By Gabe Ets-Hokin, Photos by Tom Riles
European and North American motorcyclists must be the most jaded mo-fos in the world. Here we are, at what is probably the pinnacle of internal-combustion engine development, with supersport motorcycles making almost 200 horsepower at the rear wheel. They also weigh in under 450 pounds gassed up and can be had for a fraction of what a similar-performing sports car would cost. And yet, sales of such machines have dropped over the past few years, even correcting for the global recession we're climbing out of.
What's a company like Yamaha to do? Within the sport and supersport category, softer-edged machines have increased their market share (in the USA) to 57 percent, up from 32 percent in 2005. Post-recession buyers can't (or maybe just won't) pay the 5-figure prices for the snarling, race-bred performance and handling of the superbikes and supersports, but they still want torque, handling, braking, light weight and an emotional, visceral feel—a challenge to provide for under $10,000. Were I in Yamaha's motorcycle product-planning department, I'd ask for a transfer to pianos.
But the tuning-fork folk aren't ones to shy from a challenge. The design brief: Build "a naked sportbike that combines an emotional performance character and fundamental value." To make that happen, Yamaha couldn't just go to the parts bin and make it "out of leftover bikes," product tester Mike Ulrich told us. An all-new motor and chassis would have to be designed from scratch.
The motor is unique—at least for a Japanese company. It's an 847cc liquid-cooled Triple, a configuration Yamaha selected for its torquey power, compact layout and light weight, as well as the soulful and exciting sound and power characteristics it can deliver, characteristics "similar" to the YZF-R1's Crossplane engine (Yamaha isn't calling it a crossplane design). Everything about the motor is geared toward making it compact, from the narrow valve angles in the four-valve cylinder heads to the stacked gear clusters to the offset cylinders (built into the crankcase). Fuelling is via 41mm Mikuni throttle bodies with 12-hole Denso injectors (which squirt right into the intake port so the throttle bodies can be closer together), compression is 11.5:1 and power is something like 110 at the wheel—with 65 ft.-lbs. of torque at 8500 rpm. "I've never seen a torque curve like that before," Ulrich told us; it's "completely flat."
The chassis cashes in on the motor's narrow profile. It's a controlled-fill cast-aluminum job that looks familiar to Yamaha FZ6 or FZ8 owners, but the curved swingarm's pivots are able to go outside the frame so the rider can get his feet closer together, enhancing the narrow feel. Rear suspension is handled by a linkage-equipped shock, front is an inverted 41mm KYB fork. Both ends are adjustable for preload and rebound, though all rebound adjustment is handled through the right fork leg. Front brakes are dual four-piston ADVICS monobloc calipers with 298mm floating discs. Wheels are standard sportbike sizes, with sporty-looking cast 10-spoke wheels and either Bridgestone Battleax (Hypsersport S20) or Dunlop Sportmax (D214) radials. The bike weighs in at a claimed 414 pounds wet—over 50 pounds lighter than the $900-more (and discontinued) FZ8. Wheelbase is 56.6 inches (1440mm), and the sloped, narrow seat is 32.1 inches off the ground.
But it doesn't feel that high or long. Yamaha showed the gathered journalists a slide that combines the standard FZ8 with the supermoto WR250X, which explains the controversial styling. Swinging a leg over the bike reveals a compact ride with a comfortable, yet aggressive riding position acceptable to a wide range of rider sizes. With a 30-inch inseam, I had no trouble getting both feet flat on the ground. Pressing the redesigned kill switch/starter button instantly lights the motor, filling the air with an exhaust note that may be disappointing if you're expecting the Triumph Street Triple's sonorous wail. It's more inline-four, heavily damped by the huge, multi-chambered and catalyzed exhaust canister under the engine.
That's where the disappointment ended for me and the other riders in on the San Francisco press launch. Now, I'm a San Francisco native, and not only have I been navigating its bumpy, twisty, traffic-choked hot mess of a street network for 25 years, I also drove a taxicab here and I edit its motorcycle magazine—so I know a thing or two about aggressive city riding. Still, I was no match for either the FZ-09 or its enthusiastic crew of product testers who led the ride. The FZ-09 is a hooligan's dream, the perfect combo of supersport, standard and supermoto, unbelievable good fun in a city like San Francisco. Yes, I'm talking (in a very general, not-naming-names kind of sense) about block-long power wheelies up steep streets, getting a foot or more of air off crests of hills, skipping down Filbert street (31.5 percent grade, yikes) on the front wheel, and so on. Your mundane morning commute turns into your own private stuntshow, if your local traffic-law enforcement is as lax as it is here by the Bay.
But like the saucy thirty-something in a Rom-Com movie, the FZ-09 is practical as well as fun. The bike feels lighter than its 414 pounds, thanks to that compact design and underslung exhaust. It's easy to get your feet down flat, and there's a wide steering lock that makes slipping between cars easy, even if you're not used to lane-splitting. I thought the gearing felt spot-on for around-town use. As a commuter, it'd be a good choice for shorter distances—Yamaha claims 44 mpg, but the tank holds but 3.7 gallons, including a .7 gallon reserve. Wind protection is nil, but you can get a cool little flyscreen to keep the wind off your belly-button, and you can also get saddlebags, a luggage rack and a locking trunk out of the accessory catalog. The seat is as crappy as most modern sporty-bike seats, chafing and battering your secret parts after an hour or two, but a "comfort" seat is in the accessory catalog and the aftermarket will doubtless step up as it always does.
For high-speed freeway travel, the FZ-09 is acceptable, if not ideal. The seating position is very upright, so those used to a fully faired sportbike with low bars will notice a lot of windblast over 70 mph, and if you're expecting the silky smoothness of Triumph's Triple, you'll also note your toes tingling from vibration over 6000 rpm. Still, it cruises very nicely at the speed limit, with lots of torque on call for getting around slow-moving folk in your lane.
Our second-day ride brought us up US 101 to the exit for the famed Highway One north of San Francisco, a moto-funhouse of twisty, slippery roads up over coastal mountains and along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Sounds just right for a bike like the '09, no? Correct—riding my favorite roads on this bike introduced me to what may be the best third gear in motorcycling, a gear that chugs and chuffs you from tight uphill turns marked at 15 mph to madcap triple-digit sweepers. Yamaha could have saved a lot of weight by ditching the clutch and gearbox.
The fly in this ointment is bottom-end fuel-injection tuning that borders on terrible. In the 'A,' and to a lesser extent in the "standard" setting of the three-mode rider-selectable FI maps, getting on the throttle from low rpm is an exercise in frustration, no matter how slowly or carefully you open the throttle. It's very difficult to smoothly accelerate through tight-radius turns, making photo passes challenging. The solution is to leave it in the 'B' mode—which smoothes power delivery but doesn't seem to limit top-end power—for sport riding, but use A and Standard for aggressive inner-city drag races and stunt shows. And if this bike is as popular as everybody says it's going to be (Yamaha says dealers quickly ordered up everything Yamaha could make), the aftermarket will soon have exhaust and FI components to add power and tune-ability (as well as plenty of noise) to the mix.
Brakes and suspension are budget, but suited to the mission. In the City, Yamaha set the springs and rebound damping on plush settings, the better to soak up potholes, pavement irregularities, cable-car tracks, curbs and small animals, but for our twisty-road fun, the preload adjusters were dialed flush and rebound was firmed up. And it worked—you're not going to think this is a cartridge setup, but it's not bad for damper-rod stuff. The brakes are funny things; ADVICS is a joint venture of several automotive OEMs to produce brake components (and I presume at a lower price than suppliers like Nissin or Brembo), but someone at Yamaha spent a lot of time on a Triumph Street Triple R, because the ADVICS calipers had a similarly powerful initial bite, if not as much power after that. Still, these are much better brakes than I'd expect on a $7990 motorcycle.
Yep, $7990 ($8999 CDN). Adjusting for inflation, it's probably among the cheapest 110-horsepower motorcycles ever. One of Yamaha's peeps told me that though all motorcycle industry new-unit sales in the USA has sunk to 500,000 units from its million-plus unit high in the mid-oughts, the number of bikes sold new and used has consistently remained at about two million. That means a new motorcycle has to compete not only against other new motorcycles, but used motorcycles that offer similar price/reliability/performance value. So Yamaha built the FZ-09 down to a price—and it shows in the industrially artless flat radiator, the damper-rod suspension, plastic-ey styling and a dozen other faults. But it also offers superlative performance, a terrific power-to-weight ratio and balanced, light-feeling handling you can't get without spending more, even buying used.
It's not a perfect bike, but those don't exist at any price. The FZ-09's faults are correctable, the value is unassailable, and even the most jaded among us will probably nod in agreement.