Yamaha’s new YZF-R3 has KTM’s RC390 and Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 in its sights. To find out if it has what it takes to be the king of the A2 sportsbikes, we take all three for a thrashing on road and track.
The Moto3 refugee
It’s the KTM RC390 that immediately slaps a smile on our testers’ faces. As we stand in the MCN bike park, ogling the three half-pint middleweights, all eyes are fixed on orange. With its underslung exhaust, trick headlight, Moto3-style steel trellis frame and sharp angular lines, it looks just like a proper race bike. It’s wiry, athletic and looks like it’s about to head-butt the Kawasaki. I want one.
I swing a leg over the lofty 820mm-high seat and grab the bars. The 390 forces my body into a racing crouch, the seat’s hard and the bars are low – I can already feel pressure on my wrists.
I fire the single-cylinder into life, grab first gear, and watch the gear shift-light flash madly as the redlining engine asks for another ratio. I click into second and the furiously blinking shift-light goes into meltdown. I feed it third and fourth gears, the combination of short gearing and 44bhp injecting a shot of serious go. This bike is fun.
The B-road I’m riding tightens and the surface deteriorates too. The KTM’s ride starts to get choppy while its harshly damped forks make sure I feel every bump. It’s set up stiff like an old-school race bike and feels quite crude. When I grab a handful of brake I get plenty of stopping power, but little in the way of feedback or finesse.
The green machine
The Kawasaki shares similar issues with the KTM. It isn’t harshly damped, but its fork and shock internals are still budget and lack the control of more expensive units. And while the brakes aren’t woolly like the KTM’s, the twin-pots up front still need a good tug. It does, however, have a lower seat (785mm), is much more comfortable and has a more everyday, upright riding position, making it a welcome relief after the RC390.
Our Ninja test bike is in Kawasaki’s 30th Anniversary colour scheme (£5049) and has smart touches such as faired-in indicators. But the dash is lacking and unlike the KTM and Yam it doesn’t have a shift-light or gear indicator, which would come in handy as the parallel-twin’s power is located in the top end. The Kwak makes the least power and torque (39bhp and 20ftlb) of the three bikes on test, so you have to rev it up to 10,000rpm before it truly wakes up.
At 174kg it’s also the heaviest bike here and doesn’t flick or change direction as easily as the other two, feeling relatively slow steering when thrown into corners. But it likes to be thrashed. The exhaust screams, the motor comes alive and, like the KTM, the Ninja becomes great fun. You have to work at it, though.
The new kid on the block
Enter the Yamaha R3. It’s not like the race-hungry KTM and it’s not like the benign Kawasaki, which has to be screamed to be a laugh. Instead, it takes the best from both machines and wraps them into one exquisite package. The riding position is near-perfect, with low seat and comfy, semi-upright position. There’s even a comprehensive dash.
Get a move on and the super-creamy twin motor is incredibly smooth. Like the Kawasaki, the magic happens at high revs, but unlike the green machine there’s still plenty of midrange power to keep things moving right through the rev range. Its flexible engine and power delivery make the 321cc twin easier to live with than the KTM and Kawasaki.
The super-light clutch, silky gear change, well set-up suspension and strong brakes all combine to make one seriously competent contender. There’s more than enough poke to make the Yamaha a fun and engaging machine. The R3 is stable and composed and it’s easy to climb all over it as you rail round swooping corners like a Moto3 nutter.
The KTM may wipe the floor with the competition in the aesthetics and race-rep department, but on closer inspection the Indian-built machine lacks in build quality and finish compared to the swish Indonesia-built Yamaha.
The Thai-built Kawasaki also lacks, and doesn’t share the modern feeling of the Yam. KTM pushed the little single so far along the race bike spectrum that it’s not a practical, everyday machine, while the Yam is far more rideable and more than capable of keeping up with the RC390.
MCN’s regular speed tester Bruce Dunn rode timed laps around Rockingham’s International circuit until he was happy he’d got to the limit of each bike’s ability on track. Bruce races a Yamaha TZ250 GP bike so he knows all about getting the best out of light bikes. But he also spends day after day riding and capturing data on the world’s fastest machines, and he was impressed by how much fun he could have with just 40bhp.
“These small bikes are very satisfying to ride,” he said after finishing his laps. “If you had a dozen of you, all on bikes like this, it would be more of a laugh than if you were all on superbikes. Everyone aspires to ride superbikes, but you feel more of a passenger half the time. Riding bikes like these tells me something about my riding style: I have to adapt my style for superbikes, but with these you can maximise corner entry speed and I like that. I had a lot of fun.”
Kawasaki Ninja 300, 1'49.79
"What I like about the Ninja is that every aspect is predictable, which is a really good thing for riding on track. You know that after a certain lean angle you will be scraping, predictably, because there’s not a lot of clearance. Braking is good, you can grab as much as you like and lean on the ABS in a straight line. Handling-wise, it’s predictable and smooth. The suspension is budget, but it works quite well at this track; Rockingham can be choppy, but the Ninja’s suspension irons it out quite a bit.
"There’s a chicane at the end of the lap and I was going very confidently from left to right – though a lot of that will be down to the Pirelli control tyres; I wouldn’t have that confidence in the stock tyres. There’s not a lot of power, but the delivery is turbine smooth throughout the rev range, and there’s the satisfaction that comes from being able to cane an engine through every gear and challenge yourself to get the best out of the momentum you’ve got. I enjoyed this bike."
Yamaha YZF-R3, 1'47.19
"This bike is in a similar vein to the Kawasaki, but it has a bit more punch from the engine. It has a nicer dash with a gear indicator and shift-light, which is always useful to have. The shock feels softer than the Kawasaki’s and, after a few laps on track, it feels as though it’s faded completely. The back-end was wallowing and moving up and down as if it had lost all the damping, which makes it completely useless for track riding.
"If I left braking as late as I did on the Kawasaki, the R3 would judder and jump quite a bit because the ABS was kicking in and extending my braking distance. It had similar ground clearance issues to the Kawasaki, and maybe more. The steering is nice and neutral, but that shock fading means the bike has sunk and the ground clearance has reduced even more. The Kawasaki and Yamaha are both good fun to ride as you can really concentrate on picking the perfect line, but the Yamaha is that little bit faster and better."
KTM RC390, 1'43.28
"It’s a lot faster around the track than the other two, and that’s down to its larger engine, but it’s hampered by the short gearing. For example, I take Rockingham’s hairpin in third gear on the KTM, while on the other two bikes I was in second. But the punchy engine really suits this track, you’re leant over for a lot of the time so you need power and torque to continue driving the bike, and the KTM has much more shove than the other two. While the engine works well on track, the suspension feels very basic, almost crude. The brakes don’t feel overly powerful and the ABS kicks in far too early.
"The KTM’s let down by a lack of build quality, and I can imagine this bike being a bit of a pain on the road. If I had to go on a trip I’d rather go on one of the other bikes as this engine would get on my nerves after a while. If I took this on a trackday I’d be confident of running in the medium group and mixing it with most of the other riders, especially on braking and in the turns. It’s a faster bike out of the box, but it’s not necessarily better to ride."
The 2012 Kawasaki Ninja is a good laugh if you keep the revs up, but its competitors surpass it with a more modern feel.
The KTM lacks in build quality and its harsher, track-focused ride is fun but tiresome as an everyday machine.
The Yamaha takes the win as it’s the most competitively priced, has the best build quality and is a credible, very well thought-out machine.
It’s exciting, easy to ride, more forgiving than its competitors and is a proper big bike in its own right. Yamaha are onto a winner with the new R3.