You know those times when you get on a motorcycle and have one of those naughty feelings brewing up inside? It might be an impending wheelie, stoppie, or back in, but you just know something nasty is about to go down. This is an ever-present emotion when riding the Yamaha MT-09 SP. Nastiness never tasted so good.
The OG Dark Side of Japan machine, the MT-09 is the kind of bike punk rockers would ride immediately following a blood-soaked gig, the guttural roar of the 890 cc triple a perfect soundtrack to the madness. The MT-09 has been a massive sales success for the Tuning Fork since its release in 2014, and in 2018 it morphed into the SP for the rest of the world — but not us. That’s changed for 2021, and it’s finally our time to fondle some Yamaha MT-09 SP goodness.
The MT-09 SP is different, but not too different, from the base model. Essentially, it’s fully-adjustable KYB forks and an Ohlins shock, cruise control and funky colors that hark back more to the OG 2014 machine than anything else.
Yamaha was one of the first to really go after the middleweight naked bike segment with the original MT-09, and they’ve created somewhat of a monster in the process. Yamaha’s up against the Kawasaki Z900 ABS, Triumph 765 Street Triple, Ducati Monster, KTM 890 Duke and Duke R, MV Agusta Brutale 800, and probably a few others I can’t think of right now. Each one of these bikes is executed extremely well, each offering different performance capabilities largely based on price, so Yamaha needed to come packing fire for the 2021 MT-09 SP to be a sales success.
The Japanese have done the first part right, pricing the SP at $10,999 MSRP. That’s a $1600 premium over the base model, but with the upgraded suspension fitted, it represents a decent value add.
The rest of the bike is exactly the same as the base model. Under your ass sits the new 890 cc triple, up from 847 cc that is a massive jump in performance compared to 2020. A couple of months ago I tested the new Tracer 9 GT, and while that bike feels almost gentlemanly in its power delivery, the similarly-powered MT SP feels like it’s got an extra 40 cc. Most of this is down to the SP’s 66 pounds lighter weight with a full 3.7 gallon gas tank, but I’ll admit to expecting a little less performance at the twist grip than what I got.
The new motor in the MT SP absolutely, positively, rips. It’s got performance to burn, with a massive spread of torque from 3000-8000 rpm and a monumental kick at 5000 rpm (which is where I suspect the Euro5 emissions regulations begin to subside).
You can ride the SP hard and fast or slow and sedate, it doesn’t matter. The performance is almost always on tap, and the package feels far more refined in 2021 than it ever has.
Of course, the electronics take some of the kudos here. Bosch IMU, traction, wheelie and cornering ABS control, plus slide control and launch control, you’re in very capable metallic hands with the SP.
Yamaha’s also fitted an up and down quickshifter to the gearbox that’s a nice touch, although it doesn’t have the smoothest of cuts. Still, as a standard feature, this is nothing to sneeze at, as some of the class competitors don’t even come with the option of one.
Where the MT (in SP form) has improved is side of the tire feel and grip. The chassis has a rather annoying trait of feeling high in the front and low in the back, and while this is still a factory in its personality, it’s not as bad as it once was. Revised ergonomics allow more weight to be out on the front wheel to help keep it tracking around long, constant radius corners and provide a much more confidence inspiring ride. Perhaps Yamaha’s little brat is finally growing up?
An area that seems to be a constant Yamaha issue is the front brakes, and although they’re not terrible, they lack the feel at the lever I would have liked. The R1M suffers badly here with brakes that last about five laps when used hard, and although the SP isn’t in that same league in terms of extreme performance, feel at the lever could be better. Yamaha’s got the Brake Control system that modulates pressure on the front and rear brakes under emergency braking situations. The feel at the lever is a little odd, especially given the ABS can pump in quickly when the brakes are applied with a decent amount of force. The addition of Brake Control is another middleman between your braking fingers and the force that reaches the caliper, but there’s a new master-cylinder fitted so braking power is never in question.
This issue aside, the MT-09 SP is excellent value at under $11K MSRP. The combination of the manic motor, revised ergos, that shiny gold Ohlins (it’d be a real SP if it had Ohlins on the front), and the way the chassis holds its line far better than before makes for a brilliant bike. It’s not a bike to tour on, it’s a loud-as-fuck-look-at-me monster, which is what the Dark Side of Japan ad campaign was all about. Good to see some things never change.