Few motorcycles elicit such strong emotional responses from riders and nonriders alike. Whether it’s interest, confusion, anger, or excitement, I was on the receiving end of the whole range while testing the Yamaha Niken GT over a two-day period on the wet roads of California’s Central Coast. Yamaha’s study in traction has piqued my own interest ever since news of it broke in 2017, and two rainy days couldn’t have been better timed to actually test front-end traction on wet pavement through some curvy roads.
Before diving into the specifics, it’s important to say what the Niken is and what it isn’t. The name originates from the Japanese words ni (pronounced NEE) and ken, meaning “two” and “swords,” respectively, a reference to the two front wheels. This is a motorcycle. It behaves just like one, and there’s no learning curve if you’ve been riding motorcycles your whole life. The Niken is not a trike. It is not self-balancing. It uses a kickstand and centerstand, and the bike will tip over just like a regular two-wheeled motorcycle. Before Yamaha let me loose on public roads, they were very clear that the Niken is not an alternative to a trike or a Can-Am. As soon as I rolled out of the parking lot, the crazy-looking machine felt familiar.
The Front End
The Niken features Yamaha’s Leaning Multi-Wheel System, with the main focus on increasing front-end traction, which leads to more confident lean angles, especially on wet roads. The LMW system’s main components are two parallelogram arms, dual steering heads, a steering tie rod, dual upside-down forks, and, finally, two 15-inch front wheels.
During the tech briefing the Niken GT had the front raised by a jack so that the full range of the front could be demonstrated. Moving the parts myself, I was astounded by how easily and freely the whole assembly moved. The parallelogram linkage is what makes the Niken feel like a regular motorcycle. The front wheels are kept apart 410mm (about 16 inches) during the full lean range, which is 45 degrees, more than enough for even the most spirited riders.
The dual USD KYB forks feature a 41mm “dummy” fork in the front whose main job is providing alignment and rigidity, and a 43mm fork right behind it that does the shock absorbing (with compression) and rebound damping. One common misconception from curious onlookers was that the Niken has four fully functional fork legs, meaning that four would have to be serviced. (When is the last time you serviced your suspension?) It’s actually only two that have regular duties; the other two have a supporting role. The only extra cost so far is an additional front wheel, a specifically developed 15-inch Battlax from Bridgestone. But if an extra front wheel significantly reduces the chance of a front-end wash, that’s a very small investment for the added contact patch.
To aid in stopping the whole 607-pound Predator-looking motorcycle, 298mm front brake discs with 4-piston radial mount calipers provide ample braking. I only grabbed a handful when riding through towns to test, because the increased front-end traction gave me more confidence to just throw it into curves without touching the brakes. So how does it ride?
On the Road
The Niken GT felt like a regular motorcycle on the road, although the front end was ever so slightly more stable. The upright seating position made it easy to ride all day without any discomfort. I was part of a small group ride, and it was enlightening to see the Niken’s tracks ahead of me. From behind, the two front wheels are barely off to the sides, and visually the motorcycle didn’t look as big as it does from the front. A glance onto the spec sheet reveals that it’s only 35mm (1.4 inches) wider than the Yamaha Tracer 900 GT, on which much of the Niken is based.
As luck would have it, it rained during the two-day test ride, leaving just about every road wet. Usually wet roads necessitate a slower pace when leaning in hard. I worked up my confidence during the photo ops to push a little harder each time. At one point the front lost traction, but instead of the awkward dip and catch feeling on a normal motorcycle, the Niken GT’s front didn’t dip. Instead the tires both kind of just slid out a little before catching again.
On the second day, I rode the same nasty stretch of curves on slightly drier pavement, and feeling more comfortable with the machine, I fully trusted the front end. While having two wheels up front adds extra traction, it also adds some weight, which I felt when transitioning between left and right curves. A two-wheeled bike falls into corners more effortlessly, whereas the Niken wasn’t quite as nimble. This could be an illusion, as the whole assembly adds stability, which could make it feel less nimble.
The weirdest part, though, is riding off the shoulder or over a bump with just one front wheel. The bike doesn’t lean or tilt because of the uneven surface. It stays level and just rolls off. I made dozens of U-turns, and this was a really nice riding characteristic, because it made it so easy.
Engine and Chassis
The Niken shares an engine with the Tracer 900 GT, a super fun triple. To make it suitable for the Niken GT, Yamaha increased crankshaft inertia (by increasing inertial mass 18%) and transmission durability, lowered the final drive ratio (+2 tooth rear sprocket), and refined fuel injection settings. Cruise control comes standard, but I didn’t test. A quick shifter also comes standard, works above 4,000 rpm, and based on my test ride could use some refinement.
There are a lot of forces acting on the frame for this LMW, so Yamaha uses three different materials for it. The subframe and swingarm mount are made out of aluminum. The center is made out of high-tensile tubular steel, and the front is made of steel, using an investment cast method.
There’s a lot to like about the Niken GT. For $ 17,299 you can get a wild-looking motorcycle that’s comfortable to ride, a hoot in the curves, and well equipped, with heated grips, taller windscreen, centerstand, saddlebags, and with the extra traction up front. More than any other motorcycle on the market today, this one has to be tested to get a firsthand opinion. Looks are subjective. Traction is not. The Niken is definitely a conversation starter.
+ extra front-end traction, conversation piece, different
– added complexity
MSRP $ 17,299
Engine liquid-cooled, DOHC, inline 3-cylinder; 12 valves
Transmission 6-speed; multiplate assist and slipper wet clutch
Wet Weight 607lbs
Load Capacity 421lbs
Seat Height 32.9inches (836mm)
Fuel Capacity 4.8gal
Fuel Consumption 42.3mpg (claimed), 38mpg (observed)
Fuel Grade premium
Colors Matte Phantom Blue