At a flick of the thumb
Roland Brown rides Yamaha's clutchless FJR1300A/AS
This is not like any bike ride I've experienced before. The dashboard clock is indicating an unfeasibly early 8.45am and I'm already on the road, after a night spent in a remote house in the southern Spanish countryside.
The sweet smell of orange blossom hangs in the air as the road twists through the sunlight streaming over the mountains, far away to my left across a spectacular gorge. And the really unusual feeling occurs every time I approach another tight bend on the FJR1300AS - and, instead of treading down with my left foot, flick out my left index finger to put the big Yamaha into a lower gear. The bike banks through the corner in familiar fashion, its flexible engine sending it accelerating away again... until it's time to summon a taller gear with another lazy flick of my finger.
This is touring in 2007 Yamaha style, courtesy of the revamped FJR's clutchless, hand-operated gearbox, or YCC-S (Yamaha Chip Controlled Shift), to give the system its official name. Alongside the standard FJR1300A, with its conventional five-speed box, is the AS model that adds a new dimension to the big four-cylinder sports-tourer.
It's five years since the FJR1300 was launched, giving Yamaha a liquid-cooled, 21st-century successor to the aircooled fours that dated back to the original FJ1100 of 1984. The FJR's 1298cc, 16- valve, shaft-drive engine and aluminium-framed chassis delivered a combination of smooth, flexible performance and respectably agile handling, putting Yamaha back in the sports-touring market in a big way.
Since then BMW, in particular, has hit back with its new generation of powerful K1200 fours, but Yamaha has resisted the temptation to retaliate with more speed or handling. Instead, the FJR's emphasis is on delivering a more comfortable and relaxed ride, as well as the option of clutchless, hand-operated shifting.
The AS, standing for ABS and Shifting, was introduced as a limited-edition model but will be produced in larger numbers, given sufficient demand.
Both models incorporate numerous updates over the previous FJR. Handlebars are three-way adjustable through a front- to-back range of 30mm; the seat can be raised by 20mm from its standard height of 800mm. The pillion footrests are further forward, downwards and outwards. And the electronically adjustable screen, whose limited range was one of the most disappointing aspects of the original FJR, is 25mm higher and 50mm closer to the rider when in its highest position. The subtly reshaped fairing also gains sidepanels that can quickly be adjusted outwards (via two coin-operated screws on each side) to give the rider's legs more wind protection.
Other mods include ABS and hard panniers as standard on both models (almost all riders ordered them as accessories anyway), plus heated grips on the AS. The headlight is easily adjustable for height with a knob in the cockpit. There's an electrical socket in the revamped fairing glove-box, which locks automatically when the ignition is turned off. There's also a new multifunction instrument panel that supplies info including gear position, ambient temperature and fuel consumption.
One thing I noticed immediately was the improved wind protection. The bars and seat gave a relaxed, near-upright riding position in their standard positions, and by putting the screen to its highest point (using the button on the left bar) I could reduce wind noise to a reasonably low level. Average height riders have the option of looking through the screen in near silence, so get a good deal. For tall riders the new fairing is an improvement, but could be better still - especially as using the taller seat option, to get more legroom, would effectively reduce screen height.
On motorways the 1300A showed all the previous model's long-legged cruising ability, and a little bit more. Air is routed differently through the bike to remove engine heat more efficiently. The motor had a typical four-cylinder feel, and stayed smooth throughout the rev range with the help of twin balancer shafts. Even so, when cruising in top I occasionally found myself wondering if there was another gear to come in the five-speed box, despite the gear indicator and the fact that overall gearing is slightly taller. There was enough power and protection for effortless cruising at 110mph plus, with performance in hand to a likely unchanged top speed of about 150mph. With a clear view in the redesigned mirrors, and plenty of gas in the unchanged 25-litre tank, the Yamaha felt ready for some serious distance. As before, it was the 143.5bhp motor's flexibility that really impressed. It was always willing to provide an instant surge of acceleration, whether it was whirring towards the 9000rpm redline, mooching along at five grand or, after I'd turned off the motorway, trundling round a roundabout at less than 2000rpm in fourth. Yamaha's aim with the FJR has always been to provide as much sport as touring, from its handling as well as from its engine.
Chassis changes are limited to extra bearings in the front forks (for a smoother action) and a 35mm longer swing-arm, for extra stability. It all works very well, too, up to a point. Straight-line stability was excellent, and despite giving a fairly soft and comfortable ride the FJR was taut enough to hold a tight line through fast curves.
For a big bike it's pretty easy to steer, too. But when the pace hotted up on twisty Spanish roads, the Yam began to feel a bit soft. Although ground clearance is reasonably generous, the footrest tips and my boot-toes touched down when the Bridgestone BT020s had grip to spare. The FJR has easily adjustable fork rebound damping and rear shock preload, but fork preload and compression damping adjustment requires the tool-kit. The option of firming the suspension with a press of a button, as with BMW's K1200S or GT, would have been welcome. Braking was good, though, aided by an ABS system that seemed to cut in slightly more frequently than BMW's version under hard riding - but thankfully without the German system's heart-stopping loss of braking power when that happened. Yamaha's linked brake system is a more sophisticated version of Moto Guzzi's old set-up, with the handlebar lever operating the front brake, and the foot pedal working both front and rear. On a bike like this, where you're likely to use the rear brake quite a lot, that gave a good compromise between assisting and leaving the rider in control. (This system is also clever enough to make the pedal operate only the rear brake at very slow speed, for example when you're doing a U-turn.)
I was impressed by the standard FJR1300A but my ride on the AS model did not start well, because I immediately got lost despite the accessory Garmin Navigator with which my bike was fitted. Fortunately the YCC-S gearchange was more rider-friendly than the Navigator (which I'm reliably informed is excellent if you really know how to use it). A few times I forgot to press the round button on the left bar, so nothing happened when I flicked the gearchange lever with my finger for the first time. But I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't once shift the wrong way when using my left thumb and index finger (or sometimes just my finger) instead of my well-practised left foot.
When I wasn't in a particular hurry, there was something good about approaching a bend on an ultra-torquey bike like this, changing down a gear with a lazy flick of the finger, and gently winding open the throttle to surf off again on a wave of smooth four-cylinder grunt. I found it necessary to shut off momentarily when changing up, but the automatic clutch took care of downshifts very smoothly, without unsettling the bike. There was a bit of snatch somewhere in the shaft-drive transmission, but not enough to spoil the ride.
The only time I wasn't so keen on the YCC-S was when I upped my pace on a twisty road. When trying hard, concentrating on tyre grip and hard braking, my brain couldn't cope so well with changing by hand. At such times I went back to the foot change, with is always there if you need it, although even this seemed slightly strange without a clutch to use on downshifts. Given enough time, the system would probably become just as familiar as a conventional foot change. But it does have some other drawbacks. Clutchless pulling away is easy but slightly jerky, and best done in second gear rather than first if the bike's not heavily loaded. Control at very slow speeds, such as U-turns or filtering through traffic queues, is trickier without a clutch. There's a possible problem when pulling away on slopes or uneven surfaces, too, and when filtering into roundabouts - because the clutch disengages when the revs drop below 1500rpm, leaving a free-wheeling and less controllable FJR. But I think most riders would get used to all that, given enough time on the bike, and would find the YCC-S a worthwhile complement to the Yamaha's generally relaxed and comfortable ride.
The AS model costs a grand more than the £10,999 standard FJR but includes heated grips as well as the standard bike's ABS and panniers. Not every rider would find it worth the extra cost, but the FJR1300AS works well enough to suggest that we're likely to see more high-tech transmission systems in the future.
Yamaha's Chip Controlled Shift system is much closer to an F1 racecar style paddle- shift than to a scooter-style automatic gearbox. Once the system has been enabled by pressing a round button on the left bar, YCC-S allows gearchanging through the five-speed box to be done either by the left foot or by using the finger-and-thumb arrangement on the bar: press the thumb switch to change up, and the finger lever to go down. Alternatively the finger lever can be used in both directions.
The FJR1300AS has no clutch lever, as the YCC-S system takes care of clutch operation automatically, using an ECU to monitor rpm, speed, gear position and throttle position. During upshifts the system also optimises ignition timing and engine rpm for more efficient changes. Yamaha claims the benefits are reduced rider fatigue, smoother acceleration, and improved pillion comfort (due to smoother shifting).
Unlike a conventional gearbox, the YCC-S set-up has neutral at the bottom of the box, giving a five-up shift pattern. The ECU is programmed to allow gearchanges only between certain revs in each ratio, so it's not possible to change up at very low revs, or down at very high revs. Other than that, though, gear selection is still completely controlled by the rider.