YAMAHA YZF-R3 Review & Ratings

For everybody else, you don’t have access to a controlled riding environment, and even if you do, you (like me) probably lack the skill to fully utilize the capabilities of today’s 200-plus hp superbikes that any schlub with a 700-plus FICO can ride off the showroom floor. If you can push a BMW S1000RR to its limits — and remember, it’s a motorcycle designed for God-like riders to win world-class races — you should be writing this story, not me. Yes, for the rest of us, riding a fast bike slow is the only way to really explore the limits of a motorcycle without risking a long bout of eating hospital food. How slow?

Well, that depends on your abilities. You may consider a 600cc supersport like a Yamaha R6 or a Kawasaki ZX-6R, a perfect starter bike, or think a thick-waisted, middleweight like Honda’s CB500F is appropriate. My opinion is a “slow” motorcycle makes less than 40 hp and weighs under 390 pounds gassed up, yet still has the capability of hanging with whomever riding whatever at … advisable … speeds on public roads. Furthermore, I’ll tell you there’s no substitute for riding a lightweight single or twin as fast as you can on a racetrack. The learning curve is steep — you’ll go far faster than you thought you could with such wispy power — and it’s fun to surprise riders on bigger bikes, passing them on the inside, outside, on the brakes, or pretty much wherever.
You see, while big bikes and little bikes all demand and deserve a certain level of respect to keep them from flicking you off like a booger, the little ones seem to have a much better sense of humor.

In a few words: little bikes are hilarious. For decades, the benchmark of sportbike slapstick was Kawasaki’s brilliant Ninja 250R, available unchanged from 1988 to 2007. Big Green got away with it because there was no competition to speak of, and it was a bestselling product. It was light, had a low seat, looked like a 600 to the untrained eye, and it was cheap and fast enough to propel you to a honest 100-ish mph. Updates in 2008 and then ’13 (when it was stroked to 300cc and gained a lot more power) kept it atop the heap, which, by that point, included Honda’s fun-butanemic CBR250R. “Hey!” exclaimed Yamaha buyers. “How come we can’t get an entrylevel sportbike?” “You do!” said Yamaha. “We have a 600cc four with a low seat that only weighs 480 pounds! Just look at these graphics — so sporty! Hello? Hello?! Is anyone there?!” After ignoring the truly entry-level sportbike market for years, the com pany caved and brought in a boredout version of the Asian-market YZFR25.

Why the change of heart? Over the last few years, the market for fully faired, high-performance supersport models and lower-spec, less expensive sport models has “inverted,” according to Yamaha Product Planner Derek Brooks, with the sport models now claiming 64 percent of the total market, up from just 41 percent in 2010. Yamaha realized it was “lacking a pure beginner-type” model and wanted something that would “introduce riders to the R series,” as Derek elaborated, a model that “would grow with you” as a new rider’s abilities and comfort levels matured. To do that, Yamaha had to balance performance with user friendliness and price. Enter the 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3. The powerplant is an eight-valve, DOHC, liquid-cooled parallel twin that gets its 320.6cc of displacement via a 68mm bore and 44.1mm stroke, notable because it has almost the same bore/stroke ratio (1.54mm) as a YZF-R6; the Ninja can only boast 1.26mm.

The peaky power of such an over-square engine is moderated by a relatively mild 11.2:1 compression ratio. Fuel goes to the engine through 12-hole 32mm throttle bodies, and there’s a progressively shaped pulley as well as an extra-tall first gear to help smooth out lowspeed throttle response — great for new riders. A single-axis balance shaft smoothes out high-rpm vibes. The 180-degree crank is a departure from Yamaha’s crossplane engines on other sporty models. There’s no mention of horsepower in the press materials, but when pressed, most of Yamaha’s peeps admit it’s probably a few more ponies than the Kawi and a lot spicier than Honda’s CBR300R. The chassis is also a balance of sportiness and price consciousness. The diamond-style tube steel frame uses the engine as a stressed member — not high tech, but it does keep the weight and price down.

The steel swingarm is extra long to minimize wheel travel and comes equipped with lugs for a paddock stand. The front KYB fork is a nonadjustable 41mm damper rod unit — beefy for this class — and the rear KYB shock is seven-way adjustable for preload with no linkage. The brakes are Akebono (yeah, I never heard of them, either) two-piston caliper in front with a single-piston rear caliper. Its tires are bias-ply, special model-specific Michelin Pilot Streets, 110/70-17″ in front and 140/70-17″ in back. There are 54.3″ between the contact patches, and that’s 1/4″ longer than the R6.

The claimed wet weight is 368 pounds with the 3.7-gallon tank topped off. Comfort, styling, and convenience features are important in this class, as most owners will never see a racetrack. The seat is low (30.7″) and the clip-ons are mounted above the triple clamp. The instrumentation is pretty comprehensive for this class: trip and mpg meters, a gear indicator, an adjustable shift light, and a clock and fuel gauge. Dual headlights, 10-spoke wheels, and modern R-styled bodywork make the R3 look much bigger than it is. MSRP for the US is $4,990, over $300 less than the Ninja and $9 cheaper than the single-cylinder Honda. There’s no ABS option — baffling, considering it’s available in other markets.

I was expecting a light, user-friendly and fun experience on public roads, and I got it. The press-ride route was a 100-plus mile excursion, including some interstate highway, through some small towns, and then to twisty two-lane mountain roads that took us up over 3,000′. It was a half-day affair, but the R3’s seating position is kind to my bones, and the seat padding is equally kind to my skinny tush. It’s not a touring bike, but no sportbike is. And, compared to other sportbikes, the R3 is as good (or maybe even better) a place as any to spend the day, thanks to its generous legroom and slightly leaned-forward riding position. It’s also very capable in the twisty stuff.

I found a suspension that’s up to the task of moderate-to-brisk speeds on bumpy pavement, a motor that can rocket you to a solidly illegal pace as well as cruise at 80-plus mph, and a bike with light, easy handling. The brakes are nothing special, but I didn’t miss ABS, since it doesn’t really rain in California anymore. The racetrack is where you can’t hide a motorcycle’s flaws, and I didn’t find many, seeing as I rode on the new western portion of Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows, California. Power is plentiful — enough to see three digits on the speedo, and the clutch and gearbox are light and easy-to-use. I’m pleased that the nothing-special brakes do the job with a single finger, partly thanks to the bike’s low speed and light weight. And the R3’s well-calibrated suspension and long wheelbase make it feel much like a bigger sportbike — just without the distraction of too much power.

The linkage-less rear shock feels controlled and well damped, but keep in mind that the smooth pavement of Thunderhill Raceway Park might be some of the freshest in the country. It’s also pretty winding, more like a mountain road than racetrack, offering the sides of the tires a workout. The straights are short, short enough to mostly negate a bigger motorcycle’s power advantage. That’s where the R3 feels like a racer, thanks to its sub-400-pound weight and short wheelbase. But the motor, despite making good top-end power, also has good bottom and midrange response, making gear selection less important than you’d think, but still important enough to require technique and skill to get the best lap times. Technique and skill. Those are what you need to go fast on any motorcycle, not just small ones. The R3 provides a neutral, stable platform to learn on whatever level of riding you possess. And it’s the learning that’s fun — knowing you get smoother, faster, and safer with each lap.

That neutral feel positions the entry-level R3 appropriately compared to its larger stablemates like Yamaha’s R6, with its take-no-prisoners focus, or the R1, with all that power and electronic capability. I recently rode a mostly stock Ninja 300 on the racetrack, and that bike, though slower and a bit heavier, feels more sorted and comfortable at the limits. KTM’s lineup, which I haven’t experienced, is, for the most part, faster, but perhaps not as good for everyday riding. The R3 has some minuses, and what motorcycle doesn’t? A little slow, a little bland (but it comes in Raven, Team Yamaha Blue/Matte Silver, or Rapid Red), and it’s a little wheezy at illegal speeds. Its lack of ABS is also a serious disadvantage, a deal breaker if I were looking for a daily rider.

These minuses are buried by an avalanche of pluses. Yamaha’s YZFR3, at a Hamilton less than its competition, is a good bargain and even a better motorcycle. For an entry-level sportbike buyer, or even an experienced rider looking to boost riding skills to the next level, it’s remarkably capable, and really all you need. The handling is sharp and predictable, suspension is sorted, and the motor is efficient, reliable (with 26,600-mile valve-check intervals), and plenty powerful. Looking to ride a slow bike fast? This may be the fastest slow bike on the market and a good stop before you try to ride a fast bike … fast.

YAMAHA YZF-R3 Gallery

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