Photography by Ben Quinn
There’s a gratification that comes with being able to get the most out of a motorcycle on a racetrack that’s hard to beat, and small bikes can make that happen. Being able to hold the throttle wide open until the very last moment before hammering the brakes for a corner, and then pinning it to its stop again when just past the apex, is supremely satisfying — it’s even more fun if done without screaming in terror.
Carrying momentum and high cornering speed on a small-displacement bike is almost as challenging as twisting the throttle between corners on a 200-hp beast. Unless you’re a pro-level road racer, however, it’s not possible to get anywhere near the limits of a supersport machine. But it is possible on a bike producing around 40 horsepower.
Not that long ago, if you wanted a small-displacement motorcycle, you had to settle for diminutive cruisers like the Honda Rebel 250 or the Yamaha V-Star 250, the latter which is still available for reasons I don’t quite understand. Fortunately there is a renewed interest in small-displacement bikes (notice I haven’t called them small bikes), and there is now available a handful of sport bikes displacing less than 400 cc.
Honda has the CBR300R, Kawasaki the Ninja 400, KTM the RC390, Suzuki the GSX250R (at least in its 2018 line up), and Yamaha the R3. Even BMW jumped into the mix, with its G310 series singles, and Husqvarna with the Svartpilen and Vitpilen 401. These are all normal sized motorcycles, with respectable performance, even when measured by an experienced rider’s standards. Bikes undercutting the 400 cc threshold are also insurance-friendly in most provinces.
There’s even a bona fide national race series showcasing most of these bikes, called Amateur Lightweight Sport Bike. Youngster Jake LeClair won the inaugural championship last year aboard a Yamaha R3.
Yamaha Canada sent out an invitation to ride the mildly revamped 2019 Yamaha R3 on the roads in Ontario’s Bay of Quinte county, and on the track at Shannonville Motorsport Park. So, yeah, I went.
So, what about that mild revamp?
The list of changes is small, but a couple of those changes are significant. Remaining unaltered is the 320 cc fuel injected parallel twin, as is the engine mapping. Yamaha Europe claims engine output at 41 horsepower (Yamaha Canada is shy with horsepower figures). However, Brooklyn Cycle’s Rob Egan, who runs the CSBK dyno, says a stock R3 makes about 40 hp at the rear wheel, and a race-prepped one makes about 43. A Ninja 400 on the same dyno makes about 45 hp, while a Honda CBR300R makes about 32. Oh, and we’ll get to the changes made on a race-prepped R3, since I also had a chance to ride one on the racetrack.
The most obvious changes are to the styling. The fairing is now styled more like Yamaha’s bigger R models, and now includes an air intake between the headlights. Unlike those Rs’ intake ducts, which force air into the airbox, the R3’s air intake ducts cooling air to the radiator. The headlights flanking the air intake are now LEDs, and they are much brighter and draw less current than the 55-watt halogens they replace.
The restyled bodywork is more aerodynamic and said to have increased top speed by 8 km/h from whatever it was, since that number hasn’t been divulged. Ergonomically, the clip-ons have been lowered by 22 mm.
The biggest change beneath the bodywork is a move to a 37 mm inverted fork, from the 41 mm conventional fork of the previous model. While the diameter of the fork tube is smaller than before, inverted forks are inherently stiffer by design.
Replacing the previous model’s large, round tachometer and smaller LCD screen is a large, rectangular LCD screen. While this is mostly an aesthetic change, since the new screen offers the same information, I do prefer the previous instrument cluster. The new dash is functional, though, and easy to read when tucked in and pinned.
The R3 is equipped with Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 tires, though one stock bike and the race-prepped bike were equipped with Dunlop Sportmax Q3 race compound tires.
While ABS and non-ABS versions were available until last year, only an ABS-equipped R3 is available for 2019. The changes have driven up the price by $400 to $6,299 compared to last year’s ABS bike. Last year, the non-ABS R3 started at $5,399.
Prepping for competition
Yamaha Canada had a race-prepped R3 on hand, and here’s what was done to it. First, all of the street gear came off — mirrors, side stand, turn signals, and other non-essential track stuff that reduces weight and makes the bike more crash-worthy.
Suspension was upgraded: fully adjustable Ohlins cartridges replaced the stock fork internals up front, and the OEM shock absorber was swapped out for a fully adjustable K-Tech unit. A Hindle exhaust drops weight and adds some sound, while the engine mapping was tweaked through the addition of a Dynojet Power Commander.
Adjustable footpegs were also added, as well as lower clip-ons, and the stock plastic was replaced with fibreglass bodywork by Hot Bodies. The cost of Yamaha Canada’s conversion wasn’t immediately available, but Pro6 Cycle offers a race kit for the R3 that includes Ohlins suspension and Flexi-Glass bodywork for $2,750. Bodywork must include a fluid-catching belly pan. A Dynojet Power Commander costs $450, and a complete Hindle race exhaust is $560. The race bike was was also equipped with a Dynojet quick-shifter ($275), allowing open-throttle, clutch-less up-shifts. Then you’ll need the race-compound Dunlops — lots of them for a season. If you serious about racing a Yamaha R3, you can check the rules here.
And? What’s it like to ride?
We began the day with a cold ride through the picturesque countryside of Bay of Quinte. On the road, there’s nothing really outstanding to report about the R3. It is a pleasant street bike to ride, and the lowered handlebars don’t really encroach on ride comfort, though the former taller bars were certainly better for long distance trips.
The engine isn’t a powerhouse at lower revs. The bike will chug along in top gear at speeds as low as 60 km/h, but the bike can’t get out of its own way without downshifting to accelerate from that speed.
Drop a number of gears, however, and let the engine spin past 9,000 rpm, and the R3 triggers an instant grin. At that rpm, the engine becomes a little screamer and the bike is deceptively quick. You can feel a slight jump in the powerband when the tach needle sweeps past 9K, urging you to use the shifter vigorously to keep it there. The six-speed gearbox works smoothly with a light touch, which isn’t entirely unexpected on a lightweight bike. The only item that I felt could have used improvement is the front brake, which had a soft initial bite and required a moderate amount of effort when stopping.
At the track the R3’s rigid chassis stands out. The bike is stable, yet steers quickly. I’d ridden the previous model on a racetrack before and remember it could have used a firmer fork. The new setup is indeed firmer and more rigid, providing more communicative front-end feedback. And while the front brake lacked feel, with a hard enough squeeze it slowed the bike hard and without fading.
The only deterring factor to going all out on the R3 is the stock Dunlops. While they provided a surprising amount of grip, they squirmed and skipped about over bumps at near-maximum lean.
A session on a stock R3 equipped with Dunlop race rubber allowed a quicker pace, easily enabling peg-scraping lean angles. Those tires returned confidence-inspiring feedback and the surefooted stability lacking in the OEM tires. And the chassis easily handled the extra grip without any ill effects on handling. Sometimes installing tires that grip like Velcro onto a bike with a less-than-stellar chassis actually amplifies the chassis’ weaknesses. Not so on the R3, which handled better in every respect compared to the R3 with OEM tires.
The race prepped R3 felt like a different machine altogether, as soon as it left the pit area. The riding position was more extreme, the bike was louder, it felt markedly lighter, and the engine felt significantly stronger. Most of the sensation of extra performance could be traced to the race bike’s lower weight, which was roughly 10 kg less than the stock bike’s 167 kg. The firmer suspension also gave it sharper handling. The brake also exhibited much firmer, more precise feel. Its rubber brake lines were replaced with stainless steel braided lines.
Of the three setups — stock, stock with race tires and race-prepped — my favourite was the stock bike with the sticky tires. It handled about 80 per cent as well as the race-prepped bike, with better handling characteristics than the complete stocker due to the tires. Equipped this way, it makes a good street bike that you could ride to the track, and then ride on the track after only paying your entry fees.
While the Yamaha R3 might not have the most remarkable spec sheet in the sub-400 cc category, especially when compared to the larger and more powerful offerings from Kawasaki and KTM, it does seem to be the best balanced. After all, it’s proven its performance potential on the racetrack with a championship, as well as a pair of wins in the opening round of the CSBK Amateur Lightweight Sport Bike championship last weekend.