Photos by Brian J. Nelson
WILLOWS, CA—Have times ever changed. There was a time not long ago when 600 cc supersport bikes were being redesigned every couple of years. We’re not talking bold-new-graphics types of changes — 600s were being completely made over from the ground up with new frames and new engines. The Honda CBR600RR, Suzuki GSX-R600 and Kawasaki ZX-6R enjoyed biennial redesigns, and since the changes weren’t synchronized between manufacturers, there was at least one all-new 600 every year.
The Yamaha R6 was on a slightly more relaxed schedule, skipping through three generations in the seven model years following its introduction in 1999, averaging a new model every three years. This frenetic pace in development was partially driven by the 600 Supersport class, which at the time was the most popular race class, with 600s filling race grids across North America.
Then the economy tanked in 2008, sapping the disposable income of the largest segment of middleweight supersport buyers — 20-something males — and causing sales to nosedive almost overnight. Yamaha sold about 110,000 R6s in the U.S. in the first nine years of production, and only 40,000 units in the nine years since the crash.
Race grids subsequently dried up, and motorcycle manufacturers rolled back on 600 class development. To give an idea of just how much they rolled back, while the R6 saw three major updates in eight years, it’s been 11 years since the third-generation model rolled off the factory floor in 2006.
Well, I’m here at Thunderhill Raceway in California to ride the fourth-generation R6, and although it looks very different, it’s actually an evolution of the previous model.
What hasn’t changed
Aside from the reduced demand for 600 cc supersport machines, perhaps another reason they haven’t been experiencing major overhauls every couple of years is because they had already evolved into very potent track bikes. The R6, for example, won 56 of 58 Moto America Supersport and Superstock races since 2015, as well as this year’s Daytona 200. That’s on a bike that hasn’t changed much since 2006, though neither has the competition.
It’s for this reason, and perhaps also because it’s more economically viable, that the 2017 R6 retains the same 599 cc engine and aluminum deltabox frame as the previous model. Horsepower and torque is unchanged, at 117 hp and 47.7 lbs.-ft. The engine uses ride-by-wire throttle control, which was introduced in 2006 but has been better exploited in the new bike, as well as twin injectors and electronically-controlled intake stacks that help boost low-end torque. The bike also keeps the slipper clutch introduced in the previous generation model.
And that’s pretty much it.
What has changed
R6 styling is now modeled after the R1, which is itself modeled after Yamaha’s YZR-M1 MotoGP bike. The new bodywork is more aerodynamic, with improved wind protection for the rider and reduced wind resistance. LED headlights are tucked beneath the fairing’s nose, and an LED taillight is in the new tailpiece. The fuel tank is now made from aluminum and is 1.2 kg lighter, and it is reshaped at the rear for a more comfortable fit. The seat is also flatter and has less of a forward slant, so there’s less of a tendency to mash your privates into the reshaped tank.
The big improvement within the powerplant comes with the addition of adjustable traction control and selectable ride modes. The TC uses front and rear wheel sensors (not lean sensing), and has six levels of intervention and can be turned off, while three ride modes (A, STD, B) provide progressively softer throttle mapping. The R6 gets ABS for the first time, though it’s non-adjustable and can’t be turned off. The bike is prewired for an accessory Yamaha quick shifter ($290) that works only on the upshift.
KYB provides a new shock and the all-new front end, which utilizes a larger-diameter inverted fork (43 versus 41 mm) that now has the preload, compression and rebound damping adjustments located conveniently at the top of the fork tubes. The lower tripleclamp has a thinned midsection — this is because the larger fork tubes are now more rigid, so it actually induces some flex into the front end to maintain a balanced feel. Brake discs are 10 mm larger at 320 mm, and the brake calipers and radial master cylinder are lifted from the R1.
Serious racetrack types can also buy the Yamaha Telemetry Recording and Analysis Controller (Y-TRAC). This data logging system uses GPS, and it features Wi-Fi connectivity to transfer lapping data to an iPad or Android-based tablet. Canadian pricing has not yet been released, but in the U.S. it retails for $899.
For our track sessions, Yamaha swapped out the stock Bridgestone S21 tires with stickier R10s. The forecast called for rain, so they also brought W01 rain tires, also provided by Bridgestone. We got a chance to ride in dry and wet conditions. They also installed the quick shifter.
It’s been three years since I’ve last ridden a 600 cc supersport on a racetrack, and after numerous track launches on open-class bikes, I’d forgotten what it was like to have to spin an engine to 16,000 rpm to maintain fast forward momentum. This requires a different kind of concentration than on a big bike, mainly trying to keep the engine in the strong part of the powerband, which on the R6 is above 12,000 rpm. You have to be busy at the shifter, which emphasizes the advantage of the quick shifter — just hold the throttle to its stop and lift your left toe.
Yamaha provided a 2016 model for a direct comparison, and this is where the changes to the 2017 R6 became immediately evident. The engine felt very similar between the two bikes, though the lack of the shifting aid on the previous model required you shut the throttle on every upshift, which would probably be worth several tenths in lap times.
I also locked the rear brake on the first lap out on the ’16, having forgotten it lacked ABS. And that ABS worked flawlessly, remaining completely invisible even when hard on the brakes for Thunderhill’s tighter turns. Brake feel has also improved greatly on the new bike, with a more progressive lever feel providing more accurate feedback.
Probably the biggest difference was in the steering, which was more precise on the new bike. I noticed this the first time I pitched the previous model into Turn 5, which is like a miniature version of Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew, and had to correct my exit having steered too tightly and missing the ideal trajectory. This was mostly because of the different front-end feel of the two bikes and took a couple of laps to overcome.
Also noticeable was the smoother airflow when tucked in behind the windscreen, which was free of the modest buffeting on the old bike.
Rain started falling hard after lunch, but I did go out for one wet session on the rain tires. I initially set the ride mode in the softest B position, but bumped it up to STD as it proved too soft for the incredible grip of the W01 tires. Even the ABS remained mostly unnoticeable, triggering only once in the rear.
I’m not sure if the other Japanese bike makers will follow Yamaha and refresh their middleweight supersports anytime soon. MCN reported last summer that Honda will discontinue the CBR600RR in Europe, and Asphalt and Rubber recently reported the Suzuki GSX-R600 will suffer the same fate. Whether these rumours prove true or not, 600s have seen their heyday, and to compound their accessibility, they’re no longer inexpensive. The Yamaha was the least costly bike in the bunch last year, at $11,999 (compared to $13,799 for the Honda, $13,399 for the Kawasaki, and $12,299 for the Suzuki).
However, these improvements have bumped the price to $13,999, making it the most expensive in class. With its comprehensive electronics package it is the most advanced, though, and for a rider looking for the ultimate track bike that is more manageable than an open-classer — and still considerably less expensive—it’s probably the best choice out there.