Jacqui Madelin rides Yamaha's staunch new MT-03

A line-up of Yamaha MT-03s outside Riverhead's iconic tavern attracted an intriguingly diverse array of rubberneckers, with forestry workers front and centre who would have looked more at home on a matte-black Triumph rat-bike.

They were drawn by the in-your-face horizontally-mounted suspension spring, the quirky swingarm with its forward pivot, and perhaps the MT-03's relatively short wheelbase, its aggressive street-fighter stance sporting more visual muscle than the bike's compact size should carry.

This is another of the new breed of learner-approved machines, designed to sit just beneath the power-to-weight regs while delivering the visual cred of a bigger bike, and it's aimed at nimble round-town commutes and back-roads swervery.

The 660cc single-cylinder motor is based on the XT660Z Tenere adventure bike's and is further dialled for low and mid-range torque by fitting a big, 5.9-litre airbox, a revised intake design and different fuel injection mapping. The engine's a stressed member bolted to the steel trellis frame, and embellished by a few design flourishes - like the twin pipes for the single exhaust.


But that side-mounted suspension system is more than just a flourish. The idea came from the 2005 MT-01, and mounts the shock horizontally next to the engine - a slimmer design and another way to keep mass central. It works via a relay arm that pivots on the rear swingarm, and when combined with a slight front weight bias and compact wheelbase promises agility, which can be a double-edged sword, especially for novices.

Unusually for a bike event, we started around Auckland's viaduct, discovering the relatively upright riding position delivers a good all-round view, and that the bike can u-turn on a saucer and leap from the line with an alacrity that lets you make the most of gaps. So far so good - and then we hit the motorway north, where the MT filtered nimbly through traffic, managed the 100km/h cruise which is not its natural domain, then headed into the rolling hills.

And by golly is this bike keen on corners. At first it feels disconcertingly as if it's lost traction; you look round the bend, and it just flicks and goes. Sure, there's not a lot of power and you've lost it at high revs, so you need to work the five-speed box to keep it at between the 5250rpm and 6000rpm at which the 56.2Nm of torque and 33.4kW power peak, but do that on the right stretch of demanding swervery and you can have a blast.

Our chosen bendy stretch delivered a workout for everyone, from the racers up front, trailing their knees on the tar and all but hearing the roar of the crowd, to the slower folk at the back, enjoying the way this bike encourages you to tip it deeper and deeper into bends, yet ensures you have to work it to get your speed up. The FZ6-style dual front disc brakes and the single rear are efficient, without being grabby, and you'll tap no massive surges of power to trap the unwary novice, only the knowledge that you can go quicker, if you could only develop the handling skills to match this bike.

Yamaha expects the combo of competitive $11,995 price, light (192.4kg wet) weight, agile handling and assertive looks will attract buyers after more than just a commuter and Sunday cruiser, and it's loaded the accessories list to suit, with Akrapovic slip-on mufflers, and a set of bits to enhance the super-motard look with urban skid plates, radiator shields, hand guards and wind deflectors, plus a small flyscreen - and a set of roller protectors that'll keep your engine off the ground if you drop the bike. There's also a tank bag for that 15-litre nylon fuel tank and a texalium solo seat cover - a fabric weave coated in aluminium with a tiny padded inset that annoyed any rider over 177cm tall.

As for those burly forestry types, they're unlikely to sign up until Yamaha's newly-landed and mean-looking Bolt 950 twin goes on sale.