First Ride: 2006 Yamaha FZ1

Smaller, lighter and cooler than before. But is that enough to make the FZ1 the perfect liter-class naked bike?

By Roland Brown, Photography by Paul Barshon, Alessio Barbanti, Friedman Kirn

Funny how things don't always turn out as expected.

I'd been slightly annoyed when, with about 25 miles of the afternoon's route still to cover, the FZ1's digital fuel gauge began to flash. Having left my South African cash in the hotel, I'd have to slow my pace to avoid running out of gas before finishing the loop. But after easing back the revs, short-shifting instead of chasing the tacho needle across the dial and slowing my cornering speed on the wonderfully twisty coastal roads southeast of Cape Town, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the ride more rather than less.

That wasn't what I'd expected from this striking new Yamaha which, with its aggressive styling, 150-horse R1-derived inline-four and aluminum-frame chassis, had looked to have the makings of a fast and fiery sportbike--albeit one with an extra dose of practicality. But if I'd been somewhat disappointed by the FZ1 when I'd tried to make use of all its performance, at least that enforced go-slow session showed the new Yamaha can be plenty entertaining if you ride it with a little restraint.

I'd very much looked forward to riding the new FZ1, a bike that seemed to incorporate everything good about the full-liter naked-bike category. Whereas the original FZ1 had been compromised somewhat by its relatively low-tech chassis and excess heft, this new-generation machine seemed to fit the sporty all-rounder concept to perfection: styling was sharp and muscular, the parts list seemed reasonably top-shelf, and few compromises appeared to have been made. While the original FZ1 combined a detuned, first-generation R1 engine with a tubular steel frame, the more compact new bike brings the naked concept boldly into the 21st century with a die-cast-aluminum spar frame surrounding Yamaha's latest 20-valve engine.

Most of this engine is identical to the latest YZF-R1's. The primary internal changes are a 40 percent heavier crankshaft and revised balance shaft. New camshafts with reduced lift and duration aim to boost performance at lower revs, and the gearbox's top two ratios are taller to give a more relaxed feel at cruising speeds.

The FZ1 has a new injection system that doesn't incorporate the R1's ram-air intake. There's also a new stainless-steel 4-into-2-into-1 exhaust system incorporating an EXUP valve and two catalyzers, all ending in a stubby single silencer. The resultant peak output of 150 claimed horsepower arrives at 11,000 rpm. More importantly for a naked bike, the claimed peak torque figure of 78.2 pound-feet is delivered 3000 rpm earlier, at 8000 rpm, and comfortably exceeds the old FZ1's maximum torque output.

First impressions were promising. The FZ1 looks sharp, compact and muscular, and it felt raw and aggressive as the motor fired up with a muted but pleasant rasp. On the roads around Cape Town--familiar to me from recent intros of Triumph's Sprint ST and Yamaha's MT-01--the FZ felt as light, agile and manageable as I'd expected of a bike weighing a claimed 439 pounds dry and sporting a compact, 57.5-inch wheelbase.

The Yamaha dealt with initial traffic easily, its upright riding position, tight turning radius and docile low-rev response making it easy to slip through the pickups and smoke-belching buses. Ergonomically, its handlebar is slightly lower and more pulled back than the old FZ1's, while its footpegs are slightly higher and more rearset. On the coast road near Pringle Bay, traffic dropped away and I started enjoying the way the Yamaha pulled through its midrange with a smooth four-cylinder feel and a shoulder-loosening charge of acceleration.

This is a fantastic place to ride a sporting motorcycle, with unbroken sunshine on wide, well-surfaced and almost traffic-free roads where the performance of a fast machine can really be used. The FZ1 is certainly fast, at least at higher revs. From about 6000 rpm onward it ripped forward with all the violence you'd expect of a midrange-boosted R1, howling toward its 12,000-rpm redline through a sweet-shifting gearbox.

On one straight it put 150 mph on the digital speedo, which sits next to an analog tacho in the new instrument console. Thanks to a slightly taller winscreen the Yamaha cruised at 100-mph-plus speeds feeling as though it would have done so all day, or at least until the 4.7-gallon tank--0.8 gallon smaller than the old model's and arguably inadequate for a bike billed as an all-rounder--ran dry.

Less impressive, however, was the FZ1's lack of grunt in the sub-4000-rpm range, a power-zone that should have been its forte. On any sporty open-classer, pulling a wheelie should involve nothing more difficult than cracking open the throttle in first gear. But the FZ1 required a significant hoik on the bar, or maybe a little clutch, to get the front wheel up. Surely, losing 25 bhp from the R1's power peak should have resulted in more low-rev stomp, not less.

A more significant symptom of the same problem was this: when following traffic at a typical 60 mph and 4000 rpm in top gear and suddenly wanting to accelerate, generating real urge required a downshift or two. The bike's taller gearing didn't help, though owners will be able to change this relatively easily. Don't get me wrong; the FZ burned past cars without a downshift. But the engine felt disappointingly flat at lower revs, especially compared with other bikes in its class.

Still, the FZ was great fun on the winding Franschhoek Pass farther inland, where its punchy midrange, light weight and agility came to the fore. But even here the engine was flawed because of the injection system's somewhat jerky response, which made precise cornering control more difficult than it should have been. It's a surprising shortcoming given the sophistication of the latest YZF-R6 and the crisp response of most recent injected Yamahas.

Overall handling was reasonably good, and there was no doubting the rigidity of the new aluminum frame. Remarkably, it's more than 400 percent stiffer vertically and laterally than the old steel cage, and has 140 percent more torsional rigidity despite being nearly 20 pounds lighter. Yamaha used a curved radiator to allow the engine to be moved forward, so that 51 percent of the bike's weight is over the front wheel; front-loaded ergos help here as well. All that helped keep the FZ1 stable despite its lack of steering damper. Fairly conservative rake and trail figures--25 degrees and 4.3 inches--doubtless contributed to this, as did suspension at both ends whose firmness contrasted with the cushy feel of the old model.

Chassis performance wasn't all peaches, either, though. The bike's suspension lacked sophistication, at least by modern superbike standards. The firmly sprung shock and inverted fork sometimes gave a choppy ride over bumps that seemed to overwhelm their damping ability. One fork leg contains rebound damping while the other handles compression, a setup Yamaha says it utilizes on its M1 MotoGP racebike. Sadly, the rear shock doesn't offer a remote spring-preload adjuster, which means a spanner is needed. A brief attempt at suspension adjustment didn't help things much, so we'll wait till we have more time for tuning before passing final judgment.There was no doubting the power of the Yamaha's front brake, with its larger, 320mm discs and familiar four-pot calipers. Michelin Pilot rubber, the rear a fat, 190/50-spec bun, made the most of reasonably generous cornering clearance, although really quick or aggressive riders might find the centerstand touching down when carrying a passenger. Yes, you read that right--a centerstand. The FZ1 has one, along with a reasonably roomy seat and useful passenger grab handles.

Expect to pay extra for a top-box and hard bags, both featured on an accessory list that also includes heated grips, carbon-fiber parts and full fairing side-pieces. Standard-issue equipment includes wide mirrors and a comprehensive digital instrument panel whose flashing low-fuel light had earlier forced me into cruise mode.

At a less-than-frantic pace the FZ1 worked just fine, giving me plenty of chance to appreciate the spectacular views as well as its light and easy handling. Even so, I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed with the bike, partly because I'd been expecting so much from it. There is much to like about this comprehensively updated all-rounder, but its few weaknesses can't be ignored.

At $9099, the all-new FZ1 is nicely priced, and we suspect many owners will use the savings (versus pricier naked bikes) to fix its gearing and suspension problems. Thusly tweaked, we're pretty sure the new-gen FZ1 will fully live up to the high expectations enthusiasts everywhere have for it. -MC

2006 YAMAHA FZ1

PRICE
MSRP: $9099

ENGINE
Type: l-c inline-four
Valve arrangement: DOHC, 20v
Displacement: 998cc
Transmission: 6-speed

CHASSIS
Weight: 439 lb. dry (199kg)
Fuel capacity: 4.7 gal. (17.8L)
Wheelbase: 57.5 in. (1460mm)
Seat height: 32.1 in. (815mm)

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