It sure doesn’t seem like very long ago that 600cc sport bikes ruled the roost, but time has a way of sneakily creeping by without detection. The middleweight market was once a hotly contested arena where the likes of Yamaha, Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki battled it out for supersport supremacy on racetracks around the globe, vying for attention and market share. But these days are behind us now. That’s not to say there isn’t a silver lining, evident in the release of the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6.
A number of factors contributed to their decline in popularity over the last decade, not the least of which were insurance rates. When you see the way many young riders pilot such bikes on public roads, you can easily understand why. Another contributor, aside from the North American economy post 2008, is choice. Manufacturers have opened up a world of options in recent years, literally, making models available from other markets that were previously unavailable. Streetfighters, scramblers and café racers galore! As brand loyalty also declined, this plethora of options has caused analysis paralysis when it comes time to purchase a new mount. For the motorcycle enthusiast it’s the best possible kind of problem to have, but for the manufacturer it’s still a challenge.
The original 1999 model year R6 made a strong case for itself and was frequently updated over the subsequent years following its release to compete against the other Japanese manufacturers who systematically unveiled revised styling, engines and chassis improvements. I personally purchased a bright red 2004 YZF-R6, opting for the Yamaha’s (comparative) versatility, (relative) comfort and lofty performance attributes for a middleweight sport bike. I wasn’t planning on breaking any lap records, but a little street cred never hurts.
Tipping the scales at a sprightly 178 kgs (392 lbs) the DOHC inline four-cylinder churned out 117hp at 13,000rpm before hitting the 15,500rpm redline, which, if I’m being honest, I didn’t ever reach during my time with the bike that regrettably met an early demise thanks to a careless cab driver. I digress.
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With Draconian speed limit rules, piloting such a vehicle to its potential on public roads in Ontario isn’t smart. The distinct possibility of losing your license for travelling at a velocity of 50/km/h over the speed limit means that theoretically you can lose your license before hitting second gear. Not the best place to evaluate the outward capabilities of such a machine, that’s not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable experience.
Straddling the 2017 edition brought back familiar memories and sensations. The myriad of changes made over the last 13 years were evident – some were recognizable immediately, while others revealed themselves with seat time. Bodywork appears similar but is more aerodynamic and offers improved wind protection and LED lighting.
The now aluminium tank is contoured differently and the seat isn’t sloped forward as much as previous models, so you aren’t always squished against it. Still no gas gauge though, strangely.
Making use of the familiar 599-cc inline-four and aluminum frame as the model it succeeds, the fourth generation YZF-R6 features adjustable traction control (which can be turned off) featuring six levels of mediation, in addition to three ride modes (A, STD and B). The incorporation of these techno-nannies is subtle and didn’t do anything to diminish the gratification of street riding. The reality is that many riders will likely only be fiddling with them during track days or inclement weather anyhow.
The adjustable suspension setup now features a more substantial 43-mm inverted fork (formerly 41 mm). The Nissin front brake master-cylinder, monoblock calipers, and bigger rotors (320mm) have been lifted straight from the R6’s litre-bike big brother. Brake employment is razor sharp while feel was progressive and more predictable. ABS is also standard equipment for the first time, but cannot be deactivated. I certainly didn’t encounter an issue with this during (mostly) legal road riding over the course of a week.
Firing up the engine brought about a familiar sound sensation but releasing the clutch and engaging first gear felt far more precise thanks to the multi-plate slipper clutch added back in 2006 for better transition through the 6-speed gearbox. Right hand response is instant, but also linear and predictable. If you crack the throttle, you better be damn sure you’re prepared and pointed in the right direction.
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The R6 also now offers a quick shifter as a $290 accessory which wasn’t present on my tester, so I am unable to speak to its proficiency. Throttle response was immediate, linear and unrelenting while the steering made the bike feel noticeably lighter despite remaining the same curb weight and not featuring a steering damper.
Bottom to mid-range torque is more than ample and comes alive above 9,000 rpm but still feels settled as the revised bodywork improves airflow around the rider and keeps it glued to the ground. Wheelies are however not at all out of the question should some hooning be on the menu. The R6’s accessibility makes it easy to ride fast or slow, but with all that track-ready performance on tap, it definitely does tempt you to roll into the throttle harder, brake later and lean over further than you normally would, or probably should, on the road.
The 2017 YZF-R6 manages to retain its essence while incorporating systematic improvements and technological advancements. These improvements do come at a cost, as the price has increased – making the R6 the most expensive 600 in the segment, albeit by a small margin. The reality is not only that the R6 is a much better motorcycle than its predecessors in every way, it may soon win the segment by default if the competition doesn’t decide to update their middleweights in a timely fashion. The insignificant added cost of the 2017 R6 is well worth the price of admission.
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Photos by Dustin Woods
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