First Ride: 2004 Yamaha FZ6 Fazer

Having resisted the urge to tear down the hotel curtains and make them into a set of lederhosen, Jon Urry braves rain and ice-rink-like Austrian roads to put Yamaha's new emissions-friendly Fazer to the test

Austria. famous for...um...well all I can come up with is Arnie and that annoying Von Trapp family and their goody goody nanny who dragged the kids up mountains singing crap songs when they should have been avoiding the Nazis. But having spent a few days there I now know Austria is famous for one other thing - roads that turn into an ice rink at the first sign of water.

Unfortunately for the launch of the Fazer the Brits brought with them the British weather, so these first impressions are really of what the bike is like to ride at relatively low speed and on wet and very slippy roads. But in some ways this was a double edged sword. Alright, I can't tell you quite what the new Fazer is like flat out, but in the wet the user friendliness of a bike is brought forward and as the Fazer is aimed at being an all-road, all-weather bike a wet test isn't such a bad thing. Well, that was what I kept telling myself as the cold mountain rain was soaking through my jeans to my pants.

But at least I wasn't alone in my misery with the weather as the Yamaha staff looked decidedly upset as the heavens opened. Which isn't surprising when you consider how important the Fazer is to Yamaha.

In Europe 20 per cent of bikes sold are middle-weight 600s, Fazers, SV650s, Hornets, Bandits etc and 30 per cent of this market is currently occupied by the Fazer. Since its launch six years ago Yamaha has shifted over 100,000 of the little buggers, which makes it quite an earner.

And for 2004 Yamaha is attempting to gain an even bigger stake in the market by following Suzuki's lead with the SV and making the Fazer in both a naked and half-faired version. Why? Well, according to the Yamaha people the half-faired version is more touring biased - hence the fairing and extras which include taller screen, luggage, top-box and bellypan - while the naked version is more performance orientated and comes with a single seat, carbon hugger and small screen as extras.

For this launch only the half-faired version was available to ride, which was a blessing considering the weather. Production of it has already started with bikes in the shops now, while the naked Fazer won't be here until early next year to coincide with the better weather.

Unlike two years ago when the Fazer got a very slight facelift, the 2004 bike is a totally new machine and really it's only a Fazer by name as virtually no component remains unchanged from the old bike.

For a start there is a brand new motor. Gone is the old carbed Thundercat motor, killed off by EU emissions laws, and in its place sits a fuel-injected R6 motor with slight modifications to the cams to give it more mid-range. The old steel-tubular frame is replaced by a state of the art die-cast aluminium unit that instead of being constructed by welding parts together as normal is actually cast as two sides then bolted together which, according to Yamaha, makes it stiffer.

Yamaha FZ6 Fazer Review

Front forks are a whopping 43mm diameter, the same as the Fazer 1000, and R6 wheels mean that Fazer owners now get the choice of the stickiest rubber. And the brakes are updated to... hang on a second... two-piston sliding calipers! What's going on here? Previous Fazers have had the very cool, and bloody good, R1-style four-piston calipers but the 2004 bikes get these decidedly budget looking units. The new Fazer's designer Yutaka Kubo told me that Yamaha had tried both styles of caliper and the sliding caliper worked as well as the R1-style one but was cheaper, which is why it was used. This may be all very well but aesthetically they look crap and when you go through the effort of giving a bike underseat pipes etc why skimp on the brakes?

And while I'm on a rant it's worth mentioning the styling. Diversion 600, TDM? The new Fazer has definitely been toned down and given a softer look. Personally I'm not hugely convinced by it. From the tank backwards it's great, but the half-fairing just doesn't float my boat. Then again what do I know? And as they say, the proof is in the pudding. So with my best waterproof Levis and leather jacket (being the organised type I forgot my waterproofs) I headed out into the great Austrian floods.

Straight away you can tell the new Fazer has a sportsbike's motor. Where the old motor feels solid and lumpy, the R6 engine feels revvy and buzzy, especially at 7000rpm where it passes a slight tingle through the bars to your fingers, and it lacks a bit of the character of the old bike. It seems to drive better from very low down, as well as having a decent sports 600 style kick at the top, but it lacks in the mid-range. When we tested the old Fazer 600 against the opposition it was the Fazer's excellent mid-range that helped it win the test but from first impressions the new bike seems to have lost this, which is a shame. The R6 motor just doesn't have the mid-range power and the engine has to be over 8000rpm to get decent drive, which is most un-Fazer like. The power seems to come in very early but by around 4000rpm tails off until 8000rpm where it kicks in again. Unfortunately in top gear this is exactly the rev range which you tend to sit in at cruising speeds which often means a down-shift to get the drive to overtake.

Which is when you notice the gearbox. All the bikes we rode were fresh from the crate so they may loosen up with miles but I found the gearbox very clunky. It never misses a gear or hits a false neutral but the change isn't a soft snick, like a Suzuki box, but a hard clunk that makes you squirm a bit in sympathy for the bike when you change gear.

The fuel-injection system worked fine in the wet conditions, which can highlight any stutters, and apart from a slight jerk when going from a closed to a slightly open throttle it worked faultlessly.

Through the twisty mountain roads the new chassis and suspension on the Fazer felt leagues better than the old model. The new forks are much stiffer and instead of that bouncy Fazer feeling that is usually associated with cornering the new bike feels a lot stiffer and better balanced. The forks don't come with any adjustment (unlike the old model which had preload adjusters) but seem to be fine for most road riding, although in the wet I couldn't push that hard. Overall the new bike has a more sports feel about its handling than the old Fazer.

Rounding one of the many blind Austrian corners on a rare dry patch I had the opportunity to test the new sliding calipers as one of the Milka cows had decided to guide its entire herd across the road, presumably looking for the Swiss border. Fazer designer Kubo San claims that the new brakes work as well as the old ones and on that occasion I have to agree with him, and thanks to them Switzerland's supply of chocolate is safe.

As I have said before Yamaha has aimed the new half-faired Fazer at riders who are looking to cover quite a few miles and after a day riding it I reckon that they have got the riding position spot on. The bars feel slightly narrower than the old bike but the pegs feel virtually identical and it's a very comfortable riding position. The seat, with its dimpled cover, feels good for the 130 mile tank range until reserve starts to show. The screen is a little low to offer any real weather protection, but the optional higher screen should sort this out. But what it can't mask are the vibrations from the engine that tingle your fingers at 7000rpm, which is 70mph in top gear.

Like the new generation of Kawasakis the Fazer comes with a very flash looking digital speedo with a digital rev counter running around the outside. And like the Kawasaki it's completely useless. Once on the move it's almost impossible to read the rev counter, like the Kawasaki, but one advantage the Fazer has is that as well as two trips the central console can be set to show the revs. The speedo is nice and clear and the Fazer comes with a digital fuel gauge.

Other really good points on the new Fazer are mirrors that work (and show the rain clouds and mist as they chase you up the hills) and a massive 70-degree steering lock so turning in the road is a doddle. Simple, practical touches that the Fazer is all about.

Verdict

Following on from the Fazer 600 was always going to be a mammoth task for Yamaha and the problem with making such a good bike is that the next one has a lot to live up to. Just look at Ducati and the reaction to the 916's replacement the 999 for evidence of this.

So has the new Fazer managed to live up to the expectations that its forebear has set down? Well to be truthful the new Fazer left me, like the weather, a bit cold. Obviously because of the slippery roads and continuous rain fully testing the bike was tricky so it won't be until we can get hold of a model in the UK that we can really test it properly. On first impressions the new Fazer doesn't really seem that much better, if at all, than the old Fazer - but the old bike was already very good.

The choice of using a supersport motor was really forced upon Yamaha by EU emissions laws but I'm not convinced it was the right choice. The R6 engine is a bit too buzzy and high revving to feel natural in the Fazer, which has always been more about torque than revs. The 2004 Fazer is more like the top-endy Hornet now, in that respect.

And then there is the styling. The underseat pipes look great, as does the new frame, and Yamaha has even changed the engine cases to make it more visually appealing... but. The front fairing is a bit too swoopy and doesn't have any of the aggression of the old Fazer. And the brakes. I know it is a small and probably quite insignificant point as they do seem to work as well as the R1-style ones but every time I look at the front of the Fazer I just see the brakes and think 'cheap'.

I may be being a little too harsh just because the old one was so good, but judging from the less than enthusiastic reaction from other riders I'm not sure I am. The new Fazer is a good bike and is a step forward in some aspects of bike design, but for me some of the bike's soul has been taken out in the process.

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