2017 Yamaha SCR950

First Ride Review

Americans use their motorcycles mostly for recreation, not primary transportation. Sure, there’s a dedicated minority who use their motorcycles for commuting and grocery getting, but the majority of us ride on weekends as an escape from the daily grind. And since they’re recreational vehicles, we’re more likely to choose motorcycles for sentimental reasons rather than practical ones. We buy lawnmowers and paper towels to get the job done; we buy motorcycles to add excitement to our lives.

Although there’s no shortage of motorcycles with state-of-the-art design and performance—sexy bodywork and blistering acceleration have a long history of igniting passions and emptying bank accounts—we’re drawn most heavily toward bikes rooted in the past. Cruisers, with their styling orthodoxy dating back to the 1930s, dominate on-road motorcycle sales here in the U.S. When Triumph revived the iconic Bonneville in 2000, it immediately became a bestseller and still tops Hinckley’s sales charts. And on the trend-setting custom scene, as the chopper craze crashed and burned, café racers and scramblers rose from the ashes—yet all are rehashes of styles that were popular decades ago.

Scramblers, with their stripped-down simplicity and do-it-all ruggedness, inspire a potent blend of carefree playfulness and unencumbered freedom. Triumph has had a scrambler in its lineup for years, but only recently has competition begun to heat up with Ducati introducing its family of highly customizable scramblers for 2015 and BMW and Yamaha launching models for 2017.

When Yamaha pulled the covers off its SCR950, a scrambler based on the Bolt cruiser platform, last June, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the room full of jaded motojournalists, and it seemed to overshadow the cutting-edge, high-performance FZ-10 that was unveiled soon after. The difference comes down to aesthetics. While the YZF-R1 supersport-based FZ-10 is certainly exciting to ride (click here to read our first ride review), its edgy, Transformers-ish styling is severe, menacing and cold. The SCR950, on the other hand, is a heartwarming classic, with a knockabout profile burgeoning with the allure of possibility. I ride around town on dozens of different bikes every year, but the SCR950 has elicited more double-takes and praise—from guys at the gas station, my neighbors, a dude at my gym, heck, even my wife—than any bike in recent memory. Even now, as I write this, I can see Editor-in-Chief Tuttle out in the parking lot admiring the SCR950’s details. That’s saying something.

Designed in-house by Yamaha Motor USA, the SCR950 draws inspiration from the tuning-fork company’s own historical lineup, such as its Big Bear 305 scrambler from the ’60s and its XT500 dual-sport from the ’70s. A round headlight, a flangeless steel fuel tank with retro graphics, side covers resembling racing number plates, round mirrors on skinny chrome stalks, rubber fork gaiters, spoked aluminum rims and a 2-into-1 exhaust with (slightly) upswept muffler round out a tidy styling package. There are a few miscues, however, such as the round LED taillight and all-digital meter, both of which look better on the Bolt from which they were lifted. An old-school analog speedometer with an LCD inset would have added more retro appeal. And belt drive is an odd choice for a scrambler, though, understandably, converting the Bolt platform to chain final would have been expensive.

Yes, yes, I know this is a “first ride review” and here we are at the fifth paragraph and I’ve yet to say anything about what the SCR950 is like from the saddle. The motocross-style handlebar is positioned just right, but the bench seat is thinly padded and hard, and the midmount footpegs are widely spaced even though the bike feels narrow between the knees (except for occasionally banging my right knee on the air cleaner cover). And unless I slide close to the tank or far back on the seat, at stops the footpegs are right where my shins want to be. The air-cooled, 60-degree, 942cc V-twin, which carries over directly from the Bolt (and its R-Spec/C-Spec variants), can get pretty buzzy, rattling the mirrors into a blur and sending annoying vibes through the grips, pegs and seat.

Normally, when a bike isn’t comfortable for long rides or has limited range (the SCR950’s low-fuel light comes on around the 105-mile mark) or has jarring suspension or limited cornering clearance, I’m ready to put the sidestand down and seek out alternative means of transportation. But, nearly from the get-go, the SCR950 burrowed deep down inside of me and tapped into a wellspring of warmth and forgiveness. (My wife often says that, despite my grizzled, curmudgeonly exterior, I’m really a big softy, but I have my doubts.) I’m willing to put up with a sore bum and tingling hands because the SCR950 is just so dang cool. If you don’t have fun riding this thing, you’re doing it wrong.

No, a cruiser, not even one that’s relatively light by cruiser standards, is not the ideal platform for a scrambler. Although Yamaha jammed out some sweet styling licks with the SCR950, the engine and frame are unchanged from the Bolt, so this scrambler isn’t particularly rev-happy (it prefers to be short-shifted), it doesn’t have much ground clearance or available lean angle and the front end is a bit too raked out. Like the Bolt, the SCR950 has a 19-inch front wheel, but its rear wheel is an inch larger, at 17 inches, which, along with the new subframe, raises the seat height to 32.7 inches vs. 30.1 on the Bolt C-Spec and 27.2 on the Bolt/R-Spec. However, travel for the dual piggyback shocks is unchanged at a scant 2.8 inches (front travel is 4.7 inches). Even with rear preload properly set (the only adjustment there is), with my 200-pound sack of meat in the saddle it doesn’t take much to bottom out the suspension. The SCR has firmer damping rates than its Bolt brethren, and the ride isn’t especially plush unless the pavement is smooth.

Quite unexpectedly, during the press launch near San Diego, California, our ride route included some scrambling on unpaved, hilly, rutted ranch roads as well as a paved fire road with asphalt best described as post-apocalyptic. With its relaxed throttle response and power delivery, wide handlebar and 552-pound curb weight carried low in the chassis, the SCR950 is nimble and relatively easy to dirt track through corners. Standing up feels natural and the semi-knobby Bridgestone Battle Wing tires provide decent grip on- and off-road (though they whir loudly at highway speeds), but the limited suspension travel and firm damping encourage restraint. Have fun, but don’t let your enthusiasm write checks the bike can’t cash.

The single disc brakes front and rear aren’t very strong, but they’re appropriate for this application. They aren’t grabby, which is good for the newer riders who might be in the market for a cool-looking bike that retails for $8,699 (ABS is not available). The cable-actuated clutch actuates easily and the 5-speed transmission shifts effortlessly, though on the highway I often find myself grabbing for a sixth gear since the SCR950 feels busy and buzzy above 70 mph, which is compounded by the strong wind blast. Around town the SCR putts along agreeably with barely a sound emanating from the tailpipe. A hard romp on the throttle will spit out a V-twin roar, but I wish the exhaust sounded feistier overall.

Style requires some sacrifice, and in the case of Yamaha’s SCR950, for cool scrambler curb appeal you’ll need to put up with some vibration, some suspension harshness and lack of rear travel, limited cornering and ground clearance, a tall, hard seat and fuel range that limits backcountry exploring. But your $8,699 gets you a bulletproof V-twin, a solid chassis and a proven platform with low-maintenance belt drive (on the other hand, catching a flat with those tube-type tires will be a major hassle), all in an attention-getting, retro package. Plus, Yamaha offers a full line of nifty accessories to personalize the SCR, everything from a skid plate and cleated footpegs to windscreens, saddlebags and trick black or brass bolt-ons. And in an age of complex—and expensive—electronics on many new motorcycles, the SCR950 is refreshingly analog. Just hop on and ride. What more can you ask for?