First Ride Review
Honda has amassed a remarkable legacy over the past 50 years, covering the full spectrum of motorcycling. Its utilitarian, 60-million-unit Super Cub is the best-selling internal-combustion vehicle in history, and its hand-built racebikes have won championships the world over.
Two of Honda’s flagship models—the Gold Wing luxury tourer and the VFR sport tourer—have been iconic platforms for innovation and refinement. Since its introduction in 1986 the VFR has evolved steadily, but it has just taken a quantum leap forward. After months of speculation and spy shots, Honda finally unveiled the 2010 VFR1200F in early October 2009 just weeks before the Tokyo Motor Show.
The VFR800F Interceptor has received only minor updates since 2002, and its larger V-4 sport-touring stable mate, the ST1300, has hardly changed since 2003. Like so much else in the motorcycling world, sport tourers have gotten bigger, faster and more sophisticated. A Honda response to the Yamaha FJR1300, Kawasaki Concours 14 and BMW K1300GT has been long overdue. To reassert itself in the sport-touring class, Honda didn’t update a previous model; it wiped the slate clean and started over.
In the trickle-down tradition from racing to production, Honda adapted engine technology and architecture from its RC212V MotoGP V-4 racebike to the new VFR. Displacing 1,237cc (81mm bore x 60mm stroke), the liquid- cooled engine has a compression ratio of 12:1 and a 76-degree cylinder angle. Previous VFRs used a 90-degree layout for primary balance; the new engine’s Symmetrically Coupled Phase-shift Crankshaft uses a 28-degree crankpin offset to eliminate primary engine vibration. For better mass centralization and a narrow interface with the rider, the two rear cylinders are located innermost on the crankshaft and the front cylinders are located outboard. Asymmetrical exhaust lengths between front and rear cylinders are said to boost power and enhance the pulsing V-4 feel.
The valve train is a Unicam design derived from Honda’s motocross bikes, resulting in significantly smaller cylinder heads. In fact, the entire engine is smaller and lighter than its 781cc predecessor. A single overhead cam actuates two intake valves and two exhaust valves per cylinder via roller rocker arms. This design is smaller and lighter than a DOHC setup and its flat combustion chambers burn fuel efficiently. PGM-FI electronic fuel injection uses 44mm throttle bodies and 12-hole injectors, and throttle-by-wire ensures smooth, precise fuel delivery. To further smooth power delivery, there are four dampers within the engine and drivetrain. Also adapted from Honda’s MotoGP and motocross bikes is a sealed crankcase design that maintains mild negative pressure to minimize mechanical pumping losses, offering the advantages of a dry sump design without a separate oil tank. A scavenging pump pulls oil and gasses out of the crank chamber, which reduces resistance on the crankshaft, pistons and rods and results in improved power, throttle response and fuel efficiency.
Two versions of the VFR1200F will be available: a standard model with a six-speed manual transmission and a cam-assisted slipper clutch, and a model with Honda’s new Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT). The DCT offers two fully automatic modes (Drive and Sport), along with a six-speed manual mode with paddle-style shifters on the left grip (no foot shifter or clutch lever). It is similar in function to the Human Friendly Transmission found on Honda’s DN-01 crossover, but their designs are very different. Whereas the DN-01’s HFT is a continuously variable transmission, the DCT electronically alternates separate clutches for odd- and even-numbered gears. This allows it to quickly and smoothly shift gears and improve fuel efficiency. Dual input shafts, an exclusive in-line clutch design and compact hydraulic circuitry keep the DCT small and lightweight.
An all-new twin-spar aluminum frame connects to Honda’s Pro Arm single-sided swingarm within a wide-span pivot area for increased chassis rigidity. The chain final drive has been replaced with a shaft drive that has an offset pivot below the swingarm pivot and a sliding constant-velocity joint to eliminate jacking. A gas-charged rear shock offers 5.1 inches of travel and adjustability for rebound and preload, and a 43mm male-slider fork with 4.7 inches of travel is adjustable for preload. Honda has equipped the new VFR with its latest-generation Combined Braking System and ABS, with dual floating 320mm discs and six-piston calipers in front and a single 276mm disc and a two-piston caliper out back.
Styling on the new VFR is more sculpted and flowing than its sharp-edged predecessor. The Candy Red-only fairing uses a GP-derived layer- concept design for more aerodynamic and cooling efficiency. It is also smaller, revealing more of the new engine. Instead of the dual underseat exhausts on the previous model, there is a large, sculpted canister on the right side. The slender, stylish tail section comes standard with mounts for 29-liter saddlebags, and a 33-liter top trunk will likely be available in the United States as well, though there’s no price or release date as yet for the accessory hard bags. Other accessories include a three-position windscreen, heated grips, a passenger backrest, a lower seat and a centerstand.
The VFR1200F’s 60.8-inch wheelbase is 3.4 inches longer than the VFR800F Interceptor, and its 591-pound curb weight is 51 pounds heavier (DCT model adds another 22 pounds). Despite a more powerful engine in a heavier bike, fuel capacity has decreased from 5.8 gallons to 4.9 gallons. Seat height is slightly taller—32.1 inches vs. 31.7 inches—and revised ergonomics provide a more upright seating position. Controls, switchgear and instrumentation have all been redesigned as well to enhance the riding experience.
The VFR1200F begins a new era for Honda while continuing the trend of innovation that has characterized the VFR for nearly a quarter-century. It will replace the VFR800F in Honda’s lineup, but as of this writing the fate of the ST1300 is unchanged. See “Very Fine Ride” below for our riding impressions at the SUGO circuit following the Tokyo Motor Show, followed by “VFR Ancestry” and a full spec chart. Honda will host a U.S. press launch for the standard model mid-December and release its pricing; availability is said to be March-April 2010. The DCT model will follow sometime later.
Very Fine Ride
With the 2002 VTEC-equipped model, the Honda VFR lost its way. It didn’t feel as cohesive as earlier models and VTEC was a distraction. Well, the wilderness years are over. With the VFR1200F, Honda has restored glory to the VFR name. It’s a categorically different machine, superior to its predecessor in every way. From the instrumentation to the form-fitting fairing, fit and finish is superb. The sculpted tank feels slender and the seating position is more upright with ample legroom. You feel like you are part of the bike.
A unique firing order and asymmetrical exhaust lengths give the new V-4 a growl and a rumble. No more bland “sewing machine” sound and feel, and—woohoo!—no more VTEC. Power builds eagerly, with an exciting rush from 6,000 rpm to the 10,200-rpm redline. Claimed peak figures are 170 horsepower and 95 lb-ft of torque at the crank. Its throttle-by-wire is precise, and the new “tornado” damper-equipped shaft drive minimizes driveline lash.
The additional weight is carried well, low and centralized. On Japan’s flowing, 3.8-kilometer SUGO circuit and the tight, bumpy access road that surrounds it, the VFR handled with ease and stability. The suspension balances responsiveness with comfort, and cornering clearance is sufficient. Powerful brakes slowed the bike quickly without premature engagement of the ABS.
The standard model’s six-speed manual transmission shifted smoothly and the slipper clutch worked flawlessly, but the real show-stopper was the Dual Clutch Transmission model. Automatic is the default, and in either Drive or Sport modes the bike pulls away from stops cleanly and is easy to maneuver at low speeds. Buttons and electronics made it easy to switch between Drive and Sport or from automatic to manual on the fly. Drive mode runs a gear or two too high in the twisties, but Sport mode is a revelation when hard-charging. Gear changes are seamless in any mode. Skeptics like me were converted and the paddock was abuzz with praise.
Well done, Honda. We’ll ride the 2010 VFR1200F out on the road in the weeks ahead, so stay tuned for a more in-depth evaluation
The heart and soul of the VFR is its V-4 engine. Honda developed a four-stroke V-4 engine in the late 1970s to take on the dominant two-strokes in 500cc Grand Prix racing. With regulations allowing no more than four cylinders, to produce competitive power Honda used oval pistons with eight valves and two spark plugs per cylinder in its NR500 engine to mimic the power characteristics of a V-8. In 1982, Honda introduced two U.S. models powered by V-4 engines (with conventional round pistons), the VF750S Sabre sport-standard and the VF750S Magna cruiser. The following year, the VF750F Interceptor launched the modern sportbike era, and 500, 700 and 1100 versions were released in 1984. To overcome reliability issues with the VF engine and to compete against 750cc in-line-four sportbikes from Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha, Honda launched the fully faired VFR750F in 1986. Powered by a liquid-cooled, 748cc, 90-degree V-4 with gear-driven double-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, the VFR750F was updated every two to three years through 1997 (its iconic single-sided swingarm appeared in 1990). During this time, Honda introduced its CBR line of sportbikes, and its V-4 racebikes (RC30 and RC45) followed their own path; the VFR evolved into one of the best sport tourers ever built.
The 1998 VFR800FI got a displacement boost (to 781cc) and fuel injection, among other enhancements. Changes were more drastic in 2002, including angular styling, underseat exhausts, optional ABS and—finally—factory accessory hard bags. Perhaps the most controversial feature was VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Electronic Control), which keeps the second intake and exhaust valves closed until 7,000 rpm (later 6,500) to optimize power at low and high revs and improve fuel efficiency. The downside is that power surges abruptly when the rpm threshold is reached and all four valves come into play, which can be a little disconcerting when leaned over in a corner.
Now for 2010 the all-new VFR is once again a showcase for Honda technology, this time the Dual-Clutch Transmission.