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The scooter with an identity crisis

Published: 01 December 2000

IT looks like a scooter, behaves like a motorcycle and has the kind of name you’d associate with a giant-sized hot beverage from a burger joint.

Say hello to Yamaha’s Tmax – a new concept in two-wheeled transport, apparently. Visually, it’s pretty much like other big-wheeled scooters, and it isn’t until you actually ride one that you get the full picture. Its stability is amazing, it’s roomy and easy to ride and it turns predictably and quickly in the tightest corners, making it perfect for everyday urban work.

It’s fun to ride, can manage 100mph, leans to 50° before anything touches down and sips petrol, too. It removes the fears less experienced commuters and riders might have about moving up the capacity ranks, and it’s far from complicated to get the hang of.

Yamaha is convinced the Tmax has been endowed with motorcycle levels of handling and, after hurtling up and down the sinuous and sometimes treacherous mountain roads to the west of Rome, I’d have to agree. I was particularly impressed to find it could potentially out-handle Yamaha’s very own all-conquering R1 in certain, tight spots.

Simply forget your preconceptions about scooter handling. Ride a Tmax and it is possible to rush up to a bend, slam on the brakes and even trail the front brake as you dive into the turn without fear of the front pushing wide. The feedback falls short if you’re used to sports bikes, but it’s pretty damn good for a scooter.

You have to take the grip on trust to some extent, but the Dunlop tyres clung on tenaciously considering the cool and often slippery conditions of the launch ride.The much more forward-biased weight distribution (compared with other scooters) makes a huge difference to front-end grip and steering, too. At higher speeds – up to 100mph – bumpy turns have the Tmax nodding in a disconcerting motion, but this is more of a bobbing action than a true weave and there are plenty of motorcycles which would be starting to protest by this point. Larger wheels than the 14in items fitted would probably help, as would firmer damping in the forks, but really we’re talking about pushing the Tmax to limits which no previous production scooter has come close to being able to explore. Few riders will be pushing it this hard anyway.

Even that traditional scooter bane, ground clearance, isn’t a problem. With the 50° of lean on tap, a couple of gentle scrapes on right-handers as the exhaust grazed the ground were the most I could manage and even they needed fair sized bumps in the road to help.

But what impressed the most was how the Tmax handled in exactly the sort of situations where most riders will spend most of their time – low-speed turns and manoeuvring. It was superbly poised, so you could heel it right over into a tight corner or difficult hairpins and it simply sat at the angle you took it to and steered itself around the corner. There was no running wide or dropping down into the corner, so you didn’t have to push or pull on the bars to keep it on line. It felt enormously secure in the process, probably thanks to its long wheelbase.

It will make the lives of the many less experienced owners who’ll be riding it a whole lot more pleasant and unintimidating, too. The brakes were clearly set up for this type of rider as well. While they can slow the Tmax down with impressive power, they do require a fair bit of lever pressure to do so. There’s less feedback than I’d call ideal and you can feel the front end twisting as the single disc pushes against the forks. But locking up a wheel is difficult. They’re about right for the handling and speed potential of the Tmax.

It does take a bit of getting used to because it’s the front set-up which does the bulk of the work. And that’s unusual as on other scooters it’s the back (which carries most of the bike’s weight) which does the bulk of the work.

Is it fast though? Well, that depends on your perspective. Motorcyclists will find the 7.5 second 0-60mph time slow for a 500cc twin, especially as the automatic transmission dulls some of the urgency. But plenty of car drivers will be attracted to the Tmax and they’ll be impressed since it’s quicker than a VW Golf GTi.

It pulls strongly up steep hills, has enough go to overtake cars with confidence and it’s helped by a beautifully smooth and predictable throttle response. Where many scooters have some sort of a glitch in their power delivery, the Tmax delivers its 40bhp seamlessly. And the transmission made riding over demanding and unfamiliar roads easy.

It was impossible to end up in the wrong gear charging from one hairpin to another – just close the throttle as you slow, then wind it open again when you want to accelerate, which it does with conviction.

The motor is reasonably smooth for a parallel twin. There is a resonant vibration at around 50mph, but it’s not severe. It might intrude at a constant speed over a long distance, as it did start to make my feet tingle, but since there’s so much room for your feet anyway, simply shifting them about now and again will stop it before it becomes a problem. The motor should smooth out as it accumulates miles, too.

There were no aches or pains after a long day on board, though short riders might find it a bit of a stretch to the ground, due as much to the width of the seat as its height.

The tallest riders found the wind noise generated around the screen tiresome by the end of the day. Generally, though, the Tmax fitted most people well and offered a spacious pillion position. Weather protection was good and the potential for touring (yes, really) is huge. You could easily ride across Europe, though the majority of Tmaxes will probably be pressed into service as commuters.

It makes a perfect town tool and, importantly in this market, the space beneath the seat is big enough for a standard-size briefcase. Surprisingly few scooters can carry them, yet a large percentage of commuters have one.

However, the price – £5800 – is likely to hold some would-be buyers back. It’s not so far from Yamaha’s own supersports R6, though you can always look at it another way – it’s a couple of years of season tickets for our near-defunct railways, yet it’s infinitely more reliable and there’s fun thrown in for good measure.

We probably won’t see huge numbers on our roads, but you will if you’re abroad. The Italians are already salivating – the 125 and 250 Majesty are the best-selling scooters over there, and to them the Tmax is not just more of the same, it adds a whole new dimension to what you can do on a scooter.

YAMAHA’S designers chose motorcycle technology for the Tmax to raise its levels of handling and engine performance.

The frame is a tubular steel diamond type instead of the traditional scooter U-frame, while the suspension at each end has 120mm travel – more than most scooters. The 38mm forks are very unusual in having a pair of triple clamps to hold them. The vast majority of scooters have forks which seem to motorcyclists to be foreshortened, as they’re held in place only by a lower triple clamp.

But it’s the engine and transmission which are the most radical features. To move the weight distribution forward and keep it low, the twin cylinders are horizontal and, instead of a pair of counter-rotating balance shafts, a third " slave " piston is driven from a central crank-throw, in opposition to the conventional pistons.

This makes the engine smooth enough to utilise as a stressed component of the frame. The transmission comprises a wet, multiplate clutch operated automatically by a centrifugal mechanism and variable ratio pulley belt drive, all contained within the crankcases.

Instead of the final drive and engine being a single, solid unit which all moves with the suspension (as on almost all other scooters), there is a separate motorcycle-type swingarm, although the inverted tooth chain drive system is fully enclosed in an aluminium casing, and runs in a bath of oil. This cuts down unsprung weight by a considerable amount.

THE BIKE

Yamaha XP500 Tmax

Cost: £5800

Availability: Yamaha UK: 01932-358000

Colours: Yellow, blue, silver

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 499cc (66mm x 73mm) four-stroke parallel twin, dohc, 4 valves. Automatic gearbox

Chassis: Diamond tubular half-cradle

Front suspension: Yamaha non-adjustable telescopic forksRear suspension: Yamaha non-adjustable single shock

Tyres: Dunlop; 120/70 front, 150/70 rear

Brakes: Sumitomo; 282mm front disc with 2-piston caliper, 267mm rear disc with single-piston caliper

PERFORMANCE

Claimed power: 39bhp @ 7000rpm

Claimed torque:33.8ftlb @ 5500rpm

Weight/power to weight ratio: 197kg (433lb), 0.19bhp/kg

Top speed: 105mph (est)

Geometry (Rake/trail/wheelbase): 28°, 9.5cm, 157.5cm

Average mpg/tank capacity/range: 55mpg, 14 litres, 170 miles