Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
There’s more logic to a collaboration between Yamaha and Abarth than even enthusiasts of the famed Turin-based tuning house might realise. Carlo Abarth founded the firm in 1949 to build racecars for the likes of Tazio Nuvolari. But he’d been born Karl Abarth in Vienna, and as a young motorcycle racer and engineer had won five European titles, before abandoning bikes following a serious accident.
Abarth cars were hits both on track and commercially in the Sixties; notably the Fiat 500 Abarth that set countless speed records and sold in large numbers. Fiat bought Abarth in 1971, and has since built numerous race and production cars including the current Abarth 695, a Fiat 500-based mighty-mouse with plenty of style and attitude. Meanwhile Yamaha has been reliving its heritage with the XSR900, a retro-themed roadster based on the raucous MT-09 triple that is among its best and most successful models.
The XSR900 Abarth is a hardcore café racer, and combines its cool, carbon-fibre enhanced looks with an aggressive riding position, dictated by a one-piece “Ace” handlebar that is wide and sharply turned down. The standard XSR’s 847cc, 12-valve triple engine and lightweight aluminium frame are retained, giving a fat torque curve and unchanged maximum output of 114bhp at 10,000rpm.
The Abarth’s main distinguishing features are its carbon-fibre parts: bikini fairing, front mudguard, and a pillion seat cover that encircles a round rear light with a hint of jet engine about it. The seat has a suede-like cover with red stitching. The exhaust, made by Slovenian maestros Akrapovic from titanium and stainless steel, ends with an eye-catching pair of black-wrapped silencers.
In a straight line, the Abarth is as deliciously punchy and sweet-revving as an XSR900-based special should be. The fairing helpfully diverts some of the breeze as the torquey triple rips smoothly towards its 140mph-or-so top speed. It’s a proper café racer in that it likes to be ridden fast and hard, so the wind pressure can take some weight off your wrists at speed, and the suspension can work better in the turns.
Cornering the Abarth requires commitment, despite its admirably light weight of just 195kg with a full tank. Although the handlebar is wide for such a racy set-up, giving plenty of leverage, the lazy steering geometry means firm pressure is needed to get the bike to change direction in a hurry. On dry roads, some assistance can be provided via the powerful front brake, whose use quickens the steering to good effect.
Yamaha’s Turin-tweaked triple is an uncompromising sportster that is tough on the wrists as well as rapid, and would not suit every rider. Which is just as well, because only 695 are being built, each with a numbered plaque on the frame. It’s neatly detailed and smartly finished, with carbon-fibre parts left bare, and the fuel tank featuring both Yamaha’s traditional speed-blocks and Abarth’s scorpion logo.
Most limited-edition bikes come with a financial sting in the tail, but one advantage of the Abarth being based on Yamaha’s high-value MT-09 platform is that it’s reasonably priced, at £9999. Carlo Abarth, who died in 1979 at the age of 71, would surely have thoroughly approved.
Price of our bike: £9999.
Photograohy by Alessio Barbanti, Jonathan Godin and Henny Stern