2020 Yamaha MT-03: Revving for Your Youth

Text: Robert Pandya • Photography: Ray Gauger, Joseph Agustin

Our senior readers (ahem—no offense) will recall the thrills Yamaha delivered in small displacement motorcycles through the late ’70s and into the ’80s. Lightweight twins were quickly tweaked, raced, and became a key part of our culture. In fact, the new 2020 Yamaha MT-03 harks back to the thrills of the RD series of motorcycles, but without the undue drama of a light-switch powerband and begging your buddy for some of his premix oil halfway through a Sunday ride.

The comparison is not too oblique, as the 1976 RD 400 was a 40-horsepower, 106 mph “boy racer” with some sweet cast wheels (the first major brand to feature them) and a punky engine that would thrill you—to the point of seizure sometimes! The 2020 Yamaha MT-03 sports a 321cc parallel twin engine with 41 horsepower on tap, a similar weight at 373 pounds, and a zippy personality that will bring a smile to both seasoned and newbie riders alike. It also has some lovely cast wheels.

With a heritage of musical instruments and motorcycle racing, it should come as no surprise that the MT-03 is well sorted, very nicely crafted, and should last a long time with reasonable care. Yes, one can nitpick some details, such as rubber brake lines and the slightly cheap-looking LED turn signals, but in reality this is a platform that will be sold worldwide and has already proven itself on the street and the track under the aero-dramatic skin of its sportbike fraternal brother, the YZF-R3. Most specs are lifted directly from the lightweight sportbike, with notable exceptions of the more downrange suspenders, upright position, and distinctive face on the bike.

The singular features about the MT-03 surround its radical approachability. Light on its feet, on the scale, and on the wallet at only $ 4,599, this bike is the solution for many riders looking to get into street riding, or to augment their fleet of heavy motorcycles. The 30.7-inch seat height, skinny midriff, and standard ABS draws both ends of the experience spectrum, and this is a FUN and easy motorcycle to ride! First, let’s review from the perspective of those who have a healthy collection of tools, tall tales, and tags hanging from the garage walls.

Those who are used to real torque will rightly question how the Master of Torque (MT) designation suits this bike. The 03 requires revs to scootch. I found myself sitting at 7,000 rpm regularly, a frenetic pace if you have not been on a small bike in awhile. Oh, it’s pretty smooth and all, but you will have to recalibrate your internal “she’s gonna blow!” meter if you expect any acceleration. I trust the engineering department to keep spinning bits whole, but consider some custom ear plugs and a side of denial and plan to row the snicky-tight six-speed gearbox. It is easy on the carpal tunnels, and features a hummingbirdlike ability to change directions. The front brakes could use some more bite for an experienced rider; that’s an easy upgrade with pads and a stainless front line and the nifty adjustable lever from the Yamaha accessory collection.

For those of you just post-rider training or allergic to the excessive cuteness of a Honda Grom or Monkey: Welcome to your ride. Power delivery is smooth and clutch engagement is linear. With loads of leverage in the tubular bars, remember to stay loose, relax your inputs, and anticipate your lane position. This is a motorcycle that will last through your critical first year of riding while not boring you along the way. Any depreciation on these small bikes will pay off in the positive experience you gain riding a capable but not intimidating mount. I predict these will be popular on the used market a few years from now too. Keep the bike clean and maintained, and any current naysayers will be looking for your used bike for a “run-around” motorcycle for themselves.

Styling is a bit subjective. I suspect younger riders will love the Batman-meets-Ironman face of the bike, while older riders will want to swap to a traditional round headlight and save the stock unit for a Halloween mask. The side profile reflects the daggerlike shapes of modern design, with the Ice Fluo color featuring some hot red wheels and graphics. One hardly feels invited to hug this bike. Imagine a forged Bulldog and you get what Yamaha Design is up to. The Midnight Black version looks far less stylish, as shapes lose their definition without contrast. All this aligns with the street-fighter ethos of the original 2014 FZ-09 and current MT-07 through MT-10. These models are the “Dark Side of Japan” series.

At a time when we have many fantastic motorcycles available to us in both the new and used markets, the MT-03 finds itself in a unique spot. It’s less expensive and slightly less highway capable than the Kawasaki Z400, but features a high build quality and dealer network. With over 50 demo ride events slated for the U.S., there is a solid opportunity to try it yourself and see if it tickles your senses. It’s especially encouraged for those of you with long limbs, as the tank shape can be a bit confining for the legs. 

This is an interesting bike for both young and “of a certain age.” Is the MT-03 for you? For any newbie, sure. It’s a fantastic first street bike on par with all the other fantastic first street bikes on the market. And it’s a great value for the price with some touring accessories that will take you on your first overnight trip. As for those of you who have seriously considered the purchase of an Easyfone, it’s probably a far better bike than you imagine. If you cannot get over the small displacement and constant need (opportunity) to shift, or choose to hate the bike because of the modern face or slightly buttery legs, consider one anyway, perhaps as a gift for your kid, your niece, or to keep as a loaner bike for when somebody comes to visit. You will find yourself zipping around town and down backroads with a grin on your face that may not have been there since 1979!