Yamaha First ride: Yamaha MT-03 review

Who needs big bikes?

SO many bikes make so much power that you have to ration it on the road. What happened to machines that were fun because you could spend an entire afternoon thrashing one without going to jail? I don't mean bikes that are just slow. I mean machines with an engaging engine and good handling, small motorcycles to desire and treasure.

They're still with us, and Yamaha's MT-03 is the latest.

A new model in name, it's actually an R3 with higher bars and no fairing. Obviously it's had a restyling, with some new bodywork, a headlight unit and handle-bar mounted mirrors. But it remains essentially a naked R3, nothing more nor less. The brakes, suspension, ‘diamond-type’ steel frame and 321cc parallel-twin engine are all unchanged.

Which means we already know it's very good.

Yamaha combined the press launch in Spain with that of the 2016 MT-09. UK journalists spent the morning on the MT-09 before switching to the MT-03 in the afternoon, so the smaller bike had a difficult act to follow. But it took about no time to recalibrate and enjoy the MT-03's lively power delivery and low 168kg wet weight.

It was a pleasure to experience the contrast I've alluded to, between rationing the power and gorging on it. Between the bike riding you and you riding the bike.

On twisty roads, the fun became frequent gear changes to keep the needle in the upper third of the range, above about 8,000rpm, for the willing power between there and the red line at 12,500. The high-revving twin doesn’t feel stressed. It’s not vibey and it doesn’t make a particularly dramatic noise, and the gears hook easily. A white gear-change light on the dash found itself frequently ignored at 11,500rpm.

Top speed is likely to be just over a genuine 100mph. At the track launch of the R3 last year, it hit the rev limiter in sixth at an indicated 109mph, so the MT-03 is likely to do the same.

This is not to say the R3 is peaky. It's just that, with a peak of 42hp, it offers the kind of power you can enjoy ringing out nearly all the time, and its sporty character makes a joy of it.

On the contrary, the engine is flexible and you don't need to change gear if you don't want. There's enjoyable acceleration anywhere above 5,000rpm in third.

I’m sure I’ve said it before but it seems worth repeating after riding the MT-03: it's character that makes a good engine, not power. You don't need to thrash the MT-03, it just makes you want to.

That combination of enjoyable performance with flexibility means it will suit both young riders looking to get the most out of their A2 47hp licence as well as commuters after something fun, practical and economical. Yamaha claims it will do 70mpg.

And, surprise-surprise, A2 licence holders and commuters are the buyers Yamaha is aiming at. According to Yamaha Europe's product manager Shun Miyazawa, its ‘key audience will be guys of younger age or needing A2-compatible motorbikes with fun and controllability’ as well as ‘female riders’ and ‘commuters’. So basically that’s anyone who will buy one, and a very sensible strategy too.

It also speaks a little of compromise to meet a price point, in this case £4,499 plus tax and registration, rather than a specific brief for a specific type of customer.

The suspension, a preload adjustable shock and 41mm non-adjustable right-way-up fork, both KYB, is basic, softish, pothole-eating stuff. It’s softer than the Kawasaki Ninja 300’s and Z300’s. I know this because it’s the same as the R3’s and I tested that and Z300 within days of each other last year.

It's okay though, adequate when you're chucking around the lightweight, stable chassis and comfortable when you're not.

The R3 already has bars so high it feels a little commuter-ish for a sports bikes, with raised clip-ons mounted above the top yoke. The MT-03's flat bar is 39mm higher, 19mm closer to the rider and 40mm wider, putting it well within commuter parameters.

Yamaha says it shares a ‘mass-forward silhouette’ with the rest of the MT range but the bars still aren’t as close to the rider as those of the MT-09, a purpose-built naked rather an adapted sports bike.

The pegs are directly below the front half of the seat and a rider of average height shouldn't feel cramped by the leg room. I didn't.

I did get a bit weary of the seat after an afternoon's ride though. It's higher at the back, so I found I ended up sitting on the narrower portion at the front.

The brakes are respectable. The single 298mm floating front disc and twin-pot caliper responds well to two-fingered pressure on the non-adjustable lever, with easy to control progressive power. ABS is standard.

The tyres, Michelin Pilot Streets, performed well on the test ride too – and didn’t do badly on track last year, for a tyre designed with urban use in mind. They should provide the performance in wide-ranging conditions that commuters need.

The clocks are the same as the R3’s, which means they are easy to read, featuring a big dial rev counter and a digital display with a fuel gauge, current and average fuel consumption and an oil change indicator. They look somehow inexpensive.

Other hints of budget include the pressed steel brake pedal.  

The MT-03 is easily manoeuvrable at low speed and at 780mm the seat is low enough for almost anyone. There’s space under the pillion seat for something like a small disc lock, just, and the mirrors offer a clear view behind.

At 14 litres, it’s got a generous fuel tank for its engine size, so range should be good (217 miles based on the claimed economy figure). It’s the same size as the MT-09’s tank.

The accessory range includes an Akrapovic silencer, a fly screen, pillion seat cowl, top box and various tank bags.

There two colour options: silver with blue wheels or black. The black looks a bit conservative. The silver/blue is better but it’s perhaps a shame it doesn’t come in the grey/yellow ‘Night Fluo’ scheme of the latest MT-09 and forthcoming MT-10, a naked based on the R1.

But it’s a very convincing motorcycle, either for young A2 licence holders or excitable commuters.

And that’s just as well because the category is becoming much more important. Until now, riders with a 47hp A2 licence have been able get a new bike making up to double that, for example a 75hp MT-07 with a free restrictor kit, and then de-restrict it later when their licence permits. And a lot of people have done it, sensibly getting one bike to see them through their A2 years and on to their full unrestricted licence.

Now that’s beginning to change under European rules which say new A2 bikes must have left the factory making 47hp. 

So Yamaha will provide a 47hp version of the MT-07 - rather than a full-power one with a restrictor kit - and extracting more power will be legally as well as technically complicated. In fact Yamaha has already begun doing it, to ensure stock stays ahead of rules from next year.

In other words, the days of restricting and de-restricting a single bike for your A2 and complete licence are ending. More people will be looking for a machine that’s purely an A2 bike and destined never to be anything else – and so more are likely to look to the light, nimble, purposeful and cost-effective MT-03.

This change is the reason for my slight reservation about the commuter/A2 compromise. I can’t help comparing the MT-03 to small capacity machines of as much as 25 years ago: two-stroke 250s. And it falls short. Rules mean it can never make the power or weigh as little, but they don't say it has to be a compromise. Those bikes didn’t feel so much like they were made to meet a price point. They had two front discs, not one, and they were happy to leave commuters to the GPz305

With A2 riders relegated to smaller new bikes, those machines are more important to making motorcycling attactive to the uninitiated, so maybe it’s time they compromised less too.

Then again, what’s the point if no one can afford one?


Model tested: Yamaha MT-03

Price: £4,499 plus tax and registration

Engine: 321cc parallel-twin, DOHC four-valve

Power: 42hp @10,750rpm

Torque: 21.8lbft @ 9,000rpm

Wet weight (with full tank): 168kg

Frame: Diamond-type steel

Suspension: Preload adjustable shock and 41mm non-adjustable right-way-up fork, both KYB

Brakes: Single 298mm floating front disc and twin-pot caliper, 220mm rear disc with single-pot caliper. ABS standard.

Tyres: Michelin Pilot Street, 140/70-17 rear, 110/70-17 front, tubeless

Seat height: 780mm

Fuel capacity: 14 litres

Claimed fuel economy: 70.6mpg

Colours: Silver/blue (Race Blu) or black (Midnight Black)

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