THE TWO-WHEEL TEST; James Christopher slips into his leathers to mount the Ford Escort of the motorbike world - the Yamaha Diversion. He finds a bike that's dressed to impress at the traffic lights, but not much going on between the wheels
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"You see" says Jeff Turner philosophically, "Some people like jumping straight into a Ferrari when they pass their test. And some," he continues, fixing me with a practised eye, "prefer a Ford Escort." Show me, I demand silently of the marketing manager of Yamaha Motor (UK), the man who would rather jump into a Ford Escort and I will show you a churl.

"In motorbike terms," continues Jeff, handing me the key to the impressive sounding Yamaha XJ600S Diversion, "this is our Ford Escort." The XJ600S is the favourite tool of the motorcycle instructor as well as the darling of the first time buyer. How glamorous he makes it all sound, I muse. My interest in this good- looking, steely blue impostor is cooling by the second.

According to Professor Martin Clarke (of passim the Independent on Sunday, April 20), an expert in "car geography" from Leeds University, I am, to all intents and purposes for the next two weeks, Essex man, riding the motorcycle equivalent of the boy racer's favourite car. I should have guessed from the stubby chrome exhaust pipes which are at least a foot short of a seriously grown-up length.

"Enjoy," smiles Jeff, handing me the keys after a short run-down of the bike's foolproof features. There are no surprises about this four-stroke, air-cooled, four cylinder, chain-driven bike. Here, in one pounds 4,699 package, is reliability and predictability. Let the choke out, push the electric start button, switch the hazard lights on (that is a bit of a novelty), and scream "gangway I'm pregnant" and you should have few problems negotiating the most basic of traffic jams.

Seventy miles an hour on the A3 from the Yamaha headquarters in Weybridge, Surrey, to London, is quite a different matter. The fantastically efficient engine mufflers make you feel as if you're sitting on an industrial Hoover as it goes from a deep shagpile hum to a linoleum whine. Maybe it's my unfeasibly large head or a design quirk of the "aerodynamic" fairing, but I feel as if Prince Naseem is using my helmet as a punch ball. Though the maximum speed on the dial reads 140mph, I feel distinctly vulnerable above the speed limit.

This is not a bike you want to ride when you are hanging out with bikers. This is a bike that wants to impress commuters. The intention of the super-aerodynamic shell is not to freak out the rider, but to con the man in the Porsche at the traffic lights that all he will see when the lights turn green is a trail of rubber. Fair enough, the acceleration from standing on the Diversion is extremely good, the lower gears are wonderfully responsive, and it handles corners like an electric hare. Such is the lightness of the bike that you think you are doing 60mph when the speedometer is pointing at a steady 40mph. This is indeed the very essence of boy racing.

The problem is that unless you are under five-foot-five, there is only so many miles of this kind of commuting you want to make. Admittedly my leather trousers have become too tight, but having to sit like a champion jockey who is forced to do a sort of permanent push-up on the handlebars is not my idea of long-distance comfort. To be frank, the set-up on the Diversion seems infinitely more sympathetic to female riders.

My first port of call was Battersea Arts Centre where a chapter of theatre critics had gathered including Michael Billington (Guardian), Nicholas de Jongh (Evening Standard) and Jeremy Kingston (Times). (My night time job is writing freelance theatre reviews.) Each of us has just directed plays for the first time as part of experimental season called "the Critics - Up for Review". We had gathered to mourn our slaughtering as theatre directors at the hands of our colleagues and an assortment of eminent badmouthing directors. Despite bad haircuts and neglible dress sense, theatre critics are not life's natural Hell's Angels. We did not trash the bar and we were overly polite about our piss-poor reviews.

Such was the gloom at Battersea Arts Centre, I could have ridden up stark naked on a pink Harley Davidson and none of the critics would have batted an eyelid. My cast (brilliant) were rather more impressed with my leathers than the Yamaha Diversion. But that's thespians for you. Even the fact that the bike does about 40 miles to the gallon - its most valuable feature - tickled no one.

None of them proffered their services to ride pillion on the bike's "all new stepped seat". I wasn't entirely ungrateful when later I had to pull up sharply at a zebra crossing. The front single disc brake comes over all hypersensitive when you're going at speeds of less than 20mph which can seriously inconvenience you if you are not used to dry humping a 17 litre fuel tank. Presumably it was just an idiosyncrasy of this particular bike, but every time I touched the back brake (single disc again), it squealed like a black cab. Announcing yourself like this at every red light can turn, shy, unassuming people like myself into twitching neurotics.

What are people really looking for in a 600cc? I ask Colin, a slightly dodgy acquaintance who once terrified tourists as part of the Dundee bike gang Satan's Slaves before he sold his machine for a class A habit. "A bit of speed and a lot of distance," says Colin, running a grimy finger over the steel tubing in the chassis. "Nice, but I prefer your Guzzi, mate. That will still be around when this is just a pile of parts." I'm not convinced that Colin is entirely right on this point. My Guzzi V65 Special (13 years old) is already in bits on my sitting room floor.

Ultimately it's the racy pretension that puts me off the Yamaha XJ600S Diversion. It is a bike that has been ingeniously designed for the first time voter. It comes in a deep shade of Conservative blue, it has the flashy sporty design of new-look Labour and the pulling power of the Liberal Democrats. After exactly 56.3 miles on the clock there really is not much more to know about the motorbike apart from the fact that it is perfect material for relative novices. It's not entirely boring, but it inspires precious little genuinely dirty romance in the rider. It really is the box standard Ford Escort of the motorcycling world, and I suspect in my heart of hearts there is a more than a little bit of it in all of us. !



ENGINE TYPE: 4 cylinder, 4-stroke, DOHC, 8-valve


PRICE: pounds 4,699 (plus "on road" charges - 12 months vehicle excise duty, number plates, pre-delivery inspection, delivery charge, patrol and VAT - of pounds 250)

OVERALL VALUE FOR MONEY: If you're interested in bikes rather than getting from A to B, look elsewhere. If you want routine reliability, this is your tool. If you are a first time buyer, and female, it's certainly worth a test ride