Roland Brown gets an impression of Yamaha’s 800cc urban brawlers, the FZ8 and the Fazer8
Photography: Alessio Barbanti & Paul Barshon
The ingredients of a top ride are pretty simple, if you ask me: a quick, sweet-handling bike; a twisty and traffic-free road; and preferably some sunshine.
It’s no coincidence that this thought occurs to me as I’m screaming the FZ8 out of yet another smooth bend on a gorgeous Provencal morning, wondering not for the first time if there’s anywhere in the world better for motorcycling than this part of the south of France.
The FZ8 is playing its part, too, which is probably just as well. For if any manufacturer has ever needed a new bike to succeed, it’s probably Yamaha right now. The world’s second biggest bike firm had a horrendous 2009, losing more than US $2.3 billion, which cost its President his job. That seemed a bit unfair given that the firm built some superb bikes and won MotoGP and World Supersport championships plus a first ever Superbike title.
Yamaha’s problem is that all they make apart from motorcycles are other big boys’ toys such as jet-skis and electric pianos, which are equally expendable in a recession. Unlike Honda and Suzuki, they don’t produce many cheap, small bikes, which are still being
bought in some countries. Nor do they make cars, which some people still need. And unlike Kawasaki they don’t build useful ships or trains either.
At least Yamaha have managed to come up with a pair of new models, the naked FZ8 and half-faired Fazer8, which look suited to these impoverished times. The 779cc fours are intended to plug the gap between the entry-level, 600cc XJ6 and Diversion, and the 1000cc FZ1 and Fazer. (The FZ6 is discontinued.) And because some parts are shared with the larger machine, the new bikes were relatively cheap to develop.
Most of the 16-valve engine is new, including the cylinder head and camshafts. The bottom end is based on a 2008-model YZF-R1, including the crankshaft and cases. The clutch has been scaled down with fewer plates, allowing a lighter action. The injection system has intake trumpets of differing lengths — the two inner ones slightly longer than the outers — as Yamaha claims this improves low and midrange delivery (though they couldn’t explain why it’s better than having all four of medium length).
Some chassis parts are borrowed from the FZ1, including the aluminium beam frame and swing-arm. Suspension is relatively simple, with non-adjustable 43mm usd forks, and a shock that’s tunable only for preload. Bodywork — in white, black or blue — is new, although styling has a strong FZ family resemblance, both with the cut-down FZ8 and the Fazer’s taller, half-faired look.
Looking shiny and smart with a hint of menace, the FZ8 seemed an appropriate bike to be launched in Marseille, which has been smartened up from its days as the location of The French Connection but still has bits you wouldn’t want to ride through after dark. A brief spin through the city revealed that the Yamaha would make a good getaway bike. Its upright riding position gave good visibility, it engine pulled cleanly from low revs and it wide bars made it easy to flick through the traffic.
The FZ8 also worked well when I wasn’t in a hurry. It’s reasonably light, and its tank and seat are slightly narrower than the FZ1’s, so average height riders should be able to get both feet on the ground. Footrests are set 10mm lower and 15mm further back, adding some welcome legroom. Pillion passengers won’t be so happy, though, unless you’ve paid extra for the accessory grab-handles.
Like any sporty bike the FZ8 was happier out of town, on the twisty roads in the mountains north of Marseille. Its engine produces a maximum of 105bhp at 10,000rpm, which was enough for some entertainment on those traffic-free roads. Power delivery was midway between grunty big-bike feel and rev-happy middleweight; rather more the latter, with a kick at about 6500rpm.
Below that figure the delivery was crisp but not particularly strong; enough for reasonable acceleration in the lower gears but nothing dramatic. Crack the throttle at about four grand in first, for example, and the Yam accelerated quite briskly, its front wheel only
starting to come up when the revs reached that magical six-and-a-half grand zone.
This meant that when the going got hot through those blind mountain bends, it was vital to work the sweet-shifting six-speed box to exit turns with the revs up, or risk losing several metres to the rider ahead who had. Provided it was ridden right, the Yam accelerated with an addictively smooth feel as its tacho needle nudged the 11,500rpm redline, accompanied by a stirringly gruff bark from the airbox and black-finished four-into-one pipe.
On one straight the FZ8 howled up to an indicated 225km/h on the digital speedo, and was still pulling slightly although its true top speed is around that mark. As with any naked bike the lack of wind protection meant it tried to pull my arms from their sockets in thrilling fashion even before I was going that fast, slightly reducing the chance of trouble with the gendarmes. The drawback is of course that longer distances would become a pain in the neck, though that wasn’t a problem on our twisty route.
Handling was pretty good, with the Yamaha’s agility again proving useful when flicking round the inevitable gaggles of multi-coloured cyclists. The bike was stable at speed, and its suspension was soft enough to give a smooth ride, even on one short stretch of pot-holed road on the otherwise smoothly-surfaced route. Steering was light, thanks to reasonably sporty geometry (25 degrees rake, 109mm trail) plus the leverage provided by the wide and slightly raised bars.
The Yamaha certainly cornered well enough to be fun, but when ridden hard it lacked the tautness of a good sports bike, and unlike the FZ1 it doesn’t give much scope for fine-tuning. When under pressure the Kayaba forks felt slightly soft and vague, especially when braking into a turn. And although the Soqi shock generally worked well, it occasionally felt a bit harsh when the bike was accelerating hard out of bumpier bends.
That front-brake blend of 310mm discs and four-pot calipers was respectably but not outstandingly powerful. (We didn’t get to try the ABS that will be fitted in some markets.) The Bridgestone BT021s had enough grip to get the footrests scraping quite regularly, though I doubt that most riders will find that a problem.
The highlight of a memorable day was following another rider through a series of 150km/h curves on the D3 near Ollières, the bike railing through with the power on while I gripped the raised bars tight with the adrenaline flowing. That section was followed by a couple of long straights on which the Yam sat smoothly at an indicated 170km/h until my neck muscles were starting to complain.
A naked bike isn’t likely to be outstandingly practical, but the FZ8 was useful in most respects. Fuel capacity is 17 litres, good for 200km or more which is fine for a naked bike. The seat was comfortable, mirrors excellent, finish good. The list of accessories includes flyscreen, heated grips, crash bungs and a centre-strand, plus the grab-handles that the Fazer gets as standard. There’s also a top-box, though strangely no hard panniers.
The FZ8’s biggest drawback is predictable: it’s expensive. The yen’s strength has hit all the Japanese firms, especially Yamaha, whose prices have rocketed in the last year. What’s worse for Yamaha is that, to take one obvious rival, Triumph’s outstanding Street Triple is substantially cheaper in most markets. The FZ8 is a stylish and capable bike. But even if demand for big boys’ toys picks up again soon, I can’t see it doing much to save Yamaha’s new President from some sleepless nights
Riding the Fazer8
On a gorgeous spring day in Provence, it was fun to charge around on the naked FZ8, but Yamaha’s new four comes equipped for cold climates and winter weather too. The Fazer8 is basically the same bike with the addition of a protective half-fairing. It also gets those pillion grab-handles as standard fitment. In some markets it will come with ABS as standard, in which case it will also get a belly-pan to hide the anti-lock parts.
Apart from looking a bit less sexy, the sensible sister also felt slightly heavier and less agile, though its handling was still perfectly acceptable. The Fazer (I’m sticking to that from now on) accelerated with just as much enthusiasm, too; the only difference being that this time I had a fairing and screen to keep the wind off my chest, with impressively little turbulence.
This allowed effortless cruising at 150km/h, which had soon become tiring on the naked bike. It’s a key difference that makes the Fazer a potentially excellent long-haul machine, although it would be limited by the tank’s range of not much more than 200km, depending on riding style. Some riders will be disappointed that although a top-box is available, the accessory list doesn’t include hard panniers.
For charging along the mountain roads of Provence on a warm day the Fazer was not quite as entertaining as its naked sibling, but I know which model I would prefer for a long trip, or any ride on a cold day. Like the FZ8 it’s a sound bike. But unfortunately for Yamaha it suffers from an identical problem of being too expensive, in this case when compared to more powerful and cheaper half-faired machines including Honda’s CBF1000 and Suzuki’s new GSX1250FA.
Yamaha have managed to come up with a pair of new models which look suited to these impoverished times
On a gorgeous spring day, it was fun to charge around on the naked FZ8, but Yamaha’s new four comes equipped for cold climates and winter too
The instrument console on both the FZ and Fazer8 are identical
The redesigned half-fairing with floating panels is tastefully done up
The 310mm discs and four-pot calipers upfront. ABS is optional in some markets