Is Yamaha’s Niken the most innovative, radical model ever from a major motorcycle manufacturer? The 847cc, three-wheeled triple has surely got to be the most distinctive. One glance, from any angle, confirms that the Niken is like no other motorcycle on earth. Assuming, that is, that it’s even technically a motorcycle.
Rather than attempt to make the leaning three-wheeler blend in, Yamaha has emphasised its unique design – colouring its two pairs of fork tubes blue, to contrast them with the grey paintwork, and running them outside the pair of 15-inch front wheels, rather than inside as with the firm’s 125cc Tricity scooter, which has a similar design.
This all adds to the sense of strangeness as you approach the Niken, although in some respects it’s not strange at all. Various versions of Piaggio’s MP3 have sold in large numbers since the original three-wheeled scooter’s debut in 2006. Yamaha joined in four years ago with the Tricity, which has established itself without making a similar impact – perhaps because the narrow front track meant that it can ‘t be ridden on a car licence?
Now the Japanese firm has adapted technology from the Tricity, and concept machines including the four-wheeled Tesseract of 2007, to bring the leaning three-wheeled layout to motorcyclists. Yamaha say the Niken – the name means “two swords”, after those twin front wheels – is designed for experienced riders, not scooterists or car drivers. With front wheels set only 410mm apart, it can’t be ridden on a car licence in the way that wider-tracked three-wheeled scooters can.
The rest of the Niken is contrastingly conventional; it’s essentially another member of the three-cylinder MT-09 family. The twin cam, 12-valve engine is minimally modified, with no change to its maximum output of 113bhp at 10,000rpm. But the frame is new, combining steel main tubes with a cast steel steering head plus a cast aluminium swing-arm pivot area. A conventional aluminium swing-arm works the horizontally mounted rear shock.
The seat is reasonably low at 820mm, but it’s quite wide and the Niken felt like a substantial bike as I climbed aboard on the launch in Austria. Ahead was the stubby screen, a broad expanse of grey plastic, and a simple LCD instrument panel with big digital speedo, and a rev-counter bar across the top. Electrics are roughly to MT-09 spec, with three riding modes and two-way traction control, plus a Tracer 900GT-style cruise control, set by buttons on the left bar.
The wide, one-piece handlebar gave plenty of leverage to help lift the Niken off its sidestand. At 263kg with a full tank, it’s almost 50kg heavier than the Tracer 900 (though 20kg lighter than the FJR1300), so requires a bit of a heave, then normal levels of concentration when it’s upright because there’s no MP3-style tilt lock. The riding position is slightly more relaxed than the Tracer’s, with bars and seat lower and more rearwards, and slightly less legroom.
You feel the weight on the move, too, but the Niken seemed well balanced as I pulled away, helped by very generous steering lock that made slow-speed manoeuvring easy. So did the steering, which immediately felt so intuitive that I was barely aware of the extra wheel. The Niken didn’t feel exactly like a normal bike but wasn’t any more difficult to ride than something like an FJR. An occasional slight weave at walking pace disappeared as the speed increased, but never caused any concern.
The biggest difference from a normal bike was positive: the effortless way the Niken seemed to float over road imperfections. As one tyre hit the bump or pothole, the suspension was able to react while the other leg wasn’t affected. The impression was of a bike with far more front suspension travel than the Yamaha’s modest 110mm. Both legs are fully adjustable, but worked well on standard settings. The rear shock couldn’t match that compliance but did a decent job, and benefits from a remote preload knob plus adjustable rebound damping.
Straight-line performance was strong, but not outstanding – much as you might expect of an MT-09 carrying enough extra weight for a typical pillion. The engine is internally unchanged apart from a heavier crankshaft with 18 per cent more inertia, intended to add driveability at the expense of a touch of responsiveness, and partially compensated for by shortened gearing from two extra teeth on the rear sprocket. Gears in the six-speed box are also strengthened.
The injection system is fine-tuned to suit, but high altitude on the Alpine launch route robbed power and contributed to the Niken feeling breathless at times. Even in the most aggressive riding mode, it couldn’t approach the wheelie-happy exuberance of an MT-09. But it ripped forward sufficiently hard to be entertaining, making a familiar raspy sound with its stubby silencer, and aided by a quick-shifter which, as with Yamaha’s other triples, worked efficiently but only on up-changes.
On the straight roads that run along the bottom of the valleys the Yam sat at up to 90mph feeling very effortless and respectably long-legged. It would be good for about 130mph, and stayed stable on a brief flat-out blast, its screen and broad fairing doing a better job than I’d expected of keeping off the wind. It also felt composed through fast, sweeping turns, changing direction fairly effortlessly in response to a nudge of that wide handlebar, tracking with nonchalant precision and generally feeling very relaxed at speed.
Much of the day was spent on twistier roads, where the Niken partially lived up to Yamaha’s claims of ski-like turn-carving ability. It was most at home in smooth, second-gear bends where it could be flicked in hard, confident in the front tyres’ ability to grip, and powered round, sometimes with a footrests tip touching down as the bike made the most of its claimed 45 degrees of available lean.
The Niken fared both better and worse later, on narrower roads as we headed back down towards the valley floor. Here the surface was often broken, sometimes showing evidence that a herd of cattle had recently passed by… The Yamaha’s stability on the brakes was confidence-inspiring, as was its ability to find grip with one front tyre or the other if the slippery stuff couldn’t be avoided.
Initial brake bite is not particularly sharp, especially if you use only one or two fingers. But there’s plenty of power available from the front-brake combination of 265mm disc and four-pot caliper on each wheel, and having two front wheels with independent ABS allows hard stopping even on very mixed surfaces.
Some riders who encountered more rain also found the 190-section rear Bridgestone lacking in grip, and too ready to trigger the traction control on hard acceleration. The Battlax Adventure 41s are not super-sticky tyres but I didn’t have any problems with them even on dusty and damp roads, and in the dry they were well up to making use of the fairly generous ground clearance.
If the Niken has a weakness it’s perhaps in really tight hairpins, the ones where I was almost at walking pace just to get round. Here it tended to fall into the turn slightly at the apex, and then understeer on the way out. The dropping-in effect could be minimised by driving through the bend, helped by a dab of clutch or rear brake, but that high-up, front-endy weight couldn’t be entirely forgotten.
Still, such tight bends are encountered rarely if ever by most riders, so that drawback is not a major one. It did suggest that despite Yamaha’s emphasis on the Niken’s sporty handling and turn-carving ability, the big three-wheeler is arguably more of a natural sports-tourer. As it is, it comes with reasonable wind protection, a seat that was very comfortable on a 175-mile day, sturdy pillion grab-handles, useful if distant mirrors, a 12V socket and an 18-litre tank that would be good for 150-odd miles at the very beatable launch average of just over 40mpg.
A larger, adjustable screen, heated grips and panniers would add to the Niken’s practicality, but initial accessories are mostly sporty, including crash protectors and an Akrapovic silencer. All of which adds to the impression that even Yamaha aren’t sure exactly what the Niken is, or who it’s most suited to. What’s for sure is that it’s quick, versatile and enjoyable. It’s also realistically priced: at £13,499, it costs more than Yamaha’s MT-09s and MT-10 Tourer Edition, but less than the MT-10 SP and FJR1300.
Then again, comparisons are slightly meaningless because there’s nothing remotely like the Niken. It’s bold, unique, wacky; possibly the first of a range of three-wheelers that will change the face of motorcycling, possibly an experiment that will generate headlines but few sales. It works well enough to be the former, but a familiar road tester’s concluding cliché is more true than ever here: the only way to make up your mind about the Niken is to ride it, and that will be possible through a series of Niken Tour events being planned by Yamaha in July and August this year.
|Engine type||Liquid-cooled triple|
|Bore x stroke||78 x 59.1mm|
|Maximum power||113bhp @ 10,000rpm|
|Maximum torque||65lb-ft (87.5N.m) @ 8500rpm|
|Front suspension||Double upside down telescopic forks, 110mm travel, fully adjustable|
|Rear suspension||Single Kayaba shock, 125mm wheel travel, adjustable for preload and rebound damping|
|Wet weight||263kg (full tank)|
|Fuel tank||18 litres|