Yamaha is taking the long view with the new YZ65, and kids between the ages of 8 and 12 are the beneficiaries of that philosophy. Developing a new two-stroke motor from scratch is expensive, particularly in an age when two-strokes aren’t being welcomed by government agencies across the globe. The sales numbers in the 65 class don’t justify a new bike. Most young riders only spend a year or two racing a 65, and hand-me-downs satisfy the demand for play bikes. No, the YZ65 isn’t an investment in the technology or even in the 65 class; it’s an investment in the riders.
There must have been some very contentious meetings in Yamaha boardrooms. On one side, the financial department probably pushed for something cheap to build and easy to sell. They might have even discussed bringing back the 1983 YZ60. On the other side, the board members who were passionate about racing would have pushed for a KTM crusher. That’s the bike to beat in the 65 class, so why not go all out and build a 20-horsepower mini works bike? The YZ65 that resulted is clearly a product of both groups, but up front, we can say that the racers had a bigger voice. The price alone makes that clear. The MSRP of the 2018 YZ65 is $4599. That’s $1000 more than the Kawasaki KX65, which is the most comparable bike from Japan. The Yamaha is still $400 less than the KTM, which is probably the compromise that the financial side of the table wanted.
For that price, Yamaha was able to develop a whole new case-reed motor from scratch. There has been some talk that the bike borrows much from the Yamaha YZ85, but aside from a few random parts, that’s not accurate. The YZ65 actually has more in common with the YZ125. It has a ball-ramp power valve, just like most larger two-strokes, whereas the YZ85 doesn’t have a power valve at all. The motor is much more compact. The transmission is still a six-speed, and the manual clutch is cable-actuated. In front, the YZ65 has a coil-spring KYB fork with adjustable rebound and compression damping. In the rear, Yamaha made an interesting decision to mount the KYB shock directly to the swingarm, doing away with linkage. The engineers say this was mostly to cut weight, and that they were able to get the performance they wanted with shock valving. Yamaha also spent money on things like the tapered aluminum handlebar, the Maxxis tires and the Nissin brakes. The top triple clamp has a secondary location for the handlebar mounts, which are offset so that there are four possible locations for the handlebar. There’s virtually nothing to buy before taking this bike straight to the Amateur Nationals.
TEST RIDERS, FRONT AND CENTER
Yamaha generously offered the services of its riders to help with this test, but we had our own. Gunnar Townsend and his brother Grayson, ages 10 and 8 respectively, came out to give us two different perspectives on the YZ. Both are familiar with other makes. The most interesting part about their input was that they were on exactly the same page. Without comparing impressions with each other, the points that they made were almost identical. Here are the CliffsNotes.
Peak power: The Yamaha is a little rocket. There’s no question that it will be competitive in the current 65 class at the high end of the field.
Low-end power: Both riders felt the YZ pulled fairly well from the bottom. They probably weren’t aware of the technical specifics of how a ball-ramp power-valve governor works versus a vacuum-operated one, but they felt that the YZ’s low-end power was more than enough. When the throttle is opened too quickly at low rpm, the YZ will hesitate briefly, but this only occurs far below the normal operating range. Otherwise, the jetting was perfect on our test bike during a typical Southern California spring day—65 degrees, 1000 feet MSL.
Handling: The riders said that the Yamaha felt wider and taller than the bikes they were used to. In both cases, that was a current KTM. It’s hard to quantify this with a tape measure due to variations in suspension setup. If Yamaha targeted the older, bigger and more experienced riders in this class, that’s understandable. Those are the riders who will generate the most race wins. Both riders also said the bike was very stable.
Suspension: With young riders, you can often learn a great deal about suspension by watching them. The bike was more suited to Gunnar’s weight, which is around 80 pounds. It seemed to stay up in the travel more for younger Grayson. Again, it looks like Yamaha is aiming at the top of the class. One thing that’s almost unanimous among the parents is the fact that they like having adjustable compression damping.
Brakes: The kids raved about the brakes.
Starting: From our observation, the kids were able to start the bike with ease. The kickstarter operates with a conventional (rearward) stroke.
Clutch: There were no complaints about the clutch pull.
Shifting: Again, there were no reports of missed shifts in two days of testing.
WHEN I’M 65
Yamaha didn’t mess around. The YZ65 is fast and 100-percent competitive. This bike is clearly meant to recapture the heart of a young generation. How successful will it be? We’ll tell you in 2026. There’s no doubt that Yamaha is going after KTM with the YZ65. In amateur racing, the 65 class is dominated by KTMs with just a smattering of Husqvarna TC65s and even fewer Cobra 65s. The Kawasaki KX65 is aimed at play riders and true beginners, so when it comes to racing, the Yamaha’s target is clearly the KTM.