First drive: Yamaha YXZ1000R SS side-by-side

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If you and your welder/fabricator/engineering buddies were to design your own off-road fun buggy for the dirt, you might do it just the way Yamaha did the YXZ1000R SS. The relatively new YXZ features a 1-liter inline three mounted longitudinally just forward of the rear axle with a sequential-shift transmission in the middle and power going from there to the rear or to all four wheels. You and your pals would probably also add four-wheel independent A-arms, disc brakes all around and the guy who was good with a laptop would even program a launch control mode into the ECU. All of that is what you get with the Yamaha YXZ1000R SS, the performance king of the UTV market.

Wait, what’s a UTV? We here at Autoweek haven’t exactly slathered this segment of the four-wheeled vehicle market with coverage. In fact, a search suggests that we have offered up … one review. But it was a good one, written by our motorcycle expert John Stein, of the top-selling Polaris RZR.

UTV stands for Utility Task Vehicle, also called a side-by-side. The class includes everything from the performance screamer you see here to camouflaged rifle-racked crawlers used by turkey hunters to that rattly six-wheeled gator cart they use at your local golf course to haul the lawn clippings. Various manufacturers together sell somewhere around 400,000 of them each year in North America. A decade ago, the sales total was almost half that, so it’s growing. But a decade ago, the UTVs sold were about 80 percent true utility vehicles, those things you see hauling tools and hay bales on farms and statuary on your massive summer estate. Now, in 2017, UTV sales have leaned toward the more sporty and recreational — about half of UTV sales are what are known as Recreational Utility Vehicles, or RUVs. The YXZ1000R SS is part of that RUV niche, and by all accounts, it is the most fun (Polaris RZR owners, send in your hate mail now).

The RUV segment is lead by the likes of this Yamaha YXZ1000R SS, the Polaris RZR, Arctic Cat Wildcat and the Can-Am Maverick. But Yamaha says theirs is “the industry’s only pure sport side-by-side.” Is that accurate?

The spec sheet certainly backs it up. Weight balance is skewed rearward with 53.7 percent of it on the back wheels. Though Yamaha doesn’t list power or torque, it’s a safe assumption that it’s in the lower 100s for horsepower. With a curb weight of 1,554 pounds wet, it is sprightly. 

Water crossing

Watch out for them water mocassins

The 998cc three has a DOHC 12-valve head, 11.3:1 compression ratio, forged aluminum pistons and a 10,500-rpm redline. It also has dry sump lubrication, Yamaha fuel injection and transistor-controlled ignition. So this is not the lawn mower engine you made into a go-kart when you were 13.

The engine has a shaft that runs forward to the mid-mounted sport shift five-speed transmission. This is the item that is abbreviated as “SS” in the vehicle’s name – sport shift. It’s the big news for this new version. The YXZ1000R was launched a couple years ago with a manual transmission. The advanced automatic clutch system replaces the manual clutch with an electronic solenoid-actuated clutch that you don’t have to push a pedal to operate. All you have to do is pull back on the shifter paddles to change gears and it does the shifting for you faster than you could with a clutch.

From the transmission, shafts run fore and aft to lockable differentials. Again, all you have to do is set the switch to lock rear, front or both diffs very quickly, even on the fly as you start to feel wheelslip.

Tires are 27-inch Maxxis Bighorn 2.0 radials mounted on 14-inch bead lock alloy wheels. The 14-inch size was necessary to accommodate larger 245-millimeter disc brakes at all four corners clamped by twin-piston calipers. There’s even a parking brake that grabs a big disc mounted to a drive shaft. Suspension is double wishbones at all four corners. And the coolest thing is the twin-wall Fox 2.5 Podium X2 coil-over shocks. They are fully adjustable for jounce and rebound so you can set them up exactly to your liking and to the terrain you’re covering on any given day. The springs are cool, too: there are two springs per coil over, mounted inline around each shock. For short bumps, the top spring does the work. When you really whang into a rock, the top spring compresses all the way and the longer, lower spring begins to compress. This gives you a wider range of ride comfort. It’s similar to the Multimatic setup on the new Chevy Colorado ZR2 pickup truck, which we also liked.

Fox shocks

Twin-wall Fox 2.5 Podium X2 coilover shocks

The Execution

Yamaha took us to an UTV/RUV playground not far from its Georgia manufacturing plant, where these things are all made. The place is called Stony Lonesome OHV Park and it’s located out in the woods and hollers near Bremen, Alabama.

Don’t expect car-like NVH in one of these. That’s still several generations off. When you fire the engine and start rolling, there’s a lot of mechanical action going on and it’s not all refined. Nonetheless, right out of the box we started having a blast. Unlike a dirt bike, there’s not nearly as much skill required to have a good time in a UTV/RUV. Just jump in, strap on the seatbelt and floor it.

The most impressive thing about this setup is how much input the shocks and springs can absorb. There is 16.2 inches of travel on the front end and 17 inches in back. In practical terms this means you fear nothing. Big, whooping divot up ahead? Power through it! Large, whanging bump? Floor that sucker! All day and immediately upon climbing into the YXZ I was fearless. Motorcycles, ATVs and UTVs are amazing nowadays. I want to move to Alabama and become a professional turkey hunter. Anyone want to join me?

I tried two setups of YXZ. Both had the SS shifter but different gearing. Yamaha offers a torque assist gear kit that reduces original gearing by 30 percent and drops first gear by 70 percent. The idea is that back east, where confines are usually tighter and you’re creeping up and over logs and rocks more, you can maneuver easier. Slightly larger tires combine with this to balance it out a little. But first gear in this configuration was way too low and the jump to second was way too far. I’d stick with the stock setup, which is supposed to be more suited to the wide-open, higher-speed sand dunes and desert running they see out west. Maybe I won’t move to Alabama afterall, just because of the gear ratios.

Otherwise, the YXZ is a blast. Banging up and down through the gearbox is quick and easy, and it even resets to first gear if you come to a stop and forget to downshift. The launch control is likewise terrific fun. If you’re out goofing around in an RUV all day you’re eventually going to want to drag race. Yamaha took the trouble to setup a launch control that is downright thrilling. 

YXZ at speed

YXZ at speed

The Verdict

Pricing for the YXZ1000R (the one with the manual transmission and the clutch pedal) starts at $19,995. The YXZ1000R SS with the sequential paddle shifter you see here starts at $22,399. Granted, if you live out in the vast, trackless western U.S. there are any number of Jeeps, trucks and dune buggy type vehicles you could get to go bashing around in the wilderness. If you look through the classifieds at, say, race-dezert.com, most of the stuff you see will be appropriate for sand dunes and wide-open desert running, like this one, this one or this one, for instance. But for the tighter confines of woodland America (and Canada) a side-by-side is good.

These UTV/RUV things are getting more and more popular, despite their price. So buy one – or buy something fer goodness’ sake – and go have fun!

On Sale: Now

Base Price: $22,399

As Tested Price: $22,699

Drivetrain: Longitudinal- mid-rear-mounted I-3, 5-speed sequential automatic, 4wd

Curb Weight: 1,554 pounds wet (mfg.)

Fuel Economy: 120 miles range (mfg.)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)

Pros: Loads of suspension travel offers fearless fun in a sporty package

Cons: For the price you could buy several homemade used dirt buggies


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