PHOTOGRAPHY BY BEN QUINN
My love of motorcycles began by watching Grand Prix 500cc two-stroke machines in the late 1980s: On a perfect Sunday, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardiner and Kevin Schwantz, would be banging bars around Suzuka. They inspired me to take to the track myself, but without a bike that eats tires, scorches brakes, or temperamentally spits me off.
The 2019 Yamaha YZF-R3 might be the best-priced example of such a machine. Yamaha Motor Canada invited Canada Moto Guide to test the new R3 on the road and at Shannonville Motorsports Park, and we heard from Costa about it already. But the bike was then sitting there, warmed up and ready to go, so I headed over to Shannonville myself for a few laps. Spoiler: The $6,299 R3 more than lives up to its “YZF” designation.
I road tested the 2018 YZF-R3 last season and was impressed with the smooth-revving parallel-twin engine, big-bike styling, and silky gearbox. Less impressive were the brakes and suspension, but for street riding, and at that price point, this was not unexpected.
Getting onto the track
Obviously, Yamaha’s top brass read my article very carefully and redesigned the new 2019 R3 to my exact specifications. New suspension, including an upside-down fork and increased damping rates all around, paired with new radial tires, transform the previously imprecise ride into something far more planted and refined.
Yes, there’s a lot of dive in front and squirrely-ness at the back under hard braking, and the bike skips and shimmies over bumps at maximum lean mid-corner, but the bike is still impressive, and not just for the price. A bit of suspension tuning for my, um, larger-than-average frame (crank up the rear preload, heavier weight oil in the fork), and drop the tire pressures a bit for the track, and the R3 would shine even more. But out of the box, this bike rocks.
The brakes are apparently unchanged from the previous model, but the feel and power seemed much better. New pad compound on the 2019s perhaps? In the hardest braking zones on the track, the lever doled out power linearly, with no huge initial bite, just more braking in tune with more lever pressure. They are by no means exceptionally powerful, but they’re more than adequate for the task at hand, even on the track.
Like the brakes, the engine is also unchanged. The velvety spinning, 321cc two cylinder does its thing with little drama and noise, almost too quiet. I found the throttle travel a bit excessive, and had to re-grip even on shorter straights. The linear power delivery and relatively low output motor means an aftermarket quick-turn throttle would be a no-brainer upgrade, even for the street. The R3 is no powerhouse, nor should it be, but what it lacks in oomph it makes up for in engine refinement and the oh-so-good handling.
Riding the race bike
Costa and I also had the chance to test a race-prepped version of the R3 that is part of Yamaha Motor Canada’s bLU cRU program. It was equipped with Öhlins cartridges in the fork, K-Tech rear shock, stickier tires, Hindle pipe, rearsets, lower clip-ons, a quick shifter operating in GP reverse shift pattern, and Hotbodies fiberglass. Not surprisingly, the modifications transformed the bike, making it stiffer, louder, with more ground clearance and grip.
The GP shift pattern had me a little tied in knots for the first lap, and I was lucky I was short shifting when I accidentally went from third to second on the front straight, but by the second lap I was getting it right. It was likely the shift pattern that made me think too much about shifting and not enough about just riding, but at the end of the day I preferred the fun factor of the stock R3 even though the race-prepped R3 was markedly better handling. Call me crazy, but the stocker was just my speed, while I was far from exploiting the racer’s true capabilities. Even Costa agreed, and he’s one of the quickest riders around.
The other big change for 2019 is the styling. The bodywork more closely mimics the R1 and R6, with a pronounced central air intake and the similar shape of the tank. The 2018 R3’s tank was remarkably narrow, while the new one is wider and more conventionally shaped, making it easier to grip with the legs when hanging off. The twin headlights are LED, and the instrument cluster is now full LCD, versus the old model that had an analogue tach. I praised the old model’s looks and instrumentation as being modern and mature, and the new one goes farther in both categories.
I can’t take all the credit for the R3’s improvements [No you can’t. –Ed.] Yamaha did do some of the work. It took a competent but under-damped street bike and did just the right things to make it a track star of the lightweight class, and upped the ante in the looks department, as well. At a glance, the 2019 YZF-R3 does a really good impression of the R6, and it now has the track riding chops to match.