2002 Honda Interceptor

The quintessential sporty sport-tourer moves, perhaps unwittingly, into the GT category

Way back in 1998, we initiated a shitestorm of biblical proportions by decreeing the Honda Interceptor as the Motorcycle of the Year. Why the fuss? Because that year the Yamaha YZF-R1 debuted, also. There was plenty of reason to buck the trends and anoint the Honda with the purified, bottled, slightly chlorinated water of our blessings; it was (and is) the embodiment of the perfect all-arounder. It's a motorcycle capable of entertaining sporting behavior, yet one that's also comfortable, reliable and so utterly unassuming that you might be lead to believe this whole two-wheeling thing is easy.

You have to understand the context to grasp the decision-making. For '98, Honda produced a dramatically better VFR. (It also officially added the "Interceptor" moniker to the bike, but we still lapse into VFR-speak.) Compared with the outgoing VFR750, the new model was lighter, faster, more powerful and usefully refocused toward the sporting end of the sport-touring segment, which had actually just begun to lift from the sportbike ooze by then. We purpled our prose liberally, and during the VFR800's four-year reign we postulated ad nauseam about the future of the model. Using the "if current trends continue" philosophy, we figured the '02 Interceptor would weigh less than 500 pounds wet, pack 110 horsepower and run like a greyhound with a zip tie around his tender vittles. Which puts our expectations at penthouse level. (It's your fault, Honda, for making the '98 bike so good, you hear?)

Rather than crawl along the projected line of development that extends back to the first VFR of '86, Honda's big thinkers took the '02 Interceptor down a different street. Instead of making it sportier, a crossbreed with the CBR-RR series, the new bike is more a pint-sized GT in the CBR1100XX mold. Instead of refining the technologies already used and popular (or tolerated) on the current model, new ones are introduced. There's a substantially altered 781cc V-four sans gear-driven cams but including a version of Honda's VTEC valve-gear trickery; ABS is new and the linked brakes have been reformulated for more sporting behavior.

In the end, the Interceptor has grown. Our ABS-equipped test bike pushes the cement to the tune of 557 pounds with the larger, 5.8-gallon tank awash in unleaded. That's 42 pounds heavier than the '98 model we tested and 32 pounds fatter than the '00 bike we had. (Our scales show the non-ABS bike to be 14 pounds lighter.) Need we point out that the ABS Interceptor has moved into a new wrestling division beyond all the big-bore nakeds we've tested? Or that the VFR is now porkier than Honda's own CBR-XX (at least the last one we tested)? It's even heavier than the Triumph Sprint ST, which has pudged up a bit over the years. You get the idea.

Rather than crawl along the projected line of development that extends back to the first VFR of '86, Honda's big thinkers took the '02 Interceptor down a different street.

Where did this heft come from? Some here and some there, actually. Honda chose this model cycle to tweak the Interceptor's aluminum, twin-spar frame, though it retains the "pivotless" design intended to give a certain amount of flex. The VFR's trademark Pro Arm single-sided swingarm remains, but it's marginally longer this year; as a result, the bike's wheelbase is 0.7 inches greater, at 57.4 inches. The basic steering geometry is unchanged, with 25.5 degrees of rake and 95mm of trail, and the suspension is made up of essentially the same components as before: a preload-adjustable cartridge fork and a preload/rebound-adjustable shock. Honda has subtly upped the low-speed compression damping at both ends, so the chassis feels more solid and is less prone to pitching fits. Yet the suspension has not sacrificed the Interceptor's traditional plushness; over every road surface you're likely to encounter, the VFR's wheels move with a fluid grace.

Amazingly, the Interceptor wears the same rubber today as in '98. Our test bike came with Dunlop D204s, while some of you might be getting VFRs with Bridgestone BT020s. The 204 was a fine tire four years ago, but its time has come and gone; at least the Dunlops give the Interceptor remarkably light steering and decent small-bump compliance. (As our red test bike is the Butcher's long-termer for the year, we'll be fitting some of those new Dunlop D220 sport-touring radials soon.)

Other chassis changes include the adoption of ABS (a $1000 option) and an altered linked-braking scheme. It used to be that two of the three pistons on each front caliper were triggered through the rear pedal; now only one (on the left caliper) is. The result is a system with more front-brake bias and slightly more natural feel; still, there's a palpable delay between squeezing the lever and feeling the brakes come in. Also, the brakes require a manly squeeze to achieve maximum deceleration. But, overall, you get used to the system's quirks and we're obligated to mention the Interceptor's brakes are actually improved this year and are likely to be literal lifesavers for rusty pilots. Plus, there's the stellar ABS, a setup so seamless, effective and totally devoid of artifacts that BMW ought to be taking notes.

Similar praise might be dispensed in the chassis's direction. All indicators-increased weight, longer wheelbase-point to a less-nimble motorcycle, but the Interceptor runs against the grain like a first-season woodcutter. Compared with the '01 bike, the new VFR seems lighter on its feet and imbued with perfectly neutral, ideally weighted steering. True, the bike will not change directions with the alacrity of a full-on sportbike, but the Interceptor is, as recompense, 100 percent confidence-inspiring and totally adept at allowing an eight-tenths pace all day long.

If the VFR's chassis improvements mark two steps forward, the revamped engine is surely a clip-clop backward. Although architecturally the same as the outgoing powerplant, the new one comes with new heads with a version of Honda's VTEC, a variable-valve scheme that keeps two of the four valves in each combustion chamber closed below 7000 rpm. Honda's use of the "revolutionary" system is ostensibly to bolster low-end torque without sacrificing high-rpm power-an admirable goal. But overlay the dyno graphs of new and old VFR800s and you'll see instead that the new bike has a marked flat spot between 5000 and 7000 rpm. When the VTEC opens the other eight valves, the torque curve shoots up, gaining 5 foot-pounds in 500 rpm. So rather than fulfilling the promise of a beefy, two-valve-per-jug torque curve, VTEC strangles the engine in the midrange and provides a cynical little hit at 7000 rpm to make the engine feel lively. We'd be happy to excuse the additional weight (some of which was countered by the move from gears to chains in the cam drive, at the expense of a genuine acoustical treat) and complexity if the '02 engine were more powerful at any place in the rev range. But it's not, and we don't.

Why would Honda go to so much trouble to, at best, match the peak numbers from the previous engine? Well, the company makes a big stink out of the engine not stinking, that it meets California's '08 emission rules right now. This squeaky-clean engine is made possible by a new, more dense catalyst (for all states, not just California), a revised fuel-injection scheme with Honda's new 12-orifice injectors, iridium-tipped spark plugs fired by cap-style coils, an air-injection system and VTEC. You don't pollute much if the engine is run extremely lean, and the swirl effect VTEC provides-by ingesting air through one of the two intake valves per cylinder, the mixture circles the bowl before it's fired off-permits more reliable combustion at very lean mixtures. The increased cooling capacity (33 percent for the oil, 7 percent for coolant) better rejects the BTUs from this hotter-running engine. And be warned, it does: On a 62-degree day, the engine would top 220 degrees in stop-and-go traffic. Imagine that in Phoenix in July. Here's the deal, though; as enthusiasts, we're less concerned with meeting future smog regulations than having fun now, particularly in light of the fact that modern, catalyst-equipped bikes are already quite eco-friendly. We suspect Power Commanders and dohickeys to work around the VTEC nonsense will be popular aftermarket items for the VFR.

That said, the Interceptor's V-four is still mainly a delightful mill, with a soul-stirring howl near the upper-end of the rev band and sufficient torque down below to earn the title of flexible. This year, the gear ratios in the beautiful six-speed transmission have been juggled, offering tighter spacing in the first three gears and shorter gearing overall. The revised gearing helps to offset the weight gain, so the '02 bike is only about a 0.10-second slower in the quarter-mile and slightly quicker from 60 to 80 mph in top gear. Despite the promise of VTEC and fuel-saving injection programming, our tester returned poorer mileage than the '00 bike.

Running lean or not, the V-four responds to throttle movement with absolute grace; the injection rarely does anything more or less than you expect. Such refinement is a VFR hallmark, as is its wide-ranging capabilities, many of which stem from what could be the perfect ergonomic compromise. It's just sporty enough to be fun, but truly all-day comfortable. The seat is as wonderful as ever, the vibration levels are subdued, and the new fairing provides superb protection with minimal turbulence. Most of us feel Honda's restyle on the bike is a smashing success. The chiseled facade is far more compelling than the previous bike's jellybean profile, though Honda still can't seem to veer into the Aprilia Futura territory of stylistic risk taking.

There's no question Honda is taking a risk of sorts with the new Interceptor by allowing it to move ever deeper into techno-trickery and further from its sporting roots. In the last generation, the Interceptor's accomplishments as a near-super-sport tool you could actually live with every day led us to look down our out-of-kilter editorial schnozes at the YZF-R1 and toss the MOTY trophy into Honda's display case. We were hoping for a big jump in '02, another leap for Interceptor-kind. It was not to be.

|| |---| Honda Interceptor|PRICE MSRP $9999| |ENGINE Type: l-c 90-deg V-four Valve arrangement: dohc, 16v Bore x stroke: 72.0mm x 48.0mm Displacement: 781cc Compression ratio: 11.6:1 Transmission: 6-speed Final drive: #530 chain | |CHASSIS Frame: aluminum alloy twin spar Weight: 557 lb. (wet)/522 lb. (fuel tank empty) Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal. Front: 43mm cartridge fork adjustable for spring preload Rear: single shock adjustable for spring preload and rebound dampingBrake, front: dual three-piston calipers, 296mm disc Brake, rear: single three-piston caliper, 256mm disc Tire, front: 120/70ZR17 Dunlop D204F Tire, rear: 180/55ZR17 Dunlop D204K| |PERFORMANCE Horsepower: 99.1 @ 10,750 rpm Torque: 54.2 ft.-lb. @ 8750 rpm Corrected 1/4-mile*: 11.26 sec. @ 119.50 mph 0-60 mph: 3.37 sec. 0-100 mph: 7.80 sec. Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 5.07 sec. Fuel mileage (low/high/average): 25/45/34 | |*Performance with test-session weather conditions corrected to sea-level standard conditions (59 degrees F, 29.92 in. of mercury)|

|||| |---|---|---| CHEERS AND JEERS|Engine|7|Loads of character, not enough punch| |Drivetrain|9|Peerless, smooth, refined| |Handling|8|Really good despite the heft| |Braking|8|Improved front/rear balance, great ABS| |Ride|9|Firmer this year, still plenty compliant| |Ergonomics|10|Best sport/tour compromise or what?| |Features|9|Gizmos and gadgets, mostly useful| |Refinement|9|Sans VTEC, this could be a 10| Value8Dearer this year, too close to the Euros?|Fun Factor|8|If you're into the cerebral, you'll dig it| verdict: Still great all-arounder remains at the top of the class mainly because it's the only one in the class.

Off the Record

Josh Norem--Associate Editor

Whenever a bike this famous goes under the knife and emerges with so many new parts, expectations are enormous.Frankly the new VFR doesn't live up to them. It's not that the bike does anything wrong really-I think its the best sport-touring bike on the market. The problem is I expected the bike to be more powerful and basically better in every way than the old bike, and it's not. From the saddle it feels almost exactly the same, sans the gear whine, which I actually miss. VTEC? It reminds me of those "turbo" buttons found on older computers-push it and a light comes on, but there's no discernable effect. It seems the only major improvement is the bodywork and the increased stiffness of the frame and swingarm. Other than that, it's hard to tell this bike from the old one. -Josh Norem

Mitch Boehm--Editor in Chief

I'm not sure who here said this, but it's true: VFR fans are gonna like the new Interceptor despite the gimmicky VTEC and overt porkiness. That's me, and I'm basically OK with it. Still, I am tormented. Although part of the 2002 package is an improvement, part isn't. And the frustrating thing is that the part that isn't (the motor) didn't need to be. I understand Honda's desire to be "green"; pacifying Europe's socialist/wacko-environmental bureaucracy is probably a good political and economic move, and this is primarily a Euro bike. But to hamstring what's arguably the best all-around sport motorcycle in existence just to do so is, I think, a tragedy. Cleaner emissions or not, the new-generation VFR needed 110 horsepower and to be no heavier than the '88 iteration to have retained its defacto title of best all-arounder on earth. It didn't, and it doesn't. -Mitch Boehm

Now you know why this isn't a naked bike. Honda is concerned with mass centralization but the packaging borders on the obsessive. Gaining access to the engine was not trivial on the old bike, and it's no easier now.
Honda's motorcycle VTEC deactivates valves with an oil-propelled pin. You can hear the clatter at 7000 rpm.
The 2001 Interceptor's torque curve is bulkier than the '02 bike's between 5000 and 7000 rpm. Note how the VTEC engine's torque trace jumps as the other eight valves come open at 7000 rpm. At least this trick makes the bike feel fast. Woo hoo.