It's been two years since Yamaha updated the YZF-R6 with the most radical makeover in the bike's nine-year history. The changes back in 2006 were in some ways a logical evolution of the R6 model, with the already-light chassis even lighter and the already-screaming motor even, uh . . . screamier. Other updates were unexpected, such as new conservative geometry numbers and very different styling. One thing that didn't change was the bike's popularity: It continued to be a hit with street riders, track-day junkies and club racers alike. Even some controversy over the '06 model's optimistic tachometer didn't seem to put a dent in the bike's success.
In the years since the fifth-generation's introduction, however, the middleweight class has been typically active, and the R6 was seen to be in need of an update in order to keep pace. At the '08 model's introduction Yamaha representatives used graphs of market research data to show how the average R6 rider uses his bike, how that usage relates to the middleweight class overall and how the research led to the focus of development for 2008. That focus? "To enhance twisty back road and track riding performance, at the same time improving street-ability." Market research, graphs and PowerPoint presentations aside, maybe it's just a coincidence that those goals address exactly what the R6 needed to compete with the current Honda CBR600RR, the bike that last year showed middleweight riders need not make the usual sacrifices of comfort and midrange power for ultimate 600cc performance.
The accompanying sidebar (page 44) details the many changes to the R6 for 2008. The big news is the addition of YCC-I-Yamaha's variable-length intake funnels-and matching EFI tweaks to beef up the sagging midrange. In the chassis department a stiffer fork and swingarm work with a less rigid frame to improve feedback at both ends, and suspension tweaks make for broader ranges of adjustment in both damping and ride height. At the new bike's introduction at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Yamaha reps showed an unlabeled rear-wheel dyno chart that indicated a small increase in peak horsepower along with a healthy dose of midrange; peak torque is now delivered at 10,500 rpm, 1000 rpm lower than it was previously. But there was no mention made of the R6's nine-pound increase in claimed dry weight-nor what was responsible for the additional heft.
In contrast to the almost military atmosphere of the company's European launches, the U.S. R6 introduction at Laguna Seca was a relaxed and low-key affair with the 2.2-mile, 11-turn track open the entire day and a bike assigned to each journalist. Yes, this is the life. It took just a couple of laps to appreciate the R6's newfound midrange power. Acceleration is much more brisk at lower rpm, and the R6 is not nearly as demanding as the old version in terms of gear selection and rpm management. Still, I found myself using the shorter of two gears in turns where there was a choice for two reasons. One, the powerband is still top-end-biased, and using every last rev available is a must to make good time around the track. It helps that overrev is better, with steam hanging on longer after its peak and carrying right to redline and beyond. Two, the wailing intake and exhaust music is quite addictive. You'll want to hear this motor sing again and again; it never gets old. It's much easier to use those lower gears when it comes to corner entries, too, as engine braking has been reduced for this year. The combination of the slipper clutch-which can be adjusted by adding or removing individual spider springs-and YCC-I trickery practically eliminates distractions from a sliding rear end.
We've had mixed results with our last few R6 test bikes in the braking department, but the binders on the bike I rode at the intro-unchanged from last year except for slightly thicker discs-were plenty strong and didn't fade at all during the day. Only a light pull is required to slow things down from speed, and feedback from the stiffer fork/more flexible frame remains outstanding. Stability-one of the '06 bike's strong points-remains rock-solid, even when on the gas exiting the couple of corners at Laguna that have bumps. The only way I could upset the chassis was by holding the throttle to the stop over the crest of turn one instead of easing off a bit to keep the front end settled. In fifth gear it was still getting light at the top of the hill, and the bars would shake going down into turn two a bit unnervingly. A full evaluation of the tweaks made to the chassis will have to wait until we can mount up some grippy race tires; while the stock tires we rode on at the intro are excellent variants of the typically outstanding Dunlop Qualifiers, it will take something stickier to expose those minute changes.
As before, the R6's Soqi suspension is well suited to track use, and it took just a couple of short sessions to dial in my bike; the clickers all have a noticeable effect and the chassis and handling react accordingly, making that part easy. I didn't really notice the altered riding position, but ergos remain just about perfect for track work with a svelte midsection and well-positioned clip-ons and footpegs. Other aspects of the new R6 conspire to make it a joy to ride on the track: The short-throw tranny is as slick-shifting as ever, the off/on throttle transition is heaps improved over our test unit of last year, and steering is light and precise in spite of the conservative geometry specs. After a lot of laps I really couldn't point to any fault in the bike that made the day less than perfect.
For sure, Yamaha has addressed the weak points of the old R6, and as an added bonus its strong points have been accentuated rather than sacrificed to make those improvements. It's definitely more fun and a better performer on the track. Unfortunately there was no street portion at the press launch, and we'll have to wait to see if the upgrades have benefited everyday usability. Certainly the additional midrange won't hurt, and in fact it will be a necessity if the R6 hopes to topple the Honda CBR600RR from its throne. Stand by for Middleweight Smackdown 2008-it's going to be good.
($9799 in Cadmium Yellow w/ Flames)
Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC, transverse-four, 4 valves/cyl.
Bore x stroke: 67 x 42.5mm
Compression ratio: 13.1:1
Induction: Mikuni EFI with YCC-T, YCC-I, 41mm throttle bodies, 2 injectors/cyl.
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Qualifier PTM
Rear tire: 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Qualifier PTM
Rake/trail: 24 deg/3.8 in. (97mm)
Wheelbase: 54.3 in. (1380mm)
Seat height: 33.5 in. (850mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.6 gal (17.4L)
Weight: 366 lb (166kg) dry