“It’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow…”
We’ve all heard that familiar adage a time or two, usually intoned by a veteran rider to a less experienced comrade. And there’s a lot of truth behind the aphorism. I certainly couldn’t argue against it during my first ride aboard the 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3.
Running in top gear pinned, chasing the bike ahead on a curvy mountain road. Leaned over and arcing through a sweeping bend, trying to carry maximum corner speed. Curling up into full tuck before the next corner, inching closer to the leader. The little R3 screams at full power as I glance down at the dash… 89 mph. The backroad strafing continued at Northern California’s Thunderhill Raceway, where we logged a spirited afternoon session on the short track. Sure, it’s no R1, but the 320cc R3 delivers a lot of fun at a $4990 price point.
The grand strategy behind the entry-level sportbike class is straightforward: win over young, impressionable riders with a fun, budget-friendly bike. Yet the Tuning Fork brand seemed content to cede the segment to Kawasaki, which reigned unchallenged for decades with its Ninja 250 until Honda introduced the CBR250R in 2011. Yamaha’s absence was made more conspicuous in recent years by both the Ninja and CBR ramping up to 300 versions – as well as KTM’s introduction of the RC390. Curiously, Yamaha designed its own 250 model, the R25, but produced it only for the Asian market. However, the sub-500cc sportbike segment in the U.S. has doubled since Honda stepped up to tussle with Kawasaki, and it shows signs of further growth. This a segment Yamaha can’t afford to ignore, ergo the R3.
A liquid-cooled 320cc Parallel Twin powers the R3. Engineers gained 71cc by boring out the R25’s 60mm cylinders to 68mm, with the 44.1mm stroke unaltered. These changes contrast Kawasaki’s engineering approach when muscling up the Ninja 250 to its 300 status, having gained 47cc from an 8mm longer stroke (62mm x 49mm). Yamaha touts the bore/stroke ratio of its R3 mimics those of its larger-displacement R-series siblings. It also claims similar traits, like friction-reducing off-set cylinders and 12-hole fuel injectors. The R3 sources four-valve cylinder heads and dual overhead cams. Unlike the crossplane crank R1 and FZ-09, the R3 utilizes a conventional 180-degree crankshaft.
Unfortunately, the little R3 didn’t make the best first impression on our press ride, as the starter button was routinely greeted with a couple of wimpy coughs before the engine turned over. My ears confirmed other riders struggling with the same issue. This demerit is easily forgotten, however, as the R3 features smooth fueling once it’s fired up and on the move. The bike sources a progressive throttle pulley, which mellows out the on/off throttle response. Experienced riders will gripe that it lacks immediacy, but I’d reckon it ideal for the intended entry-level target – there’s no unexpected surge, just steady, controllable power.
Complementing the forgiving throttle is an easy-to-launch first gear and smooth clutch engagement. The well-spaced gearing ranges up to the freeway-comfortable sixth gear. On occasion I felt vibrations run up through the tank and bars, but this was the exception to the rule. For the most part, the Twin zings along without troubling vibes, even at high rpm. And up high is where the R3 likes to be.
The R3 can lug along fine down low, but prefers to be spinning up closer to its 12,245 rpm redline. Comparisons with the Ninja 300 engine are inevitable, as both Twins produce usable low- and mid-range power, practical for commuting and other lower-speed applications, but all the fun is found in the more potent top-end. This was most apparent during our track session, where the R3 needed to stay pegged up above 8K to keep pace. Carrying extra gears out of the slower corners revealed the modest bottom-end and midrange, where the R3 takes time to spool up. It’s been a full year since I rode the Ninja 300, but the R3 engine didn’t strike me as obviously superior. A direct head-to-head comparison will provide the more definitive answer (yes, an Entry-level Sportbike Shootout is on the MotoUSA agenda).
Keeping the R3 up in its high-rpm sweet spot requires frequent shifts. Thankfully, the six-gear transmission shuffles up and down without any major snags. I also appreciated the shift light atop the instrument cluster. Having said that… the R3 transmission does lack a slipper clutch and the back-end hopped around during aggressive downshifts at Thunderhill. I know, whining about the omission of a slipper clutch on a budget-oriented mount is like complaining that there’s no Kobe filet mignon at the $7.95 lunch buffet… I only mention it because a slipper clutch is featured on the similarly priced Ninja 300 rival. Again, the comparisons are inevitable.
The R3 chassis proves more than adequate for its engine. Yamaha claims the steel frame and swingarm, as well as the stouter 41mm fork (compared to 37mm sticks on Honda and Kawasaki) deliver optimal rigidity. Based off my foggy recollections of its competitors the R3 is indeed more rigid. It’s certainly is less spindly than I expected from such a small, slender bike. Granted, the suspension is on the softer side, but the bike holds up well to high-speed shenanigans, for the most part. The exception was some bumpy surfaces during our street ride, where the KYB units struggled – though adding some preload to the seven-position adjustable rear shock helped settle things down.
The Thunderhill short circuit proved the best showcase for the R3’s nimble handling. Yamaha lists a 368-pound curb weight, and it’s extremely light on its toes. As expected, this is a sharp, quick-steering bike, but I was pleasantly surprised by its stability. The R3 responds to inputs and corrections immediately, but does so in a composed manner sans the twitchy feeling offered by some smaller bikes. The OE tires, a special spec of Michelin Pilot Street designed to reduced flex, do a decent job matching the R3’s sporty demands.
Dual disc brakes, pinched by Akebono calipers (two-piston front, single-piston rear), aren’t terrible, but they aren’t great either. The front requires a healthy pull on the lever for power to come on, but they get the job done. However, no ABS is available. Boo hoo, the poor baby doesn’t have ABS or slipper clutch… Look, folks, I only say it because the competition does offer ABS. It’s another important distinction.
In the ergonomics department, I was most impressed by the seat comfort. As the day wore on I kept waiting for my enthusiasm to fade, but no complaints there. The clip-on bars, placed above the triple clamps, offer a semi-upright stance, which I appreciated. My 6’1” frame did take issue with the high-ish footpegs. Teamed with the low 30.7-inch seat height, my legs were crowded and I had some trouble easily sliding my riding boot under the shift lever. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but after a full day’s ride my legs were tired, with much of that fatigue owed to moving around so much during the track sessions. Riders with a shorter inseam should make for a happier match with the R3’s riding triangle.
Fit and finish for the Yamaha is comparable to its rivals. The analog tach anchors the instrumentation and features that attention-grabbing shift light up top, the settings of which are programmable by the rider. The right-side LCD speedo is easy to read and the instrument console delivers all the essential info, including a gear position indicator and fuel gauge to track the 3.7 gallon tank.
- Easy-to-ride engine delivers fun top-end kick
- Rigid chassis holds up to engine performance
- Racy styling befitting of R-series
- Brakes just OK and no ABS option
- Lacks slipper clutch found on Ninja 300
- Ergos not ideal fit for taller riders
Now for the matter of styling… One of the favorable trends in this entry-level class is how manufacturers have improved styling to ape that of the larger-displacement/high-performance bike. The R3 is no exception, with Yamaha reps citing the design’s “R-DNA” styling cues. Yeah… I’ll bite on this one. The R3 definitely sports some R6-like lines and stubby right-side exhaust. It’s a sharp looking bike and I think styling will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, factors in Yamaha moving R3 units this year.
Another factor is pricing, as Yamaha presents an enticing offer for the entry-level ranks when the R3 arrives at dealers starting in April. At $4990 it’s priced evenly with a non-ABS equipped Ninja 300 ($4999), $600 more than the CBR300R ($4399) and $500 less than KTM RC390 ($5499). The new R3 features performance, styling and pricing that appeals to eager entry-level riders. Teamed with the completely overhauled YZF-R1, the new R3 gives Yamaha a formidable 1-2 punch at both ends of the performance sportbike spectrum.