For a long time, learning to ride a motorcycle (responsibly) meant you would take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course where you rode some crappy small-displacement motorcycle around a parking lot. Then you went to get your license, and if you were a reasonable person with an inkling of self-preservation, you went and bought a slightly less crappy small-displacement motorcycle that didn’t look cool or deliver on the promise of motorcycling.
Now we live in 2020, and despite the world objectively falling to pieces around us, at least one thing is getting better: small-displacement motorcycles. KTM makes the RC390 and the 390 Duke, Kawasaki offers the Ninja 400 and the Z400, and Honda has the new, cool Rebels and its CB and CBR300s. Yamaha has offered the R3 for ages, and it still stands out as a killer beginner bike for someone interested in a sport-bike-style motorcycle; it’s basically Goldilocks on two wheels, but what if the fully faired and canted-forward look isn’t your thing?
Fear not, because Yamaha has finally decided to bring its MT-03 to the US after offering it in other global markets since 2016, and frankly, it’s one of the most compelling bikes in the segment.
What makes the MT-03 so intriguing? To start, it takes the excellent bones of the R3 — including its the 321 cc parallel-twin engine, the well-made and nicely finished steel frame — and turns it into a more upright and comfortable motorcycle, and the end result is way more fun than a $4,500 motorcycle should be.
The MT-03’s two-cylinder isn’t exactly a neck-snapper, but nothing in this class really is. It provides somewhere in the neighborhood of 41 horsepower with a shockingly smooth delivery. The fueling is excellent, with very linear response thanks to a tried-and-true cable throttle, and the engine doesn’t offer much in the way of vibration, even as you near its nigh-on 12,000 rpm redline.
Torque is totally adequate — enough that my colleague was able to comfortably lift the front wheel like a hooligan during the ride — and it’s also delivered smoothly and without big peaks. The way that this engine offers its performance is exceptionally friendly for beginners, yet it still offers enough thrills to make an experienced rider grin.
The MT-03’s six-speed transmission is excellent and extremely easy and satisfying to use. I never had an issue finding neutral, either, something that even much more expensive bikes have issues with. The cable-actuated wet clutch is predictably light and easy to modulate and shouldn’t give most riders, even newbies, much trouble.
The suspension setup on the MT-03 is pretty upscale for the class. The front gets 37-mm inverted forks (most in the class have right-side-up forks) though these are a small step down from those found on the more track-oriented R3, which has similarly upside-down units, albeit larger ones. The rear monoshock isn’t fancy, with preload adjustment only. Still, it’s reasonably competent, and because it’s identical to the one found on the R3, there’s no shortage of aftermarket options to spruce it up or replace it entirely.
The brakes on the MT-03 are another high point. The single front rotor is a 298-mm affair, and while experienced riders used to bigger bikes might scoff at the slightly squishy lever and gentle ramp-up in brake force, the setup is perfect for someone new to motorcycles. I’m outside the intended size/weight range for the MT-03, but I never find myself running out of brake, even in hard stops.
The best part of the braking system, and indeed one of the most significant selling points for the MT-03, is the fact that antilock brakes are standard equipment. In my recent Harley-Davidson, I criticized Harley for offering ABS as an option on a $13,500 motorcycle, and Harley is hardly the only manufacturer to go down that road. We at Roadshow are proponents of the idea that safety should be for everyone, at every budget, so seeing Yamaha include such a game-changing safety feature on an affordable bike targeted at new and inexperienced riders is incredibly refreshing. Let’s hope the rest of the industry follows suit.
When it comes to electronics, ABS is basically it, but that’s fine at this power level and price point. Adding an electronic throttle, ride modes or traction control would add significant cost to the bike, and with only 41 horsepower, it’s just not that big of a sacrifice.
The MT-03’s digital dash looks pretty basic but it provides all the information I’d expect to see on a more expensive motorcycle. You get your tach and speedo, of course, but you also get a gear position indicator and a fuel gauge, though the latter could use a bit more granularity than its four bars offer. The screen is big enough to read comfortably at a glance, but it can get a little tough in direct sun.
From an ergonomic standpoint, the MT-03 is a big win — if you’re not 6-foot-4. A low seat height of 30.7 inches means that even smaller riders should be able to put a foot flat on the ground at a stop — a real confidence-builder, especially with new riders. The bike’s 373-pound wet weight is also a plus for new riders because it makes the bike less daunting to move around at low speeds and easier to pick up when it inevitably gets dropped.
The rider position is very upright, with a traditional-style handlebar instead of the R3’s low-mounted clip-ons. The reach to the bars isn’t far either, so again, smaller riders should have no issues.
The one area that I thought was less than ideal was in the design of the tank cover and how it impacts rider legroom. The pegs are reasonably high, and because the top part of the tank cover flares out to the side (which looks cool, admittedly) it means that riders who are longer-of-leg will find their knees getting jammed into said flares. It was such a problem for me that it made shifting somewhat uncomfortable, but this isn’t something that will affect the majority of riders.
Other MT-03 highlights include a 3.7-gallon fuel tank, which makes for a seriously decent cruising range in the neighborhood of 200 miles. Expect to skip plenty of gas stations, even on longer rides. LED lighting is a nice touch, and while it may end up being a little controversial, I like the insect-meets-Gundam design of the front end. Ditto the “Ice Fluo” paint scheme with its matte-gray-on-neon-orange aesthetic.
In terms of quality, the MT-03 rides like a much more expensive motorcycle than it is. Nothing feels cheap, everything seems well-screwed-together — something that we’d expect for a bike from one of the big four Japanese manufacturers. The bike’s light weight makes it hilariously tossable and willing to dive into a corner, aided by its sportbike-like 17-inch wheels.
Somewhat predictably, the stock bias-ply tires are a bit of a letdown. They’re not bad, per se, but it’s clear that Yamaha had to save some cash somewhere, and this was a reasonable-enough place to do it. I’d expect the character of the bike to change significantly for the better with a swap to some stickier and possibly radial rubber.
The engine’s internal counterbalancer and 180-degree firing order mean that the MT-03 won’t punish you with buzzing hands and feet or a numb crotch-type-area on long freeway rides, something that many other small-displacement bikes struggle to offer. This fact alone adds significantly to the utility of the MT-03 and makes it a real commute capable machine.
In the end, would I buy one? If I were several inches shorter, then the answer is yes. Yamaha’s newest entrant into the naked bike category is a hell of a good motorcycle and a smokin’ deal. It offers a lot and asks very little of its owner, and I think that a new rider’s decision on which bike to buy — if they want to go new, that is.
The MT-03 is already available in dealers throughout the US, and Yamaha even has it on its demo trucks for folks to try. However, with the advent of coronavirus and all the subsequent closures, cancellations and rescheduling, it might be a little tough to throw your leg over one before you buy.