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Common Tread

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3 first ride review

Jan 23, 2019

You know, none of the Big Four actually make an honest sports 300 anymore. For a category that was the Hot New Thing not that long ago, that didn’t take long. Honda’s probably the closest with their 286 cc CBR300R, but now that the Ninja’s a 400, we’re fresh outta Japanese give-or-take-a-few-ccs-300s.

In the fractured 300 sport class, Yamaha’s new 321 cc YZF-R3 makes a compelling case for itself. Whether you’re a first-time rider or a veteran looking to pick up a new fun machine, the R3 improves on its previous iteration with the 2019 update. For Yamaha, any investment in the model is a worthy one. The R3 has been the cumulative best-seller for Yamaha USA over the last year, even though the bike's gone mostly unchanged since its debut in 2015.

2019 Yamaha R3
The R3 is happy to rev. Brian J. Nelson photo.

The revised R3: Body and design

Easiest change to spot: the bodywork and overall design. The R3 finally looks like it belongs in the R family with the new plastics, lights, and tank. Especially in the front, the improvements come from some seriously complicated shapes with solid fit and finish.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
All the plastics fit together perfectly. The result is a modern, polished appearance. RevZilla photo.

The big C-shaped “swoop” of the old model’s side fairings has been refined into a more mature surface. There’s a new fin element in the plastics just outboard of the cylinders, too. Remove it, and a no-cut, bolt-in frame slider drops right in. This is the first accessory I’d buy. Brilliant idea, Yamaha.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
That thin black piece with the white stripe is a frame slider. No more drilling holes in fairings. Brian J. Nelson photo.

The tank is lower and wider, still carrying 3.7 gallons of gas. I fit on the new R3 much better than I did on the old one, thanks to those changes to the tank shape. Yamaha says it’s easier to grip with your legs. I agree. Technically, the "tank" is a plastic cover, not a metal unit, which means it’ll be much cheaper to replace when the bike goes down. 

Both headlights and taillights are LED, I’m happy to say. (Does anyone else see an RSV4 with the middle headlight removed?) Both headlights come on together, not one high and one low, like some other bikes. Yamaha is still using those big teardrop turn signals with incandescent bulbs. You either care or you don’t.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
Two headlights cut through fog on a mountain road. Brian J. Nelson photo.

Yamaha’s proud that their R3 really fits the brand’s “R-DNA” and they should be. I’d say it’s tied with the RC390 for best-looking bike in the class. But how many American riders will recognize the R3’s cues from the world of racing? The louvers, the trick slotted triple tree, the gauges inspired by Magneti-Marelli units on MotoGP bikes, the aggressive “M” front intake? Not that many, and I don’t think it matters. These elements make the R3 look and feel like a more premium motorcycle. You don’t need to watch races to appreciate that. 

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3 frame
That gold fork just raised the bar. Yamaha photo.

R3: What's new with the working parts

For 2019, the 321 cc parallel twin and steel trellis frame remain unchanged, because Yamaha spent their money elsewhere to improve the R3. Yamaha USA doesn't publish horsepower, but their European site says the R3's making about 41 ponies at 10,750 rpm, and a little under 22 foot-pounds of torque at 9,000.

Where Yamaha did make changes, it feels like they just made a list of all the previous model’s shortcomings, then crossed them off one by one. That’s a proven plan.

Let’s start with tires. The old model used bias-ply tires for some reason, but the new bike wears Dunlop’s SPORTMAX GPR-300 radials. They’re the same tires you’ll find on the Ninja 400, and I like them on both bikes. The Dunlops are perfectly good stock tires for most riders.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
Yamaha's upgrades take the R3 to the next level. Brian J. Nelson photo.

The big news on the new R3, along with the restyling, is the suspension. Yamaha bolted up a 37 mm inverted fork from KYB, sprung on the stiffer side for a bike in this class. How much stiffer? I asked Yamaha, and the front fork's rebound damping increased by 120 percent, with compression damping up by 380 percent. These drastic changes promise a tighter, more responsive front end feel. 

To match, there’s also an upgraded KYB rear shock with seven steps of preload adjustment. Rebound damping rose by 70 percent over the old model, with compression lowered by 10 percent. Combined, the suspension updates are a huge win for the R3. Among its direct competitors, only KTM’s RC390 (and perhaps the BMW G 310 R, depending on what you’re cross-shopping) offers an upside-down front end. We had to throw an Öhlins kit in our Ninja before its right-side-up fork felt this good, and that wasn’t cheap...

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
The R3 is happy to rev. Brian J. Nelson photo.

Enough numbers; let’s ride

Our little convoy of R3s wound through Oceanside, California, headed for the highway. Block-by-block city riding was no problem. Yamaha fit the bike with a low first gear for painless starting, which beginners will especially appreciate. The R3 will fit most riders with low-for-a-sport bike seat (30.7 inches). At six feet tall, I could put both shoes flat on the pavement without fully extending my legs. Most riders should be able to get at least their toes down, which is plenty for the street. (In case it’s still too tall, there were plenty of lowering kits for the old model. Expect the same aftermarket support for the 2019.)

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3 dash
The dash layout is simple and clean. Yamaha photo.

Riding position is on the sporty side of neutral. Controls were easy to reach, and the revised display was contrasty and legible. You can tell gear position and speed at a glance. The tach is a bar-style that lines the upper edge of the display. It was a bit hard to read at times. I barely used it, since the engine simply tells you what it wants via one of the least offensive exhausts of any motorcycle ever made. I thought I heard an intake noise once or twice, but I can’t be sure because I was breathing at the time.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
The low-slung design is one of the better factory efforts. A specially designed Yoshimura pipe is also available. RevZilla photo.

Opening up on the highway, the R3 hauled me right up to the pace of traffic and stayed there without complaint. Yamaha expects most R3 owners to do at least some commuting on the bike, and for many people, that means some time on a multi-lane. I might look at something larger if you have a 50-plus mile trip to work, like Lemmy. Not that the R3 couldn’t do it. Mirrors remained easy to see and not very vibey.

I expected the clip-ons, dropped 22 mm for a sportier position, to sap some of the fun from our time on the slab. Not so. Lower was better, placing more of my body behind the windscreen. Soon, we left traffic behind for some sweeping roads on the way to Julian.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
Which way to the coffee and pie? Brian J. Nelson photo.

On one of these bends, I finally sorted out a quirk with the bike that had bothered me for most of the ride. I’d be winding up fourth gear, click up into fifth, and open the throttle to accelerate. The bike would go faster, but it didn't accelerate quite like I expected. I was managing my expectations for a 300, but still, I knew it should have a little more pull than that in fifth.

Eventually, we got stuck behind a rental van apparently hauling gold bars and Fabergé eggs, such was its cautious lack of speed and unwillingness to pull over. Down a few gears I went, and the bike’s reluctance disappeared again. Then I remembered a detail from the technical presentation: The R3 has two overdrive gears! That’s a marketing opportunity missed. Could have called them overdrive and hyperdrive.

Anyway, the bike’s top speed is attainable in fourth gear, while fifth and sixth are useful for holding high speeds at reduced rpms. That’s why they’re called “overdrives.” Beginner riders might not know that bikes have them, or that they usually just have one at the top gear. Overdrives are practical and make longer trips less of a wound-out, buzzy experience. Yamaha says they use a similar setup on their Star Venture and Star Eluder touring bikes to reduce vibrations. Between the R3's counterbalancer and its overdrives, it was well composed at speed. Once I sorted this out, second, third and fourth gears became my best friends for the day.

Time to refuel the riders and head for the mountains.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
Fits like a... never mind. RevZilla photo.

Mist, fog, and cooler temperatures all day had me grateful for a stop at the Julian Pie Company. While we ordered, the Yamaha boys showed us an unofficial feature hidden in the bike: glove warmers! Vents inside the fairings are the perfect size and location for a mitt apiece. While you stop for a coffee and a slice of pie, your gloves will soak up the heat. (Get the apple pie with sharp cheddar cheese melted over it. Don’t think about what you’re ordering. It'll all make sense when you try it.) Pulling on our freshly warmed gloves, we pointed the bikes towards Palomar and rolled out.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
The R family resemblance is strong. Brian J. Nelson photo.

I appreciated the new suspension in the city and on the highway, but it really came into its own on the winding two-laners of San Diego county. A small, sporty bike like this deserves a good ride quality. The fun roads are where you’ll want to take your R3, and suspension should not get in the way of spirited riding. In corners, the bike didn’t pogo or undulate like the 250s of old, which I suspect were sprung with pen springs. No abrupt diving or wavering with the Yamaha. At times, the rear felt like it was a little softer than the front, but I’m sure a click or two of preload would sort that out. For reference, I’m about 175 pounds after a trip to the pie shop.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
Perfect roads as far as the eye could see... which wasn't very far. Brian J. Nelson photo.

Bike and rider were happiest climbing Palomar Mountain. The tight, snaking turns were just right for the light R3. The twin felt almost like a mini MT-07 as I put it through corner after corner. (Hey, Yamaha, where’s that cool little MT-03?) The throttle is smooth, smooth, smooth. Power delivery is very linear with a sweet spot around 8,800 rpm. While initial bite was not super sharp, the brakes responded well to minute inputs once they were engaged. A set of pads and braided lines might be best if you’re doing lots of track days. My test bike was equipped with the optional ABS, which I only managed to set off once over some muddy deposits in the road. If I were buying an R3, I’d seriously consider adding it, as Yamaha only asks around $300 for the upgrade.

2019 Yamaha R3
The YZF-R3 in Team Yamaha Blue. Yamaha photo.

Our progress up Palomar was stopped by an actual, genuine, rolling fog, and we headed to lower roads so the photographers could capture more than two white lights in a haze of grey. The 2019 R3 comes in three colors: Team Yamaha Blue, Matte Black, and Vivid White. White is a tragically underrated color for motorcycles. The blue is classic Yamaha, but I was glad to be testing a black model. Matte is hard to pull off. Usually it looks terrible once fingerprints or oil stains it, but whatever paint Yamaha used was immune to my torture test of poking it and seeing what happened. I think the black will be a hit. Hopefully, the finish continues to hold up.

Sun showed up for our return to Oceanside, and as the little pack of R3s cruised back towards the beach, I realized I didn’t even think about the seat until almost the end of the ride! That’s impressive. Also impressive: Riding like a, uh, motorcycle reviewer, I’d still managed fuel economy averages in the mid-50s. This is all you need to love motorcycling. The Yamaha isn’t the biggest or the fastest, even among its own peers, but there’s more to riding than that. A day on the R3 proves it's ready for highways, remote glory roads, and everything in between. This is a bike that could get you into motorcycling, or make you a better motorcyclist.

Anything not to like?

The R3 has just a few lowlights, and all of them are easy to fix if they bother you. I’d like to see adjustable levers from the factory. Yamaha will sell you an upgraded set, but all I’m asking for are those dead-simple ones like you could get on old CBRs and Bandits. Even just the brake side would be enough. I could cover the brakes easily, but a rider with smaller hands might have difficulty.

Then there’s not much room under the rear seat, as you’d expect. The area was not waterproof, either, as I found water droplets from a previous test ride in there. Always seal your important documents and magnum cigars in plastic before transporting them in an R3 tail section. Or just use a tank or tail bag.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
Verdict: Yamaha's smallest supersport becomes the bike it was meant to be. Brian J. Nelson photo.

Price and the competition

At $4,999 ($5,299 with ABS), the R3 would be an excellent way to spend your moto budget. You get good handling with a proper fork and shock setup. You get a cheerful, proven engine, and a very economical one at that. It’s a fun little Yam that has the street presence of a much larger motorcycle without being any kind of overwhelming. No wonder Yamaha sells so many of these bikes!

Best of all, Yamaha hasn't raised the price over last year's model, and now you also have the option of adding ABS. The Honda's cheaper ($4,699), but down on power and getting by with one less cylinder. The R3's natural predator, the Kawasaki Ninja, offers a 400 for 300 prices ($4,999, $5,299-$5,499 ABS), but Kawasaki had to skip the USD fork to hit that bargain price. Then there's the KTM RC390: competitive at $5,499, but sacrificing street comforts and build quality for outright performance.

And the R3? I think it's the most refined of the bunch in stock form. The Yamaha will commute all week and ride the good roads all weekend. With some minor preparations, it's ready for a track day, too. In the end, that capable, all-rounder character is the 300 class at its best.

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3 specifications

MSRP $4,999 ($5,299 ABS)
Engine type Liquid-cooled, DOHC, parallel twin; eight valves
Displacement 321 cc 
Bore/stroke 68.0 mm/44.1 mm
Compression ratio  11.2:1
Transmission six-speed
Fuel system Fuel injection
Clutch Multiplate
Front suspension 37 mm inverted fork; 5.1 inches travel
Rear suspension Monocross single shock, adjustable preload, 4.9 inches travel
Front brake 298 mm hydraulic disc; ABS available
Rear brake 220 mm hydraulic disc; ABS available
Tires front/rear 110/70-17; 140/70-17
Trail 3.7 inches
Rake 25 degrees
Wheelbase 54.3 inches
Ground clearance 6.3 inches
Seat height 30.7 inches
Tank capacity 3.7 gallons
Weight (wet) 368 pounds (375 pounds ABS)