IMPERIAL DUNES, California — Out on the huge dune’s concave face, with sand slipping away and our well-being coming into question, we remember how much fun driving is. The raucous Yamaha YXZ1000R, billed as the first “pure sports” side-by-side ATV, has no lane-keeping, no automated guidance system. If the rear end slides too far downhill, it will be a long tumble to the bottom. But we’ve learned to keep accelerating to the apex, then turn the nose and plunge toward Earth, experiencing the most exhilarating freedom.
This is Gordon Wells, where parts of “Return of the Jedi” were filmed. The popular off-roading location in the Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area was chosen to introduce the 2016 Yamaha YXZ1000R. The side-by-side ATV just went on the market at a base price of $19,799 to compete with the popular Polaris RZR.
The YXZ1000R gets a leg up on the competition because it offers the first three-cylinder engine in a segment ruled by twins. Its rear-mounted, liquid-cooled, 1.0-liter triple redlines at 10,500 rpm and howls with raw belligerence. Throttle response is excellent, and while there’s good midrange punch, the real action is beyond 7000 rpm. Yamaha declines to be more specific but touts “the highest naturally aspirated horsepower in the industry,” which would probably amount to about 120 hp. Usability and durability are built in through anti-vibration measures, a dry sump with baffled oil reservoir, and in-cabin air intake with viscous wet-paper filters.
Yamaha has also taken a different approach when it comes to the transmission. Continuously variable automatics rule in side-by-sides, but the YXZ1000R has a five-speed sequential manual gearbox, which testing supervisor Pat Biolsi describes as a “supersized motorcycle transmission.” The tranny, located amidships, operates with a normal shift lever in the center console. Depressing the pedal to disengage the “big, durable clutch,” we pushed the lever ahead for first gear, let out the pedal, and threw sand everywhere. Seeing the upshift indicator light up, we pulled back hard and fast through neutral for second through fifth gears. Unlike a motorcycle transmission, this unit has a reverse too. It’s engaged from first by pulling the lever on the left side of the steering column.
Besides keeping the powerband in its sweet spot, the transmission’s biggest virtue is its ability to control steep descents. More than once, we stuck it in first and crawled off a cornice. Rear- or four-wheel drive can be selected, and the differentials can be locked for crawling. As an example of the thorough engineering job Yamaha has done, the front diff has a torque limiter to suppress spike loads. The engineers in Japan and Georgia, the latter being home of Yamaha’s product planning and manufacturing facilities, have thought of just about everything.
Witch’s eyes, worm tracks, whoop-de-dos, and stutter bumps abound in the dune lands, and suspension capability is tested. The 26-inch-tall dual-piston Fox 2.5 Podium RC2 shocks that stick out of the nose indicate Yamaha’s no-compromise approach. Facing conflicting targets, they settled on A-arms and spherical bearings as a way of limiting deflection and camber changes. “The worst thing that can happen is that it bucks sideways,” Biolsi says. “That’s what separates this vehicle from every one out there.” Plenty of travel — 16.2 inches front and 17.0 inches rear — and 27-inch knobby tires let the YXZ1000R ably amble over terrain.
Inside, the two-seater is very carlike, with a low seating position and good outward visibility. The driver’s seat adjusts forward and back, the steering wheel tilts up and down, and there’s a lever-operated parking brake. The electrically assisted power steering proved a bit mushy for our tastes, yet it was easy enough to follow a line and then alter it when we wanted to miss a pucker bush or run nearer a dune’s lip. The big analog tachometer and digital speed and gear-position indicators highlight the instrument panel.
Sport seats with three-point harnesses are trimmed with cut-and-sew trim materials; they bolstered us, even as we seemed to defy gravity. There’s also a measure of practicality, thanks to a glove box, rear sealed compartment, rear cargo shelf with four tie-down anchor points, and capacity for 300 pounds of cooler and camping gear.
The composite sun-top that mounts on the roll bars is standard, as are LED headlamps. Among the optional accessories are a windshield, LED light bar with two stages of illumination, and a big honkin’ audio system.
Those who don’t like sand in their Gucci loafers won’t appreciate the Yamaha YXZ1000R, even if they concede that this buggy is as well designed and engineered for its purpose as the Ford F-150 Raptor or the Chevrolet Corvette for their own. And they’ll admit it’s a driving proposition that blessedly has nothing to do with information processing. We found ourselves hooting and whooping behind the steering wheel. That’s not something we can say about many cars we’ve sampled lately, not even the bright yellow mid-engine one from Maranello we drove in Italy.
2016 Yamaha YXZ1000R Specifications
- On Sale: Now
- Price: $19,799/$19,799 base/as tested
- Engine: 1.0-liter, DOHC 12-valve, I-3/120 hp (est)
- Transmission: 5-speed sequential manual with reverse
- Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, rear-engine, 2- and 4WD coupe
- EPA Mileage: N/A
- L x W x H: 122.8 in x 64.0 in x 72.2 in
- Wheelbase: 90.6 in
- Weight: 1,510 lbs