Although the Big Four were all experimenting with low rider styling in the late 1970s, Yamaha was the first Japanese manufacturer to build an air-cooled V-twin to challenge Harley-Davidson, the 800-lb gorilla of the cruiser world. That was back in 1981, with the Virago 750.
Since then, all the Japanese marques have been building big-bore cruisers that more or less riff on the same common theme. The Bolt and Bolt R take their motor from one of those bikes already in Yamaha’s lineup. The 942 cc air-cooled 60-degree SOHC V-twin, with four-valve heads, was first used in the V-Star 950, with 25,000 km valve adjustments.
Aside from the motor, the rest of the Bolt and Bolt R is new for 2014 (it’s an early, early release). The cruiser theme has been around for decades now, but Yamaha is moving away from the feet-forward trend we’ve seen in recent years.
Instead of forward controls, the Bolt has the pegs moved backwards, putting the rider in a standard riding position, similar to the original Japanese low riders. The pegs are about 24 cm further back than the V-Star 950’s forward controls.
The handlebar doesn’t reach for the sky, pardner – it’s a fairly straight bar with a 2.5-cm rise, supposedly inspired by flat-track racers. Whatever its origins, it helps the rider assume a real-world riding stance, instead of looking like a buffoon, arms flung skyward, grasping for ape hangers.
Marketers have been calling this bike a bobber; that’s a bit of a stretch, as the fenders are still attached, and haven’t been trimmed that much. However, the bike certainly has a great stripped-down look; there are no Art Deco flares or chromed geegaws here.
Thankfully, the bike’s designers resisted the urge to follow today’s trend and bolt a bunch of hideous lights to the Bolt. The LED tail light, the turn signals, and the headlight all have classic lines. It’s something that should be a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many motorcycles get this wrong.
The digital speedometer also offers a clock, odometer, twin tripmeters, and a low-fuel light, but no tach.
There’s not much difference between the Bolt and Bolt R – the Bolt R comes with different paint that arguably looks better, and a suede-style seat cover, that also looks better. The major difference is in the rear suspension.
The Bolt R’s twin rear shocks have remote gas reservoirs, while the standard bike has conventional rear shocks. The rear suspension travel remains the same. Both bikes are adjustable for preload only.
Both bikes have the same blacked-out 2-1 exhaust, with the rear cylinder’s header snaking forward to optimize exhaust length. It’s not particularly attractive, but many owners will likely plan on replacing it anyway, for something that’s less restrictive and more likely to annoy their neighbours.
They also share 41 mm front forks, 12-spoke cast wheels, belt drive, and a 12-litre gas tank. Front and rear brakes are both 298 mm single discs on both bikes, with twin-piston caliper up front and single-piston caliper in rear. ABS is not available for now.
The tank should theoretically give you a range of about 240 kms, if you can get the 20 km/l fuel efficiency Yamaha claims. That’s likely enough range for most cruiser riders. The tank itself looks pretty sharp.
In fact, the whole bike looks good, from the 12-spoke cast wheels to the paint (gloss white or black for the Bolt, olive green or matte grey for the R). If showroom appeal was the only selling point, these bikes would do very well.
If they aren’t flashy enough for you in stock trim, Yamaha has a huge accessory lineup available for these bikes (including a lowering kit, wire wheels, saddlebags and windshields), allowing you to transform it visually into a cafe racer, a bagger, or something in between.
Of course, a bike’s road performance is a key selling point as well, so let’s talk about how well the Bolt and Bolt R handle the asphalt.
But first, a disclaimer: Yamaha held the Bolt launch in downtown Ottawa, and after photo work, and some around-town riding, there wasn’t much time for the journos to head to the twisties and give the bike a proper workout. I tried to ride through Gatineau Park, but apparently the health nuts have taken over the curvy road through the middle of the park, and banned motor vehicles in favour of bicycles.
That means I was only able to ride the Bolt through downtown stop-and-go, and city boulevards, with a bit of highway thrown in. I would love to report how it handled La Mauricie’s corners, but such a ride wasn’t in the cards, due to time constraints.
The bike does handle this urban work well, though. Like any V-twin, you’ve got lots of torque on tap stoplight to stoplight, and should you require some quick evasive action, the upright riding position is conducive to a quick lane change, whether you’re evading a homicidal cager, or trying to escape Johnny Law.
It’s no supermoto – handling is still restricted by the bike’s weight and center of gravity – but for a cruiser this works pretty well; I didn’t encounter any alarming lunges when I leaned the bike over in town. In fact, it reminded me a bit of the first cruiser I owned, a Yamaha Heritage Special XS650. It might not have been the quickest-turning machine, but it got the job done.
I’ve mostly been riding dual sports and adventure bikes for years, so I found the seating position quite natural; other riders coming from standard-styled riding bikes should find the same thing. If anything, riders with longer inseams may actually want to move the foot controls forward just a bit, to allow more legroom (there’s accessory pegs coming that will do that).
I certainly didn’t try any stoppies, but the 298 mm discs worked fine. Brake and clutch levers are both wider than usual, making clutching and stopping a little easier.
The engine is rigidly mounted, making it a stressed member of the frame and cutting down on weight (the Bolt is about 13 kg lighter than the Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster). I didn’t find the engine’s vibrations intrusive as I rode around town, though.
The Bolt also beats the Sportster on suspension travel, with 3 cm more travel in back. However, I still found the rear suspension beat me up when I hit rough pavement in Ottawa.
I didn’t get enough seat time on the Bolt R to compare that bike’s shocks to the regular Bolt’s shocks; other reviewers have said they didn’t notice any difference, but I can’t say for sure.
A couple other minor peeves included the digital speedometer (a bit hard to see in sunlight at times) and heat radiating off the exhaust. I found my right leg warming up a bit in around-town riding – possibly a problem when the weather heats up, or during extended stop-and-go riding.
Yamaha is calling this bike a crossover, hoping it will attract riders who want decent handling, but are scared by supersport insurance rates, or like cruiser styling. And obviously, it’s taking direct aim at Harley-Davidson’s Sportster lineup, with a bit more motor than its closest competition, the 883.
But will that be enough? To the cruiseratti, Harley-Davidson’s brand name is likely worth more than the $100 difference between the two motorcycles.
Still, plenty of riders new and old appreciate a reliable motorcycle with classic styling and decent handling.
That’s why the cafe racer scene is booming in the US right now, with skinny-jean-wearing hipsters buying up old Japanese iron and rolling up their sleeves for customization work. And if you see the Bolt’s marketing video, that’s who this bike is aimed at.
To me, that’s where this bike’s strength lies; instead of buying that old GS and worrying about the charging system, instead of buying a Virago and wondering when the starter is going to go, you can purchase this bike and have the same classic look with none of the hassle of breaking down, or setting the valves every second month.
You won’t dominate in the twisties, but it’s light and nimble enough that you should be able to have fun on the machine without scaring yourself. So, as long as people don’t get hung up over the name on the gas tank, I think Yamaha has a winner here.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
|2014 Yamaha Bolt/2014 Yamaha Bolt R
|air-cooled 8-valve 60-degree V-twin, SOHC, w/five-speed transmission
|59.3 ft-lb @ 3,000 rpm
|100/90 x 19
|150/80 x 16
|298mm disc / twin piston caliper
|298mm disc / single piston caliper
|247kg kg/247.5 kg
|black, white/grey, green