Just a few years ago, things were looking pretty bad for the motorcycle industry. With the global economy in the dumps, sales plummeted internationally as consumers decided they just didn't need high-speed, two-wheeled luxury items in their lives. Global sales are still well below their all-time highs of 10 years ago, but these days we're well and truly on the rebound, thanks in large part to sales of small-displacement motorcycles.
Littler machines, frugal and easy to ride, are certainly nothing new, but no longer do they exist simply to be the cheapest option. The days of the tiny bike with basic features and tolerable styling sold to buyers with lowered expectations are over. Yamaha is joining the trend in the American market with the about-to-be-released YZF-R3. It's little and it's attainable, but thankfully it's far from basic.
The R3, which is what everyone actually calls it, is a brand new 320cc motorcycle that will be available soon in the US and Canada for a starting price of $4,990 ($4,999 CAD). (No word on its availability outside North America yet.) That new motor is perhaps the biggest talking point, a tiny parallel-twin that offers about a thimble's worth of extra displacement over the immediate competition: Kawasaki's Ninja 300 and Honda's CBR300R. Despite that, Yamaha isn't quoting any power figures for the thing, which makes me wonder whether perhaps that extra size hasn't resulted in an increase in power. Regardless, it's safe to assume a dyno would provide a figure within a few ticks of 30 horsepower.
Thirty is not a lot, and certainly a far cry from the 200 horsepower that Yamaha's trick new R1 puts down. But, keep in mind this weighs only 368 pounds soaking wet, almost 100 less than your average big sportbike. More impressive is how the little Yam delivers its power. The twin-cylinder unit pulls cleanly from low revs, never bucking or bogging and, as the revs rise toward the limiter (just south of 12,500 RPM), it stays impeccably smooth.
It does seem to run out of steam somewhere around 10,000 RPM, but don't stop twisting that throttle yet, because revving little bikes like this for all they're worth is part of their charm. And, given the clunky and vague feel from the six-speed transmission, you'll probably want to hold on to those gears for as long as you can.
Suspension is basic, 41mm forks from KYB up front and a KYB shock at the rear. Unlike racier bikes, there's minimal adjustment here: only the preload on the rear shock can be tweaked for rider weight. Brakes, too, are simple, with a twin-piston Akebono caliper hanging on to a single disc up front. Brake lever throw is long and the feel is soft -- not necessarily a bad thing for new riders still coming to grips with using both hand and feet controls. ABS, sadly, is not on offer.
Options are generally limited to dress-up items, including flash billet spindles and the like. You have your choice of blue, black or red paint. The standard dashboard is quite nice, with a gear indicator, shift light and even a fuel gauge -- still something of a rarity on many lesser-priced bikes.
I spent a full morning riding the R3 through some amazing roads in Northern California, then an afternoon on the tight and twisty West Course at Thunderhill Raceway Park. On the road, the R3 proved an excellent companion. Whether droning along in traffic on the highway or powering through twists and turns, the 320cc motor proved more than sufficient. In fact, on the twisty bits the lack of power became something of a game, a challenge to keep your speed and momentum up. As ever, it's more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow, and with the R3 you can certainly have a lot of fun -- without risking your license.
On the track the good times continued. Yes, the basic suspension meant things felt a bit vague, communication from the brakes likewise left a fair bit to be desired. Regardless the package proved quite capable, and the bike's light weight and skinny tires meant it sliced through the West Course's meanderings with aplomb.
Perhaps most impressive was that, after nearly eight hours in and out of the saddle, I didn't feel any of the typical aches and pains you start to suffer when hunched over a racier sportbike. Built-in risers take the weight off your wrists, and the distance between saddle and footpegs is generous. A seat height of 30.7-inches means the R3 should prove compatible with most inseams, and even the six-foot-tall me didn't feel too much like a proverbial monkey courting a football while on this thing.
The R3 is a brilliant little package, and an MSRP of $4,990 makes it $200 cheaper than Kawasaki's Ninja 300. That is, however, nearly $600 more than Honda's CBR300R. In fact, you can spec the CBR with ABS and still save $100. Which of these three competitors will prove to be the better buy will require more testing, but it's safe to say that this littlest Yamaha sportbike feels like far more than the sum of its parts, and a great deal at that.