VFR1200F – launch report

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A little over a week ago CMG had its first short street ride on the VFR1200F, but if you want to know how the VFR1200F handles on both the track and a road course, then sit back, pour a scotch and enjoy Andy Downes’ report from Japan (courtesy of Motorcycle News) ….

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Words: Andy Downes. Pics: Honda


A little over a week ago CMG had its first short street ride on the VFR1200F, but if you want to know how the VFR1200F handles on both the track and a road course, then sit back, pour a scotch and enjoy Andy Downes’ report from Japan (courtesy of Motorcycle News) ….


A DAY AT THE TRACK

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Andy Downes is impressed.

After a day at Japan’s Sugo race track and riding the sinuous roads criss-crossing the circuit complex, I came away deeply impressed by the 1,137cc, shaft-driven, V-four sports tourer. It’s slick, composed, supremely comfortable and quite possibly the easiest bike to ride fast yet made.

The V-four has a vast spread of torque, the suspension is compliant enough to smooth out road imperfections yet firm enough to cope with fast riding, and the wind protection is class-leading.

A Suzuki Hayabusa or Kawasaki ZX-14 or BMW K1300S would be able to match — or even beat — the VFR’s cross-country pace for an hour or so, but then their riders would tire. The VFR1200F rider would be able to keep up the pace all day. This combination of crushing speed with sumptuous comfort is, on the basis of one day’s riding, unmatched.

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It’s weighty but the VFR carries it low.

And the new VFR manages all this without that ruthlessly efficient, anodyne feeling of some of the best Hondas. When the motor hits 7,500rpm you get a gutteral V-four drone that’s impossible to dislike.

So it’s good. But what about the weight? With a hefty 267 kg kerb weight, I was expecting a bit of a strain to lift it off the sidestand, but Honda’s engineers must have placed that weight very low because I wasn’t struck by any excessive feeling of its bulk at all.

And when we head out on track — an apparently odd choice of venue to launch a lardy sports tourer — it’s the same story. My first outing is a 25-minute session lead by ex-GP rider Tohru Ukawa, who thankfully keeps the pace sedate as I learn the 2.3-mile circuit.

But it only takes seconds before the VFR surprises me. As I head down the pitlane access road I tip the bike into a right-hand bend and immediately have to sit it up again as it drops into the turn far faster than I anticipated.

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BMW’s K1300S is lighter but comes across feeling less so and less nimble to boot.

It takes another half a lap to stop doing that on tighter corners. The VFR1200F might be big, but it is by no means unwieldy. Suddenly the race track launch doesn’t seem so rash.

Composed handling

Compared to the BMW K1300S the VFR feels lighter (even though it’s heavier), and much more nimble. The BMW is longer and definitely feels like it. Both are stable, but where the BMW can feel numb as a result of the Duolever front suspension, the VFR feels supple and reactive. It’s another reason the Honda never feels dull, despite its overwhelming competence.

The BMW K1300R long-term test bike I’m running this year is certainly a fine-handler, but the VFR feels like a magic carpet in comparison. Even compared to the brilliant KTM 990 SMT I rode 1,000 miles in 24 hours on, the VFR stands out because of its composure.

vfr1200f_ride_front.jpgA deceptively fast road bike.

Obviously this is no sports bike and it proved too soft for the track once the pace increased, but it could still hold its own at the back of a fast group on a track day.

Later in the day we headed out onto a road course — a tortuous mix of bumpy hairpins and faster straights — in the grounds of the Sugo track. What had been a down point on track — the soft suspension — suddenly became a plus on road as both the front and rear end stayed planted over the rough surfaces.

Combined with the V-four’s torque, this makes the Honda a deceptively fast road bike. With the suspension dealing with poor surfaces and the engine driving hard from 2,000 rpm to the 10,500 rpm redline I found myself riding very fast on the closed roads with minimal effort. Only a direct comparison with other sports tourers will confirm this, but I don’t believe they can compete.

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New motor is smooth.

At idle the V-four is beautifully smooth and pulls cleanly and rapidly through the rev range, apart from a slight flat-spot at about 3,500 rpm. The engine makes a mellow drone, and gets louder at 7,500 rpm as the butterfly valve in the upper exhaust pipe opens up. This same valve pops open on start-up to give a little flare of revs before closing again.

Out on track the throttle response is perfect and even on Sugo’s really tight final hairpin the engine pulls cleanly at just 3,000 rpm in second gear. The engine’s flexibility means adjusting your style if you’re used to supersport bikes — where you would be using all of the revs on an inline four-cylinder motor to drive out of turns, the VFR preferred the next gear up to utilize the torque.

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Shaftdrive is well engineered and feels like a chain.

Amazingly, the shaft drive is not an issue. It’s so bloody good I actually forgot it had one. By simply off-setting the pivot point from the output drive, Honda have managed to make it feel like a chain. Admittedly there is some audible transmission whine at low speeds but once on the move there’s nothing to suggest a shaft is driving the rear wheel.

Aerodynamic fairing

The VFR may have a clever dual-layer fairing, but the only time this becam apparent was at low speed in the pitlane when the huge heat built up on track was kept away from my legs and face, even with the cooling fan blowing at full speed. We’ll need a longer test to see if there are any other benefits.

Brakes

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Six pot calipers come with ABS.

The VFR has linked brakes with ABS (though not the sophisticated C-ABS system on the Fireblade). The front’s six piston calipers have phenomenal power, though it took a couple of ill-judged late braking attempts at the end of the main straight to activate the ABS system.

Comfort and finish

Wind protection is excellent, and accessories will only make that better with extra hand wind deflectors and an additional screen spoiler. The attention to detail is clear in the finish — it’s the most beautifully put-together Honda I’ve seen in years, right down to the matt black shrouds on the engine. The dual-layer fairing is a success too, with some of the deepest-looking paint on any bike on sale today.

Verdict

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In total I spent two hours on the bike during the day, but it was enough to prove that the VFR1200F is an enormously competent motorcycle, and possibly the fastest long-distance machine ever.

How will it compete with BMW’s K1300S, Suzuki’s Hayabusa and Kawasaki’s ZX-14? My impression is it will make them feel uncomfortable and hard work.



THE AUTO TRANSMISSION

Honda’s new Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) transforms the riding experience of the new VFR. In my 11 years of riding and testing motorcycles it is the most effective innovation I have ever experienced. It does exactly what you expect, with the only downsides being cost and weight.

How the system works

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Eeek! Dual clutch transmission explained in one ‘simple’ diagram.

The system has three modes. The first is fully automatic, which can be set to either Sport or Drive. Sport holds onto gears longer, blips down changes to perfectly match revs to engine speed and is more suitable to hard riding. Drive is slower-responding and slurs between changes. There is no clutch lever and no gear change pedal either.

Starting the bike is just the same as the manual transmission machine. Twist the key, hit the starter button, the engine fires up. Then release the handbrake, which is mounted on left handlebar. Choose Manual or Automatic settings with a button behind the throttle mount. You feel a small thump as the gear is engaged, then you are ready to go.

In Manual you change up with your left index finger, down with your left thumb.

Testing automatic mode

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Cruising in Drive mode will save head butts from your passenger.

Moving off is simply a matter of twisting the throttle. Out on track I started off lapping in Drive mode. This was an error, as Drive is wrong for track work. It slips up through the gearbox as quickly and as smoothly as it can, hitting sixth way before you would with a manual gearbox.

I backed off the pace and cruised around for a lap or so, which made all the difference and suddenly I imagined having a passenger who was no longer going to be head butting me at every gear change. Down changes were similarly slushy.

The ratios on the first three gears are shorter than the manual gearbox but the top three are virtually identical. I opted for Sport in auto mode next. The difference was startling. Suddenly the revs were higher, gears were held until the redline, downshifts were matched with a blip of revs and the bike felt like it had been jolted with electricity.

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Hold on – you’re in Sport mode.

Upping the pace revealed that I wasn’t quite ready for a DCT bike — I was continuously grabbing for the clutch and stamping on a non-existent gear lever. There was no need of course, as the bike was matching gears for speed on track with total precision.

Brilliant manual mode

Manual mode was brilliant. It left so much more time and concentration available to think about getting your braking and body position right rather than balancing clutch and revs and brakes and body position.

Near the end of the day we took to a four-mile ‘road route’ within the Sugo circuit — as near to road riding as possible on these unregistered prototypes. Slotting through the modes showed Drive is more suited to wafting along a motorway and Sport is great fun on the tight hairpins.

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Automatic better than standard?

But manual mode was best. Imagine making the perfect gear change every single time. Each time the revs match the engine speed and the rear wheel remains in line; even when heavy braking and turning. It kept me fresher, safer and
faster.

Verdict

Getting back on the standard bike wasn’t a huge let down, but it’s clear the automatic bike is better. The extra cost is still being calculated, but I’m convinced that anyone who tries it will add a little extra to their finance deal when the DCT version becomes available in Summer 2010.


SPECIFICATIONS


Bike
VFR1200F

MSRP

TBA
(expect around C$20,000)

Displacement
1,237 cc

Engine
type
76° Unicam V-four,
liquid-cooled

Power (crank – claimed)
170 @ 10,000 rpm

Torque (claimed)
95 lb-ft @ 8,750 rpm
Tank
Capacity
18.5 litres

Carburetion
PGM-FI 44 mm throttle bodies

Final drive
6-speed, shaft drive with optional two-mode automatic with 6-speed manual mode

Tires,
front
120/70 ZR17

Tires,
rear
190/55 ZR17

Brakes,
front
Dual 320 mm discs, CBS six-piston calipers with ABS

Brakes,
rear
Single 276 mm disc, CBS two-piston caliper with ABS

Seat
height
815 mm (32.1″)

Wheelbase
1,545 mm (60.8″)

Wet weight (claimed)
268 kg (591 lb) standard or 278 kg (613 lbs) for the automatic

Colours
Red

Warranty
TBA

1 COMMENT

  1. And the shills at MCN generally suck.

    But thanks to CMG for making stuff available.

    Costa – who is currently modifying a KTM 690 SE into an all-rounder (YEAH!!) – isn’t going to be taken in by the big fat hype about a big fat easemobile from Honda.

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