2009 Yamaha T-Max 500 Review
The ideal combo of scooter and motorcycle?
While the T-Max has long had a solid Euro-following, Yamaha USA has always been skeptical about the market for such a functional but unglamorous bike in America. The thinking is that, in America, motorcycles are used more for recreational purposes so they have to be cool. While we get that whole Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday classic Vespa thing, we often don’t know what to make of these neither-fish-nor-fowl maxi-scooters.
But now, the T-Max is sold here. It arrived just in time for four-buck gas in SoCal, when Yamaha couldn’t keep the smaller Vino in stock. The tuning forkers had visions of selling a freeway-capable scooter to people with longer commutes. I, for one, hope that the current blip back towards a buck-something gas doesn’t dampen the company’s willingness to promote this product. Although the high end of the scooter market will take some developing, I believe there’s role for the motorcycle as a primary vehicle.
The first impression on approach is that it’s extraordinarily long. Then, when you sit on it, the seat feels firm, high, and wide. The T-Max does not have a completely flat floorboard, like a classic scooter. Still, the relatively low step-through threshold makes it easier to get on and off than a conventional motorcycle. The seat height comes into play when paddling the bike into and out of parking spots. I found myself sliding forward off the seat, so that I could plant more of my own weight on the ground when pushing it around.
With a full tank of fuel, it weighs close to 500 lbs. It takes a fair amount of effort to get it up on the center stand, but the passenger grab rail provides a solid grip for that job. I found I noticed the weight more when I had to rock it off the stand. It is also the first bike I’ve ridden with a parking brake.
The starting protocol is simple: With the key and kill switch in the ‘on’ position, there’s a momentary delay while the fuel injection system pressures up. Then you hold either brake lever in and hit the starter button. (There are no foot controls. The rear brake is operated by the lever on the left handlebar, and the front brake, as usual, on the right.) There is no kick starter, nor is it possible to bump-start it.
An automatic centrifugal clutch engages when you increase revs. I noticed a slight delay in the clutch engagement that was frustrating when I was trying to get away at low throttle openings. To set out perfectly smoothly, I found myself holding the left (rear) brake in until I felt the clutch bite, then easing off the brake to roll away. I own a Yamaha Vino 125, which clutches flawlessly, so I suspect this glitch might come down to a minor setup problem on Motorcycle.com’s particular test bike. As soon as you’re underway, the low center of gravity keeps it unthreatening even at parking-lot speeds.
Despite being half a foot longer than say, an R1, the T-Max is very maneuverable in town. If you’re out running errands, there’s room for a good-sized bag of groceries, or a full-face helmet under the seat. The seat is held in the open position by a pair of hydraulic lifters, and there’s even a light in the storage compartment. There are also two non-locking ‘glove compartments’ in the front cowl. I imagine that, in Europe, commuters usually these for a pack of Gauloise cigarettes in one and a flask of Grappa in the other. Or maybe just coins for tolls.
The combination of 15-inch wheels and almost five-inches of suspension travel, make this the most capable scooter I’ve ever ridden when it came to soaking up the bumps in crappy urban asphalt. The suspension setup and overall geometry also make carrying a passenger a piece of cake. I can’t remember ever riding a scooter – or motorcycle – as good as this for two-up duty. I could hardly tell the chick was back there. Her comments were also favorable as she loved the seat, secure grab rails, and specifically noted the comfortable footpeg position.
The net effect of fork, frame, shock and Dunlop Sportmax tires is taut, confidence-inspiring handling that easily compares to conventional motorcycles. It’s capable of carrying a downright surprising degree of lean angle through the corners. More importantly (considering its daily commuting brief) the T-Max is amply capable of cruising in the fast lane on the freeway without the alarming vagueness of some other maxis.
The 360-degree parallel-Twin is an interesting piece. It’s a long-stroke, undersquare motor; a choice made to emphasize torque and provide a good spread of power. You’d expect that the two pistons, moving back and forth together, would create vibration. There is a third piston that’s 180 degrees opposed to the two ‘real’ ones. The result is an essentially vibration-free ride. As with all counterbalanced motors, the price for smoothness is paid with the currency of inertia, so the motor doesn’t want to spin up too quickly.
Although Yamaha claims the motor was designed for low and mid-range power, our consensus is that it is a little anemic off the bottom (for a motorcycle) but that it has lots of power up top (for a scooter.) Most motorcyclists are used to gauging speed by the sound of the motor, so having a bike accelerate while it maintains a nearly constant engine note can actually be quite disconcerting. I didn’t do a top-speed test, but it feels as though there’s still a bit on tap at an indicated 95 miles an hour.
Up at freeway speeds, or at any speed for that matter, the mirrors are crystal-clear. They’re positioned well forward on the fairing, offering exceptional rearward visibility.
For California readers, it’s worth noting that the narrow overall layout combined with a fairly tall seat and an upright riding position make the T-Max one of my all-time favorite lane-splitters. The only thing you can’t do on it is pull in the clutch and blip the throttle to politely remind car drivers to make a little room.
If something happens in front of you, the brakes are more than able to reel the T-Max in on short notice. There are twin 267mm discs up front, gripped by four-pot monobloc calipers. The long, low geometry also allows the rear brake to contribute, even in hard braking situations.
After a few days on the 2009 T-Max, I could easily imagine choosing it as a primary vehicle for daily commuting. As equipped, it’s not perfect for that assignment, but Yamaha’s already anticipated one of my key desires by offering a nice accessory top box. Even with the capacious underseat storage compartment, there’s no such thing as too much luggage space.
For every day, year-round use, I’d like to see heated grips, or at the very least better wind protection for the rider’s hands. A wired-in accessory power socket located in the underseat compartment would allow for onboard charging of a modern commuter’s various PDAs, cell phone, laptop and the like.
Riding through dark winter nights is made easier by the best headlights I’ve used in a long time. But I’d like Yamaha to add four-way flashers. Last but not least, I’d like to see ABS, at least as an option.
If you’re looking for the two-wheeled equivalent of a Honda Accord, this is a strong contender for your next bike. At $8,099 (for the yellow version seen here) it’s priced competitively close to the base-model Suzuki Burgman 650 or about $800 more than Yamaha’s venerable FZ6 all-rounder - if you’re comparing it to real motorcycles.
Changing the attitudes of American motorcyclists towards maxi-scooters will take some time. I for one hope Yamaha hangs in there with the T-Max, since it’s a great bike that deserves a real following.