2015 Yamaha YZF-R3: The Little Engine That Can

Text: David Burbach • Photography: Brian Nelson

Major manufacturers build motorcycles for one reason—to sell them. Lots of market research goes into determining a manufacturer’s product portfolio, and Yamaha recognized their lineup had a hole in it. The sub-500cc motorcycle class has been growing of late. Prior to the introduction of the all-new R3, Yamaha didn’t have a modern bike in that class, ceding ground to rivals Honda and Kawasaki. Sometimes, however, it pays to be fashionably late.

Powertrain and Performance

Yamaha designed the YZF-R3 as a sportbike, albeit a small one. As such, sporting performance was a priority in building the bike’s brand new power plant. The result is a 321cc parallel twin that handily out displaces the Honda CBR300R (286cc) and the Kawasaki Ninja 300 (296cc). The motor incorporates technology usually found on higher priced motorcycles, like Yamaha’s own R6 and R1, such as 12-hole fuel injectors, offset cylinders, and forged aluminum pistons. The liquid-cooled mill boasts four valves per cylinder actuated by dual overhead cams. The valve adjustment interval is an impressive 26,600 miles, so new owners can focus more on riding than maintenance.

Truly, this engine punches above its weight as I got to wring it out both on some twisty California backroads and at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, CA. Though Yamaha declines to disclose power figures, acceleration is brisk (no doubt aided by the bike’s low weight) with plenty of passing power still available even at highway speeds. The bike has no problem reaching velocities well over 80 mph. Of course, it does need quite a few thousand rpm to get there. Bikes in this class tend to be quite buzzy at highway speeds, not so with the R3. An engine balancer works admirably well to keep vibrations in check even as the tach needle sweeps past 10,000 (the rev limiter kicks in at a healthy 12,245 rpm).

The motor is paired to a slick shifting six-speed transmission that’s every bit as user-friendly as should be expected of an entry-level bike. Clutch pull is light with a broad friction zone, making it easy to get underway. Shift effort is equally light, yet precise with neutral quick to locate and ratios easy to swap.

Chassis and Handling

Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars, was famous for saying “add lightness” in order to go faster. All things being equal, a lightweight bike will always out handle a heavy one. With a wet weight of just 368 pounds, Yamaha would have to make some serious mistakes for the R3 to handle badly—thankfully, they haven’t. The frame is a steel diamond type that uses the engine as a fully stressed member. Weight distribution is a near perfect 49/51 front/rear.

Suspension consists of a non-adjustable 41mm KYB front fork and a rear shock with seven levels of preload adjustment. The components are as basic as one would expect from a bike that retails for less than $ 5k. Still, the front fork is beefier than those found on competing models, and the suspension is well matched to the bike. The result is more than the sum of the bike’s relatively modest parts. Whether arcing through long sweepers or negotiating tight, racetrack corners, the R3 never disappoints. Its grippy Michelin Pilot Street tires, and well designed, if not high spec, suspension combine to make the R3 an absolute blast on twisty tarmac. It’s not disturbed by bad pavement either, as the suspenders soak up potholes and tar snakes without disturbing the chassis too much.

Like the suspension, the brakes also come from the budget bin with a two-piston Akebono caliper chomping on a single 298mm disc up front with a single piston caliper for the 220mm disc in back. Again, the R3’s low weight reaps benefits as the single front disc still has plenty of power to slow the bike. The rear brake is easy to lock up under hard deceleration and, unlike the offerings from Big Red and Team Green, there’s no ABS option. These few knocks aside, braking force is easy to modulate and I experienced no fade on the track.

Features and Ergonomics

Though it’s technically a sportbike, the R3’s riding position is more upright. There’s very little weight on a rider’s wrists, making it quite pleasant on longer rides. The seat is thin, but relatively comfortable, though it will likely need to be replaced if serious miles are to be covered. The bike has a small windscreen that does a much better job of smoothing airflow than actually blocking it. The footpegs are quite high, which is great for cornering clearance but not so nice for riders much over six feet tall. Catering to the novice rider, seat height is a very manageable 30.7 inches. The only other gripe I have with the bike’s ergos is that I couldn’t find a position where the mirrors weren’t mostly filled with my elbows.

If engine performance isn’t enough to separate the R3 from its competition, the feature list just might. The most surprising inclusion on this bargain-priced motorcycle is a full featured instrument panel with a big analog tach, digital speedo, gear position indicator, fuel gauge, clock, odometer with trip meter, adjustable shift timing light, instant and average fuel economy, and even an oil change meter. That list embarrasses some bikes twice as expensive! It looks good, too, with a clean, modern layout that’s easy to read and easy on the eyes.

One component that’s sure to help a few new riders is the plastic encased fuel tank. Many first bikes have suffered gas tank dents from the drops that usually come from learning to ride. With the R3, one can simply replace the plastic that goes around it instead of the entire gas tank.

In Conclusion

Yamaha’s goal in designing the R3 was to build a bike that new riders can learn on without outgrowing it too quickly. With performance that’s easily accessible, but far from boring, we’d say they nailed it. The R3 makes an ideal daily commuter, canyon carver, and track day toy. And it’s surprisingly good at slogging down interstates, too. In short, a rider can’t go wrong with a fun, capable motorcycle with an MSRP of just $ 4,990.