A lot of people suspect Japanese blokes really let their hair down after dark. Visit any large Japanese city and your suspicion could well be confirmed as you stagger from whisky bar to geisha hospitality venue with a crew of liquored-up locals. Then if you heard the expression ‘Dark Side of Japan’ you’d probably think of heavily-tattooed Yakuza gangsters in seedy Tokyo nightclubs, or half-cut businessmen firing yen into vending machines dispensing what purports to be used feminine undergarments. But what you may not conjure up is a range of pretty sensible motorcycles from Yamaha.
Sensible because the range was not created with a laser focus on race-winning performance, nor do the bikes feature a wrist-crippling riding position, minimal turning circle or wind-cheating fairings. These machines are not built for the track, but for the street. Streets where most riders ride. This is where the MT – or Masters of Torque – range lives.
Back in 2013 Yamaha’s marketing gurus came up with the Dark Side of Japan idea to help explain the newly released MT-09. The new bike had attitude to burn – a three-cylinder, 850cc, motard-styled machine with zero protection from the elements and a hair-trigger throttle tuned for maximum fun. This instant power delivery was exaggerated by the polished concrete roads around the Croatian resort of Split, where the world’s press gathered to test the new bike. The slightest whiff of throttle saw the back end stepping out and rider heart rates shooting through the roof.
Predictably, the assembled journos loved it, especially the hoon element, who enjoyed hoisting up the new bike on the back wheel for the cameras.
The Dark Side of Japan enshrined this attitude and celebrated a machine that was essentially the new RD350LC (note for younger readers – RDLCs were Yamaha’s legendary two-stroke hoon machines of the early 1980s). The Yamaha marketing team explained: “While some onlookers may see Japan as a traditional and respectful society where conformity is the norm, behind this stereotypical image lies a vibrant subculture where new fashions and ideas are constantly emerging. From the spectacle of drift racing through to the insanity of Japanese speedway, the other side of Japanese society has been responsible for some wild and wonderful trends. The same creative forces that drive the darker and unconventional side of Japan have inspired and shaped the unique and original MT-09, which is about to change the sport motorcycle world.”
The mad triple was soon followed by the twin-cylinder MT-07, arguably an even more important model for the tuning-fork brand. Certainly this machine appealed to a wider group of riders and sold in bigger numbers, especially in Europe. The bike features a parallel-twin 689cc engine that delivers a heap of user-friendly torque and is an absolute hoot to fling around town and fire up the old road. Australia got two versions of this versatile machine, with a second one built to 655cc to meet learner laws. Thankfully the MT-07LA was created to maximise the permissible power output for newbies, so the bike remains a whole heap of fun even when the Ls and Ps are a distant memory.
The key to the success of these models – and later MT-03 and MT-10 models – was Yamaha engineers’ insistence the range be created with the rider in mind – as opposed to previous thinking that dictated the fastest, most high-tech crotch rocket would win the sales race.
So factors like real-world performance, light weight andaffordability rose to the top of the must-have list. The fact the GFC was in full swing while the MT range was being conceived may have influenced thinking, but there was one feature that sat on the top of the list and was nonnegotiable – fun.
That 2014 model MT-09 was not without fault, and not everyone liked or understood the Dark Side of Japan theme, but the rider-focused package proved to be a hit with riders. The model has since undergone two updates to result in this new, third-generation MT-09. The instant torque is still there – more so in fact – so the ride experience will really blow your hair back. But the throttle has been tuned to deliver a more refined ride. For 2021 the bike is essentially new from the ground up. The engine is all new and runs a longer stroke to achieve that extra torque and the frame is lighter and with improved flex characteristics that result in the sweetest-handling version yet. Even the wheels have been lightened with a process Yamaha calls ‘spin forging’.
The weight of a motorcycle wheel, particularly of the outer part of the wheel like the spokes and rim, have an effect on the bike’s handling, especially changing direction when flicking through a chicane. A light wheel has less gyroscopic effect which makes the bike easier to tip in and move over from one side to the other.
Heavy wheels make the bike feel like one of those round-bottomed kids’ dolls that can’t topple over. That’s not good when you are negotiating S-bends at $1.20.
MORE OR LESS
Yamaha was the first manufacturer to fit cast wheels to its motorcycles back in 1978, so its boffins know about alloy-wheel tech. With spin forging, the wheel spins on its mandrel while the roller applies pressure to the rim to alter grain structure in a process similar to forging. As the rims spin, they are progressively elongated and thinned until they are just 2mm thick compared with the previous model’s 3.5mm rims. The process means the new front and rear wheels together are some 0.7 kg lighter. That might not sound a lot, but it makes a big difference on a motorcycle wheel.
With over 100bhp on tap, climbing aboard the MT-09 could be a daunting proposition, especially if you are reasonably new to two wheels. But Yamaha engineers have considered your struggle and offer a wide range of control technologies.
The new MT-09 features a high-tech, 6-axis Inertial Measurement Unit, one of the most sophisticated pieces of electronics in the industry. Constantly measuring acceleration, pitch, roll and yaw, the 6-axis IMU is able to send data in real-time to the ECU which controls a range of electronic rider aids. This class-leading array of rider aids includes lean sensitive Traction Control System (TCS), Slide Control System (SCS) as well as a front-wheel-lift control system (LIF) and Brake Control system (BC).
These rider aids can be easily dialled in so you can tune the amount of assistance you need. For example, if you are commuting in wet weather you may want to ramp up the level of assistance, whereas if you’re out with the boys on a sunny weekend fang, less assistance can be selected.
STAR OF THE SHOW
While the MT-09 is the headline act of the 2021 MT range, the undoubted star of the show is the MT-09SP. This premium version of the 09 features fully adjustable suspension, cruise control and a number of other classy touches. The MT-09SP comes in Icon Performance colour scheme while the MT-09 is available in Tech Black, Icon Blue and Storm Fluo.
The MT-07 has copped some styling changes for 2021 and now shares the 09’s funky LED projector headlight. The front brake is stronger, the handlebars are wider, the Michelins are stickier and the riding position is more upright and aggressive. The High Output version is available in Tech Black and the LA (LAMs version) comes in the same colours as MT-09.
The MT-03 is also learner legal and features a surprisingly punchy 321cc parallel twin engine. It is also fitted with the distinctive LED projector headlight that gives each model in the range a unique ‘face’. Like a human family, the MT faces are all different – but recognisable.
Right at the top of the tree sits the beastlike MT-10. This bike shares the incredible crossplane-crank, four-cylinder engine of the race winning YZF-R1 – but tuned for big torque and a fat midrange. Riding the MT-10 is a bucket-list experience that is not to be missed and is certain to leave a permanent grin on the most cynical face.
Further investigation into the Dark Side of Japan reveals it’s not actually as dark as many think. For example, those vending machines dispense undies that are not used but made to look used – the authorities having clamped down on such sordid retail opportunities.
Yamaha marketing gurus continue to run with the Dark Side of Japan theme and turned out a range of versatile and capable motorcycles that are affordable, reliable, popular and desirable. Sensibly priced, too. But who’s gonna buy into the ‘Sensible Side of Japan’ dream?