Press launch: 2020 Yamaha MT-03 and Yamaha R3

By Paul Penzo Posted on

Clothes make the bike

Dressed for fun, but still frisky

It is amazing how different two essentially identical motorcycles can be.

Yamaha’s 2020 full-fairing R3 and naked MT-03 small-displacement sport-bike models are effectively the same bike with different attitudes. And they both achieve what they’re intended to do, and do it well.

Fully dressed in the R3 configuration with fairings, clip-ons and aggressive seating position, I find myself wanting to go racing at a Canadian Superbike event. In its naked bike incarnation as the MT-03, with a more comfortable seating position and old-school handlebar, I find myself wanting to take my kids for a ride along the countryside and tour around town. Yamaha’s 3-series platform seems to be happy doing whatever keeps me happily within street legal limits, and that says something!

At the heart of both entry-level models is a fuel-injected DOHC 321 cc twin. Power is docile and smooth below 7,000 rpm, and comes on progressively stronger through to redline. Inverted KYB fork, steel diamond-shaped frame, adjustable KYB shock, and 17-inch aluminum wheels deliver a stable yet responsive feel that exceeds my expectations on both fronts.

Riding the MT-03, I enjoy tranquil cruises without concern about getting pulled over, and whether a young passenger can hang on when I get on the pipe. Yet while riding the R3 on the street feels similar, I am happiest using that model at the track with sticky, more triangulated CSBK series tires. Keep it up high in the rpm range between maximums of torque and horsepower, scrape knees and let it scream in delight.

Unexpected joy is found in both configurations.

Yamaha MT-03.


Designed primarily as an entry-level naked bike, the all-new for 2020 MT-03 gives me far more enjoyment than I anticipated. Having been on two wheels now for almost 50 years, enjoying anything with a motor in it for almost 45 and racing for about 20, I think it safe to label me a reforming speed addict with self-control issues on designed-to-be-faster bikes. This should not be a good fit for me, but it just might be.

So why does it so pleasantly surprise? The lack of big-bore power output forces me to enjoy the simple act of cruising in somewhat cool naked style. The 12 cm LED display is easy to read and navigate. Whenever the urge arises to let it rip, I can speed-shift through the gearbox and beat a sedan off the lights without worry of my passenger flying off the back. And while it takes a bit to wrap my mind around it, this is a good thing.

The fuel-injection system of dual Mikuni throttle body with 12 injectors is smooth in every riding situation, and the engine itself is not picky regarding gear selection. If you release the clutch slowly enough from a stop in first, the bike automatically raises the revs such that beginners can take off without stalling or modulating the throttle. Yet with proper gear selection and more enthusiastic throttle use, the engine comes alive above 7,000 rpm and happily screams on the pipe to deliver increased propulsion to redline; one of life’s smaller pleasures.

Anybody know what MT stands for?  Yamaha’s development concept is based on a “Master of Torque” concept and, if nothing else, the MT-03’s design delivers. With a 78 cm seat height, the bike is easy to mount and dismount, feels light, and will fit most average and shorter riders with ease. But the wide shrouded tank gives it a big-bike feel, and it looks strikingly analogous to its larger siblings, Yamaha’s MT-10, MT-09 and MT-07, which share styling DNA.

Yamaha MT-03.

As compared with the R3, the MT-03’s handlebar ends are 19 mm back and 39 mm higher; and the bike is 25 mm wider, 70 mm shorter, and weighs two pounds less. The front spring rate is lighter with increased preload to absorb sharp bumps more smoothly throughout the stroke, and seems way more comfortable on the wrists to ride on the street. And while a little birdie told me it goes about 170 km/h with effort, staying within legal speed limits feels more natural. This is great for beginners, and comes in handy for me while I cruise through police radar setups without issue or a feeling of forced constraint during the ride.

The two-week test included taking light passengers, which this time consisted of my pre-teen daughter and son, for rides on the MT-03. I do not remember a bike both kids wanted to go for rides on, much less more than once, so it clearly appeals to both an older demographic in me and a younger one in them. Their only complaint after one-hour-plus rides was the hard passenger seat. But my 10-year-old son became so comfortable as we cruised backroads and enjoyed some Canadian countryside that he needed to be warned during a refueling stop about the dangers of falling asleep on the back; the seat could not be that bad.

The MT-03 feels cool to be seen on, and the tiny LED headlight and position lights illuminate the road well. On one adventure, I took my daughter to Peterborough’s Lighthouse restaurant for her 12th birthday and first restaurant meal since COVID-19, and on the late return to our campsite it provided ample lighting through unlit backroads.

Yamaha R3.

R3 Sidebar

A year ago, I was invited to experience the R3’s latest upgrade; but my first time riding an R3 was actually during a 2018 CSBK lightweight sport bike race weekend the year before that, and it was a blast.

First launched in 2015, Yamaha’s R3 has had minor updates in 2017 to add ABS, and in 2018 for EURO IV compliance. But for 2019, the R3 received more extensive upgrades and aside from colour selection it remains unchanged in 2020. These upgrades include a revised fairing shape for increased aerodynamics, a more functional ram air system, more aggressive riding position that brings it closer to a 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, updated TFT instrument cluster, and LED lights.

The 2019 one-day test started with a mostly serene ride on country roads. And it was odd to feel the bike so well-mannered down low in the rev range when all I had known of its predecessor was knee scraping, engine screaming performance that reawakened a retired racer. It felt light, easy to ride, and had no memorable glitches to speak of, while looking more remarkably like its larger R6 and R1 siblings.

More interesting for me on the 2019 R3 test was the second half of the day at Ontario’s Shannonville Motorsport Park. I spent the first session on the stock bike, and most of the afternoon on a second stock bike configuration mounted with Dunlop’s Sportmax Q3+ tires. The more triangulated profile completely changed the bike’s character, and let it flip with improved feedback and side-to-side transitions with comparative ease. ABS kicked in under heavy breaking without concern, and I was overjoyed to be on autopilot at my old stomping grounds with alternating knees scraping along the pavement.

Rain came before I could try the third, fully race-prepared configuration that sported a full exhaust, aftermarket suspension, bodywork, and more. But the day scratched the racing bug again regardless, on an effectively stock bike. And that says something too.


Knowing who you are, what you are looking for in a bike, and what makes you proud to ride should make it easy to pick which bike fits you best.

It has been said that not all who wander are lost, which is where I stand regarding bikes these days. The greater the variety of units tested and input shared, the more difficulty I have in choosing just one.

The R3 and MT-03 look cool and deliver healthy yet remarkably different grins. Knowing yourself is the biggest trick, so focus on that, pick one, and enjoy the ride. It’s all good, whichever you choose.


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