Road Test Review
What do a state park, an international border crossing, a dirt road and a coastal highway have in common? Together they make up the four corners of California. Linking them together in a big loop covers 2,600 miles, which I shoehorned into a little more than three days, averaging 800 miles a day, for a challenging test of man and machine aboard the new 2016 Yamaha FJR1300ES.
Since its U.S. debut as a 2003 model, Yamaha’s FJR1300 sport tourer has evolved steadily. Minor updates smoothed rough edges and addressed shortcomings. ABS was added here, aerodynamics were improved there and new technologies were introduced. A major overhaul for 2013 brought more power, the spoils of throttle-by-wire (engine modes, cruise control and traction control), improved wind protection and comfort, updated instrumentation and new styling, and 2014 saw the introduction of the FJR1300ES, with electronically adjustable suspension. For 2016, the FJR has been further refined with a new 6-speed transmission, an assist-and-slipper clutch, LED lighting and a spiffed-up instrument panel. The standard FJR1300A also gets updated suspension and the FJR1300ES gets new LED cornering lights.
California is a big, complicated state burdened by gridlocked traffic, high costs of living and onerous rules and regulations (as EIC Tuttle puts it, “if it isn’t mandatory it’s prohibited”). But it’s also a state of unrivaled beauty, a place where diverse topography, scenic roads and benevolent weather come together to create the ideal environment for motorcycle touring. My goal, in addition to our usual test regimen of mixed-use riding and measurements, was to ride around California in one big push, to live on the FJR from sunrise to sunset for several days and see how far Yamaha’s flagship sport tourer has come. My route, from coast to desert to mountains and back again, ran the gamut, from freezing to triple digits, from blowing sand to hammering rain, from city traffic to big freeways to empty back roads.
After a few days of commuting and a photo shoot on local back roads, it was time to get down to business. I loaded the FJR’s 30-liter, removable saddlebags (which come with high-quality zippered liner bags), mounted a tail bag and magnetic tank bag, installed a GPS and hooked up a heated jacket liner. To avoid rush-hour traffic riding south through Los Angeles and San Diego, I left my house in Ventura at 4 a.m. and cruised down the dark, empty highway. Three hours later I exited at Dairy Mart Road, a narrow, busted-up road strewn with sand and gravel and swarming with fast-moving Border Patrol trucks. On the other side of a massive fence loomed Tijuana, so close yet so far. As the rising sun peeked over a ridge, I dropped the sidestand in a dirt lot at Border Field State Park in California’s southwest corner. One down, three to go.
During the nonstop freeway slog, my attention was focused on comfort and wind protection. With the FJR’s wide, flat seat in the higher of two positions, it provided firm support and adequate room for my long legs. The wide seat is comfortable on the road, but it can make it challenging to get flat-footed at a stop, especially for shorter riders. The handlebar was in the standard position (with tools it can be moved fore/aft 5mm), allowing me to sit almost upright. With the electric windscreen in the highest position of its 5.1-inch range, my upper body was protected from the wind and airflow around my helmet was turbulence-free. Lowering the windscreen directed wind blast at my chest, taking weight off my wrists, but whether high or low the screen is on the small side and wind noise can be bothersome. Expanding the lower fairing panels helped deflect wind around my legs, and though the heated grips kept my hands reasonably warm, I wondered why wind-blocking hand guards haven’t found their way onto sport tourers.
After a gas stop, I headed east. California is long and narrow, averaging almost 800 miles from north to south and 250 miles east to west, and its southern border is shared with Mexico—a straight line that’s just 140 miles long. Splitting lanes through rush-hour traffic took me to Interstate 8, which climbs over the Cuyamaca Mountains, crosses the Tecate Divide and drops down a winding grade into the hot, dry Colorado Desert. Paralleling the border, the terrain went from sandy and rocky to green and fertile in the well-irrigated Imperial Valley. East of El Centro, I crossed a canal and was soon riding among towering dunes as sand drifted across the road, and then a few miles south on State Route 186 took me to the border crossing at Andrade. After 400 miles and six hours of seat time, I had tagged California’s two southern corners.
Folks have been clamoring for a 6th gear on the FJR for a long time, and Yamaha has finally done it. But the new transmission goes beyond just an extra cog and has transformed the riding experience with exceptionally fluid and precise gear changes. By separating the shift dog from the gears, Yamaha saved enough space to allow for the addition of a 6th gear without making the transmission larger, and new helical-cut gears reduce lash and noise. The final drive ratio is slightly taller (2.693 vs. 2.773), the ratio spread for gears 1-5 is narrower (with taller 1st and 2nd gears and shorter 4th and 5th gears) and the new 6th gear reduces engine speed by about 10 percent compared to 5th gear on the previous model. The result is a bit less snap in the lower gears, quicker acceleration in gears 4-5 and more relaxed highway riding in top gear.
Paired to the transmission is a new assist-and-slipper clutch, which uses interlocking cams to push the clutch plates together under acceleration (assist function) for smoother shifting and lighter clutch operation, and to relieve pressure on the plates under deceleration (slipper function) to reduce back torque from engine braking. Yamaha claims lighter clutch springs reduce effort at the lever by 20 percent. The new transmission and clutch work together harmoniously, giving the FJR a very refined feel.
For the next 500 miles I crossed the Colorado and Mojave deserts, enduring 100-degree heat and sandblasting cross winds. U.S. Route 395 was my primary route north and the snowcapped Sierra Nevada served as my scenic companion. By the time I stopped to gas up in Bishop, about halfway up the state, I had logged 900 miles in 15 hours. Soon the sun went down and the temperature dropped.
Riding a little farther that night, as well as after sundown following the photo shoot a couple days before, allowed me to test the FJR’s new LED headlights and cornering lights. The headlights shine much brighter and whiter than before, and with the high beams on, the lights’ punch and spread are impressive. On the ES model, three “eyebrow” LED lights above each headlight illuminate sequentially at 7, 11 and 16 degrees of lean, measured by the new Inertial Measurement Unit, to light up dark corners inside turns. The entire lighting setup makes nighttime riding safer.
After overnighting in Mammoth Lakes, I hit the road at dawn and the FJR’s temperature gauge registered 32 degrees. Up went the screen, on went the heated grips and jacket at full blast. My first set of twisties came on the June Lake Loop, which I had to myself in the early morning. The FJR’s grippy Bridgestone Battlax BT-023 tires turned in easily and the bike felt agile and surefooted. The tires got another workout riding through the West Walker River canyon and around Topaz Lake, and with the day warming up I fell into a nice groove. Then I crossed into Nevada, got a speeding ticket and got bogged down in traffic. Blurg.
When Route 395 crossed back into California, I entered the remote, sparsely populated northeast corner of the state. Stopping for gas in Alturas, where I wiped yet another mass grave of insects off my face shield, I had reached the halfway point. My knees and hips ached, but my backside was in decent shape and I had yet to discover any annoying quirks about the FJR. If I had to use a single word to describe the bike it would be “smooth.” How it delivers power, how it shifts gears, how its suspension responds—nothing is harsh or abrupt or unpleasant. Throttle response, whether in the more direct Sport mode or more relaxed Touring mode, feels just right. Despite its 21 possible settings, the electronic suspension has a narrow range of damping (not soft enough on the low end, not firm enough on the high end), but it keeps the bike stable and the rider comfortable. The humming in-line four could be considered dull by some, but its steady rhythm and muted exhaust note suited me just fine.
To tag the northeast corner I rode east on State Route 299, over the Warner Mountains and down into Surprise Valley, then north on County Road 1 around Upper Alkali Lake until the pavement ended. I continued another 12 miles on graded gravel to a small bridge over a stream that serves as the California-Oregon border. Three down, one to go.
Route 299 took me west, over the Cascade Range, down into the Central Valley and then back up again, into the Trinity Alps, where I stopped for the night in Weaverville. My favorite part of the trip was my early-morning ride through the magnificent, winding Trinity River canyon and then descending out of the mountains to the foggy coast, where I turned north on U.S. Route 101. It was another 95 miles to the fourth corner, but what a glorious stretch of road, hugging the coast around lagoons and passing through redwood groves. Parking the FJR in front of a “Welcome to Oregon” sign, after riding 1,800 miles in a little more than two days, I tagged the final corner.
U.S. 101 was my route home for the next 800 miles, along the beautiful northern stretch known as the Redwood Highway, around the Bay Area and back to Southern California. Construction delays, rush-hour traffic and heavy rain made it the most challenging part of the ride. I wanted this journey to involve some suffering and sacrifice. I wanted to be solitary. To get my mind clean and the bike dirty. To rack up miles and take photos. By the end I was tired and sore, with a butt that felt more like hamburger than iron, but I saw unforgettable scenery, explored fantastic roads and forged a deep bond with the Yamaha FJR1300ES.
We’re still racking up miles on the FJR, with 4,000 miles on the clock and counting. The bottom line is that the new FJR1300ES is better—and more expensive—than ever. It’s fast and smooth, offers premium comfort and amenities, and has generous luggage, load and fuel capacities. The new transmission, clutch, lighting and instrumentation add more polish to an already well-refined motorcycle, which becomes immediately evident whether you ride it around town or around the state.