Are three wheels better than two? Yamaha's Niken tested
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After a year on the scene, Yamaha’s Niken is still turning heads for motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists alike.
Though it is far from a conventional-looking machine, it’s the rolling arrangement that captures attention and has people pointing as you cruise on by.
Yamaha is no stranger to the unconventional three-wheeled motorcycle market, with their TriCity scooter leading the way for the Japanese brand since 2014.
The latest addition to its list of three-wheeled contenders, however, is a different use of the concept as it moves it away from the small city-crawler market and into full-size sports touring market.
The Niken is still unlike anything else available to the mainstream motorcycle market with no other manufacturer hinting that it is considering the concept.
That said, the Niken isn’t a new ground-up design. Based around the same 847cc CP3 inline triple-cylinder engine as found in the MT-09 and Tracer 900GT, the Niken also shares some of its frame with these models.
But it is that twin front-wheel arrangement that sets the Niken apart from its stablemates. Based on the Akerman system of suspension, the Niken offers phenomenal front-end stability compared to a regular motorcycle thanks to its twin 15in front wheels and set of four forks.
Okay, you could call the resulting styling to accommodate the front suspension system “unique” to be nice, but that crustacean-like fairing does offer a decent amount of protection when the weather gods roll the dice against you. The Niken is also available in an even more weather-friendly GT variant, which adds to the equation a much larger windscreen and other small changes .
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But even the standard bike offers enough coverage from the elements, in part, because there is a sea of plastic between you and the road ahead. Measuring in at 885mm wide — that’s nearly half the width of a Ford Ranger (and seems more in traffic) — it gives the feeling of riding atop something futuristic. The only bike that remotely comes close being BMW’s F850GS Adventure with its equality large expanse of forward plastic.
Visually there are some areas where Yamaha has clearly reined in the design team to keep the price realistic. The dash, for instance, is a stylish LCD unit instead of the TFT that is often expected on such flagship machines. It offers all the data expected, with a bold display of speed most prominent, along with a convenient 12V charger mounted at the side of the unit.
An interesting addition to the Niken’s tech suite is a quickshifter for the six-speed gearbox. While the CP3 engine provides a sumptuous torque curve and rewarding top-end, the quickshifter allows blisteringly fast upshifts.
Obviously, Yamaha wasn’t expecting the Niken to take to the top of the sales charts with its divisive styling and three-wheel arrangement, but the company’s local arm says sales are doing well.
Although the bike is a bit of a niche product when compared to the rest of the Yamaha sports touring range, it does have its place and with that added traction up front, it is possibly the most confidence-inspiring wet-weather bike I’ve ridden.
Arriving at Yamaha HQ in the pouring rain with the forecast not set to improve, I was initially disappointed at the riding conditions. But then it was pointed out these were just the kind of conditions where the Niken excels.
With a planned ride route around Auckland’s Hunua Ranges and checking out some of my old favourite riding roads, I set off into the mist to get to grips with the Niken.
The first impression beyond the imposing size of the bike is that it carries a lot more heft than its Tracer 900 GT relative, tipping the scales at 263kg fully fuelled. And it doesn’t possess the same ability to lock the suspension in place like the Piaggio MP3 we tested this year, meaning at a stop, it’s up to you to make sure it doesn’t all come tumbling down.
But out on the storm-damaged coastal roads, its manners shone. Despite slippery conditions, the Niken instilled confidence. Even a section of washed-out road didn’t impact stability.
That extra stability comes at a cost and that is manoeuvrability. While you control the Niken just as you would a regular motorcycle, it is noticeably slower to turn into a corner because of that extra front wheel.
This is far from a deal-breaker, however, and probably why the Niken is best described as a sports tourer rather than outright sports bike.
If you ignore the extra front wheel and polarising looks but focus on its ability to provide a stable, predictable ride, it is a remarkable motorcycle.
It’s just a shame it is polarising a concept to established motorcyclists.
Price: From $24,479
Engine: 847cc in-line 3-cylinder DOHC
Pros: Incredibly confidence-inspiring in slippery conditions, great engine
Cons: “Futuristic styling is not for everyone”; takes a lot to convince traditional riders to try three wheels; some parts let down the bike’s special nature