Of all the motorcycles in this comparison perhaps the most anticipated was the new Yamaha YZF-R1. MCUSA Executive Editor, Steve Atlas, couldn’t stop blabbing about how cool it sounds and the direct connection that it fostered between rider and rear tire during his 2009 Yamaha R1 First Ride feature.
Looks wise, on paper and on the computer screen, I honestly wasn’t fond of the R1’s updated styling initially. Before having seen it in person I would have preferred if Yamaha had abandoned classic styling cues, like its under-seat exhaust and V-shaped front end, and gone with something fresh instead. But as soon as I laid eyes on our test unit up close in its Pearl White/Rapid Red colors it became obvious how wrong I was. The new R1 is truly the evolution of contemporary sportbike design. If you don’t think so right now, just wait until you see one in person.
From its tiny projector headlights to its flat side body panels and even its jumbo-stylized, twin undertail exhaust pipes, this motorcycle screams 21st-century style. Still, we would have preferred to see the front turn signals integrated into the rear view mirrors, for aesthetic reasons and because they’re more easily seen there.
If you’re a longtime Yamaha R1 or R6 fan, you’ll immediately feel at home aboard the new R1. The cockpit is laid out similar to the traditional Yamaha YZF-series, albeit with a more open rider triangle. The seat itself is still wide and flat, but the reach to the handlebars isn’t nearly as racy as before. The footpegs are also now adjustable (like the Suzuki’s) and allow the rider to tailor the fit of the bike.
In its redesign process engineers added some pounds but somehow made it feel more compact. Although the R1 is perhaps the widest looking and feeling motorcycle in this quartet, it feels short from front-to-back. This year it tips the scales at 476 lbs. That’s 29 lbs more than the class-leading Honda and Ducati and 12 lbs more than the ‘07-‘08 generation R1 it replaces. The extra weight is noticeable in the parking lot or around town, but once you get on the open road, it doesn’t feel that far off the lighter bikes.
Perhaps the best thing about the Yamaha YZF-R1’s new engine is the way it sounds. Especially when you’re really on the throttle. Perhaps that’s why the Yamaha’s fuel mileage is so poor?
Thumb the starter and the Yamaha fires to life with a burble reminiscent of a hot rod Chevy V8. It is a huge departure from what you expect a 1000cc Inline-Four to sound like. But it’s for the better and makes the R1 stand-out, even when compared to the aural splendor of the Ducati. In fact, I can’t wait to scare the neighbors once we get Yamaha’s factory GYTR pipes installed on our test bike in the next few weeks.
Quite a bit of clutch work is required to launch the Yamaha R1, perhaps even more so than last year’s bike but that goes with the territory as it’s tall first gear is apparently a prerequisite at the racetrack. Twist the throttle and you might notice the reduced effort required to rotate the throttle tube. You’ll also be taken back by how the R1 lunges forward with the same kind of authority you’d expect from Ducati’s L-Twin Superbike. Credit for this instantaneous response is due to a well-sorted engine management and Yamaha’s Chip Controlled Throttle (YCC-T) ride-by-wire system.
Out on the road it’s difficult not to notice the R1’s improved bottom-end punch from the 998cc Inline-Four and its innovative cross-plane crankshaft design courtesy of Yamaha’s YZF-M1 MotoGP racebike (for more information on how it works see our 2009 Yamaha YZF-R1 First Ride article). The problem is when we tested its roll-on prowess it didn’t accelerate as swiftly as the class leaders. At the drag strip it lagged behind too with a best run of 10.53 @ 137.5 mph, which was a solid half-second behind the other bikes. It also had the slowest trap speed. Also consider that we only got three drag runs before we used up its clutch.
The Yamaha recorded the second lowest average MPG of all of the motorcycles. Our average aboard the R1 was 29.61 MPG.
This year Yamaha uses its new drive mode (D-MODE), allowing the rider to select between three different throttle response settings via a right-side handlebar-mounted switch. Unlike Suzuki’s S-DMS system that limits actual power production, the R1’s system modifies the intensity of throttle response. By default when you start the R1 it’s in standard mode. By selecting A-mode the engine becomes more responsive to throttle input, conversely in B-mode the engine doesn’t responds as instantaneously when the throttle is twisted.
Although the difference between each of the three separate throttle settings is noticeable, our testers all agreed that A-mode was too sensitive, especially when riding through the city or in situations that require delicate throttle response. On the other hand B-mode left us feeling like we had to twist the throttle more than necessary. We can see the benefit for a less experienced rider or for perhaps riding in the rain, but the standard default setting became our preferred choice.
While we really enjoyed the R1’s immediate throttle response, and decent low-end grunt, we weren’t that impressed by its outright acceleration. Sure, its bottom-end is effective, but as the tachometer needle climbs the R1 doesn’t reward you with that same rush of endorphins like the other bikes. It leaves you wanting more. Ridden alone you’d think the Yamaha was the fastest thing in the world, but compared directly to the other bikes the engine feels sluggish.
“The R1 is a difficult bike to figure out this year,” says Hutch. “First off it sounds so gnarly that I would make one my own based on that alone. It gets off the line pretty good despite the tall first gear and seems to accelerate pretty good out of the hole. But then it kinda peters out while the other bikes are still making steam. Don’t get me wrong, this is all relative because it hauls ass – it just doesn’t feel as fast as the other bikes here.”
Although the Yamaha’s six-piston calipers are the biggest they don’t provide as good braking performance as the other four Japanese bikes. Specifically, they lack just a bit of feel.
Last year our testers griped about excessive heat coming off the fairing and from the underseat exhaust. While engineers seemed to do-away with most of the lower fairing heat issues the heat radiating from the exhaust pipes is downright unbearable: Especially on the warm 90-degree days we experienced during our first street ride. It was funny how at the track we were fighting over who got to ride it first, but on the street we were fighting over who had to ride it at all.
“This may be the hottest underseat exhaust set-up I have ever felt,” whines Hutchison. “Seriously, I was wondering if the exhaust valve was stuck or something because it was so insanely hot. It would be great for anyone living in cold weather or commuting to work on a cool morning but if you live where the temps reach triple digits, all I can say is, have fun.”
We were also less than enthused by the R1’s fuel consumption. On average we got 29.6 mpg, so it’s a good thing the R1 has the biggest fuel tank (4.8 gallons) because next to the Ducati it guzzles the most gas.
Yamaha has built a reputation for building precision-tuned instruments (no pun intended), so it comes as no surprise that the six-speed gearbox feels exquisitely accurate. Each gear change is accompanied by a positive feel and its slipper clutch alleviates any error you could possibly make while downshifting.
Next to the Ducati 1198, the Yamaha YZF-R1 has the best looking instrument display. We appreciated how bright it is and features such as a programmable shift light and instant and average MPG functions.
Following in the R1’s futuristic theme, its white-backlit instruments are by far the coolest looking. Similar to Honda, the tach is huge and inset with a gear position indicator. It’s flanked on the right by a multi-function LCD housing a speedometer and double trip meters. You also have the ability to view instant MPG and average MPG. Even cooler is the horizontal bar-type throttle position indicator that displays how much throttle is dialed in. I don’t really know what its purpose is, but it sure looks cool when you’re going for it on the road. We also really dig the R1’s humongous programmable shift light.
Although some aspects of the new R1 were appreciated by our testers such as its more sedate riding ergonomics and amazing new engine sound, many of us weren’t impressed enough with its outright engine power not to mention the constant barrage of heat radiating off the machine. Still we’ve got to hand it to Yamaha for creating something new and most importantly different as compared to your cookie cutter sportbike. We’re also happy that the price didn’t increase too much with the new R1 starting at $12,390 depending on color. That positions it between the Kawasaki ($11,799) and the Honda ($12,999).