New York Times on the New VMAX from Yamaha

WHEN I first rode the new-for-2009 VMax from the Star Motorcycles division of Yamaha, there was something familiar in its manner that I couldn’t quite place. Something to do with how I felt after each ride, walking away with my hands tingling and ears ringing – a feeling that I imagine jackhammer jockeys know all too well.

The VMax is a hulking machine: straddle the beast, grab the handlebars, fire it up and feel the ground shake as an angry roar erupts from the 197-horsepower V-4 engine. The bike’s rocket-launcher quad exhausts snort like an aggrieved warthog – an image reinforced by the gaping air-intake snouts on either side of the engine.

The VMax will rip through a quarter-mile run in 10 seconds. It doesn’t carve sweeping corners; it grinds them into submission. Traffic isn’t so much handled as exorcised.

It took several days, but this beast’s hint of familiarity finally came to me: years ago, when my dad and I were building a corral, we rented a gas-powered post-hole digger. The unwieldy contraption would drive an auger about four feet long into the hard-packed ground for anyone gutsy enough to grab the handlebars on either side and fire it up.

With a fury I’ve seldom experienced, the digger would obliterate everything in its path as it began gouging its way toward the center of the earth. Riding the VMax was a lot like going a few rounds with that digger.

Even parked, the VMax looks as if it is sizing you up – a penned rodeo bull waiting for a cowboy. What do you have planned for the next eight seconds, sodbuster?

The VMax earned its reputation for raw power decades ago. The original 1,198 cc V-Max first arrived as a 1985 model; in motorcycle years, that’s an eternity. Offered for more than two decades, it was one of the longest-lived, least-changed motorcycles ever built.

Twenty-five years ago, the V-Max (the name was hyphenated then) had to overcome a good deal of skepticism. Would an unusual-looking, Japanese-made, 4-cylinder, water-cooled, shaft-driven power cruiser sell in America? Remember, this was the land of the free, home of the brave and birthplace of the cult of air-cooled Harley-Davidson V-twins.

But the V-Max’s 133-horsepower V-4 proved to be a wake-up call for thrill-seekers, who quickly became addicted to the visceral straight-line acceleration. Never mind that the V-Max turned corners as nimbly as a container ship and was a handful to stop. It was just ugly enough, with its tortured plumbing, to be bulldog-beguiling.

But as the years passed, the V-Max kept selling. Other makers began to consider the virtues of a such a modern, high-output engine in a cruiser. Even Harley-Davidson, in conjunction with Porsche, came out with a water-cooled power cruiser, the V-Rod, for 2002.

But the V-Max remained unchanged. Why? Yamaha says it spent nearly a decade fiddling with prototypes. Progress came when it decided that any new V-Max must have a 200-horsepower engine. More power was needed after competitors raised the ante.

The designers preserved the quintessential V-Max look, but the engineers changed virtually everything else. A new V-4 engine now displaces a stout 1,679 cc. Claimed horsepower at the crankshaft is 197 at 9,000 r.p.m. The torque, worthy of a pile-driver – 122 pound-feet – peaks at 6,500 r.p.m. That merely makes the new VMax (now without the hyphen), according to Star, «the most powerful series-production motorcycle ever.» Top speed is electronically limited to 137 miles an hour.

A 5-speed transmission is fitted – a 6-speed might have been too fussy and fragile – it has a slipper clutch intended to permit downshifts without skidding the rear tire.

Bringing the power into the 21st century required dumping the old flex-prone steel chassis. So a cast-aluminum frame, using the engine as a stressed member for added rigidity, was developed, and there’s a new alloy swing arm. Power is sent to the fat 200-millimeter-wide rear tire via a shaft drive.

The new chassis curbs unruly behavior. With so much power and low-end torque, performing a wheelie ought to be easy, but with this one it isn’t.

The thick 52-millimeter front fork is adjustable for preload as well as for compression and rebound damping, and has 4.7 inches of travel. Similar adjustments can be made on the rear shock. Tools-free knurled knobs allow easy dialing of settings at both ends (a screwdriver is needed to adjust front compression). The rear end also has a hydraulic preload adjuster that can be altered on the fly.

When it comes time to shed speed, the ’09 VMax comes through with standard antilock brakes with Brembo master cylinders operating a pair of 6-piston front calipers up front and a single rear caliper. Keeping up with the latest trends, the rotors are wave-style, displaying a scalloped design around the perimeter.

Despite all the attempts to keep weight in check – the generous use of aluminum components and plastic trim – the VMax weighs in at a disappointing 683 pounds, the better part of 100 pounds more than its predecessor. Many exterior trim parts, including the fenders, side covers, seat cowls and faux fuel tank covers (the real 4-gallon gas tank is under the seat), are available in carbon fiber as accessories, but they are dear: a set of carbon-fiber air intake scoops, which look very cool, costs $1,000 extra.

The weight, coupled with the thirsty V-4, results in fuel economy that topped out at around 30 miles a gallon in my testing; press the VMax hard and you can expect a drop into the teens. I once used two gallons to travel 35 miles.

This is already an expensive motorcycle, with a $17,990 price tag. But an exclusive clientele is all that is sought. Star said the first-year production of just 2,500 units was mostly pre-sold.

It is possible to loaf around town like a responsible citizen, although the bike is a bit unwieldy at lower speeds. Can the VMax meet everyday transportation needs? Yes, if those needs include 2.7-second runs from zero to 60 m.p.h., as it did in testing by Cycle World.

This is a motorcycle meant for experienced riders. Excessive enthusiasm on cold tires could have disastrous consequences. Looking for a politically correct two-wheeler? Buy a scooter.

The essential character of the VMax has changed from an ultimate performance bike to one that’s more about big numbers. Yes, it has gaudy horsepower numbers, but its biggest number is its weight, which handicaps its abilities on the road or the track, leaving it to lag behind the top supersport machines.

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