If you've never driven an off-road recreational vehicle like Yamaha's YXZ1000R, picture something halfway between a serious racing quad bike, a dune buggy and a rally car. Super long travel suspension, massive off-road tires and four-wheel-drive, powered by a howling 1,000cc motor. Yamaha's top-of-the-line two-seater off-road race buggy now features paddle shift auto and launch control, making it easier than ever to get sideways, airborne and over just about anything. New Atlas' Loz Blain got behind the wheel of one to test his skill, or lack thereof.
It's presentation time in a swanky Canberra hotel, the type that's so expensive and classy that you have to pay extra for internet, and a group of motorcycle journalists is exchanging bemused looks. There's road bike guys here, and dirt bike guys, too; seasoned riders, all, but the thing on the powerpoint we're looking at has a blasphemous four wheels.
Mind you, it's not a quad bike. Far from it. The YXZ1000R is a furious, insectoid dirt buggy, an all-terrain, two-seat, side-by-side, off-road rally monster with rollover protection and very serious seat belts. It's a hooligan machine born and bred; a drift king, a rock hopper, a tabletop jumper and an out-of-the-box desert racer rolled into one.
And that's why we're here. "They've invited a bunch of bike journos along," BikeMe's Boris Mihailovic whispers to me, "because they brought the regular quad bike guys out on the last launch, and those guys just putted around the field wondering why there's no storage for hay bales. They didn't get it at all. So they're letting the lunatics loose this time."
If there's a practical side to the YXZ, it doesn't make itself immediately apparent. There's a small shelf at the back, onto which you can stick a tough plastic cargo box accessory that doubles as a beer cooler, and that's about it.
The rest is all about speed and adrenaline, starting with a 1,000cc, inline three-cylinder engine that makes an honest 90 horsepower (67 kW) feel like far more. It's mated to a sequential paddle-shift auto-clutch transmission with five forward speeds and reverse. Power is laid down through a shaft drive selectable 2WD/4WD system, and the whole thing is said to be much more reliable than the belt-drive CVT you'll find on, say, a Polaris RZR.
Giant 27-inch wheels with chunky bead-locked off-road tires hang in a threatening fashion off enormous, fully adjustable Fox 2.5 Podium X2 shocks. For a motorcycle guy, those shocks are, well, quite shocking. The front two have a massive 16.2 inches (41 cm) of travel, the rears have 17 inches (43 cm), and they use a two-spring system that lets you fine-tune the spring rates and preload settings for both the "normal" suspension range and for when you hit a bigger bump or rock that takes up a larger amount of travel.
The cockpit is very much a car setup. You've got a steering wheel on the left-hand side, plus gas and brake pedals and a handbrake. The straight-up YXZ1000R has a clutch pedal and manual transmission, but we're in the SS SE (Sport Shift Special Edition), so the gear selector just gives you drive, neutral and reverse. You shift with paddles on the steering column, and the clutch is fully automatic.
It's a piece of cake to drive, as I discover when I roll out onto one of three courses we're driving at the ACT Motorcycle Club's off-road facility near Canberra Airport.
First on the menu is a tight, bumpy trail loop. Typically used as a motorcycle course, it winds through gnarled tree roots, branches, ruts and potholes. It's the perfect environment for the YXZ to show off its sure-footed rough terrain chops.
After a tentative first lap, I'm comfortable almost straight away and starting to have a ton of fun by the third. You can bury the front wheels into a turn, wrench the front around super tight, and have a great sense for the grip at all four wheels as they bite or let go.
On corner exits, breaking the rear loose is as simple as giving it a boot full, and it's incredibly predictable. A little more tightens your exit, a little less grabs a bit more grip and takes you wider. That huge suspension travel floats the car beautifully over the gnarly stuff, with a constant stream of feedback from all four corners telling you where the grip, camber and ruts are at.
Next up is the flat track, where "Mr. Motocross" legend Stephen Gall has spent some time preparing another YXZ for drifting, by lowering and firming up the suspension. On this smoother surface, we're able to take the rear wheel steering action to a whole new level.
I should point out; I'm terrible at drifting. I never had a paddock bomb as a kid. In fact, I once spent 20 minutes with a fully prepared Nissan Silvia on a wet skid pan and couldn't get the hang of it, to my eternal shame.
The YXZ1000R is so, so different. Within a couple of laps I'm giggling like mad, going gently sideways under brakes, stomping the gas to break the back end free and kicking up lavish rooster tails of dust on the exits. I'm going to put it down to the four-wheel-drive system; even as the back comes around sideways, the front end is pulling forward, making it easy to save and control the drift.
For someone as ordinary behind the wheel as I am, it feels like I've flipped a god mode switch. It's a hoot. And if you want to challenge your drifting technique, you can always flip into rear-wheel-drive mode and try your hand.
Last up is the motocross track, a long, looping course with sharp elevation changes, high berms, one particularly rough bumpy corner and a long series of medium to open turns. My co-driver is Jason Weller, a Yamaha-sponsored racer from the US who's just campaigned the YXZ in the brutal King of the Hammers desert race.
Jason stays remarkably calm as I whoop and holler my way around the track, taking it high and wide on some of the bermed corners and catching just a touch of air over the lip of a sharp descent. This is an insanely fun vehicle, that's also very approachable for anyone with a bit of feel for the wheel. It has also dominated on the racetrack, where in 2016 the sequential shift manual version of the YXZ1000R won 11 of 12 races in the Lucas Oil Regional Off-Road series in Arizona and Southern California.
It's considerably down on power compared to the 144-hp (107-kW) Polaris RZR XP Turbo, but Weller and his wife Corry, who's also a top-level YXZ racer, say that even when the RZR's CVT belts manage to last a whole race, the Yamaha has them beat on cornering precision to the point where the YXZ's 90 horsepower is more than enough.
All I can say is that it made me feel like a driving god, counter to all available evidence, and I'd love to spend more time behind the wheel of one of these things.
That won't be easy in Australia, where you can't register this kind of vehicle for the road, or even the trails. Here, you can pretty much drive them only on private property or on racetracks. But if you're interested in the latter, there are plenty of race classes you can enter these things in where they compete favourably against much more expensive opposition.
Regulations vary wildly in the United States, though, and there are a lot of counties where you're free to road register a YXZ and take it out to bang in the desert, the beach, rocks or 4WD trails as well as look into racing them.
In Australia, a YXZ1000R SS SE will cost you AU$32,999. In the US, you're looking at US$22,399. That's a lot for a toy, but considering it's just about ready to race, those numbers don't look bad at all. You can knock a couple grand off if you want to ditch the sport shift transmission for the sequential manual and clutch pedal of the standard YXZ1000R – mind you, you'd lose the fun of launch control mode, where you hold both shift paddles back, stomp the gas to bring the revs up, and let the paddles go to take off at crazy speed.
Either way, driving one is a heck of an experience, a confidence builder and a genuine adrenaline sport you can have fun with in relative safety (as one of the other journos found out when he rolled it during some over-enthusiastic cornering and emerged unharmed). They'll go over just about anything, flatter your driving skills, and bang around all day long feeling taut and supple without making you feel like you're abusing the machinery.
Every single hard-nosed biker on the launch had the same response: awe, surprise and respect for a serious adrenaline machine. I'm keen for another fix.
Check out some of the action in the video below.