HONDA VFR800 - BIKE OF THE YEAR 2002
Hmmhh, I'm starting to run out of things to say about this bike. I mean, we already covered its launch last year in Texas. Then we gave it Bike of the Year 2002 in the January News (more words of praise) and now I'm supposed to tell you how it is again?
Okay, but you have to realize the limitations of a new bike launch. I had one of those Nirvana moments with the VFR during said launch. But then it's easy to get into euphoric states of mind when you suddenly find yourself released from the icy grips of the Canadian winter and gallivanting around a race track or twisty side-road in some southern US State.
Also, since the launch was done with only one bike for all the journalists, time on board was severely limited. This, like most launches, meant that we were only able to give a snap view of the bike. Although impressions were good very good what we needed was a damn good trip with one. Say five days ... in Pennsylvania?
So here we are, with five days of all sorts of roads imaginable - from long stints on straight, boring highways to short blasts down the Devil's own, super twisty and bumpy 666. The VFR was used, abused and flogged mercilessly, all the name of journalism.
The one thing I really wanted to know was whether the latest VFR had jumped the last remaining flaw in its lineage - lack of character. Sure, the VFR has always been praised for being the ultimate all-rounder and good at everything it does ... but then maybe never quite the master?
Okay, so let's take a look at each of the VFR's component parts, with the view to how they hold up in the everyday. Oh, and Larry's thrown in his two cents at the end of each section as well (in italics).
V-TEC FOR VICTORY?
The V-four configuration is now almost unique to Honda well, except for Yamaha's mighty V-Max and Venture combos finding its way into the Honda Magna, ST1300 and VFR. Which is a shame because it's a lovely design, and by adding the V-TEC system to the VFR, Honda have added another variable that emphasizes its character (I'm not going to go into the technics of the system as we've already covered that - click here).
On the track during the Texas launch, the switchover from 8 to 16 valves was very noticeable with a sudden urgency when it hit the 7,000rpm VTEC-mark. In the everyday however, it's not quite the same.
For some reason the sudden urge felt at the launch, didn't seem quite so ... well, urgent. It was only when really abusing the throttle that it matched those early impressions. Not a bad thing, just interesting.
It also became a niggly concern in tour mode. Randomly trundling along without a care in the world, whenever the revs would hit the VTEC the VFR would momentarily stutter. It felt a lot like an ignition glitch. I guess it's because you're not accelerating through it, rather just so happen to be on it.
Maybe Honda could alter the system to introduce the additional valves over a 1000 rpm band, thereby smoothing out the on/off transition effect a tad? Or I guess you can just get used to this anomaly and not cruise at 7,000 rpm (the motor's also baby-bum smooth below 7,000, after which it drops the act and gets some buzz back to the rider).
However, that's easier said than done. Although the VFR has more low-down grunt than its inline four brethren, to have enough power on tap for a quick passing manoeuvre you want to keep it above the 6,000 mark. This ultimately means stumbling back into the VTEC again.
All this said, I'd take the V-TEC over a standard motor. It's the missing character that the VFR has been looking for. It's also what puts the grin on yer muggins when the road narrows and disappears around a corner.
Lovely engine sounds; good old V-4/V-8 rumble and burble together with intake roar to match. At the V-Tec kick-in point it suddenly goes nasal and raucous, very immediate wild child "beat me beat me" sound. Definitely encourages throttle misbehaviour.
Changeover point at 7,000 rpm is weird. Usually it was pretty smooth, once or twice I noticed a definite surge just before, once there was a very definite hiccup and short, albeit sharp, hesitation. By and large, I'm not too impressed, particularly considering that the thing sounds and pulls quite hard down below that point with just the two valves operating. Holding it just below 7,000 rpm you get a very pronounced surging effect, as though the V-Tec is trying to decide whether or not it should be coming into action.
The sound is fantastic. Quiet on steady throttle, lovely roar when you open it up. Fabulous. Engine very smooth on steady throttle as well; just a hint of a growl through the bars to remind you that something's working down there, and a bit of a thudding shudder on full whack. Very, very nice tactile and aural sensations happening here.
ERR .. GOS
Another thing that I was interested to find out was how the VFR worked as far as rider comfort after a few days in the saddle. Had Honda sacrificed comfort in order to bring out a more sporty edge in the VFR? Larry didn't seem too impressed with it (see his comments below).
Granted there's more weight on the wrists than before but in tour-mode it took a whole day in the saddle for me to get sore. Having said that, after the Penns trip the VFR got some urban duty, which would highlight the effect much more quickly. However, since the bars are attached to the forks by a single bolt each, it was quite easy to slacken, raise and tighten giving an additional half-inch or so of much appreciated height.
Otherwise riding position was excellent for most any condition, even for lanky bastards such as myself. The screen did a masterful job at wind deflection and even the seat nearly lasted a day before arse aching came into play (a whole day if you have a sheepskin!).
Comfortable enough riding position except for the low bars; way too far down for me. Compared to the last version of VFR its definitely a more extreme riding position, mostly lower bars. That probably accounts for the fact that it feels smaller and lighter than the other one, even though it isnt (15 kg heavier, I think I read somewhere?). This is a good example of why madly pursuing weight loss isnt necessarily a good thing in and of itself; this thing definitely feels better than the old one as far as light, nimble, and solid goes, extra pork or not.
I read somewhere that the relative distances from seat to pegs and bars werent much different, but that the bars were just placed lower because the steering head itself was lower, and that makes sense based on my impressions of it. More weight on the front end = easier steering = lighter feeling?
No problem with supporting the weight through my arms, but I had to really crick my head back; painful in the neck. No doubt made a bit worse by the tape across the top of my visor (had to tip my head even farther back), but still ...
Honestly, to me it feels a bit like riding a GSX-R.
ALL THE OTHER BITS
Okay, so we've got an interesting motor, good, albeit a bit sporty, ergonomics .. how does the thing handle?
Solid and balanced.
So, it's not the lightest bike out there but it's light enough to get real-life sporty, yet with enough mass to smooth out the road ahead somewhat. Even on the high-speed bumps of the 666, the suspension never got out of its range. That's saying something when the front forks only come with preload and the rear with rebound and a big preload knob.
Talking of which, we had the rear knob wound up to almost maximum, one up and no luggage. Two-up and enough luggage for a decent trip might be a bit beyond what it can cope with. In fact, it would be.
Honda have also persevered with its linked braking system, getting it refined to such a point where you don't even notice it. The positive aspects being that front drive is dramatically reduced (especially useful when a cop suddenly comes into view) as there's a certain amount of anti-lock built in. Which is funny, because Honda have the VFR800-A, which has ABS as well.
Of course, ABS is always nice to have when you just want to get sporty without having to expend all your concentration as if you were competing in the IOM TT unforgiving stone walls either side et al. Since they come on just before lockup you generally don't even know they're there. They allowed me to keep an edge on all day, where I'd normally have to be more selective with my moments.
Is this a good time to mention looks? Of course it is. The new aggressive styling works for me. From the front it looks a bit like one of those classic Japanese paintings of a Samurai warrior tongue out and sword raised.
Okay, it may have just been the acid, and I tried to find the picture I'm thinking of, but a couple of hours on the Net turned up everything but. I guess you'll just have to take my word for it (free thanks to anyone who can find said picture).
The underseat pipes not only allow for a long overdue hard bag fitment - we had a set of Givi's on our tester but also show off that gorgeous single-sided swingarm. Oh, and they emit a sweet exhaust note that could do with being just a tad louder?
Chassis feels solid as a rock, nice brake feel, controls very nice and smooth, and an excellent dash layout that looks like it could have come out of an expensive car. Hate to say typical Honda, but ...
Clutch action felt unusually heavy. Smooth, but stiffer than I'd expect from a hydraulic unit.
Remote adjuster for rear shock (only on ABS bikes, apparently, for some bizarre marketing reason I guess) is nice.
Love having the ABS, not overly impressed with the idea of linked brakes. Fine when just riding, bit of a pain when making a dab for tight turns, etc. Who needs it? Don't even want to think about trying to bleed the effing system.
SUM OF THE PARTS
We get to ride a lot of bikes and there's a fair argument to be made that there's no longer any bad bikes imported into Canada at least. What we do have however, are bikes that maybe take form over function, promise the world only to deliver Switzerland or fail to really work in the real world (which is the world that we tend to spend most of our time after all).
What makes the VFR worthy of Bike of the Year is that it has both form and function, delivers what it promises and has both tires firmly planted in reality land. If it had some dual-sport capabilities (despite Mr. Seck's best efforts down a Pennsylvania side-road) then may be it would be Bike of the Decade too.
Oh, and of course, character.
There may be no more bad bikes, but bland?
Well done Mr. Honda. More please.
FYI - Some stats that we got for the VFR:
Max power - 98.3 HP (measured at Cycle Max)