Riding or driving off road is unlike anything else you’ll experience on wheels and, thanks to Yamaha’s new YXZ1000R UTV side-by-side, you can go farther, faster, and with a friend. Get ready to destroy some sand, shift some gears and live out your desert speed-dreams.

(Full Disclosure: Yamaha wanted me to drive the YXZ1000R so badly, they got me a room at some hotel whose name I can’t pronounce, bought me chapstick and sunscreen, and gave me all the gatorade and water I could drink. They did let me drive at excessive speeds, but refused to take me near anything resembling a jump.)

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Before we dive into this review, some of you cagers may be wondering: what the hell is a side by side? Allow me to explain.

Some History

Depending on how you classify them (and which manufacturer you fancy), the Yamaha Rhino was the first real side by side (SxS) released back in 2004 - although I’m sure Kawasaki will claim their off-road golf-cart-looking MULE was the first.

Since 2004, UTVs (Utility Terrain Vehicles) have evolved at an incredible pace. What began as off-road capable tractors and people movers became increasingly popular as it allowed people who didn’t want to ride a dirt bike access to many of the same places, or allowed them to share them with friends and family.

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In fact, the side by side market is the fastest growing one in all powersports and it was the only one that didn’t suffer along with the rest during the recession. Until this test I’d never ridden in one, or spent much time in Glamis, which meant I was extra excited for the opportunity to learn about such a quickly growing segment.

Utility side by sides like the Rhino or Viking gave way to exploring/trails side by sides like the Wolverine - which finally led to sport side by sides like the Polaris RZR. Yamaha claims its newest addition to the side by side world, the YXZ1000R, is the first true sport side by side—but we’ll get to why in a bit.

Yamaha said its average buyer is 48, makes more than $114k/year, and has a decade or two of off-road experience. About half of them are first time SxS buyers, and they use their UTVs for primarily open desert and sand dune riding.

While I understand that many of you are not in that demographic and might not have the spare cash around to buy a side by side or the requisite truck and trailer needed to live that #dunelife, people are deciding to get on the side by side train and at an incredible pace.

File this to the life goals section of your memory, because after spending a day in the dunes - I can tell you it’s awesome and totally worth it should you find yourself in that income bracket someday.

The First True Sport Side By Side

Yamaha makes this bold claim for several reasons, namely the 998c triple cylinder engine that revs up to 10,500 rpm. Other side by sides use twin cylinder engines, which make more power lower in the rev range, and offer a more utilitarian like power delivery. Getting power out of the Yamaha feels a little more like racing an inline four, but in the sand.

Yamaha also claims, and rightly so, that sport machines across all genres allow the rider to be in complete control of what’s happening with the vehicle at all times, which is why they say that their offering the first real manual transmission also sets them apart from the other “sporty” machines.

That’s right. It has a legit manual gearbox. Sounds fun, right?

So, while it may not have the power of the supercharged RZR and may not be the fastest machine out in the sand this winter, the experience it provides is sportier and more involved than anything else on the market today.

We Drove The Damn Thing

Driving in the sand with a real manual transmission adds to the experience in a special way, allowing you an entirely new level of control. On the harder packed stuff, dropping a gear or two quickly helped to kick the back end out like backing it in on a supermoto but, almost more importantly, it just adds to the aggression and intensity of the whole experience.

(Editor’s note: Yamaha filmed some footage of Sean playing in the desert and, while not enough for a video review, it’s a fun little watch and nice to see the thing in action. Dude gets to have all the fun.)

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I hate to agree with OEM propaganda, but powering through a berm or speeding up a hill is no longer just a point and shoot experience, and banging through the gears as the motor whines into the 9,000-10,000 rpm range several times really adds to the sportiness of driving the YXZ.

On top of the perceived differences, Yamaha’s use of a manual transmission also meant that 15-20 percent more power made it to the wheels than does with a typical CVT transmission, and it also helps give the YXZ 10 percent better fuel economy.

The YXZ1000R is also insane amounts of smooth. Yamaha made a big deal about their FOX shocks and, because I love all of you so much, I decided to tweak my sciatic nerve and spend the most of the night before our drive awake with ice on my ass to try and calm the inflammation. On the morning of the ride, I popped and Aleve or two, and told myself to suck it up. I was in the sand dunes with a big toy and this likely wouldn’t happen again soon.

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Now, I don’t know if it was the Aleve or the vibrations of the YXZ or the plush suspension, but my back pain went away after about an hour of driving, which leads me to believe doctors should probably prescribe time in one for people with back pain. More importantly, the YXZ1000R was incredibly pliant, eating up countless bumps I was sure were going to end my day.

Normally, comfort and precision don’t go together, but the Yamaha also handled cornering and navigating the desert floor with grace and ease. I spent our first ride out learning how to drive a side by side and learning to navigate and drive in sand.

By lunch time, I was out with the fastest group including off road racers Corry Weller and Dustin Nelson (pictured above with Brian Deegan) although they were definitely taking it easy on us. Driving in the dunes is also a special talent of its own, and I think that the quality of the YXZ1000R was a large part of why I was able to take to it so well.

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One of the things I like most about Yamaha is their attention to detail, and the same is true for their off-road division. Everything from the steering wheel to the floor material to the angle and resistance of the pedals to the overall longevity and durability of the YXZ1000R have been optimized, and it really shows in the performance of the UTV.

Nothing rattles or wobbles, and the entire cockpit was built to help you stabilize your body as you bounce off the desert floor.

The biggest thing I noticed was how much the YXZ felt more car-like in nature than I expected, largely in part to the way they set up the suspension. The YXZ has a ton of travel (16 inches in front and 17 inches at the rear), but that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in precision. For instance, instead of mounting the rear wheels at a 90 degree angle like with most units, they’re mounted on an A-arm that deflects the wheels up and back when you hit obstacles or are on whoops - which helps the YXZ track in a straight line.

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Front steering felt precise, and catching drifts came naturally by our second session of the day. Driving off road requires a mix of driving techniques, with the YXZ allowing you to track far better than most units while still using the throttle to steer a bit by kicking out the rear.

What We’d Change

My only real issue with the YXZ1000R came from the heat coming the engine and transmission into the cabin. Despite the engine sitting below and behind the driver, my right leg absolutely cooked any time we were really pushing it.

And air conditioning. Air conditioning would be lovely.

Yamaha also lists a Rekluse clutch kit in their accessories list, and they had a unit with the Rekluse installed on hand. For those of you who don’t know, a Rekluse clutch basically disengages the clutch for you when you aren’t moving.

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You still shift like normal to change gears, but you don’t have to worry about stalling or managing the friction zone. If you don’t have a ton of experience driving a manual transmission, I’d definitely add a Rekluse.

Why You Should Care

For those of you who already own a side by side or UTV, the Yamaha YXZ1000R offers a driving experience unlike anything else out on the market. The YXZ1000R, even without paddle tires, was a nearly perfect machine for the dunes we were in, and would be an ideal machine for any off road riding.

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For those of you have never considered riding side by sides, you should go get a hotel room at a hotel I still can’t pronounce and rent them, because side by sides make riding in the sand dunes (which is insanely hard on a motorcycle) easy and fun to do share with your friends and you might learn you love it enough to buy into that #dunelife.