I’ve been involved with motorcycles for quite some time now and one thing I have noticed is that they, traditionally, come with two wheels. So I know what you’re thinking; the new NIKEN from Yamaha looks as though it’s got one too many. And there’ll be a certain fraternity out there who wouldn’t entertain a three-wheeled wonder even if it boasted MotoGP levels of performance. Still reading? Then you have passed the first test and are obviously open-minded enough (or perhaps just curious enough) to give the Yamaha NIKEN a chance.
Yamaha, who have been working on the NIKEN’s technology for over 10 years, reckon their new CP3-engined creation has got what it takes to revolutionise motorcycling. It’s not a radical concept bike that just happens to have been put into production and it’s not Yamaha’s way of flexing their design muscles or simply showing off their engineering prowess. The bizarre-looking three-wheeler is, we are told, a genuine attempt at improving front-end grip and stability, thus improving corner speed and confidence. And who can knock them for that?
“At the heart of the ‘leaning multi wheel’ (LMW) system there is a parallelogram linkage which allows both front wheels and both sets of forks to work independently, while still being actuated by the same, single rider input”
Yamaha Niken’s LMW system
Chucking an extra tyre into the mix might seem like a simple remedy to improve grip, but the reality is that the system used to make it work is actually pretty complicated. A pair of forks on the outside of each wheel keeps everything pointing in the right direction, and allows a decent sized space between the wheels permitting lean angles up to 45° (but no more). At the heart of the ‘leaning multi wheel’ (LMW) system there is a parallelogram linkage which allows both front wheels and both sets of forks to work independently, while still being actuated by the same, single rider input.
A pair of tie rods also ensures the turning circle of the outside wheel is slightly larger than that of the inside wheel, to compensate for its 410mm track width. There’s a hell of a lot going on under there, but what we were really interested in was whether or not all that complicated physics could translate into unprecedented levels of grip, bags of stability and control, mastery in ‘non-perfect’ road conditions and ultimately make you a better rider. Yamaha told us it could, so we nipped over to Austria to find out for you.
Beauty’s only skin deep
You should never judge a book by its cover, but let’s face it, we all do and I doubt there will be many people out there who get a twinge in their private parts when they clap eyes on the NIKEN. It’s looks have apparently been designed with a scorpion in mind, which I can sort of see but to me it looks more like an elephant that, despite all of its futuristic technologies in the steering department, lacks the sharp lines and angles that one has come to expect from mega modern motorcycles. You can see the work that has gone into manufacturing such a beast. It’s got a hybrid chassis consisting of a steel tube diamond frame, a cast steel headstock and a cast aluminium swingarm mount and swingarm. And underneath the bulbous front nose cone, seeing the rods and pivots work their magic really is something to behold.
The two front wheels disappear beneath a mass of plastic when you climb aboard and you soon forget that you’re not sat astride a conventional two wheeler. Unlike some three wheeled ‘bikes’ of years gone by, the NIKEN won’t hold itself upright if you let go of it. It’ll fall over. Well, unless the side stand’s down. Fired up, the (slightly tweaked) cross-plane crank triple (CP3) 847cc, 113bhp engine that Yamaha have robbed out of the MT-09, the XSR-900 and the Tracer 900 purred away just as nicely as you would expect it to.
As per the MT-09, there are three levels of power and two levels of traction control (plus ‘off’), so with the question of whether or not the NIKEN will wheelie burning a hole in my skull, rather than acting like a grown up and starting with the safety net of traction control fully activated, I threw caution to the wind and pressed the little button on the dashboard to kick the TC system out of touch.
“In fact I could’ve quite easily forgotten that I had an extra wheel underneath me, had it not been for the multitude of pedestrians and parked up motorcyclists double-taking and staring at the peculiar looking steed upon which I was perched”
The first section of our ride was rather steady and was spent mainly swaying from one side of the road to the other, in an attempt to identify the idiosyncrasies of the NIKEN’s LMW steering system. I had very few preconceptions before I rode the NIKEN, but I did expect there to be a significant difference to the way it felt to steer compared to a more traditional bike (one with, perhaps, two wheels). What I quickly noticed is that for normal, fairly upright riding, it didn’t feel any different to a normal bike, really. In fact I could’ve quite easily forgotten that I had an extra wheel underneath me, had it not been for the multitude of pedestrians and parked up motorcyclists double-taking and staring at the peculiar looking steed upon which I was perched.
The rubber-neckers soon dwindled as our route took us away from civilisation so I thought it prudent to answer the question on everyone’s mind. And the answer is yes. I can categorically say that, despite all the development that has gone into the LMW system on the NIKEN, the engine was more than happy to make the two front wheels temporarily redundant. Wheelies were just as easy to perform as on most other things with comparable power. And just as fun.
The CP3 engine is a fantastic thing really
Yes, it’ll let you pull huge mingers (I don’t need a bike to do that), but it can also deliver power smoother than Utterly Butterly, mixed with Clover with some melted Lurpak drizzled on top. It’s not a ballistic engine, but it’s one that drives cleanly from low down, never gets flustered and did a perfectly reasonable job of hauling 263kg (plus my gut) along.
And on our ride the easy-to-use CP3 matched the bike’s characteristics perfectly. Everything was easy on the NIKEN, and the comfortable riding position made it a really relaxing bike to ride. I did expect wind protection to be an issue, owing to the low windscreen, but as the riding position is fairly far back (50mm further back than the Tracer 900), in an effort to compensate for the extra weight at the front, I found myself far enough out the wind that it was never an issue. Interestingly, this shuffling back of the rider, Yamaha say, has allowed them to achieve near 50:50 front:rear weight distribution (well 25:25:50), with a 75kg rider and a full tank of fuel. If it wasn’t for my haemorrhoids, I’d have happily sat on the NIKEN for however long it took to drain its 18 litre tank, which Yamaha reckon is good for 300km (186 miles).
“There were several occasions where big handfuls of throttle got the back wheel spinning and stepping out of line, but it never caused any real dramas”
As comfortable as the NIKEN was, it had been sold to us as a something a little sportier then its Tracer 900 sibling, so I was keen to see what it could do on the winding mountain passes of the highest mountain in Austria, the Grossglockner. The confidence that the two front wheels gave me to attack the bends was quite astonishing. I didn’t feel as though I had to work loads of heat into the Bridgestone A41s; it was just a case of firing the thing in and seeing if it gripped, which the front tyres always did. The rear tyre, on the other hand didn’t always grip. There were several occasions where big handfuls of throttle got the back wheel spinning and stepping out of line, but it never caused any real dramas (okay it might have got a little out of hand once or twice, but I got away with it. Just.), in fact power-sliding was that easy to do; everyone was having a go at it.
It didn’t take long to reach the NIKEN’s 45° lean angle limit, and I knew I had done when I heard the sound of steel scraping on tarmac as I felt the hero blobs smite the road beneath me. It was all too easy to achieve 45° and I couldn’t help wondering if Yamaha could have engineered a little more leanability into the LMW system. I also wondered just what would happen if the hero blobs weren’t there and I was able to lean the bike further than the LMW’s 45° limit. Would the outside wheel lift, or would the bike simply understeer? It was a question left unanswered thanks to the pesky hero blobs.
Check out our Yamaha YZF-R15 generations story here
The quicker the pace got, the more scraping the hero blobs did, until it started becoming quite the nuisance. I was also starting to ask more and more from the brakes, which were fine and dandy when I had my touring head on but when I had hairpin after hairpin to contend with, I could have done with stoppers that were a bit sharper and stronger. The extra stability that the LMW system has afforded made Yamaha opt for 15-inch front wheels (which would typically sacrifice stability), in order to improve the NIKEN’s agility. The problem with small wheels is you can’t fit a decent sized brake disc in there, hence the brakes aren’t as good as some would like; at 265mm the discs are 33mm smaller than the supposedly less sporty Tracer 900, despite it being 49kg heavier. The geometry of the bike, though, and how it handled did give me loads of confidence to grab the brakes fairly hard, however far over I was leant.
“The frill deficiency on the NIKEN was deliberate; it was an attempt to ensure the price alone wouldn’t be too much of a contributing factor for people not to buy the bike “
I’ll admit, when Yamaha revealed the NIKEN’s price tag I was surprised to see relatively modest Rs 13 lakh (excluding Indian taxes and duties). Okay, that’s still a chunk of money but for this innovation I was expecting to see a price the wrong side of Rs 15 lakh. This ‘affordability’ is a theme that Yamaha have been maintaining for a little while now, particularly in their MT range, without it ever feeling as though quality has been compromised too much. That said, there are a few areas where you can see Yamaha have saved money; the dashboard is a little bit dated for example, and you don’t get a choice of colour (its ‘Graphite’ or ‘Graphite’), but it doesn’t take anything away from the character of riding the bike. The frill deficiency on the NIKEN was deliberate; it was an attempt to ensure the price alone wouldn’t be too much of a contributing factor for people not to buy the bike – Yamaha didn’t want price to be a barrier to the success of their new tech.
And it’s a technology that I, for one, am really quite impressed with. The front end of the NIKEN inspired oodles of confidence when cornering without it ever feeling like you’re riding something other than a normal motorbike. But I don’t see it as a bike that you would spend too much time throwing into bends and firing out as fast as you can. In the fun/touring spectrum, Yamaha have positioned it between the MT-09 (towards the pure fun end) and the 900 Tracer (towards the travel end) but having ridden all three bikes I’d be inclined to swap the NIKEN and the Tracer 900 over – its comfortable, relaxing to ride and mile munching would be a pleasure aboard, but while its confidence-inspiring front end is a real winner, its 263kg can’t hold a candle to the Tracer 900’s agility.
The ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ smooth CP3 engine works in anything that Yamaha seem to throw it at but the engine was never going to be the question mark. It’s that wacky front end, and although the technology is mega impressive, I’m not convinced it has fully translated into the sporty, exciting bike that Yamaha sold to us. Will it catch on? Well I’m not so sure but half an hour on the NIKEN is a lot more fun than Pilates… I said that would never catch on but it’s going from strength to strength so maybe there’s hope for Yamaha’s newest creation yet.