2013 Yamaha FJR1300A | Review While Touring Napa Valley

2013 Yamaha FJR 1300 A Test

Located in the heart of Napa Valley, California, St. Helena is one of those quaint little towns from another era. Surrounded by vineyard - most of whose wines you have probably sampled at some point - gorgeous doesn't begin to describe the acres of green vines that fill almost every square inch of the area.

Mountains in the distance give one a feeling that the valley is protected, and the picturesque setting appears at once unspoiled, yet also beautifully manicured. Now this is a place to go for a motorcycle ride.

I was eager to ride the new Yamaha FJR1300A. The bike has received some serious upgrades for 2013, including a reworked engine and gearbox, plus the addition of electronic niceties such as cruise control, traction control, and anti-lock brakes. My hope was that, in their zeal, Yamaha hadn't lost the essence that makes the FJR great.

The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone rises castle-like on the western valley hills, and the historic and majestic property is one of the Napa Valley's many jewels. It is also one of the world’s most unique and inspiring campuses for culinary education. Rolling into the parking lot on a sunny November afternoon, the elegant Yamaha FJR1300 in Stone Gray (the only color available) blended perfectly with its surroundings.

An all-too-brief lunch at the CIA's Wine Spectator Restaurant consisted of a sweet summer corn soup, with avocado froth and blue corn tortilla dust, followed by an exquisite garden vegetable risotto with Greystone-grown seasonal vegetables, house-made minted ricotta, and a lemon emulsion.

But, enough of the food, it was time to ride. My destination was Clear Lake, some 160 miles away, and with time marching on, I had to be prompt to beat the early winter dusk.

Although do-it-all motorcycles have fallen out of vogue in recent years as machines have become more and more specialized, the recession and subsequent economic challenges have seen a surge in demand for motorcycles with more versatility. Indeed, the so-named sport-touring category has increased from around five-percent of the total sportbike market in 2006 to a significant 17-percent five years later. According to Yamaha's research, the typical FJR rider averages nearly 8,000 miles a year; long day rides and overnight trips have increased to nearly half of their riding.

Sport-touring riders are a demanding lot and, with that kind of mileage being covered, we have every right to be. We insist on comfort - without compromising performance or handling - and rider aids such as traction control, anti-lock braking, and cruise control, without adding too much weight. Yamaha has delivered on all of these requirements.

The FJR model first arrived in the United States in 2003 as a special order machine after two successful years in Europe. High demand made it a regular model and it has seen a couple of major upgrades, including a now-discontinued electronic-shift transmission.

2013 is another upgrade year, and the Yamaha FJR1300A re-establishes itself as one of the best in class. The recipe could have come from the Culinary Institute of America: a beautifully refined, smooth-as-silk, inline-four with strong torque through the rev range and some serious oomph on-call when needed; a lithe handling chassis; and long-distance niceties such as excellent wind-protection from an electrically adjustable windshield, heated grips, and roomy luggage.

Fresh from winning the 2012 MotoGP World Championship, it is clear that Yamaha knows exactly how to make a sportbike; and the millions (and millions) of dollars spent pursuing the crown has developed technologies that have trickled down to the street. Yamaha's superb Yamaha Chip Controlled Throttle (YCC-T) is a ride-by-wire solution that is impossible to criticize.

The throttle connection and power delivery is seamless, while the new throttle bodies are designed to work with the traction control, dual power modes (D-mode), and cruise control. The optimized fueling and precise throttle response are a joy to use, especially when coming back on the throttle at corner exit.

The refined motor has a sleeveless cylinder design and new piston rings; the exhaust system is completely new, with changed length, packing material, heat guard, and muffler caps.

The reduction in weight and the redistribution helps make the FJR feel even more balanced, and the slim mufflers are a welcome change from the usual fatties that manufacturers seem stuck on. With the combined intake and exhaust changes, the new FJR has a much more responsive power delivery.

Although the power output has only been upped by three horsepower and three ft/lbs of torque at the peak, the motor feels much stronger, especially at lower rpm, than previously. The extra torque from the four-cylinder pulls from around 2500 rpm right up to the redline at 9000; the engine has so much mid-range power that revving to the maximum is pointless, though it's nice to know that if you need the extra revs on top, it will deliver.

There are two different fuel maps  available via a thumb switch on the right handlebar, located under the clever all-in-one kill-switch/ start-button. The Touring mode dramatically dilutes the way the power is delivered; it is still quite strong, but the urgency of Sport mode is gone and the FJR simply gathers pace quickly, rather than the shove-in-the-back of the Sport setting. As long as the throttle is closed, the modes can be instantly changed on the fly.

I was a little disappointed that Yamaha hasn't changed the gearbox for 2013, so the FJR still operates through five ratios, not six. Because the bike is shaft driven the user cannot change the final gearing, and I was concerned that the four-cylinder motor could feel busy when cruising for long distances in top gear. However, the ratios are extremely well spaced out, and fifth gear works as an effective overdrive.

At 80 mph the engine is turning a leisurely 2500 rpm, and the engine is now so smooth that it's not intrusive when cruising on the highway. There is a fairly large gap between third gear and fourth, yet the torque output of the FJR will pull fourth gear from low-revs without any problem.

A "new machining method" is claimed to help make gear changes slicker. While I had dismissed it as factory hyperbole, in practice I discovered that it worked very well. Like the engine, the gearbox is absolutely buttery, and shifting is effortless. Though I don't recall the old FJR gearbox being a challenge, the new one is noticeably top-notch.

The redesigned instrument cluster is separated into three sections; it gives all the right information in an easily and quickly understood format. Simplest is the far left portion, which has only an analog rev counter.

The large center LCD contains an oversize digital speedometer, a large, easy-to-read sweep fuel gauge, an always-on clock, and the D-mode indicator. Just below the fuel gauge, an Eco graphic appears when riding behavior will return maximum fuel economy. I think I saw it once.

The right LCD screen on the instrument cluster shows all the other computer-driven functions including total mileage, two tripmeters, the ambient temperature, coolant temperature, and a wide range of gasoline consumption information.

Flipping the pull-switch on the left handlebar (where the headlight flasher is found) toggles through three functions: the electric windshield, the heated handlebar grips, and the triple menu.

Once a function is selected, a rocker switch then performs the action required, such as adjusting the screen up or down, cranking up the heat on the grips, or cycling through the three information screens. It is a clever way of using one easy-access switch to cover multiple functions and, although it is fairly intuitive, it does take a little getting used to.

Leaving the CIA and Napa, I headed out on Sage Canyon Road (California Highway 128) past Lake Hennessey, where the twisting and often-bumpy road gave me a chance to explore the FJR's handling. The suspension is all new, and the forks have considerably longer (13.5 inches compared to 10.3 inches) dual rate springs, plus dramatically improved damping that is adjustable for both rebound and compression.

The rear shock's upgrade gives it superior damping, and is now fully adjustable and much more responsive; the ride feels as firm as you would expect, and bump absorption is stellar.

Bridgestone Battlax BT023 tires are specifically developed for the FJR1300A and, although the front is the typical 120/70 size, the rear stays with a slightly conservative 180. This helps give the FJR its exceptional turning ability, and the Bridgestones were grippy enough that, damp or dry, I had total confidence in the front end.

Running uphill on one very fast section of the Redwood Highway, the bike was fully leaned over at a speed I'm not prepared to admit here. When I hit a large unfilled pothole—big enough to send a bang through the bike - the suspension soaked it up, the tires maintained their grip, and the FJR stayed completely on line.

While I would not have expected a crash, I certainly was impressed - and somewhat surprised, I admit - at how the FJR stayed absolutely planted on-line. At the very least, I expected a big wallow, or the tires to push somewhat; neither happened.

My overnight lodgings were exceptional. Lynne and Bernie Butcher's Tallman Hotel is in the historic country town of Upper Lake. Just north of Clear Lake, this wonderful country hotel was originally built in the early 1870s by pioneer Rufus C. Tallman.

Initially, Tallman Hotel was part of a full-service stage facility, consisting of hotel, livery stable and saloon. By the 1880s, stagecoaches were bringing tourists to the area. Tough times eventually hit, and the Tallman Hotel was closed in 1962. Then, in 2006, the Tallman was completely restored and expanded, and now offers the feel and service of a traditional bed and breakfast.

Dinner was next door at the equally historic Blue Wing Saloon, and I was fortunate enough to visit on a Monday - Blues Night. The Restaurant is a recreation of the Clear Lake's original 1880s saloon, which was demolished during Prohibition. The inviting interior is complete with an ornate Eastlake Style back-bar, a milled-on-site black walnut long bar, and old-growth redwood wainscoting salvaged from the hotel next door. 

Heading out the following morning on State Highway 20 towards Lake Mendocino, it was a little chilly. I took full advantage of the FJR's heated handlebar grips, and raised the screen for maximum wind protection.

The most visible change to the FJR is the bodywork. Retaining the elegance of the FJR, the new fairings are simpler and a little more aggressive than before, with styling cues taken from the YZF-R6 supersport machine.

A new one-piece cowl (simplifying a three-piece design) and inner fairing panel hold the new headlight with LED position lights. The adjustment knobs in the inner dash are retained and LED turn signals are now integrated.

The net effect of the new bodywork is considerable, with improved visibility and wind protection. Heat management is better, with the new air inlet/outlet areas redirecting airflow.  Reduced negative air pressure and buffeting from the new, faster adjusting windscreen improves rider comfort and reduces fatigue.

Highway 20 commingles with US Route 101 and I was able to take full advantage of the FJR's superb motor on the way to Willits.

The cruise control is a real boon, and the FJR's system is simplicity itself. An on/off switch enables Cruise, and a red icon appears on the dash. Push the rocker switch (next to the headlight flasher) down, and SET appears in green to indicate the computer has taken over. Moving the throttle, brake, or clutch disengages it immediately.

Highway 20 from Willits to Fort Bragg is one of those gorgeous roads we all dream about. It snakes through the mountains of Jackson Demonstration State Forest, with nearly 50,000 acres of giant redwood trees densely flanking both sides of the road.

The tarmac is absolutely pristine, so the swooping corners and short straights make for a wonderful rhythm and the perfect sport-touring ride. The cold of the morning and the slowly clearing fog had left many corners damp. Undeterred, I pushed the FJR as hard as I dared, as I was having so much fun.

The Bridgestones continued to impress; they gripped well and never gave me any cause for concern, even though I overcooked the entrance to a couple of turns. Although I held my breath as I turned in, the front stayed planted and the FJR tracked perfectly both times.

Traction control and ABS are now included on the FJR; both are non-adjustable for different levels of intrusion. With the bike stationary, the traction control can be turned off. Happily, I didn't test either system, though the fact that they exist on the FJR gives a certain peace of mind.

Ergonomically, the FJR is ideal for my six-foot frame. The riding position and rubber covered footrests are certainly sporting, but not placed too far back, making for a comfortable ride. If you have tools handy, the handlebars are three-way adjustable. I put them in the middle mount, making the riding position slightly leaned forward and comfortable.

The seat is covered with a new textured material with suede-like side panels, and it adds to the FJR's high-end look. Comfort is exemplary and, after approximately 400 miles in two days, I could easily have repeated the ride. There is a tool-less seat height adjustment, with the two levels three-quarters of an inch apart. That doesn't sound like much, yet there is a huge difference in feel.

I started out my ride on the higher setting and liked it just fine. After my overnight stay, I tried the lower seat setting, fully expecting to feel little difference. Funnily enough, I immediately felt the change and the FJR's riding position took on a much more seated-in-feel.

The bike seemed easier to balance at stop signs and traffic lights; I can't say the handling was changed perceptibly, and my confidence was definitely improved.

Yamaha's changes to the 2013 FJR1300A please the most sophisticated palate in every sense. It is compact and lithe - even when pushed hard, it will absolutely deliver. Concurrently, the FJR is comfortable and accommodating enough to qualify for long-distance tourer status.

Since its debut a dozen years ago, the Yamaha FJR1300A has been a leader in the sport-touring category.  The changes this year have only enhanced the status of this outstanding machine in a class with competition that is more fierce that ever.

Motorcycle Photography by Brian J. Nelson


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