PHOTOGRAPHY BY BEN QUINN
The roads in and around the Greater Toronto Area are laid out in that most unfortunate of configurations, the grid pattern. Safe, efficient, economic, perfectly straight roads are easy to plan, construct and navigate, and the relatively flat geography only adds to the blandness of the situation.
However, between the connect-the-dots highways and byways lie a few glorious routes. They’re borne of the French curve instead of the straightedge, romping up and down hills, valleys, and scenic rock faces that were once the shores of an ancient sea. The creep of urban sprawl and an ever-increasing amount of traffic loom over these hidden gems, but for now they remain the playground for those motorcyclists who know that heading a little west of the GTA brings a small slice of riding bliss.
That’s where we rode with a pair of new Yamaha Tracers. The Tracer 900 is a 2018 model that will continue to be available, and the Tracer 900 GT is a 2019 model that features several upgrades, details to follow. The Tracer 900 ($11,999) is available in matte dark gray metallic only, while the Tracer 900 GT ($14,599) is available in gray and metallic black.
We headed out from Yamaha’s Toronto head office, stopped for a splash of fuel, and then pointed our noses westward along the blacktop for the first “touring” portion of our journey. Our reward at the end of the straight and not-so-narrow would be Belfountain, Terra Cotta, Campbellville, and Rattlesnake Point.
Shoes come in different sizes, belt buckles have several holes, and drivers’ seats in cars conveniently slide back and forth to accommodate varying human proportions. The Tracer 900 follows this trend with an easily height adjustable seat, handlebar and windscreen. The bar adjustment requires tools, but the seat and windscreen do not, and the screen is easy enough to adjust that it can be done with one hand on the fly if necessary. The headlight height is tool-free adjustable as well, to accommodate for passenger and/or luggage weight in the rear changing the angle of the lights up front. Although the variance between the high and low seat heights is only 15mm (a little over half an inch), the difference was quite noticeable, and being taller than average I definitely preferred the higher setting.
Droning west along the highway out of the city, the winds gusted seemingly from all directions, blowing a welcome cool flow into our jacket vents and giving the impression that we were moving faster than our already brisk pace. The new longer swingarm and subsequent longer wheelbase of both the regular and GT models surely contributed to the stability of the bikes in the blustery conditions. Saddle comfort is quite good, as it should be, with decent room to slide fore and aft. Updates include a revised transition between the rider and passenger seat that I found was a useable place to slide back against, to occasionally alter the pressure points on my backside. Handlebar height placed my body quite upright, with hands just above bellybutton height, and the footpegs are directly under the rider.
Flying in formation mid-pack, the LED tail lights of the bikes ahead and LED headlights glimpsed in my mirrors (now wider than the previous generation) gave a clean, modern look, and could only be complimented by a more up to date set of turn signals. The Tracer’s signals are big and ugly. Are “big” and “ugly” actually requirements in the North American DOT regulations?
The styling of the Tracer is decidedly “adventure bike”, minus the dual-purpose tires and long travel suspension. The high nose and headlights, the windscreen styled as a separate element instead of being integrated into the bodywork, and the hand guards, all mimic the aesthetics of Yamaha’s Super Tenere, a bike originally styled after the famed Paris-Dakar off-road racers when the Tenere was introduced in 1983. The look may seem a little out of place on a bike designed for pure street duty, but it does allow for the upright riding position without looking ungainly, and I can see how it could work in this world of SUVs that look the part of an off-roader without any of the off-road ability.
The engine, identical between the two models, is also the same unit used in Yamaha’s MT09 naked sport bike. A smooth 847cc triple, it has a broad spread of power that requires minimal shifting to stay on the boil, such that both highway passing and slinging between tight corners is often a simple throttle twist affair, no dancing on the shifter necessary. Taking multiple passes of the same set of corners for the photographer, second and third gear felt virtually identical but for the tone of the engine and a touchier throttle response at higher revs.
Power from that gem of an engine is routed through a six-speed transmission featuring a slipper clutch, and the GT model adds Yamaha’s Quick Shift System (QSS). No complaints about the standard gearbox, but the QSS is a bit clunky, and only operates on upshifts, not downshifts. It’s a “nice to have” feature that could use a little refinement, and might graduate to “must have” status if it worked in both directions.
Suspension composure on both models is improved with the longer swingarm, with preload and rebound damping adjustments still available at both ends, but the GT adds remote rear preload and front compression damping adjustability. With the contrasting requirements of sport and touring, suspension can be a difficult balancing act, one that the Tracer executes admirably. Grooved sections of highway under construction, bumpy mid-corner patch jobs, sunken maintenance covers, and even a short gravel section were traversed in comfort and control, yet harder cornering and quick, side to side transitions felt solid and composed.
Riding the GT variant on a straight stretch allowed me to test out the GT-specific cruise control system, a very welcome feature on the latter half of a long ride once the right wrist invariably becomes fatigued. Identical to car-based cruise control units in operation, simply arm the system with the middle button (left handlebar, where it should be), set or decelerate with the lower button, resume or accelerate with the upper button. A definite “must have” for long-distance highway riding.
During a lunch stop at the Copper Kettle Pub in Glen Williams, I reflected upon the other differences between the regular Tracer and the GT model. The full-colour, customizable TFT LCD display on the GT is small but bright and easy to read. It sits in a bezel seemingly designed for a much larger display, which makes the screen seem even smaller than it really is. The regular Tracer’s monochrome display is larger and split into two sections, with a better integrated bezel that looks like rugged military equipment, with the only aesthetic misstep being the turn signal indictors along the top that look like a throwback to the ’80s. Like the actual turn signals, their function is perfectly adequate; they just appear out of place on an otherwise good looking machine.
Back to the GT’s display, the bottom right corner is reserved for displaying the status of another GT-only feature, the heated grips, featuring 10 levels of heat customizable to three presets. A hot August day was not the time to test this feature, but on a cold day I would love to see how distinguishable each of the 10 levels is.
The heated grips and other GT display functions are controlled by a multi-function dial on the right handlebar switch pod. One of my first cell phones was a Sony with a similar setup called a jog dial; Yamaha calls theirs a wheel switch. Scroll up and down, press short to select, press long for menus. Just as it was on my old Sony phone, it is a simple, intuitive and effective tool for one-handed navigation of multiple functions and sub-menus. On the regular Tracer, the adjustable functions are controlled by a toggle switch on the right handlebar, and include D-Mode for variable throttle control, two-mode (plus off) traction control, and three-mode ABS, all of which are also included with the GT model.
The final piece of the regular Tracer vs. GT puzzle are the colour matched hard saddlebags, standard on the GT, but the integrated mounts are included on the regular model for an easy, clean upgrade. Easy to mount (no tools required here, either), easy to use, and just big enough without being too wide for urban car dodging, they only lack the numerous stickers from each province and state you will want to visit on your countless road trips with this bike.
Riding home on a regular model, wishing I was on a GT only because of the missing cruise control, the kilometres of highway once again confirmed the Tracer 900’s ability to comfortably eat up the tedious straights after skillfully consuming the entertaining corners. This motorcycle was bred for traversing the Alps, skipping along the Mediterranean, or navigating European cities old and new, but as far as reaching and enjoying the hidden gems of the GTA, it certainly makes a strong case.