You know what sport and superbikes look like. They’re low, heavily body-kitted, and you sit in them rather than on them behind a cowl designed to deflect 150 mph winds. The “sport-naked” Yamaha FZ-10 keeps the R1 superbike’s 1000cc madness, but strips off the fairings and pushes the seating position a little more upright, with a lower power band that’s actually something soft, puny humans can live with.

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The bike is well-built and quick. What I went to the Tail of the Dragon to explore was how the FZ-10 really falls into the current motorcycle ecosystem, and how good it really is at being the middle-child between a hardcore sport and upright touring bike.

(Full disclosure: Yamaha flew me to Tennessee, put me up at a resort and bought all my food and beer for a couple days so I could spend eight hours riding the FZ-10 and experience the Tail Of The Dragon, one of America’s most famous motorcycle roads.)

The windshield is optional, but I bet it’s helpful.

So is it still fast?

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We’ll get into more of that later in the review, but yeah. The FZ’s gut-sucking scream to 60 mph and beyond might not be as merciless as the R1’s, but with the maximum power flow starting sooner you’ll have no problem scaring yourself.

The fairly recent café comeback successfully reminded people that motorcycles don’t have to look like something out of MotoGP championship—or a Shuto Expressway street race—to be hard-chargers. Calling the FZ “practical” requires a loose definition of the term, but any experienced rider will tell you how much of a difference a few degrees of “upright” in a seating position can make on the everyday rideability of a bike.

The Specs That Matter

“Tuning and technology” are the pillars of Yamaha’s pitch with the FZ-10. Well, that and the upright-ish riding position.

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There’s user-adjustable suspension, three levels of intervention on the traction control (plus turning it all the way off) and three settings of throttle-response. Yamaha calls that “D-Mode” and since the throttle is electronic it can basically modulate how rapidly the engine responds to twist.

Basically, the throttle twist is most exaggerated in “B” mode.

Put it in “STD” (standard) and it will smooth out a lot of herky-jerky idiocy. “A” is a little more linear, and “B” is very sharp. That system combined with the assist-and-slipper clutch makes for remarkably smooth riding and shifting with minimal effort if you let the tech do its thing.

At 463 pounds ready-to-ride, the FZ-10 is extremely light by large sportbike standards. A generous fuel capacity of 4.5 gallons and a consumption claim of 30 MPG should give you decent range, as long as you’re not too tempted to unlock the full 81.9 lb-ft of torque, which burps out at 9,000 RPM. That, by the way, is considered “low” on an engine redlining at 14 grand.

American sources are oddly inconsistent about horsepower, but the Canadians report the FZ-10 is just over 160 at 11,500 RPM.

Whatever the dyno says, my butt can corroborate as “very, very fast.”

‘So is this just a tall R1 or what?’

R1 left, FZ right. Obviously.

The 1000cc Yamaha R1 is aggressive. It’s stiff. Capable of changing time zones with a zealous twist of the throttle. And of course, there’s a version based on the bike Valentino Rossi rides. If you haven’t heard of him, suffice it to say he’s the benchmark for Yamaha’s artificial intelligence.

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The FZ-10 takes the R1's voracious driveline and moves the power a little lower, pushes the handlebars a little higher, so you can ride for more than an hour without getting your hot water bottle ready. The frame is similar, but the jet-fighter body kit is swapped for, well, a more angular suit of armor.

“The emphasis is on torque, agility and value,” Yamaha’s product planner Derek Brooks explained in a briefing. Now by “value” he doesn’t mean “cheap.” The FZ-10 starts at almost $13,000. But compared to the R1's MSRP of over $16,000, I guess some superbike buyers might look at this as a bargain.

Yamaha Ride tester and R&D man Mike Ulrich went into more detail about the FZ-1o and its relationship with the R1, saying that this is the first FZ to be based on the current version of the sportbike rather than a previous model.

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To get that power where they wanted it, Ulrich explained that the engine cam profiles, cylinder shape, connecting rods, and compression were all changed from the R1's configuration. A larger airbox compensates for the lack of ram-air, and the R1's dual fuel injectors have been dropped for a single unit that he claimed provides 25 percent more fuel flow at lower speeds.

Compression was moved from 13.1 to 12.1 to mitigate heat, the crankshaft was made heavier and the muffler was tightened a little to increase back-pressure.

As for the gearbox, most hardware’s straight out of the R1 with a few less teeth in the gears. The lower ratios are supposed to move the motorcycle’s abilities more toward acceleration from top end. As far as I could tell, it means you’re limited to 50 mph in first as opposed to 90. Practically speaking.

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Yamaha calls the frame “R1 derived,” but augmented with a steel subframe to make the bike a little happier with a passenger or luggage.

“We do expect people to use [the FZ-10] as a sport-tourer,” Yamaha’s marketing man David Docktor told me. The company’s already planning a catalog of windshields, pannier bags, and other accessories to make this bike a little more viable for long rides.

(Image: Yamaha)

The FZ-10's basic geometry is what really makes it easier to endure for more miles though. Seating position’s shy of fully-upright like a touring bike, but you don’t have the sensation of leaning in/looking up that you get on a full-fairing sport bike. This helps the back and neck for sure, but it’s also nice to take some weight off your hands and wrists.

Let’s ride already!

With a robotic-insect face, huge hips and sharp angles all over the place the FZ-10 looks like it’s designed to help you make bad decisions, or at least dangerous ones. My initial assessment of its appearance in person was: “well-fed stunt bike.” The highlighter yellow trim didn’t help (you can also opt for a simple black-with-red-accents.)

The FZ’s massive fuel tank and tall stance made mounting it a little intimidating at first. The machine felt a touch top-heavy as I rocked from side to side, and I was surprised at how far my ass was from the asphalt on something that was supposed to be so quick.

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I got comfortable with the proportions within a few miles and forgot about the bike’s weight almost as soon as we started rolling.

During cruising, I actually found the “almost upright” position a little frustrating. I’m six feet tall and my back was just bent enough to feel tension. If this were my bike, I’d raise the handlebars up even more so I could sit up straight. Of course then it would be more “sport touring” than sport naked, and sacrifice control. Other riders felt the exact opposite; they wanted to drop the bars forward and unlock more of a sport-bike experience.

But we only had the hotel parking lot and a few side streets to canter before we were on North Carolina and Tennessee’s country roads, charging ahead at full steam. I’d barely figured out where all the switches were.

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Under load and open throttle, the bike sounds spectacular. Not loud, but full. Like every cubic centimeter of exhaust gas is punching its way out of the muffler. At an around-town putter, you can barely hear it.

Straight-line stability is phenomenal. I was able to explode into a straight hard enough to make my eyes water without any sensation of impending accidental wheelies. When it came time to corner, I grabbed an overcautious bundle of brakes because I’m a big baby and the ABS reeled me in like I’d just popped a parachute open.

I had expected the bike to feel a little tippy in turns based on how heavy it seemed while static, but even at low speed the machine was pretty forgiving. The Bridgestone Battlax tires are unique to the FZ-10, and my street-friendly riding style didn’t get anywhere near approaching their limits.

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The front end feels light, but planted. Yamaha’s R&D guy told me that had a little to do with the headlight cluster, which was placed on the frame instead of the fork.

“It was on the fork originally,” he explained, “but when we went to Japan to test-ride some the techs over there had moved a lot of the weight to the frame and we loved how it felt.” So did I. There was enough predictability in the front end that helped me gain confidence quickly, and it’s been years since I regularly rode a sport bike.

The bike does take a little effort to panic-swerve, but the short story is I was able to scare myself well shy of anything that felt like “breaking loose.”

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I did find the wind to be pretty intense once you hit highway speed, enough that the windshield in the accessory catalog might be worth dealing with the dorkiness it tacks on to the otherwise menacing front end.

After experimenting with the bike’s settings, I found traction control’s “2” (medium-intervention) and throttle’s “A” (medium aggressiveness) to be the most fun for my style of riding, which I would describe as “a lot of steering and changing speed” and a bit on the leisurely side. Lucky for me, that was pretty much perfect for the road we were riding: U.S. 129, also known as the Tail Of The Dragon. And the dragon’s tail is very tangled.

This road has earned a special nickname and fame in the motorcycle and car community because it crams 318 turns into 11 miles of beautiful American South forest.

As my friend and colleague Doug DeMuro asserted on his own trip to the Dragon, that translates to “an average of one curve every 60 yards.” He also posited, “that means just as you’re coming out of one curve, you’re slamming on the brakes for the next one. You never get above 40 miles per hour,” leading him to describe the road as “overrated.”

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There were two critical factors that lead him to the incorrect conclusion about this road. First, he went on a summer weekend (the Dragon’s rush hour), and second, he was not riding a 1000cc motorcycle with advanced traction control and fresh tires.

On a wet hot Tuesday in July, we made it up and down and around without being stuck behind pokey cars for more than a few minutes. We hardly ran into any traffic, didn’t see a single cop, and some lunatic drifting a Miata only swerved into my lane and nearly killed me one measly time.

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The fact of the matter is the Dragon is fun at any speed. That’s why there’s a Harley-Davidson dealership at each end, not a sportbike shop. That said, here’s a little taste of what the road looks like on an FZ-10 when you’re as good a rider as Zack Courts of Motorcyclist magazine:

Your headphones were on, right?

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There are a few places where it’s safe to squirt up to speed or drag a knee, but the biggest advantage of being on an FZ-10 instead of Doug’s Aston Martin is that every turn is smooth and exciting. Transitioning rapidly from one lean angle to the next is exhilarating, yeah, even at pretty much the speed limit.

That’s what good about the FZ-10: it makes endless corners as satisfying as you want it to be without forcing you into a land speed record riding position.

As for my honest endurance on the bike, my ass was over it at about 70 miles into the moderately aggressive ride. The seat started bothering me long before my back did, which didn’t really complain until closer to the 150 mile mark.

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Compare that to my GSX-R, on which a 45-mile ride feels like a long day. I rode that bastard 200 miles from Boston to New York once and almost had to go to a chiropractor after. On the FZ, I think I’d be able to shake the soreness of that ride off with a hot shower.

But both those aliments were alleviated with a few minutes of break time a piece (I’m not that old!) and “every couple hours” is about how often you have to stop to remove dragon flies from your visor when riding through North Carolina anyway. On a sport bike, I’m good for an hour to 90 minutes of uninterrupted riding but usually make an excuse to stop after that.

Obviously, your endurance will vary based on fitness and riding style. I’m a scrawny dude who likes to steer and shift and twist a lot, but not necessarily for a long time.

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Now of course we’ve been focusing on the FZ as compared to the R1 because that superbike feels like a much closer relative than a sport-tourer like the FJ, or a big billowy modern touring bike. Compared to a true long-range upright bike, the FZ would feel like riding a missile.

Verdict

After about 200 miles on the FZ-10, I found a lot to fall in love with. The styling was not one of those things, but the ease of transitioning between “I’m just puttering along looking at the flowers” to “I’m going to burn my initials into the pavement with my back tire” really kept the FZ consistently fun to ride.

The technology onboard gives the rider room to grow into it, too. Getting bored? Increase the throttle response. Getting better? dial down the traction control.

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Ergonomically, the “sport-naked” setup seems like a viable place to live a big chunk of your motorcycling career too. If you really don’t need the slice-and-dice performance that uncorks above about 7,000 RPM, sure, you’re probably wasting your money on something with as much capability as the FZ-10.

But if you outgrow crotch rockets but aren’t ready for retirement to a touring bike, this seems like a good way to go.