by Kevin Duke

A Pussycat With Fangs

Pity the poor motorcycle designer, toiling away endless hours at what must be the worst part of his job: building a bike to a strict price point. Given free rein, he could design virtually anything. Remember Dodge’s outrageous V-10 Tomahawk that, if put into production, would sell for $500K?

On the other hand, building a bike that will appeal to newbies and veterans, sport-tourers and commuters, scratchers and the upright rider’s brigade, is no small feat. Oh yeah, it also has to sell for less than $6,500.

Much clever design work has emerged from the bowels of Yamaha’s R&D labs over the years, and its latest effort is the fun and capable 2004 FZ6. Boasting features like an aluminum frame, fuel injection, a protective half-fairing and a YZF-R6-derived motor, the little Fizzer seems like an astounding bargain for just $6,499.

Certainly, there is much to like here. But we also found a few foibles that will give prospective buyers something to consider when shopping for their middleweight “reality bike.”

The FZ6 wasn’t out of our posh GMC van for more than 10 seconds before a bystander came over to admire it. He wasn’t a total bike nut but he did know what an R6 is, and his eyes pored over the FZ for several minutes. He commented on how he liked the rational seating position and the look of the exposed engine before walking away scheming of a way to get one in his garage.

And a guy like him is probably an accurate target demographic and psychographic for the FZ: mid-20s, always wanted a bike but never took up riding, friends with sportbikes. The FZ6 is “high-end” enough to not look out of place with his sportbike-riding buddies, but it also doesn’t look as intimidating as a full-on crotch rocket.

The first few feet on the FZ, however, might make him rethink his preconceptions. After thumbing the starter button and letting the EFI sort out the mixture automatically, step into first gear and slowly release the clutch lever: wait, wait, wait - whoa, there it is, just a few mm away from fully released. A little tinkering with the clutch cable can bring the engagement point in, but a rider still has to deal with the abrupt way it engages. The FZ’s clutch is similar to that on the R6, but with different friction plate material and lighter springs. It’s not an improvement. The clutch engages harshly, especially when asked to accelerate smartly with a hunk of revs.

Then there’s the notchy gearbox, especially the shifts between first and second. Whether going up or down, the lever moves through neutral with imprecision that causes the occasional missed shift. Elsewhere, the tranny is slick as snot.
Once past those small glitches the FZ is as rider-friendly as can be, as long as your inseam is more than 30 inches. At 31.8 inches, the seat is higher than expected for a bike meant to appeal to junior-level riders who love touching the ground with both feet. The thick, flat seat makes a 32-inch inseam stretch a bit for the ground, but it provides a good perch for many miles at a hop, enabling a sport-touring rider to take advantage of the 5.0-gallon fuel tank. Scoring fuel mileage figures in the high-30s, the FZ6 can squeeze nearly 200 miles out of a fill-up.

Underway, we were left wondering where the extra midrange punch Yamaha says the FZ has. Compared to the screaming R6 mill, Yamaha has employed several of the obvious tactics to boost torque, such as milder cams and a smaller airbox. A new fuel-injection system groups two cylinders together for simpler operation with the side benefit of lighter weight. Engine components that remain from the R6 include the forged pistons, combustion chamber shape, crankshaft and valves. Instead of the R6’s side-mount exhaust canister, the FZ uses one of the trendy underseat configurations that take up storage space beneath the seat. The 4-2-1 exhaust system is similar to that on the R6 until the pipe routes upward behind the engine where the catalytic converter resides. A plated resin cover over the mufflers reduces the chance of burning skin.

The junior FZ has decent midrange as long as you don’t ask too much from it, but it’s still wheezy in comparison to its very healthy top end. The seat-of-the-pants dyno says there’s less grunt than the Honda 599 we tested a few months back. The cure, of course, is to rev the little buggah, as on the R6. Do it right and you could pull off a real minger of a wheelie at 55 mph in second gear!

While you’re smoothly working your way into freeway traffic, shorter pilots will notice a twinge of buffeting from the relatively upright windscreen. Sit a little taller, or better yet, be taller, and the turbulence lessens. An 80-mph cruise sees about 6,800 rpm on the circular digital sweep of the tach that is hard to read at a glance. While lookin’ down there, you’ll notice an attractive and comprehensive set of instruments that includes a fuel gauge, clock and temp gauge, rather nice amenities for a budget bike. We also love Yamaha’s countdown fuel tripmeter that records the number of miles since going to its 0.9-gallon reserve tank. Have you ever looked down at a glowing low-fuel light and wondered how long it’s been on? On many Yamahas, that’s never a mystery.

Meanwhile, back on the freeway, you’ll notice a clear view rearward from the mirrors, with a hint of elbows in the way. Passing power is certainly adequate without a downshift, but serious overtakers will want to drop a cog or two. Power begins its surge around 7,500 rpm before hitting an explosive burst of power. Vibration makes its way through the bars and seat at several rpm zones of the tach, most noticeably at its grumpy 5,500-rpm range. Vibration dulls once past 6,000 rpm, and rubber-mount footpegs and high handlebars help ward off discomfort.

The FZ’s suspension is well set up for lighter riders, with a balanced compromise between comfort and performance. Still, there’s no mistaking that these budget boingers aren’t made by Ohlins. The preload-adjustable shock (7 ramped positions) and non-adjustable 43mm fork are made by Soqi, part of Yamaha’s family of companies that, ironically, also includes a stake in Ohlins. Ride quality is good but unsophisticated, partly due to the lack of a linkage-type rear suspension that is cheaper to manufacture than a linkage-equipped bike. The Bridgestone BT020s fitted to our tester proved to absorb road shocks quite well with their compliant nature.

Steering is neutral and linear and, best of all, quick. Borrowing the light CF-cast wheels from the R6 helps reduce reciprocating mass, making the FZ a doddle to initiate a turn, assisted by the leverage provided from the wide bars. Once laid into a corner, it effortlessly maintains its line without further steering input.

The Fizzer is not just quick to turn, either, as it is remarkably stable in all conditions. There’s nothing especially tame about the FZ’s 25-degree rake and 97.5mm (3.9″) of trail, but solid handling can be attributed to its 57.6-inch wheelbase that is 3.2-inches longer than its racy R6 stable-mate. Like the R6, the FZ uses Yamaha’s controlled-fill die casting method for its upscale aluminum frame built especially for the FZ6, providing a stiffer chassis than most others in its class. Yamaha claims the 37-pound alloy frame is 11 pounds lighter than the steel frame on the Euro FZS600 Fazer that preceded the new FZ6. The Fazer was very popular in Europe, selling nearly 83,000 units during its five-year lifespan.

The FZ’s peg feelers drag when the pace is wicked up, letting a rider know the limits of the ‘Stones are coming up. Faster pilots will simply unscrew them for extra clearance. The handy centerstand, another unexpected feature for a budget bike, remained unscathed in our use, but eaters who supersize will sink the shock further down into its travel. There doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of weight over the front end, but that’s just fine for a street bike. Yamaha claims 51% of the FZ’s weight is carried on the front wheel, but that ratio obviously changes with an upright rider aboard.

The FZ’s dual 300mm front brakes with low-rent twin-piston, pin-slide calipers from Akebono feel as if they have decent strength, but they are let down by a mushy feel; the adjustable brake lever was called into play to prevent the lever from coming back to the bar when maximum braking was called for. The rear brake, with 220mm rotor and single-piston Nissin caliper, is numb and easy to lock. That’ll teach the newbs to use the front brake, anyway, as they should. While the FZ has no problem pointing in and tracking through a corner, it can be a bit abrupt when reapplying throttle, especially at high rpm; this is good for neither vets nor rookies. A cam-type throttle pulley is supposed to diminish this quality, but the throttle response is just not as clean as the R6. Riding two-up can exacerbate this condition, where the sudden application of power results in a few embarrassing billiard shots between an Arai and a Shoei.

At least two times every ride there’s the opportunity to check out your machine. The FZ6 does well in this respect, drawing admiring glances most everywhere it goes. Yamaha did an especially nice job of cleaning up the look of the R6’s motor by removing two frame-mounting points from the R6’s cylinder head and a few other details for its naked display of the jewel-like engine.

Helping build the FZ to a price point are several plastic bodywork pieces that aren’t painted but instead use black-colored plastic, a cheaper process than painting. The front fender, cockpit cowl, part of the fairing and the tailsection don’t quite look as rich as the painted silver surfaces.

The FZ6 has a distinctive look which, other than the cat-eye headlights, had some people confused about its manufacturer. Two people in separate incidents both guessed the Fizzer might be a BMW. Sure, you’ve got an understated silver and black bike, but we wondered how they didn’t know it was a Yamaha. Well, it turns out there is no “Yamaha” script anywhere immediately noticeable on the little FZ, and the tank has only the standard tuning fork logo first made famous on the Japanese company’s pianos. Whether that’s kinda cool or a sign of an inferiority complex is up to you.

In this era of wonderfully built motorcycles that usually need a fine-tooth comb to find nits, we were surprised the FZ6 has several. That said, this is an amazing deal on a competent and versatile mini road burner. It does so many things well for such little money that it’s easy to overlook the minor warts on its otherwise flawless skin. It kept pace with a Kawi Z1000 and MV Agusta F4 SPR on some of SoCal’s twistiest roads, so you know it’ll take some doing for your R6-mounted buddies to run off and hide.

If you’re in the market for a $6,500 bike that can take on the many varied tasks that a rider can throw at it, it’s easy to make a case for the do-it-all Yamaha. The Honda 599 doesn’t have fuel injection, an aluminum frame or wind protection, plus it costs $600 extra. The new DL650 V-Strom is actually a pretty good match-up for the FZ, both with a fairing, aluminum frame and a tall, upright seating position. But although identically priced, the Suzi is a V-Twin and is intended for a slightly different rider. Then there’s Triumph’s Speed Four, which lacks the FZ’s wind protection but has an alloy frame, fuel injection and the same price tag.

Which one is the best, and best for whom, will be sorted in our upcoming four-bike comparison test. Stay tuned.