First Ride: 2002 Yamaha FZ1

Spaining the globe to ride Yamaha's zippy new naked bike

In yet another display of magnanimity and the necessity to be a player in the growing naked street-stomper market, Yamaha flew the world motopress to southern Spain in February to sample its new "R1 for the real world," the much-anticipated FZ1. By the end of the weekend orgy of fine food and drink, over-the-top accommodations, and enough rubber smoke to mask the movements of several aircraft-carrier armadas, Yamaha's PR machine had us nodding in agreement: Yes, the FZ1 really is an R1 for the masses, particularly those masses that have never sampled an R1.

While it's an extremely nice motorcycle, the FZ1 is no R1, and, in fact, while tearing around Spain I had more FJ1200 deja vu moments than I did R1 ones, not at all a bad thing. The old FJ was one of Yamaha's greatest sportbike hits. With its upright ergonomics, reasonably deep-dish saddle, softish suspension and malicious midrange-intense motor, the FZ1 felt to me in many ways eerily similar to the old FJ.

To make it fit in its new tubular-steel cradle frame, Yamaha replaced the R1's 40mm downdraft carburetors with 37mm Mikuni side-draft units (which required a completely new cylinder head), lowered compression from 11.8:1 to 11.4:1, changed cam timing barely at all, added 650 grams to the bike's crankshaft for smoother power delivery, and called it a day. On paper, those changes produce a claimed 141 crankshaft horsepower at 9500 rpm, instead of the R1's claimed 148 hp, and 78 foot-pounds of torque at 7500 rpm, instead of the R1's 82 foot-pounds at 8250 rpm. But on the road the FZ doesn't pack near the wallop of the R1. For the explanation of that, look no further than the 78 pounds the bike gained in its transformation from $10,299 sportbike to $8499 street rod. Yamaha's claim of 431 pounds wet for the R1 almost agrees with our scale, so its claim of 509 pounds for the FZ should be pretty dang accurate.

With 998cc of displacement, the FZ doesn't quite pull from the bottom of its rev range like some of its 1200cc competitors. By 4000 rpm, it's waking up but doesn't begin to accelerate really hard until 6000 rpm. Keep it stirring between 6000 and 10,500 rpm, though, and the bike will definitely hold your attention. More a revver than a torquer, the FZ wants more gearbox stimulation than Suzuki's Bandit 1200, which is a fine thing as the FZ's longer-throw shifter (than the one on the R1) lets it swap gears smoother and easier, often without activating the bike's lower-effort new clutch. Above 10,000-ish rpm, you may as well go ahead and shift into the next gear. Over one long, flat stretch of Spain, my FZ pulled itself up to 10,200 rpm on the tachometer before reaching an impasse with the atmosphere--about 250 kilometers per hour according to its speedo, or 150 mph. Redline is at 11,500 rpm. Again, plenty of speed for "the real world," but not the sort of R1 stuff that makes you feel like you're headed for the next one.

If you expected R1 laser-beam handling, you shouldn't have. Sitting homo-erectusly upon the FZ's fairly cushy seat, the bike's wide handlebar makes it easy to throw around tight roads, but softer springs and more rearward weight bias mean you're getting back maybe 70 or 80 percent of the R1's road feel. There's also the matter of the engine sitting in the FZ's new steel tube frame (with one new rubberized mount in the front) as opposed to being a fully stressed component of the R1's chassis. Rake has been kicked out to 26 degrees, wheelbase is more than two inches longer, compared with the R1, with about a half inch more trail. Depending on the kind of riding you do, those changes matter a lot or not at all, but they do give the FZ an entirely different character than the R1--slower-reacting stability vs. quick and darty.

Suspension is all-way adjustable, with 43mm fork tubes in front and a cool piggyback-reservoir shock at the rear. With both ends stroking through more than five inches of travel, the FZ does a nice job of isolating its pilot from all sorts of nasties, and in exchange, it's not quite as buttoned down as the R1 and its ilk. Dual-rate fork springs are stiffer than the R1's single-rate pieces, while the rear shock spring is softer than the R1's but working through a different linkage.

On standard settings, indelicate grappling of throttle and brakes can get the FZ porpoising around a bit, and when you start levering it into corners while squeezing the excellent R1 front brakes and going eek, eek, eek on the 267mm rear, it really can become a return to the days of superbike yore. Yanking open the slides on the throttle-position-sensor-equipped Mikuni carburetors at the corner exits, and inciting the bike's rear 180-section tire to join battle against its rear shock and the road, is even more dirty fun. Although it occasionally threatens to get overstimulated, the FZ never does (not with me on it anyway); not so much as a single slap of the handlebar, in fact, and there's no steering damper either. The same can't always be said of brother R1.

The U.S. motopress was too busy grinning to find much to complain about: FZ-style motorcycle roughhousing is just as stimulating as roosting upon the R1, but in a completely different and probably less rapid way. Making real time on the FZ requires a greater amount of finesse from the rider and gives maybe more gratification at the end of the day, while at the same time allowing her (note gratuitous sop to feminists) the option to slow down and smell the sheep dung, a thing that's really impossible with the R1 and most other serious sportbikes.

As the speed of the road you're riding increases, of course, the FZ will grow proportionately smaller in the mirrors of any current liter bike and every 600 for that matter. Who cares? The FZ rider will be better equipped to prop himself up at the table afterward and swill sangria while recounting more moments of high drama: "There I was, slithering into a tight downhill right-hander when a herd of Andalusian sheep suddenly appeared in the middle of the road..."

Forget the "real-world R1" marketing ploy and squint awhile at the FZ with your sport-touring goggles on, and it becomes even tastier. Those softish springs give a fine (FJ1200-like) ride, and the rubber-mounted handlebar and footpegs almost completely eliminate the dread vibration. (One of many Yamaha accessories for the bike is a solid-mount bar kit [$84.95], another is a lower, drag-style titanium handlebar [$69.95], both of which steer the bike in a more sporting direction for those who'd like to be more inclined.)

Another option not yet available will be a set of hard saddlebags. Set the tachometer needle at around 6000 rpm and the FZ will inhale the road at a sedate 90 mph for as long as you want, its 5.6-gallon tank giving a range of more than 200 miles. That sleek, R1-derived fairing returns reasonably good wind protection and a home for a pair of bright H4 headlights, also full instrumentation, including a pair of tripmeters, a fuel gauge and a clock. The passenger seat is not a bad place to be either, with a pair of solid grabrails. As for me, an R1 with a soft tankbag full of frilly underthings is a fine long-distance mount, but then I was once referred to as the Lone Runt. Bigger people who wish to carry a passenger will be ever so much more at home on the FZ. It has a bunch more leg room, and with the aforementioned saddlebags you could set out for weeks.

You could say, and you wouldn't be wrong, that the FZ1 is sort of a full-circle bike for Yamaha, because the company really hasn't produced anything like its killer all-rounder FJ1200 since, ah, well since the FJ1200. Don't be thinking nostalgia inspired the FZ, though. Yamaha's figures tell it that sales of "naked sportbikes" in the United States have increased an average of 29.5 percent beginning in 1998--bikes such as Ducati Monsters, Kawasaki ZRXs, Suzuki Bandits. After years of specialization, the affordable Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM) seems to be making a comeback. The Yamaha is like the competition, but also slightly different, more modern in the engine bay, more aggressive in nature, slightly harder-edged--but for now things for me are still sort of jet-lagged and blurry. What we'll have to do, it seems like, is ride the FZ back-to-back against the all-new ZRX1200R, the Bandit 1200, etc., before we can come to any sort of conclusion. Hey, somebody's gotta do it.

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