Sometimes, the best things in life come in small packages.
It's an incredibly fun time to work in motorcycling. Whether a byproduct of the recession or just simply riders wising up, trends which once skewed towards the absurd have returned to the rational, and we've been blessed with some wonderful bikes as a result. Old category lines are being blurred, so we have touring bikes that are finally comfortable and sporty, sport bikes that provide high performance without the track-focused ergonomics, and small and affordable "entry-level" bikes that are also good enough to please experienced riders.
Yamaha (and the Motorcycle Industry Council) agree and say that sales of "sport" motorcycles have gone from 59 percent/41 percent supersport/sport split to 63 percent/37 percent sport/supersport split. They classify bikes like the Yamaha FZ-09 or Triumph Street Triple as sport bikes, reserving the "supersport" denotation for racer-replica bikes like the Yamaha YZF-R1 and Kawasaki ZX-6R.
Further supporting that shift is the boom in sub-500 cc motorcycle sales, as both new and experienced riders have some brilliant options with the Kawasaki Ninja 300, Honda CBR300R and F, and the Honda 500 line.
While a little late to the party, Yamaha has finally entered the field with the YZF-R3, a bike that is instantly competitive with the existing contenders.
The 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3 is powered by an all-new 320.6 cc parallel twin engine that uses a closed-loop fuel-injection system. Yamaha wouldn't give us horsepower or torque figures, but for reference, the Kawi makes 35 horsepower or so from its 296 cc twin.
One of the things I always appreciate about Yamaha's motorcycles is the way they implement technology from their bigger, more expensive, bikes into their more wallet-friendly offerings. For instance, the R3 has offset cylinders, just like the new Yamaha YZF-R1, which helps reduce piston-cylinder friction and improves both efficiency and power.
The engine uses forged aluminum pistons, has a 180-degree crank, and utilizes a single-axis balancer to help minimize vibrations when running at higher rpms.
Power is delivered through a six-speed transmission, which has a fairly wide range between gears despite having a rather short first gear. This helps make the R3 easy to pull away from a stop while also making it more than capable of freeway speeds.
The frame is a steel, diamond-type unit that uses the engine as a stressed member. Yamaha claims the R3 has a 49-51 front-to-rear weight balance, though I have to admit I didn't have a chance to throw it on a scale during my short time with it. The frame is mated to a long steel swingarm, giving the R3 the same wheelbase-to-swingarm ratio as the R1, which Yamaha claims makes for less variability in the swingarm angle during riding conditions and helps to even the weight distribution.
Suspension duties are handled by a KYB 41 mm front fork (non-adjustable) and a KYB rear shock, which is adjustable for preload only.
For those of you interested in slowing down, stopping power is delivered through a Akebono two-piston caliper biting a 298 mm floating rotor up front and a single-piston Akebono unit paired with a 220 mm rotor at the rear.
The wheels are cast aluminum, and come wrapped in Michelin Pilot Street tires. Unlike the Pilot Street radials you've seen elsewhere, this is a special bias ply tire designed specifically for the R3.
Ergonomically, the R3 is a surprisingly nice fit for a wide variety of riders. The 30.7-inch seat height and narrow seat allowed even the shortest riders at Yamaha's press launch to get a foot down with no problem while the flat seat gave those of us who are taller plenty of room to move around. The clip-ons are positioned above the top triple clamp and felt well placed for both around-town and sport riding. At six feet tall, I was completely comfortable throughout our long day of riding.
The nice people from Yamaha said my article about how the contact points on a bike affect our perception of its quality and value was really important to them (I may be making that up). My article was so impactful (also a lie), they decided to include an instrument panel that not only includes the normal speed, rpm, odometer, and time information, but also includes a gear-position indicator, fuel gauge, oil change trip meter, fuel economy information, and an adjustable shift timing light.
The 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3 has a 3.7-gallon fuel tank, returns a reported average fuel consumption of 56 miles per gallon, and weighs 368 pounds fully fueled.
Testing the 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3 on the street
To test the bike, Yamaha took us to lovely Willows, Calif., for a 120-mile rural route, and then to spend part of the day at Thunderhill Raceway's new West Course. For those of you who have never heard of Willows, which I'm assuming is 99 percent of you, it's a small town set into the foothills about an hour north of Sacramento. For Friday Night Lights fans, it looks like Dillon, Texas, with high school football fields set beside cow-filled pastures and Black Bear Diners as the local fancy restaurant. (I listened to a lot of Explosions in the Sky on this trip.)
This time of year, the rolling hills are covered in more shades of green than I knew existed and, for our morning portion of the ride, cows and sheep were the only ones out to witness our acts of heroism as we tore through the countryside. Willows may seem like a strange place to test a bike like this, but the beat-up farm roads rival any city's downtown streets and the day's ride actually simulated fairly normal riding conditions, while allowing us to test the bikes far from the cars that would impede our progress.
Our day began with a brief, 20-mile freeway stint, and I was more than happy to see how the R3 would stack up to California freeway speeds. The previous evening, Yamaha's head of testing shared that one of the things he thought really stood out on the R3 was how the engine balancer helped tone down the vibes at higher speeds. The Kawasaki, the R3's most obvious competitor, is a bike that is incredibly vibey at higher speeds, and I was curious to see if this was all PR speak. Turns out, the folks at Yamaha know what they're doing. The R3 didn't really seem to be in over its head until I approached triple digits (allegedly).
The winding roads we followed snaked through tiny town after tiny town and the tractors on the roadway, cowboys on horseback, and the pavement they tore up challenged our maneuvering abilities about as well as a ride through Los Angeles, until we came to Highway 162.
I'd never heard of Hwy 162 before, but it's a road worth riding if you ever have the chance. By some gift from God, the pavement smooths out right as the sweepers start getting good and the decreasing radius turns disappear to go pick on someone else. Bike launches like this come with a manufacturer leader and usually a few guys riding sweep and most of the time is spent as one pack but, with the pavement and conditions perfecting as we headed up the mountain, our chaperone and three of us quicker guys came to an unspoken agreement that it was finally time to go fast.
Motorcycling has become my job and, a lot of times, it feels like a job. I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world, but the truth is that sometimes it's still work, and some parts are still hard or boring, much like everyone else's work. Sometimes I forget how special it is. This was not one of those days, and as we reached the top of the mountain and pulled off in a turnout overlooking the valley, I was struck by how special this day had been and how much I really love motorcycles. Sometimes they're work, but sometimes they make me feel like I did as a kid when I finally figured out how to get rolling in first gear.
While a big part of that is the road and the setting and the day, the R3 was a nearly perfect tool for the job and its role in my day was ever present on my mind. There was one section where the sweepers were really long and mellow and a 600 would have been really fun to open up, but, other than that, there wasn't another bike I'd have rather been on. I'm very curious to see what the numbers will look like when someone first gets this thing on a dyno, but I can tell you that my butt dyno says it makes a noticeable amount more than the Ninja 300 and that it's incredibly fun to try to squeeze speed out of it.
Once we re-grouped, we headed back down the hill for lunch, which we ate hurriedly, knowing the racing had only just begun.
Testing the 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3 on the track
The real reason we were in Willows was Thunderhill Raceyway and the new West Course, which was perfect for a bike like the R3. Instead of rolling out a second set of units for us to test, we were instructed to leather up and then just fold in the mirrors on the units we'd been riding, so they wouldn't shatter should someone go down.
Yamaha invited Shawn Reilly, who is now the president and chief instructor at Z2 Track Days after racing for 20 years, both to help some of the less experienced riders and put the rest of us "experienced" journo-types to shame.
The R3 continued to shine on the track, though the higher speeds, harsher lean angles, and controlled nature of riding on a track did begin to highlight some of its shortcomings.
The engine continued to impress, and the R3's beautiful fueling and oddly wide powerband were apparent, as many of us realized we were doing different parts of the track in different gears. While the brakes aren't going to impress anyone on paper, they do an adequate job of slowing down the little bike. The suspension, determined not to be the weak link, also does an admirable job, given its lack of pedigree or adjustability.
It's hard to fault a $5,000, entry-level bike for not being a perfect track toy out of the box, but the lack of a slipper clutch made me happy I'd spent so much time on the supermoto track, as down shifting regularly meant the rear wheel breaking loose. While I'll admit it was fun, I can't say it's ideal for a bike that will be purchased by more new riders than experienced ones. Even trying to match rpms led to less than stellar results and I really had to make sure to get the bike slowed down far more than I'd normally like to before dropping from third to second.
The rest of the day was spent about as you'd expect, and I'll hold off on waxing on about how fun and perfect the day was. But, just so we're clear, it was.
Yamaha R3 highlights
The good news is that, for 5,000 bucks, you can have this much fun, too.
The biggest highlight of the bike is that Yamaha has managed to keep the price in line with its Honda and Kawasaki competitors, while giving the R3 performance abilities that will set the bar higher for this 300 cc class.
My hopes and expectations were exceeded pretty much across the board with the new R3. Aesthetically, the bike is gorgeous. The instrument panel rivals those on bikes twice its price and no part of the bike looks "budget."
While there isn't much power, there is enough, and the powerband spreads more widely than you would expect. Keep in mind, I'm speaking relatively — not absolutely.
Brakes and suspension are also up to snuff, both performing more than adequately for the type of buyer who will most likely buy the R3 (and even good enough for those of us who'd take it to the track).
Most importantly, the new Yamaha R3 is simply heaps and heaps of fun.
Yamaha R3 lowlights
The first things I would fix were I to buy a Yamaha R3 would be to add a slipper clutch and swap the tires. Normally it wouldn't be fair to hold the absence of a slipper clutch against a $5,000 bike, but then again, most $5,000 motorcycles' press launches aren't held at race tracks. I didn't encounter the problem during the street ride, but I also ride "the Pace" and very rarely find myself slowing down in much of a hurry on public roads. Most buyers probably won't be riding the R3 as enthusiastically as I was on the track, and therefore won't run into the problem as often, but I could see it causing issues for riders who aren't comfortable with sliding the rear around.
For a bike as capable as the R3, Yamaha should have gone with radial rubber to provide more grip and feel. Yamaha claims the choice was made to give the tires a longer life, but it really is a shame on a bike this fun. The good news is that tires are easy to change.
No matter how you want to classify the R3, whether it be "entry-level" or "lightweight sportbike," it should come with an ABS option. This alone will rule out the R3 for a lot of buyers.
The two main competitors for the Yamaha R3 are the Honda CBR300R and the Kawasaki Ninja 300. The Honda's little single is down on engine size (286 cc), weight (357 pounds), and price ($4,399). The Kawi's more comparable twin is also a little smaller (296 cc), though it weighs a bit more (379 pounds) and costs about the same ($4,999).
I've been a big fan of the Honda over the Kawasaki because I've always felt its single's power was more usable and fun, and it rides circles around the Kawi in the handling department. Being the thorough journalist that I am, I took our CBR300R to Streets of Willow last week to see how it did on the track in preparation for the R3.
If I'm being honest, the handling of the CBR and the Yamaha felt comparable. This is most likely due to the Honda having better tires while the Yamaha has bigger and better front forks, which provide a little more rigidity and stability in sport-riding conditions. That said, it's obvious which of the two is an easier fix and I'm quite curious to see how swapping the rubber on the R3 improves its handling.
Power-wise, the CBR's single tops out too early while the Kawi's twin makes too little power at the bottom of its revs, making it too easy to get caught in the wrong gear. I've been a big fan of the Honda and sort of expected the Yamaha to struggle like the Kawi did in the lower part of the rev range, but that extra displacement bump is really noticeable (in the way that a 10 percent bump should be).
Before you cry foul on the extra ccs, let's not miss the irony of the R3 having a displacement advantage over a Kawasaki (which makes a lovely bike called the ZX-6R that has a 37 cc advantage over the other 600s).
Finally, there is the upcoming KTM RC390. With an MSRP of $5,499, a 375 cc single cylinder engine, and high-spec components, it will most likely be the bike to beat — at least when it comes to outright performance. The Duke 690 put my butt, hands, and feet to sleep with its vibey engine and it will be no shocker if the 390 dislodges a filling or two, but that doesn't mean it won't be a brilliant bike and quickly topple the Yamaha. Until we test one, however, it's just a spec-sheet battle.
The all-new 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3 is the new king of the hill when it comes to entry-level lightweight sportbikes. It's the best of both the Kawi and the Honda and then some, and because of that it serves both new and experienced riders alike. Buyers will appreciate the bang for the buck, both in terms of quality and performance.
The smallest class of sporty bikes, which once was a neglected segment in the U.S. market, with few offerings and no updates for years at a time, has now become one of the most fun to watch. Honda and Kawasaki have already pushed each other to step up their game in this class, and the new Yamaha R3 just increased the pressure, while ensuring KTM can't just walk in and claim top spot without a struggle. The gauntlet has been thrown down.