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When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to get a motorcycle. After several tries, I finally persuaded my dad to lend me $300 bucks for a used 1974 Yamaha RD350. At the time, the RD was considered an entry-level bike. For me it definitely was. And it was much more than just my first motorcycle. It was light and fast, not unlike the new 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3. But the RD, with its roots deeply seeded in the TZ racers of the early 70s, was quite a handful for a beginning rider.
Although it threw me down the road a few times, I was happy to be starting out on a small, lightweight motorcycle. Eventually, the two-stroke era faded and small four-strokes took over. But all the cool 400cc mini superbikes were sold everywhere else, not in the US. Yamaha did bring the FZR400 to the States, but it disappeared after only a few years. I guess small entry-level bikes just didn’t sell. Too bad, because we needed more of them. Kawasaki had the Ninja 250, which was a hit with beginners, but for some reason it wasn’t all that cool. Plus, nobody was stepping up to challenge Kawi.
Now there’s a whole new wave of small-displacement sportbikes in our market, featuring machines such as the Honda CBR300R, Kawasaki Ninja 300, and KTM’s RC390. Clearly, this is a great opportunity for new riders to buy a real entry-level sportbike, and Yamaha has timed it perfectly with the new R3 joining the fray.
Most smaller bikes these days are aimed at entry-level riders. But these new small-displacement machines are also performance-based. To properly compete, Yamaha designed the new R3 to cater to the former without neglecting the needs of experienced riders.
At first glance, the R3 looks very sport-oriented. After all, the R in the name tells us the bike is a member of the Yamaha sportbike family. The bodywork shares the same mass-forward silhouette and race-style tail section as the R6. The twin cat-eye headlights also give the R3 a sporty look. There is plenty of DNA from the R6 in the styling, but there is also some R1 influence in the 321cc parallel twin, which has forged pistons.
Like the RD, the R3 is a very basic motorcycle. No fancy dash. No ride modes. And the linkless rear suspension has no damping adjustments, just a seven-step preload adjuster for the KYB shock. Up front, the conventional 41mm KYB fork offers no provision for adjustment.
The press launch for the new R3 took place in Northern California, with a morning spent riding on the street before heading to Thunderhill Raceway Park’s new Middle Hill loop.
We started out on the freeway before hitting the back roads. The first thing I noticed? The aggressive sound of the 2-into-1 exhaust at startup. The R3 has a low first gear to facilitate easy starts. It took me a little while to figure out that I had to keep the revs in the 7,000 to 9,000 rpm range to get the bike up to speed. Once you reach 70 mph or so in fifth or sixth gear, the bike purrs right along. There is a fair amount of roll-on acceleration available at speed, which is really impressive considering it’s only a 321cc engine. Wind protection is good, as I was able to get tucked nicely behind the windscreen on the highway.
As nice as the R3 was on the freeway, how would it do on the back roads where you need some extra grunt to pull you out of the corners? On a road with a combination of fast and flowing corners and some tight curves, the R3 was fun. It’s not the fastest bike out there, but fast riders will enjoy trying to keep up their momentum and corner speed, all at a reasonable pace. For the beginner, the R3 will make you a much better rider. The more you ride it, the better you feel about it. Power felt good on the back roads. You’ll want to keep it on the boil in the higher rpm range, but it pulled just fine when I let the revs fall a bit.
Weighing in at just 368 pounds, the R3 is among the lightest in its class. At first, the suspension felt soft and a little out of balance, but it handled the rough roads well. The bike soaked up bumps with minimal deflection, returning the front wheel to the road quickly and in control. Only on the very fast sweepers did it feel undersprung and unnerved, lacking the stiffness associated with more serious sportbikes.
In the morning we covered 130-plus miles, and I recorded 56 mpg, with plenty of fuel left in the 3.7-gallon tank. The dash has a trip meter with instant fuel economy, so you always know available range. There’s also an adjustable shift light, gear-position indicator, plus a good old fashion analog tachometer.
Ergonomics are always important, and it’s clear that Yamaha spent a considerable amount of time making the R3 comfortable and accessible yet still sporty. A flat and narrow seat, just 30.7 inches off the pavement, will allow beginners and shorter riders to confidently get their feet on the ground. While a roomy cockpit allows you to move around without feeling cramped.
As a street bike, the R3 is a joy. It’s a user-friendly, entry-level bike that offers enough performance to please more experienced riders. And it was fun on the track, too, although I did need to rethink my approach. I started out flogging the new R3 around the track as if it were a proper middleweight supersport, but soon realized my technique was too aggressive. Riding it smoothly was much more effective. Too much input at the bars, aggressive braking, and rapid-fire downshifts upset the bike. The more I attacked, the more out of shape the bike got. Once I eased up, the R3 became much more composed. Thunderhill’s west Middle Hill loop is tight, perfect for small displacement bikes. Even in the tightest corners I discovered it was better to roll through them a gear high as opposed to downshifting and upsetting the chassis, and there is plenty of torque to do so. Be smooth or suffer the consequences.
The 321cc twin worked well on the track. Power delivery is smooth and responsive, thanks in part to the closed loop Mikuni fuel injection system with its 32mm throttle bodies, 12-hole injectors, and large 1.2-liter airbox. The offset cylinder design is straight from the R1, which reduces friction and mechanical losses for increased power. The R3’s 68.0 x 44.1mm bore and stroke measurements are similar to the R6’s 67.0 x 42.5mm. The compression ratio is 11.2:1. Maximum power output is achieved at 10,750 rpm.
Yamaha’s designers started out working toward a high revving performance-based engine, but ultimately decided on this lower revving entry-level motor instead. By adapting some of the tech applied to its very successful R1 and R6 models, engineers were able to give the R3 an excellent spread of power and torque.
Once I figured out how to ride the R3 on the track, I was able to exploit some of the key elements of the chassis, which is light and steers on a dime. With a 54.3-in. wheelbase, and lightweight 10-spoke cast aluminum wheels, the R3 is very maneuverable. Even though the steel frame isn’t as stiff as I would prefer, it gives good feedback. On corner entries, the R3 will follow your lead as long as you don’t force it too much. Only a few times did I feel the front end folding under me. Mid-corner stability is good, and the bike finishes off turns nicely; never did I run wide or have to fight to keep the bike turned. The only time the R3 loses its composure is when you are riding at a very aggressive pace.
The brakes, on the other hand, took some getting used to. The single 298mm two-piston Akebono brake caliper worked okay, but there is not much bite at first, nor is there much stopping power. You really had to squeeze on the front brake to get the R3 stopped. There is also no adjustability at the lever. In hot lapping, be prepared for the lever to come to the bar. I almost ran off the track a few times, but I was able to get the nimble R3 turned in.
Again, we must all remember that the 2015 Yamaha YZF-R3 is an entry-level bike with a very reasonable price tag. At just $4,990, it’s quite a bargain. And by the end of the day, I was really enjoying the R3 on the track. It does all the things a good motorbike does as long as you don’t force the issue. It makes you work in different ways to achieve the performance you desire. For beginners, it’s capable and accessible, and it’s a great platform upon which you can improve your riding skills.
The R3 will be available in three colors: Yamaha Blue/Matte Silver, Raven Black, and Rapid Red. Additionally, there is a whole host of Yamaha Genuine Accessories that includes my favorite—an emissions-compliant Yoshimura slip-on exhaust.
Thomas Montano, the 2001 AMA Pro Thunder champion, has competed at the Isle of Man TT more than a dozen times. His best finishes there were a 10th in the 1997 Junior TT and a 13th in the 1996 Senior TT. Montano has been a fixture in NorCal’s AFM series for decades, where he continues to compete.