2015 Yamaha SR400 First Ride Review

Yamaha re-imports its real-deal retro

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2015 Yamaha SR400

Editor Score: 76.5%
Engine 15.0/20
Suspension/Handling 11.0/15
Transmission/Clutch 8.0/10
Brakes 8.0/10
Instruments/Controls4.0/5
Ergonomics/Comfort 8.0/10
Appearance/Quality 8.0/10
Desirability 7.0/10
Value 7.5/10
Overall Score76.5/100

Your giant corporations can be a little slow to respond to trends, but sometimes they surprise you. Yamaha started teasing the idea of bringing back its old SR400 a couple years ago, and now they’ve gone ahead and done it. This is not a modern interpretation of the old bike, this is the actual old bike it’s been building and selling in other markets since the ’70s – though it does have modern fuel injection and a charcoal canister to meet current emissions requirements.

In fact, it was the SR500 that was imported to the U.S. beginning in 1978 – a longer-stroke version of the 400cc model Yamaha’s been selling in Japan ever since, where tiered licensing keeps the 500 a 400. (Don’t be surprised to see a GYT-R 500 kit from Yamaha.) Speaking of hop-ups, a big motivation for re-importing the SR is that the old two-valve Yamaha thumper is in great demand among custom builders. A quick stop at Venice, California’s, Deus ex Machina outlet on the new SR yesterday raised quite a few hepcat eyebrows among the latte-sipping motorati, and the Deus guys asked us to feel free to crash as many new SRs as possible so as to provide donor motors ASAP – which are hard to come by in the U.S. In the ’70s, big Japanese four-cylinders were all the rage among us just-blossoming baby boomers.

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Yamaha’s Product Planning guy Derek Brooks used to flat-track an SR back in the Pleistocene.

Yamaha’s Product Planning guy Derek Brooks used to flat-track an SR back in the Pleistocene.

Anyway, here the thing is, all 384 pounds of it, rolling on 18-inch wire wheels and tube-filled Bridgestone Battlax tires, for the low low price of $5,990. Yamaha’s people are throwing out phrases like mechanical honesty and elemental beauty to spin the SR, and they may be onto something. Honda’s CB500s fall into roughly the same price range and offer considerably more performance, but if you’re looking for something with no plastic, then welcome back to 1978. Aside from the charcoal canister, which really is hideous, the rest of the SR is real steel, from the tip of its chrome front fender to the back of the grab rail out back, and everything in between: gas tank, centerstand, helmet lock and petcock included. (The petcock feeds the electric fuel pump that feeds the EFI. You get a petcock and a low-fuel light. You can’t run out of gas.) The tank holds 3.2 gallons, and Yamaha says you can expect 66 mpg.

The 1970s are not a bad place to visit, really. In stock form, the thumper has enough stick to put the hurt on automotive traffic, and it will get you up to 80 mph escape velocity, maybe a little more, given a long-enough straight; short freeway hops are not out of the question. At 80 mph indicated and about 6000 rpm, there’s quite a bit of vibration reminding you of your authentic retro-ness through all contact points. Some people are sensitive to that, some don’t much mind. Despite the absence of a counterbalancer, the SR is still way smoother than some vintage Singles we’ve ridden, ones that feel like you’re holding a downed power cable. At 60-65 mph, the SR is quite serene.

It’s 1978 all over again. I think you could sell all the parts to the vintage nuts on eBay and turn a profit.

It’s 1978 all over again. I think you could sell all the parts to the vintage nuts on eBay and turn a profit.

The five-speed gearbox and chain final-drive get the job done efficiently and with little lash, and in general, you get the idea Yamaha has been making very nice motorcycles for many years. It has been. All controls work smoothly. Clutch pull is light, the front brake is one of the few things that did get upgraded, and it offers really good power and feel. The 35mm damper-rod fork strokes through 5.9 inches of travel; the rear shocks give you 4.1 inches of old-school low-tech preload-adjustable wheel travel, and none of it sucks in the least.

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The funnest retro part is there’s no electric starter: you will kick the SR to life unless you happen to be parked downhill. I didn’t try a run-and-bump, but that could work too. Electronic fuel injection is humankind’s greatest invention in my lifetime, and even the lightweight lady in the group I was with had no trouble booting the SR to life. You do have to learn the drill with the compression release, but once you do, the 87mm piston doesn’t require a lot of persuasion, though it’s so quiet it can be hard to tell if it fired or not when you’re wearing earplugs. My bike usually started on the first kick. Don’t get me started about getting my old SRX-6 started. Let’s not discuss the XR400 mouldering outside my back door right now. By the time you get either of them kickstarted, you’re too tired to ride. Let’s change the subject.

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The SR is a perfectly fun little bike to ride, especially on a gorgeous August afternoon on the SoCal coast, up through Santa Monica, onto PCH and right up into the twisty canyons in the Malibu mountains.

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Takes you right back to the days when guys would use light bikes like the SR to give fits to bigger bikes with power they couldn’t use in the tight stuff. The SR’s not so fast on the way up the mountain, but it’s fun to wring its chicken neck, and it’s like a bicycle coming back down on its skinny little tires. In coastal towns where parking’s tough and the streets are crowded with aspiring actresses walking their dogs in between waitressing shifts, a cheap little bike like the SR is just the thing for coming over all casually cool, a nice little motorcycle that doesn’t call all the attention to itself and doesn’t mind sleeping on the street. Did Marlon Brando’s Triumph have an electric starter? Hell no.

All roads in SoCal lead to lane-splitting eventually, and not many bikes are going to be better at it than the skinny little SR.

All roads in SoCal lead to lane-splitting eventually, and not many bikes are going to be better at it than the skinny little SR.

I’d say, if you want one, there’s no good reason not to get one. The SR is a modernized slice of high-quality Japanese authentic motorcycle history, and they’re already in dealers if you can find one. Yamaha says it’s having to ramp up production to meet demand. Here’s to fun, cheap little bikes. And also to the other 12 models Yamaha says are on the way. Hooo!

Jeff Pahlegyi Customs built this one in a week, we’re told. The old SR thumper is the basis for many a cool rod.

Jeff Pahlegyi Customs built this one in a week, we’re told. The old SR thumper is the basis for many a cool rod.

+ Highs

  • Kickstart-only will keep all but the inner circle from borrowing it
  • It’s a skinny waif that will be forever indebted and loyal to you
  • All the bugs were worked out like 20 years ago, not that there were any
- Sighs

  • For $5990, we want the missing 100cc
  • You’re going to spend another $6k on aftermarket crap for it
  • Lately, there are a lot of really great bikes in the $6k range
Motojournalism is a demanding profession.

Motojournalism is a demanding profession.

2015 Yamaha SR400 Specifications
MSRP $5,990 (Liquid Graphite) Available from May 2014
Engine Type air-cooled SOHC, 2-valve
Displacement 399cc
Bore x Stroke 87.0 mm x 62.7mm
Compression Ratio 8.5:1
Fuel Delivery Fuel Injection
Ignition TCI: Transistor Controlled Ignition
Transmission 5-speed; multiplate wet clutch
Final Drive Chain
Suspension / Front Telescopic; 5.9-in travel
Suspension / Rear Swingarm; 4.1-in travel
Front Brakes Hydraulic disc brake, 268mm
Rear Brakes 150mm drum
Front Tire 90/100-18M/C 54S
Rear Tires 110/90-18M/C 61S
Length 82.1”
Width 29.5”
Height 43.1”
Seat Height 30.9”
Wheelbase 55.5”
Rake (Caster Angle) 27.7º
Trail 4.4”
Fuel Capacity 3.2 gal
Fuel Economy 66.2 mpg (claimed)
Wet Weight 384 lb (claimed)
Warranty 1 Year (Limited Factory Warranty)

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  • rockidr4

    How hard is it to stroke it to 500ish CC?

    • DickRuble

      Not hard if Yamaha provides the cylinder, piston, and head. Rather difficult to add 20% capacity if Yamaha doesn’t cooperate.

      • Robert Spinello

        It’s not any lighter

    • clasqm

      Don’t. The 400 and 500 are rated to exactly the same hp, but the 400 makes it at slightly higher revs. The main difference is in the crankshaft, and in Australia, where this bike has been available for a while, guys are mounting 400 cranks in their old 500s to get a smoother-running engine. See this article: http://contemplativemotorcycling.blogspot.com/2011/11/yamaha-sr500-sr400-review.html

      • rockidr4

        I really enjoyed reading this! Thanks

      • Oslo Norway

        Good summary of the bike…

      • Robert Spinello

        The 500 has 33 hp. the 400 has 26 hp.

    • john burns

      lots of aftermarket support for these. Bore is same, so I think you get to 500cc with just a new crank and maybe a new rod. Which will also increase compression since you’re now squeezing 500cc into same combustion chamber…

      • Oslo Norway

        What John said, and you can squeeze a lot of performance out of these motors relatively cheaply compared to multis…It’s running really low compression, which yeah, I get it, makes it user friendly and easy to start and all that. But it can be done. You can go full on crazy with these things if you are so inclined.

        They’re great bikes. In it’s present form here as presented it seems very user friendly for a new rider or an urban commuter. You want to go full on nuts? Full on nuts can be done…We may lose John’s precious FI in the process but full on nuts is more than doable…

        I like full on nuts!

        http://www.motorcycle.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/012914-head-shake-Tool-race-return-633×398.jpg

        • rockidr4

          So would you guys say the $6000 price tag is warranted?

          • Oslo Norway

            I’m probably not a good one to ask, I throw around nickles like they are manhole covers…

            Except for bike money, which isn’t like real money…

          • rockidr4

            See, I had convinced myself that even though I liked the bike it was just too overpriced and now it seems like if it’s as reliable as people are saying and easy enough to get more performance out of I might actually be more interested in paying a little extra for a bike I can keep around for a long time.

          • Oslo Norway

            I can understand where you are coming from, I can see that…And I think that is a problem they may run into. Big singles have never been an easy sell in this country as it is. I dunno.

            I have a soft spot for ‘em, but like I said I’m probably not a good one to ask. Cripes, I have 5 race bikes and two street bikes laying around this joint, how rational is that?

            To the right person? Well? 6K? I guess, I dunno. It would be kind of curious to compare and contrast, I picked up a pristine first year SR500 last year and then went bananas buying aftermarket parts to get it like I want it. If I were to add up the sum total of that endeavor I’d be curious to see what the final tally would be.

            Here, by way of comparison…As you can see, I hardly qualify as a rational actor in these situations…

            http://www.motorcycle.com/features/head-shake-right-tool-right-job.html

          • rockidr4

            You’re making the case for the SR seem stronger and stronger to me. I think I’ve actually read this article before, and I really like the sound of a bike.

            I’m actually totally fine with a big single. Most of my riding is at 45 MPH and below, I just need something that is enjoyable at those speeds, and capable of doing highway speeds if need be. I’m a little worried about vibrations, yeah, but I’m not looking for a touring bike right now. I can live with something with a little bit of buzz to it, especially if the SR is tolerable, or even endearing.

          • Oslo Norway

            Oh man, it is PERFECT for that! Vibration is not an issue…If it is a problem for you buy the big boy grips and go that route…I know a lot of guys that have done that, and they work well. I like tiny grips and really the vibration isn’t an issue. Again though, I may not be the best source to consult on these matters, I have an FT500 in the basement with a Cal-Fab swingarm on it and Dymags, so I’m not right in the head to start with…

          • DickRuble

            If a big single is your cup of tea, then get a used MZ skorpion. 660cc yamaha 5 valves engine, plenty of torque, and top shelf components. A yellow “cup” version went for $1600 on craigslist in my neck of the woods. It had 1600 miles on it.

          • Robert Spinello

            Did you see the bike? You won’t need anyone to convince you..

  • http://www.themotorcycleobsession.com/ Chris Cope

    Drum brakes on the rear, though. That’s just a little to ‘authentic’ for me.

    • Robert Spinello

      The rear disc on my ’79 model had a tendency to lock up. That’s the reason the drum has been used since 1980.

      • Bestman77

        The rear disk on my R1,R6, warrior 1700, and wife’s ninja 250 never ever locked up, there is a reason why all modern bikes AND cars switched to disk brakes, just ’cause they screwed it up on a certain year and model doesn’t mean they stick drum brakes on a 2015 model.

  • DickRuble

    Cool little bike. They still seem to sell like hotcakes despite a steep price. $3500 is probably what it’s worth.

  • Buzz

    I don’t know what brooding hipsters do when they get excited but we’re about to find out.

  • Old MOron

    If I didn’t already have my beloved DR-Z 400SM, I’d be real interested in one of these.

  • NorthShoreRider

    Fun article. Fun looking bike! I hope they sell a ton of these. Small bikes are good for the future of our sport!

  • Chris_in_Kalifornia

    Nice bike. Great looks, I don’t care about the charcoal canister, I can’t see it when I’m riding. IT’S GOT A REAL PASSENGER SEAT!!! Put an electric starter on it and I’m there. Sorry guys I have arthritis in my hips, not buying a kickstart bike. Nice to have that extra 100cc too. Other nice things I’d pay a bit more for: belt drive, cast wheels and a back rack. Hmmm. Wonder how much I can get a used KLR650 for and fix it the way I want it.

    • http://norimek.com/blog Robert C. Barth

      Have you not seen the CB1100? http://powersports.honda.com/2014/cb1100.aspx

      Fuel injection, electric start, goes well over 100mph, air cooled. It’s a bit pricier than this here Yamaha, but it’s also quite a bit better.

      • Robert Spinello

        Why would I by looking at a 1000 cc motorcycle if I’m interested in this one. thanks anyway.

        • http://norimek.com/blog Robert C. Barth

          Not sure what presumptions you may have about the engine size, but it’s only 88hp, quite thin, light(ish) (540lbs), gets over 50mpg, and is very much like the old CB750′s and kind of like the old NIghthawks. The weight just isn’t noticeable in any way, IMO. Just putting it out there in case you hadn’t seen it, since it fills pretty much all of the criteria you mentioned. It’s unlikely you’re going to find a bike < 500cc's that can comfortably cruise at 80+mph.

          • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

            Wrong guy. Spinello wasn’t the guy pining for the old Nighthawk.

  • Reid

    Hipster rubbish.

  • Steve C

    Glad to see this back, I had a SR500 about ten years ago, when you could pick one up for $500. Good thing they now kick start easily , my SR was pretty good once you learned the drill, but somedays, usually a hot humid August afternoon it would turn you into a sweaty heap trying to get it to start.

  • Robert Spinello

    To the commenters posting negative comments -.The bike is produced in limited numbers. That’s the way Yamaha has been doing this model for 36 years in Japan. They could care less whether you buy it or not. It’s not made for you. And Yamaha had to increase production to keep up with demand since it has returned to Europe, and the US. so don’t count on getting a leftover if you change your tone. They are selling at MSRP.

  • Robert Spinello

    To the commenters posting negative comments -.The bike is produced in limited numbers. That’s the way Yamaha has been doing this model for 36 years in Japan. They could care less whether you buy it or not. It’s not made for you. And Yamaha had to increase production to keep up with demand since it has returned to Europe, and the US, so don’t count on getting a leftover with a rebate if you change your mind. . They are selling at MSRP

  • huskyfrk

    you need to adjust the exhaust valve on your SRX-600. that is why it is hard to start, and go through the carbs , re sync them. You won’t believe how well mine runs, w only a n exhaust and air filter . along w rejecting. this 400 needs to b a full 500 . nice article. Keep up the good work

  • SRMark

    Got to ride one the other day. A lot tighter and smoother than the ’78 sitting in my garage! Starts the same. No way this will sell well enough to last more than a year or two. I’ll wait a year or so and get an unused used one. Sure will be nice to have a fresh supply of new parts for the ’78 too. They’ll look good parked next to each other.

  • schizuki

    The bike is nice, but the hipster jeans tucked into the brown engineer boots is a disaster.

  • Craig Hoffman

    The SR500 had an MSRP of $1,898 in 1980. Adjusted for inflation, the price now should be $5,500 according to a handy inflation calculator I found.

    Seeing how it does have improvements to the brakes and FI, the $5,990 price seems relatively fair. My initial reaction was that the price is about $1,000 too high. The truth is our money really is worth a hell of a lot less than it used to be :(

    I suppose the 400 engine size is a bummer, but if it runs smoother with the shorter stroke, it may be worth it. It is not like this bike is about speed and power anyway.