Road test: the Yamaha Niken, a three-wheeled road oddity
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Yamaha is keen to stress that the new three-wheeler Niken isn’t a trike, and we can see why. The Niken handles just like any two-wheeled motorcycle, the major difference being that there’s an upgrade in front-wheel grip.
You still pitch the tri-bike into corners with the same counter-steering effort on the handlebars as say, the MT-09 streetbike that donated the Niken’s powertrain, and the triple-tracker quickly adopts a lean angle faithful to the rider’s chosen line through the corner in a fluid and linear fashion.
It’s definitely a motorcycle in all its dynamics. One that’s 115bhp-fast and grips the road like its front tyres are coated in superglue.
Yamaha’s patented Leaning Multi-Wheel technology made its debut in the Tricity 125 commuter-scooter, and the Niken takes LMW-vehicles to the next level.
Although you can buy a Tricity (now expanded to 155cc) and ride it on a car licence in this country, Yamaha NZ requested the Niken be classified as a motorcycle.
“Although we were given the choice of classifying the Niken as a car, we chose to have it listed by the NZTA as a motorcycle because it was the responsible thing to do,” says Yamaha NZ general manager, Alan Petrie.
Yamaha began experimenting with LMW designs in the 1970s, says Takahashi Kaieda, the lead engineer in the development of the Niken and now the managing director of Yamaha Motor Australia.
“Having two front wheels leaning into corners enables more stability while retaining the nimble handling characteristics of a motorcycle.”
A key motivation in the initial LMW project was to increase the appeal of motorcycles to potential customers such as motorcycle licence holders who had ceased riding or the many car drivers who desire to ride a bike but still haven’t taken the plunge, possibly because of the safety issue.
“Our research showed that 50 per cent of motorcycle licence holders no longer ride, and that 65 per cent of car licence holders would like to ride a bike.”
“Our solution was to develop a motorcycle with increased safety.”
“I cannot confirm that an LMW is safer than a motorcycle in all situations, but it is safer in several situations.”
“Yet it is still slim (and can filter through city traffic). It is more comfortable, and there is less fatigue and less stress.”
The Tricity 125 was the “long-awaited blossom” from the LMW project and it has been a huge success, especially in Europe. Kaieda’s team then looked at other LMW applications besides commuting. Enter the Niken to take LMWs in a more sporty direction.
The big-block three-wheeler launches in New Zealand this month, priced at $23,999, which is roughly $9500 more than some Kiwi retailers are charging for the MT-09 that donated the powertrain.
The extra dollars buy a lot more: extra fork tubes, multiple alloy Ackermann suspension links, alloy tie-rods to tie the steering yokes to the handlebars, the secret squirrel stuff that keeps the twin 15in front wheels tracking a path that maintains their distance apart (410mm), an extra 120/70 front tyre and wheel, a lower, longer seat than the MT-09, and an extended alloy rear swingarm.
The extra hardware adds 60kg of mass, and Yamaha arranged the Niken so that there is 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution once the rider is aboard. That was mostly achieved by moving the rider backwards 50mm when compared with the MT-09 (hence the tie-rods between the handlebars and the headstock).
The payoff is a 40 per cent increase in front tyre grip, and stopping distances reduced by 20 per cent thanks to the doubling of rubber reaching the road up front.
The Niken gets a full suite of electronic riding aids: cruise control, three throttle modes, three traction control settings, a quick-shifter, and the powerful brakes benefit from ABS back-up.
This latter system was never called into play at the front, although the rear brake triggered it regularly during hundreds of kilometres on Central Otago roads.
If that situation appears normal behaviour for a motorcycle, consider this: there were times when all the power of the front brakes was required while the Niken’s peg feelers were scraping the road and the full 45-degree quota of lean angle was being used. The ability to deploy lots of front braking power while leaning right over is possibly the Niken’s best party trick.
Another is its near immunity to road surface hazards such as gravel stones and wet patches. If one of the front tyres loses its purchase on the road, the other is still highly likely to possess enough grip to keep the Yamaha tracking through the corner.
The Nikens sampled at the New Zealand launch were fresh off the boat — some showing only 11km on their odometers. This exaggerated the effect of the added mass over the MT-09, although the tri-trackers did liven up noticeably as the kilometres clocked up.
Still, there’s little doubt that the single-track Yamaha 900 triple will beat the tri-wheeled version in any demonstration of powertrain performance. The extra 60kg is a handicap for the Niken to cart, yet such is the accessible torque delivery of the 847cc CP3 Yamaha three-cylinder engine, that quick overtaking performance stays on the riding menu.
Notable powertrain changes for three-wheeled duty include forged pistons, a weightier crankshaft, the strengthening of some transmission components of the six-speed gearbox, and the fitting of two extra teeth to the rear drive sprocket to enhance thrust.
With it’s off-setting of the cylinders in relation to the centre of the crank to reduce friction, the CP3 delivers commendable fuel use figures in bike form.
However, the spirited riding of the gathered journalists combined with the increased mass and virginal nature of the Nikens mostly saw trip computer readings showing fuel use in the 6-6.5litres/100km range.
Herein lies one of the bigger trade-offs for that extra front-end grip – increased running costs. The more complicated front suspension requires pulling apart every 20,000km so that the bearings can be re-packed with grease, and have their clearances re-shimmed.
There are four fork tube seals to regularly replace instead of two, and while Yamaha says front tyres last longer, you have to buy two instead of one.
That said, the Niken is a convincing ride when it comes to cornering security and more useful stopping performance, especially as it also has ride comfort and bump absorption nailed.
While I find the inertia created by the extra front end mass a little tiring when it comes to parking and roll-rotating the Niken through fast S-bends, I can think many times when Yamaha’s strangely beautiful three-wheeler will save its rider from eating hospital food.
Just an unexpected encounter with a patch of pea gravel mid-corner, and the premium charged for the Niken over the MT-09 could be the best money spent on a motorcycle.