Can Yamaha’s next-gen R6 breathe new life into Supersports?

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The 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 has received its first major overhaul in six years(Credit: Yamaha)

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Just ahead of the doors opening on the AIMExpo in Orlando, Florida, Yamaha today revealed the first new YZF-R6 in six years. Built around the existing engine and chassis, it inherits looks, running gear and electronics from the latest YZF-R1 in an effort to regain the throne for Yamaha in the all but stagnating in recent years Supersport class.

As far as sportbikes are concerned, the first half of this decade can be described as the rise of the superbike. The liter class headlines every national road racing discipline and, of course, the World Superbike Championship, as the manufacturers have collectively ushered us into a new season of homologation specials.

With all the money and interest going towards big capacities, the 600s were gradually pushed to the shadows. With dwindling sales all over the world and development costs directly comparable to those of 1,000 cc superbikes, supersport models slipped down the list of manufacturers' priorities.

Honda's legendary CBR600RR, for instance, has been using the same engine since 2003, evolved over time along with the rest of the motorcycle of course – but still, no new motor in 13 years is a clearly negative indication. It could even be as bleak as suggested in a recent story from English newspaper MCN that spread like wildfire worldwide, citing irrefutable information that Honda had decided to pull the plug on the CBR600RR for good.

As for the rest of the competition, only Kawasaki introduced an all-new ZX-6R in 2013 and has since proceeded to dominate the World Supersport Championship. Suzuki still employs a motor that was first introduced with the 2004 GSX-R600, and has undergone several updates since; the latest being in 2011 with the addition of Showa's excellent Big Piston Fork.

Yamaha itself has been running the same engine and frame combination since 2008. The R6 was one of the first motorcycles to introduce electronic throttle control (Yamaha Chip Controlled Throttle, or YCC-T) in 2006, adding the variable length intake system YCC-I (Yamaha Chip Controlled Intake) two years later. That was the last major update for the R6.

Yamaha may call it the new YZF-R6, but not everything is new about it. The engine has obviously been tuned accordingly to the latest Euro-norms, yet we can't know what this translates to until Yamaha discloses some fresh performance figures. The most powerful version of this engine was introduced with the 2008 model, producing 133.6 hp (99.6 kW) at 14,500 rpm. In the following years the R6 was detuned, probably due to a previous set of norms coming into play, settling to the 122 hp (91 kW) of the 2010-2016 models.

The aluminium Deltabox frame is unchanged, just as it has been for the last eight years. Yamaha has coupled it with a new subframe, which is narrower and lighter thanks to the use of magnesium. The fully adjustable Kayaba 43 mm forks and the front brake system of the base R1 superbike are transferred (and retuned accordingly) to the new R6, coupled with an also adjustable new rear shock from Kayaba.

The 599 cc in-line four-cylinder motor retains the YCC-T and YCC-I electronic systems, adding a slipper clutch, D-Mode selectable ignition maps and a 6-level programmable traction control to the mix. The list also includes anti-locking brakes, apparently a standard road-oriented version instead of an elaborate cornering ABS system. It would be nice to have an off switch, though, because among its future owners we imagine that some will have the ability to push the bike beyond the limit where the ABS starts hampering lap times in a race track – and the bike is definitely up to it.

The updated R6 is dressed in attire that apparently clones the latest R1 – which, in turn, mimics Yamaha's MotoGP champion YZR-M1. With aerodynamics that have evolved from the highest motorcycle racing class, the front end features the signature hidden LED headlights of the R1, with a series of LED daytime running lights spreading from both sides of the central air scoop.

The 17-liter (4.5 US gal) fuel tank is also new, made of lightweight aluminium and offering better leg space along its sidewalls. Together with the new subframe and a freshly designed angled seat, the riding position of the new R6 is supposed to offer better control and a tighter fit to the rider.

Expected to hit showrooms in March 2017, the YZF-R6 will retail from $12,199 in the US, while pricing for Europe is yet unknown.

It will be very interesting to watch how it will fare in markets around the world. Yamaha played a rather safe bet here, by updating a proven package rather than developing an all new motorcycle from the ground up. With the competition mostly limited to Kawasaki's 2013 ZX-6R, pricing could be a determining factor. How will it compare to the Kawasaki? How much cheaper will it be than a 1,000 cc superbike? If US pricing is indicative of anything, Yamaha comes out some $500 cheaper than Kawasaki and still leaves a good $3,000 gap to the entry-level R1S and almost $5,000 to the fully equipped R1.

There's no question that strong R6 sales could prompt other manufacturers to respond. After all, 600s still offer a far more sensible, educational entryway to the race tracks than any 200-hp liter missile.

The official video presentation of the 2017 R6 featured below may not provide any more answers, but certainly provides a nice glimpse into the new motorcycle, which we expect to see in the flesh for the first time at the upcoming EICMA show in little less than a month's time.

Source: Yamaha

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