“Though she be but little, she be fierce!” — William Shakespeare
Consider for a moment that the best-selling Yamaha motorcycles for the past several years — across all categories — are the 321cc YZF-R3 sport bike and the 689cc MT-07 “hyper naked” sport standard, and you can understand why Yamaha is launching the newest (and smallest) member of the MT family with hopes for an army of future Yama-loyalists pinned to the MT-03’s pointy nose. The 2020 MT-03, essentially a YZF-R3 given the streetfighter treatment — no fairings, a flat handlebar and slightly revised front suspension — is an unapologetic gateway drug to the larger MT-07, MT-09 and beyond, a bike that will draw young, female and/or first-time buyers into dealerships, attracted to its aggressive styling, accessible size and $4,599 price tag.
Unlike some other naked sport bikes, there’s nothing dumbed-down about the MT-03. Its 321cc offset parallel-twin, DOHC engine with 180-degree crank and single counterbalance shaft, 6-speed gearbox, steel frame and swingarm, cast aluminum wheels, LCD display and single-disc front and rear brakes are all identical to the R3 (read the review here). Even its throttle mapping and gear ratios, with 5th and 6th both functioning as overdrives for comfortable freeway cruising, are unchanged. Apart from the flatter handlebar vs. the R3’s clip-ons and the lack of fairings, the biggest change to the MT-03 is its revised front suspension. Inside the 37mm inverted KYB fork is a slightly longer, softer spring with 6mm more preload and reduced compression damping (rebound is unchanged) that better suits the MT’s more upright riding position. The rear KYB shock is identical to the R3’s, with 7-step preload adjustment. Seat height remains a low 30.7 inches and wet weight is a claimed 373 pounds (our R3 tester weighed in at 379 pounds). Unlike the R3, all 2020 MT-03s have ABS as standard, making it $700 less expensive than the ABS-equipped YZF-R3.
Our first ride on the littlest MT took place at the press launch in Austin, Texas, which — despite the cancellation of the SXSW tech conference scheduled to take place concurrent to our event — was still choked with local commuter traffic as we made our way out of the city in search of curvy delights in the nearby Hill Country. The MT-03 lacks a slip and/or assist clutch, but lever pull is still fairly easy (though neither the clutch nor brake levers are adjustable) and the low first gear makes starting out a cinch. Around town the parallel twin, which generated 35 peak horsepower at 10,600 rpm and 19 lb-ft of torque at 9,200 when we last tested it in 2017, is pretty tame and drama-free, but those Jett Tuning dyno figures hint at the rest of the story: when the roads open up, spinning the little MT’s mill past 6,000 rpm rewards the rider with a noticeable boost. This equates to a need to maintain higher rpm through twisty, technical terrain, otherwise even a generous handful of throttle is only just enough to pull you out of the corner.
The upshot of course is that the MT-03 is extremely forgiving, ideal for first-time riders. It also reduces the risk of overcooking it into a turn, where I found the 289mm/2-piston front disc and 220mm/1-piston rear disc brakes to be a bit on the vague side, requiring a solid pull on the lever and offering little feedback. This may have been by design, again aimed at a newer rider’s potential tendency to panic and squeeze/stomp a bit too hard; Yamaha says the MT-03’s brakes were tuned to feel “controllable,” but as an experienced rider I wished for a more aggressive bite. A pair of aftermarket sintered pads would likely solve the problem.
Other than the brakes, I found little else to complain about as we transitioned from city to twisties and back to the city, now in the throes of the evening rush hour. Despite a low seat that folded my 34-inch-inseam legs into a sporty bend, I never felt cramped, although there were some grumbles from other, taller testers (I am 5 feet, 9 inches). The flat handlebar, which is some 1 ½ inches higher and ¾-inch farther back than the R3’s clip-ons, created a comfortable riding position, though the deeply-dished seat kept me feeling somewhat locked in place. And the slightly softer fork suited my size and riding style quite well, compliant enough to not jar my fillings loose over bumps but stiff enough to hold up to aggressive cornering.
Of course, for an entry-price-point machine like the MT-03, specs and performance are often not the primary focus for potential buyers — it’s important the bike looks the part, and the MT-03 delivers. Unlike its R3 cousin, the MT gets full LED lighting, including newly sleek turn signals and a futuristic-looking headlight with slanted position markers. When lit, the effect is something like an angry robotic Cyclops. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but I actually think it’s pretty cool. Whether in sinister Midnight Black or eye-catching Ice Fluo, the 2020 MT-03 is a shining example of how far today’s “entry level” bikes have come, proving once again that even little bikes can be big fun.
2020 Yamaha MT-03
Base Price: $4,599
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin, DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 68.0mm x 44.1mm
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 54.3 in.
Rake/Trail: 25 degrees/3.74 in.
Seat Height: 30.7 in.
Claimed Wet Weight: 373 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.7 gals., last 0.8 gal. warning light on
MPG: 86 AKI min, NA