"Thy fate is the common fate of all; into each life some rain must fall"
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
And so it was that I found myself riding Yamaha's new FZ1 in a pounding rainstorm surrounded by the verdant fields north of San Francisco. Introductory press rides such as this aren't supposed to be sullied by inclement weather, and it was hard to imagine how I was supposed to adequately test a sporting motorcycle without any noteworthy traction.
However, the bitching going on inside my helmet began to annoy me more than the precipitation, so I capped off my brain's whiny pie-hole and began taking mental notes on what the FZ1 was telling me. First off, I was glad that Yamaha had fitted a windscreen 17mm taller than on the outgoing model, about the only concession the company made that wasn't intended to make the comfy old FZ1 into a sharper and more aggressive package for 2006.
The big Fizzer has been a sales success for the boys in blue since its 2002 introduction, becoming the top-seller in the non-supersport class of liter-sized sport motorcycles. It's become affectionately known as the sportbike for geezers, those of us who want a fast sportbike without the ergonomic compromises of a race-replica. The problem in the eyes of Yamaha's marketing team is that it was deemed too close in concept to the FJR1300
sport-tourer, so this new spin on the Fizzer concept puts some distance between it and the big-block bagger.
Shift Red or Liquid Silver, each accented by lovingly shaped black aluminum - there is no bad choice.
Like the previous version, the core of this new FZ1 is an engine borrowed from the top-line YZF-R1 sportbike. Instead of being dumbed down with old-tech carbs like before, the FZ now sports fuel-injection like the R1. In fact, the whole engine is nearly identical to the current-gen R1, with the notable exception of camshafts designed to make more power at lower revs. As a result, its redline is reduced from 13,750 rpm to 12K revs.
Several changes have been made to offer greater drivability. The Fizzer's crankshaft has been given a 33% increase in weight for better tractability, and Yamaha's EXUP exhaust valve boosts low-end snap. The result is a claimed 148 crankshaft horsepower, seven up on the old bike and perhaps a bit more than 130 horses at the wheel. Despite the midrange-biased cams, peak torque is said to only match the R1's (and the '05 FZ1) but it arrives at 8000 rpm, 2500 rpm sooner.
In a bit of a surprise, Yamaha has kept the R1's tall gear ratios mostly unchanged for the FZ. Primary and final-drive cogs are alike, and the only differentiation is slightly taller transmission ratios in fifth and sixth gears for more relaxed highway cruising. The R1-sourced close-ratio tranny enforces an elevated first gear that is good for 80-plus mph.
A wide handlebar and steeper steering rake results in athletic agility, underpinned by a stiffer chassis that never lets it get out of shape.
The FZ1's chassis has received an extreme makeover. Gone is the flexy tubular steel frame in favor of a twin-spar aluminum unit that is said to be 20 lbs lighter. Just as important, Yamaha says it is greatly stiffer, offering increases in rigidity of more than 400% vertically and horizontally. Rigidity is up 140% in the key area of torsional flex. A controlled-fill cast aluminum swingarm not only looks spiffy, it's nearly two inches longer for improved traction, contributing to a wheelbase marginally longer.
This new chassis not only helps knock down weight by a claimed 16 lbs, it has also significantly shifted its weight distribution. The new FZ1 now has 51% of its purported fully-fuelled 485 lbs resting on its front wheel. That's a big change from the 49% of its predecessor and it matches that of the R1.
Aiding the front-end weight bias are the new ergonomics of the FZ1. The former bike's lounge-like position is replaced by a sportier stance. The rider is placed closer to the front of the bike and is met by a handlebar that is an inch lower but slightly closer. Footpegs are located an inch further rearward and a half-inch higher.
All this tech stuff is interesting only to a point. The proof in the mechanical pudding can only be found when digging in, so we set off to explore some of the finer backroads of Sonoma and Marin counties in California.
Even before firing up, the FZ1 makes a strong first impression. Yamaha has become known for making the most stylish of Japanese motorcycles, and this new offering continues that trend. Ignoring for the moment the controversial-looking muffler whose tip appears to have been styled by Marvin the Martian, the Fizzer impresses with graceful and appealing shapes. Eyes are drawn in by the shapely frame, the stylized fuel tank, attractive instruments and even the curvaceous passenger peg brackets.
The FZ1's fairing, though not especially large, provides useful protection from the elements. A taller accessory windscreen from Yamaha is in the works, as are a chin spoiler and different seats and handlebars.
Trained asses, such as us, might notice the 5mm reduction in seat height, helping the feet attached to my 5'8" body to be able to nearly flat-foot at a standstill. The clutch has an easy take-up around town, although smaller riders will notice the non-adjustable lever is a bit of a reach for short hands; the span of the front brake lever can be changed among several positions.
As our ride began in the pouring rain, the study of the FZ1's handling intricacies would have to wait until later in the day. In the meantime, I was enjoying the protection offered by the quarter-fairing and windscreen, although the turbulence it causes induces a bit of buffeting that increases noise. Its analog tach and digital speedometer are easy to read even through a soggy faceshield, and the lowered handlebar (painted a sharp metallic silver to match the upper triple clamp) is nicely positioned in that it doesn't place too much weight on a geezer's wrists. Vibration is fairly well controlled, aided by the rubber-mounted handlebar. The view from the mirrors is partially blocked by the rider's elbows.
Throttle response was generally smooth at these low-rev and aggression levels. The FZ1 goes about its business with power and grace, even if the standard suspension settings proved to be too stiff for my girlish figure. The seat isn't thickly padded but is supportive, comfortable enough for my skinny butt, though less so for some of the other larger journalists. My passenger, if I had one, would've been treated to a separate seat that is a fairly narrow and thinly padded perch with high footpegs.
Exiting a corner at about 55 mph plus a tug at the bars gets a mildly crossed-up wheelie.
Mercifully, the rain stopped falling and traction levels eventually began to rise. Finally we were able to turn up the wick and see what kind of performance the new Fizzer offers.
Surprisingly, we were all a little underwhelmed by the FZ1's acceleration. The aforementioned tall gearing really subdues the power hit, making it feel less eager than we'd hoped. Whack the 45mm throttle-bodies wide open at 5000 rpm in first gear, and the front Michelin remains in contact with the tarmac all the way to the redline - wheelie hounds will want to look elsewhere. This high-handlebar rocket feels more hoyden (look it up) than hooligan.
Personally, I'd like to try the FZ with a fairly radical change in sprockets to substantially lower the final-drive ratio. Getting additional punch around town might more than offset the increased rpm at higher cruising speeds. Shorter ratios in the bottom gears would've been a more desirable solution.
All of which isn't to say the FZ is slow. It becomes a missile once past 8000 rpm, blurring the surrounding scenery the way a literbike should. The powerband feels free of flat spots, yet it's definitely soft on the bottom end. Though geared tall, the six-speed transmission has light action but is a bit notchy. The exhaust sound from the funky muffler is quiet from the saddle yet has a deep, burly snarl from behind.
Somewhere between sportbike and sport-tourer, appealing to young commuters and old racers, and costing less than an R6, the FZ1 cuts a wide demographic swath.
In terms of getting around corners, the FZ1's more front-biased weight distribution is noticeable to its rider. Whereas the old bike's front end felt a bit vague, this new version enhances what the front tire is telling its rider, aided in part by a 4mm increase in trail to 4.29 inches/109mm. This and a 10mm longer wheelbase (57.5 inches) can marginally slow a bike's steering, but Yamaha has steepened the FZ1's rake by a full degree, now at 25.0 degrees, which makes the big FZ steer quicker than ever. Although it's not what we'd call flickable, the FZ1 nonetheless acquits itself well in the twisties thanks to the excellent leverage offered by the upright and wide handlebar
So, all is good with the chassis, but hustling the Yammie through the corners shows a noticeable bugaboo. The throttle response is annoyingly abrupt when the engine is at higher revs, as it is when riding quickly. Fuel shut-off is harsh on trailing throttle, and it's even worse during reapplication of throttle, just past the apex when motorcycles need the steadying effect of a neutrally balanced chassis. So, when lean angle is at its steepest, an FZ1 rider is hesitant when dialing on the gas, sapping confidence and adding tension.
Other changes for '06 were more successful. Conventionally mounted four-piston monoblock calipers bite on larger (but thinner) 320mm front brake rotors stolen from the R1. They combine to provide strong speed retardation, even if they don't offer the precise feel of radial-mount calipers and master cylinders. The rear rotor's diameter, at 245mm, is nearly an inch smaller than the one it replaces. The greater pedal force it requires makes it easy to modulate the specific amount of stomp needed, without fear of unexpectedly locking up the rear tire.
Style, power and grace - the FZ1 serves it up in a stunning and relatively inexpensive package.
Also new for '06 is the front and rear Kayaba suspension with 5.1 inches of travel, slightly less on both ends than previous. It's led by a 43mm inverted fork, which unconventionally has the rebound and compression damping circuits relegated to just one leg for each; fork spring tension is adjustable on both legs. The rear shock is 13% lighter, and it too has three-way adjustments.
Initially, I wasn't impressed with the ride quality of the FZ1. It was reacting harshly to bumps, in no small part due to stiff springs. The front spring rate is more than double that of its R1 cousin, and the rear is 44% stiffer, presumably so it can better cope with the added weight of luggage and a passenger. As a 145-lb rider, this wasn't working well for me.
After enduring stiff responses from the suspension of my test bike, I made a couple of changes that significantly improved ride quality. I took out a couple of clicks of compression damping from the left fork leg to relieve some of the harshness up front, then reduced the rear preload to the lowest of its seven positions on the handy ramped adjuster to better accommodate my light weight. These mods transformed the Fizzer from a stiff, bucking ride into one that was better able to use the available wheel travel. If I had more time for tuning, I would've tried less front preload, but even as it was I was fairly happy with the improvement.
Did we say the FZ1 doesn't like to wheelie? Where there's a hooligan, there's a way...
A few more items from my note pad. Though I didn't test the headlights in full darkness, the evening ride I took indicated the dual headlights throw a wide beam. The front marker lights/turnsignals reflect on the inner fairing panels, which can be seen as either cool or annoying. Also, I was surprised to see engine temperatures run at more than 215 degrees on a cool evening before the fan kicked in. The FZ1's radiator is tiny compared to the one in the R1, though I don't anticipate any serious cooling issues. Finally, the new fuel tank, slimmer than before, is down in capacity to 4.76 gallons. That's an identical amount to the R1 and a bit too small for a serious road burner such as this.
In total, the FZ1 offers consumers high versatility and class-leading style for a relatively modest $9099 (less than a new R6!). Highlights are comprised of its excellent ergonomics, a greatly improved chassis and suspension, and a lighter, more nimble feel. Notable sighs include the harsh throttle response and tall gearing.
And so the new FZ1 is vastly improved yet isn't quite perfect. After all, "into each life some rain must fall."
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