After the R1 came the R6, the son of R1. this 600cc package deal has all the virtues of its 1000cc big brother, but without the sheer intimidation of 175mph performance.
Mind you, with a top speed hovering around the 160mph mark, the R6 is a bike that demands serious respect, and a high level of skill to get the very best from it.
A supple chassis, incredibly potent brakes and a narrow, tucked in riding position, all combine to give the R6 rider the feeling that every journey is akin to a racetrack experience.
One wickedly fast bike and the pick of the current 600 sports crop, no question.
Screaming through the fast, fourth-gear turn three at the Phillip Island grand prix circuit, with my left knee brushing the track, the bike totally stable and its tacho needle indicating about 12,000rpm, the YZF-R6 made perfect sense. This was 600cc motorcycling at its best: pure race-bred excitement, as one of the most eagerly awaited new models of 1999 demonstrated its considerable ability.
Just one day earlier, I hadn’t been quite so convinced. On the winding and picturesque, but also damp and quite busy Great Ocean Road south of Melbourne, the R6 had taken turns to delight and frustrate. One moment I’d been revelling in its speed and agility; the next I’d been cursing its engine’s inflexibility as I had to change down to overtake a car, or lamenting its lack of comfort as I cruised cautiously along a heavily policed stretch of road.
When the going is fast, few bikes are as much fun to ride as the sleek, light and aggressive R6. Yamaha’s star engineer Kunihiko Miwa, who designed both this bike and the YZF-R1, says the new middleweight was designed ’with no compromise’, and for once that overused phrase rings true. The R6’s shape and layout is similar to that of the bigger model but its very different personality is hinted at by its rev-counter, whose red-line is set at a heady 15,500rpm.
The R6 has been built for high performance with little regard to anything else, and given the size of its liquid-cooled, 16-valve engine that meant concentrating its power at the top end of the range. The result is that with a peak output of 120hp at 13,000rpm the Yamaha is not just the most powerful 600cc bike yet, but also the first of any capacity to produce 200hp per litre.
Those are not the only impressive statistics. Thanks to its dry weight of just 169kg and its tiny 1380mm wheelbase this bike, like the R1, is the most powerful, lightest and shortest machine in its class. But anyone expecting the R6 to rewrite the rule-book of middleweight performance in the same way that its big brother did in the unlimited category a year ago is risking disappointment. Although the R6 is probably marginally the fastest 600 both on top speed and round a racetrack, its performance has not been obtained without sacrifice.
Much of this bike’s technology is borrowed from the R1, including the way that the cylinder barrels and crankcase are cast as one piece, adding rigidity and allowing the engine to be used as a stressed member of the chassis. The stacked gearbox layout, which makes for a more compact unit, is also used for the smaller bike, but the R6 differs in having four instead of five valves per cylinder, closed by springs made from a new lightweight material called VX.
Other technical features include ultra short-stroke dimensions of 65.5 x 44.5mm (the Thundercat engine is 62 x 49.6mm), the camchain on the right of the engine, forged pistons, high 12.4:1 compression ratio, and radical valve timing. Unlike the R1, there’s no EXUP valve. To keep the motor together its cooling system has been substantially uprated from the Thundercat’s, and the clutch is similar in size to the YZF750’s.
High-rev output is increased by a forced induction system. The 37mm, throttle-position-sensor equipped Keihin carbs are connected to a pressurised airbox, fed via twin pipes leading from a fairing slot between the headlights. Yamaha says this is responsible for 12hp of that 120hp total and ironically it’s this that gives the R6 its theoretical power advantage over Honda’s new CBR600F. Without ram-air, the YZF’s claimed maximum of 108hp is identical to the CBR’s.
Chassis design is similar to that of the R1, although the new bike’s aluminium Deltabox II frame incorporates cut-outs in its main beams to reduce weight. As with the bigger bike, the swing-arm is long to improve traction and handling. Suspension at both ends is multi-adjustable. Front forks are conventional 43mm units, Miwa says, because 45mm and upside-down legs were found to be too rigid for this bike.Due to the similarity of its styling, instrument console and racy riding position the R6 feels much like its bigger brother at a standstill. But once under way the difference quickly became clear. Where the R1 churns out power from tickover to redline, the smaller bike runs smoothly at low revs but accelerates only gently, gradually building up its speed and really coming alive only when the tacho needle reaches about 8,000rpm.
The R6’s singleminded nature was highlighted on the first day of the launch in Australia, spent on the spectacular Great Ocean Road. When the road was clear and the rider in the right mood, the R6 was terrific fun. It howled to its redline through the six-speed box, changed direction quickly and felt wonderfully light and surefooted, its Bridgestone Battlaxe radials finding plenty of grip even when the surface was damp.
On a long dual-carriageway one rider reached an indicated 175mph, amazing for a 600 even if the real speed was 10mph slower, and I saw 160mph on the big digital speedo despite wearing a bulky jacket over my leathers and being unable to tuck down properly due to a tank-bag. Although the screen is quite low, there’s enough protection to take the wind off the rider’s chest when positioned normally, and turbulence wasn’t a problem.
But at other times blind bends, an unpredictable road surface and other traffic combined to make keeping in the right gear at all times difficult. When following a car in a high gear, for example, the R6 required one or two down-changes before it would accelerate to overtake with anything like its full force. On such occasions, less highly tuned rivals would have been more relaxing, and probably faster too.
Negative thoughts were quickly forgotten at Phillip Island, where the high-revving engine was more easily kept in its sweet zone and the R6 was in its element. For a middleweight the Yamaha was supremely fast, and very agile too. Its rigid frame, light weight and excellent suspension gave a firmly controlled ride, although the R6 required some setting-up. Adding some shock preload to raise the rear a little made the bike easier to steer, especially when braking into a bend, and reducing fork preload gave a better ride on the often bumpy track.
Ground clearance was almost limitless even on the track, except for one very heavy rider who didn’t hang off. Only the footrest tips touched down occasionally, even when the sticky BT56s were pushed towards their limits. Stopping power was phenomenal, too. With its combination of R1-type 295mm front discs and one-piece, four-pot calipers, plus even less weight, the R6 is arguably the best-braked motorcycle on the roads.
With a bike this singleminded there are inevitably few creature comforts, although instruments and controls are all good. The YZF’s thin seat, lack of centrestand, slightly too narrow mirrors and generally lean and mean look are in keeping with its personality. The pillion seat is tiny and the rear footrests very high, although at least grab-handles are available as an optional extra.
The ultra-sporty R6 is certainly no bike for two-up riding or touring, but that won’t prevent it making a big impact in the ultra-competitive 600cc market. Cutting-edge technology often comes at a high price, but Yamaha says the R6 will be pitched very aggressively. And although this bike has not leapt ahead of its rivals as the R1 did last year, it’s fast, racy and handsome enough to be a hit.
For everyday road riding some extra midrange power, even at the expense of performance at high revs, would make the R6 a more usable, rider-friendly bike. But for experienced riders looking for the ultimate in middleweight performance, the no-compromise YZF-R6 is a uniquely thrilling machine.
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|ENGINE||Liquid-cooled transverse four|
|CLAIMED POWER (BHP)||120hp @ 13,000rpm|
|WHEELS||Front: 3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium. Rear: 5.50 x 17in; cast aluminium|
|SUSPENSION||Front: 43mm telescopic, adjustment for preload, compression and rebound damping. Rear: One damper, adjustment for preload, compression and rebound damping|
|BRAKES||Front: 2, four-piston calipers, 295mm discs. Rear: Double-action caliper, 220mm disc|
|FUEL CAPACITY||17 litres|