The usual retro 600cc class formula is pretty straightforward; take one air cooled engine from the 1980s, stick it in a budget price chassis, apply jazzy decals and stand well clear as punters beat down dealers’ doors to snap up a bargain.
But Yamaha decided to do things differently and chose one of their best engines from the mid 1990s Thundercat 600 bike as the heart of the Fazer. Sharp styling, dynamite brakes, a handy nose fairing and a lush, almost tourer class ride quality, make this a retro that´s a cut above the rest. Classy job lads.
It’s an unwritten rule that motorcycle brochures and press releases don’t mention rival makes or models especially not in a way that admits that anyone else’s bikes are any good. In the case of the FZS600 Fazer, though, Yamaha’s copywriters couldn’t help admitting that their new four-pot middleweight had been created to beat the bike that ’another manufacturer’ had introduced a few years earlier.
That bike was of course Suzuki’s 600 Bandit, a monster hit in recent years and Britain’s best-selling motorcycle if its faired and unfaired versions are added together. Yamaha built the Fazer with just one aim in mind: to gun down the Bandit and steal its sales in the budget sports middleweight market sector that the cheap ’n’ cheerful Suzuki created virtually single-handedly.
Yamaha’s marketing crew have got the target audience for the Fazer sussed out in precise detail. If you’re either a youngish rider who dreams of a bike like an R1 but can’t afford one; or you already own a middleweight bike and want a newer and sportier one; or you’re a born-again biker who doesn’t feel ready for a super-sports middleweight right away, then this bike is aimed at you.
The Fazer slots into the gap in Yamaha’s range between the super-sports Thundercat and the super-dull Diversion, combining near-Thundercat levels of performance with the Divvy’s greater comfort and lower cost. Like Suzuki before them, Yamaha have done their best to keep the price down by borrowing and adapting parts from existing models wherever possible.
The newcomer’s half-faired styling comes straight from the fab FZ400 four that was available on the Japanese market (and here in tiny numbers as a grey import) last year. Several other models help out with bits including the old FZR1000, which provides the swing-arm, and even the mighty R1, whose four-piston, one-piece front brake calipers the Fazer shares.
Many bits come from the Thundercat, including the basis of the watercooled 599cc, 16-valve engine, although there are a number of changes aimed at adding midrange power at the expense of a little top end. This bike has smaller 33mm carbs (the Cat’s are 36mm), no ram-air system (it only earns its keep at high revs), softer cams, revised ports and a new 4-2-1 exhaust system.
Yamaha’s designers had to make the Fazer’s cylinders sit up a bit straighter (25 instead of 35 degrees from vertical) to squeeze the motor into the new tubular steel frame. This doesn’t look as sporty as the Thundercat’s beefy alloy beam job, but the Fazer’s dimensions are pretty racy nevertheless, with a steep 24-degree fork angle, 88mm of trail and a compact 1415mm wheelbase. And talking of numbers, at 189kg dry the new bike weighs only 2kg more than the Cat.
Its spec sheet might suggest the Fazer is pretty sporty, but Yamaha’s slogan for it is ’the all-round performer’ and you’ve only got to sit on the bike to see why. The half-fairing’s screen is quite protective, and holds large mirrors that give a good view. There’s a fuel gauge in the dashboard. The seat has plenty of room for two, plus a detachable grab-rail, retractable luggage-hooks and storage space underneath.
The riding position is noticeably less racy than the Cat’s, too, thanks to bars that are slightly raised and lean the pilot forward only gently. But if all that sensible stuff makes the Fazer sound boring, think again. Peak power is 10bhp down on the Thundercat, but that still leaves a respectable claimed 95bhp at 11,500rpm, plus some extra midrange grunt.
Yamaha’s choice of location for the European launch was Sicily, and the Brit contingent went last, presumably as a penalty for having the highest crash total on the recent R1 launch. That turned out to be an advantage, because by the time we arrived, the snow that had plagued earlier groups had gone, leaving only the odd patch of gravel, wandering sheep or fast-driving local to be wary of. (In Sicily, you don’t argue with the locals.)
The main part of the launch route was on hilly roads round Mount Etna, where the Fazer was soon into its stride, steaming to its 12,500rpm redline in the lower gears as I flicked up and down through the six-speed box. Top speed should be a genuine 140mph, and it’ll get there pretty quickly. On most roads there wouldn’t be much to choose between this bike and a super-sports 600 for pure speed.
Although the Fazer does have a bit more midrange grunt than the Thundercat, you’re still conscious that it’s a high-revving middleweight multi. Choose the wrong gear going into a blind bend, and the Yamaha doesn’t exactly kick you in the back when you open the taps on the other side. Best power still lies at the top of the range and the motor needs at least 7000rpm before really coming to life.
Provided you’re not in a rush, though, the Fazer is docile and easy to ride at lower speeds. It pulls sweetly, if not particularly strongly, from 4000rpm and would happily remain in top gear down to 40mph and below if required. The gearbox itself worked fine (though it was maybe a tiny bit clunky) and the clutch was light and didn’t misbehave. The bike generally seemed pretty well finished, too, although whether you could say the same after a British winter remains to be seen. There’s a patch of vibration at about 5000rpm, but the FZS was otherwise smooth, due largely to Yamaha’s new anti-vibration system. The engine forms a stressed member of the chassis, and is solidly mounted at the rear. The front mount incorporates a new rubber link that permits a small amount of vertical movement. It also prevents sideways movement, which allows this part of the motor to contribute some chassis stiffness too.
The chassis is plenty strong judging by the Fazer’s handling, which was good enough to make the bike lots of fun on the bend-strewn roads circling Etna. To increase manoeuvrability its tyres are narrow by sports bike standards: 110/70 front, 160/60 rear. Combined with sporty steering geometry and light weight, that made the Yamaha very easy to throw around when the mountain got steeper and the bends turned to hairpins.
Inevitably the suspension wasn’t quite as firm or well-controlled as you’d expect of a true super-sports bike. Forks are non-adjustable, the rising-rate shock can be tuned for preload only, and both ends allowed the Fazer to move about a bit during hard cornering. But handling was basically excellent, with no weaves or wobbles however much the bike was provoked.
Despite being a bit skinny the Bridgestone Battlaxes gripped hard on the sometimes slippery surfaces, too. The Yam was well capable of using up its ground clearance, of which there’s plenty despite the provision of a centrestand. And predictably the braking power from the pair of 298mm discs and R1-style one-piece calipers was immense.
After a day’s thrashing around in the sunshine the weather gods kindly arranged for a nasty bit of fog and darkness at the end of the route, just so we could test the Fazer in more typical British conditions. It’s the sort of bike that is likely to be ridden in all weathers and thanks to its twin headlights, efficient fairing, comfort and ease of use the Yamaha did enough to suggest that it’ll handle droning down the M6 on a typical February night just fine. Yamaha have produced a collection of accessories including lower fairing pieces, crashbars, a luggage rack and tankbag, which will add to what already looks like a very useful bike. On this evidence the Fazer is very capable of commuting, touring and pretty much everything else in between. Maybe it will lose out slightly on performance compared to a super-sports 600, but if you’re in the mood to go fast the Fazer won’t let you down.
And best of all, it won’t cost you a fortune. The Fazer’s price is a very competitive £4699 same as the unfaired Bandit, and several hundred quid cheaper than both the half-faired Suzuki and Honda’s new naked Hornet. Okay, so maybe the Fazer is not the world’s most charismatic motorcycle. But such a good all-round bike for so little money looks like a serious bargain.
Get Yamaha motorcycle insurance for the yamaha fzs600 fazer.
Engine Liquid-cooled transverse four
Claimed power (bhp) 95bhp at 11,500rpm
Compression ratio 12:1
Transmission Six speed
Front wheel 3.00 x 17in; cast aluminium
Rear wheel 5.00 x 17in; cast aluminium
Front suspension 41mm telescopic, 120mm travel
Rear suspension One damper, 120mm wheel travel, adjustment for preload
Front brake 2, four-piston calipers, 298mm discs
Rear brake Double-action caliper, 245mm disc
Top speed 140mph
Fuel capacity 18 litres
Current price £4699