GOLETA, California—Ah, that California sunshine. Those warm rays that produce depression-suppressing serotonin, that help promote the production of vitamin D, and that even feed plants … were nowhere to be found during my visit here to The Golden State.
No, Mother Nature is still pissed at humans for ravaging her planet, so instead she gifted us 10 degrees, overcast skies, and lots and lots of rain. Turns out, however, that those were just about the best conditions for testing the 2019 Yamaha Niken GT. Thanks Mamma Gaia!
Admittedly, I had no idea what to expect going into the North American launch of Yamaha’s new “leaning multi-wheel motorcycle.” I had no clue if you must steer into a turn like on a conventional three-wheeler or trike (Can-Am Spyder or Harley Trike), or if you must counter-steer like on a conventional motorcycle.
Well, we’ll get that one out of the way right now: The Niken steers, leans, and feels just like a motorcycle. You have to push on the same side of the handlebar as the direction in which you wish to turn — you want to turn right, push on the right handlebar. If you were to sit on a Niken with your view of the front wheels masked (otherwise you can see them by leaning your head a bit to either side) and ride away, it would take quite some time to figure out there’s something different about it, if you’d even pick up on it at all. For the most part, it rides like a motorcycle, except for a couple of distinct, yet subtle differences, and one really big one.
What’s it really like to ride?
Since it leans as freely as a bike and will fall over if you neglect to put a foot down at a stop, you must be versed in the operation of a motorbike to ride it. Yamaha claims a 45-degree lean angle, limited by the maximum swing of the front steering mechanism. That is quite a lot of lean, and the Niken will touch footpeg feelers before you come near the maximum lean angle.
One of the subtleties that an experienced rider will pick up is the lack of any jarring jolts coming through the handlebar when hitting bumps. This is because, just like on the new Honda Gold Wing, the handlebar pivots on the frame and is connected to the front wheels (or wheel, in the Wing’s case) via linkages. This isolates the handlebar, though it still provides ample feedback when steering, and requires an appropriate, motorcycle-like amount of effort to steer, unlike non-leaning three-wheelers, which require near herculean strength.
The other subtlety is that while the Niken flicks easily from side to side at lower speeds, the effort to do so increases exponentially with its speed. I attribute this to countering the gyroscopic effect of three wheels instead of two. There’s also a minute lag between what you input at the handlebar, and what the bike does, though it’s negligible; I’ve ridden cruisers that reacted more slowly.
Now, the biggie: Holy cow, can this thing turn! I mean, in the interest of scientific research I did things to test the Niken’s aptitude to change direction that would have had a conventional bike bucking me off the saddle in disgust. I did things that went against my natural instincts as an experienced rider, and that would have tightened my sphincter so much it would swallow itself. And yet, the Niken carried on as if there weren’t an asshole at the handlebar.
On drenched, waterlogged pavement, I rode the Niken through corners at what would have been an aggressive pace in dry conditions on a two-wheeler. I trail-braked hard into tight turns; I leaned at angles that would normally have caused the front end to tuck as if I were riding over raw squid; I hammered the front brake mid-turn, just to see when this thing had enough and booted my ass off the seat. Well, it didn’t. I didn’t actually attempt to crash the Niken, but I pushed it harder than I have any motorcycle on wet pavement, and it rallied on through without a wiggle.
Needless to say, I was awestruck. The thing is, the Niken returns all of the sensory feedback and stimulation that makes riding a bike so much fun, while at the same time, it reduces any unease about tucking the front end to almost nil. In fact, it’s only years of instinct and reflexes honed on two wheels that kept me from pushing the Niken farther than I did; it just seemed unnatural the way it handled everything I threw at it.
Okay, some techie bits
The Niken shares its 847 cc inline triple engine with the Tracer 900, but with a slightly heavier crankshaft, and transmission gears made from more robust steel. Yamaha Canada does not publish horsepower numbers, but in Europe the Niken claims 113 horsepower, and the same 64.3 lb-ft. of torque as the North American model, so the horsepower figure should be pretty close.
If you look at the Niken’s spec sheet you’ll see some numbers that are much like those of a motorcycle. Chassis geometry is aggressive by two-wheel standards, with a steep rake angle of 20 degrees, trail at 74 mm, and a wheelbase of 1,510 mm. The only motorcycle I can recall with a rake almost as steep as the Niken’s is the Buell Firebolt, at 21 degrees. The wheelbase is only 10 mm longer than the Yamaha Tracer 900. The only spec that’s outstanding is the front wheel track, at 410 mm. This is the distance between the two front wheels, centre to centre. That’s significant because it is what legally distinguishes the Niken from other three-wheelers for licensing purposes; because it is less than 460 mm it is not classified as a three-wheeler, and therefore requires a motorcycle licence to operate.
Seat height is 835 mm, 15 mm lower than the Tracer, and fuel capacity is 18 litres. Claimed wet weight is 267 kg (588 lb). For comparison, the Tracer GT weighs 227 kg (500 lb).
The riding position is naked-bike upright, with a relaxed reach to the footpegs, and a broad, cushy seat. The riding position and seat proved remarkably comfortable after two days of riding. The seat, in fact, is one of the better perches I’ve mated my buttocks to in recent memory.
Yamaha touts the Niken GT as a sport tourer, so it includes some touring amenities: you’ll find a tall windscreen, a pair of quick-release, 25-litre semi-hard saddlebags with waterproof liners, heated grips, and two 12-volt accessory outlets, one mounted by the instrument panel in the fairing, the other mounted on the left side of the bike, above the passenger footpeg.
ABS and two-level traction control are standard, as are three ride modes that adjust throttle response. I had two issues with the Niken, one of which was abrupt throttle response in the most aggressive ride mode (Mode 1), though switching to softer ride Mode 2 easily cured that. My second gripe is that you must use two buttons to set the heated grips. A button located by your forefinger, where the passing-light switch is often located, selects the grip heat menu in the instrument display, after which a thumb rocker switch turns them on and selects from three levels of heat. A single button can do all the work. It’s been done before. (This is a First-World problem, Costa… – Ed.)
It also has an electric quick-shifter, though it only works on the up-shift and only above 4,000 rpm. I resorted to using it only at an elevated pace, otherwise the bike shifted smoother when using the clutch.
What’s it like on dry pavement?
Fortunately, the second ride day was mostly dry. This is where I discovered that the Niken can easily keep a fast pace with any sport bike on winding roads. At a quicker pace it rails along, steering sharply, and with unwavering stability, almost regardless of what’s happening beneath the front contact patches. I hit mid-turn bumps at speeds that would have probably caused the front tire of a two-wheeler to at least wiggle in protest, but these bumps passed beneath the Niken unnoticed. This certainly raises the confidence level, and causes you to push harder than you would on two wheels.
I even encountered some damp patches that would have slowed things down on a regular motorcycle, but I did nothing to readjust my speed on the Niken. The confidence generated by the added stability and traction up front will not, however, transfer well if you get accustomed to the Niken and then switch to two wheels; you’ll have to remember to tone it down when you drop a hoop.
And if your riding buddies point fingers at you and laugh because you’re riding a bike equipped with training wheels, let them laugh, then ride circles around them when the rain falls. You should, however, make sure to warn them not to try to keep up with you on wet pavement. Seriously. Trying to keep a quick pace alongside the Niken on wet pavement will eventually lead to disaster for them. Call it a cheater bike in the rain.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the braking. Pull hard on the brake lever and it stops hard enough to flatten your eyeballs onto your helmet visor.
So, should you buy one?
I was partially expecting to dislike the Niken. I mean, three wheels are for sissies, right? But, after riding it, I discovered that Yamaha is onto something here. It really works. It works especially well when the pavement surface is compromised, either by bumps, rain, or occasional sandy patches. You can almost ignore what is happening beneath the Niken’s wheels, and just carry on. The big benefit comes not only from the added contact patch, which doubles the amount of rubber on the ground up front, but also by the added stability that the triangulation of three contact points provides.
One big caveat is that right now, Yamaha has approved only one replacement tire, which is the OEM-equipped Bridgestone Battlax Adventure A41. The rear 190/55R17 is readily available from other tire makers, but it’s the 120/70R15 fronts that will be harder to source. Although many tire makers produce that size for large scooters like Yamaha’s own T-Max, those tires are not approved for use on the Niken. The owners’ manual states that using a non-approved tire can lead to high-speed tire failure, so for now you’re bound to just one tire selection when the original rubber wears out. A search for this specific tire through online retailers produced no results, so you’ll likely have to source it at a Yamaha dealer, at least for now.
The Niken GT is pricey, at $20,999, but the peace of mind it provides might be just the thing for a rider who maybe tucked the front end once, and never really got over the trepidation of relying on a single contact patch to maintain control up front.
If you’re a high-mileage rider, and your riding season stretches from early spring to late fall, no other machine will return the consistent handling throughout the less temperate seasons than the Niken.
For the most part, the Niken feels like a motorcycle. What sets it apart is its ability to handle unsavoury road conditions. Heck, it had me wondering if Yamaha didn’t just invent a better motorcycle.