After three days chasing Honda's VFR1200F up and down the length of Japan, attending the new model release at Tokyo Motor Show then traveling 600 miles south to Kumamoto where the all-new VFR will be built, we finally got our first ride on the bike today in the north of Japan at Sugo Circuit. It was well worth the wait.
Honda's remarkable Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT), debuting on this model, could very well change the future of high-performance sport motorcycles. The DCT-equipped VFR is unlike any automatic-shifting motorcycle we've ridden before, because it doesn't use an automatic transmission. Instead it uses a conventional six-speed gearbox equipped with two independent clutches that engage and disengage in harmony to effect instant, undetectable shifts in either direction. It's the same technology used Formula One race cars, and it works so well that it will change the way that you think about shifting motorcycles forever.
The DCT-equipped VFR has no clutch lever or shift lever. (DCT is optional; the VFR1200F is also offered with a conventional six-speed transmission and manual clutch). Instead, thumb and forefinger levers located on the left-hand switchgear let you manually paddle shift, or you can choose a full automatic mode and let the bike shift itself. A 32-bit ECM monitors both front and rear wheel speed sensors, plus a throttle position sensor and a crank speed sensor in order to decide when to change gears in the automatic mode.
On the racetrack, DCT is flat-out amazing. Exiting Sugo's wicked-tight, first-gear chicane leading onto the front straight, you can pin the throttle to the stop and let bike works upward through the transmission like a Swiss timepiece all the way to the other end. Even at wide-open throttle, shifts are essentially undetectable and impossibly fast. Quickness isn't the only benefit; the DCT changes gears without interrupting power transfer to the driveline, to radically improve chassis stability. No matter how smooth you operate a conventional clutch-or even if you use an aftermarket quickshifter-the act of shifting unavoidably creates unwanted weight transfer that translates into chassis instability. This is especially problematic when you are leaned over on the edge of the tire, where traction is at a premium. DCT almost completely eliminates this unstablizing input so that the bike can safely upshift under power-even at extreme lean angles-without compromising traction.
Set in full-auto mode, the DCT delivers perfect shifting every time. Upshifts occur exactly at the power peak, and downshifts are eerily imperceptible thanks to precise rev matching enabled by the VFR1200's new, all-electronic, throttle-by-wire system. Riders who insist on executing each shift individually can choose a "manual" setting utilizing trigger shifters to choose your own shift point, but believe me, it's hard to outsmart this computer. Using the triggers to shift ultimately seemed like more effort with little to no gain in actual speed or performance.
Flawless performance says everything about how precisely the DCT is calibrated. The computer "understands" exactly how throttle position relates to wheel speed, so it doesn't unexpectedly downshift midcorner when you're trailing throttle and it won't upshift too early when you're asking for wide-open throttle, spoiling your drive. The DCT even acts as passive traction control; when you spin up the rear tire and the difference between front and rear wheel speed becomes too great, the DCT will short-shift to a higher gear and get the spin back under control. Bottom line: DCT is the real deal. There is a perfectly good reason that the Formula 1 racers-the ultimate earthbound performance vehicles-use dual-clutch transmissions. They allow you to ride faster than before, and the VFR1200F is no exception.
Honda VFRs were once built to rule the racetrack, but the VFR1200F is a different animal compared to Viffers of the past. This model has been getting softer for years, and F1-inspired transmission aside, the VFR1200F treads deeper into GT territory than ever before. With more than 60 inches separating the axles and more than 600 pounds pulling the machine toward terra firma, you'll never confuse this machine for a modern CBR. It feels smaller than that from the saddle, however, so low and skinny through the middle that even my 5'7" frame could easily stand over the bike flat-footed.
Firm, finely calibrated Showa suspension resists braking and acceleration-induced weight transfer so well that at the racetrack you'll soon find yourself riding this big bike much harder than its engineers ever intended. It's not until you have to stop or turn this big boy that you get a reality check. The VFR1200F has many attributes, but cornering clearance is not one. It buries the pegs early and often, making Sugo's tighter turns real eye-openers. OEM Dunlop Roadsmart tires, good for approximately three laps before they turn to goo, didn't help matters much. To be fair, however, we were riding a fast, heavy bike in racing conditions, far beyond its intended usage.
Track riding likewise stressed the braking system. The VFR1200F is equipped with Honda's standard, mechanical-actuated Combined-ABS anti-lock system, not the more advanced Electronic C-ABS found on Honda's latest, track-ready CBRs. That's a shame, because the combination of high speeds, heavy braking and greasy tires had the VFR ABS abruptly engaging at the end of both of Sugo's long straights. Given the VFR's overall high-tech spec the Electronic ABS would seem a better fit, but we understand Honda didn't want the added weight or cost of the electronic system on what is already a heavy, expensive motorcycle.
Both in terms of architecture and technology, this new 1200cc V4 borrows heavily from the RC211V MotoGP racer. We're won't go into too much detail here (look forward to the real first-ride report in the January '09 issue of our print magazine), but know that the larger displacement and added power very much suits the character of this new machine. It's not overwhelmingly powerful (butt dyno says around 140 RWHP, not quite on the level of a 1340cc Suzuki Hayabusa, or even the benchmark BMW K1300S), but the VFR1200F is plenty strong, with an absolutely proper big-bore V4 characteristic that are strong off the bottom and with a killer, 7000-rpm rush that maintains nicely all the way to the top of the tach.
And the rest of the bike is built to suit: The new VFR is ripped with curb appeal. The styling is decidedly Japanese, and the bike looks brilliant up close. The tall, sculpted tank especially has a lot of dimension, and two-tone paint emphasizes the "layered" elements of the upper and lower fairing that improves both engine cooling and riding comfort. The look is pure luxe, with deep paint, rich metal finishes on the frame and engine, and a high-quality finish that befits what we can only imagine will be a premium price. American Honda officials haven't confirmed pricing yet, but have suggested that it will be close to competitive products like the $17,995 BMW K1300S.
The sophisticated feel continues once you climb on. The 4.9-gallon tank is tall and broad but easy to wrap your legs around, and the medium-rise are positioned well below the lip of the windscreen, creating the sensation of a open, roomy cockpit. Air management is excellent-the windscreen is vented at the base to create a smooth flow of air over your shoulders, even approaching 145 mph at the end of Sugo's front straight. The engine is essentially invisible at idle. There is virtually no vibration, and the massive, fin-shaped muffler almost mutes the motor at lower revs. The new motor is smoother by spades and it even sounds different too, with a flatter drone that almost recalls a very smooth-running boxer twin.
I can count on one hand-OK, on two fingers-how many times in the last ten years I've ridden a motorcycle that's really made me step back and fundamentally reconsider all I thought that I knew about riding motorcycles. Today marked the third time-Honda's new Dual Clutch Transmission is that different, and that effective. The racetrack wasn't the best place to fully evaluate such an all-around sportbike like the VFR, but a brief, 20-minute "street ride" on the access roads surrounding Sugo Circuit at the end of the day gave just enough of a glimpse into the all-around character of the new VFR1200F to suggest that this new model is more than just an over-achieving gearbox, and a few more sexy-sounding acronyms cluttering up a press kit. This is one machine we'll very much look forward to revisiting back in the real world-we'll only have to wait until early March, when the very first production models finally make their way stateside.