Test Ride: 2018 Yamaha YZF-R3

The entry-level sport-bike landscape used to be a pretty barren place in Canada. The Suzuki GS500, Kawasaki Ninja 250 and Kawasaki EX500 were often the only low cost, small-displacement motorcycles found new in dealerships in the late 1980s and through the ’90s. Honda had the Hawk GT and Yamaha had the FZR400, but those were fairly high tech for their time and priced closer to 600cc supersport territory. Yamaha’s legendary RZ350 was just about to shuffle off its mortal coil, one of the last available two-stroke sport bikes to roam Canadian streets.

Well, that looks quick, even standing still.

Meanwhile, Canuck motorcycle enthusiasts looked longingly overseas at the Japanese CBRs, FZR-RRs, GSX-Rs, RGVs and Ninjas displacing 250 to 400cc with sky-high redlines, advanced aluminum frames, upside-down forks and race-replica bodywork. In the home market for the big four Japanese manufacturers, motorcycle licensing and insurance restrictions meant that bikes 600cc and over were hard to get licensed for and expensive to insure, resulting in high demand for small-displacement sport bikes with all the bells and whistles of the big-bore machines. Alas, all that cutting-edge design and technology created small bikes that would sell for big bucks, if they were ever to be brought across the Pacific to be sold in showrooms in the Great White North.

Back in North America, the economy hit the gutter in the late ’90s and motorcycle insurance rates for young people skyrocketed, so product planners opened their eyes to offering smaller, inexpensive bikes that attempted to bring new riders into the sport. At first just a trickle, with Honda leading the way, soon a steady flow of beginner-friendly bikes were arriving in dealerships. As a result, we now have motorcycles like the Honda CBR300R, Kawasaki Ninja 300 and 400, Suzuki GSX250R, KTM RC390, and the subject of this test, the Yamaha YZF-R3, to attract new riders to the sport, or support existing riders on a budget. These are not purebred race-replicas, but they certainly look the part, and they feature design, technology and performance unheard-of in this segment not that long ago.

From this angle, the R3 could be a litre-bike if you don’t look at the tires.
Where does the R3 fit in?

The YZF-R3, known to everyone as “R3”, is Yamaha’s smallest and least expensive offering in the sport category, and is offered in two trim levels: base ($5,399, black only, tested here) and ABS ($5,899, black, white or blue). It features a 320cc parallel-twin engine, forged pistons, dual overhead cams, and fuel injection, sending power to a six-speed transmission. Opting for a twin-cylinder powerplant and slipping in that extra 20cc of displacement (of which there is no replacement) helps give the R3 a bit of an edge over the other 300s in this category.

That cheater motor can be found hanging from a steel frame that features a comparatively low  780mm seat height, steel swingarm, and non-adjustable conventional KYB fork. A single KYB rear shock is preload adjustable through seven positions. The cast aluminum wheels are attractive, and hold a 110/70-17 front and 140/70-17 rear Michelin Pilot Street, a tire designed with a balance of grip and durability in mind. A single 298mm front disc is clamped by a twin-piston caliper, and a 220mm rear disc employs a single piston unit, par for the course in this segment.

Those skinny tires do give away the small size of the R3.

Seen from a distance, the relatively skinny rear tire and single front disc are the only really obvious visual clues that this is an entry-level bike. The styling and proportions say “supersport 600” rather than “learner bike”, so thankfully, larger sized riders like me don’t look like a clown riding a minibike. The twin headlights, “reverse slant” as Yamaha refers to them, have a CBR600RR and earlier R6 vibe to them, as well as, dare I say, a little Panigale. The multi-layered bodywork, stubby exhaust, separate passenger seat, and LED tail light further contribute to the modern sport-bike look. Bare aluminum footpegs and mounts, and provision for swingarm spools, give a paddock-ready appearance.  There are definitely no complaints in the aesthetics department except for the stock turn signals and rear mudguard, both of which are easily replaced.

Dean does his best to look cool on the Yamaha, not hunched over and with a foot flat on the ground, and a pole growing out of his head.
How is it to sit on?

Swinging a leg over the bike and settling in, the first thing that’s apparent is how low the seat is for a sport bike. I could easily flat foot with knees even a little bent, so I’m sure shorter or less confident riders will have no problem feeling comfortable at a standstill. The tank is remarkably narrow, making the bike feel very small from the rider’s point of view and further helping those of below-average inseam to easily reach the ground. Reaching for the grips, the clip-ons are higher than the sport-bike norm, offering a comfortable sport touring position rather than the race-bike upper body hunch. Switchgear is fairly run of the mill, but the instrument panel takes things up a notch with an easy to read analogue tach combined with a backlit LCD display. Included instrumentation includes a fuel gauge, temperature gauge, gear indicator, neutral indicator light, and a programmable shift light.

Thumb the starter button below the kill switch and the engine awakens into a low pitched, thumping idle, not terribly sporty in nature and reasonably low in volume. But once underway, climbing up the tach, the true nature of the R3’s engine is revealed: this motor is smooth and silky and loves to rev. The gearbox is similarly slick, a joy to snick, snick, snick. This combination, combined with the programmable shift light, makes for an entertaining dance through the gears from any stoplight, with the motor equally as smooth and refined at mid-RPM as it is at redline. The exhaust note at high RPM under full throttle is wonderful, not the least bit hoarse, and probably could be a bit louder if anything. For sure, actual power output isn’t eyeball flattening, but neither should it be for a bike of this type.

Nice metalwork on the R3 looks both capable and sporting.
Is it a sport bike?

Handling and brakes, however, could use some of the competence instilled into the drivetrain. The brakes especially lack feel and outright power, although, like having too much horsepower, a bike of this type with brakes too touchy or strong would be a detriment to the learning rider. The soft suspension, with no adjustment but for rear preload, makes for an imprecise ride as cornering speeds move from “commute” to “sport”, yet comfort over broken pavement leans a little more toward choppy than plush. However, neither the brakes nor the suspension’s shortcomings deter much from the bike’s intended purpose. For those who want to push the limits, the wish list should include aftermarket pads, a steel braided line, new fork springs and oil, a decent rear shock, and some stickier tires. The list may seem long, but it would be virtually the same for most stock street bikes short of the true supersports and superbikes.

On longer rides and on the highway, the small windscreen provides protection only slightly better than no windscreen at all, and the seat, while comfortable, does not allow for much fore-aft butt movement to alter pressure points. On the plus side, the smooth engine presents very little buzz through the handlebars and seat, and the high bars make for a relaxed riding position. In traffic, the broad spread of power and the silky gearbox are willing partners in the cut and thrust.

On paper, the R3 lines up within a few kilograms and a few millimetres of the CBR300R ($5,599), Ninja 300 ABS ($5,299), GSX250R ($4,699) and KTM RC 390 ($5,999). The R3’s cylinder count advantage over the CBR, and displacement advantage over all but the KTM, should give it a leg up in midrange and peak output over the smaller capacity competition. For the budget-minded, fair-weather rider, only the R3 and GSX can be had without ABS (the Suzuki doesn’t have an ABS option).

Ready for action and the road, and in the right class, the track.

With such similar specs, choosing which entry-level sport bike is right for you can ultimately come down to subjective factors such as looks, fit, perceived quality or colour choice. What the R3 brings to the party is a smooth, rev-happy motor, great transmission, a full-sized bike persona, and a choice of ABS or not – the kind of traits previously reserved for Japanese market pocket rockets. Having so much choice in the small, budget-bike segment is a luxury only recently introduced to our shores, so enjoy it while you can.

Oooh – is that a winding road sign up ahead? Let’s ride!
2018 Yamaha YZF-R3 Key Specs

Pricing: $5,399 base, $5,899 ABS
Engine: 321 cc parallel twin
Curb weight: 167 kg
Power: N/A
Torque: N/A
Wheelbase: 1,380 mm
Length: 2090 mm
Seat height: 780 mm
Brakes: Single 298mm disc, twin piston caliper front, single 220mm disc and single piston caliper rear, ABS available
Front suspension:  Telescopic 41mm fork, 130mm wheel travel.
Rear suspension: Monocross single shock, adjustable preload, 125mm wheel travel.
Tires: 110/70-17 front, 140/70-17 rear

22 thoughts on “Test Ride: 2018 Yamaha YZF-R3”

  1. I just wanted to comment on the availability of new Ninja 300’s. Kijiji Alberta has about 10 brand new at dealers still, maybe more, those are just the posted ones. From 4 grand with an extra 3 years warranty free. That is a sweet deal, yet they are not moving. Will still be there next spring for sure. Cam

    1. Yeah, bet dealers are not happy with this situation. Ninja 300s sold like mad, so they ordered a truckload … all good until the 400 comes out.

    2. Might worth a trip in Alberta if they still have some in stock next year, can`t find any new one on Kijiji Québec. Thanks for the tip.

    3. The local dealer on Van Island still has a 2017 KTM RC 390 and is selling it for $3999.00. I’ve noticed on the mainland there’s still a few over there, also. I’m always tempted when I see one of those but at my age the ergos keep me from jumping on one.

  2. I have a Ninja 300 with Yoshi pipe and it is a blast. Very comfortable and competent. I think the Ninja 400 hits the sweet spot. More power and less weight. Very easily a one bike solution for a lot of people. A few upgrades to suspension and an aftermarket pipe (I know, waste of money etc, but I like the sound) and I would tour on it, no problem at all. Cheap to buy and run, and lots of fun. I often choose to ride the 300 over my R1200RT just because it is fun to drive a slower bike fast. The big bike is just too easy. I bought the 300 for my girl friend to learn and now I am going to keep it. Cheap and fun, always puts a smile on my face, makes me feel like I did when I was learning in the late 70’s.

    1. Completely agree on this and considering that you already like to ride it and that the 400 is a better bike overall i do not see the upgrades as a waste of money especially that these bikes use low tech budget suspensions the difference will be more noticeable, it’s not like a learner that will use it for a season or two and then trade it for a bigger bike. I would upgrade it if i had one be it the 300 or the 400 and would surely tour with it as i already do with my 200 cc ride.

    2. Small bikes are fun. All the bike all the time as opposed to riding around in second gear all day until you get on the highway.

      1. Not that i don’t like bigger bikes who do have the upper hand on the highway but i do have more fun with a smaller one. And somehow feel more like an achievement touring on them.

        1. LOL, “an achievement”. I’ve seen some good threads on ADVrider of people touring on small bikes like a CT110, a vintage Vespa and a Grom. It’s an adventure. I’d do it if I was a young man. I’m totally envious of those who can. What a laugh when you come a cross a couple of dudes on Africa twins and you’re doing the same trip on a bike a fraction of the size and price. Just slow, real slow.

          1. Not even that slow, really. I know Mike Saunders made it across Labrador on his 49 cc Ruckus in the same amount of days as many adventure bikes. He just spent longer in the saddle per day. And if you’re going the speed limit, well, even most 250s will do that anyway.

            1. That and you do have your own experiences. Still well remember the Lost with Mike adventure who as proven like others that it can be done but might be better avoiding the TW 200 for what I’ve seen.

              1. Well, although I never finished last weekend’s rally on it, I did enjoy the T-Dub. It’s a bike meant for mild puttering around, though, not bashing through the woods in a rally.

                1. I know — he stayed at my place, and I’ve kept in touch with him ever since. He’s doing a lot of kayak trips these days.

                2. Maybe i didn’t reply correctly as i was just pointing the distance to ChairmanMaose as in this case it is quite an achievement. Nice that you kept in touch with him and we can see on his website that long distance paddling and cycling is also part of his resume. Just a tease about the T-Dub, i would take it for an adventure with some preparation and would just keep it bellow the highway or rally pace. If a Ruckus can do the distance…

          2. Achievement might not be the appropriate word hence the somehow, on my 200 on the highway the engine is near it’s limit at highway speed limit while a big bike is barely breaking a sweat at that speed so it is easier on the bike and it’s rider while on mine i get to wonder if the engine will survive such treatment and it is a bit more tiring so it feel much of an achievement when i make it to my destination.

            Although i wanted to go around the world on a BWs 50 when i was younger i would now opt for something in the 250-400 range or 125 as minimum. and i do like the fraction of the price part.

            I do not know your physical condition but you probably can go on your own little adventure (maybe you already do) without necessarily going around the world.

            1. I spent 15 years in Asia and I got in the habit of riding small bikes everywhere and anywhere but I’ve noticed these days it has to closer to 400cc than 125cc. Middle age. Sigh…

              1. 15 years in Asia, so you do know quite well what riding a small bike is all about. And you re right about bikes around 400cc especially in North America, slightly less so in Europe where we usually have to start on a 125. Yeah middle age, i reached that point it would seem.

  3. Kawasaki Ninja 300 is no longer available.

    From CMG’s own road test 2 weeks ago –

    2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 KRT key specs:
    Price: $5,999
    Engine: 399 cc, liquid-cooled parallel twin
    Curb (wet) weight: 164 kg
    Power: 49 hp @ 10,000 rpm
    Torque: 28 lbs.-ft. @ 8,000 rpm
    Wheelbase: 1,370 mm
    Length: 1,990 mm
    Seat height: 785 mm
    Brakes: Single-disc, 310 mm, 2-piston caliper front; single-disc, 220 mm double-piston caliper rear
    Front suspension: 41 mm telescopic fork
    Rear suspension: Bottom-Link Uni-Trak, gas charged shock with adjustable pre-load
    Tires: 110/70 R17 front, 150/60 R17 rear

    1. We included the Ninja 300 because there are still plenty of them in low-mileage, one- or two-year-old condition to be found. That 400 is the better bike, but the 300 is the direct comparison and shouldn’t be ignored. You’re right, though, that you’ll have to hunt around to find a new one, if there are any left.

      1. Still some new ones left and still listed on their website but they seem to be selling quite well, at least in my area as i have been watching them for a while. A dealer not too far from me was selling new ones for as low as $2,000 earlier this year depending on model year and version, not OTR prices obviously.

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