Thursday, 21 January 2016

Yam XJ400Z v. Suzuki GS250FW: Watercooled hybrids


At first glance I thought it was yet another bland old Yamaha four. A second glance revealed a watercooled four cylinder motor. I racked my memory but couldn't recall ever reading a test on one. The dealer told me it was a 1984 shadow import. He had some literature in Japanese from which we were able to ascertain that it made 55 horses at 11500rpm and weighed in at 400lbs. That sounded okay, a test ride arranged.

Mileage was 23000 kilometres, general condition was good with just the odd bit of alloy rot spoiling its looks. Bikes have an easier time in Japan than they do in the UK, where any decade old sickle is usually very rough.

Sitting astride the bike, I felt perched atop a quite wide and high motorcycle. Felt heavier than the claimed 400lbs, due to too much mass placed too highly and widely. Eighteen inch wheels shod with old Jap Bridgestones added to the feeling of remoteness and edginess.

The motor came alive at 9000 revs but ran fluidly if not powerfully below that. The engine was easily the best bit of the machine but not good enough to make me buy it on the spot.

Told the dealer it was a rolling deathtrap with those tyres. He had a quick spin and agreed! Okay new Avons thrown in for free, how about that, sir? Well, I'll think about it. The 1400 quid price rapidly dropped. 995 notes with the tyres fitted that day. If I had the cash I could ride it away. He even drove me down to the bank! Keen or what?

Test rides only reveal a hint of a machine's abilities - or disabilities. The 20 mile ride home on a strange vehicle was quite interesting. The engine seemed much too powerful for the chassis, which didn't really want to swing through the bends in an exuberant manner. I decided that the tyres needed scrubbing in, brand new they were barely making an impression on the tarmac.

A few hundred miles, the handling was the same. I nearly shoved it through a hedge a couple of times. Just too unsettled when banked over. Playing around with the tyre pressures helped a little but I wasn't too confident in the bike's abilities. The motor was a rev happy little beast that would put 14 grand, or more, on the clock in the blink of an eye.

A couple of months went by and I became used to the machine. It needed a riding style whereby I kept it as upright as possible and leant off the bike when going through bends. This probably looked as odd as it felt but around bends it would then motor. The rear shock often tried to turn into a pogo-stick, so a secondhand shock, that was half an inch shorter but stronger, was fitted.

The bike was now lower, felt much more natural. Still needed a bit of shuffling around to make it go where I wanted. Top speed was 120mph but it weaved a bit too much for comfort, the ton was the most I felt really happy with even on motorways. Secondary vibes weren't too apparent, general comfort was close to excellent. A bit of stiffness in my neck after an hour at the ton was the only complaint.

The bike lost its edge with a pillion and became downright lethargic when two-up with a couple of panniers, top box and tank-bag. Only by revving into the red through the gears did it manage a decent clip. Took a bit of effort but didn't stop me heading for the Continent with the nearest and dearest on the back. She had a reasonable bit of seat and a pad on the top box to lean against.

The extra mass out back made the bike run very wide in bends under acceleration but a bit of a body weight shuffle compensated for it. The motor actually felt better the harder it was revved. Surprisingly, it stayed in tune without any effort on my part. I was expecting 1000 mile sessions due to its highly strung nature but just an oil change sufficed.

Did about 4500 miles on French and Italian roads. A few close shaves because the natives really didn't understand how to drive properly but they didn't all seem packed into small areas, plenty of open spaces to enjoy. The bike was also useful when the ground was too hard to put the tent pegs in, could use its bulk to tie one side of the tent down and use the panniers on the other side. One hurricane wind that came out of nowhere made it collapse on top of us. Never mind, all part of the fun of foreign touring.

More than 300 miles in a day, I became a bit tired of all the effort needed on the box and clutch. Odd aches and pains popped up in places I didn't know that could complain. The wife was happy enough, only a bit saddle sore if I did much more than 400 miles in a day. It was pushing its limits a bit but the bike survived long distance touring unscathed.

On the open road, cruising at 80-100mph, fully loaded up, the bike gave an exceptional 60mpg plus! In town, it was around 50mpg and at slower speeds on the open road close to 65mpg. Flat out, figure about 45mpg due to the incredible aerodynamic forces involved. As the tyres lasted for over 10,000 miles, the O-ring chain rarely needed any attention and the brake pads never needed replacing, one of the bike's best qualities was cheapness of running costs.

I finally sussed out what was making the handling so dodgy. Replacing the tyres, it was immediately apparent that the cast wheels were very heavy. This unsprung mass at the extremities of the bike amplified any looseness in the chassis and all the tarmac inputs. The Yamaha was fighting a losing battle against the sheer momentum of its wheels!

Heftily cast eighteen inch wheels with discs at each end suggested erring on the side of caution or saving production costs. I was never happy with the front twin discs, far too powerful for the tyres, had to be used with extreme caution even on dry roads. The rear disc was an on/off device that produced interesting skids on wet roads.

Dump the whole lot and fit something more modern, I thought. There were plenty of back wheels available but finding front wheels proved impossible - everyone and their dog writing off their bikes by hitting something head on. Well, the only bikes with dodgy back ends were the tiddlers, mowed down by cagers due to their lack of speed. I was stuck with the stock stuff.

As I wanted to use the bike through the winter, I fitted a handlebar fairing. The bike looked very similar to the same era XJ900, so I shouldn't have been that surprised when it went into a speed wobble, for which the 900's had been infamous. The extra weight on the forks tipped the balance, bringing out all the nastiness that the bike usually managed to hold in check. The fairing came off, it was going to be a cold winter.


With this in mind I went back to the dealer hoping to find a winter hack. The cheapest bike he had on offer was an 800 quid Suzuki GS250FW. Another import, 1983, 45000 kilometres and a little bit tired looking. I could have new tyres and an MOT. The bike had quite a large half fairing that I could imagine hiding behind. 40 horses at 11000rpm, 360lbs and a three month guarantee on the engine.

Long, low and lean, felt much more at home than on the Yamaha and it screamed up the road at a really rapid pace. Because there was a strong powerband at ten grand it felt harder running than the XJ. There's also a 400cc version but the dealer had sold the last one a couple of days earlier.

The only sore point was the sixteen inch front wheel. These were infamous for twitchiness but though very fast turning I couldn't find any lack of stability and thought it way ahead of the Yamaha. All down to weight distribution and steering geometry, as well as the unsprung mass of the wheels.

The combination of a single front disc and rear drum worked much more coherently and safely than the Yam's fierce stoppers. Made the bike much safer on wet or iced roads. The fairing still left my hands out in the cold but at least it twirled the water around my body. The wife didn't like this, as it coalesced where she sat. She also complained about the seat and the position of the pillion's pegs.

Wasn't a great problem as the Suzuki soon settled into the commute whilst the Yamaha was kept for long distance, two-up riding - little of which was done in the winter. My faith in the GS was tested when the front wheel slid away, with absolutely no warning, in a slow corner. The bike bounced up on to the pavement, finding a soft landing on a couple of peds! I bruised my shoulder but the leathers saved me from serious damage.

The GS was mostly unmarked. Or so I thought. Five minutes later the watercooled motor was overheating furiously. A displaced water hose had let the radiator drain. I'm a modest guy, but if I'd got the pecker out to piss in it, the ladies would've started a riot. Ended up knocking on some old dear's door and begging a bucket of water off her. Later I had to drain it all out and fill with proper coolant because pure water corrodes the aluminium.

The black paint on the exhaust began to fall off, thanks to our wonderful acid rain. The wheels' finish turned into loads of white fur. The paint was okay but all the fasteners sprouted rust by the time February came round. I brought the Yamaha back into play, but it actually felt no faster and didn't handle very well in comparison. If it hadn't been for the wife's bleating I would've sold it and ridden the Suzuki as my main bike. A weekend's work cleaned it up okay.

I decided I would have to sell both bikes and find something as comfortable as the Yamaha and dynamic as the Suzuki. Oddly, the latter wasn't so economical, only rarely turning in more than 50mpg. So I put 60mpg on the list of requirements. Both bikes were advertised for 950 quid, the Yamaha sold within two days and the Suzuki within the week.

For 1500 quid I was able to buy an early Diversion, which had a better combination of qualities than the two imports and only 9000 miles on its clock. I'm happy, the wife's happy and the bike seems happy, too! Just shows, that old imports aren't necessarily the best budget buys.

Teddy S.

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