Tiny but MT.

When Yamaha updated the YZF-R3 in 2019, the upgrades were enough to reconcile me with 300cc motorcycles. My previous experiences with the Kawasaki Ninja 300 and the Honda CBR300R left me underwhelmed and craving for more and my saying so turned a few small-bike lovers against me. There had to be something they saw in 300s that I didn’t, right?

The R3 was the answer. When Yamaha updated its littlest sportbike, both director Jason and I agreed that Team Blue had figured out how to make a small bike interesting. Of course, when Yamaha followed up with the all-new MT-03 a year later, considering what I had experienced with the R3 and the MT’s series reputation for excellence, I was understandably curious to see how it fared. Let me answer that question with another question: do you say potato or po-tah-to?

The Specs

2020 Yamaha MT-03

Engine:

321cc, DOHC, parallel-twin
Transmission: 6-speed
Performance: 41hp/22 lb-ft
Brakes:  1 x 298mm disc front, 220mm disc back, ABS
Suspension: 37mm KYB inverted fork front, monoshock with adjustable preload back
Wheels/Tires: 110/70-17 front, 140/70-17 back
Wheelbase: 54.3 inches
Seat Height: 30.7 inches
Weight: 373 lb
Price: $4,599

The Looks  

When it debuted at the end of 2019, the MT-03 unknowingly (to us) paved the stylistic way for the rest of the MT lineup. As we found out in October, 2020, the cyclopic LED light pod first used on the 03 made its way in the 2021 MT-07 and MT-09's new design. With its frowning position lights, however, the 300 remains the best-looking naked of the lot if you ask me.  

2020 Yamaha MT-03, Detail, Headlight

The MT-03 borrows all the good stuff the R3 has to offer—diamond frame, 321cc DOHC parallel-twin engine, 17-inch wheels, suspension, et al.—and strips it down to its essence. Though they’re the same on the inside, they certainly don’t look it.   

Despite its petite figure, the MT-03 still feels like a “grown-up” bike. No circus bear on a tricycle analogy required here. Throw a pair of bright nuclear red wheels and a muscular silhouette into the mix and you end up with a bike that commands attention.  

2020 Yamaha MT-03, Profile, Right
2020 Yamaha MT-03, Profile, Left

At first glance, it doesn’t feel like an entry-level bike. Despite an abundance of plastic, Yamaha did a good job at creating a design that looks more luxe than it actually is. Upon closer inspection, however, that's when you notice how the plastic panels are a little ill-fitted—particularly around the fuel tank—and the reality of the $4,599 price tag sinks in. It is entry-level after all.   

That being said, let’s be honest here: if you’re shopping in that segment and that the MT-03 is on your list, assembly quality likely isn’t your top priority and that’s ok. 

The Ergonomics  

I’ll be upfront about it: I like the faired R3 better than the MT. You enter a form of symbiosis when you sit on the R3— you hug the bike with your body and almost become one with it.   

As it's normally the case with naked bikes, the MT creates a more “open”, upright stance. Though the seat height, wheelbase, and overall dimensions are unchanged, Yamaha shifted the MT-03's handlebar up by 39mm and backward by 19mm, prompting the rider up. The slightly curvier saddle also cradles the bottom end instead of tipping the rider forward.  

2020 Yamaha MT-03, Detail, Seat

It is an overall comfortable experience until you hit the highway. While the two 300s are almost identical, the R3’s fairing and sportier stance reduce the wind resistance and make the bike feel more at ease at higher speeds. The MT didn’t feel quite as flexible mainly because of how much more wind resistance the stance creates. I mean, the small mill is mighty capable, but it still has its limitations and my upper body acting like a kevlar-clad sail doesn’t help.   

While I had no problem fitting on the bike with my 5’8” frame and 32-inch inseam, the shape of the plastic panels decorating the fuel tank could limit taller riders’ ability to get comfortable. The flared out "shoulders"—a continuation of the air ducts' shape—limit the space left for the knees. You might have a hard time squeezing in if you’re on the taller side. If, on the other hand, you’re vertically challenged, the MT-03's 30.7-inch saddle height should make you feel perfectly at ease.  

The Ride  

Though I’m more partial to the R3 both in terms of looks and of riding geometry, don’t think that I’m hating on the MT-03—it’s a surprising and delightful bike nonetheless. Some say potato, others say po-tah-to, but in the end, we all enjoy our root vegetables, amirite?   

The 321cc twin is impressive for its size, something that’s particularly noticeable on the highway. Just when you think that you’ve met its limits, it’s willing to give you more. Don’t be afraid of the rev, embrace it. The engine feels perfectly content in the high-range. There’s a reason that powertrain is the one that made me believe in 300s again.   

2020 Yamaha MT-03, Detail, Engine

The MT-03 is a little more commute friendly than the R3 thanks to a slightly softer suspension setting that forgives road bumps and craters more easily. Don’t worry, there’s still enough rigidity left for the bike to dip in the bends with confidence and to minimize nose-diving when braking. 

Despite having only one, small brake set up at the front wheel, braking felt sufficient and responsive enough for the bike while I found the controls smooth and gradual—yet another beginner-friendly feature.  

The bike is very much designed for pure, shit-eating-grin-inducing, childish fun. It’s lightweight and easy to maneuver without feeling inadequate in the bends. Don’t be fooled by its 373 pounds, it feels well-grounded in every maneuver you dictate.  

2020 Yamaha MT-03, 3/4 Front, Left

The steering is light and precise; the bike lets you call all the shots without a single protest. It works with you, not against you. That’s where the Yamaha quality gets a chance to shine. Who cares about a few wonky pieces of plastic? The stuff that really matters like the steering head, the brakes, and the suspension, performs according to and even beyond expectations.  

The Conclusion  

I’ve written before that small-displacement bikes aren’t necessarily ideal as beginners’ bikes since most new riders quickly outgrow them. Especially if they buy new, new riders end up wasting a lot of money once they want to replace their underpower-feeling bike for something bigger.   

That’s not a problem you’ll have with the 2020 Yamaha MT-03. I’ve said it of the R3 and I’ll say it again of the MT-03: this is one 300 I recommend getting your start on only because it will give you increasingly more as you grow more comfortable. Choosing between the Yamaha R3 and the all-new MT-03 all comes down to one thing: how do you say potato?

Gallery: 2020 Yamaha MT-03 Review

 

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