2005 Yamaha YZF R6

Mount Palomar's 11-mile East Grade is the road less traveled. It's faster and more flowing than the technical, first- and second-gear South Grade. That flow lures you in, but the road's a trap--it's almost an encyclopedia of flawed pavement: Potholes (filled and otherwise), crack sealer, heaves and patches tie production suspensions into knots. When you've just been bucked out of the saddle in third gear, you become acutely aware that it's a long way down to Lake Henshaw.

Or not. I've used East Grade as a grade-A suspension test circuit while evaluating several current sportbikes, but now the road's met its match: Yamaha's 2005 YZF-R6.Yamaha took a big stride with its R6 in '03. The bike performed and sold well, and was dominant in Supersport racing, but by '04 it already seemed long in the tooth. So this year, Yamaha introduced a bike that's more than a tweak but less than a complete redesign. It almost seems the tuning forkers have placed function ahead of form, as the new R6 gets a new, fully adjustable inverted fork and radial front brakes, but not the underseat exhaust that's so du jour. Indeed, the bodywork's virtually identical to that of last year's bike.

There are three more horses in harness, Yamaha says, despite the fact engine internals are unchanged from last year. Tuning the fuel injectors (now with 12 holes for better atomization), the ECU and the throttle bodies (now 40mm wide with adjusted stack heights) accounts for the difference.

Yamaha admits the mods are track-focused. Its rivals have gone even further, homologating bikes with slipper clutches, dual-stage injectors, eccentric swingarm pivots, titanium valves and the like. So it remains to be seen whether Yamaha has gone far enough to win in 600 Supersport. But one thing's for certain. On real roads, the new R6's subtle changes pay big dividends in control and confidence.

Changes begin with the inverted fork and radial brakes, which necessitated stiffening the steering head and swingarm pivot areas to handle the added braking and cornering loads. The new front tire and fork adds half a degree of rake and a smidgen of trail. Both changes add stability. Although the new brake rotors are larger, they're also thinner for a net decrease in gyroscopic effect, Yamaha claims. Handlebar positioning has been subtly changed for increased leverage. The net effect is nothing short of brilliant. On street tires (R6s come shod with Dunlop 218s) the bike steers quickly yet feels dead stable despite the absence of a steering damper.

The brakes are excellent; strong and easy to modulate when trail-braking. Scrubbing a little speed or modifying cornering lines--even at big speeds on fully inflated street rubber--is stress-free. Then there's that brilliant bump-absorption ability. Ergos are not perceptibly different from last year's bike. It feels tiny. The seat is relatively low and narrow (even our 5-foot-7 tester could put both feet flat on the ground). The footpegs feel low, though I never dragged them. The bars feel low, too, though they're mounted above the upper clamp. You sit on--not in--this bike. The light-action clutch and reasonable torque from 5000 rpm help make the R6 a surprisingly practical vehicle. On standard suspension settings the ride is firm, but it takes the edge off most inner-city asphalt nasties.

The R6 doesn't pretend to be a freeway cruiser, but the firm seat is a reasonable place to sit for a couple of hours without undue wrist pain. And that's about as far as most riders will want to go; the low-fuel light comes on after 135 miles. A taller windscreen would help. Nothing less than a full-race tuck will get your head down into that tiny bubble of still air.

Our R6 displayed almost no driveline lash, making it a pleasure to ride in traffic and allowing for smooth throttle pickup on corner exits. The gearbox shifts positively, though it clunks a little more than most competitors' boxes.

Away from traffic and neighbors with sensitive hearing, the motor will spin to more than 15 grand, but there's no need to wring the R6's neck. Any time the tach needle's roughly vertical--say in the 10,000-12,000-rpm range--you can short-shift and stay on the level part of the torque curve. Up top, there are seamless, usable revs for those who want 'em. Real-world bliss.

Despite Yamaha's track-focused comment, the stock R6 is less happy on race rubber. When switched to Dunlop D208 GP-A tires for an afternoon at Willow Springs, the added grip was offset by a slight head shake that had even experienced racers queuing up for the shock adjustment tool. The interim solution was to soften shock preload, allowing the rear end to settle a bit and compensate for the taller rear tire. For track-day purposes, the long-term solution would be some combination of a steering damper and a shock with ride height adjustment, or at least a different linkage.

Time will tell whether the '05 YZF-R6 will be as competitive in 600 Supersport racing in '05 as it was in '04. But one thing's already certain: This is the stuff street riders dream of.

Yamaha YZF-R6
MSRP $8399
Type l-c inline-four
Valve arrangement dohc, 16v
Displacement 600cc
Transmission 6-speed
Weight 359 lb. (claimed dry)
Fuel capacity 4.5 gal. (19.8L)
Wheelbase 54.5 in. (1384mm)
Seat height 32.7 in. (830mm)
By leaving the muffler out in the airflow, Yamaha pays a slight aerodynamic penalty, but the choice keeps exhaust heat away from the rear shock.
No petal brake rotors, but the R1-inspired discs are larger in diameter and thinner for a slight weight loss; radial calipers and radial master cylinder complete the package. Combined with the new fork, these make the R6 a late-braker (and a trail-braker) par excellence. Front brakes also have a convenient bleed nipple up at the master cylinder. Nice.