Does the Thrill of Driving end where the tarmac stops? With Yamaha’s new YXZ1000R sports all-terrain vehicle and some Arizonan sand dunes, we’re about to find out

by Jim Cameron

‘Who is this guy? Peter who?’

The pensioner in the shorts, socks and sandals looks perplexed. At the entrance to the Quechan Casino Resort in Arizona there’s a bit of a fuss around some foreign guy – enough to make the pensioner pause his busy schedule of wasting his life savings and show some interest. I tell him: ‘That’s Stéphane Peterhansel. He won Dakar eleven times.’

‘Never heard of him,’ is the response. He returns to feeding his bucket of quarters into the gaming machines.

The sports all-terrain vehicle market is, I suppose, typical of the States. Like all the best American motorsport, the demand for sports ATVs originated when people took their vehicles out into the backcountry and raced them. ATVs have always had a working background, but over time the product lines evolved. Yamaha is late to the party with a pure sports variant, but the presence of a superstar like Peterhansel underlines the significance of the YXZ1000R’s arrival.

Yamaha entered the quad-bike market at the outset, back in the mid-’80s, and quickly found success, but it was 2004’s Rhino that took utilitarian ‘side-by-side’ machines into the recreational market. With it, Yamaha moved the game on and the Rhino was a great success, but by 2007 enthusiasm was waning. And while the revenue from sales dried up during the banking crisis, there was no let up in the lawsuits from customers who’d found the limits of their talent and rolled. There were also tuned variants with R1 motorcycle engines in them. These were raced, and they were popular, but for Yamaha it was all a bit too risky.

The company instead sought to do something different, so unlike in any other ATV, the YXZ1000R driver is greeted by three pedals in the footwell and a sequential, manually operated gearbox, rather than the constantly variable transmissions that dominate the sector. There’s also a lot of technology crossover from snowmobiles, motorcycles, quad bikes and jet skis, and Yamaha chose a three-cylinder 998cc engine tuned for torque to suit this four-wheeled, 699kg application. It’s dry-sumped in order to handle the demands of racing and to lower the centre of gravity, while all four corners are suspended on huge, remote-reservoir Fox Racing dampers. Like in an Ariel Atom, you can see the suspension working from the driver’s seat, and while the electric power steering isn’t the last word in feedback, these things aren’t about the subtle sensing of the texture of the road.

Get over the huge Maxxis tyres and the vast suspension travel and the powertrain dominates the driving experience. The five-speed gearbox is centrally placed, sitting directly under the gearlever with a straight bar connecting the driver to the hardware. There’s a reverse gear too, while the shift from four- to rear-wheel drive is merely a matter of flicking a large switch on the centre console. It is a testament to the development team how easy the wet clutch is in operation. All bike-engined cars are easy to stall, so with the extra rolling resistance of soft tyres and the deep sand of the Glamis Dunes in California, I was expecting a struggle. I was wrong.

Twenty yards in and I’m grinning like an idiot. These things are all about fun, and the Yamaha delivers in spades. It squats as it launches, the flat-shifting drivetrain subsequently fizzing through the gears. It smashes up the faces of dunes, pivots at the top and howls back down. Flicking it into rear-wheel-drive mode on the flatter sections means the back axle can be kicked out and the ATV steered with your right foot and momentum.

It’s properly lively, and as our hosts assemble groups to explore the dunes, I quickly ensure that I’m going to be easily categorised as ‘the idiot at the back’. These things appeal to a wide customer base, so Yamaha has invited a troop of ‘lifestyle’ journalists from across the world. There’s some nervousness about the team, as several colleagues from other countries have already let themselves down somewhat. The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, to give it its full name, is an extreme place and provides a unique challenge. Fluff it badly out here and you’ve got a long walk home. Assuming you walk the right way and not onto the US Air Force bombing range. Handily, I’ve got form for deserts and heavy ordinance, so I’ve been selected from a cast of one to be evo’s man for the job. The man from Yamaha eyes me nervously.

This isn’t like any desert of the Middle East, though. Because this is America, drag racing across the flat sand and up the steep faces of the monster dunes is a big thing, and so ATVs and huge, tubular-framed, V8-engined ‘sand rails’ with paddle rear tyres are the order of the day. We pass a family parked up with an air-conditioned RV, a sand rail, an ATV for mum and quads for the kids. It all looks very American, and, I’ll admit, ridiculously cool.

The dunes are so big it’s easy to lose perspective. Get right up top and the hard mountains in the distance give you a horizon for reference, but when carving lines in the bowls between the ridges it can be hard to gauge the speed required to make increasingly ambitious rides up the main ‘wall’ at Glamis.

Making progress is about carving smooth lines, and I’m getting confident. Momentum is everything on the sand. How hard can it be? I’ve seen how it’s done on YouTube. I’m keeping it pinned; I’m Baja 1000-winner BJ Baldwin, and just over the next dune I’m going to jump over a bunch of girls in bikinis. The guy in front of me slows at the top of his run up the wall and as I’m closing on him fast, instinctively I lift off the throttle. Big mistake. Gravity and deep sand slow the Yamaha so quickly that it feels like I’ve hit the brakes. Smashing the accelerator back down as the YXZ slows just embeds the wheels into a dune that is now itself mobile, a great slab of sand shifting sideways underneath me. The engine stalls. The horizon tips, alarmingly. Please don’t roll. Please don’t roll.

I don’t roll, but suitably chastened, I do re-evaluate my competence level, thank my unphased European Quadcross Champion rescuer and then set off again. Our multinational crowd of journalists (less the two sent home early for repeated rolling) spend the heat of midday rehydrating in the shade of our camp – without me. I’m happily playing the mad Englishman and putting in some extra miles learning everything I can from Matt Barr, Yamaha test engineer and my patient instructor. I’m determined to get the hang of this.

The Glamis Dunes lie in a belt five miles wide between an interstate highway and that military area. Rising to 400 feet, the fine sand is sculpted into a shifting mosaic of interlocked dunes, with dusty scrubland on the dried lakebed that sits underneath. On Halloween weekend, this area is mobbed as 200,000 enthusiasts fill the RV parks and head up onto the sand, but today we’ve pretty much got the place to ourselves. The dunes are normally criss-crossed with tracks, but a violent storm tore through the area the night we arrived. All traces of previous use were deleted and the dunes are pristine, crisp; nature’s Etch A Sketch has been properly shaken. Less untouched was the desert camp, but while the Yamaha press team has to head into town to buy new awnings, we get to experience Glamis at its absolute best.

Such extreme surroundings come at a cost, however, as it does make it hard to separate the Yamaha’s competencies from the widescreen, in-your-face experience that is the Imperial Sand Dunes. Yes, the Weston Beach Race in Somerset is on sand, but you’ll struggle to find anything comparable in Europe, let alone in the UK.

The Yamaha offers a more car-like experience than the ATV crowd are used to, but out in the dunes, the spike in torque that changing gear unleashes is a liability, not an asset. I get caught out a couple of times on the slopes in soft sand where a CVT transmission would cope well. It’s on the harder valley floor that the sequential ’box really comes into its own and you can make use of more than just second and third gears.

Pick up the speed and the bespoke Fox dampers really shine, too. To prevent bottoming out they use a trick system with an additional piston that engages in a closed cup at the end of the damper’s travel. I test this extensively – hidden rocks, ruts and bars of blown sand are ironed out, the three-cylinder bark of the engine right behind the seats revving out to 10,500rpm. The clutch is hydraulically operated and the connection between the crankshaft, the rear wheels and the driver is in a different league to the elastic drivetrain and constant blare of CVT-equipped machines. It’s really rewarding, when you get it right.

Like most things nearly as wide as they are long, the Yamaha is pretty lively in anything other than straight line, and is particularly keen to wag its tail on the brakes and while in rear-wheel-drive mode. Weight transfer is so obvious in long-sprung off-road machines, so the YXZ telegraphs its movements well, the grin inside my motocross helmet widening all the while. We follow a winding path, switching to four-wheel drive as we mount the dunes, then hanging back and flicking to rear-wheel drive on the flatter sections. There’s a massive digital speedo with an upshift light right in the driver’s line of sight. This simply begs you to wring the engine out, although there’s not much rewarding or tuneful about the exhaust note.

Scrub bushes become apices, the YXZ nailed to the line, tail drifting wide, the view down the steep nose allowing the front to be placed with real precision, steering through both hands and feet. I get told off, obviously. We are the last group to return to camp, and my fellow testers look pretty exhausted, keen to retire to the shade to chat and make notes. But as the sun is dropping in the sky, I suddenly remember the extra GoPro shots I promised the editor I’d get. I just need a Yamaha guy to go with me… Matt looks resigned. ‘Okay.’ He grins. ‘Let’s have a go at drag racing up one of those big ones.’  

Yamaha YXZ1000R
Engine In-line 3-cyl, 998cc  
Power 105bhp  
Torque 600lb ft  
Transmission Five-speed sequential, switchable
four/rear-wheel drive  
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs,
adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar  
Rear suspension Double wishbones, coil springs,
adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar  
Brakes Ventilated discs, 245mm front and rear
Tyres 27 x 9-14 front, 27 x 11-14 rear  
Weight 699kg  
Power-to-weight 153bhp/ton  
Basic Price $19,799

evo rating ★★★★☆

‘Twenty yards in and I’m grinning like an idiot. These things are all about fun, and the Yamaha delivers in spades’

‘A great slab of sand shifts sideways underneath me. The engine stalls. The horizon tips, alarmingly. Please don’t roll. Please don’t roll’

‘Scrub bushes become apices, the YXZ nailed to the line, tail drifting wide’