We were sitting on a couple Adirondack chairs in front of a quaint general store when an old man with a cane sidled over to admire our motorcycles.

“Nice bikes,” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied. “Take a look at the front end of the blue one and tell me what you think.”

He hobbled over and nearly fell over backward. “Gawd. I was not expecting that… What’s the point? Does it still need a kickstand?”

It was a weekday at 7 a.m. during off-season in Los Olivos, on the outskirts of California’s touristy central coast wine country. It seemed like half the town had already stopped to chat with us out of sheer curiosity. One guy even slammed on his brakes and jumped out of his truck to inspect the bike. “Carey Hart lives around here, so I figured it was his latest build,” he explained, as if to justify his rashness. He walked around the bike, clearly perplexed: “I’m not sure what to make of this thing.”

Storefront
Pondering pressing matters.Jeff Allen

We could relate. I wouldn’t say the bike looks like something Hart—the freestyle MXer-turned-customizer—would build, but that’s because it’s too outlandish looking, too evidently designed with function over form in mind.

We were riding the 2019 Yamaha Niken GT. And like the scores of curious onlookers, we were wondering if the leaning three-wheeler is the answer to a question no one is asking. Testing it against a normal motorcycle—Yamaha’s own Tracer 900 GT, with which it shares a version of the crossplane three-cylinder engine from the MT-09—seemed like the best way to find out.

Michael Gilbert, CW's resident pro racer, and I had headed for the green hills of the central coast, slogging through the clog of Southern California traffic, in search of answers to numerous lingering questions. Namely: "What is the point of the Niken GT?"

The 2019 Yamaha Tracer 900 GT

Tracer GT
2019 Yamaha Tracer GT.Jeff Allen

First things first. Last year, Yamaha updated its FJ-09 sport-tourer and renamed it the Tracer, which is what the rest of the world’s been calling it since it debuted for the 2015 model year. Dig out $12,999 (an additional $2,300 over the base model) and you get the GT version, which comes with hard bags, heated grips, and cruise control.

On paper, the Tracer 900 GT seems like an ideal package, taking the functionality of sport-tourers of yesteryear, but editing the form to appeal to modern preferences. For riders who’ve been swayed by the upright ergos and style of ADVs but who don’t want any of the off-road pretense, the Tracer GT is a heck of an option. And like the Kawasaki Versys 1000, is a lot less expensive than bikes with a similar ethos, like the MV Agusta Turismo Veloce, KTM Super Duke GT, and Ducati Multistrada 950.

Tracer GT in action
Tried-and-true crossplane triple engine, 17-inch rubber, sporty chassis: What’s not to like? Save for a few details, the Tracer GT performs as well in the real world as it does on paper.Jeff Allen

Much has been written about Yamaha’s three-cylinder engine, and it lives up to its reputation. It’s tractable, revs quickly, and sounds like its airbox is filled with a swarm of hornets waiting to sting your nether regions. If you’ve never ridden a triple before, don’t assume they feel halfway between a twin and a four. They’re more akin to fours, if you ask me. Busy-sounding and revvy like your average four with a bit more "space" between combustion events that gives a throatier exhaust note, and its tuned for more torque down low.

Yamaha Niken GT TFT dash
TFT dash is on the small side and info at the bottom is too small to read at a glance. Also the ignition is wedged between the dash and the triple clamp, which makes it difficult to turn the key with gloves on.Jeff Allen

Also like some inline-fours, the Tracer can be a bit buzzy, especially above 6,000 rpm. Which makes the smallish mirrors pretty useless at speed. The gearbox is very slick and the quickshift (up only) works pretty seamlessly.

Niken GT and Tracer
Up-only quickshifters are typical on bikes adhering to a strict price point, though the addition auto-blip rev-matching downshifts would be more satisfying and useful.Jeff Allen

Throttle response can be toggled between the unfortunately named “STD” (standard, presumably), “A” (most aggressive), and “B” (least aggressive). “A” mode makes things a bit harried, considering the Tracer’s sport-touring intention, and especially so considering Yamaha’s three-cylinder motor is notoriously on the jittery side when it comes to throttle response.

Gilbert notes that the Tracer feels a little stiffly sprung for a sport-tourer, but when ridden aggressively, the higher loads move the suspension deeper into the stroke of travel and the bike feels balanced. But dialing in some compliance would make the Tracer a more comfortable tourer.

Niken in action
Brakes are strong, but both Michael Gilbert and I thought they felt a bit wooden. Often, a pad compound change can improve feel.Jeff Allen

There are a few characteristics that put the Tracer into the light sport-touring category. Wind protection isn't overly abundant, so there some buffeting at freeway speeds (we'd choose a larger aftermarket windscreen). Also, the panniers are on the smaller side; I filled one bag with a backpack and the other with a weekend's worth of stuff. The TFT dash is also a bit small, and I found the switch gear and navigation through dash info and settings counterintuitive.

Tracer GT’s left grip
Tracer GT’s left grip. As on other Yamahas it uses a scroll wheel on the right grip to scroll through the dash info (odometer, tripmeters, heated grips). Press and hold to enter the menu (unit, display, etc.).Jeff Allen

Overall, the Tracer GT feels like a Yamaha. Everything is almost clinically precise—throttle, shifting, handling. Yamaha’s signature telepathic steering is present and, true to breed, culminates in a motorcycle that’s very flickable without being unstable or flighty. Put it down to a sporty 24-degree steering angle, relatively short wheelbase, rigid aluminum chassis, and taut damping—the Tracer GT’s sport-toury precision is the allele of Yamaha’s R series’ pointy-edged racing genome.

While Gilbert and I were malingering in the Adirondack chairs and photographer Jeff Allen kept busy doing actual work, we couldn’t help but reflect on how much we both liked the Tracer GT. But we didn’t love it. It does a lot so right, but there’s something about it that’s “neither here nor there.” It’s not as enthralling as a sportbike or the naked bike on which it’s based, and its edginess doesn’t encourage leisurely long-day-in-the-saddle loafing. Objectively, the Tracer GT is a great bike, but its sharp in-your-face attitude puts it on the edgier side of the sport-touring spectrum.

Tracer GT
It’s not a perfect machine, but the Tracer GT is a lot of motorcycle for $12,999, but it's a big step from the $8,999 MT-09.Jeff Allen

Crisp lines and a narrow overall stance are part of the Tracer 900's sporting appeal. Long-distance riders might look at a larger windscreen to improve wind protection.

The 2019 Yamaha Niken GT

2019 Yamaha Niken GT
Gilbert testing the Niken’s touring abilities...Jeff Allen

When the Niken was first unveiled, many assumed it was Yamaha’s attempt to keep aging riders from defecting to non-leaning multi-wheeled vehicles like the Can-Am Spyder, Polaris Slingshot, or various Harley-Davidson trikes. But there’s nothing to prevent the Niken from falling over at a standstill like any other motorcycle. In our opinion, that is its strength vs. other three-wheel offerings: It feels and behaves like other motorcycles, while adding front-end grip and a feeling of security in lower-traction conditions vs. a conventional motorcycle. But there is no escaping its oddity and complexity.

Yamaha Niken
Whatever you may think of the Niken, there’s no doubt it’s an engineering masterpiece. Yamaha’s penchant for pursuing innovation (see: Yamaha GTS1000) is alive and well. The motorcycle world needs risk-takers like Yamaha.Jeff Allen

Gilbert has a talent of streaking away from 99.9 percent of people anyway, but riding the Niken up the crumbling, gravelly pavement of a steep road north of Los Olivos, he was out of my sight after just a couple of corners. The Niken’s extra wheel gives the rider a ton of front-end confidence in poor traction conditions. We didn’t get to test it in the wet, but based on how it responds in the loose stuff, we’re sure it would be pretty great. Which makes us want a knobbie-shod Niken ADV. Just sayin’.

The wide stance up front also makes the Niken incredibly stable on the edge of the tire and doing slow-speed maneuvers. It’s like if you’re doing a bench press: Widening your grip on the bar gives you more stability. Overall, riding the Niken simply feels like less of a balancing act. It doesn’t diminish the conventional dynamics of handling, it just adds a confidence-inspiring sense of security. I couldn’t help but think of the slogan from those Pontiac commercials from the late ’90s that always played on Speedvision during motorcycle races: “Wider is better.”

Niken GT LCD dash
Niken GT’s LCD dash. Because there’s so much more bike in front of the rider, the Niken’s dash seems a bit small. The mirrors are a bit buzzy and are even farther away from the rider, rendering them pretty useless at speed.Jeff Allen

Another advantage reveals itself during braking. With very little front-end dive and two contact patches up front, the rider can be less tentative when jamming on the binders. Even with less weight transfer, you can brake hard enough to do stoppies quite readily—so says Gilbert, anyway.

Although the Niken has less front-end travel than the Tracer, the leaning front end almost acts as another form of suspension. Imagine one wheel going into a pothole: The front end pivots, sending one wheel down to accept the blow while the bike stays upright. Pretty cool. In all, it makes for an ultra-smooth ride. The Niken feels more like a magic carpet than any bike with semi-active electronic suspension, that’s for sure.

Niken GT
The Niken GT looks more bizarre than it feels. It gives the same feels as a standard motorcycle in terms of dynamics.Jeff Allen

Although it takes more effort at the bars to go from side to side than the Tracer GT (and carries an extra 120 pounds), handling is otherwise very neutral.

To achieve a 50/50 weight balance, Yamaha shifted the rider back on the machine. The result is ergos that are even more relaxed than on the Tracer, with a broad saddle and footpegs that are farther forward.

Yamaha also made subtle changes to the crossplane three-cylinder motor, with a heavier crank for added drivability and torque. The rear sprocket also has two more teeth to shorten gearing. The changes work well. While the Niken doesn’t spin up as quickly, it makes up for it with a smoother throttle response and torque lower down in the rev range. Unfortunately, this change (in addition to the added weight) negatively affects fuel consumption.

Niken and Tracer GT luggage
The Tracer GT comes with 22-liter hard bags. The FJR’s 30-liter bags use the same base and mounting points and only difference is the deeper lid that increases capacity. Unfortunately, Yamaha does not make the lids interchangeable, and using larger bags will potentially overload the smaller, lighter Tracer. The Niken GT’s 25-liter semi-rigid, zip-closure ABS bags come with a waterproof liner (hard bags are not an option).Jeff Allen

At $17,299, the Niken GT is $1,300 more than the non-GT version, but comes equipped with a taller windscreen, a centerstand, heated grips, and semi-rigid panniers. Versus the better-equipped Tracer GT, the Niken GT's complex multi-link front end helps it cost $4,300 more.

Niken’s left grip
Niken’s left grip. Switch gear on both bikes is a bit counterintuitive. There isn’t a uniform system or nomenclature across the brand. For instance, on the Tracer GT, throttle modes are “STD,” “A,” and “B,” whereas on the Niken GT it’s “1,” “2,” “3.”Jeff Allen

First, the dash is LCD instead of TFT, the windscreen isn’t adjustable, and the bags are smaller, not waterproof, and offer only zip closure so are therefore non-secure. Zippered bags that come with a waterproof baggy just don’t bespeak a $17K sport-tourer.

Conclusion

2019 Tracer GT
The 2019 Tracer GT wins this test, but the Niken’s performance makes an indelible impression.Jeff Allen

After riding the Niken, the point is clear: prodigious front-end grip, unrivaled stability, particularly in dodgy, low-traction conditions. It comes at a cost, however. The Niken GT is heavier, more complex, more expensive, and less well-equipped than the Tracer GT. The question is: Is the grip level $4,300 better than on the Tracer? Experientially, it feels different, but not that much different than a two-wheeler, so whether that extra front-end security justifies making the leap to three wheels is up to you.

Even though the Tracer GT could use subtle refinement, we preferred its lighter weight, lower cost, and a few nicer features. Yamaha nails its stated objectives with the Niken, and doesn’t quite with the Tracer, but the Tracer still comes out on top in everything but the worst riding conditions.

Niken GT win protection
The Niken GT’s more generous wind protection is apparent.Jeff Allen

If you're intrigued by the Niken GT's concept, however, that's as good as having made up your mind. You want it. As I told the gathering crowds everywhere we stopped, "It's not a game changer, but it definitely works." If the Niken is the answer to a question no one asked, its real-world performance begs the question, "Why the heck didn't we?"

Niken dyno
Both machines use the crossplane triple from the MT-09, so the dyno charts are nearly identical. The Niken GT has a heavier crank and different gearing, so on the road it feels more torquey on the bottom with a smoother throttle response. But it doesn’t spin up as quickly as the Tracer GT.Jeff Allen
dyno comparison
As the dyno charts attest, power delivery is ultra-linear. Like four-cylinder machines, the Yamaha triple likes to rev. A strong top-end lends an air of sportiness.Jeff Allen

2019 Yamaha Niken GT

PRICE $17,299
ENGINE 847cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC inline-triple
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 104.49 hp @ 9,930 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 60.19 lb.-ft. @ 8,320 rpm
FRAME Steel tubes and castings with aluminum swingarm pivot area
FRONT SUSPENSION 43mm/41mm dual tube fork KYB adjustable for compression and rebound; 4.3-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION KYB monoshock adjustable for preload and rebound; 4.9-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Nissin 4-piston calipers, 298mm twin discs w/ ABS
REAR BRAKE Nissin 2-piston caliper, 282mm disc w/ ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0°/2.9 in.
WHEELBASE 59.4 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.9 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.8 gal.
MEASURED WET WEIGHT 603 lb. (w/o bags)
CONSUMPTION 35.8 mpg avg.
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT yamahamotorsports.com

2019 Yamaha Tracer 900 GT

PRICE $12,999
ENGINE 847cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC inline-triple
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 104.9 @ 9,930 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 59.81 @ 8,340 rpm
FRAME Cast aluminum
FRONT SUSPENSION 41mm KYB fully adjustable inverted fork; 5.4-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION KYB monoshock adjustable for preload and rebound; 5.6-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE 4-piston calipers, 298mm twin discs w/ ABS
REAR BRAKE 245mm disc w/ ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0°/3.9 in.
WHEELBASE 59.1 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 33.5/34.1 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.8 gal.
MEASURED WET WEIGHT 480 lb. (w/o bags)
CONSUMPTION 42.7 mpg avg.
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT yamahamotorsports.com