The new Yamaha R3 does nothing to tarnish its highly respected family name and may in fact be at the head of its class.
Baby, You’re All YZF
Who would’ve thought it? After years, decades even, of catering to wealthy boomers and shamefully ignoring new riders, manufacturers are once again offering small, light and remarkably affordable motorcycles. Perhaps most surprising is how sexy and seriously built the new crop of entry-level machines is. Speaking of sexy, Yamaha is joining the party with a cool all-new YZF-R3 for 2015. The $4,999 ($5,099 for two-tone) non-ABS only Yamaha will be duking it out with long time player Kawasaki (Ninja 300: $5,399, $5,799 with ABS), with category reinvigorating Honda (CBR300R: $4,699, $5,199 with ABS), with low price champion Suzuki (GW250F: $4,499 non-ABS only) and with also new-to-the-class-for-2015 KTM (RC390: $5,999 with ABS).
The Yamaha R3 may be the last to join the festivities, but by no means is it the least. On the contrary, the baby YZF is actually quite impressive. Starting with a proud name drawing on the enviable reputation of the universally respected R1 and R6, the R3 catches the eye with styling and proportions that would easily pass for a 600 Supersport’s.
But the new Yamaha isn’t just all-show: under the hood is a relatively sophisticated and potent 321cc parallel twin. Sometimes being the last player has its advantages, like knowing exactly where the competition stands, and in this case, it sure looks like Yamaha profited from that by choosing the biggest displacement of the Japanese models and by offering the highest power at 42 horses.
While they were at it, why not 350 or 375cc? It doesn’t cost more to develop or build and generates a huge sales advantage, right? According to Yamaha, the answer is simply that the R3 engine is derived from a 250cc twin destined to other markets and that 321cc is the biggest displacement bump that could be achieved reliably.
The parallel twin is a straightforward, modern design: twin cams, eight valves, fuel injection, liquid cooling, and six speeds. The exhaust system is mounted low to centralize mass and optimize the centre of gravity; the perimeter frame is mostly made of tubular steel and uses the engine as a stressed member, both the 41mm fork and long, tapered swingarm are stout, the 17-inch wheels are wide enough to be shod with decently sized rubber (110/70 front, 140/70 back) and the brakes are by single disc at both ends. All in all, a solid package without any obvious sign of cost cutting with one unfortunate exception, the absence of ABS. We will get back to that.
Twin headlights and a trendy analogue/digital instrumentation with gear position indicator and even a shift timing light are also part of an impressive list of goodies for a bike sold under five grand.
In regular everyday use, the Yamaha R3 works better than many would expect from a motorcycle intended for novice riders. Weighing in at 166 kilos ready to go and with a low seat just 780mm off the pavement, it immediately feels light and completely non-intimidating. Even if it’s part of the hardcore YZF-R family, the R3 is first and foremost a street bike, so it offers a good seat, decent legroom and clip-ons that are high enough to keep most of the rider’s weight off his/her hands.
The riding position is comfortable even on longer rides and has nothing to do with the extreme ergonomics of the bigger R6 and R1. As you’d expect from a bike of this weight and displacement, agility is very high, making tight maneuvers easy to accomplish even for the inexperienced rider.
Suspension action is not the most sophisticated but the fork and preload adjustable shock are fairly plush on bumpy pavement and remain well behaved on twisty roads, which is really all you can ask from this class of motorcycle sold at this price.
Stability is faultless, not only around legal limits on the highway—speeds that are effortlessly maintained—but also all the way to the R3’s top speed. I reached an impressive 184 kmh indicated and I think there might have been a bit more if conditions were perfect. In terms of performance, the little Yamaha, while no rocket, doesn’t tarnish the YZF name by any means. Acceleration is good enough that in town, there’s no need at all to spin the little twin to its 12,000-plus redline.
There’s more than enough power between idle and say, 5-6,000 rpm to keep up with traffic, which is a significant quality as it makes the R3 feel like proper, though admittedly low-power, transportation rather than just like a slow, small displacement bike. Every little bit of additional power is definitely better in that class and the R3 proves it.
Although the racetrack isn’t what the little Yamaha is primarily built for, it’s perfectly capable of lapping a circuit at a surprisingly quick pace. While unexceptional tire grip, relatively basic suspension components and good, but not unlimited ground clearance eventually limit how fast an experienced rider can push the Yamaha R3 around a track, one thing is absolutely clear: it offers a true sportbike experience and behaves in every way like a bigger, more track focused machine, which essentially means it represents an excellent entry into the sportbike world.
So all in all, there’s really not a whole lot to dislike about the new YZF-R3. It’s amazingly inexpensive considering the parts it’s built from, how well finished it is, how great it works in a wide range of situations and how good its performance is for the class. Which brings us to the one aspect of the model I just can’t come to grips with: the absence of ABS.
Now let’s be clear: I believe my favourable opinion of the Yamaha R3 is obvious and my position on ABS in no way changes it. Rather, my hope is that these words find their way to whoever makes the decisions regarding the ABS versus non-ABS choice, both in Canada and at the factory. And if these words offend someone, even if there isn’t any justification for it, so be it.
I don’t have an issue with Yamaha offering a non-ABS R3. But I have a problem with the non-availability of the ABS version. Which exists, by the way. The YZF-R3 is a motorcycle intended for new and inexperienced riders and sooner or later, ABS WILL get them out of trouble, just as it does for experienced riders. I realize there are those who still pretend non-ABS bikes achieve shorter braking distances than their ABS-equipped equivalent. But there are also some who think humans never walked on the moon. Come on people, we’re talking about human performance in panic situations here, not parking lot experiments. Now I’m absolutely not the type to want to force everyone to do what I believe is safer. Those who don’t believe in ABS can do whatever they want. But I take issue when a manufacturer —any manufacturer— doesn’t give motorcyclists that choice. I understand the industry and I know cost is always a critical part of the business, especially in a class where prices are this close and are such a big part of the buying decision. But the R3 starts at $4,999. An ABS version would cost $500 more at most, so $5,499.
Not only is that in the ballpark, it’s downright competitive, especially considering all the added value the Yamaha R3 brings to the table versus the competition. Sure, there are more considerations, like what the US does, or the added complexity of having two versions instead of one, or what dealers think. It is complicated. But ultimately, it shouldn’t be: these bikes exist to attract new motorcyclists. I believe there’s a moral obligation here to take care of them. ABS is now common and inexpensive. It should be at the very least offered. Not doing so is a bad decision.