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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
2018 Yamaha YZF-R3 Key Specs
Pricing: $5,399 base, $5,899 ABS
Engine: 321 cc parallel twin
Curb weight: 167 kg
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