We Review the 2019 Yamaha Niken GT.
Yamaha bets that more confidence means more fun. They’re right.
“Hopefully, we get some rain.” I’ve never uttered that phrase before, let alone at a motorcycle launch. But the Yamaha Niken GT is not a typical motorcycle, and precipitation plays right into what Yamaha wants you to expect from their new Leaning Multi-Wheeler (LMW).
The premise is simple, but you’ll have to agree with it from the beginning for Niken to make any sense: more confidence equals more fun. This machine is not about getting your knee down at unheard of speeds or about automatically keeping you upright at a stop. Instead, the two front wheels are designed to give you extra courage in sporty touring situations. Is the road wet? Is there a tar snake right where you want to be leaned over? Is there sand in the apex of a corner? These are all common causes for a lump in the throat and the skip of a heartbeat for the average motorcyclist, but a Niken rider doesn’t have to worry about it.
By Abhi Eswarappa
So, Yamaha may have prayed to the rain gods, but the resulting weather converted the curves of California’s Central Coast into the perfect testing ground for the Niken GT.
Though we’ve previously covered the technical details of the Niken’s front end, a quick recap is in order. The LMW system manages steering, leaning, and bump absorption through a parallelogram linkage in the front end. No matter your lean angle (which is capped at 45 degrees), the front track stays constant at 410mm. There are two KYB USD forks on each front wheel (41mm leading, 43mm trailing), though the front is only there for alignment purposes and shock absorption is handled by the rear. The increase in components means more weight, and Yamaha counteracted that by using 15-inch front wheels with Bridgestone Battlax Adventure A41 tires developed specifically for the Niken. It’s all very impressive from a technical standpoint, but does it feel like a motorcycle when you’re behind the bars?
Anticlimactically, you’ll forget about the second front wheel most of the time, partially because the wheels are hidden from view while riding. The wide bodywork from the tank forward and raised plastic humps flanking the dash hint that something is different, but you quickly get used to the visual mass and when you’re moving there’s no way to see the intricate dance of the front end.
But the real reason you won’t be constantly distracted by having twice as many front wheels as usual is that the Niken GT generally feels like a regular motorcycle. In a straight line, it’s nigh impossible to tell the difference. The only unexpected feeling is how comfortably the front suspension soaks up jolts, as the front end’s articulation acts as additional suspension travel and softens the impact. Yamaha test rider Gerad Capley notes that “if one wheel hits a bump, it doesn’t transfer force to the frame, it transfers it to the other wheel.” This is good news because you’re going to hit a lot more bumps with three wheels of width.
Having all those components is great for comfort, but the flip side is that in the corners, your inputs to the front wheels have to be fed through all of the same pieces. When compared with the Tracer 900GT, (basically the Niken’s two-wheeled sibling) you must exaggerate your counter steering and turn in earlier than you normally would. In Japanese, “Ni” means “Two” and “Ken” means “Sword,” but these two swords aren’t perfectly sharp. This presents an issue when Yamaha’s emphasis is on confidence: the front end is genuinely more stable in a corner, but it’s harder to feel what’s happening. It took me a few hours before I trusted the Niken, but I’d call it more blind faith than confidence.
The Tracer GT is like a dance partner you’ve had for years. It knows your every move seemingly before you do it. The Niken GT is a new dance partner: you’re feeling each other out, and there’s a little bit of a delay before you’re completely in sync. Surely, with enough practice, it will all feel natural again. But guess what? The Niken knows some moves that you don’t, and everything changes when the road conditions aren’t ideal.
In adverse conditions, this motorcycle is tremendous. My first corners with the Niken GT were in the rain, and within just five minutes I was going faster in the wet than I ever have before. Again, you don’t have the amount of feedback that you’re used to, but the LMW concept is a revelation when the road is wet if you can trust what Yamaha has created.
A particularly damp mountain road on our route was covered with tar snakes, a combination of factors that would usually slow me down tremendously. Yet with the Niken, I wasn’t worried, and I was riding at nearly the pace that I would have selected if the road was dry. In one right-hander, I felt the left tire lose traction as it rode over some crack sealant, but the Bridgestone on the right was unfazed, and the end result was merely a shimmy in the handlebar as the front suspension literally shrugged off a likely low-side on a two-wheeler.
The benefits aren’t limited to handling moisture. Now you won’t be concerned about sand in a corner, oil in the crown of the road or really, any non-ideal riding surface. The ease of use is mentally liberating, and it ensures the fronts can keep pace with a rear wheel that’s motivated by Yamaha’s fan-favorite CP3 triple.
The 847cc engine is shared with the Tracer 900 and the MT-09, though it’s been tuned for a sport-touring application with a heavier crankshaft, lower final drive ratio, modified fuel injection settings, and stronger transmission gear material to cope with the increased weight. Claimed peak horsepower remains the same at 115, but the Niken is more than 100 pounds heavier than the Tracer. That weight combined with the drivetrain tweaks mean that power delivery is relaxed. Still, the ECU automatically feeds in throttle when leaving from a stop to prevent stalls and acceleration runs from first through third gear will quickly put a smile on your face thanks to the upshift-only quickshifter. Above third gear the Niken sometimes feels like it’s making more noise than forward thrust, but what a noise it is!
To earn the “GT” suffix, the Niken gets some updates. Cosmetically, the paint is now Matte Phantom Blue, and the front forks are gold (though the internals have not changed). Functional improvements include a center stand, extra 12-volt electrical outlet, taller windscreen, thicker rider and passenger seats, heated grips, a passenger grab rail with a location to mount a top case, and quick release 25L side bags.
Most of the GT pieces are excellent additions (particularly the seats, which are some of the best OEM units I’ve enjoyed in a long time) and it’s worth spending the $1300 premium for the package. Yamaha thinks most people will agree, as they expect that 2/3rds of Niken sales in the U.S. will be the GT model. With that said, I have two complaints. While the windshield is slightly taller and wider than the non-GT unit, it’s still too short for touring duty. Yamaha offers 19 accessories for the Niken GT, one of which is a 60mm taller windscreen for $199.99 that you should budget for.
My big issue with the GT package is the saddlebags. It’s frustrating that a bike, which is ostensibly designed to let you travel safely in the worst of weather, would have saddlebags that aren’t waterproof! Yamaha provides roll-top inner bags, but it’s a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place, and it feels cheap. In addition, the bags are not keyed to ignition. Instead, Yamaha includes a three-digit combination lock to keep your bags secure. It feels even cheaper.
The luggage isn’t the only aspect of the Niken GT that seems unbefitting of a $17,299 motorcycle. The clutch lever and windshield aren’t adjustable, the turn signals don’t self-cancel, and while the LCD display is very easy to read, it’s bland compared to the color TFT screen on the $12,999 Tracer GT. The biggest offender of all might be the ignition lock housing, which looks like someone forgot to attach a cover over the screw heads. It’s a minor issue, but it’s right in front of your face while you’re riding.
These niggles are disappointing as the Niken GT is not a cheap bike. But the third wheel obviously adds some cost, and for the right rider, the benefits could be priceless. This is not the first time Yamaha has tried to shake up the world of motorcycling with a non-traditional front end. In 1993, the Tuning Fork company released the GTS1000 sport-tourer with what they called “a major leap forward in motorcycle design”—James Parker’s RADD single-sided front swingarm. Journalists loved the stability and the engineering, but there were complaints about the front-end feel, the softening of the donor drivetrain, the weight increase, and the price. Sound familiar? The GTS1000 sold poorly in America and was yanked from the market within two years.
Though the Niken GT and the GTS1000 share several similarities, I don’t think they’ll share the same fate. This time around, Yamaha’s not marketing the bike as a death knell for traditional front ends. The Niken GT simply offers a way for sport-touring riders to be more confident in their travels, and I’m sold on Yamaha’s pitch that more confidence means less stress and more fun. In addition, Yamaha is bringing a very limited number of Nikens to the U.S., so there’s no expectation that it will take over as the future of motorcycling.
So, there won’t be thousands of Nikens rolling around the U.S. on three wheels, but I’m very impressed with what Yamaha has put together as a touring package that somehow offers practicality and insanity at once. If you consistently ride in inclement weather or just want a machine that attracts attention from everyone, the Niken GT deserves a test ride. Learn to trust the front end, and you’ll be rewarded with the most engaging three-wheeler I’ve ever ridden. Just make sure to budget extra time for each trip to deal with all the questions from onlookers!CN
2019 Yamaha Niken GT Specifications
||Liquid-cooled, 3-cylinder, DOHC, 12-valves, 4-stroke
|Bore x stroke:
||78 x 59.1mm
||Wet multi-plate, assist and slipper type
||Steel and aluminum diamond
||Front suspension: 41mm upside-down telescopic forks, 2 per side, fully adjustable
||Monoshock, fully adjustable
||Dual 265.6mm discs, dual 4-piston caliper, ABS
||Single 298mm disc, 2-piston caliper, ABS
||120/70 R 15-in.
||190/55 R 17-in.
||Matte Phantom Blue