2011 Yamaha FZ8

Road Test Review

Here we go again. Yet another motorcycle clearly designed for the European market (it’s been sold there for a year) offered to Americans as if it was our longed-for last meal. But the 2011 Yamaha FZ8, which is essentially an FZ1 with less displacement and the fairing knocked off, is more like reheated leftovers. Through clever slicing and dicing of market research data, Yamaha’s product planners have convinced themselves–and want us to believe–that a middleweight naked sportbike is what we’re hungry for. They say, as a percentage of all sport sales, narrowly focused sportbikes have declined while more versatile sport standards and sport tourers have increased. Ahem…it all adds up to 100, so when one goes down the others must go up. We’re also told that Yamaha’s sport customers are more likely to replace an existing motorcycle than to find room in their budget or garage for an additional one. Therefore, the conclusion goes, they want one bike that can do it all. And, among FZ6R and FZ1 buyers, comfortable riding position, low price, manageable size and easy handling were the top purchase reasons. In other words, if you want to step up from an FZ6R or step down from an FZ1, then the FZ8 is for you. Otherwise, all bets are off.

Don’t get me wrong. The 2011 Yamaha FZ8 is a hoot. Looking oh-so fast and menacing in its black-on-black-on-black attire, the FZ8 is comfortable, peppy and responsive. When revved up, it howls like a wolf in heat after munching on horny goat weed. And for $8,490, it’s a steal. Having introduced two all-new models last fall–the Star Stryker and the Super Ténéré–we’ll give Yamaha a pass for digging into the parts bin to come up with the FZ8. In fact, good on ’em for covering the bases and bringing out a new cruiser, adventure tourer and sport standard–each of which is a great bike that’s priced right. Take that, Great Recession!

The FZ8, of course, continues a decade-long line of affordable, versatile FZ models, starting with the FZ1 and continuing with the FZ6 and Yamaha FZ6R. FZs inherit engines from the sportbike side of the family, namely the R1 and R6, retuned for street duty with more midrange grunt. The FZ6 never quite found a following and was dropped in 2010, but the FZ6R and FZ1 both return for 2011.

Yamaha’s development targets for the FZ8’s engine were strong midrange, controllable power and confidence-inspiring feel. Essentially, it sought a happy medium between the entry-level FZ6R and the big-power FZ1. Derived from the 2008 pre-crossplane crankshaft R1, the FZ8’s engine uses the same crankcase and crankshaft, but everything else is said to be new. New is a relative term, of course. The forged pistons, ceramic-composite-plated cylinders and fracture-split connecting rods have trickled down from the R1/FZ1. The liquid-cooled, DOHC, in-line four has the same 53.6mm stroke as the FZ1, but bore is 68.0mm instead of 77.0mm, which lowers displacement from 998cc to 779cc. Unlike the FZ1’s five-valve head, the FZ8’s compact, pent-roof combustion chambers have two 26mm intake and two 22mm exhaust valves per cylinder. To boost low to midrange power without sacrificing top end, the FZ8 uses different intake lengths–150mm for the inboard cylinders, 125mm for the outboard cylinders–and a spacious 7.8-liter airbox. Compared to the FZ1, it has a higher compression ratio (12.0:1 vs. 11.5:1), smaller throttle bodies (35mm vs. 45mm), a 30-percent-lighter crankshaft and mellower cam timing. The FZ8 also has fewer clutch plates for less rotational mass and lighter clutch operation, as well as lower first and final gear ratios for quicker acceleration.

Although the FZ8’s engine is less powerful and more user-friendly, its chassis and dimensions are remarkably similar to the FZ1. Both have stout, gravity cast-aluminum frames and control-filled die cast aluminum swingarms. Weight distribution (51/49), wheelbase (57.5 inches), seat height (32.1 inches), rake (25 degrees) and trail (4.3 inches) are identical. Both have 43mm male-slider forks made by KYB with 5.1 inches of travel, though the FZ8 lacks the adjustability found on the FZ1. Both have 5.1 inches of rear suspension travel, but the FZ8’s YHSJ-made shock has a lighter spring and is adjustable only for preload. They share four-piston Sumitomo monoblock front calipers and a single-piston, pin-slide Nissin rear caliper, though disc diameters differ. Both have five-spoke cast-aluminum wheels with the same dimensions in front (3.5 x 17 inches), but the FZ8 gets a 0.5-inch narrower 5.5 x 17 inch rear wheel for quicker handling. Claimed wet weights put the FZ8, at 470 pounds, just 15 pounds less than the FZ1. Most of the difference is due to the fact that the FZ8 lacks the quarter fairing and windscreen found on the FZ1, and its fuel capacity is a bit less (4.5 gallons vs. 4.8 gallons).

By now it’s abundantly clear that, on paper, the FZ8 is a cuter, cuddlier version of the FZ1. To get some seat time, Yamaha invited us to spend a day riding The Ocho in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, California. Tight, technical roads in them thar hills–especially “The Snake” on Mulholland Highway–have served as motorcycle proving grounds for decades. Many a guardrail bear the scars of those whose ambition exceeded their skills. During a road test, knowing where the blind, decreasing radius turns are and where to look out for gravel make it easier to dedicate more mental bandwidth to evaluating the motorcycle’s capabilities.

Whether cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway or slithering up and down the mountains and canyons, the FZ8’s engine felt incredibly smooth and well-balanced, with power delivery as linear as a hypotenuse. The aforementioned howl kicks in around 7,000 rpm and goes up to 11 (redline is 11,500 rpm). Yamaha won’t quote official power figures, but various sources suggest 105 horsepower and 61 lb-ft of torque at the crank. Throttle response from the closed-loop fuel injection was crisp, but the twistgrip suffered from excessive free play. That, plus a bit of lash in the chain final drive, sapped confidence on the most demanding sections of the route.

The FZ8 has no rough edges. There is enough power to excite but not so much it’ll evacuate your bowels. The stainless steel 4-2-1 exhaust has a mild, pleasant sound. It’s very maneuverable in tight turns, flicks side-to-side easily and adjusts line effortlessly (which is good since it tends to run a bit wide exiting corners). The seating position, which has 5mm more reach to the bars and footpegs that are 15mm farther back and 10mm down, is slightly more aggressive than the FZ1, yet remains comfortable and neutral. The seat ain’t bad either, but my posterior turned simian after a couple of hours in the saddle. The flyscreen parts the wind well enough, but by the end of the day my shoulders were wrecked; long hauls will likely be tiresome. Clutch pull is light, the transmission shifts smoothly and the gear ratios are perfect for a naked sportbike. The brakes are very strong without feeling abrupt. And the Bridgestone Battlax BT021 tires, developed specifically for the FZ8, turn in predictably and provide all the grip you’d ever need.

If the FZ8 has a weakness, it’s the suspension. That’s common on budget-priced motorcycles. As a crowd-pleasing street bike, the suspension favors comfort over raciness. It’s easy to find the FZ8’s limits at a fast pace on tight, rough roads, but it stays composed rather than squirrely. During a photo stop, Mike Ulrich, from Yamaha’s testing department, having noticed the spare tire stuffed into my riding gear, asked how much I weighed. When I confessed to exceeding the weight of an average rider by a considerable margin, he kindly added more preload to the rear using a spanner from the underseat toolkit. You get nine clicks of adjustment; the standard setting is five clicks out. The additional firmness helped.

The FZ8 is an ideal entry-plus sportbike. For 80 percent of the price, you get 80 percent of the displacement of an FZ1 and nearly everything else except the fairing. Fewer cc’s and less plastic means it will be cheaper to insure. Furthermore, your monthly outlay for fuel and your risk of greatly exceeding posted speed limits will be lower. Like chili and lasagna, some bikes taste better the next day.