The world of small sport bikes continues to enjoy its renaissance, and Yamaha has been one of the more recent additions to the increasingly popular segment. With the introduction of the YZF-R3 to the US market back in 2015, Yamaha released a small displacement parallel twin sport bike to compete with other players in the segment, such as the Ninja 300 and the Honda CBR250R. Each of these has since been updated, with both the Ninja and the CBR growing in engine size. While the newest version of Yamaha’s baby R keeps the same displacement at 321cc, other upgrades and improvements may just be the ticket to keeping the YZF-R3 the king of lightweight club racing.
Our introduction to the new R3 was dampened, quite literally, by the rain we encountered at the Oceanside, California location of the press launch. Not ones to let a little wet weather get in the way of riding, we all layered up in our warmest and driest gear and headed out to the foothills of east San Diego county. Rolling out of the parking garage, we were all hopeful that the threatening clouds were all show and no go. But after pulling away from our first stop sign, the rain began coming down, and as we rolled onto the freeway, the water started falling harder and faster. I was feeling especially thankful I had grabbed an ABS equipped model, since Yamaha offers the new R3 with and without the added feature.
Considering I spent over a year with the first-generation R3 as a long term bike during my time on staff at Motorcyclist magazine, the new baby R felt immediately familiar. The engine hasn’t been touched since the previous gen, meaning it still had the same gusto I remembered, with linear power output. There is enough power to get me through traffic and up to freeway speeds, but without scaring myself. The seat height remains the same, at 30.7” high, making it easy for me to touch the ground at a stop, but not completely flat foot it. But a few things were noticeable right away that set this R3 apart from its predecessor.
First, the ergonomic setup is slightly more aggressive, with clip-ons now mounted below the top triple clamp, as opposed to above on the previous R3. The shape of the tank has been flattened a bit on top, creating a lower profile, with wider shoulders designed to give a better grip for riders’ knees, especially while hanging off the bike during track days. Since we were riding in the rain for most the day, and roads were slippery, I didn’t take the opportunity to lean the new R3 over far enough to really test how well that extra shoulder bulge helps. But from the little bit of knee-tucking I did do, I can tell you it’s noticeably better.
As we gained speed on the freeway, that lower tank gave a little more room to tuck in behind the newly designed windscreen. I remember feeling a lot more wind buffeting during my time with the previous generation R3, but the 2019 model shows a huge improvement. And with the benefit of rain drops to show just what the air flow was doing around the windscreen and my helmet, I could see visual evidence of how well the new design protected me against freeway-speed windflow. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how well the vibrations in the handlebars have been minimized (though I was still feeling them a bit in the foot pegs and seat). When I later asked the engineers what they did to address the handlebar vibrations, they shrugged, and said it wasn’t something they had specifically focused on. But my guess is it has something to do with the suspension.
The biggest improvement to the YZF-R3 is the suspension. Up front, the fork has been swapped for 37mm upside down legs, with increased spring rate, rebound, and compression damping. The new baby R now feels more planted, especially in the corners, soaking up the bumps and ruts in the road while helping the bike maintain composure. This is a huge improvement over the previous gen’s softer suspension, which was plenty comfortable for commuting (at least for my size), but lacked sport bike performance. That’s no longer the case! The shock is also now stiffer and more refined, with increased spring rate, preload, and rebound damping, with 7 step preload adjustability. Overall the suspension is worlds better and more confidence inspiring, without sacrificing comfort. I can’t wait to take it to the track!
As we wound our way along the twisty roads through the hills near Mount Palomar, the new R3’s upgraded tires provided far better feel and traction. Yamaha switched the small sportbike’s shoes from the previous bias ply Michelin Pilot Streets to the radial Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300s, and the new rubber gave the new R3 improved grip. The upgraded compound gave the little Yamaha some added comfort, too, and wicked away the road surface water for the most part. We did have a little squirrely section as we were coming down off Grand Mesa, but thankfully it was just a little warning wobble, and everyone got through the slick corners without a scratch.
Considering we started the day in full rain, our riding pace was cautious, and I never fully tested the R3’s brakes to their full stopping power. The calipers and discs remain the same as the previous generation, with a hydraulic 298mm disc up front and 292mm hydraulic disc in the rear. The R3 got an optional upgrade to ABS with the 2016 model, so there is nothing new to report in that department. I can attest the ABS system works great, as there were a few places that the familiar jittering kicked in, keeping the bike and myself upright while coming to a stop safely. It’s an additional $300 to get the ABS model, but a safety feature that’s well worth it!
During their presentation, the folks at Yamaha listed their full lineup of Supersport bikes, with the YZF-R3 listed at the small end of displacement. It’s clear this bike is being sold as a small version of the R6 or the R1, and there are design elements that are undoubtedly nods to the bigger supersport bike styling.
The most notable styling cue is in the face of the R3, with the front cowl now featuring a wide open center air intake, as we find with their MotoGP YZR-M1, just like its big brothers the R6 and R1/M.
The other most obvious piece that says “racebike” is the new LCD screen, which looks like it was borrowed straight off of Rossi’s M1. The new gauge displays your typical information: speed, tachometer, odometer, trip meter, gear indicator, fuel level, etc., but it also has an adjustable shift light that can be set for RPM, pattern, and brightness. The top triple also echos the MotoGP legend’s bike. Overall the cockpit made me feel like I was at the helm of a real race bike, which is perfect for the multitude of club racers out there, who have already proven the R3’s popularity on the grid.
Yamaha claims they’ve sold nearly 20,000 units since the first R3 launched in 2015, and there is no doubt they will sell even more. Even with the suspension and styling upgrades, the R3 retains its super affordable price of $4,999 for non-ABS and $5,299 for ABS models. The non-ABS model is available in Yamaha Team Blue and Matte Black, and the ABS model is available in Vivid White and Matte Black. If you want to try before you buy, Yamaha offers test rides at major motorcycling events like IMS and MotoGP at COTA, as well as during many track days throughout the US. You can find listings of these upcoming opportunities at Yamaha’s Demo Event Schedule and at Yamaha Champions Riding School. The new YZF-R3 is on sale at your local dealership right now.
So, bottom line, would I recommend this bike? Heck yeah, I would! If you’re a new rider who yearns for a sportbike, you’ll be very happy with this little R, but don’t think it’s JUST a beginner’s bike. There are plenty of experienced riders who love small bikes, so much so that there is an entire race class dedicated to this size motorcycle. The new 2019 YZF-R3 offers the perfect opportunity to get yourself on the track without investing too much money. And its manageable size means you can focus more on honing your riding skills, and less on wrestling a larger displacement machine. The R3 was already a fun little sport bike that makes a great commuter and track bike alike. But now with improved suspension and aerodynamics, Yamaha has upped the R3’s game in both categories. So if you want a commuter bike that you can also take to the track, the 2019 YZF-R3 won’t disappoint.Check out the 2019 Yamaha YZF-R3!