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Common Tread

2018 Yamaha NIKEN first ride: Exploring the advantages of an extra contact patch

May 31, 2018

Yamaha’s curious-looking NIKEN certainly raised eyebrows when it was unveiled during last October’s Tokyo Motor Show. Is it a motorcycle? Is it a trike? Is it some kind of Transformer-like toy?

Well, after 183 miles in the saddle across a succulent barrage of twists and turns, courtesy of the formidable Austrian Alps, I finally have the answers, and they will likely surprise you.

Yamaha NIKEN in the Austrian Alps
2018 Yamaha NIKEN. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

The concept: More contact patches equals more cornering grip

When Yamaha set out to build the NIKEN, the objective wasn’t to make a vehicle with three wheels. The goal was to create a motorcycle with more cornering grip. But just adding another rubber contact patch was only part of the solution, says Yamaha Motor Europe’s Product Planning Manager Leon Oosterhof.

“To add one extra wheel for a bit of benefit is super easy,” he says. “It’s not difficult at all —  and we see some examples in the market of that. But to create something that really has a huge advantage — and an advantage that you can immediately feel — that is the hardest part.”

Yamaha NIKEN
In the high (and cold) mountain passes of Austria, an extra contact patch added confidence in chilly pavement. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

That in a nutshell, is what the Tuning Fork brand has accomplished. It has manufactured a production leaning three-wheeler that delivers a genuine sport-touring motorcycle experience that needs to be felt to be believed.

At 580 pounds with its 4.8-gallon fuel tank topped off, the NIKEN is no featherweight — not exactly a surprise considering the extra apparatus it’s adorned with. A blue anodized KYB inverted fork hangs from either side (mounted externally to create space for articulation). Wheel track remains at a constant 16.14 inches.

NIKEN front suspension
The front fork leg handles steering, the rear one handles suspension. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

The front leg (41 mm diameter) is responsible for maintaining wheel trajectory and direction. Oil acts as a lubricator inside, with spring and damping duties handled by the thicker, 43 mm diameter rear leg. Independent compression and rebound damping adjusters let you tune the 4.3 inches of available travel.

Each side functions independently via an innovative parallelogram linkage. The highly rigid piece is positioned out of sight, above the front wheels, and is responsible for leaning function, with up to 45 degrees of roll offered before reaching lock-out. It’s worth noting that the NIKEN is not self-balancing and you need to have a basic balance to ride it. Along with its power, weight and price (official pricing hasn’t been announced, but expect an MSRP right around $16,000), that’s why it is not for beginners.

So how does a NIKEN feel?

In action, the NIKEN feels very much like a motorcycle through turns. Contrary to a modern motorcycle, there is no real benefit to trail braking with the front brakes, as the weight of the machine naturally compresses the front end into turns, pressing on the specially made Bridgestone Battlax A41 rubber.

Compared to a modern street bike, road feel is more muted during corner entry, which takes time to acclimate to. Although you can’t exactly feel what’s going on at the business end of the tires, trust the machine. Lean it over further and let the footpeg feelers be the gauge to whether or not you’re extracting maximum handling performance. Scrapes and sparks are good.

Yamaha NIKEN stripped
Removing the fairing reveals the workings that allow the NIKEN to lean and steer. It may also raise some uncomfortable questions about how you will accept your robot overlords. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

The more you lean, the deeper the NIKEN carves, with the no degradation in grip, even on a chilly mountain road. In fact, folks who typically ride in cool, wet conditions will appreciate the NIKEN’s more generous (and weighted) contact patch — allowing for deeper lean angles in what most would deem treacherous conditions. Suspension action is well balanced throughout its stroke. Because either side functions independently of the other, ride quality in a straight line is very pleasing.

Yamaha NIKEN stripped
Stripping the bodywork reveals the workings of the front end, including the steering linkage that can be seen in this photo. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

A dedicated steering tie-rod and offset knuckle arrangement allowed engineers to separate steering from lean — a key factor in maintaining optimum suspension function without compromising nimbleness and light steering feel. Because the inner wheel must follow a tighter radius than the outer, the tie-rod incorporates “Ackermann” geometry principles to eliminate wheel slip and/or scrubbing through turns.

Despite weighing 155 pounds more than an MT-09, the motorcycle that it shares some components with, the NIKEN is actually a reasonably agile road bike. Sure, it takes up marginally more real estate, in terms of width, not length, than its two-wheeled counterpart (wheelbase is listed at 59.44 inches — 0.4 inches more than the Tracer 900 GT), it’s easy to put the NIKEN where you want. Even more impressive is its low steering effort, whether you’re traveling at parking lot or highway speeds.

Yamaha did this, in part, by moving the handlebar and riding position rearward by nearly two inches. This gives almost perfect 50/50 weight distribution, Yamaha claims. Because of its intricate front end, the frame is all-new and purpose built. It features a hybrid design that uses a reinforced steel headstock, tubular main frame (also stamped from steel) and a more rigid alloy swingarm and mount.

Yamaha NIKEN rear
From this angle, the NIKEN looks like something that could almost be called conventional. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

Rear suspension duties are handled by a KYB shock that operates through a progressive linkage. A remote and tool-less preload adjuster lets the rider modify ride height based on preference. Rebound damping adjustment is also available. Tip: adding a few turns will slow down return action, which affords a more controlled ride when riding fast on bumpy surfaces.

Yamaha NIKEN instrument panel
The instrument panel isn't Yamaha's fanciest, but it's functional. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

Although a tad bulky feeling at the front, the NIKEN’s seating position is upright and cozy — more so than its MT brother. Obviously, the windscreen could be larger, but the bodywork does an admirable job of sheltering the rider from rain and road debris. The negative backlit (white numbers on dark background) instrument display may not be as flashy looking as the R1’s color piece, but it’s easy to read and gets the job done.

Familiar three-cylinder power for an unfamiliar three-wheeler

Cruise control
Cruise control is operated via the left handgrip controls. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.
Yamaha’s positioning the NIKEN as a premium offering that splits the difference between sport and touring riding. So it includes a bevy of the brand’s latest electronics, including ride-by-wire-enabled cruise control, combined engine power and throttle mapping (Yamaha calls it D-Mode) and traction control. Curiously, however, touring accessories, including luggage, are missing from the catalog.

Like most of Yamaha’s new street and sport bikes (2017-2018 YZF-R6 excluded), I prefer the “normal” response of the middle D-Mode setting (Mode 2). In this setting, the 847 cc inline three has near perfect response when the throttle is twisted.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a person who isn’t a fanboy of Yamaha’s CP3 engine configuration after sampling it. Light, compact, and full of meaty low-end torque, this sweet-sounding triple is one of the finest engines in the plus-sized middleweight class.

Yamaha NIKEN
The quickshifter allows clutchless upshifts and the peg feelers are your early warning system, letting you know you're getting close to the NIKEN's 45-degree maximum lean angle. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

To help elevate torque output, engineers installed a crankshaft with 18 percent more inertia (via thicker webs). They also tweaked the ECU settings and fitted a two-tooth-larger rear sprocket (47 teeth) for more get-up and go. An electronic quickshifter further boosts the feeling of acceleration, especially in the lower gears. This permits full-throttle upshifts, without working the clutch lever. Downshifts, on the other hand, still need to be made the old-fashioned way.

Smooth and devoid of vibration, this triple performs well inside the NIKEN — impressive considering the oxygen-starved mile-plus-high altitude we travelled across. Still, considering its extra heft (and drag), I would be lying if I didn’t say I wanted just a wee-bit more oomph.

Speaking of which, those desiring added punch will value Mode 1’s more direct response. Sure, it’s not as good as a YZF-R1 motor, but at least it’ll make it feel a hint quicker. On the other hand, Mode 3’s softer reaction is a wise choice if you’re familiarizing yourself with your new NIKEN, or perhaps riding on slick surfaces.

TC mode-wise, I ran through both settings and didn’t really notice much of a difference between the two. To be fair, I didn’t ride in an aggressive enough manner to warrant the safety measure. Still, it’s nice to know that electronic countermeasures are locked and loaded.

Yamaha NIKEN wheelie
There's a lot of weight on the front wheels, but it will still wheelie. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

For the times you want to show off, traction control can be manually disabled at a stop. Now, with a little clutch finesse, you can loft both front wheels in the sky for passersby to gawk at. Be careful though, as the front end rises pretty fast — cover that rear brake!

The ABS-enabled triple disc brakes are effective at shedding speed and have ample power and feel. Though considering its premium positioning, and the fact that it’s carrying extra pounds, it would have been nice if Yamaha had ditched the plain-jane axial master cylinder for a heavier-duty radial-pump setup. This would likely increase lever feel and give the front brakes a tad more bite.

Yamaha NIKEN
Surprisingly, the NIKEN works a lot like a regular two-wheeled motorcycle, just with a feel of its own. Yamaha Motor Europe photo.

Yamaha’s NIKEN proves to be far more playful than any other three-wheeler I’ve ridden. But is it good enough to replace that shiny new street bike in your garage? Not exactly — especially for a perceptive rider who wants the utmost in maneuverability and handling feel. For the majority of folks, however, the NIKEN’s capable of carving turns with greater ease — even if you can’t exactly feel what’s happening at the business end of the Bridgestones. If you’re a die-hard corner blitzer who wants a ride like nothing else currently on the road, then the NIKEN certainly commands a test ride when it becomes available this fall.