Yamaha YZF-R15 generations: Tracing the evolution of India’s favorite entry level sports bike
Do you know about the ‘butterfly effect’? The phrase is used to describe the phenomenon when something as insignificant as a butterfly fluttering its wings sets off a big chain reaction leading to change. Exactly what happened to Indian motorcycling scene back in 2008 when a design contest in Thailand set us off on our journey from fill-it-shut-it commuters to performance bikes. Something that could have been delayed by years if not decades, but for that competition. Yes, the Yamaha YZF-R15 came into existence because of, believe it or not, a scooter customisation competition between Thai journos. Praise the Lord for scooter design competitions for without it we would have been stuck with the likes of the Pulsars, Karizmas, CBZs and the old Apache RTRs of the world. So, how did the R15 actually come about and what has it evolved into over the following ten years. But first, a small history lesson to set the context. And it all starts with a humble 125cc commuter.
Yamaha India launched a 125cc motorcycle that seemed to be a run-of-the-mill commuter and slapped on a macho name on the side of the fuel tank. And thus was born the Gladiator. Many were glad but one wasn’t. I know it for a fact in a way that only I can that the Ed wasn’t impressed with Yamaha’s aping of their rivals Hero Honda and Honda’s strategy of feeding the market with practical commuters instead of focusing on their core competence – performance. He had no doubt that Yamaha needed to get the ball rolling when it came to sport riding. In a tête-à-tête with then Yamaha boss, he proposed that Yamaha give each auto publication house in India an opportunity to give their view as to what India really needed. Not unlike the scooter design competition in Thailand.
“There were multiple factors that made the R15 an instant hit. Full fairing, twin-pod lights, clip-on handlebars, rear-set footpegs and a rear monoshock unit. It felt like we were riding a miniature version of Yammie’s big R1”
The top bosses agreed and a spending limit as well as a deadline was set. The Ed got along with a couple of his mates and set about building a small sportsbike. Based on the Gladiator of course. The result was a motorcycle that the Jap boffins hardly recognised as the Gladiator. It sported a half fairing. The dual shocks had been replaced with a monoshock and a modified swingarm. The powertrain was untampered but the motorcycle’s demeanour was just what India needed. Top Yamaha bosses from Japan as well as Europe flew down to analyse this creation. It became the base motorcycle that spawned the creation of Yamaha’s smallest sportsbike – the YZF-R15.
Racers are born
There were multiple factors that made the R15 an instant hit. Full fairing, twin-pod lights, clip-on handlebars, rear-set footpegs and a rear monoshock unit. It felt like we were riding a miniature version of Yammie’s big R1. The mind blowing Deltabox chassis was paired with the perfect dancing shoes from MRF. Man were those skinny rubbers brilliant. Yes, the stance was aggressive for its time and it wore a premium price-tag but that did not stop young Indian riders from thronging to Yamaha dealerships.
It made 16-odd ponies from a measly 149cc single-pot motor. What made it different was that it was liquid-cooled, DOHC and fuel-injected. This was the first genuinely modern engine that most of us had experienced. Even more significantly for punters, it revved freely all the way up to 9,500rpm. For those who wanted the extra kick, Yamaha even had a slap on race-kit specifically for the race-tracks which included a free-flow exhaust system from Daytona.
“With the finesse of a figure skating champ, the R15 was waltzing through the corners, darting from apex to apex”
A dream bike for the new-age boyhood racer. Even our man, Varad More owned one. In his early 20s then, Varad was racing amongst the hottest talents of Indian motorcycle racing. He reminisces, “The unforgiving and composed handling is what instantly drew me to the first gen R15. While I sorely missed it making more power, once on the racetrack, its well-mannered nature and ability to quickly change directions with minimal effort made it extremely easy to break lap times that I would otherwise struggle with on even some bigger capacity motorcycles. It won a lot of races but more importantly It won a lot of hearts.”
As I get aboard the saddle of my friend’s first-gen R15, I too get the sudden urge to carve up some corners. Lucky for us, we had met up at our favourite set of twisties – Lavasa. And from the moment I thumbed the starter, slotted the bike into gear and set forth for some cornering action, to the moment we stopped for some chai, it was a blast from the not-so-distant-past. With the finesse of a figure skating champ, the R15 was waltzing through the corners, darting from apex to apex. The bike still runs on the same skinny rubber. Shocked? Don’t be. Those Nylogrips could easily be one of the best tyres that MRF has ever made. They were as sticky as a gecko’s grip and even today there’s no signs of slides when you open up the throttle. Back then, everybody who rode it felt like Rossi in an instant. Today I was The Doctor. That was its charm. Black sheep
There’s a saying. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Yamaha probably should have left the R15 the way it was. Contrary to many R15 purists of the day, I won’t say they spoilt it with the R15 v2.0, but it just didn’t feel as special as the first. The biggest visual change was in the seating. The split seat config made sure whoever rode shotgun was sitting on a two-storey building. The clip-ons were tilted inwards too. The result?
“Unlike the first gen however, the second gen doesn’t make things easy for you”
Cramped ergos. Not the good kind that helps you duck under a fairing. Just cramped. The brilliant skinny rubber too had been replaced by wider tyres, especially at the rear that went from a 100/80-section to a 130/70-section. Visually, it still looked like a baby-R1. An improved one at that. I think v2.0 is when the R15 looked its best. Those scoops, that tail section, the liveries… the R15 v2.0 is my pick of the lot as far as looks go. In spite of its visual appeal and despite the addition of an aluminium swingarm, the v2.0 never really did much for me. From the v1 to v2.0, the bike made me feel like I was working harder to do the same things. On the upside, it is peppier, thanks to the larger rear sprocket. Unlike the first gen however, the second gen doesn’t make things easy for you. Even the tyres don’t seem to communicate as much as the old set as I try to go lower and lower. And just as I am getting the hang of it, the rains arrive, sending us scrambling for cover.
Racers however continued to use the R15, simply because there was nothing else better. It ruled the roost in the Stock class upto 165cc. Sales never took a dip either with virtually no competition. Honda did try with the CBR 150R but couldn’t match the R15’s success. That’s class domination for you.
Ten years since the first R15 and now in its third generation avatar, the current YZF-R15 v3.0 is a full-blown makeover. This was no cut price compromise as many a naysayer had predicted. Barring the USDs that the bikes sold in ASEAN get, what we got was identical to what others around the world get. Hurray!
At the media ride a few months ago, I remember having a blast around the MMRT astride the R15 v3.0. It was a baby-R1 no more. It got its own look and persona. It was now edgy and lively even though Yamaha’s choice of colours were hardly eye popping. From the sassy neighbourhood girl persona of the v1 and v2.0, the v3.0 had become full on emo. There are piercings popping out everywhere now, that do more for form than function. There is an aggressive appeal that will make racers awaiting delivery of their R15s want to head straight to the track.
“The ride on the R15 v3.0 however stood out, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the corner speeds that one can carry puts many a larger displacement motorcycle to shame”
I know the corners of Lavasa like the back of my hand, having ridden up and down on all sorts of machinery. The ride on the R15 v3.0 however stood out, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the corner speeds that one can carry puts many a larger displacement motorcycle to shame. You can keep the throttle pinned to the max through the bends and it will not scare you into backing off. A trait I discovered at the famously flat-out C1 at MMRT where many riders ease off because it’s simply too scary.
Even my friends are surprised as to how communicative the motorcycle as a whole has become. Sharva, the owner of the v1, was particularly impressed with the confidence it inspired in him around the bends. “The new R15 makes for a better performance package which is an ideal tool for track junkies. The extra bump in cee cees has not thrown refinement down the drain. In fact the VVA addition has made it more tractable than ever before. The added weight is not obvious and its agility is beyond comparison!”
After owning his v2.0 for four years, Nikhil loves the fact that his motorcycle’s successor is leagues ahead of his own. The kit on offer is not found on many motorcycles double its cubic capacity and that’s what surprises him. “It has a good front end feel. It feels planted, the brakes provide better bite as well as feedback. But no ABS is a big miss. The riding position is aggressive. It is good for track and here in Lavasa, but not for commuting I believe. But we said that about the first-gen too and yet buyers loved it, didn’t they? Slipper clutch and Metzeler rubber make the deal sweeter for me.”
Whatever the future holds for the R15, the solid foundation laid over the past ten years will certainly find itself a home in Indian households. Be it out on the track, in the city or in the canyons, it gave us our first sportsbike taste and that’s something which I feel no bike will be able to reciprocate. Yes Yamaha, indeed!