Road Test Review
Honda has unleashed so many new motorcycle models recently that one wonders where dealerships are going to put them all. The company is on a mission to convert flocks of the uninitiated into happy motorcyclists. As a result many of its new bikes—NM4, NC700, CTXs, etc.—have unorthodox styling and very beginner-friendly features and states of tune. In fact, at their press introductions we’re often reminded that these motorcycles are “not for us,” meaning not for the journalists in attendance, who tend to be veteran enthusiasts with more traditional tastes.
We got no such reminder at the launch of the new Honda VFR800 Interceptor, which is back for 2014 to help fill the gap between hard-edged sportbikes and heavier sport-touring machines. Last seen for 2009, the VFR800 is still right up our alley, a classic enthusiast’s sport and sport-touring motorcycle that strikes just the right balance for many riders among performance, handling and comfort. Now it has more of all three.
At the heart of the Interceptor is the liquid-cooled, 90-degree V-4 that has its roots in the first modern superbike, the 1983 VFR750F Interceptor, and has received continuous refinement since, including the watershed VFR800FI for 1998. For its last major makeover in 2002, Honda finally copped to the bike’s sport-touring role by offering optional hard saddlebags. Silent-type chains replaced the gears driving the dual overhead camshafts, updates were made to the fuel injection, ignition, cooling systems and clutch, and the angular styling took a turn away from the sexy NR750-like appearance of the 1998 model.
The bike also gained about 38 pounds with a larger fork, fuel tank, fairing and windscreen, longer single-sided swingarm and optional ABS. This was also the year the Interceptor added VTEC, or Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control, which broadened the powerband by keeping two of the four valves closed until 7,000 rpm, when the other two open with a surge of power. VTEC had its share of detractors who felt the transition was too abrupt, especially when it occurred in corners.
Honda gave the 2006 VFR800 a few styling tweaks and softened the VTEC transition slightly by lowering the point at which it occurred to 6,400 rpm, but that wasn’t enough to keep the bike from going away after 2009 for a complete rehab. At first blush the 2014 model doesn’t seem all that different, but a closer look reveals that Honda has been just as busy with the Veefer as it has with its other new bikes.
Instead of flanking the engine the two radiators are stacked in front now, allowing Honda to narrow the newly styled fairing by 1.5 inches, and it feels like a lot more from the saddle. Note the return of the NACA duct from the 1998 model in the back of the fairing, too. Both the taillight and catty new X-shaped headlight with accent lights are LED, and the front turn signals were moved into the mirrors. Wheels are new 10-spoke fine-cast items with a special bronze finish that is shared by several engine covers and the handlebar, and the new instrument package features a central tachometer flanked by digital displays including a gear-position indicator, MPG readout, ambient air temperature gauge and clock. Riders can still swap the pillion seat and grab rails for the included solo seat cover, which creates some storage space underneath.
For many VTEC will only be a plus when it becomes undetectable, so Honda put an emphasis on low to midrange torque in the 2014 model and further tweaked the cam timing and VTEC settings to make the surge of power more linear—nearly undetectable—except for the wail coming from the airbox when all four valves begin to open. Other changes like longer intake funnels, revised exhaust ports and a lighter, shorter new 4-2-1 exhaust contribute to a nice bump in torque output between 3,400 rpm and 6,400—where VTEC begins to kick in—and smoother power curves. On the Jett Tuning dyno the 2014 Interceptor made 98.3 horsepower peak at the rear wheel at 10,000 rpm (about 700 rpm lower than our last test bike—redline is at 12,000) and 54 lb-ft of torque at 8,400, with more than 80 percent of it on tap from 3,400 to 11,300 rpm.
This broad spread of power makes the VFR extremely easy to ride down low, around town and in tight canyons where you can pretty much leave it in third gear, yet it has plenty of kick on top for sheer speed. The engine still offers that wonderful ripping-velvet feel typical of the Honda V-4, though it could use a little more tone from the exhaust to complete the sensation. The bike runs on regular gas, and its good fuel economy gives it great range from the 5.6-gallon tank. It shifts like a Swiss watch too, with smooth, linear clutch engagement, and this year Honda offers an optional quick shifter.
Chassis improvements include a lighter new cast-aluminum subframe that replaces the former steel tube design, and a redesigned Pro-Arm single-sided swingarm with a cast-in brace. It still pivots off the back of the engine rather than on the twin-spar aluminum frame for better ride comfort and handling. The sporty seating position is relatively unchanged, with footpegs that are high and rearset, and hand grips that are low and close together but well above the triple clamp instead of below. At five-foot, 10 inches tall with a 29-inch inseam I found the bike reasonably comfortable on long rides; taller riders might experience less weight on their wrists but more leg bend. The new adjustable seat has almost 3 inches of padding and is narrower in front, so even with it in the higher position I could easily plant both feet on the ground at stops, and it can be lowered (with a hex wrench and some patience) about .8 inch.
For the first time Honda will offer bar risers for the Interceptor that raise the grips about .5 inch and move them back about .25 inch, and I would definitely get them along with the optional larger windscreen to potentially cut down on wind noise. Long-distance riders will also want to opt for the Interceptor DLX model, which adds heated grips, a centerstand, self-canceling turn signals, traction control you can turn off and ABS brakes, plus damping adjustability for the cartridge fork and a remote rear spring preload adjuster. Many of these things are optional on the base model as well, along with a color-matched, 33-liter top trunk, rear carrier and locking hard saddlebags, the mounts for which are nicely integrated into the tailsection now.
The effort Honda has made to shave weight from the VFR’s exhaust and chassis has paid off, as our DLX weighed 23 pounds less than our last Interceptor ABS test bike. Additional weight savings took place in the more compact and centralized ABS on the 2014 DLX model, and Honda also went back to unlinked brakes this year. The triple discs with new radial-mount calipers up front stop the bike incredibly well, and both the front brake and clutch levers are adjustable.
If I had a gripe about the 2014 Interceptor DLX it would be with the suspension, which can’t be softened-up enough in back for solo commuting in comfort. The comfortable seat helps, but even with the preload backed off all the way and the rebound damping set to light, the bike pounded me on some our bumpy freeways and backroads. It works quite well for sport riding of course, and complements the bike’s precise handling with terrific compliance and control, but some more range on the soft side would be appreciated.
Otherwise, no matter where you ride the Interceptor, it works very well—like the Ginsu knife of motorcycles, whether it’s blitzing through the canyons or slogging the freeway up to the races. This is a touring guy’s sportbike and a sportbike guy’s touring machine, with plenty of power and handling for sport riding, even the occasional track day, and satisfactory comfort for sport touring. It shows that Honda’s core competency is still building motorcycles that veteran enthusiasts can appreciate, bikes that are most definitely “for us.”