Review: Yamaha's MT-09 (FZ-09) puts the fun right where you want it
It's taken me about nine years, but I finally understand what Yamaha's going on about with its "torque sports" MT range. After spending a couple of weeks with the MT-09 (or FZ-09 as it's known in America), I'm convinced. Not only is Yamaha on the right track, but the MT-09 is the kind of machine that could cause a mini-revolution in the motorcycle market. Lightweight, super cheap and blessed with one of the best new engines we've seen in years, the MT is barrel-of-monkeys level fun in just about any real-world riding context.
The MT-09 starts out with a brand spanking new, 847cc, three cylinder crossplane engine that sits awkwardly in between the middleweights and the liter bikes, somewhere in no man's land. That engine slots into an overgrown street supermoto body, kinda similar to the Ducati Hypermotard or Husqvarna Nuda, but with a slightly wider seat.
Personally I don't reckon it's much of a looker. It's better in person than in pictures, but the proportions seem a bit wonky and front-heavy. The headlight looks like they forgot some plastic somewhere, the dash is kind of tacky and off-center and all three paint jobs are pretty ordinary, with the best of the bunch being this "racing blue" one with the lairy wheels on it. Yamaha usually makes the best looking Japanese bikes in my opinion, but this one's a bit of a munter.
So given that motorcycle riders tend to be notoriously image-conscious, how did this thing become one of the hottest selling bikes of 2014? Well, it comes down to two things – that engine, and an amazing price tag. It's an absolute bargain.
Once you're on the road, the first thing you notice is how light and nimble it feels. Wet weight is about 188 kg (414 lb), and it's very narrow in the middle. The second thing you notice is the engine – whooooo, it's a stunner.
Triumph had the market cornered on modern triple engines for a fair few years there, but they couldn't stay a secret for long. Three cylinders delivers the perfect mix of characteristics for a road bike – grunty and torquey down low, smooth and predictable through the rev range, and they keep pulling as the revs get higher. Take a look at the MT's fat torque curve below, big fat twisting muscle right through the rev range. I've put in the GSX-R600 for comparison and the difference in development philosophies should be instantly evident.
It feels like an inline four, but with an extra helping of grunt, and it's much lighter and narrower to boot. What a beautiful engine!
The MT09's light weight (identical to the GSX-R600) and perfect gearing makes 115 horses (86 kW) feel like an absolute excess of power, and it's got soft, squishy suspension that doesn't do much to manage weight transfer. That, ladies and gentlemen, means wheelies. Wheelies everywhere. Unintentional wheelies, followed by long, gleeful, cackling second gear wheelies, followed by cheeky leaned-over lofties on corner exits. I've ridden fully set-up stunt bikes that weren't nearly as easy to wheelie as this thing. I challenge you to keep both wheels on the ground, I don't even know if it's possible.
These days, just about every bike comes from the factory with a speedo that over-reads by at least 10 percent, and fuel injection that comes on with a nasty jerky snatch. The Yamaha is guilty on both counts, and the throttle snatch can really mess with your suspension and traction in bumpy corners.
There's no point blaming the manufacturers, they're just trying to work within horrible government guidelines – you find it a lot on new cars too. But it's not snatchy when you put it in nanna mode (B mode), so maybe Yamaha's just being a tease.
There's a bunch of different ways to smooth it out – aftermarket air filters, ECU flashes, or you can go the whole hog and get a Power Commander. Yamaha recently released a software patch aimed at addressing exactly this problem, but I haven't had a chance to try it yet.
The suspension is under-damped out of the box, it bounces you all over the place. But once you've cranked up the rebound damping, it's actually pretty good, even with a gigantic fat-arse like me on board. Through the tight twisty stuff, it's great – it really only starts to get hairy through super fast sweepers. If you're leaned over at warp speed and hit a big bump or dip, things can get a bit out of shape.
If fast sweepers is what you're all about, well, you're probably more of a sportsbike or sports tourer guy anyway, but for less than a grand you could easily have it sorted out by a decent suspension guru.
Likewise the brakes. Yes they're a basic package, but the bike's so light that if you fitted a set of monobloc beasts, you'd likely find yourself doing the "Superman" over the handlebar every time you touched the lever. Maybe they could do with a bit more feel, but they're a lot better than I expected and well and truly up for all the hard riding and stoppies I could throw at them.
I thought the seat was gonna be a pain in the butt over the course of a day, but that was fine too. In fact, the riding position's almost like one of those ergonomic chairs, or like a gentle squat in an aqua aerobics class. You do catch a bit of wind sitting up this straight, but then that's one of my favorite things about naked bikes – fighting a bit of wind adds to the sense of speed. I like to feel like I'm hanging on for grim death if I'm doing 200 Ks an hour.
I thought the tank was going to annoy me because it's only 14 liters, but even when I was going bananas, I was getting 5.5 liters per 100 km (43 mpg), so there's well over 200 km (124 mi) in a tank. Mind you, the fuel gauge seems to stay on full for ages, then drop to empty and flashing within about 60 km (37 mi).
I guess I was really expecting to get this bike out in the twisties and tell you the engine's brilliant but the rest of the bike's garbage and you'd need to spend thousands of dollars on it to make it any good. But it hasn't gone that way at all. The whole package is awesome fun, it performs far better than it looks like it should.
Put it this way, the Speed Triple 1050 R is still, for me, the best bike in the whole world ever. But the MT09 does about 90 percent of what that thing can do, for about 60 percent of the price. Out of the box, this is a staggering machine and it's not gonna cost you much if you want to make a few tweaks to get it perfect.
A lot of people seem to agonize over whether to get this bike or the Street Triple 675. The streety's a good bike in its own right, but I just don't think there's any question. This is lighter, a lot more powerful, quite a bit cheaper, and just a truckload more fun. This thing just bullies the middleweights with a giant atomic wedgie of torque.
It's never gonna be a great 2-up bike, passengers get a bit of a rough deal (as poor old Nick found out in our video review). But from the rider's seat it's a weapon in the tight, twisty stuff, a hilarious commuter and a willing partner in just about any road crime I can think of.
It's a ton more fun than a sportsbike anywhere this side of a racetrack. It's a real-world performance machine designed to maximize your smiles per mile per dollar on the road, and I can absolutely see why they're selling out faster than Yamaha can make them.
So yes, I finally understand what "torque sports" is all about. It's about making bikes for everyday, all-purpose use with a wicked sporty focus that doesn't require stratospheric speeds and high revs to deliver serious thrills. And I think it's brilliant.