First Ride Review – 2020 Yamaha MT-03

In Japan, Reviews, Sport by AbhiLeave a Comment

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Despite plenty of competition, Yamaha has been doing very well with the YZF-R3 – in fact, their entry-level sportbike is the best-selling machine in their American lineup. Combine that with the fact that naked sportbikes are one of the few segments in motorcycling that have grown in the last decade, and it would seem obvious that Yamaha should be offering a version of the R3 sans clothing.

Don’t worry, I’ll keep my clothes on.

Turns out America was a little behind the curve on this one: a 321cc MT-03 has been available in other countries since 2016. When the R3 got a refresh in 2019, the MT-03 followed suit in 2020 – and Yamaha USA has decided that the new model is worth importing to compete with bikes like the Honda CB300R, KTM Duke 390, BMW G310R, and Kawasaki Z400. Those are the bikes that Yamaha specifically mentioned as the competition in their presentation, and I saved the Z400 for last as I called it “the best bargain in motorcycling” when I reviewed it a year ago.

Click to enlarge – which one catches your eye?

However, Kawasaki has since increased the price by $200 up to $4,999, and that leaves the door open for Yamaha to steal the title as they want just $4,599. So, is the MT-03 my new best bargain in motorcycling? Yamaha flew me out to Austin and gave me about 70 miles of riding to figure it out.


Photos by Joseph Agustin


HISTORY LESSON

If you need a refresher, MT stands for “Masters of Torque.” That label on a 321cc bike may seem a little generous, but it was just about perfect for the debut model – the badass 2005 MT-01.

The original Master of Torque. We never officially got this in the US, but did you see the one I recently featured for sale in Canada? Photo by By Nitot via Wikimedia Commons

The original MT-03 (which also wasn’t available in the US) was an urban motard built between 2006 and 2014, and it confusingly featured a 660cc single. But the MT story doesn’t become relevant to Americans until 2014, when we got the MT-09 (originally called the FZ-09). It was followed up by the MT-07 a year later, and then the MT-10 in 2017. Those three models successfully covered the naked sportbike segment above 500cc, but Americans looking for something small were left hanging…until now.

2020 MT-03 – WHAT’S NEW?

The MT-03 obviously shares a lot with the YZF-R3, including the steel diamond-type frame, ABS brakes, rear shock, 4.75″ LCD dash, and 321cc liquid-cooled parallel twin engine. Yamaha USA doesn’t give horsepower numbers, but their European site states 41 horsepower and 22 lb-ft of torque. That’s plenty of poke to beat out traffic and even top 100 miles per hour, if you need to do that for some reason.

But similarities are boring. Let’s focus on what’s different between the R3 and MT-03 – I see three main categories:

The top triple clamp has been revised to accept a handlebar instead of clipons – that change puts your hands back 19mm and up 39mm compared to the R3.

The “MT” logo on the tank is a nice styling touch.

If you’re shorter than me (6’2″), this should make things very comfortable. Unfortunately, in my case it had the effect of rotating my knees up slightly, which forced my thighs into the bottom of the tank.

The tank gets in the way of my leg, especially when trying to use the pedal or shifter.

I could only clear the broad shoulders of the tank when my toes were on the pegs. In a more relaxed position I was always making contact, and it required a bit of contortion whenever I needed to use the shifter or brake pedals. I don’t consider this a flaw of the MT – it’s just designed for someone shorter than I am.

Because you’re sitting up straight on this bike, your weight is shifted back compared to when you’re on the R3. This unloads the front suspension slightly, so Yamaha has revised that as well.

The reduction of your body weight on the front suspension is just half of the equation – there’s less weight from the bike itself as the R3’s front fairings have disappeared.

To compensate for this, Yamaha has gone with 37mm inverted front forks (down from 41mm on the R3) [3/19/20 UPDATE: Yamaha has informed me that the 41mm figure for the R3 was incorrectly provided. The R3 uses the same diameter (37mm) as the MT-03]. In addition, the forks have a longer but softer spring with 6mm more preload and decreased compression damping – the goal was to make the beginning of the stroke more supple but still provide enough progression to fight against bottoming out. In other words, it’s focused on in-town usage.

Testing the front suspension over an expansion joint at the Butterfly Bridge in Austin.

Note that the KYB rear shock with 7 steps of preload adjustment is the same as the R3 unit.

The MT-03 is available in two color options: Midnight Black or Ice Fluo (aka gray and red).

I’m no paragon of style, but I think most of the lines get hidden by the Midnight Black paint.

Yamaha went out of their way to make the MT-03 look like a bigger motorcycle by going with what they call “mass-forward” bodywork. The short but broad tank is supposed to move your eye to the front of the bike, and I think they’ve succeeded. Overall, I like the look of the MT-03 in Ice Fluo as the styling of the bodywork is pleasant, the gray/red work well together, and I’m a sucker for colored wheels.

For years I’ve been complaining that Yamaha needs to get rid of the goofy bulbous turn signals, so I have to commend them for supplying the baby MT with much sleeker LED units. Hopefully, these turn signals will find their way to next year’s R3, MT-07, and other machines that are still cursed with the mini-pumpkins-on-stalks. It’s a little odd that the running light is just lit up at the base – it looks awesome at night, but during the day it means that most of the signal isn’t illuminated at all. Still, it’s a vast improvement over the old signals, so I’ll take it!

Note how visible the running lights in the turn signals are during the day.

Where things may get polarizing is with the LED headlight, which looks like a pissed-off robot. I assume the MT-03 will be cast in the next installment of the Transformers franchise.

The turn signals and top LEDs are running lights, the bottom light is only on when the MT-03 is running. The bike in this photo has accessory levers and windshield.

I believe that the headlight looks better in person than it does in photos, but it is still the most evil-looking little bike I can remember seeing, for better or worse. I think it’s for the better, what about you? Thankfully, while the MT-03 may look angry, it’s quite friendly to ride.

ON THE ROAD

Thanks to a lowest-in-class seat height of 30.7″, a wet weight of 373 pounds, and a comfortable ergonomic layout, the MT-03 is very approachable. The word of the day is forgiveness. You have to twist the throttle or pull the brake lever hard to get a significant reaction, but that’s the point with a bike like this. Catch a case of whiskey throttle? You’ll be fine. Jam on the front brake? You’ll be fine (especially with the standard ABS). You may not be the fastest rider out there, but you’ll be fine, and that’s the sensation I would want if I was on my first motorcycle.

I was quite pleased with the components, which belie the price. The transmission was excellent, with perfect shifter action – I was clutchless shifting for a while because it was so easy and it felt just as smooth as some other transmissions while using the clutch. We had our share of bumps in the city of Austin and the suspension handled jarring impacts respectably. The suspension was another pleasant surprise, and it never seemed overwhelmed when enjoying rural corners. There is plenty of brake dive, however. Speaking of the brakes, I was surprised to find that ABS was smoother and slightly less intrusive than it is on the bigger brother MT-07, especially in the rear. That may be more of a knock on the MT-07 than a compliment of the MT-03, though.

There’s a bit of vibration from the parallel twin which makes itself apparent right around the same time the motor finally feels like it wants to play with you – 5k rpms. From there your speed and the vibes will pick up, but it’s never severe enough to get your fingers all tingly. My hope is that you’ll barely notice because you’re having too much fun, anyway. I was instantly in tune with the MT-03 when I sat on it, and I find it very rewarding because you can wind it out and still feel in control at all times. It’s the kind of bike that I felt comfortable hitting 15 mph corners at 3x the speed with no stress at all. The MT-03 just eggs you on to have more fun. Here’s a quick 30 seconds with the bike so you can get a feel for the sound:

The switchgear is solid and feels like it will last a long time, plus everything is easy to reach and in the right place…except for the horn. I don’t know why this is the case, but in the last couple of years both Honda and Yamaha have decided that the horn button should be moved from where it’s always been, underneath the turn signals. Both companies have now moved the horn button above the turn signal, and Yamaha has committed an even bigger sin by making the button tiny and moving it all the way to the right. This would be silly on any bike, but I think it’s extra bad on a beginner bike that will ingrain this horrible placement into a rider’s muscle memory. I had the same complaint about the R3, for what it’s worth.

All I have to offer you of the horn is a blurry screengrab from the video I filmed, sorry.

But you know what? That’s basically it – the MT-03 vibrates a little too much for my liking and the horn button is stupid. For the price, that is an impressively short list of complaints.

$4,599

$4,599 is a cheap price, but the built-in-Indonesia MT-03 is not a cheap bike. With significant features like the ABS, LED lighting, and inverted forks and small touches like the “MT” sticker on the top of the tank, a shift light, and a dedicated hazard light switch, the MT-03 feels like a proper motorcycle that you could take pride of ownership in. Even the paint looks high quality, though the stickers definitely look like stickers.

Some decals blend in better than others.

If you’ve been following Bike-urious for a while, you know that I love motorcycle touring. So when I saw the list of accessories, Yamaha nearly stole my heart. On top of the usual offerings like a tank pad, tail tidy, levers, or cowl, there’s a series of factory options that truly increase the versatility of the little MT. You can get a tiny windshield, engine crash protection, and even heated grips.

This bike has the windshield, engine protection, rear cowl, and tail tidy.

But what I’m truly stoked about is the availability of luggage, which I never see in this class. The mounts are $130 and the bags are $240 for a total of $370, plus Yamaha even has a $160 rear rack that you can pair with a $70 mount to then fit a $110 30L top case or a $242 39L top case. There’s also a $110 tank bag, if you wish. Whichever way you go, I’m ecstatic that Yamaha is offering these factory luggage options on such a small bike!

Yamaha’s soft bags aren’t perfect, but they are a game-changer compared to what anyone else offers in this class.

Back when I got my first bike in 2007, I was ecstatic to just have a motorcycle in the first place. But I felt a bit silly on my new Ninja 250, considering it had weird stickers and it was still using a design penned in the 80s. It just seemed like the price I had to pay as a newbie – spend some time on an ugly learner bike, build my skills, and then I could upgrade to what I really wanted.

My first bike!

Progress is a wonderful thing.

I wouldn’t feel silly on a MT-03. Frankly, I would have loved to have the options that new riders have today in the small naked sportbike class – there’s several good ones!

THE COMPETITION

I’ve reviewed most, but not all of the bikes that Yamaha USA reps called out in their product presentation. In a pleasant sign of the times, all of these bikes have ABS. Presented alphabetically:

BMW G310R – $4,845 ($495 destination charge) – My Review. Add $100 for the good paint job, though.
Honda CB300R – $4,949 ($380 destination charge) – My Review
Kawasaki Z400 – $4,999 ($410 destination charge) – My Review
KTM Duke 390 – $5,499 ($450 destination charge) – No review, and I’ve only ridden the previous generation

I’d also add the Husqvarna Vitpilen/Svartpilen 401 – $4,999 ($450 destination charge) – Review by Nathan May. Husky had previously priced themselves out of the market by charging $6,299, but they’ve learned over the last couple of years that VERY few people are willing to pay that much for a KTM Duke 390 with less features. They’ve cut the price down to $4,999 for 2020, and now this duo (especially the Svartpilen) makes a lot of sense.

A quick pricing comparison for those of you that are visual learners. I’ve totaled up the MSRP and destination charge for this, seeing as you can’t get rid of the latter. You’ll have to figure out your local taxes yourself:

Yamaha MT-03: $5,024 ($4,599 MSRP + $425 destination charge)
84%
Honda CB300R: $5,329 ($4,949 MSRP + $380 destination charge)
90%
BMW G310R: $5,340 ($4,845 MSRP + $495 destination charge)
90%
Kawasaki Z400: $5,409 ($4,999 MSRP + $410 destination charge)
91%
Husqvarna Vitpilen/Svartpilen 401: $5,449 ($4,999 MSRP + $450 destination charge)
92%
KTM Duke 390: $5,949 ($5,499 MSRP + $450 destination charge)
100%

Yamaha’s research says that 65% of new riders finance their purchase, so Yamaha Financial Services is trying to sway them over to Team Blue with aggressive financing. New owners with good credit will see offers as low as 2.99% APR for 36 months (wow, that sounds like a commercial), but what really stuck out to me was that Yamaha has a specific program for 0-FICO customers (remember, a FICO score of 0 doesn’t mean that you have horrible credit, it just means that you have no debt history). This may not seem like a big deal if you’re rolling in the dough, but it’s the first time I’ve heard of a such a plan from a manufacturer’s in-house financial service. It may also be the difference for a youngster who is looking for a first bike but hasn’t had any reason for credit history before – like yours truly, 13 years ago.

Don’t run from the cops, kids.

Again, I haven’t had the opportunity to ride the new KTM Duke 390 yet, but $5,949 before tax is almost a grand more than the MT-03 and I don’t see the KTM being 20% more of a bike than the Yamaha. At this point, my personal class favorites are the Kawasaki Z400 and the Yamaha MT-03. If you live near a Husky dealership and/or like quirky things, the Husqvarna Svartpilen 401 is also worth checking out now that they’ve cut the price down. Beginners who are intimidated by shifting should also know that Husky has an optional Rekluse clutch.

So, is the Yamaha MT-03 the new best bargain in street motorcycling? Yes, though there are two potential caveats:

1.) Size: If you’re my size (6’2″, 190 pounds) or bigger, all bikes in this class will feel a little cramped. But the wide shoulders of the MT-03 tank are physically restrictive, and you may not have enough room for your legs. I didn’t have that feeling with the Z400 or 401.

2.) Level of Experience: Typically when I get questions about small displacement bikes from you, my wonderful readers, they come from two distinct camps: beginners who are just getting started and experienced riders who have been on motorcycles for years and are now looking to downsize.

If you’re just getting started and are looking to a bike to join the world of motorcycling with, teach yourself the basics, possibly drop it along the way (as many first-timers do), and then upgrade in a few years, I’d save a few bucks and get the MT-03. The price difference between the Yamaha and the Kawi/Husky is basically worth about 5,000 miles worth of gasoline, so cover that distance, learn your skills, and then move on. You’re only giving up a couple of ponies and the MT-03 is still supremely capable. Of course, you’re more likely to move on within the same family, which is why Yamaha wants you on a MT-03 so when it’s time to upgrade you’ll seriously consider the MT-07 and do wheelies until your face falls off from laughter.

2018 MT-07 pictured

If you’re looking to downsize, you’re hopefully looking for a bike that you’re going to want to keep for a long time – over 5 years the price difference amortizes to just $80/year. While the horsepower difference between the MT-03 and Z400/401 is negligible, there is a noticeable gap in torque that you’ll appreciate. But if there’s something about the MT-03 that calls out to you, whether you’re a Yamaha loyalist or you love the styling, I promise that you won’t go wrong by choosing it.

Bike-urious approved!

Either way, you should definitely get a test ride, form your own opinion, and then let me know what you think! The MT-03 is already available for demo rides (there were some available at Daytona Bike Week even before I got to try them at the launch), and Yamaha’s got three semis loaded with these bikes criss-crossing the nation and stopping at Yamaha dealerships for you to sample. Check out the demo schedule here. If you already know that this is going to be the first (or next) bike in your garage, then the MT-03 is currently available at your local dealership now for $4,599 plus destination in either Midnight Black or the one I’d be riding, Ice Fluo. I suspect that, regardless of color, Yamaha’s going to sell a lot of these.


Helmet: Shoei X-Fourteen in Matte Black – $742.99
Helmet Design: custom design by Velocity Tape – $140
Jacket: Alpinestars Solano Waterproof Jacket1 in Black – $249.95
Airbag: Alpinestars Tech-Air 5 – $699.95, not yet available
Jeans: Alpinestars Copper Denim – $229.95
Gloves: Alpinestars Oscar Robinson in Brown – $89.95
Shoes: Alpinestars Faster 3 Rideknit in Black/White – $179.95
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