By Bart Madson, Editor

An all-time favorite stays at the top

The curvy backroads of Northern California are an ideal locale to catch up with an old riding partner. In my case, the old acquaintance is Yamaha’s sport-touring platform, the FJR1300 – one of my all-time favorite bikes. So when the Tuning Fork brand announced a refresh of its venerable ST mount earlier this year, getting some seat time on the 2013 Yamaha FJR 1300 before the riding season turns to rain and cold was a top priority. Thankfully, an invitation arrived, and we headed south to Sonoma County for a first ride evaluation this fall.

The FJR is far from a ground-up redesign, but the updates do prove more significant than supposed at first glance. Styling changes, while sportier and more modern, more or less retain the understated lines of its predecessor. The front end has been cleaned up, to be sure, with the one piece cowling being the best upgrade in our estimation. It replaces a three-piece cowling that looks dated in retrospect. The windshield and headlights are different too. Yes, the FJR looks better, refreshed but not wildly different by any means.

It’s the changes you can’t see on the FJR that make the biggest impression, starting with the engine. Fire up the Yamaha and riders are greeted by the familiar tones of its Inline Four. Internal dimensions of the 1298cc mill, including its 79mm bore and 66.2mm stroke, are unchanged. However, engineers updated the cylinders to a sleeveless design and sourced new piston rings. The claimed benefit is reduced friction, improved heat dissipation, lighter weight and better performance.

Indeed, the engine can boast performance gains of three horsepower and three lb-ft of torque. But that boost is credited to a redesigned exhaust, which looks quite similar to the previous one – the two mufflers plain and, thankfully, not grotesquely oversized (unlike many of the latest new emissions-compliant cans). The exhaust is longer, however. It’s also lighter too, having consolidated from four catalyzers down to one pair.

Throttling up the FJR remains invigorating, but modest power gains aren’t the critical update to the Inline Four. The big ticket upgrade is the new Yamaha Chip Controlled Throttle. The YCC-T tech first debuted on the 2006 R6 supersport and has since trickled down throughout the Yamaha lineup. The system incorporates a motor and throttle position sensor to meter out fuel delivery. A fly-by-wire system, the YCC-T also allows for cruise control and variable engine maps through Yamaha’s D-Mode selector, offering two settings: Sport and Touring.

Beginning our test ride, smack dab in the heart of wine country, it’s clear the YCC-T is the highlight on this new FJR. Fueling is remarkably precise, straddling the fine line between crisp and abrupt. Throttle response is seamless with zero lag. And our favorite characteristic comes on deceleration, where even sudden roll offs lack a herky jerky response – only smooth decel. Throttle feel is particularly refined in Touring mode, our favorite engine map for that reason.

The D-Mode system, familiar to us from its use on the Super Tenere, is toggled via a switch on the right handlebar. Changing between the two settings is quite simple, and a rider need only let off the throttle to make changes on the fly. The two settings both offer full power – but Sport delivers a more savage delivery for aggressive riding. Considering our route began with damp roads, we were happy to set it on Touring and didn’t miss the punchier Sport – even when the roads dried out.

The FJR also delivers the safety net of traction control. Here the YCC-T also plays its part, manipulating fuel delivery to maintain optimal drive. Again, the variable conditions of our test ride, which included icy roads the next morning, had us thankful for the TC. However, try as we might, we never noticed the safety aid cutting in as it’s unobtrusive (forgive us for not pressing the 660 pound bike to its limits of adhesion).

Cruise control is another boon for the 2013 FJR, and standard kit nowadays for a legit touring mount. Yamaha’s system is effective and intuitive. An on-off button on the left switchgear engages the system, with a toggle switch directly above delivering auto-like functionality (set, cancel, and increase and decrease speed). The system disengages via the handlebar buttons, as well as pulling in the clutch or bumping the throttle up. The ability to rest or stretch your right hand while droning on the interstate, which we did for about 20 miles, is a definite boost for rider comfort.

The freeway also let us notice that the FJR retains its five-speed transmission – no sixth-gear overdrive. It’s not really missed, but it's curious considering this trait exists on other bikes in the class (like the Honda ST1300). The transmission does feature some changes, however, with a new machining method for the gears. While we don’t recall any dramatic changes, the gearbox of the new Yamaha is well sorted. We laud its easy-to-find Neutral, as a sneaky green N is one of our pet peeves. Clutch lever pull this year also feels slightly easier, one of our few complaints for the older version.

Speaking of the older bike … we have always praised the FJR for its handling characteristics. The chassis on this year’s mount retains the same frame and geometry, but Yamaha has altered the suspension. The FJR now utilizes an independent damping fork, with new internals and springs. Three-way adjustment remains up front, but compression and rebound are handled in the right fork leg only. Yamaha says the fork has been firmed up, with the new configuration shaving weight. The rear shock is also stiffer, with revised settings. Quick adjustments aren’t quite as easy this year, as the new fork setup only features tool-less clickers on top of the right shock, where the previous model had clickers atop both fork caps. The FJR only has a two-stage preload setting for the rear shock, Hard and Soft, with no remote hand knob to fine-tune preload. The shock is also adjustable for rebound.

Our initial estimation was the 2013 FJR felt looser than before, and our timidity on the wet roads didn’t help matters. Here’s a case where our aforementioned “all-time favorite” bias toward the FJR has set the bar extremely high. Playing with the clickers helped dial out some of the unsteady feel, and we’re confident with more time we could get the new FJR handling back to our rose-tinted memories of its predecessor. As it stood, after two days we were happy with handling, but not ecstatic.

Despite all the changes for 2013, the FJR managed to drop five pounds. Granted, that won’t be much noticed from a bike that we last weighed at 664 pounds (in 2009 during our Sport-Touring Shootout). Still, it is creeping away from, rather than toward, a bloated 700 pounds (unlike some of its rivals). And the FJR carries its weight well, the low center of gravity making for quick transitions and easy turning.

The Yamaha’s new Bridgestone BT-023 tires contribute to a steady feel in the corners. The ‘stones performed well in the variable conditions, which included waking up one morning to find them covered in ice (giving new meaning to cold tires!). The tire spec, dubbed BT-023F, was specifically developed for the FJR to increase durability. It’s a common problem to the sport-touring class, which Bridgestone noted during its press intro to the BT-023 back in 2010. These ST bikes are ridden hard on the street, like high-performance sportbikes, only they weigh an extra 200 pounds! The extra weight puts a fierce load on the tire, and wear can be dramatic. In fact, at the time Bridgestone specifically pointed out the FJR as a bike that shreds through tires. This new spec goes even further than the standard BT-023 to increase durability.

We weren’t able to get the tires chirping on hard braking maneuvers thanks to the ABS. While not as unobtrusive as the stealthy TC assists, the ABS system does its thing without dramatic lever pulses. The bite and feel of the four-piston Nissin stoppers up front is pleasing and efficient.

Charging through the corners or cruising on the freeway, it’s easy to pile on the miles aboard the Yamaha. An upright riding position mates with a comfortable seat and peg configuration. The seat is also two position adjustable, high and low. Further aiding rider comfort are panels on the side fairing that can be swapped between two positions, one of which redirects engine heat away from the rider and delivers a little more wind protection.

And the FJR delivers excellent wind protection, though its trim fairing is not as wide as some of its competitors. The new windscreen is improved. It sports a taller and wider shape, which we didn’t notice, but we did take note of its faster adjustment functionality. It also now remembers its position when turning off the bike – a small thing, but an appreciated feature and one of the nits we pick come shootout time. The biggest improvement, though, is how the new fairing/windscreen rechannels the airflow that isn’t deflected – so there is a steadying flow. The result is minimal buffeting. The only missing element in the touring comfort factor is a lack of handguards. And while that helps the sporty aesthetics, the wind and elements have free reign on a rider’s mitts.

Thankfully, heated grips come standard on the FJR. They work well too, warm without burning (trust us, it can happen…). Riders can also fine-tune the heat from its three position settings in the menu. It’s a far cry from the rudimentary hand knob of the previous model. Same goes for the instrumentation in general, as Yamaha has completely revamped the system.

The new instrument console updates the dash. An analog tach now rests on the left, with an easy to read digital speedo as the biggest data displayed on the center LCD screen, which also houses a fuel gauge, clock and the engaged D-Mode setting. A right side screen features a prominent gear position indicator, with the remaining info cycled via left hand trigger switch. Riders rotate through data air/engine temps, range, fuel efficiency – they also control the settings for heated grips and windscreen (via yet another toggle, above the cruise control toggle). The instrumentation is well thought out, with our only kvetch being that the cruise control switches take up a lot of the prime real estate. However, the starter button/kill switch toggle on the right control is excellent – a simple and elegant consolidation of switchgear functionality.

Saddlebags return unchanged on the FJR. While they aren’t as big, perhaps, as some in the ST class, we were able to fit our medium-sized modular helmet in no problem. We’d note that the accessory saddlebag liners, which are often installed on our Yamaha test bikes, including this FJR, are quite convenient and appreciated – a worthy investment for the hardcore touring set. An accessory top case is available to bolster luggage capacity. Another touring perk that is standard kit on the FJR is the new centerstand, which Yamaha claims is 30% lighter. It proves quite easy to lever the heavy mount up onto its stand.

Perhaps the most impressive feat Yamaha has accomplished with its new FJR revamp is its $15,890 MSRP. The pricetag rises only $300 more than the 2012 version. This bears special mention, considering the depreciating Yen has forced the Japanese manufacturers to jack up pricing by a couple hundred on nearly all models, much less ones sporting significant upgrades. On that note, the FJR’s price undercuts one of its chief rivals, the Kawasaki Concours, by $300 ($16,199).

Bottom line, Yamaha has taken an already solid touring platform and made it smoother, more powerful and competitive in price. One of our all-time favorites keeps its place on the best-ever list.