Yamaha FZ6

This must be a global economy. After years of issuing lame excuses about why we don't get some of the coolest European and domestic Japanese machinery—they won't sell them, we can't certify them, waaaa—manufacturers have increased the flow of popular Euro models never before seen here from a dribble to a torrent. Remember when Yamaha so cautiously brought in the Euro-sexy (and amazingly fast) FJR1300 sport-tourer in small quantities? Instant success. In fact, Yamaha still hasn't caught up with demand.

Now we're seeing a whole category come across the Atlantic--semiserious, not totally clothed middleweight sportbikes. Call them real-world supersports, if that makes you feel better. True, it's not an entirely new segment here: We've had the little Suzuki Bandit for years, of course, but that was a category of one for the longest time. Suzuki's SV650 levered open a new segment and has passed well into cult status, and Triumph's Speed 4 tried to follow along, but there were few takers. Now gaze upon the newest interloper: The Yamaha FZ6, a totally new motorcycle to carry on the Fazer nameplate abroad.

Introduced in 1998, the previous Fazer was built upon a retuned YZF600R engine mated to a steel-tube frame. It was eminently functional, if slightly gawky, and sold extremely well--some 80,000 units were produced through 2002. For us, there's no Fazer name--over there, it's the FZ6 for the naked version and the FZ6 Fazer for the half-faired model, the only iteration blessed upon we colonials.

Sturdy and hardworking as the old YZF engine may have been, the FZ6's is based on the '03 R6, and puts it in another league. Thoroughly tweaked for better midrange torque (and to accommodate hanging out in the open in a new frame, as well as vastly different intake and exhaust systems), the FZ6 mill puts out a claimed 98 horses at the crank--let's say just under 90 at the rear wheel, or approximately 15 down on the current R6. Still, that makes it the overdog of the class--with the SV and Bandit 600S in the low 70s at the rear wheel.

For the FZ6, Yamaha left the R6's basic engine layout alone. In fact, the models share many key components--valves and springs, as well as the gearbox (though the FZ6 gets reworked engagement dogs in second and sixth gears) and internal ratios. But the FZ6 gets a slightly lower compression ratio than the R6--12.2:1 vs. 12.4:1--and considerably milder cams. Although not the same parts, the FZ6's cams have profiles similar to the old YZF-based Fazer's.

Yamaha's Controlled-Fill die-casting technology enables the FZ6's frame to be made entirely from castings, amazingly consisting of two halves bolted together at the steering head and swingarm pivot areas, with no welds whatsoever. Yamaha claims this chassis is stronger than the previous Euro-only Fazer 600 frame, while also weighing nine pounds less.

Perhaps a bit of a surprise in this price class, the FZ6 sports a new generation of simplified electronic fuel injection. Not present are the vacuum slides of the R1/R6 setup (for cost reasons), and a few sensors. The new system employs a much smaller but more powerful brain box and a paired-pulse scheme that combines functions for cylinder pairs one/four and two/three, in essence treating them like a pair of twins. To make this work, the injection system squirts fuel to the paired cylinders once every 360 degrees of crank rotation--the usual method on systems that treat cylinders independently is to discharge once just before the intake stroke, or every 720 degrees. Yamaha claims the system is simpler (we read that as cheaper) and has better low-rpm responsiveness. More on that shortly.

Yamaha broke more new ground with the FZ6's frame. Built with the company's Controlled-Fill die-casting techniques, the alloy frame is two massive pieces bolted together around the steering stem, rear engine and swingarm mount. Yes, that's right...no welds. Yamaha says the frame is much stiffer than the old Fazer's steel-tube affair--thanks in part to an extra upper engine mount on the left side--and nine pounds lighter. Because the stacked-gearbox R6 engine is so much shorter, the alloy swingarm is a whopping 73mm longer than the outgoing Fazer's. With the new design, Yamaha took the opportunity to move the engine up and back toward the rider as compared to the Fazer.

Instead of using an older-generation 600 motor, Yamaha engineers used the latest R6 engine, returning it for more midrange spunk. The 600cc powerplant also uses a new fuel injection technology style that was intended to give better low-midrange throttle response—but our test unit didn't perform as well as hoped.

Fitted with the R6's super light wheels--shod with big-boy 120/70 and 180/55 tires, while the old Fazer's were smaller--the FZ6 comes in at a reasonable 422 pounds (claimed dry weight). Compare that with the Bandit 600S (458 claimed dry), the SV650S (a svelte 372 claimed dry) or the new Honda 599 (401 claimed dry) and you can see that Yamaha aimed for the middle of the class. This claimed weight is slightly more remarkable knowing that the FZ6 is not a small motorcycle. Its wheelbase (at 57.6 inches) is the same as the Bandit 600S'--for scale, remember that big and little Bandits are almost identical dimensionally and some 20mm longer than the SV's. Chassis geometry also stays close to home--at 25 degrees of rake and 98mm of trail, it's right in there with the Bandit (24.5 deg./104mm), the SV (25 deg./100mm) and the new Honda 599 (25 deg./98mm). The FZ6's 31.3-inch seat height is also within half an inch of those bikes.

You might expect a bike with less power than the R6 and considerably more weight to be, well, a lot less fun to ride. Not exactly. Thanks to good, rational ergonomics--though in that peculiar bar-too-high Yamaha fashion--and a great perch upon a broad, firm saddle, the FZ6 is immediately nonthreatening without being dull. Heave off from a stop sign and you'll notice that the reworked R6 mill has plenty of low-end urge and a delightful degree of midrange rush, easily working against the taller overall gearing compared to the R6. (The FZ6 has two fewer teeth on the rear sprocket.) The engine winds up cleanly, the box shifts well and the bike moves down the road with a minimum of fuss.

Assuming you got that far without embarrassment, you'll be a happy camper. Unfortunately, the preproduction bikes we rode had a light switch installed where the first quarter-turn of the throttle should have been. No amount of tenderness with the throttle could keep the bike from lurching in the lower gears. And, sorry to say, Yamaha has already worked the easiest fixes--the throttle pulley is an eccentric, a common ploy to smooth small-opening throttle response, and there's the aforementioned taller gearing. We hope Yamaha gets this sorted out for production.

The simplified dash panel uses an annoyingly hard-to-see circular LCD tachometer, along with the usual digital displays for speed, coolant temp, fuel level and tripmeters. Bars are a bit high for our tastes, but at least you can change them easily.

Once moving, the FZ6 really wants to play, though it's more of a well-mannered soiree in the basement than an SV-like wall-to-wall house party. The engine seems willing up to 11,000 rpm, but strained from there to the 14,000 rpm redline (1500 rpm lower than the R6's); in fact, don't bother reaching past the 12,000 rpm power peak. Compared to the SV, the FZ6 feels restrained, but against the poor, wheezy old Bandit, it's a mountain of power.

Wherever you go on the FZ6, you will not suddenly mistake it for an R6 with a sit-up riding position. Steering responses are measured and exceedingly predictable where the R6's are instant and thrilling. The suspension moves a lot, but mostly with grace. The brakes will howl the front tire, but that's about the only impression you will leave with. Dunlop's new OE tire, the D252, was no doubt chosen for good steering response and a long, long life; it's no high-performance tire, we'll say that. Again, the FZ6's chassis behavior is distinctly middle of the road--not as sparkling as the SV, but miles ahead of the Bandit; no bad habits, but nothing to get your juices pumping, either.

Yamaha's well-groomed press people repeatedly pointed out that the FZ6 is a middle-grounder, a sportbike for everyday use built (perhaps most critically) with a very keen eye on the bottom line. (The FZ6 costs just $200 more than the '03 SVS650S.) That's why you get perfectly serviceable two-piston, sliding-pin calipers in front when the old bike wore the previous-generation monoblock calipers. That's why the Soqi fork (with 43mm stanchions) looks just like the FZ1's but has a damping rod instead of a modern cartridge and no adjustments whatsoever. Behind, the shock is preload-adjustable-only and operates without the benefit of a linkage. Some of the bits and pieces, such as the steel rear subframe, aren't built with the care and kindness seen on an R6.

Where Yamaha has bought generic in place of name-brand components, it at least has given back some with amenities. A centerstand is standard. An electronic instrument package--with a silly, hard-to-read light-a-blob tach surrounding a central display--includes a clock, dual tripmeters and a level gauge for the five-gallon fuel tank. That broad fairing gives plenty of wind protection and can be fitted with an optional, taller windscreen. Mirrors hung on long stalks show what's actually behind you.

In so many ways, the FZ6 is a smart, rational package, a well-considered sporty standard with a decidedly European flair. Whether the concept meets with understanding and approval here remains to be seen, but with the R6 dominating the class (and having such a successful racing career), that feisty little powerplant hung in plain sight may be all the FZ6 needs. This much we know--Honda's cute little 599, with a lesser engine and higher price tag, had better keep a sharp eye out for the FZ6.

2004 Yamaha FZ6
•MSRP: $6499
•Type: Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, DOHC inline-four
•Displacement: 600cc
•Compression ratio: 12.2:1
•Bore x stroke: 65.5 x 44.5mm
•Induction: Electronic fuel injection

•Front suspension: 43mm conventional damping rod fork, 5.1 in. travel
•Rear suspension: Single shock absorber, 5.1 in. travel
•Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop D252
•Rear tire: 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop D252
•Rake/trail: 25 deg./98mm (3.9 in.)
•Wheelbase: 57.6 in. (1463mm)
•Claimed dry weight: 422 lbs. (191kg)

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