2020 Yamaha MT-03 Review – First Ride

John Burns
by John Burns

Socially distance yourself on the Dark Side of Japan

Just because they cancelled South by Southwest doesn’t mean MO would let a little thing like a global pandemic keep us from our appointed rounds, and so it was off to Austin, Texas, to ride Yamaha’s new entry-level Master of Torque last week. (Or maybe it should’ve deterred us, since on my day to fly home again, we got word that the US MotoGP round, scheduled for April here in Austin, was also postponed due to coronavirus. Then the IoM TT, then the run on toilet paper… And now my throat’s a little scratchy… maybe this thing is not a Chinese hoax?)

2020 Yamaha MT-03

Editor Score: 85.0%
Engine 15.0/20
Suspension/Handling 14.0/15
Transmission/Clutch 8.5/10
Brakes 8.5/10
Ergonomics/Comfort 9.0/10
Appearance/Quality 9.0/10
Desirability 8.0/10
Value 8.5/10
Overall Score85/100

But that’s not important right now. Yamaha tells us cheap, small-bike sales are booming, okay, not booming, but not in the tank as much as other bike sales. So, they needed something to compete with the Kawasaki Z400, the KTM 390 Duke, etc… and the MT-03 is it. Not just based upon the YZF-R3 but pretty much the same bike with the fairing removed, MT-03 differences are restricted to a steel handlebar mounted in rubber instead of clip-ons, slightly softer damping in its 37mm inverted fork, and no more full fairing. For a mere $4,699, it’s a very perky and even attractive little package.

The 321 cc parallel twin is as big as it can get, since it began life as a 250. We’re pretty fond of saying it’s not all about the power, but with little bikes like these, it kind of is. That’s their appeal, too. On fun roads where you never get your R1 halfway to redline, on the MT-03 you’ve got the throttle to the stop pretty much out of every corner. As Fred Gassit used to say, you give it all the berries you can muster. Unlike so many new bikes, it retains actual throttle cables you can stretch. No ride-by-wire here. Fueling is excellent, and even if it wasn’t you’d never notice, since there just isn’t a lot of power to ever kick back in. Though it bolts up solidly in the steel frame, buzz is almost completely absent except when you’re bouncing the engine off redline. The six-speed gearbox is a willing, slick accomplice.

Yours in Ice Fluo or Midnight Black

The steel frame in this one, which Yamaha calls a “diamond-type tube frame,” looks a lot like the one in the MT-07, and that bike is a MO fave in the handling department (as well as the engine one); MT-03 chassis dimensions are very similar to the 07. The MT-03’s rake is 0.2-degrees steeper, at 24.8 deg., and its trail is 0.2 inches longer, at 3.7. The 03 is nearly an inch shorter of wheelbase, at 54.3 in. to the 07’s 55.1 in. The 03’s long swingarm, 22.6 inches to be specific, also aids its handling, just like it did on the original R1 too many years ago.

Your brakes aren’t exactly the latest tech or even from the latest decade, but given the low power and especially the light weight of the package, they work fine. You get ABS, which is great for avoiding crashing into cars that turn in front of you, but it’s not the latest lean-sensitive kind, which means you still have to use your touchy-feely skills trail-braking into corners.

Most of these components have been in the Yamaha supply chain for a loooong time, including that two-piston slide-type caliper and lone 298mm disc. Where have I seen those wheels before? Rear ABS kicks in too early and often, but really only when you’re upright trying to lock the rear for fun.

Thanks to the nearly ubiquitous IMU, notable by its absence here, maybe you don’t need to learn those skills anymore, just like you no longer need to learn to write in cursive? But we old people still think it’s a good skill to pick up, and the R3 is a great teacher: Its 373-pound claimed wet weight means you’ll have to recalibrate yourself to ride it as fast as it’s capable of going around corners. Moto3 bikes, of course, corner way faster than heavier, more powerful MotoGP ones. The Dunlop Sportmax GP300 radial tires our Austin bikes were on aren’t the latest and grippiest, but they’re close enough, and the relative skinniness of their sizing – 110/70 front and 140/70 rear – also contributes to the 03’s quick, nimble, but unfailingly stable handling.

Suspension isn’t quite cutting-edge either, but you do get a 37mm inverted KYB fork. There are no adjustments to screw around with other than the rear shock’s seven-step preload collar – but unless you’re unusually heavy or unusually light, I don’t think you’ll miss them. Yamaha’s been around the block a few times building sporty motorcycles, and the MT-03’s 5.1- and 4.9-inches of front and rear suspension travel handle bumpy backroads, lumpy freeways, and smooth pavement with zero problems. Not too stiff, not too soft, and with excellent front-to-rear balance and nicely progressive damping that lets you make the most of its perfectly adequate brakes and happy little motor.

That’s 321 cc of DOHC, 4-valve-per cylinder, 180-degree cranked parallel Twin. The last R3 we dynoed, said to use the same engine, cranked out 35.3 horsepower at 10,800 rpm and 18.9 lb-ft of torque at 9200 rpm.
Looks a little like a V-Max doesn’t it? Ok it doesn’t, but the LED positioning and headlights are cool and sinister… says Yamaha.

Like the bigger MTs, the 03 has that flared-out at the front gas tank to reinforce its “mass-forward” design, with the rider sitting forward on the bike, and nice cutouts in the tank for your legs. For average-sized people, the ergonomics seem spot-on, with just enough forward lean to offset windblast at 80-ish. Shorter persons can appreciate the bike’s 30.7-in seat height, which let my 30-inches-removed feet rest almost flat on the ground. Taller people didn’t appear cramped and weren’t complaining, either.

Surprisingly comfy…

For zipping around an urban environment like Austin, which is currently America’s fastest growing city and about 92% under construction, a narrow little sit-up bike with good suspension like the MT is tough to beat, literally. Off the line, the little twin is surprisingly spunky, with a light, progressive clutch. If the MT (nee, FZ)-07 was born to wheelie, the MT-03 was born to try.

While you’re waiting for the light to change it’s also not wafting up nearly as much heat as lots of bigger bikes, and Yamaha says you can expect 56 mpg. You’re not supposed to lane-split in Texas, but on the MT, you would anyway if you weren’t in a pack of bikes, and probably not many people would mind because you’re quiet and unthreatening, even if you are The Dark Side of Japan.

Overall, the MT-03 is a superb little bike and a worthy addition to Yamaha’s MT line – with two glaring problems: the KTM Duke 390 and Kawasaki Z400. The Z400’s 399 cc Twin is 22% bigger than the MT’s motor, and it makes 21% more horsepower and 27% more torque. The KTM’s 373 cc Thumper has 15% more cc than the Yamaha: It makes 18% more hp and 35% more torque according to last year’s dyno run). Both bikes are also at least 10 pounds lighter than the MT. In a class where every horsepower and foot-pound counts, those bikes, which are also both in the $5k range, are going to be tough competition.

Then again, the kids are less spec-chart based and more experiential these days, and the Yamaha’s got plenty of power to get you around. It feels like it’ll easily go 100 mph; what more do you really need in a little bike like this? For plenty of people, appearances are more important than all-out performance, and in that category, the Dark Siders did sweet work. Also comfort; I think the MT, with its nice seat, dialled suspension, and great ergonomics gets the nod for being the best place to sit in the little-bike class for more than a couple hours at a time. Throw on Yamaha’s accessory 30-liter top box or soft sidebags, fill them with as much toilet paper as you can hoard, and you’re ready to socially distort yourself in style. Once things are back to normal, the MT will be an excellent little commuter, too.

2020 Yamaha MT-03

+ Highs

  • Really quite comfy for being so small
  • Ice Fluo with red wheels looks expensive
  • The price is right, and 56 mpg

– Sighs

  • Shame they can’t punch it out to 400 cc
  • My first Yamaha testbike was an FZR400, sigh…
  • Lately it’s all about “destination charges”: This one’s $425

2020 Yamaha MT-03 Specifications

Engine Type321cc liquid-cooled DOHC 4-stroke; 4 valves/cyl.
Bore x Stroke68.0mm × 44.1mm
Compression Ratio11.2:1
Fuel DeliveryFuel injection
TransmissionConstant mesh 6-speed; wet multiplate clutch
Final DriveChain
Front Suspension37mm KYB inverted fork; 5.1 inches of travel
Rear SuspensionSingle shock; 7-step preload adjustable, 4.9 inches of travel
Front BrakesHydraulic single disc brake, 298mm; ABS
Rear BrakesHydraulic single disc brake, 220mm; ABS
Front Tires110/70-17
Rear Tires140/70-17
Wheelbase54.3 inches
Rake (Caster Angle)25°
Trail3.7 inches
Maximum Ground Clearance6.3 inches
Fuel Capacity3.7 gallons
Fuel Economy56 mpg (claimed)
Wet Weight373 pounds (claimed)
Length82.3 inches
Width29.7 inches
Height42.1 inches
Seat Height30.7 inches
Warranty1 Year (Limited Factory Warranty)
ColorsIce Fluo
Midnight Black
John Burns
John Burns

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3 of 36 comments
  • Ramon_Nudal Ramon_Nudal on Mar 30, 2020

    I'll be glad when big, fake air scoops go out of style. Tacky. Every naked bike I've seen has them on the sides of the gas tank except the Suzuki SV650.

  • Dbwindhorst Dbwindhorst on Mar 31, 2020

    No single one of the current tiddlers ticks all the boxes, or I'd have one already.

    I want the Duke 390's motor, dimensions, and handling; the Z400's price, reliability, and components; and the MT-03's styling.