Yamaha YZF-R1 Review

When the R1 first arrived on the superbike scene a decade ago it represented the next evolution of the open class sportbike. The R1’s combination of light weight, stomping power and revolutionary styling made even the mightiest mullet weak in the knees. Ten years later the R1 is still on the cutting edge of literbike design, although it no longer features the stump-pulling bottom torque of the original. Instead, the ’08 Yamaha utilizes a track-inspired high-revving screamer of an engine, powerful brakes and a gnarly exhaust note to get the adrenal glands pumping. Without a doubt, the R1 is a treat for all the senses, but it faces tough competition in our fifth annual Superbike Smackdown.

Engine: 998cc inline 4-cylinder, DOHC, 16 valve

Bore x Stroke: 77 x 53.6mm

Horsepower: 150.31 @ 12,200

Torque: 73.64 @ 9500

Weight: 464 lbs w/ fuel – 435.8 lbs w/o fuel

Power to Weight Ratio: 0.32 hp per lbs.

Rake & Trail: 24-degree x 101.6mm

Wheelbase: 55.7-in.

Seat Height: 32.9-in.

Measured MPG: 31.6 mpg

MSRP: $11,699

Yamaha’s flagship sportbike feels so excellent right out of the gate that it had a few of us believing it might challenge for top honors this year. There is a lot of encouraging points for the R1 including: a great transmission, wailing motor, effective slipper clutch and buttery-smooth throttle. Combine those after our first trackday with positive scores for brakes, suspension and initial turn-in and the R1 was sitting pretty.

The data we collected on the Area P Dynojet 200i dyno, however, illustrates that despite boasting decent performance figures, the R1 is simply out-gunned in this shootout. The Yamaha Inline Four makes horsepower similar to the Ninja and GSX-R until ten-grand, where it is overtaken. Power continues to build up to the 150 hp peak at 12,200 rpm, but as impressive as that figure sounds, these days it is only good enough to beat the 1098. The R1 is three hp down on the CBR, seven behind the GSX-R and eight less than the king-of-the-hill ZX-10.

The same story applies in the lb-ft department, with the Yamaha torque curve following the Kawasaki closely until it tapers off where the 10R keeps on building. A closer look reveals the R1’s 73.6 lb-ft torque peak comes in at 9400 rpm, the same rpm as the CBR’s high, so it feels nearly as strong initially. In fact, only 5 lb-ft separate the max torque numbers of the Inline motors until ten-grand. At that point the R1, GSX-R and ZX are all nose-to-nose and churning out more than 140 horsepower, but that’s where the Yamaha concedes the peak power battle to the Gixxer and Ninja.

Yet the small separation in the Inline torque curves doesn’t reflect the way things feel from the cockpit. The 1098, GSX-R and CBR physically feel faster, with both the ZX and R1 seemingly less aggressive off the corners. This feeling is not exactly supported by the 0-60 and 0-100 times, which reveal the R1 a mere 0.08-second behind the fastest bike at 100 mph and 0.15-second down at the end of the quarter mile. These numbers place the R1 in the lower half of the field, but its 135mph trap speed ties it for top honors with the CBR.

“Midrange is much improved over previous generations, but it still is lacking when compared to the current open-class crop,” explains MCUSA Associate Editor Adam Waheed. “The R1 is sharp and when you keep the engine zinging it is damn fun to ride. You need to ride the R1 more aggressively than say the GSX-R, but when you do it’s really rewarding.”

The faster tracks like Buttonwillow and Willow Springs play right to the R1’s strengths, requiring much less effort to ride fast than at the shorter 1.5-mile Pahrump course. It is the gap between first and second gear, that most of the time is only an issue on the street, which kills the R1’s drive at Pahrump in particular. In contrast, the taller gearing makes it much easier to take advantage of the 998cc powerplant when the bike has room to stretch its legs. This scenario allows the rider to spend less time worrying about shifting and more time focusing on how smooth the YCC-T/I (Yamaha Control Chip Throttle/Intake) set-up is this year and how solid the bike is in the fast sweepers. Our more-experienced racers in particular get along well with the R1, citing how adept it is at dicing through the fast twisty stuff and scrubbing off speed. Superbike-specialist and AMA Superbike privateer Michael Earnest, in particular, came away impressed.

“Yamaha continues to show off its great styling,” explains Earnest. “But the motor rips too and really likes to rev, pulling strong up top. The R1 also has awesome brakes with a consistent, fade-free feel and a firm lever. The footpegs are relatively low, offering nice legroom for a taller rider, though I had them touching down fairly often. It turns-in nicely into slower corners and high-speed sweepers alike.”

The Yamaha was fast early in the first Buttonwillow test, as our lap data reveals, and is actually the first bike to break into the 2:09s on the reverse course layout, but it never dropped lap times significantly after that mark. As the day wore on, the R1 seemed to be stuck at a plateau while the other bikes had a little more speed lurking within them.

On the scales, the R1 weighs in at 435 lbs without fuel, which makes it third-lightest – a mere pound lighter than the ZX but a whopping 25 lbs heavier than the lightweight Ducati and Honda. How this affects the R1’s general feel we attribute to mass centralization. While the Kawasaki carries its weight low and feels lighter than it actually is, the Yamaha weighs about the same but the underseat exhaust adds a considerable amount of weight on the upper half of the motorcycle. Theoretically, this should slow down transitions, turn-in and affect overall stability one way or another. The score sheets reflect this, as even though the R1 rated well in initial turn-in by the fast dudes, it is in the lower percentile on our overall handling scores. And this really is the fate of the 2008 R1: It feels good until it’s compared directly to the other bikes, which do a few things better than the Yamaha.

In stock trim, the R1’s layout is accommodating for bigger riders. It emits a wicked exhaust howl to supplement its attractive lines, but it is not without flaws. The instrument cluster features a centrally-located black-faced analog tach with LCD screens on either side which provide usable data, but without a fuel gauge or gear position indicator. While the mirrors are decent, wind protection is pretty sparse. The riding position is more suitable for taller riders since the bars are low and quite a reach for shorter pilots. After a couple hundred miles of riding, the edgy R1 starts to lose its luster compared to the less-agonizing layouts of the Honda and Suzuki.

Street performance also works against the narrowly-focused Yamaha. Similar to the plight of the 1098, the R1 is a looker that holds its own on the track but loses a lot of ground on the street. For starters, it doesn’t feel as fast as the other bikes. The lack of low-end grunt combined with tall gearing make it slow to accelerate from a stop unless you are drag racing it. Also, the heat from the underseat exhaust is sadistic. Did we mention that the pipes look bitchin’ though? Some people don’t give a rip about these issues and will get along fine with a bike like the R1, and Hoobastank percussionist and MCUSA guest test rider Chris Hesse is one of them.

“It pains me to put the Yamaha near the back of the small pack, being a Yamaha fanatic and given that I play Yamaha drums on stage, and never mind the fact that I have three Yamahas in my garage,” says exasperated drummer boy Hesse. “The only problem with the R1 is that it has the least grunt out of all the bikes. The absence of power is mostly felt in low-mid range torque – one of the things most coveted for riding the street.”

In the end, the R1 missed its opportunity to challenge for our Superbike Smackdown title when it stumbled out of the gate last year, and that’s unfortunate because the Yamaha is a great bike. This year it doesn’t do enough things better to differentiate itself from its competitors, which is an absolute necessity if it hopes to stand out in this high-performance crowd. Considered by itself, the 2008 Yamaha YZF-R1 is the best looking, most powerful R1 ever built. But low scores in the hard data and average subjective scores followed by a brutal showing during the street ride ultimately kills the R1’s drive for top billing.