Mike Moland is a big fan of small-displacement motorcycles. As CMG reader GearDrivenCam, he’s often written in with his two-cents-worth whenever there’s been a discussion or critique on this site of smaller bikes.
Actually, it’s usually a lot more than two cents’ worth. As reader Numbone commented after a recent comment attached to a review of the Kawasaki Ninja 300: “I think GearDrivenCam should be writing the reviews. Seriously.” So we called him up and asked him to write a review of a Yamaha YZF-R3. Conveniently, he’d just bought one.
When it comes to reviewing the R3, Mike wrote the book. No, seriously – he wrote a frickin’ book. This review is perhaps the longest ever published on CMG – certainly the highest ratio of words-to-displacement – but it’s so thoughtful and well-written, we thought we’d just let him go with it. Take our word for it, it’s worth the 20 minutes of your time to read this. Enjoy. -Ed.
A CHANGE IN THE MARKET
Riders looking for a new small displacement bike are spoiled by current options. The strides made by this class of motorcycle over the last few years with the introduction of the Kawasaki Ninja 300, followed by the Honda CBR300R, KTM RC390, and Yamaha’s R3, make it easy to forget that just a few years ago, if you yearned for a new sporting, small displacement ride, you pretty much had to settle for an antiquated and carbureted Kawasaki Ninja 250R.
Not that the little Ninja wasn’t fun, especially in the ZZR guise we received in Canada (sorry, neighbours to the south), but it was clear that if you wanted a bike in this class, there would be concessions, including, but not limited to, the glaring absence of style, modern technology, refinement, fit and finish, and other assorted compromises. While this description equally defines where we find ourselves with Suzuki’s DR650 and Kawasaki’s KLR650, so too were the disappointments we had to endure just as few years ago for purchasing an affordably priced, entry-level bike.
How things have changed. About a month ago, I purchased a new 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3 from a local dealer here in Thunder Bay and since then, I’ve been enthusiastically carving up as much twisty tarmac as I can find (not that much as it turns out) in and around the land of the Sleeping Giant.
What impresses most about the $5,000 R3 and the new crop of small displacement bikes is that manufacturers now appear clearly motivated and devoted to making the breed more desirable than ever. Whether you’re a new rider who has completed preliminary training courses and is looking for a great first bike that was designed with you in mind, or you’re a seasoned veteran pining for a lightweight, flickable, entertaining, and economical steed for around town and country-road-apex strafing, you no longer have to settle for less. And that is where the R3 comes in. Yamaha’s entry to the small-displacement parallel-twin class promises to bring with it a compelling balance of low cost and high quality, mixed with big-time fun to a wide demographic of riders.
LIFE WITH AN R3
So what has it been like living with the bike over the past month? How successful is the recipe? Could this be the drone you’ve been looking for? Let’s take a closer look.
The first surprise involves one misconception that many casual observers and new riders seem to harbour about sportbike-styled motorcycles: They are uncomfortable and feel ergonomically unnatural. Mental images of the rider lying in a prone position, enveloping the tank Superman- style are common. One might be similarly fooled by the aggressive, racy ergonomics of the R3. Yet the raised bars mixed with a shorter reach offer one of the most upright and neutral riding positions in the class.
This bike is exceedingly comfortable to ride. A sport-touring stance is generally considered to be a great compromise for both around-town riding as well as highway touring, with the weight of one’s upper body distributed more evenly among the wrists, knees (hugging the fuel tank), and ample posterior. While a more upright seating position might at first glance appear even more ideal, it also places a heftier balance of weight on the lower back and hind quarters, which tend to increase discomfort over longer touring distances. In the time that I’ve owned this bike, I’ve never endured any wrist or arm strain from riding in the city – something I cannot say about most other bikes I’ve ridden recently.
The seat is also surprising roomy and wide, if lacking in padding. For extended rides, I’ve found it quite comfortable. I’m 5-foot-9, and the seat height is 30.7 inches. Still, on longer rides I like to stop every hour or so to take photos, take in the sights, stretch, and enjoy a break, so this likely factors into my comfort level as well. The seat-to-footpeg position feels pretty generous for the class, and leaves your knees at a comfortable angle happily nestled against the tank. While I doubt the ergonomics will suit all riders, I’m left impressed by the attention to detail Yamaha has infused into the R3 when it comes to the overall “glove-like” feel and comfort ergonomics of the bike. I suspect it should satisfy most average-sized riders.
Of course, with sport-bike styling comes an often-puzzling assemblage of plastic fairings that could probably help one qualify for Mensa certification during disassembly and re-install. Yet here, too, Yamaha’s attention to detail and thoughtfulness is evident. I recently performed the first service maintenance on the R3 and was pleased to discover that routine oil and filter changes can be completed without removing one single piece of plastic, aided by a functional opening in the bike’s plastic lower cowl. Nice. With that said, some cladding was loosened to gain better access so my channel locks could reach the “wow-this-thing-is-on-remarkably-tight-from-the-factory” oil filter. I had already purchased a hex-style 17mm nut replacement oil filter to ensure quicker and easier socket removal in the future. The addition of a sight-glass oil window on the R3 is also a useful and thoughtful addition to the bike, making monitoring oil level a quick and painless process.
I have been pleasantly surprised by the level of refinement and quality feel that Yamaha has engineered into this bike, particularly the quality and preciseness of the switchgear. The clutch pull is light, and the transmission shifts with a buttery smoothness and direct tactile feel that I’ve come to associate with Honda.
The first gear to neutral engagement is another detail highlight. You know how it feels when re-installing a fairing and the plastic projection snaps firmly yet flexibly through a rubber grommet on the bike’s frame? That’s the same defined feel and positive engagement your toe transmits to your parietal lobe when accessing neutral on the R3. Yamaha definitely has endowed this bike with the right kinds of touches. New riders will have no problem finding neutral, and even seasoned riders will appreciate the absence of the vagueness in quality that can often mark the first to neutral shift.
Just because some thoughtful design elements might be appreciated by new riders, it doesn’t preclude such features from being valued by seasoned riders as well. A gear indicator, clock, fuel and coolant temperature gauge, and both instantaneous and average fuel consumption readouts help fill out the instrument cluster that also prominently features a digital speedometer and analogue tach. One other clever touch involves the plastic shroud that protects the fuel tank. I believe Yamaha’s intent here was to help new riders reduce damage costs if – and perhaps “when” – the bike makes contact with the earth. And you don’t have to be a new rider to inadvertently drop a bike. Replacing plastic shrouds should be much more affordable and simpler than replacing a metal fuel tank.
SUSPENSION HAS ITS LIMITS
While the overall quality of the R3 leaves many wondering how Yamaha managed to introduce this bike at such a competitive price, one needs to merely look more closely at the suspension for answers. There would have to be cost-cutting somewhere, and just like with some of its other newer models, the suspension was a prime candidate.
You won’t find sophisticated settings and multiple adjustability options here, yet it still serves its purpose. Only when skirting around the bike’s performance limits will you likely begin to upset the chassis – especially if these limits are tested on the frost-heaved and spider-cracked tarmac typically found in the north. This can be mitigated (though not completely eliminated) somewhat by increasing the preload a few notches on the rear shock.
With that little bit of nitpicking in mind, my sense is that most riders on most days will find no fault with the rear suspension ,or the quality of the fork and the level of damping on offer, unless they plan to race this bike. Still, if you do find yourself constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of this bike’s performance envelope, you could forego the obligatory full exhaust and fuel programmer route, which seems so common, for higher quality suspension that offers more control over multiple adjustments – at a similar cost.
Another instance where it appears Yamaha raided the “late ‘80s Radian corporate parts bin” was with the stock signal lights. At least that was my thought when I first saw the bike up close. These large and bulky protuberances appear starkly anachronistic compared to the modern, sporty look that completes the rest of the bike. After making a pact with myself to keep most everything stock, I soon found myself yielding to temptation, and replaced the signals with Yamaha Blinker Plus LED indicators, and a programmable relay to ensure a proper flashing rate. They really add a new dimension to the looks of the bike, and offer a level of brightness and overall visibility – even in daytime conditions – that adds to their value. Nevertheless, at more than $400, this was an expensive upgrade.
GEM OF AN ENGINE
One area where Yamaha didn’t appear to succumb to cost-cutting measures was with the engine. The all-new 321cc balance-shaft parallel twin produces 42 hp of smooth and refined power at 10,750 rpm and 21 lb.-ft. of sapling-stump pulling twist at 9000 rpm. If this description doesn’t sound compelling, you just need to ride this bike. This powerplant is a gem.
By adding an extra bit of displacement, Yamaha endowed the R3 with a little more torque, a nicely fattened midrange, and a little more power compared to its nearest competitor, the Ninja 300. Granted, it seems a little unfair to compare the two directly because Yamaha had a clear target to shoot for and considerable time to prepare a tactical offensive. With that said, the tuning-fork company seems to have carefully, obsessively, and systematically polished and slightly refined all the little bits that were already so well executed on the little green bike.
Some have compared the R3’s engine to a smaller version of the Yamaha’s racy R6 inline four in terms of feel and character. Indeed, the R3 shares some DNA with its more powerful family members, including the forged aluminum pistons found on the YZF-R6 and R1 supersports.
The bottom line? This engine is lots of fun. The extra torque low in the rev band requires no first gear clutch slipping to get underway – something both new and seasoned riders will appreciate – and provides a nice responsive feel all the way up to 7,000 rpm as you snick through the slick shifting six-speed transmission. Yamaha implemented a progressive throttle feature that tames response down low, to make low-speed riding smoother and less jerky and the overall experience less intimidating and more welcoming for new riders.
SWEET AURAL ASSAULT
That friendliness does little to prepare you though for the sweet aural assault that follows higher in the rev band. As you crest 7,000 rpm, the R3 emits an infectious, breathy whine that soon transitions into a Moto GP-inspired high pitched crescendoing “screaming-sense-of-urgency” infectious snarl north of 9,000 rpms. This engine has loads of character.
Some have even gone so far as anointing the R3 as the “spiritual successor” to the hallowed Yamaha RZ350 two-stroke. With all due respect to RZ350 fans, online power and performance data obtained from both bikes suggest this claim isn’t far-fetched, either. And unlike the more typical “on-off” pipe feel of a two-stroke powerband, the R3 pulls quite evenly, and feels strong and linear with that extra tug north of 7,000 rpm before flattening closer to its 12,500 rpm redline. There is even a programmable white dash LED that flashes at 11,000 rpm to remind you to change gears.
You might not even notice though, as part of your attention will be drawn toward the wonderful mechanical sounds this bike emits on the boil. Where does a bike with such a relatively small engine get off pulling this hard and making such enticing sounds in the upper reaches of the tach? As mentioned, if you haven’t ridden this class of bike yet, you’re in for a treat. Just try to refrain from doing so immediately after sampling one with a much more staggering power-to-weight ratio. The contrast will likely mask the real rewards this bike has on offer. For the R3, it isn’t all about straight-line performance. This is, after all, a small-displacement bike. The R3 doesn’t establish new performance limits that break the laws of physics here.
Still, a little perspective is in order. Online performance testing indicate that this bike is capable of sprinting from 0-60 (96 km/hr) in as little as 5.1 seconds, completing the quarter-mile in the low 14s, with a trap speed approaching 147 km/h, while topping out at 175 km/h in 6th gear at redline. Of course, this level of performance does little to impress superbike aficionados. However, when you take into consideration such performance figures mixed with other practical considerations, like fuel economy (my current average fuel economy sits at 3.8L/100km or 74 mpg), there’s a pretty impressive combination of performance and economy on tap with the R3.
With the narrow 14L-litre fuel tank, you can also expect to comfortably exceed 300 kilometres between fuel-stops at highway speeds. Moreover, when not using the bike as your own personal whipping post – and merely cruising peacefully out on some deserted roadway – it remains quiet, buttoned-down, and calmly composed, turning about 7,000 RPM at 104 km/h in a very smooth and vibration-free fashion.
With the quick steering and sharp handling you’d expect from a bike weighing 368 lbs wet, it’s guaranteed to produce fits of laughter in your helmet if your idea of fun involves leaning way over on the twistiest sections of your favourite roads. Many agree that the best part of riding a motorcycle involves an empty, winding road on a lightweight, sharp-handling and telepathically responsive bike. Once again, having fun is not only about straight-line performance.
IT’S NOT ALL PERFECT
If this review seems like a love letter to the R3 – well, it is. But even the closest, most satisfying relationships experience some conflicts occasionally. Similarly, the R3 isn’t completely free of mild irritants.
One notable glitch occurs at steady cruise in 4th gear at around 5,000 rpm and 50 km/h. I noticed it on one of my first rides. It felt like some invisible entity was lightly depressing the brake lever. A quick perusal of online forums confirmed others had noticed this flat spot in fueling as well. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t occur at such a common speed for around-town riding. Fortunately, it’s pretty subtle to the point of likely being unnoticeable by some. Moreover, it can easily be avoided by traveling a little faster or slower, and I suspect a fuel programmer and suitable adjustments might diminish its presence. Nevertheless, it stands as a small hiccup in an otherwise impressive and highly entertaining powerplant.
One other mild calcification of contention involves the stock rubber. Michelin’s Pilot Sport series are highly regarded radial tires. Unfortunately, Yamaha saw fit to have Michelin make a more cost-effective bias-ply version specifically for Yamaha’s R3. While these tires promise excellent durability, wear, and fuel-economy over time, some (but not all) users have expressed concerns regarding lack of feel and marginal grip.
While I’ve found the stock Pilot Sports to be adequate in the dry, I can’t say the same for my wet-weather experiences with these tires. I’ve felt the rear of the R3 skid on a number of occasions under mild braking in rainy conditions that had me re-examining my tire pressures, but coming up empty. I plan to change over to a set of Bridgestone S20 Evo radial rubber in the spring, with the hope of improving both dry and wet grip while conceding the likelihood of some longevity and fuel economy losses.
Much of the pleasure of riding and owning a motorcycle involves an emotional component that seems ever-present, yet hard to quantify. The mere hint of offering practical advantages to ownership can turn off many seasoned riders. You’ll be hard pressed to ever save money by purchasing a motorcycle. It’s always nice, though, when you feel like your bike gives back some subtle unexpected pleasures over time – other than the obvious ones associated with actual riding.
This is another area where the Yamaha R3 stands out. In Canada, it retails for $4,999. That’s an impressive figure when you consider everything I’ve written above, but perhaps even more impressive is that the same bike retails for $4,990 in the U.S. That would be like paying $3,800 (US) at current exchange rates – the bike is even less expensive to purchase in Canada than in the U.S. This is a rare event nowadays, and contributes to my belief that the R3 could contend for the best new small-displacement deal going in Canada right now.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
Some will argue that one could simply buy a more powerful used bike for less money. Notwithstanding the fact that this philosophy could be applied to virtually any new motorcycle let alone a small-displacement one, it also ignores one key aspect: That a larger and more powerful motorcycle is not simply an oversized and faster small-displacement bike. Their qualitative differences go far beyond that.
Where are you going to find a larger, more powerful, used motorcycle that weighs the same or less than the R3, has equally or more entertaining handling characteristics, yields equal or better fuel economy, is as inexpensive and easy to maintain, is so engaging to ride, and allows you to exploit most of the bike’s potential without losing your licence?
This isn’t a deliberate slight against large-displacement motorcycles. I love large, powerful and fast motorcycles that boast the latest and greatest hardware and technology, too. The point is that small-displacement bikes are making a revival and now come with fewer compromises than before, yet still offer the same benefits that they’ve always brought to the table.
I experienced a taste of this when I contacted my insurance company to place my 2015 YZF-R3 on my policy: The quote amounted to $245 per year (no collision/comprehensive). When was the last time you felt overjoyed with a motorcycle insurance quote? This is comparable to what I’m paying for my 2009 Yamaha WR250R dual-sport, and unbelievably, $3 less expensive than my 2011 Honda CBR125R. This is just one of those “give backs” – the small rewards bikes like the R3 embrace.
Honda is expected to release its 300 series twin likely next year. Online photos and specification of the 250cc version (CBR 250RR) recently released in Asian markets show the bike to be remarkably stunning and brimming with new technology. It also boasts 38 hp, which is an impressive feat for that capacity class. Many think its displacement will be bumped when it arrives in North America.
It’s hard to predict what Kawasaki and Honda will do to “one-up” the R3 in the near future. Yet one thing is likely: they ultimately will. And this competition will improve the breed and it’ll be a good thing for motorcyclists. If the R3 is any indication of where the manufacturers plan to take small-displacement bikes, I’m very excited about the future of motorcycling.