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Common Tread

2020 Yamaha MT-03 first ride review

Mar 18, 2020
Back in 2006, I first saw a picture of a Yamaha MT-03 in a magazine, and I immediately wanted one.

That's right, the 2020 Yamaha MT-03 isn't the first to wear that name. The earlier model was a 660 cc single that now looks like a concept bike for the MT bikes to come: punchy nakeds with fun engines, upright ergos, and modern style.

2020 Yamaha MT-03
The 2020 MT-03 is available in Midnight Black and Ice Fluo. Joseph Augustin photo.

We then saw the MT-09, MT-07, and MT-10 (previously called FZs in the United States). When we look back on this time in motorcycling years from now, I think these nakeds will define the era for Yamaha, and with the addition of the new MT-03, we have a complete family of MT bikes, from smallbores to super streetfighters.

2020 Yamaha MT-03
Unmistakably an MT from Yamaha. Joseph Augustin photo.

The new MT-03 is the lightest, smallest, and least expensive MT bike available in the United States. And at $4,599, I’d expect this little ripper to be on the radar of beginners and experienced riders alike. Yamaha made sure to impress upon us that their naked wears the lowest price in its class, and a brand new motorcycle with standard ABS for just over four and a half grand is impressive, I have to say. The bike’s engine and chassis are yoinked straight out of the YZF-R3, a bike I deeply enjoyed reviewing last year, but nobody will mistake these two for the same bike.

2020 Yamaha MT03
The front "mask" fits in with the other MTs. I might have put the horn somewhere else, though. Joseph Augustin photo.

Just look at it!

Despite the R3 underpinnings, the styling and riding position certainly make this a different model. Yamaha fully leaned into the “Dark Side of Japan” design language we’ve seen with the other MTs, even advancing it a little. This is the first of the MT line to feature ultra-thin position lights (the “eyes”) with the real headlight below. All lights are LED, which definitely makes the bike feel more premium. Some think it looks like fun. Some think it looks like it just ate something sour. ¿Por qué no los dos?

2020 Yamaha MT03
A wide, flat handlebar replaces the R3's mild clip-ons. Joseph Augustin photo.

The riding ergonomics are pure naked bike, compared to the R3’s sporty-standard stance. Changes to the seat, triple tree, and handlebar (up 39 mm, back 19 mm) put the rider upright with the option of leaning forward a little. There’s a good amount of room on the seat to scoot around. If the handlebar were any higher, it would almost feel like a supermoto. Maybe small nakeds like these are why sumos remain a niche genre. Have you seen what a Warp9 supermoto wheel kit goes for these days? Yamaha repeatedly pointed out that the MT-03 was designed to look and feel like a “big bike,” but the bike speaks for itself. Its stance is immediately noticeable, even when parked.

2020 Yamaha MT03
Yamaha's efforts in mass centralization make the MT-03 look more like a middleweight. Rear tire width is a bit of a giveaway at 140. Joseph Augustin photo.

The tank is broad for a 300, and the colors are pulled straight from the larger MTs. It even wears facsimiles of the MT-10's side scoops. I think new riders who just bought one would be proud to show their friends. More experienced riders wouldn’t feel like they just bought a Grom. Cross-platforming with the R3 is one way Yamaha can deliver this bike for $700 less than its sportier sibling. These bikes are also built in Indonesia. Some of the parts and hardware look budget, particularly some fasteners and the shift lever. Few, if any, buyers will care.

Yamaha MT-03
This motorcycle is only available with ABS. That's a 298 mm rotor hugged by a two-pot Akebono. Joseph Augustin photo.

One final cost-saving measure, I suspect, is only offering the MT-03 with ABS. It simply costs less to offer one variant. While the ABS is not switchable, the usual trick of pulling the fuse will probably work, based on some forum digging.

2020 Yamaha MT03
The R3 engine, in the R3 frame, with a healthy helping of MT on top. Joseph Augustin photo.

OK, so they had to borrow some parts and use some non-fancy bolts to deliver a new naked bike at a class-leading (or is that trailing?) price. Was it all worth it? Has the balance been struck? Does the rider benefit from the alteration of a much-loved platform? Is this the honest, plucky bike of the people I want it to be, here to enrich that segment of motorcycling so responsible for the enticement of all those new riders this industry craves, as Tantalus sought a draught of water in ancient myth? In short, yeah, it is. Texas Hill Country was ready and waiting. First, we had to escape Austin’s city limits in the MT-03’s first trial.

The MT-03 hits the streets

Yamaha put us on their Red Fluo models for the ride, as I'd hoped. (The MT-03 is also available in all black. I just like the way the red and grey look together.) Standing over the bike, I easily put both feet down with my 32-inch inseam. One rider in our group told me that she can rarely get both feet flat with her 29-inch inseam, though she had no problem at all on this bike. That’s because, in addition to the lowest price in the class, the little MT also has the lowest seat at 30.7 inches for a big boost to beginner confidence.

2020 Yamaha MT03
Make way for the smallest "Master of Torque." No, not me. Joseph Augustin photo.

Getting underway is easy because clutch pull is light and gear changes are positively positive in typical Yamaha fashion. The engine’s character feels exactly like an R3’s. If you haven’t ridden one, I’d describe it as eager down low with a surprisingly rewarding top end. If a rider were to choose the wrong gear, the engine is slow to anger and quick to forgive. It’s even tempting to get lazy with your shifting. Amazingly, this 321 cc twin’s 41 horsepower is right up there with the 660 cc single of the “original” MT-03! Torque, of course, is about halved at 22 foot-pounds. I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s fun to fill that tach bar up! The engine makes muted twin noises, half-screaming past 7,500. Chop the throttle and there's a little burble action.

2020 Yamaha MT03
Testing those around-town manners. Joseph Augustin photo.

The rider triangle put my arms out with a slight bend, feet just a tad back, and my back fairly straight if I sat up near the tank. I'm six feet tall and my knees barely cleared the tank indents, so if you’re my height or taller, spend some time sitting on one at a dealership to be sure you fit. The seat itself was surprisingly comfortable for our day’s ride.

As we wound our way out of city limits, I appreciated the bike’s tossable and nimble handling, perfect for dodging potholes and bumps on city streets. Then I started intentionally hitting those potholes and bumps just to see how the bike would take it. Yamaha tells me the fork’s softer than the R3’s, and I thought it was just right for my 170 pounds plus gear. If the bump’s bad enough, you can always stand and take it like a dirt biker. Urban whoops are real.

2020 Yamaha MT-03
Which way to the hills and Tex-Mex burritos? Joseph Augustin photo.

Battling traffic towards the highway, I was already thinking that the MT-03 would make a terrific little urban motorcycle. It’s thin, the clutch pull is easy, and it’s 373 pounds wet. At low speeds, the brakes aren’t harsh or overly touchy. The rear in particular is almost too gentle for me, though probably perfect for a beginner, and I could always install a more aggressive set of pads if I wanted. I didn’t test the standard ABS.

Stop, go, went the line of MTs. Stop, go. Stop, go.

At last, we made it to the freeway. One of motorcycling’s special joys is the on-ramp. Finally I could try third gear! We merged and left the city behind, headed for Oasis, Texas, at the edge of Lake Travis. I was pleased with the MT-03’s highway manners as it far outperformed my expectations for a 300-class naked. The MT features the same dual overdrive transmission setup as the R3, which means that top speed is attainable in fourth, so fifth and sixth are meant to keep the revs down while riding at highway speed. Let me put it this way: The MT never felt like it “barely belonged,” as some lightweights do. I’d pick up a windscreen if I’d be riding for a few hours at a time on the slab. Otherwise, there’s no need.

Hunting corners in Hill Country

The riding really picked up as we left the highway and hit some of the local fun roads. This was my first time riding central Texas, and I’d recommend it to anyone. They aren’t kidding about the hills! The roads are packed with corners, too, though the frequent elevation changes were what stood out to me. With no more need for the overdrives, I spent most of this section chasing Yamaha’s guides in the first four gears.

2020 Yamaha MT03
These roads went on forever. A local confirmed that Yamaha led us to the good stuff. Joseph Augustin photo.

This 180-degree twin sure is fun to rev out. There’s not much juice left to squeeze past 11,500, but the MT doesn’t seem to mind at all. There's a nice grunt from 4,000 into the midrange, too. If you like small twins, you’ll probably dig this bike in a big way. Keep the momentum up and don’t let the engine off the boil when you see the squiggly road signs. The riding position and handlebar have a way of making the ride feel dynamic and less serious, in a good way.

2020 Yamaha MT03
Upright position is all-day comfy. Joseph Augustin photo.

I haven’t changed my stance on the Dunlop Sportmax GPR 300 tires from when I last reviewed them on the R3. They’re perfectly good stock rubber. Use ‘em up, wear ‘em out, do a big smoky burnout for Instagram, and get something else. You’ll have plenty of time to research tires because they’re fairly hard-wearing. Only once did the rear give a wiggle, and that was only because I’d chosen a (not great) line that dropped me off in a wash of mud on the far side of a corner. The Sportmax recovered quickly and the ABS didn’t even kick on. The smooth fueling does allow worry-free adjustments of the throttle while setting up for unfamiliar curves. Front brake feel promotes good trail braking, too. That single disc is all I’d want on this bike.

2020 Yamaha MT03
The rear shock was sprung pretty well for my weight. Lighter riders reported some harshness. The shock has seven preload positions to try. Joseph Augustin photo.

Twisted sections alternated with broad, sweeping curves on the way to Oasis. On many occasions, I ran the throttle to the stop, which is a sensation that takes me back to some of the older machinery that taught me to ride. It’s a feeling I miss sometimes on so many newer street bikes. Giving her all she’s got, captain, on a public road, without fearing for my life or license, can make a motorcycle feel like it’s just right for the ride at hand.

2020 Yamaha MT03
The fork is planted, responsive, and not a bit twitchy. Joseph Augustin photo.

I didn’t need to refer to the R3-spec dash all that much, as the engine communicates all you’ll need to know. At the risk of sounding like I didn’t fully review this part of the bike, the LCD dash just stayed in the background, ready for the occasional gear position check or glance at the speedometer. A quick dip of the eyes through my K6’s viewport told me everything I needed to know. One thoughtful feature for real-world owners was the inclusion of an oil “trip meter.” This helps new riders, who might not be used to the oil change intervals, keep up with maintenance to ensure the longest possible life for the engine. If I could change anything on the display, I’d like the gear counter to be a little bigger and farther up.

2020 Yamaha MT03
From urban, to highway, to hill roads, and back again. Joseph Augustin photo.

After a lunch stop by the lake, we turned back towards Austin. Yamaha’s route looped us back above the scrub of the lower hills for a ridge run past Texas mansions with fine pavement to match. Chasing a horde of MT-03s through curve after curve is a day well spent. Construction workers nodded their approval as we passed a work zone, then it was back onto the highway for our burn back to Austin.

The competition

So what else is out there? Yamaha sees the MT-03 as a competitor to the Kawi Z400, the Honda CB300R, the KTM 390 Duke, and the BMW G 310 R. Suzuki gave up on the class back in 2018 when they discontinued the GW250. I suppose the Husqvarna 401s could play with this crew, too, although I’d position that as a premium alternative to the cheaper Duke. Only the Z400 is a twin, and it’s a worthy opponent with its torque advantage and more room for taller riders. That said, the Kawasaki does take hits for its less sophisticated fork and more conventional styling.

As for the singles, the KTM comes closest in terms of power delivery. Aside from the Z400, it’s probably the closest competitor here, trading the Yamaha’s smoothness for a more raw experience. The Honda looks the most polished while also being the weakest. And the BMW’s most attractive feature is probably the badge on the tank, in my opinion, which doesn’t count for nothing. There’s also the current crop of lightweight sport bikes, which we’ve covered pretty extensively here at Common Tread. Any of these bikes would make a solid choice. The Yamaha’s grin-inducing engine, low price, front fork, and MT styling will be its biggest draws.

And one more for the MT-03...

There’s one more thing that will set the MT-03 apart, and that’s the MT-07. I’ve ridden both bikes, and I think Yamaha could win big by hooking riders with the MT-03, then showing them the next step up with the MT-07 when they start looking for their next motorcycle. The MT-03 truly feels like a mini MT-07, and I love it for that. How could you not consider the MT-07, one of the most beloved motorcycles of the last five years, when the desire for a larger, more powerful ride sets in? Yamaha has triples and fours at the ready for desires after that. Overall, I can’t imagine an easier transition aside from the Z400-to-Z650 path, which will feel like less of a step up.

2020 Yamaha MT03
Trouble rolling back into town. Joseph Augustin photo.

Parting thoughts

Despite what some will tell you, motorcycling isn’t all about constantly looking at the next upgrade. It’s a natural progression, sure, and the string of riding experiences you’ll have will shape the rider you become. Look where you want to go, as Lance has written. In this writer’s opinion, you can have years’ worth of those experiences about a bike like the MT-03. It has a surprising amount of personality for a bike so simple and slick. Can’t a fun motorcycle just be a fun motorcycle? And while the MT-03 is built to a price, doesn’t a low barrier to entry democratize that fun? I wish Yamaha had brought this bike to the United States sooner.

2020 Yamaha MT-03
MSRP $4,599 (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 KYB inverted fork; 5.1 inches travel
Rear suspension Monocross single shock, seven-step adjustable preload, 4.9 inches travel
Front brake 298 mm hydraulic disc; ABS standard
Rear brake 220 mm hydraulic disc; ABS standard
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) 373 pounds