Yamaha was not the first to mass-market a leaning three-wheeled motorcycle, as the Italian manufacturer Piaggio beat them to the punch with their MP3 scooter in 2006. However, Yamaha’s Nikken was the first large capacity version, and the first from a major Japanese maker. Now Aprilia, which is owned by Piaggio, is developing their own full-sized tilting three-wheeler, and what looks like a direct competitor to the Niken, as evidenced by recent patent filings.
With two front wheels that scissor to allow the motorcycle to lean, the Piaggio MP3 and Yamaha Niken enjoy considerably more front-end grip than a conventional two-wheeler, at the expense of weight and complexity. The added grip makes cornering in loose and/or slippery conditions far more confidence inspiring, as this editor found when testing a Niken in the rain at Shannonville Motorsports Park last season.
The new Aprilia patent filings indicate a front suspension system very similar in basic operation to the Niken, but with differences in execution. Both systems feature parallel links on top, pivoting along the centerline of the bike, to provide the leaning ability of the two front wheels, but whereas the Niken uses telescoping legs (two per side) for suspension action, the Aprilia patent shows solid uprights with a double-wishbone-like linkage at each wheel.
The donor engine and chassis appears to be an Aprilia Mana 850, which uses a CVT transmission equipped with multiple manual modes. Similarly, Yamaha’s Niken uses their Tracer 900 engine and chassis. Using existing parts cuts down on costs and development time, as well as simplifying emissions certification.
The big question in all this is whether there is a market for large capacity leaning three-wheelers. On the one hand, the Yamaha GTS1000, another Yamaha sport-tourer with a unique front suspension system, only lasted one year in the United States, and six years elsewhere, and Yamaha Niken sales haven’t exactly skyrocketed. On the other, the Can-Am Spyder trike has sold tens-of-thousands of units per year since being introduced in 2008. What future the Aprilia three-wheeler has, if it even reaches production, is anyone’s guess. Having sampled one, it is clear that leaning three-wheelers have demonstrable advantages in front-end grip in adverse conditions, but whether the cost and complexity, and to a degree the image of such a bike, is marketable, remains to be seen.