Dodging past the edge of the cable car, I pull in the Yamaha FZ-09 clutch and start to tip-toe down Lombard Street. Tourists line the famed thoroughfare, now gawking as our noisy 10-rider troop descend San Francisco’s curviest street. Lombard makes for a memorable route, but so do the rest of SF’s byways. Clogged traffic, chaotic intersections, freeway interchanges, the imposing contours of its hilly topography, assorted potholes and chuckholes, grooved trolley tracks… trolley tracks!
Yamaha bills its new mount as an urban sportbike, and the Tuning Fork brand certainly didn’t shy away from letting us get a taste of how the FZ performs in the concrete jungle. Day 1 of the press introduction was limited solely to exploring the city proper – an education in urban sport riding to be sure.
Wheelies were pulled. Stoppies stopped. Bikes launched off hills. And lanes were split… oh, lord, how they were split. Things got rowdy out there. And it says much about the FZ-09 that we returned from what was effectively a four-hour commute with smiles plastered across our faces.
The FZ-09, which replaces the FZ8 in Yamaha’s sport lineup, is a completely new model. In the tech presentation before handing over the keys, Yamaha described the new FZ as “a naked sportbike that combines an emotional performance character and fundamental value.” Emotional performance comes via its surprising Inline Triple, while the $7990 MSRP - $900 less than the bike it replaces – handles the value part. Both aspects make the FZ-09 one of the most intriguing models to debut this year.
Yamaha teased its three-cylinder engine during last year’s Intermot show, dubbing it a crossplane concept. The Triple’s 120-degree crankshaft and even 240-degree firing interval make for a naturally crossplane design – with Yamaha making a big stir when it migrated the crossplane crank from its MotoGP M1 to the R1 Superbike. Lost in the degree/firing order/crankpin plane? Not to worry, what’s important is how the Inline Triple delivers a distinctive sound and engine character. This is old hat for those familiar with Triumph’s sport lineup, defined by its signature powerplant. The latest generation of MV Agustas have seen the three-cylinder light as well, with Yamaha following suit.
The FZ-09 Triple displaces 847cc via 78mm bore and 59.1mm stroke. Its forged aluminum piston thrums up and down an offset cylinder, moved 5mm rearward from the crank axis to reduce friction - the first multi-cylinder production Yamaha to use an offset design (also sourced on the YZ450F, as well as MotoGP’s M1). The four-valve cylinder head incorporates 31mm intake and 25mm exhaust valves. Denso 12-hole fuel injectors are mounted into the intake port, with air routing through staggered intake funnels (cylinders sequenced at 102.8mm, 82.8mm, 122.8mm lengths). New 41mm Mikuni throttle bodies are controlled by the familiar Yamaha Chip Controlled Throttle (YCC-T). The ride-by-wire system also allows for three selectable drive modes: Standard, with a more aggressive A-mode and less assertive B-mode.
Fire up the 09 and the Triple’s intoxicating tones take over. Blip the throttle and its 3-into-1 exhaust sings, with the airbox’s built-in resonator adding to the FZ’s chorus. MotoUSA has continually lauded the inherent character and performance merits of three-cylinder mills, and this new Yamaha only adds to our praise. The wailing intake howl of a screaming Four is fine, same goes for a grouchy torque-heavy Twin – but the hybrid Triple… It’s a true gem showcased in the FZ-09.
Yamaha claims 115 horsepower and 64.5 lb-ft of torque at the crank. And it doesn’t take long to discover the Triple’s brawn, as it yanks hard from top to bottom with its torque-rich powerband. Even wheelie shy riders like me find themselves effortlessly lofting the front wheel with simple roll-ons. And the FZ’s playful nature goads riders to hoist it further. The FZ-09 engine is a riot, and without question delivers a more engaging ride than the Inline Four-powered FZ8 it replaces.
The engine isn’t without flaw, however, owing to abrupt fueling. Riders encounter a herky jerky on-off sensation, particularly at lower rpm. Riding in the muted B-mode eases this complaint, somewhat, which is more exaggerated in the A-mode and Standard engine maps. But it’s easy to forgive the twitchy throttle, as the engine itself runs remarkably smooth. A counterbalancer quells vibes that only escape after the engine is revved up toward the 11,250 rpm redline.
Riding the all-new FZ-09 through the San Francisco metropolis included a host of surface conditions and elevation changes - as well as some remarkable scenery.
A stacked six-speed gearbox mates with the compact engine package (the FZ-09 Triple shedding 22 pounds from the FZ8’s Inline Four). Engineers added two clutch plates to handle the 09’s extra torque. Calling the transmission wide-ratio doesn’t do it justice, as I found little need to shift up from third gear during the entire press ride, which on Day 2 included a spirited jaunt on the twisty roads north across the Golden Gate. For city use, first and second were more than adequate, and the FZ is happy to crawl along at low rpm without complaint. On the freeway, dropping into the sixth gear overdrive found a super smooth 70 mph obtained right around 4000 rpm.
The new die-cast aluminum frame and swingarm source the engine as a stressed member. Yamaha press is keen to note the swingarm mounts externally, allowing a more slender frame. The narrower feel is immediately evident astride the FZ-09. At 6’1” I found the reach down from the 32.1 inch seat height unintimidating, but the narrow profile should keep things manageable for shorter riders as well.
Ergonomic changes, compared with the FZ8, include 26mm lower footpegs with the handlebar placed 53mm higher and 40mm closer. It transforms the riding position into an even more upright stance, one that I prefer to the hyper aggressive forward lean on most supersports and some fellow naked standards. However, this tester rates the seat less than stellar, as it tended to run me forward toward the tank. I also find the perch’s long-term comfort wanting – not terrible, but not particularly inviting for high mileage runs. One final ergonomic gripe is the engine cases, which slightly crowd the legs.
Kayaba suspension adorns the new mount, with both the 41mm inverted fork and horizontally-mounted shock adjustable for preload and rebound. The units are set-up on the soft side, which proved optimal for our city-scape adventure, sucking up the myriad road conditions with aplomb. The Day 1 settings were so springy that when I stood up and down quickly, my 205-pound frame bounced the FZ like a trampoline.
Yamaha technicians maxed out preload and rebound for Day 2’s sportier terrain. An aggressive pace on the twisty backroads challenged the FZ’s suspension – even with the adjustments. Pressing on uneven surfaces saw it out of sorts, with some occasional wallowing. On one particularly bumpy stretch, I crested a rise and ran down into a depression at high speeds, and got bumped up off the saddle as the suspension started to tap out. The abrupt fueling also hinders stability in corners, as the bike can get upset gassing it out on exit.
On pristine road surfaces, however, the FZ demonstrated its capabilities. It turns in fast and changes direction with ease. I found it immediately responsive to my inputs as well, with lots of leverage afforded from the tall bar placement.
The bike feels like a light weight, and at a claimed 414-pound curb weight it is 53 pounds lighter than the FZ8. The rolling chassis includes new lightweight 10-spoke aluminum wheels, and Yamaha claims a reduction of unsprung mass from the smaller brake rotors as well – 298mm compared with the 310mm discs on the FZ8.
Speaking of brakes, the FZ-09 package is a spec sheet smorgasbord. Radial-mount four-pot Advics calipers are mated to a Brembo master cylinder up front, with a Nissin caliper pinching the 245mm rear (also smaller in diameter than the FZ8’s 267mm rear). Compared with top-shelf (i.e. more expensive) brakes, the FZ-09 stoppers lack a super strong initial bite, but I found that preferable for street riding. I also deemed the lever feel and modulation quite encouraging.
Returning from a second day’s ride, our testing crew passed back over the Golden Gate and crossed the city in another ecstatic flurry of lane-splitting. Slowing down from the sporty backroad pace I took more notice of the FZ’s instrumentation. The compact switchgear features button-saving steps, like consolidating the starter and kill switch into one. Riders can also shuffle through the engine maps on the fly, but the throttle must be closed, and the Drive-mode button proves hard to reach on the right-side switchgear. The controls felt a hair on the small side to me, but overall enjoyable.
I also enjoyed the FZ’s concise instrument console, with its easy-to-read digital speedo. The digital tach isn’t as prominent, but to be honest, the Triple’s wide powerband didn’t have me searching for any sweet spots in the revs. Also, thumbs up for the gear position indicator, a personal favorite in any dash and located discreetly in the bottom left of the LCD. The display houses a fuel gauge as well, to meter out the smallish 3.7-gallon tank. Yamaha claims 44 mpg, though our average mileage readout for Day 2 registered 37 mpg. Not the most impressive range – but easy to forgive, considering the fun milked out of every mile.
Fit and finish befits a new-for-2014 model. Yamaha made sure to note this bike is not a parts bin special, with virtually every component developed solely for the new FZ-09. Even parts Yamaha could scrimp on have a top quality feel – including the aluminum handlebar and foot controls, or the LED taillights.
Any criticism for the FZ-09 has to be couched by the fact that it sports a head-scratching $7990 MSRP. This is the most astounding spec sheet claim and potential knockout blow to its rivals. Consider the Street Triple 675 is $9399 (add another $600 for the up-spec R version), and the FZ-09 is a steal – not to mention the even more expensive BMW F800R ($10,600) and Ducati Monster 796 ($10,495). Yamaha’s dealers have certainly taken notice, with demand prompting a production increase and the addition of the Blazing Orange colorway to join the Liquid Graphite and Rapid Red models in the US.
The FZ-09 delivers a thrilling ride. The harsh fueling and soft suspension may not be ideal for aggressive riders, but they are easy to forget thanks to the Triple’s impressive performance and character. Perhaps most important is that jaw-dropping MSRP, making the FZ-09 a pivotal model for Yamaha in 2014 and beyond.