First ride: Yamaha MT-09 review

Yamaha's budget-priced triple is a triumph of engineering and far from a budget offering

If you’ve ever been on a motorcycle internet forum, you might have noticed that the question ‘Do you nod to other bikers?’ is the most heavily debated topic but in a close second place is the impossible to answer question: ‘What’s the perfect motorcycle engine for road riders?’

Look hard enough and you might find a few people reluctantly agreeing with each other and more often than not, they’ve decided that an 800cc triple is what the world needs.

Now Yamaha have delivered.

The new MT-09, with its 847cc triple, presented in a no frills package at the bargain price of £6799 looks like it’s put an end to one of the oldest internet debates.

Back to debating about whether we should nod to GS riders, Harleys and scooters, I suppose.

The MT-09 is a solid but slightly curious looking motorcycle. Curious is in its family DNA and Yamaha are keen to push home the point that this isn’t a Universal Japanese Motorcycle, it’s something a bit different.

The first of the MT series, the MT-01, was introduced as a concept all the way back in 1999 and looked nothing like any motorcycle before and not much has looked like it since. Does that pave a decent path for the MT-09 to follow up, almost 10 years later? I’m not so sure.

But I’m not so sure it matters either. Most didn’t really buy into what the MT-01 and MT-03 stood for. They offered individual looks but the performance didn’t stand out as much as the price. The MT-09 isn’t expensive, and thanks to its three-cylinder engine, it’s a unique Japanese offering. It makes more power than an R6 and weighs less too. It’s a vastly different offering to the MTs we already know.

The MT-09 doesn’t look as light as the specification sheet tells you it is. The air intakes and sculpted tank add visual bulk and a top-heavy appearance. However at 188kg wet, just 5kg heavier than the Street Triple and 41kg lighter than the Z800, it’s clearly a lean machine.

Although the MT-09 is priced at a budget £6799, there isn’t a lot about the bike that screams budget. There are a few savings here and there, the suspension isn’t fully adjustable, the brake discs are slightly smaller than what you’d get on a sportsbike, there’s no slipper-clutch and the clocks are functional but minimal. From an electronics viewpoint, the MT-09 isn’t bursting with gadgets but it does features a ride-by-wire throttle and 3 riding modes. There’s no traction control and ABS is a cost option.

While you can see the savings, they’re countered by the aluminium chassis, forged aluminium pistons and stylish aluminium wheels. That’s a lot of aluminium where Yamaha would be forgiven for using steel. So it’s no wonder the MT-09 is as light as it is but it is a wonder how Yamaha make any money on it.

Sitting on the bike, the first thing you notice is how narrow the seat is at the front and yet how wide it is at the back. It’s almost triangular in shape. Sit at the rear and you feel like you’re on a park bench, sit at the front and you feel like you’re on a bannister.

The key goes in the ignition behind the one-piece digital clocks, which are tiny. Your hands sit wide on the bars and the headlight is placed low and out of your field of vision.  It’s clean and uncluttered.There’s really not a lot of MT-09 to be seen from the seat of an MT-09.

It’s a good place to be, made better with the prospect of a 115bhp and 65ftlb roaring triple underneath you. But roar it doesn’t. I’m sure the sound is in there but the stubby exhaust and collector box put 847cc on silent.

The MT-09 is eager to get going. The Yamaha Chip Controlled Throttle (YCC-T / fly-by-wire) offers instant response in STD mode, with a sharper A mode and less sharp B mode to play with.

At slow speeds through town, the STD mode is just too sharp for me. Yamaha boast that the speed of the system gives a feeling that the MT-09’s engine is an extension of the rider’s right wrist, but such is its immediate response, it feels like the ECU is intercepting the message from my brain to my right wrist and delivering the response the very moment I tap the throttle. A millimetre’s movement feels like a quarter turn. Sticking it into B mode and softening off the bottom-end delivery cures this.

Despite the exhaust’s efforts to mute the MT-09, the triple-cylinder engine screams its character out at every opportunity. It’s gutsy low down, but revs and revs. Once you get past the initial jerky pick-up in STD mode, the motor just keeps delivering, from 4,000 rpm, all the way to the 11,000 redline. You’ll be hard-pressed to feel any flat-spots which makes the on-off response at the bottom end an even bigger shame as this is one of the sweetest bikes when it comes to power delivery.

When I first heard Yamaha state that this engine wasn’t destined for any Yamaha sportbikes, I thought ‘Ok, that’s because it’ll be a slower-revving lump’ but far from it. It picks up with ease seems to think it has every right to rev like a four-cylinder motor.

Pop it into B mode and the on/on power delivery from the bottom end is softened off nicely and the delivery becomes much more usable but once you’ve had a taste of what the 847cc triple has to offer, you’ll miss the trimmed mid-range.

Incidentally changing power modes is a bit of a faff when you’re on the move as the button is on the right-hand bar and it’ll only change mode with the throttle closed, so instead of selecting the mode you want with your free left hand and then waiting for a time when you close the throttle for it to click into that mode, you have to chop the throttle, quickly find the mode, then get back on the gas.

When you test a bike, you cycle through every mode going tends of times in the space of a day. Owners will no doubt find a mode they like and never change it again, so perhaps this was more of a niggle for me, than it would be for most owners. If you do like to change modes a lot, well, have fun with that.

A mode, is about as subtle as an airhorn at a funeral and, like the airhorn, even a small tweak guarantees a big reaction.

The drive you get off the bottom-end in A or STD mode would give an R1 a run for its money.

Through the twisty roads heading up into the hills out of Split, I switch to B mode and keep to 2nd and 3rd gear. 1st is just too sharp when driving out of hairpins and the gearing means you’re good for 100 mph in 3rd.

The MT-09 is an agile bit of kit and carries its weight well. The upright riding position and wide bars take all strain out of getting the bike to change direction and get into - and out of - corners.

Early on in the ride I didn’t have 100% confidence in the front end midway through a corner. All the time, I’m questioning everything I feel about the bike. Is it me, is it the conditions, is it the bike? With hot polished roads, grip was always going to be at a premium but at the same time, I wasn’t struggling with getting the power down out of corners. The rear wheel feels like an extra limb and it was simple to find the level of grip, then give it a bit more throttle and lay a faint black line on the tarmac for the rider behind.

The front was a different story. Sat right up the seat, balls against the tank, getting as much of my 10-stones as I could over the front wheel, the front didn’t feel as positive as I’d like it to.

Throughout the day, I felt more confident with the front and it has to be said, the roads did get better. I don’t want to hit the panic button, but I do think the front could sit a bit lower, or the rear could sit a bit higher to put a bit more weight onto it. Carrying a bit more front brake into a corner brought with it a bit more feedback but the Catch-22 is that you have to trust the front in order to carry the brakes in. It’s good but it’s not as good as what the rest of the bike offers.

Taking on country roads at a brisk pace, the MT-09 feels lively. The suspension just about keeps up but when it doesn’t, the small headshake or bounce up through the seat only adds to the drama. At speed, it comes alive. It’s an exciting bike to ride but doesn’t flatter the road surface. Although the feedback can be direct at times, you rarely feel distant from what’s going on underneath you.

It might not have 320mm brakes, but the radial four-pot calipers and 298mm floating discs are never in danger of relinquishing their duties. There’s plenty of bite but at the same time they’re not too sharp and they’ve got plenty of feel. We didn’t test the ABS bike as it’s not yet available but I’d always go for ABS on a bike like this, one that gets used in all conditions. At £400 extra, it would be rude not to.

The MT-09 is one of those bikes where you’ll ride around with next to no idea what gear you’re in, because it won’t really matter. It’ll pull hard in 6th from 40mph but my bet is you’ll spend most of your time between 3rd and 4th. Such is the torque from the engine that you could pull away in 3rd and you’d easily lose your licence at the top of 4th. With a touch of clutch, it’ll pick the front up in third and there aren’t a lot of litre-sportbikes let alone budget middleweights that could claim that trick.

If you like stunts, then the MT-09 isn’t for you. Go and find something that presents you with a bit more of a challenge.

The 14.3-litre tank looks like an obvious Achilles’ heel, an amateur mistake by Yamaha. Surely, 17 or 18 litres would have been a better choice. Perhaps they were desperately keen to keep the wet weight under 190kg. Yamaha claim a 150-mile range and it’s rare that a manufacturer is modest when it comes to figures.

I have to admit, it is a frugal little sucker. During our 190-mile ride which was mostly on twisty roads, using 2nd to 4th gear, my reserve light came on at 107-miles. We filled-up at 117-miles and the tank took 13.3-litres, meaning I had 1-litre left, which means a worst-case scenario of 125-miles until empty. Perhaps they weren’t stretching it when they claimed it’ll do 150-miles on a tank but you'd have to work for it.

I have a couple of smaller, more personal gripes with the MT-09. In order to feel more connected to the bike, I sat on the front part of the seat, which is more Supermoto than Sportsbike. It’s a firm seat at the best of times, but I welcomed any time we stopped for a breather and consciously planted myself at the rear of the seat on the wider section on the straights. There’s a Comfort Seat option in the accessories list and at £199.99, it’s more expensive than Germoloids but less embarrassing to order. And fit.

While I appreciate some of its appeal lays in the fact that the MT-09 is a bit of a raw bruiser, a no frills bike for fun times, the finish is a mixed bag. The swingarm, wheels and tank are exquisite but the headlight and tail light look as if they’ve been robbed off another bike. The shiny header pipes look like they’re from the M&P catalogue and aren’t in keeping with the rest of the finish. That said, when standing back and taking the MT-09 in, it's a hell of a lot of bike for the money.

I’d go for the Deep Armor colour scheme. Essentially, it’s purple but so dark it looks black and the gold coloured forks look right on this bike. The grey forks look anemic.

The throttle modes are strange and in my view, a bit of a waste of time. Why manufacturer’s can’t just make one throttle map that’s absolutely spot-on instead of offering a range of options is beyond me. Even if you’ve got a ridiculously powerful bike, if you’ve got a well setup throttle, you can let your hand do the talking. All this second guessing between throttle, ECU, wrist and brain is about as much fun as a trying to have a conversation over a bad telephone line where you hear what, hear what, you’re saying, you’re saying and you can’t think of, can’t think of, the thing you were, were, going to say, say.

If you’re ever asked about Power Modes in any customer feedback surveys, do motorcycling a favour and tick the ‘Thanks but no thanks’ option.

See how you get on with the front end. I know that the average biker weighs more than the 10-stone I do and weight over the front is key when it comes to feel and feedback. My gut reaction is that it could be improved and setting it up will get the best from it.

Whatever the price-tag, it’s hard to fault the MT-09. It’s a fun bike, straight out of the box. At £6799 it ranks as one of the best value bikes you can buy.

It’s up against some stiff competition and while we’ll probably never agree on what the perfect engine is for road riders, if you take the MT-09 and its 847cc-triple for a spin, you'll struggle to come up with a better answer.

Model tested: Yamaha MT-09

Price: £6799 (£7199 with ABS)

Colours: Deep Armor, Blazing Orange, Race Blu and Matt Grey

Availability: End of September 2013, ABS December 2013