Honda VFR800 Interceptor | ROAD TEST

Return of the All-Day Sportbike

They say: Refined performance for today’s rider. We say: Refinement goes before performance.

Prepare yourself. This is a motorcycle you might just not get. Stand and stare at the specs. Ninety-four horsepower in a 536-pound package with a price tag on the far side of $12,000—let’s call it $13,500 if you’re buying smart. Cast your eye along its shapely but unadorned flanks, coated in a so-last-year red or a subtle/lovely pearl white. See the Honda Interceptor as either a somewhat underpowered sportbike or a sport-touring machine with slightly aggressive ergonomics. Not fish. Not fowl. What, then?

We understand your confusion and sometimes share it. The young guns around here sniff twice, tails pointed, and then move on to something with tire-searing horsepower as their chew toy. Silverbacks stretch creaky spines and say, “I remember when the VFR came out,” as they’re transported back to simpler times with better joints and sharper vision. They stare into space, awakened only by the buzz of the espresso machine.

There’s not much opinion in between, to tell the truth, and Honda knows that. Rather than aim for the stars—or some facsimile of the “new rider” every manufacturer covets—as it did with the VFR1200, this “remake” of the VFR800, called just Interceptor, is for the faithful, the riders who want this specific combination of long-range comfort and sportbike capabilities. It’s a conflicting and difficult balance to achieve: retain just enough refined performance to be entertaining and be just accommodating enough that a day in the saddle is a joy, not a hardship.

Color-matched, 29-liter hard saddlebags are an official Honda Accessories option. They require no additional brackets and are keyed to the bike’s ignition. The set runs $950 in red or $975 in white.

Honda is designing machines conservatively these days, at least from the development-cost perspective. Which is why the Interceptor’s frame and engine carry over largely unchanged from the previous VFR. Beneath the plastic is the familiar 782cc, 90-degree V-4 that appeared in 2002, replete with ordinary chain-driven cams (the previous engine serenaded you with gear-driven cams) and Honda’s controversial VTEC. As before, the Interceptor version of VTEC simply disables two of the four valves in each cylinder below 6,800 rpm on the premise that two-valve engines work better at low rpm than four valvers.

This year, Honda gave the VFR new intake-cam profiles that boost torque around the 6,800-rpm VTEC-activation point to help disguise the technology. (Yes, we have the same question: Why not dump it altogether?) As you can see from the dyno, that pre-VTEC dip remains, though it’s easier to detect on the dyno than out in the wild and so is much improved from before.

This sweet-sounding V-4 hangs from a twin-spar alloy frame that’s identical to the previous bike’s, though it does carry a new cast-aluminum subframe instead of a steel-tube affair. It can do that because the exhaust system is now a rational single low pipe instead of the heavy, heat-tossing under-seat assembly it had before. An underbody bulge houses the catalyst, which helps keep its weight and heat generation low in the chassis, away from your tender bits. All the important stats like rake, trail, and wheelbase are the same.

A series of seemingly minor changes really improves the VFR experience. Radial-mount Tokico calipers munch hard on 310mm discs.

When you consider the last VFR was designed in the late 1990s, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the new machine get much more up-to-date running gear. Radial-mount Tokico calipers grace the fork, which only looks like it is an upside-down model. This Showa has conventional 43mm stanchions, cartridge damping control, and is adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping—but only on the Deluxe model (more on that later). At the rear is a Showa shock with adjustable preload and rebound damping; the Deluxe model gets a remote preload adjuster. Either model benefits from a revised single-sided swingarm with increased torsional rigidity, slightly increased spring rates, and all-new 10-spoke, cast-aluminum wheels. Also on the Deluxe model, the Tokico calipers are backed up by an effective ABS (alas, it’s non-defeatable) and run un-linked.

A casting change to the single-sided swingarm increases torsional rigidity.

Honda didn’t stop the rework with the major hardware, either. The entire fairing is new, featuring an X-styled, all-LED headlight and considerably narrower flanks, possible because the previously side-mounted radiators have been moved to where everyone else on the planet puts them: in front of the engine. (We noticed that the new VFR runs cooler than the old.)

A list of the changes might lead you to think the Interceptor has changed dramatically. Not so much in the flesh. It’s a familiar shape and size, a really pleasant change from the often over-large ADV machines. A bit bigger and thicker in the middle than a current sportbike, sure, but the Interceptor looks and feels “right sized.” Throw a leg over and you’ll suspect the saddle is all-day comfortable (it is) and that the ergonomics walk a fine line between racer-committed and sit-up tour-y (they do). All the styling updates make the bike appear modern if not exactly cutting edge. Honda’s insistence that the Interceptor’s target audience eschews body graphics—on their bikes, anyway—is the reason.

Twin, stacked radiators replace the pair of sidesaddle coolers from the previous VFR, slimming the fairing.

Honda’s little V-4 sounds quiet, smooth, and small. Throttle response is excellent in almost every condition, predictable and civilized even without ride by wire—a small amount of suddenness at low revs joins a bit of driveline lash to make up the only real fault in the delivery. And it sounds utterly fantastic. A 90-degree V-4 has a delightful, distinctive cadence, and it’s fully borne out here. If the VTEC clatter were absent, it would be perfect. Plus, next to most fours, this thing is whipped-cream smooth. It’s also geared tall; in sixth, 70 mph nets just a tick over 5,000 rpm, where the engine feels positively serene. Perfect for putting on the big miles.

If you’re looking for big smiles, you’ll need more revs. Keep the engine in the VTEC zone and above for that. You’ll feel power starting to get serious by 7,000 rpm with a nice, predictable build right toward the 12,000-rpm redline. True, the engine will happily lug from near-idle rpm, but it’s not making much power until all 16 valves come to play.

Revisions to the Interceptor’s intake cams—they have 6 degrees more duration and open 3 degrees earlier—help fill in the torque curve around VTEC activation. Still, 94 hp isn’t exactly stunning.

Raw numbers don’t do the engine justice. Our Dynojet dyno plots a peak of just 94.3 hp at 10,000 rpm with a middling 52.4 pound-feet of torque at 8,300 rpm. That’s less than a Ducati Hyperstrada—whose 821cc V-twin makes 97.8 hp and 58.9 pound-feet of torque. Your average GSX-R750 is nearly 30 hp clear at about the same peak torque. So it’s no surprise that the impressions from the saddle are closer to, “Ah, that’s nice,” than, “Holy cow, this thing is fast!” At least the Honda’s superb transmission makes all that shifting a pleasurable task. We’re a lot less enamored of Honda’s traction control, which is too conservative and takes far too long to give control back to the rider. After a suitable amount of experimentation, we switched it off at every engine start.

In case the Interceptor’s moderate riding position is just too aggressive for you, try Honda’s $120 handlebar riser plate set. They hike the grips up 13mm and back 6mm from the standard setup. Ahhhh.

If Honda’s engine work provides only small improvements, the chassis updates are far more effective. Suspension rates are a fine compromise, smooth over pebbly-rough pavement but still firm enough to keep chassis motions largely in check—meaning you get the firmness you like in a sportbike but with the nastiest pavement wrinkles ironed smooth. While the Interceptor isn’t light—536 pounds for the Deluxe model, full of gas—it doesn’t feel heavy once underway. Steering is a compromise. It’s never fingertip light or flickable in the way of a supersport, but the VFR turns in positively and holds a line tenaciously. You can whomp on the newly powerful brakes without the chassis wanting to stand up and change your trajectory. Watch lean angles with some care because the long footpeg feelers will touch even at a street pace. Truly, the VFR seems happiest at a “gentleman’s” pace, meaning smooth but decisive inputs, an early choice of line, and careful consideration of gear selection to stay in the heart of the powerband.

If you find yourself on straight, boring roads between your playgrounds of choice, no problem. The VFR abides. There’s just enough wind protection to ease fatigue but not enough to make it feel stuffy in summer. As mentioned, the riding position is just about the perfect compromise: compact and slightly aggressive but not committed. If you owned a non-GSX-R sportbike in the 1990s, you’ll recognize the sensation. If you’ve grown too old since then, be happy that Honda will sell riser plates to move the bars 13mm up and 6mm back. We averaged 44 mpg, so 5.6 gallons of unleaded should take you almost 250 miles.

Believe it or not, the new Interceptor comes “pre-wired” for a quickshifter. All you need to add is the hardware for just $300. We’re super eager to test an Interceptor equipped with this option.

Permit us to offer some consumer advice here: Avoid the base Interceptor. It costs $12,499, which puts it just above the Ninja 1000 ABS. The Interceptor you want is the Deluxe, for $1,000 more. It includes ABS and on-the-fly switchable traction control (whose button is shamefully tacked on), heated grips, adjustable fork, remotely adjustable shock, centerstand, and self-canceling turn signals. With the base bike, you lose all of that, meaning you have no fork adjustments and have to whip out a wrench to change rear preload. If you go to Honda’s accessory list and begin adding back those features, you’ll be only halfway through before you get to the Deluxe’s price.

It’s obvious that Honda listened to devoted Interceptor owners before embarking on a substantial, if not exactly overwhelming, rework of the VFR. It’s refined and improved without moving away from the core strengths that have made it a modest (though enduring) success. Will the new Interceptor seduce riders who never considered a VFR before? Maybe not, especially for those who put stock in specs. But for the VFR fan, this version is like finding a brand-new set of your favorite jeans at the back of the closet: not the latest fashion but something you’re happy to slip into.

TECH SPEC

2014 HONDA INTERCEPTOR DELUXE
Price $13,499
Engine type l-c 90° V-4
Valve train DOHC, 16v
Displacement 782cc
Bore x stroke 72.0 x 48mm
Compression ratio 11.8:1
Fuel system EFI
Clutch Wet, multi-plate
Transmission 6-speed
Frame Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension Showa 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping
Rear suspension Showa shock adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping
Front brake Dual Tokico four-piston calipers, 310mm discs with ABS
Rear brake Tokico two-piston caliper, 256mm disc with ABS
Front tire 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax
Rear tire 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax
Rake/trail 25.5°/3.7 in.
Wheelbase 57.4 in
Seat height 31.0/31.8 in.
Fuel capacity 5.6 gal
Weight (tank full/empty) 536/502 lbs
Corrected 1/4-mile 11.69 sec. @ 119.55 mph
Top gear roll-on 60-80 mph
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg) 52/40/44 mpg
Colors Pearl White, Red
Available Now
Warranty 12 month, unlimited miles
Contact powersports.honda.com

Off The Record

MARC COOK
EDITOR IN CHIEF
AGE: 51
HEIGHT: 5'9"
WEIGHT: 185 lb.
INSEAM: 32 in.

I’m the guy who pretty much hated the previous Interceptor, from its clattery, torque-robbing VTEC to its heavy, high-mount exhaust. Loved the styling—at least the front end—but always thought instead of what it could have been. In fact, I’ve gone on record saying that when Honda makes a lightweight, 1,000cc version with really good suspension and brakes, and no VTEC, I would buy one. At retail. From an actual dealer.

My money is safe. Today’s Interceptor is a better motorcycle, but it’s a matter of too little coming too late. I have ridden the modern Aprilia Tuono V4R and the BMW S1000R—not exactly in the same category but close enough in money and a world away in performance. I am smitten with the KTM 990 SM-T—basically the same money, 55 pounds lighter, 16 pound-feet more torque, vastly better suspension. There was a time when a sub-500-pound, 110-hp VFR would have got me weak in the knees. No longer. I’ve moved on.

ZACK COURTS
ASSOCIATE EDITOR
AGE: 30
HEIGHT: 6'2"
WEIGHT: 190 lb.
INSEAM: 34 in.

Being a relatively young buck I don’t have any experience with the old VFR, so I can’t say how this one compares to the Interceptors of yesteryear. But in a lot of ways this bike seems to fall clumsily on both sides of the fence. For the young at heart there’s a sporty riding position and visceral engine noise, but then where are the HRC graphics and superbike exhaust note? On the flip side, if you like the mature paint schemes and mellow power delivery then I’ll wager you will want higher bars and lower footpegs.

Don’t get me wrong; this new VFR is a useable and fun motorcycle. It’s just not as interesting as a V-4 with this much pedigree should be; where’s the noise, color, and feel of a superbike-inspired sport-tourer? It seems like Honda tried to appeal to too many sensibilities and in doing so left out the really juicy pieces of motorcycling that keep us coming back.

The Green Menace

We would love to have pitted the new Interceptor against its most natural competitor: the BMW F800GT. But BMW doesn’t have one in the test fleet this year, and we’re not about to make hard comparisons without both bikes present. So we trotted out the Kawasaki Ninja 1000 ABS, a bike very much in the Interceptor realm. And while it has a larger four-cylinder engine, it’s actually cheaper. At $11,999 with ABS, the Ninja is a real bargain. In terms of raw power, the Ninja smacks the Interceptor around, with more torque everywhere and greater peak power. The inline four is a bit moan-y next to the delightfully guttural V-4, and the Kawasaki’s suspension lacks some refinement compared to the Honda’s. But the Ninja also has a more upright riding position, the same kind of no-brackets hard luggage option, and modern traction control that you’re likely to leave switched on.

If you were brand agnostic, didn't have styling preferences, and thought performance was the number-one feature, the decision is simple: Get the Kawasaki. But it's also more boyish—in part from the cartoony shapes and eye-watering green (a bright blue is also available this year)—and antsy, for lack of a better term. It's your same-age buddy after a case of Red Bull. Great fun in the city, but you might not want to tour with him. —Marc Cook

Twin, stacked radiators replace the pair of sidesaddle coolers from the previous VFR, slimming the fairing.
A casting change to the single-sided swingarm increases torsional rigidity.
Revisions to the Interceptor’s intake cams—they have 6 degrees more duration and open 3 degrees earlier—help fill in the torque curve around VTEC activation. Still, 94 hp isn’t exactly stunning.
Believe it or not, the new Interceptor comes “pre-wired” for a quickshifter. All you need to add is the hardware for just $300. We’re super eager to test an Interceptor equipped with this option.
Color-matched, 29-liter hard saddlebags are an official Honda Accessories option. They require no additional brackets and are keyed to the bike’s ignition. The set runs $950 in red or $975 in white.
Honda lets you go full-on touring geek with a 33-liter color-matched top trunk for $375 in red or $400 in white. Add a trunk liner for $95. Similar saddlebag liners run $130 for the set.
In case the Interceptor’s moderate riding position is just too aggressive for you, try Honda’s $120 handlebar riser plate set. They hike the grips up 13mm and back 6mm from the standard setup. Ahhhh.
A series of seemingly minor changes really improves the VFR experience. Radial-mount Tokico calipers munch hard on 310mm discs.