MC Test: Honda VFR1200F

The Interceptor grows up

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

Like any of us who've been around for a while, Honda's VFR has changed. Meet one on the street and you'd never guess it was once the VF750F that tossed the sportbike world on its collective head in 1983. There's no hint of Fred Merkel's '85 AMA Superbike Championship, Wayne Rainey's five-straight wins in '86, or the 190-mph RC45 that won eight of 10 races under Miguel DuHamel in '95. Look closely and you can catch a glint of the broadband '98 VFR800. But beyond that three-letter prefix and its basic engine configuration, this VFR bears no resemblance to its illustrious ancestors.

For starters, it's big. Slide it out of the garage into a 5:37 a.m. sunrise and you're straddling 594 pounds of Honda V4 evolution. Chief stylist Toshiaki Kishi's work may be something of an acquired taste, but you can kill a whole cup of coffee watching high-desert light slide across those compound curves and play games with the candy-red paint. A tidy, streamlined dash conveys everything you need to know about what's going on underneath with customary Honda efficiency. We're not so crazy about the extra-large horn button where your left thumb thinks the turn-signal switch should be. But put your right thumb on the starter button and all is forgiven.

A little fly-by-wire throttle brings up the inimitable V4 harmonics: flat, raspy and metallic at idle. That lever on the left bar means this is the standard VFR, complete with a slipper clutch controlled by your left hand instead of the computer in charge of Honda's optional Dual Clutch Transmission. Your left boot commands a six-speed gearbox that goes into first easily enough, but second requires premeditated effort, especially under power. Don't rush or you'll miss it. There's enough driveline lash to make the daily stop-and-go grind more abrasive without a smooth throttle hand. The good news? There's enough power above 2000 rpm to make shifting mostly optional around town. And above 12 mph the whole package feels at least 120 lbs. lighter.

Flowing through downtown traffic like some great red shark, the VFR feels more athletic than it looks. Steering is light; lighter with something less than a full fuel payload. Give it a whiff of digital throttle above 4000 rpm and the big V4 turns here into there without raising its voice. Honda's Combined Braking System and ABS make stopping the proceedings just as easy, modulating the brakes faster and more accurately than the best human circuitry. Doubt it? Once that technology stops you short of the garbage truck that just blew a light in some greasy, rain-soaked intersection, you'll believe. Suspension is somewhat less sophisticated: benevolent enough on any civilized urban surface, but overly enthusiastic-and regrettably non-adjustable -compression damping sends every nasty bump, hole and seam right up your spine.

On the freeway, the Honda feels taut and solid. With 70 mph showing on the speedometer in sixth, the V4 loafs along at 4100 rpm, with just enough mechanical presence to let you know there's an engine down there. Drop down to fifth or fourth if you like. Traffic shrinks rapidly in the crystal-clear rear-view mirrors and the exhaust note goes up an octave or two. Otherwise? No difference. Ergonomics strike an equitable balance between sporting control and long-playing comfort. Rolling into a stiff headwind under black clouds and stinging rain, the VFR's faring bends atmospheric ugliness around you without creating annoying eddies or turbulence of its own. Hand protection could be better and heated grips better still. But after 150 miles, it's all about the things you don't notice-starting with the most comfortable place to sit ever attached to a sporting motorcycle. Our advice to aftermarket makers who think they can build a better seat: Don't waste your time. After 165 miles, the human part of this equation is ready for 165 more, except it's time to start looking for a gas station. The only chink in the VFR's transcontinental armor is range. A prudent right hand can squeeze 210 miles out of its 4.9-gallon fuel payload; beyond that prepare to get off and push. Better to top off before you bite into your favorite cop-forsaken stretch of twisty bits.

Somewhere between the first corner and the third, a couple of things become clear: 1) Some wicked-smart people stayed up past bedtime to make this big boy handle like something smaller; and 2) Not even Honda R&D can repeal the laws of physics. Steering is light, but wick it up when the road starts doubling back on itself and all the weight you lost at 13 mph comes right back. That's no big deal as long as you remember this much motorcycle needs more time and real estate to turn than, say, a CBR100RR. The VFR prefers fast, sweeping corners to cut-and-thrust work, but it will still drop BMW's new K1300S like a bad habit in the tight stuff.

Lucky for you, the VFR's brakes are brilliant. A bit short in terms of initial bite, they're long on predictable linear power and reassuring feel. With two fingers on the lever, stopping power is exactly equal to how hard you squeeze. That same equation holds whether you're scrubbing off speed for the fourth corner of the morning or the 104th. ABS intervention is noticeable-especially on dry, grippy tarmac-but never invasive. Peg-feelers touch down periodically in take-no-prisoners mode, but don't play the cornering-clearance card if you can't keep up with the faster kids. You can't blame the tires either. Dunlop's Roadsmart radials generate as much grip as any sane, skilled human can use on the street.

The VFR is sneaky fast. It has more than enough muscle to smoke that big back tire exiting slow corners if you must, but there's no apoplectic top-end rush. Instead, the V4 lays down useable steam all the way from 3000 rpm to 10,200. Revs rise more rapidly above 7000, making it tough to coax a full-power upshift out of the obstinate six-speed without running into the rev limiter at 10,500. Downshifts are easier, and the slipper clutch is nice, but this bike deserves better. More comfortable than a race-replica supersport and sportier than other sport-tourers, the VFR is a V4-shaped wedge designed to open up a lucrative little niche in between. For those who find themselves somewhere between dragging their knees on the ground and a Modern Maturity subscription, that sounds like one prime location.

Dyno
This kind of rheostatic power usually flows from brushes and magnets, not valves and pistons. The dip at 5000 rpm is EPA-induced leanness and goes largely unnoticed. The challenge is climbing to that 10,000-rpm power peak without tripping over the rev limiter that arrives all too quickly at 10,500.

Tech Spec

Engine type: l-c 76-deg. V-4
Valve train: SOHC, 16v
Displacement: 1237cc Bore x stroke: 81.0 x 60.0mm
Compression: 12.0:1
Fuel system: Keihin EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate slipper
Transmission: 6-speed
Frame: Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension: 43mm Showa inverted cartridge fork
Rear suspension: Showa shock with adjustable spring preload and rebound damping
Front brake: Dual Nissin radial-mount six-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS/CBS
Rear brake: Nissin two-piston caliper, 267mm disc with ABS/CBS
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart
Rake/trail: 25.5º/4.0 in.
Seat height: 32.1 in.
Wheelbase: 60.8 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.9 gal.
Weight: (tank full/empty): 594/565 lbs.
Measured horsepower: 142.1 bhp @ 10,000 rpm
Measured torque: 81.4 lb.-ft. @ 8750 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 10.23 sec. @ 136.82 mph
Top-gear roll-on 60-80 mph: 3.14 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 42/33/38 mpg
Colors: Candy Red
Availability: Now
Warranty: 1 yr., unlimited mi.
Contact: American Honda Motor Corp.
1919 Torrance Blvd.
Torrance, CA 90501
310.783.2000
www.powersports.honda.com

Ergos
The VFR gives up an inch of legroom to BMW's K1300S, but the best seat in sport-touring is more than 3 inches farther away from the bars. The net result offers admirable long-haul comfort without getting in the way of a good time when you're on the gas through the twisty bits.


Aaron Frank

Age: 35
Height: 5'7"
Weight: 145 lbs.
Inseam: 31 in.
The biggest problem with the VFR1200F is that Honda insisted on calling it a VFR. Aside from the vestigial V4 engine, there's little linking this to any Interceptor that came before-which is why the VFR faithful feel so alienated by this machine. Get over it. It's not a hard-core sportbike, but the Viffer hasn't been that since the late '80s when the RC30 (and the CBR Hurricanes) picked up the sporting torch. Just pretend the letters V-F-R don't exist and try to appreciate the 1200 for what it is: a fast, comfortable, gorgeously constructed, high-tech grand-tourer. Maybe Honda would have been better off calling it the Sabre. If you don't like the sound of that, we hear there are plenty of brand-new VFR800s in dealerships...


Tim Carrithers

Age: 51
Height: 6'3"
Weight: 228 lbs.
Inseam: 35 in.
As one ride on the new VFR will tell you, middle age is a mixed bag. Those racy duds the 1986 original wore didn't fit anymore, and it's gained a fair bit of weight. But inline CBRs have been the pointy end of Honda's performance spear for years now and nobody is comfortable in a 24-year-old tracksuit anyway.

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