Road Test Review
After nearly two decades of being a sleek thoroughbred with racing bloodlines, for 2002 uninspired styling and unnecessary gadgetry (VTEC) transformed the Honda VFR800 Interceptor into Rocinante, Don Quixote’s ungainly steed. The VFR’s 25th anniversary came and went in 2007, with the special- edition red-white-and-blue Interceptor all but ignored (as of this writing, two dealers are selling brand-new ones on eBay for thousands below MSRP). Long in the tooth and forlorn, the VFR was ripe for a Rocky-style comeback.
When Honda unveiled the all-new VFR1200F last fall, it proudly displayed a flat-out stunning motorcycle, reborn like a candy-apple-red butterfly from a black caterpillar. Sharp edges were replaced by flowing curves, and under its polished fairing was an entirely new powerplant and chassis. (For full technical details and specs, see our 2010 Honda VFR1200F First Ride.) Retaining its iconic V-4 layout, the VFR1200F’s MotoGP-inspired engine displaces 1,237cc, and is smaller and lighter than the Interceptor’s 781cc mill. Power has likewise increased, peaking at 150.6 horsepower and 84.4 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheel on Jett Tuning’s Dynojet dyno. The growth spurt has put the VFR in the big leagues, now making more horsepower (though somewhat less torque) than the Kawasaki Concours 14 and Yamaha FJR1300. And, on a horsepower-per-liter basis, it beats the BMW K 1300 S. The VFR has a small flat spot between 5,000 and 6,000 rpm—right in the heart of cruising range—but above that it spins out power like gold. A handful of throttle quickly blurs the surroundings, a thrilling rush best experienced on wide-open roads.
Rather than the previous 90-degree Vee, the cylinders are now opposed at 76 degrees. A 28-degree crankpin offset compensates for imperfect primary balance, but engine vibration is still felt, especially at higher revs and when rolling off the throttle. Not a numbing buzz, but a definite reminder that lots of internal combustion is happening between your knees. Honda says it uses uneven exhaust lengths between the front and rear cylinders to boost power and intensify the V-4’s pulsations, so the effect is probably intentional to avoid sewing-machine blandness—a common complaint with the Interceptor.
Complementing the V-4 feel is the sound of the VFR1200F’s dual-personality exhaust. Low-slung on the right side, the trapezoid-shaped muffler—which must moonlight as a space heater in the Brookstone catalog—hums along quietly at low revs. But crank it up past 6,000 rpm and an exhaust valve opens for better high-rpm flow, delivering an addictive howl that will resonate with the adrenalin receptors of any speed junkie. Four-valve-per-cylinder Unicam heads use a chain-driven single cam to actuate the two intake valves directly, and the two exhausts via roller rocker arms with screw-type adjusters, a design first seen on the CRF450R motocross machine. It’s said to save weight yet still allow a 10,200-rpm redline and 16,000-mile adjustment intervals. Fuel is mixed with air and injected electronically using 44mm throttle bodies and 12-hole injectors. Also new on the VFR is ride-by-wire. When you twist the throttle, a computer processes input from various sensors and makes the final call on how power is transmitted to the rear wheel. Alas, put one in the win column for the old VFR, as throttle transitions on the VFR1200F can be abrupt, particularly at low speeds.
A fully automatic model will be offered with Honda’s new Dual Clutch Transmission (said to be available in May, with pricing to be released by the time you read this), but our test bike had a six-speed manual transmission. Clutch effort was moderate and the cam-assisted slipper clutch mellowed out hard downshifts, yet the transmission felt clunky, lacking the suppleness found on other Hondas, like the Honda NT700V we tested last month. Honda kept the VFR’s beloved single-sided swingarm but replaced the chain final drive with a shaft. No jacking was evident, but we felt some slop in the driveline that—when combined with throttle abruptness—interferes with smoothness at times, especially when rolling off and back on. No complaints about the suspension though, which blends suppleness and responsiveness like VFRs of yore and is adjustable for preload front and rear (the latter via remote knob), plus rebound damping in the rear. Triple-disc stoppers mate Honda’s Combined Braking System and ABS with dual floating 320mm discs and six-piston calipers in front, and a single 276mm disc and two-piston caliper out back. The brakes are strong with progressive feel, though hard stops produced some ABS kickback at the lever. Given the sporting intent of this bike, we’d prefer the C-ABS setup offered as an option on Honda’s CBR sportbikes.
With 25 degrees of rake and 4.0 inches of trail, steering geometry on the VFR1200F differs only slightly from that of the previous model. But its wheelbase has been stretched 3.4 inches (to 60.8 inches) and it wears a wider 190mm rear tire (up from 180), tipping the scales in favor of stability rather than nimbleness. Top-gear cruising at 85 mph on the highway, with the engine in Blue Thunder stealth mode at 5,000 rpm, the VFR1200F is dead stable and its wide mirrors are crystal clear. But when a few downshifts and some curves are thrown in, stability becomes a liability and the bike requires some effort to hustle through tight corners. The VFR1200F holds its line well but changes it less so. Throughout a wide range of wet and dry conditions, the Bridgestone BT021 sport-touring tires provide confident grip.
Firm padding and an upward slope on the wide, spacious seat take its toll on my tush after about an hour. When combined with a small windscreen that
provides only marginally better wind protection than most sportbikes, I was plum worn out after an eight-hour day in the saddle. As delivered, I’d think twice before embarking on a multiday, long-distance tour. Although you sit in the cockpit rather on top of it, the seating position is more sporty than relaxed with a reach to the bars that is too far forward and low for my taste. Legroom is generous, with a 32.1-inch seat height (up a half-inch) and a narrow feel between the knees. Our test passenger also had plenty of legroom, but she didn’t like how much she slid around on the thinly padded seat wearing textile pants. Even using the large grab handles, she spent more time trying to feel secure rather than enjoying the ride. On the other hand, she found the V-4 buzz, shall we say, enjoyable, though it could still become tiresome on a marathon ride.
When we tested a 2006 VFR800FI Interceptor (see Rider, June 2006), we averaged 37.6 mpg. With a 5.8-gallon tank, that netted a range of 218 miles. The 58 percent increase in displacement on the VFR1200F is accompanied by a 16 percent decrease in fuel capacity—to 4.9 gallons, and 91 octane is recommended. For this test, the Veefer averaged 34.7 mpg, with a high of 39.4 and a low of 26.5. That works out to an average range of 170 miles, or 130 to 193 miles at the extremes. Perhaps acceptable among sport riders, such limited range is likely to be disappointing to the sport-touring crowd.
But is the VFR1200F a sport tourer? Well, that depends on your point of view. On Honda’s website the VFR is grouped under “Sport” along with the Interceptor and CBR race-replicas; under “Sport Touring” you’ll find the ST1300 and NT700V. But the VFR1200F comes standard with saddlebag mounts, shaft drive and ABS—staple stuff in the sport-touring world but anathema to sportbikers. Nonetheless, it feels stripped down compared to other sport-touring motorcycles, especially given its $15,999 base price. Honda will offer touring accessories, including hard locking saddlebags, top case, tankbag, wind deflectors, grip warmers, 12V socket and centerstand, but many of these items come standard on open-class sport tourers like the Concours 14 and FJR1300, and for less money.
As a former VFR750 owner, I know full well how special the VFR is to Honda and why it has won so many awards and inspired such a cult following. And I also understand why the VTEC Interceptor struggled. With a 27-year legacy, reinvention of the VFR wasn’t easy even though it was necessary. Honda has built a beautiful, powerful, sophisticated motorcycle with exceptional fit and finish, one we really like and that shows enormous potential. Everything about the VFR1200F is new, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t feel as refined as its forebears. It’s like a gangly teenager who grew 3 inches between his freshman and sophomore years. He made the cut for the varsity team, but he hasn’t fully adapted to his bigger feet and larger frame. Honda will refine this bike and then refine its refinements. It will get better. Breaking in new shoes sometimes involves a blister or two…but then you never want to take them off.