The legendary Tail tries to whip us off, but the FZ-10 hangs on
If people have gone to the trouble to name a drive, you can assume it’ll be good: The Lion’s Back in Moab, Giant’s Despair in Vermont, The Green Hell in Germany. So when you hear “The Tail of the Dragon,” you can pretty much assume it’s going to be good. With the exception of Puff, dragons aren’t usually pleasant, and they are often trying to BBQ and eat you.
We had heard about it for years: A stretch of hill-country highway in East Tennessee so supremely squiggly that it packs 318 turns into just 11 miles, from Tabcat Creek to Deals Gap. For reference, the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife has only 154 turns in 13 miles and Pikes Peak has 156 in 12 and a half. On The Tail of the Dragon, not only did they name the road, they named most of the corners, too: Rocket, The Whip, Copperhead, Gravity Cavity and Crud Corner, to name just a few. This is a place worthy of a motorsports pilgrimage and Yamaha chose it (thank you, Yamaha) to introduce the new FZ-10 sport bike.
When you finally get to try your skills on a highway this renowned, you want to bring something…appropriate – you don’t bring a toenail trimmer to a knife fight, after all. Sports cars and supercars are nice, but they’re just too big. The Tail is for two wheels. And not just any two wheels; not big, fat cruiser couches or dinky and efficient Vespa scooters. You need something both powerful and agile. Hence the new Yamaha FZ-10. Yes, that’s a motorcycle, because anything bigger would just get in the way.
The FZ-10 is at the top of the food chain among Yamaha sport bikes. There are also FZ-07 and FZ-09 sport bikes from Yamaha and, while they’d also be fun here, they have less power and their handling isn’t quite as razor-blade precise. There’s also a bike above the FZ-10 in the Yamaha sport bike lineup, the YZF-R1 (which we’ll just call the R1). But the R1 is up a full class — what you call a super sport bike. It’s made to dominate pretty much everything else on two wheels, anywhere in the world. The FZ-10 shares most of its construction with the R1, but the R1 is more comfortable on a track where it can wring itself out all the way to its 14,000-rpm redline – places with more straightaways and wider turns. For taming the short, tight turns of The Tail, the FZ-10 is just perfect.
While the R1 is estimated to have about 167 hp at the rear wheel, the FZ-10 makes do with maybe 150 or so rear-wheel hp (Yamaha doesn’t list a figure). Torque from the FZ-10’s cross-plane crank engine is listed at 81.9 lb-ft. Keep in mind that’s for a bike that weighs just 463 pounds wet. Change your hairstyle and you change your power-to-weight ratio. The R1’s torque is also less accessible at the lower engine speeds used on a stretch of road like The Tail (or any stretch used by a daily commuter). The FZ-10 is like the R1 in that it has the same basic engine, aluminum frame and swing arm but the 998cc inline four they share is tuned in this application more for low- to mid-range torque and daily drivability.
The engine has the same block and displacement, but gets a new head design, smaller intakes, and, while it shares the R1’s Mikuni EFI, it does it without the R1’s secondary injectors. The six-speed transmission is likewise geared for better use of low- to mid-range torque, with a numerically higher final drive. The fully adjustable KYB suspension is setup to be a little softer on the FZ-10 and the FZ-10 does without the R1’s IMU (inertial measurement unit) to assist in extreme handling at the track. The FZ-10 also has a more upright riding position with higher handlebars for greater comfort.
The Yamaha FZ-10 comes in these two models. How do you like those wheels?
What’s It Like To Ride?
We first traversed the Tail of the Dragon not on a sport bike or even in a sports car but in a lowly Lincoln MKT — and we weren’t even driving. We got a chance from the passenger seat to scope out the turns. They’re tight, and some — The Whip, The Little Whip, Parson’s Curve and Crud Corner — look like they’re 180 degrees. Most have on-camber banking, which looked fun. But the onslaught of corners is relentless. There is almost nowhere to relax in those 11 miles, save for three short straights of less than a half-mile each called Reveneur’s Straight, Cat Tail Straight and Cooper Radar Straight between The Dips and Crud Corner (we are going to start naming the features on our daily commute: Suburban Hell, Dreary Dogleg and Where Transportation Efficiency Goes To Die).
The next day we rode. We took off from Fontana Village Resort just after dawn when the air was still a swampy quagmire thick enough to drink and the cicadas were still hanging languidly off the low tree branches calling out for love among the kudzu. First we rode all over North Carolina and most of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, over roads that had existed in one form or another since before revenuers chased moonshiners in souped-up Chevrolets and Fords. We leaned onto corners with glee and plastered our helmets with everything from mosquitos to butterflies. One rider took a direct hit from a dragon fly to the mouth guard air vent on her brain bucket. We ourselves took onboard a monarch butterfly, which clung in terror to the oil cap through hundreds of curves until we noticed it at a break, gently removed it — still alive — and set it free. The FZ-10 was more than up to it all.
It’s still more of a high-revver, topping out at just over 12,000 rpm, but that’s two grand lower than the R1 redlines. And while torque peak is still up at 9000 revs, useable torque comes on starting at less than 3,000 rpm. The extra torque combined with Yamaha’s assist and slipper clutch mean the gears are actually easier to engage than they were on the FZ-09 we rode not too long ago.
The Yamaha Chip-Controlled Throttle allows you to set the drive mode to control throttle response to one of three levels, Standard being the least jumpy. We still thought it was a little too jumpy in that mode. Linearity is our friend in throttles. Traction control can also be adjusted via a handlebar-mounted switch to one of four settings, including off. We rode in Level 2 most of the day — medium intervention — and were fine with it. Under really heavy braking entering some of The Tail’s decreasing-radius turns, we felt the rear end getting a little squirrely, no doubt magnifying our less-than-Valentino-esque braking, but we kept it together each time and never crossed a center line. We never got to the point where we felt the ABS doing anything, either, so maybe we weren’t pushing hard enough. The FZ just ate up the turns, we’d throw it over on one side, power through then roll it right over to the other side and do the same. Lather, rinse, repeat, for 11 miles. The mighty Bridgestone Battlax Hypersport S20 W tires — front 120/70 ZR17, rear 190/55 ZR17 — could have done a lot more than we were capable of doing with them. They were made just for the FZ-10 (we refuse to say “bespoke”) and are plastered with potential. Gotta go back and ride more. As it was, oh man, it was fun, fun, fun till our daddy took the FZ awaaaay.
The 998-cc inline four is shared with the R1 super bike, but is tuned for mid-range torque.
Do I Want It?
There are sport bikes galore in this 1000-or-so cc category from just about every manufacturer from Aprilia to Yamaha. In alphabetical order they are: Aprilia Tuono 1100 RR, BMW S1000RR, Honda CB1000R, Kawasaki Z1000, Triumph Speed Triple, and Suzuki GSX-S1000, to name most of them. You could even throw in the KTM Super Duke R and Ducati Monster 1200 if you wanted to go up in engine size. Some, like the BMW S1000RR, have IMUs that the FZ-10 does not have (but the R1 does), helping with stability under extreme track maneuvers.
The FZ-10 is among the more reasonably priced among them at $12,999, which is a solid plus. The Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki are a grand or so less sticker, the rest on the list are more, all the way up to the Ducati Monster 1200 at $18,695. They all have their good points and bad. The Yamaha is a solid entry in the class, with plenty of daily-driver livability that doesn’t sacrifice too much at the top end. You could easily have a great day at the track with this bike and then ride it home in relative comfort. Then quit your job and ride it right back the very next day. We could easily understand that happening.