature that I was looking forward to having at my disposal. Our previous tests of the WR450F starter received much acclaim, but when I tried to fire up the 450, instead of a rewarding thump and quiet exhaust note from the USFS-approved aluminum silencer and spark arrester, I was greeted with the incessant whine and whir as the starter cranked unsuccessfully for some time. Releasing the so-called "magic button" I tried again with the same result. After a few more stabs at the ignition switch, just as I was certain the battery would be drained, the bike finally fired. Granted, the morning was cool and the bike had just been shipped hundreds of miles in the Yamaha semi. Still, I was disappointed with the reluctant starting, and the bike was a bit slow to fire for the rest of the day, no matter how warm the engine was.
After that initial bout of stubbornness, the electric start proved much more reliable, but the motor refused to light on the first couple cranks. I re-fired the bike with the battery-aided system as much as possible, though, especially as I became more fatigued throughout the day and was generally happy to have it available. Just to make sure it actually worked, I did revert to the old-fashioned method of placing one's foot upon the strange, fold-out lever and depressing the mechanism until fully through its stroke. As it turned out, the 450F lit within the first few kicks, proving to be almost faster and easier than the electric start.
The next mistake I made was thinking that I was going to be jerked around by a burly 450 motor. Well, I was wrong on that note as well. The motor isn't necessarily tame, and especially not weak, it's just really, really smooth. I was almost disappointed at first because the weight of the bike and the mellow engine seemed to tone the bike down. However, to my pleasant surprise, the motor isn't boring, but rather extremely useful and fun. The front end was quick to come off the ground for any obstacle even when running a gear high. Down low and through the midrange are the best regions of performance, but the 11,000-rpm limit isn't as short as it sounds compared to the high-revving 4-stroke motocrosser. Once I got used to the delivery of the power I realized just how potent the motor really is. The 39mm Keihin carburetor with throttle position sensor gives the bike excellent response at all points throughout the rpm range.
The WR proved adept at dodging the rocks at Honey Lake thanks to a nimble chassis. In the unavoidable event that you do hit a few of them, the Kayaba suspension works well at keeping things under control.
A wide-ratio, five-speed transmission fed the tractable power with an excellent feel. Shifting on the Yamaha is good, with a responsive lever and strong clutch. A large space lies between first and second gear, but mis-shifts are generally rare. When riding aggressively, I've developed the habit of tapping into different gears with minimal use of the clutch, or even none at all. Because the WR tranny it is a wide-ratio, speedy and aggressive shifting doesn't work as well, especially when the motor is under a load. Trying to pound the bike into gear is what resulted in most of my missed shifts. It isn't that the WR doesn't like to be ridden aggressively; it just requires riders to be smooth and deliberate when changing gears, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The multi-plate, wet clutch has an easy pull at the lever which features an on-the-fly cable adjustment. I quickly learned that it is imperative to fully disengage the clutch when braking hard since the WR likes to stall out otherwise. The 450 refused to cut me any slack despite my repeated efforts to slip and feather the clutch. If you're riding the brakes pretty hard, the clutch lever has to be touching the handlebars or the motor will stall. Don't worry too much, though, because this is where the electric start really earns its money. The WR's levers appear to be of good quality, though we did manage to bend our brake lever with a simple tip-over in the pits. However, it didn't break, which could have severely hampered a ride if the event had taken place miles from the truck, and is more than can be said for some aftermarket levers available.
Yamaha uses Kayaba suspension components on both the YZ-F and WR-F models. Knowing that the off-road settings would be much softer, the inverted 48mm, air/oil-separate fork initially felt a bit mushy. As the day progressed, I began to appreciate the softness of the stroke. While the plush fork worked well in the rocks and was very confidence-inspiring on faster fire roads, it seemed to suffer a bit on both of the whooped out sections within the WORCS layout. One of them followed the bottom of a drainage ditch and was especially treacherous. Filled with smooth, round rocks, traction was limited on the softly-packed and treacherous trail. These kinds of creek-bed scenarios can be tough to negotiate when flat, so adding whoops gave it a whole new dimension.
This particular drop was one of the nastiest sections on the course, but the WR made it as simple as possible.
The other set of whoops was smaller and graced with sharp, half-imbedded rocks that didn't budge upon impact. As opposed to rolling out of the way and washing the front end, these whoops kicked and bucked the WR in strange directions, though it was easier to get on top and keep the front end from diving in these more hard-packed bumps. But, the common theme through these different styles of whoops was that the fork wallowed a bit if allowed to fall between whoops, giving the rider a very unsettling pitch to the front of the bike often accompanied by a hard twist of the handlebars. Being as nasty as they were, it was nearly impossible to blitz through or even double the longer set, and the slow-speed action left me wanting a stiffer feel up front.
However, the stock settings on the fork were excellent on small chop and resisted bottoming and big deflections on high-speed impacts. The fork has a tendency to dive when applying the 250mm front brake. Strong weight transfer to the front end proved to be undesirable when negotiating rocks. The diving fork also caused some problems in sharp corners. As the weight moves forward, the rear end lightens up causing the brake to lock easier and skid into turns. This would be great when you want to slide around a corner, but the front end cancels any possible advantage by wanting to tuck, especially in hairpins.
Under acceleration, the shock resisted squatting and performed very well on all obstacles. Setting the sag was all that was required for shock setup, and it handled the rocks and wide-open sections with equal ease. Braking was good on the back with a 245mm disc and aluminum calipers to match the front. Locking the brake into corners and over braking bumps put the shock to the test, but the Kayaba unit resisted the urge to chatter and soaked up everything in its path.
This bike is definitely all off-road as the engine hits the rev limiter at 11 grand, spreading ample power somewhat deceptively across the powerband.
The bike features an excellent riding position with a comfortable layout in the cockpit and pleasant ergos. Standard aluminum Renthal bars help cut down on the vibrations and shock from the trail. The YZ-F models come with Renthal's oversized ProTapers, but the WR isn't designed to take on the massive jolts and rigors of motocross, so Yamaha avoided the harshness sometimes associated with an oversized bar by sticking to the 7/8-inch design. Scooting up on the tank is not a problem thanks to a smooth transition from seat to tank. A 38-inch seat height proved comfortable and peg placement was right where it needed to be to support a full day in the saddle. At 5'11" I'm not usually considered particularly short, but I found it difficult at times to turn around in tight situations. I got plenty of practice during our photo sessions where I found myself struggling with the combined effects of weight and seat height, especially on tight single track or on inclines. It's not that the bike isn't nimble or responsive, because it definitely is, but spinning around can be a challenge on the WR, especially for short riders.
I was surprised at just how nimble the WR really is. The twin-spar steel chassis has yet to receive the aluminum update like the YZ-F models did this year, but its works well regardless. The chassis combines a mixture of rigidity and flex that is well suited to the off-road world. Fast, hard hits and minimal airtime weren't a problem, but taking to the motocross tracks would definitely tax the chassis. The bike is narrow between the knees, and the thin profile is noticeable on the trail.
With Honda's CRF450X sporting the aluminum frame of its moto-siblings, we were hoping for Yamaha to follow suit with the introduction of their own aluminum frame for 2006. While the YZ-Fs will be on the cutting edge of aluminum innovation in their new models, the WRs are still behind the times. With any luck, the trickle-down effect will take place by '07, but for now the WRs will have to wait.
Despite a serious case of arm pump early on, JC emerged from the rocky hell relatively unscathed. If you're looking for a worthy off-road steed, the WR won't disappoint.
Though we're bummed that Yamaha will force us to wait for a future aluminum frame, the '06 comes with some nice componentry. The skidplate is aluminum as are the engine case covers. Very cool. Yamaha also went high-tech on the new WR by attaching a digital enduro computer that provides the rider with speedometer, timer and tripmeter readouts. The new gadget comes with two different modes (standard and race) that can offer specific information such as average speed.
Overall the '06 WR450F is a pretty sweet bike. As with any new machine, the fork needs some dialing to suit personal preference, but the suspension package is decent in stock form and could be awesome once the unbalanced stinkbug effect is eliminated. From the top-down Yamaha littered the WR with goodies that make riding the blue thumper even more enjoyable.
Only time will tell if the '06 will repeat as MCUSA's favorite big-bore off-road thumper. We chose the WR over Honda's first-year CRF450X by the slimmest of margins last year, mostly because of the Yamaha's nimble handling in the woods, a slightly lighter weight and a $600 cheaper MSRP. This year the WR has even more attention to detail, with the same flickable feel and an effective motor boasting a list of refinements, all priced at $6799 MSRP, that's $400 less than the new Honda. It's safe to say that Yamaha has put forward a potent competitor for the impending clash of off-road warriors. Stay tuned.
Let us know what you think about the 2006 Yamaha WR450F
in the MCUSA Forum.