Since 1999, Yamaha has sold over 153,000 YZF-R6 supersport motorcycles, and for the 2017 model year the Japanese manufacturer adds a new chapter to that 19-year history.
Big Blue calls the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 a fourth generation motorcycle, but for those paying attention, it is obvious that Yamaha has merely taken its class-leading 600cc sport bike, made some refinements to the machine, and added an electronics package to the mix.
While there is disappointment that Yamaha didn’t bring as revolutionary of a debut to the YZF-R6 as it did just recently with the YZF-R1 superbike, we should state quite clearly that the Japanese brand continues its dominance in the 600cc sport bike realm with this most-recent addition to its lineup.
We should also give full-marks to the the realization that for Yamaha’s competitors in the supersport category, it will be considerably harder going forward to compete with Yamaha’s 600cc offering – a task that has already been a tough feat.
The recipe for the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 is straight forward, as the chassis and engine from the third-generation machine carry on, with the notable addition of a new magnesium rear subframe.
Other changes include an aluminum fuel tank, a refined seat shape, new KYB suspension fore and aft, and revised bodywork that give the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 a refreshing yet familiar look.
Of course, the changes of real note come in the form of the added electronics: six levels of traction control, three riding modes via ride-by-wire, and (permanently enabled) anti-lock brakes.
To the chassis, Yamaha has made an interesting dance of both stiffening and loosening things up in the front-end, with much of this work being through the KYB suspension pieces, which also happen to drop 1kg of weight off the bike.
Much of the added stiffness comes from the beefier and fully adjustable KYB forks, but Yamaha has reinforced the front axle as well.
All of this added too much stiffness to the design, says Yamaha though, so the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 compensates by reducing the cross-section of the lower triple clamp, thus bringing some suppleness back into the front of the rolling chassis.
The fully adjustable (high-speed/low-speed compression, rebound, and pre-load) KYB rear shock has also been upgraded, and now has a threaded pre-load adjuster, instead of the step-adjuster system from before, which makes for more refined changes to the shock pre-load.
The brakes on the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 have also been upgraded, with 320mm discs now doing the stopping duties up front (the 2016 model has 310mm discs), with the help of a new Nissin radial master cylinder and ADVICS four-piston radial calipers.
Perhaps the most obvious change for the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 is its new sleek bodywork, which makes an 8% improvement in aerodynamics over the 2016 model. Now with a taller windscreen as well, the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 now offers the same wind protection as the current YZF-R1.
With all these changes afoot, the question surely on everyone’s mind though is how big of a step is the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 from its predecessor? Fortunate for us, a 2016 Yamaha YZF-R6 was available to us for back-to-back comparisons. The answer might disappoint or delight, depending on your point of view.
New vs. Old
After a handful of laps on the 2016 Yamaha YZF-R6, it was abundantly clear to us that the technical changes made to the 2017 model are modest at best. Electronics aside, the two motorcycles behave almost identically on the race track, with a couple notable exceptions.
Yamaha’s changes to the chassis, especially the front-end of the machine, do produce some different feedback results when pushed the right way and under the right conditions.
The stiffness changes made to the 2017 model are certainly an improvement, though maybe too subtle to matter to anyone that doesn’t ride motorcycles for a living. For the typical street or track rider, the 2016 and 2017 R6 motorcycles will feel exactly the same when railing through the corners.
However, bigger improvements can be found in the braking package, with the larger front brake discs providing noticeably more stopping power, and the Nissin radial master cylinder providing better lever feel. Where the 2016 machine feels wooden when you are on the binders, the 2017 edition modulates nicely.
Interestingly enough, the biggest surprise comes from the ABS setup on the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6. It would be easy to chastise the Japanese manufacturer for not giving riders the ability to disable ABS on the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6, but we were impressed with how Yamaha’s the ABS package intervened when pushing the front tire to its threshold.
I would dare say that even for track day duty, having the ABS enabled is going to be a non-issue, at least when Bridgestone’s very sticky R10 track tires are installed, as they were for our event.
The Bridgstone S21 tire will be the OEM fitment for the North American markets, so some performance differences could exist at OEM-spec.
Still, rarely did we see the ABS show its face while lapping at Thunderhill Raceway, and when it did, the pulses and modulations weren’t overly harsh or degrading to the feel of motorcycle. The nerds in Iwata, Japan are doing their jobs very well indeed.
Of course the big topic is the new traction control system for the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6. Measuring wheel-speed from the front and rear wheels, Yamaha is managing traction through several methods: cutting ignition, changing timing, modulating fuel injection volume, and controlling the throttle opening via ride-by-wire.
While the real-world difference between the six traction control settings isn’t as distinct as we would like (read: there is almost no difference between them in dry conditions) the manner in which the Yamaha traction control intervenes shows the system to be highly competent, and clearly derived from its more sophisticated superbike counterpart.
If it wasn’t for the blinking amber light on the dash, one would rarely know that 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 is keeping things copacetic at the rear wheel of the motorcycle.
Still, one does have to wonder how necessary traction control is in the supersport class, especially with the segment not seeing meaningful changes in engine horsepower figures. As such, the value of the added electronics shines more clearly when road and track conditions are sub-optimal, not to mention when you are no longer shod in DOT race rubber.
While the addition of traction control and ABS to the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 does create another level of security for riders of these machines, it is easy to feel let down when you witness the real-world effects that Yamaha has brought to its supersport offering. But, as we warned before, that is only part of the equation.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
It is easy to be cynical about the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6, and we use coy moto-journo phrases like “evolution” or “refinement” to signal the fact that the changes to the R6 are subtle, if not underwhelming.
But one also has to look at how this new YZF-R6 fits into the supersport lineup as a whole, and that tells a different story about the machine.
If the differences from the 2016 machine are subtle to our eye, the reasoning for this might be based on the fact that the out-going YZF-R6 was already such a potent weapon for two-wheeled enthusiasts.
And while we lament the lack of “new” that comes with the 2017 model, we also have to remind ourselves that the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 benefits greatly from the pedigree it so closely follows.
Unsurprisingly then, we found that the delta box chassis provides excellent feedback to the rider, with handling characteristics that conjure words like “scalpel” or “telepathic” from motorcycle journalists.
The handling might be too good, in some respects, as the front-end can easily get out of shape as the load to the front tire decreases.
Yamaha has always walked closely to the thin line that separates the point where razor-sharp handling turns into twitchy front-ends. As such, owners will want to search for an aftermarket steering damper, and then feel confident that they have one of the best handling motorcycles on the market.
The 599cc engine creates similar compliments of its prowess, with the inline-four making predictable and smooth power. Of course like its predecessor, the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 doesn’t have anything going on engine-wise below 9,000 rpm – reminding us that riding modern supersports means keeping the needle at the top part of the tachometer.
In typical Yamaha fashion, the six-speed gearbox too on the R6 is smooth and decisive in its operation, and the installed slipper clutch makes aggressive down-shifts a no-drama affair on this pint-sized thoroughbred.
To ride this steed, you better be jockey sized though, because it is not like the Yamaha YZF-R6 grew any larger for the 2017 model year.
Yamaha has made some improvements to the ergonomics via a new seat and fuel tank shape, but larger riders (like myself, at 6’2″) will feel a little cramped on this pocket rocket. Such is the nature of the beast.
So Is It Any Good?
If one was told to ride the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6, without knowing the machines that came before it, and thus did not have the expectations that come from a 12-year hiatus, the results would be favorable. This R6 is unquestionably the standard by which all other 600cc sport bikes will be measured – full stop.
This “fourth generation” R6 is that good of a motorcycle. But, knowing what we do know, it is clear that Yamaha did not set out in 2017 to redefine the supersport segment – a segment that is suffering greatly from the complicit stagnation of the Japanese manufacturers.
It is hard to fault a company when it continues to lead all others though, and you have to give credit to Yamaha for continuing to invest in its supersport dominance, especially when other brands are content to wave the white flag.
The Yamaha YZF-R6 was already at the top of its class before this model year, and the 2017 model just became an even tougher act to follow.
Priced aggressively at $12,199 in the US market, one of the cheapest in the 600cc sport bike class, it would be hard not to recommend the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 as our supersport bike pick. So, we make no attempt otherwise. If your garage demands a supersport motorcycle, this is the one.
There is that twinge though, that feeling in the back of our mind, that while the R6 is the best supersport available on the market, it doesn’t represent the best of what the motorcycle manufacturers are capable of creating. I believe the word we’re looking for is bittersweet.
Photos: Brian J. Nelson