First ride: 2020 Yamaha MT-03

Last week, Costa flew to Texas to ride the new Yamaha MT-03. We think this was the last press event CMG will be attending for a while – everything else is now cancelled, thanks to COVID-19. Costa is now in self-quarantine for 14 days because he travelled to the States, so you kinda owe it to him to read this preview.

Yamaha’s new MT-03. Doesn’t look so small from this angle, does it?

AUSTIN, Texas—Not all bikes are made the same — duh. This is why when testing a cruiser, I don’t ride it like Ricky Racer (well, except the Triumph Rocket 3, which is surprisingly agile) and then complain that its brakes are no good and that it drags footpegs too soon. I ride it like it was designed to be ridden by the majority of those who buy one.

I only test supersport machines on the track because one blanket statement covers all of them on the road: they’re uncomfortable, intimidating to ride in town, and their suspension is too stiff.

I’ll take big adventure bikes off road, but I won’t ride them on tight, trials-like single track and then criticise their inability to keep pace with an enduro machine.

So with that in mind, I hopped onto the 2020 Yamaha MT-03, at the bike’s launch here in Texas, with all the switches flipped on from my years of experience as a motorcycle safety instructor.

The grey paint job and orange (red, surely? – Ed.) wheels on the MT-03 costs an extra $100.

What makes it an MT?

The MT-03 is a stripped YZF-R3. That’s a simplified statement, but for Yamaha it’s an easy way to offer a new model that’s easily accessible and affordable for new riders. It’s also good because the MT is based on a bike with proven performance, as seen by the R3’s dominance in the Lightweight Sport Bike road race championship.

The MT-03 retails for $5,899 for black or blue, or you can add $100 for light grey with orange wheels — ABS is standard. That’s $400 less than the R3, which puts it in the range of the $5,699 Honda CB300R, and the $5,999 Kawasaki Z400 and KTM 390 Duke.

The main differences between the R3 and MT — aside from the pared-down bodywork — include a more street-friendly riding position and a softer fork. The bodywork includes a tidy headlight nacelle, and a new gas tank and side panels.

Who cares about speed – is it time to change the oil yet? The gauge will let you know. Such technology!

The LCD instrument panel is the same, and it includes a gear-position indicator and is easy to read. It also includes a convenient, rider-resettable oil-change meter, which keeps track of mileage between oil changes. It will flash “oil” in the dash as a reminder at the initial 1,000 km, and then at every 5,000 km after that. A programmable shift light is also standard, and this can come in handy for a beginner who is still grappling with the gearbox.

The handlebar, which is now a tubular-steel item instead of a set of clip-ons, is 39 mm taller and 19 mm more rearward. The footpeg position hasn’t moved, and while it’s a bit cramped for a six-footer, there’s ample legroom for shorter riders. Seat height is accommodating for shorter riders, at 778 mm. Despite its manageable dimensions, the MT-03 looks and feels like a full-sized motorcycle without a big-bike’s intimidating mass. Claimed wet weight is a scant 169 kg, and that includes a full 14-litre load of fuel, which is somehow only a kilo less than the R3.

It’s an easier reach to the bars than the lower clip-ons of the sportier Yamaha R3.

The 37 mm inverted fork is sprung lighter than on the R3, mainly due to the absence of a fairing and its mounting hardware, and the altered riding position, which places less of the rider’s weight over the front end.

LED lighting is standard, including LED turn signals, which are something the R3, or any other bike in its class, lacks. They are, however, rather Spartan in design, with only a single flashing LED that makes them a bit hard to see in daylight.

The MT-03 uses the same Dunlop GPR300 tires as the R3, and they provide confidence-inspiring feedback and grip.

The engine of the MT-03 is pretty much the same as the R3, and needs to be wound past 9,000 rpm to really work well.

How about the engine?

The 321 cc parallel twin has identical specs and EFI management as the R3. Here’s what I said of the engine in my review of the revised R3, which I rode last year:

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.

In case you were wondering, this is the racy Yamaha R3 that shares much of its tech with the MT-03.

All of this still holds true. What I would add is that I really like this engine. Although it lacks the bottom-end punch of a bigger engine, it compensates with surprising power up top, making the bike a lot of fun to ride if you let the engine rev. It’s also mostly vibration free, with only some light buzzing at the handlebar and seat at higher-than-highway speeds — at speeds below 120 km/h there’s only mild throbbing to let you know you’re not riding an e-bike. And it sounds pretty good, too.

Yamaha Canada does not publish power numbers, but Yamaha Europe does, claiming R3 output at 41 horsepower. Rear-wheel numbers are available, though, via the CSBK dyno. According to the dyno, a stock R3 makes about 40 hp at the rear wheel. A Ninja 400 on the same dyno makes about 45 hp, and a Honda CBR300R makes about 32. KTM’s claimed crankshaft output is 43 horsepower. So all of these bikes but the Honda are in the same ballpark, though from experience, I can say that the KTM probably has the strongest bottom-end power.

Costa finally gets his leg over in Austin and risks his life for your reading pleasure.

Taking a ride

While the R3’s riding position is nowhere near as extreme as a true sport machine, and it’s actually pleasantly comfortable in an urban environment, the MT-03 is a way better choice if you don’t have your CSBK race licence. Even though it’s only a kilo lighter on paper, the MT-03 feels much lighter than the R3, since most of the weight has been removed up top and forward.

A very low first gear makes it very easy to launch the bike from a stop, and shifting is short and light. As expected, steering is light and neutral yet returns excellent stability, even in the wind on the highway. Of course, there’s no wind protection for longer rides on the highway, which the MT-03 is quite capable of doing comfortably.

Nothing should prevent an owner from taking extended rides on the MT, especially with the addition of a tank bag and saddlebags, both of which are available from Yamaha. In fact, many of the accessories available for the R3 will also fit the MT, including heated grips.

There are plenty of factory accessories available, including a smoky flyscreen and semi-hard throwover bags. These are U.S.-spec bags – the Canadian ones look a little better, in black and grey. Mind you, they cost $375, and you’ll need mounts that cost another $190.

Should you?

If you’re in the market for a lightweight bike, the MT-03 is definitely worth a look. Aside from its appealing low cost, it also promises low cost of ownership. Most provinces offer reduced licensing and insurance costs for sub-400 cc bikes.

The Yamaha also boasts low maintenance costs, with about the only thing needing a dealer to look at being valve adjustment, which is set at 42,000 km intervals. About the only thing it lacks that perhaps new riders would appreciate is a USB port, but other than that it’s quite complete.

Costa, still in Austin, concentrates on looking good for the camera.

Really, it comes down to how you think it looks. I think the MT-03 looks great, though I also think the 390 Duke looks better. Yamaha does have a better dealer network than the Austrian bike maker, and that’s an important factor when buying a first bike.

I do think Yamaha should follow KTM’s lead, though, and offer an adventure version of the MT-03. Putting that sweet engine in an affordable, easy-to-manage adventure bike chassis would open up the market to new riders of perhaps taller stature, or those with a tendency to explore off-road riding. They don’t even need to change the name – the MT already has the call letters for a future Mini Ténéré.

If it wasn’t for those relatively skinny tires, from this angle the MT-03 could be a bike three times its size.

Key Specs: 2020 Yamaha MT-03

Price: $5,899
Engine: 321 cc parallel twin
Wet weight: 169 kg
Power: 41.4 hp @ 10,750 rpm
Torque: 21.8 lb-ft @ 9,000 rpm
Rake/Trail: 25 degrees / 94mm
Wheelbase: 1,380mm
Seat height: 780mm
Brakes: Front: 298mm disc, two-piston caliper Rear: 220mm disc, single-piston caliper; ABS
Front suspension: 37mm inverted fork, non-adjustable
Rear suspension: Single shock; manually adjustable preload
Wheels: 17 front and rear
Tires: 110/70-17 front, 140/70-17 rear


  1. Just picked up a “left over” 2020 in Icon Blue from one of the local dealers, here in Alberta. It’s for my much better half, but I know, I’ll have a chance to flog it, on a couple of my favourite twisty local roads. Looked @ the Honda CB 500F and figured with the $2500 price difference, I could add a bunch of accessories & still spend less than the cost of the Honda

  2. I was hoping this bike would finally hit Canuckistan. As an older rider I’m looking for something a bit lighter as riding some of my higher\heavier bikes is becoming too much like work around town. I’ve tested the R3 and found it quite reasonable power wise but too bent over especially with the most recent redesign. I’m a bit disappointed in the price point. Although the article states the MT03 goes for $400 less the the R3 I’d like to point out the R3 has risen in price $1300 dollars since intro in 2016. Thirteen hundred is more then I paid for the last two used dual sports I’ve owned and ridden for years. I’d be in at about $5000 but as a new release I’ll likely have to wait a couple of model years until the “on floor” discounts kick in to reach my buy in range. Costa’s review sort of glossed over engine performance more so referring to the same engine while in the R3 platform but surely the upright riding position and altered weight bias must have some effect ? Will it wheelie ? I’ve seen photos as such in other online reviews. Really not much commentary about handling other then continually referencing it as a commuter. Where’s the in perspective the sporty angle the youngsters and newbies wanna hear about ?

  3. As someone who lives 200 miles from any motorcycle dealer I say thank you for putting an owner resettable service light. I like this bike, simple and fun, but I believe the R3 has had several recalls.

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