2021 Yamaha MT-09 SP Review - Street and Track
One of our favorite bikes gets even better.
When you see Yamaha’s MT-09, your gaze doesn’t go away very quickly. You end up staring at it. Granted, there’s not much to look at, but what is there is eye-catching. From the hunched shoulders of the gas tank to the creases and natural lines of the frame, you can’t help but look at it. But what keeps your vision stuck on it is the face you see staring back at you when you look at it head-on.
2021 Yamaha MT-09 SP
Editor Score: 86.5%
- Ultra-comfortable all-day street bike that can do it all
- Fun, playful engine
- Now with cruise control!
- Brakes could be a little more powerful and/or offer more feel
- Low ground clearance (when pushing it harder than you probably should)
- TFT display is average at best
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that face is going to win any beauty contests, but it very well might win a staring contest. It’s blunt, tiny, and looks like a cyclops with gills running across either side. Every time I look at it I wonder what the design meeting back at Yamaha was like when they all agreed to put that design into production. It’s, uh, polarizing, to say the least.
Whatever your stance, superficial stuff like looks fades to the back of the mind once you actually ride the bike. The combination of the 890cc Triple, the comfortable ergonomics, and the sporty handling and suspension just works. So much so that it surprised us by winning top honors last year in MO’s 2021 Six-Way, 900(Ish)Cc Naked Bike Shootout, beating the likes of BMW’s F900R, Ducati Monster, Kawasaki Z900, KTM 890 Duke, and Triumph Street Triple R. We knew it would do well, but to beat out even the 890 Duke – another bike we all love – took us by surprise. The MT-09 is good, of that we had no doubt, but it certainly isn’t perfect. For one thing, it couldn’t quite carve a corner like the KTM. A fairly basic shock is partially to blame for that. But it also doesn’t have cruise control. Yamaha deliberately chose to stick that feature on the up-spec SP model.
So, fine. Twist our arm. Let’s go test the 2022 Yamaha MT-09 SP
Everything’s Better With a Little Gold
In a way, the MT-09 SP is a little perplexing. Yamaha didn’t really need to build this bike. Giving the standard MT-09 cruise control and a little better suspension would have been just fine, and even warranted a little price bump. Instead, you have the option of spending less than 10 grand on the standard MT-09 ($9499) or opting for the SP at $11,099. What’s the difference? As mentioned before, you primarily get cruise control and better suspension. Specifically, the 41mm fork is from KYB and comes with adjustments for rebound and compression. The standard ‘09 has those features, too, but the SP also lets you change high-speed and low-speed compression damping. Better still – the SP forks are gold!
Obviously, if gold suspension pieces can be found on a motorcycle, you can bet it’s because there’s an Öhlins piece somewhere on there. In the MT-09 SP’s case, it’s the shock. The fully adjustable piece also has a remote reservoir and preload adjuster, making changes to nearly all of its settings pretty easy to do, and it comes as a big improvement over the standard shock’s adjusters – preload and rebound only.
From there, the SP’s differences over the standard model are basically superficial. The Liquid Metal/Raven livery is one it shares with another special Yamaha: the R1M. You’ll also find a different seat cover with contrasting stitching, a clear-coated silver swingarm, and clear-smoked front and rear brake fluid reservoirs. Aesthetically, I find the silver swingarm looks out of place on the SP when there’s nothing else on the bike to match it. But again, I’m far from the arbiter of style, caring much more about how the bike actually works than how it looks.
All the Right Moves
As you can guess, the MT-09 SP is every bit as fun and playful a motorcycle as the standard bike we adored last year. As a bit of a refresher as to what hasn’t changed, the heart of the bike is still the 890cc three-cylinder engine. When we had the standard bike on the dyno last year, it spun the dyno drum to the tune of 105.8 hp at 9,900 rpm and 62.8 lb-ft at 7,000 rpm. For reference, today’s 600cc supersports (or should I say yesterday’s?) make about the same power and roughly 15-20 lb-ft less torque. Why do I bring this up? Because a future R9 variant with this same engine would be a fantastic R6 replacement. But I digress…
Anyway, along with the excellent three-cylinder engine, the MT also gets the autoblip up/down shifter, and the full suite of R1-derived electronics that center around the six-axis IMU. We’re talking about traction control, slide control, lift control, and two ABS modes (Brake Control in Yamaha parlance).
Testing the MT-09 SP wouldn’t diverge much from any other bike we test, but since we’re very familiar with the MT-09 in standard trim, particular attention would be focused on how the suspension handles both the bumpiness of SoCal’s notoriously crappy roads and the smoothness of Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. But more on that later.
It’s been several weeks now since we last rode the MT-09, but hopping on the SP felt like reconnecting with an old friend. Familiarity is the name of the game here and in this case, just as it did with the standard bike, everything fell into place. The SP feels comfortable in the saddle. You can scoot back and be comforted by the spacious, well-padded, and nicely upholstered seat. Or you can move forward and not feel like your knees are miles apart thanks to the narrow seat/tank junction. Both the pegs and the bars fall into place as your hands and feet move towards their respective spots. Overall everything just feels…right.
Thumb the starter and the humble three-cylinder purr sounds pleasant even with the stock exhaust. Your vision is greeted by a 3.5-inch TFT color display that, while purposeful, clean, and informative, doesn’t quite live up to the standards laid down by its European rivals. No biggie, really, and it certainly isn’t a deal-breaker, as everything I need to know is all there. You have a little scroll wheel at your right thumb to toggle between different menu items, as well as up/down buttons on the left to adjust Ride Mode and Power settings on the fly. The assortment of buttons does take a little fiddling to get used to, but the learning curve isn’t very steep.
As a commuter, the MT-09 SP is overkill, really. Slogging through town and getting from A to B doesn’t show off the abilities of this bike. And yet it shines in this task. The comfortable seat and ergos put you in prime position to see where traffic ahead is going, and the bulk of the MT’s power is stationed down low and in the mid-range for effective urban riding and getting through traffic. Of the four power modes (4 being the least aggressive, 1 the most), I preferred 2 for street riding. The initial crack of the throttle wasn’t so abrupt and made it easy to ride smoothly around town.
As expected, the ride is compliant and doesn’t veer very far into sporty territory. As delivered, I didn’t make a single change to the fork for street riding and only softened the rear one turn. But a simple jaunt around town only tells so much. Getting onto the highway and heading into the hills is where I would tell if this performer really benefits from the upgrades.
Fortunately, one button I’m familiar with is the cruise control button. There’s a dedicated on/off button, flanked with “Set” and “Res” toggle buttons above and below. For stretches of freeway droning, it was just the button I needed to help pass the miles and shake off the hands. Its operation is as simple as can be, and each individual tap of the toggle buttons will either increase or decrease your speed in one-mile-per-hour increments. Tapping the middle button, hitting either brake, or rolling the throttle beyond the closed position will all cancel the cruise control.
Up in the hills, the 09 SP is deceiving. You don’t think you’re going very fast because it’s so smooth, but then you realize you’ve shifted through a couple gears without the need for the clutch (each shift is smooth and the subtle pop from the exhaust is cool too) and you’re actually moving at a good clip, well beyond the posted speed limit. The theme here is that the MT is just so easy to ride.
Approaching patchy portions of pavement along our test route, the SP and its radial brakes clamping 298mm discs scrubbed that speed without any drama. Initial bite from the pads isn’t overly strong, but you’ll find it scrubs speed with decent feel and no surprises. Not once did I ever experience ABS kick in. Award-winning these brakes are not. But wholly adequate for the job? Absolutely.
On the suspension side, the MT absorbed the hits like I expected it to – compressing and then rebounding in a smooth, controllable manner. Especially at the rear. I’d be lying if I said I remembered a discernible difference between the standard model though. That’s something a side-by-side comparison would be better for. Still, the chassis didn’t show signs of flexing and acting unruly. Which is all you can really expect.
Take It To The Track
Honestly, it’s not much of a surprise to discover the Yamaha is a very nice street bike. Its engine is well suited for the daily grind, has a capable chassis and suspension package, and super comfy ergos to burn away miles and go have fun.
To really test the SP and find its limits, we decided to take it to a trackday. But this wasn’t any trackday. It turns out I signed myself up for a Racer’s Edge Performance practice day out at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway the Thursday before the CVMA club races. Local (and not so local) fast peeps on their fully-prepped sportbikes would be out there practicing and trying to get better, while I did my best racer impression, wobbling around on a bone-stock naked bike complete with mirrors, license plate, turn signals, and even a horn – all of which were still operational – trying not to get eaten alive.
Actually, I did have one performance mod on my side – the Michelin Power Cup 2 tires, which replaced the standard Bridgestone Battlax S22s (itself a decent 50/50 street/track tire). A street-legal, DOT-approved track tire, the Power Cup 2s are a 90/10 tire, meaning it’s meant to spend 90% of its time on track and 10% on the street. There’s just the minimal amount of tread showing to make The Man happy, and the entire side of the tire is slick for the best grip possible while leaned over.
The very first thing I noticed was how quickly the pegs touch the ground, even with the peg feelers removed. The comfortable commuting position that’s so lovely on the freeway isn’t doing any favors out on track. Get used to the fact you’ll have to hang way off and grinding pegs is inevitable, and the scary sensation subsides rather quickly.
Which is good, because otherwise the MT-09 SP is a riot on track. The bars give you leverage to put the bike where it needs to be, but the upright riding position can make the front feel light at times. Still, with such low pegs, the SP favors a smooth rider rather than an aggressive one. Do so, and the components return smooth, progressive feedback. With the help of Bobby Loo at Motorrev Suspension tuning, only minor adjustments were made at either end to make the ride slightly firmer for track purposes.
Pegs aside, the SP is not a bad track performer. The chassis is fairly stable mid-corner (it helps that the track surface is pretty smooth), only getting mildly upset trying to trailbrake over one of the few bumps as I initiated tip-in. The front would start to pogo as the damping couldn’t keep up with the concurrent braking and bumps. Meanwhile, the ABS is just starting to recognize a potential for lockup and kicking in the tiniest amount. It was actually refreshing to have the factory ABS activate so late. Let off the brake a little then give away some lean angle, and the bike corrected itself with little drama. Everywhere else, the SP was easy and predictable to ride.
Remember the 105 hp and 68 lb-ft of torque we talked about earlier? As it turns out, that little extra pep off the bottom helped me get the jump over some 600cc racers coming out of corners. It runs out of steam once the revs approach redline, but combined with the surprising chassis performance, the little SP that could was giving some people on proper 600cc race bikes fits, as we proved to be harder to pass than they realized. I wonder if they could hear me honking the horn as they went by?
As the day went on, confidence grew, and tires started to wear, I got a little braver with the throttle (set to Power Mode 1, btw) to test the traction control (also set to level 1). If it did activate, I couldn’t tell. The power was getting to the ground as smooth as could be.
If we’re splitting hairs, the braking performance could be better. By that, I mean the average initial bite I experienced on the street also translated over to the track. The difference, however, was that braking power didn’t increase much the more I pulled on the lever. It got stronger, but only just. It was never cause for concern, nor did I have any problems with ABS. All in all, the MT impresses once again.
Which Leads Me, Once Again…
To drooling over the eventual R9. In stock form, the MT-09 SP proved to be more than capable on track. While none of the parts are top-shelf pieces, the balance and synergy between them all amounted to a bike one can ride quickly without many surprises. With higher pegs, a fairing, and clip-on bars, the R9 will be a blast. With 600cc supersport levels of power, it’s a perfect candidate for modifications that could match, or even beat, what people are getting from today’s R6. However, it seems to me a power upgrade would upset the Yamaha’s nice balance. More power would add more strain to the brakes and suspension, throwing the formula out of whack. Of course, the tuning world will handle those problems, and eventually, a built R9 could have potential an R6 couldn’t touch.
But I’m getting waaayyy ahead of myself here. Let’s not forget what the MT-09 SP is meant for. As a street bike meant to do a little bit of everything, this thing is a gem. Comfortable, compliant, balanced, and fun are the four words you really need to know to sum up this whole thing. Should you really spend the extra money on cruise control and nicer suspension? Tough call. If you do, know you won’t be disappointed.
Helmet: Bell Race Star Flex
- Jacket: Alpinestars Oscar Bomber
- Airbag: Alpinestars Tech-Air 5
- Gloves: Alpinestars SP-2 v2
2021 Yamaha MT-09 Specifications
|Engine Type||890cc liquid-cooled inline-three cylinder, DOHC, four valves per cylinder|
|Bore and Stroke||78.0mm x 62.1mm|
|Rear Wheel Horsepower||105.8 hp at 9900 rpm (Measured on standard MT-09)|
|Torque||62.8 lb-ft. at 7000 rpm (Measured on standard MT-09)|
|Transmission||6-speed; slip-assist clutch; up/down quickshifter|
41mm KYB inverted fork, adjustable preload, high/low speed compression and rebound; 5.1-in travel
Öhlins single shock, adjustable preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.8-in travel
|Front Brake||Two 298mm discs, radial-mount four-piston calipers, lean-sensitive ABS|
|Rear Brake||245mm disc, lean-sensitive ABS|
|Rake/Trail||25 deg/4.3 in.|
|Seat Height||32.5 in.|
|Curb Weight (Claimed)||419 lbs.|
|Fuel Capacity||3.7 gal.|
|Colors||Liquid Metal/ Raven|
|Warranty||One year limited warranty|
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Less than stellar brakes and even more so limited cornering clearance are just unacceptable on a sporty-naked motorcycle that is supposed to be up-spec. And the styling...come on Yamaha.
I had a FZ09 and I was in love with it. I switched over to Tracer 900gt for long distance riding. These are superb motorcycles.