Finding Your First Bike

John L. Stein
by John L. Stein

Meet and greet Yamaha’s YZF-R3 and MT-03 street bikes, XMAX scooter, and TT-R230 trail bike

Photos courtesy of Yamaha
Photos courtesy of Yamaha

When learning to handle boats, bikes, and boa constrictors, as a universal truth it’s better to start off small and work up from there. That’s because skills build over time, and at first, smaller and lighter means easier to handle. Fortunately, in the case of motorcycles, there’s a lot to love in the small-displacement ranks. The ride experience is enchanting, and some models even share technology with image-leading flagships, including electric starting and fuel injection, liquid-cooling, and disc brakes with ABS. thanks Yamaha for sponsoring this new rider series.

Within the 2023 Yamaha ranks, let’s look at a few such learner bikes aimed at street and dirt.

Straight-Up Street Bike

finding your first bike

The 2023 Yamaha MT-03 is a “standard” or “naked” bike designed for all-around pavement duty. For a dash of energy, Yamaha calls the MT-03 a “Hyper Naked,” but the idea is the same – it’s an energetic, small-displacement street bike minus the swoopy plastic bodywork and crouched seating position of a sportbike. There are real advantages to this. One is that the retail price is lower ($4,999 for the MT-03 vs. $5,499 for the similarly derived but full-bodied YZF-R3 sportbike detailed below); a second is that the MT-03 has a more “sit up” riding position that may be more comfortable for new riders to master; and third, in the event of a tip-over, the MT-03 lacks the full-paneled bodywork that could cost extra to replace – and hence, potentially lower insurance premiums.

Other bits of goodness encapsulated in the MT-03 include a 321cc parallel-twin engine that’s more than powerful enough for freeway duty. It’s a revver but includes an integrated counterbalancer to help quell vibration and a 6-speed transmission (with a manual clutch) that gives you a gear for all reasons and seasons. Ergonomics are important on learner bikes, whose riders really need their bike to work with them, not demand that they conform to it. As a result, the MT-03 has a moderate 30.7-inch. seat height that accommodates riders of different statures and a sculpted gas-tank cover that allows tucking legs and knees close to the motorcycle’s centerline.

finding your first bike

A preload adjustable rear monoshock lets you tailor the bike for heavier or lighter riders, cargo, or carrying a passenger. If you find nighttime riding in the cards, bright LED lighting is all good. And so is the 373-lb. curb weight and estimated fuel economy of 56 mpg. Let’s go!

Slippery Shark

finding your first bike

As suggested above, the YZF-R3 is the extra-sporty variant of the naked MT-03. Designed in the image of Yamaha’s hyperkinetic supersports like the YZF-R1, in all honesty, the “R3” leans more toward “fun” than “ferocious.” So, despite its shark-like appearance, it has the same 321cc DOHC twin-cylinder engine that starts with the tap of a button and punches though, again, a 6-speed gearbox to deliver an estimated 56 mpg. Although looking bulkier, it weighs just 375 lb. with the 3.7-gal. fuel tank brimming full, a modest 2-lb. more than the unfaired MT-03.

finding your first bike

Up front, multi-function instrumentation imparts needed info quickly, most noticeably including engine rpm, road speed and, critically, gear position – including Neutral, which is displayed prominently as “N.” Other data that’s useful on the fly include fuel economy (real-time or average), fuel level, coolant temperature, a clock, and a handy trip meter that prompts you when the R3 is due for an oil change. If this seems like a balanced set of specs, it is no accident; Yamaha further reports that the YZF-R3 boasts a nearly 50/50 front/rear weight distribution – just right for fun.

Not Your Grandpa’s Scooter

finding your first bike

Even though you’re reading, let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re not entirely sure motorcycles are for you. In that case, a scooter like Yamaha’s newly refreshed XMAX just might be just the thing. Why? Because the XMAX merges many of the positive traits of a small motorcycle with the positive traits of – dare we say it? – a small car.

For instance, instead of no cargo storage capacity, the XMAX can hold two full-face helmets under its lockable seat (or the equivalent amount of groceries or other cargo), and more inside twin fairing bins. Reminiscent of Apple CarPlay found in automobiles, its new “Yamaha Y-Connect” feature (a free iOS and Android app, by the way) pairs your smartphone with the scooter to bring phone, music, and navigation functions (via another free app, Garmin StreetCross) right to the 4.3-inch TFT infotainment display.

finding your first bike

Then there’s the ride itself. With its automatic transmission, just twist the throttle and the $6,099 XMAX moves ahead, propelled by its thrifty 292cc liquid-cooled Single engine. A counterbalancer smoothens operation, and electronic fuel injection contributes to a reported 75-mpg fuel economy. Big 15-in. front, 14-in. rear wheels and a long 60.6-in, wheelbase promote a smooth ride, while a proximity key and antilock disc brakes add security.

Meet Jolene Dirt

finding your first bike

The top of the line for Yamaha’s 2023 trail bike range is the $4,499 TT-R230. But instead of remembering this complex alphanumeric code, why not just nickname it something totally unoriginal…like Joe Dirt? (Or Jolene Dirt?) It makes sense, because after one day spent happily bouncing around the nearest vacant lot, hollow, or cornfield, that’s exactly what it’s going to be. Now, the TT-R230 weighs 251 lbs. filled with gas and stands 34.3 inches. tall at the saddle, so it fits adolescents and full-size folks. Power comes from a 223cc air-cooled Single engine, carbureted for manufacturing economy, and with electric starting for ease of use.

finding your first bike

Clearly, the TTR-230 lacks lights, horn, and mirrors, so it’s obviously a dirt bike. But that’s a good thing because street riders all benefit from practicing dirt riding. It continuously tests your reflexes over varying surface conditions, checks and double-checks your instincts as you react to slips and slides, and can even improve your braking (front-wheel, rear-wheel, and both wheels together), a huge benefit on the street. (Brakes include a single disc in front, a basic drum in back, and no ABS.) But such lessons aren’t available only to TT-R230 riders: Yamaha’s series of trail bikes trickles down to include the smaller TT-R125LE, a TT-R110E, a TT-R50E, and even a mini-mini-sized PW50. Make learning a lifetime goal.

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4 of 9 comments
  • SRMark SRMark on Sep 09, 2023

    I’d go with a small displacement, low seat height, dirt bike. And it wouldn’t be a new one. Bodywork is expensive and not compatible with new riders. Tall seats are not confidence builders for new riders either. The dirt bike you picked has 34” seat height. I’m 6’1” and that’s a bit high for me. Nothing like reaching for the ground and missing. Drops in the garage are easy to do too. I know this was just a Yamaha commercial and not a PSA.

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    • Charles opitz Charles opitz on Sep 21, 2023

      once you put your weight on them those bikes settle several inches..i'm old and 5'7" with messed up knees...bought a klx 230r for the simplicity and electric start...felt high when i bought it (just as high as my kdx) but an adjustable suspension link (which was not expensive) and moving the forks a bit made it very rideable and touching the ground is not a problem...really fun bike...i've been riding for almost 50 years and think these are not only great beginner bikes but also great for a guy like me that loves trail riding and still helps put on an enduro every year...(GREAT arrowing bike)

  • David David on Sep 12, 2023

    I agree all bikes considered, I'd go with a scooter.seems like a no brainer.Always on top well balanced and very easy to ride nothing butt the bliss of scenic ventures..Bring on the scooter nation.!