By Glenn Le Santo

The Naked Truth

We search for an answer to the age old question: Is less ever really more?

Three years ago Yamaha produced the amazing R1 and rejoiced as it went straight to the top of the sport bike tree. Then some bright spark at Yamaha thought, “What would the R1 engine be like in a retro bike?” The answer is the 1000cc FZ1, a bike that’s so barking mad it needs to be kept not in a garage, but in a padded kennel! Glenn Le Santo donned the leather straight jacket to test Yamaha’s cure for suburban boredom.

I’ve just returned from another insane afternoon spent aboard the fantastic 2001 Yamaha FZ1. Excuse me if I already sound very enthusiastic about the model so early in this review, but the FZ isn’t the kind of bike to leave you under-whelmed.

The super powerful and ultra-compact R1-derived engine fits snugly into the tubular steel frame and puts out stacks of torque and power despite its diminutive size. For the FZ1, the R1 engine package has been slightly re-tuned for more emphasis on midrange power. The result is a ball-busting 145 bhp 1000cc motor with bulging torque that catapults the bike out of turns towards the horizon in a way that really gets your adrenaline going. If this bike doesn’t move you, then you're probably made of cold, hard stone.

Most of the motorcycles pitched into the FZ1’s category produce even more torque, but this bike makes good power effortlessly all across the rev range, and has brilliant top end.

Out on the country roads the bike was in its element. The fairing spared me the worst of the wind blast as I blasted down the straights. The aggressive look of the front fairing protects the rider from the wind without being large or obtrusive. The suspension dealt with the bumps and ripples in the road without fuss.

The engine is always ready right off throttle. If you grab a big handful the FZ1 picks up and dashes for the horizon. Hold them open and the engine responds by producing strong horsepower all the way to the obtrusive rev limiter. No surprise that the engine is a peach that revs hard and works like a terrier. It has all the lightweight internals of the R1, all the low-friction materials, and a super-compact design.

The FZ1 wasn’t intended to be an out-and-out sportbike, so gone is the R1’s full wrap-around race-inspired bodywork. But the designers at Yamaha didn’t go full retro with it either. On went a sleek sporty fairing that left acres of engine and exhaust pipes on show. The all-alloy twin-spar frame on the R1 has been replaced by a steel tube affair that’s more in keeping with the style of the ‘naked’ or ‘retro’ class that the FZ1’s aimed at.

Yamaha got it right with the chassis; it’s light and strong, and although the front fork isn't the cutting edge upside-down units from the R1, they still do a brilliant job. In addition they are complemented by a rear shock that does a great job of ensuring the big bike gets all it’s ponies down onto the tarmac.

It’s not all multi-adjustable race track standard stuff, and it’s even a bit harsh at times, but the suspension will do nicely for the average rider. For those that want a little bit more, there’s already a big aftermarket supply of FZ1 hop-up stuff. The FZ1 is a fair bit heavier than supersport machines, but it handles perfectly on small roads and is easy to maneuver in city traffic as well.

Fast bikes need good brakes, so you’ll be pleased to note the twin disc set up at the front and single at the rear, all just as you’d find on the R1. Those three race-derived calipers are all made from solid alloy billet and produce tremendous, and dependable, stopping power, without a hint of fade. The brakes are just three of the reasons why riding the bike is so much fun. You can trail the front stoppers deep into a turn since there’s plenty of feel as you ease off the brakes as the bike heads for the apex.

The steering is precise, although the front end can get a little unsettled over rough corner exits. Enthusiastic riding will release too many of those claimed 143 ponies too early and have the font wheel lofting out of turns. If you’re riding like this you’re going to experience a few flaps of the bars as the front gets skittish powering out of turns. Throttle control cures the problem immediately.

The FZ1 is compact for a 1000cc bike, and this means it is accessible even to those who stand less than six-feet-tall. With the upright riding position, wide saddle, motocross-style bars and lower footrests, the FZ1 is much more comfortable than the R1. The half-fairing looks small but does a great job of deflecting the wind off the rider. The bike’s indicated 160 mph top speed would give your neck muscles a very hard time without it.

Wait a minute! A 160 mph top speed, half fairing and modern styling? How can this bike be categorized as a retro or a naked? Good point. As with many of Yamaha’s bikes, the FZ1 actually redefines the genre. It’s not a standard, or a naked, or even a retro. The FZ1 is a roadster. It’s got a big engine, an upright seating position, and it comes with modern styling and loads of power. The result is simple – it’s great fun to ride.

Yutaka Kubo, project leader for the FZ1, talks about the engine: “We used the R1 engine as a base. This powerplant is light, compact and produces enormous power. We made some modification to the engine in order to fit use in every traffic condition. Even in last gear on secondary roads, the acceleration and power pick up is really great and makes riding a real pleasure. We achieved this by a 10% increase in crank inertia mass, combined with BSR 37 mm carburetors and a completely new cylinder head.”

How does it compare to the other bikes that might be on the retro list? The truth is, it doesn’t. Yamaha already produce the XJR1300 to compete head-on with the Bandit and the Kawasaki ZRX and the rest of the naked/retro market. The FZ1 belongs in a class of bikes that I would call ‘roadsters,’ machines such as Honda’s capable new 919 or Triumph’s wonderful Speed Triple. They have small fairings and aren’t sport bikes, but they’re too cutting edge to be called retro.

Roadsters have modern performance and handling to match their butch, stripped-down appearance, and the FZ1 fits the roadster bill perfectly. It’s very fast, it handles superbly and performance-wise, it’s only separated from the superbike sector by its lack of low bars, full enclosure bodywork and a few horsepower.

Whenever I test a bike nowadays I find myself struggling to find faults. The standard of modern bikes is so high that there’s often little you can criticize. The FZ1’s no different here, as looking through my notes I can’t find a single black mark against the bike. The pillion perch doesn’t look too comfortable, so that may rule out two-up touring I guess. But with its combination of a useful engine, proven reliability, an easy riding position and brilliant handling, the Fazer (as its labelled in Europe) makes a stonking sport-touring machine. I’d quite happily use this bike to tear down to the south of France with a credit card and tankbag full of swimming gear.

Passenger pillion looks good, but leaves a little something to be desired…like padding. The grab handles work great for attaching your luggage or performing hooligan stunts in front of the coffee house.

The Fazer would also be the perfect mount to hoon around my local twisty country roads on. And it wouldn’t be a bad choice for the commuter who has a mix of town and motorway riding to cope with but wants a bike they can have fun on come the weekend. It’s nimble and fast and the ultra-compact R1 engine means it’s very narrow for a four-cylinder bike, perfect for slipping between lines of slow moving cars, and is also capable of hopping off to a track day where it’ll be plenty capable of giving some of the real sport bikes a run for their money. The FZ1 is very easy to ride fast and this will go in its favor on any track. This is where the real attraction of the Fazer lies, in its ability to cope with a variety of roles.

The FZ1 is a practical bike with loads of character. The combination of an upright seating position and the powerful R1-derived engine means that for an experienced rider pulling wheelies is a doddle. Just as the superb chassis allows knee down at the race track without fuss. The 160 mph performance and searing acceleration simply add to the heady mix. Whenever I rode the Fazer I found myself staying out for longer and longer rides.

Unlike on similar sport bike rides, my aching butt and cramped wrists weren’t screaming for the relief of a soft sofa and a few hours zoned out in front of the TV. I really didn’t want the fun to end. Motorcycling is supposed to be about having a ball and Yamaha have got the mix absolutely right with this bike. It may be practical and flexible, but it’s also a brain-out machine in the best Yamaha tradition. It’s a Yamaha tradition that can trace its roots right back through the R1, the RZ350LC and the original nutter bikes, the aircooled RZ/RD 250/350/400s of the mid-Seventies.

Who would buy the FZ1, though? If you really want a full-on sports bike you’ll buy the R1, and if you want a big mile-munching tourer then you’ll probably be looking down at the BMW dealership. But what if you want a bit of each? Or maybe you want a bike that’s big without being heavy, fast without being uncomfortable and stylish without being a cruiser? If you want a bike that does it all then the FZ1 should be somewhere on your shopping list, preferably near the top. It won’t suit everyone, but there’s few genuine riders who would be untouched by the experience should they opt for a test ride on a FZ1.