V4 Vital: The 10 Greatest Honda V4 motorcycles to bless us

The venerable V4 is no more in today's Honda range so in mourning here are what we consider the 10 Greatest Honda V4s to grace us over the decades

Honda NR750

With news that the onset of Euro5 emissions regulations have killed off all the V4s in Honda’s road bike line-up – meaning there’s now no V4s in Honda’s road range for the first time since 1982 – forgive us for getting a little misty-eyed in memoriam of the brilliant, much-loved breed.

After all, almost everyone has brilliant things to say about the classic VFR750F of 1986-1997, whichever model you may be thinking of; the recent, jewel-like MotoGP replica, the RC213V-S, was surely the ultimate racer replica while many still put the exquisite RC30 No. 1 in any dream garage.

But the V4 wasn’t just a staple of Honda sporting repertoire with plenty of other standouts… plus the odd ‘lemon’. So, here’s our pick of the 10 best Honda V4 roadsters – ever – and here’s hoping a brilliant new Honda V4 road bike returns soon!

EVERY new motorcycle being launched in 2021 (Part 1)

10 - Honda VF750S & F [1982-1985]

Although, strictly speaking, Honda’s V4 ‘project’ began with the ill-fated NR500 GP racer in 1978, its V4 road bike story started with the equally troubled VF750S and F in 1982/3 – so troubled, in fact, that it was a wonder Honda stuck with V4s at all. 

The S, a semi-cruiser roadster called the Sabre in the US, arrived first with the F (called the Interceptor) a year later. Both were based around the same, compact, 90º V4 (although the S had shaft drive, the F chain). And both, on paper at least, were technical marvels. Compared to the air-cooled, 2v straight fours that were common until then, the VFs were liquid-cooled, 16v, high performance vees. 

Unfortunately, early versions were blighted by premature cam wear, so much so they became known as the ‘chocolate cam’ V4s. Honda, disastrously, initially ignored the problem, which was caused by inadequate oil flow, then eventually improved the design, eliminating the fault. But, following the folly of the NR racer, it was too late to save the V4’s reputation. Engine apart, the VF750F in particular was an advanced, impressive design with box-section frame, nose fairing, 16in front wheel, adjustable suspension and more. 

Indeed, at the end of its life in 1985 – when it was replaced by the stopgap, air-cooled, transverse four CBX750 – a race version, in the hands of Freddie Spencer, was good enough to win the Daytona 200. But it was too little, too late, and Honda became determined from the whole experience to make amends with the second-generation version, the VFR750F, in 1987.

9 - Honda VF1000R [1984-1987]

Honda’s new V4 wasn’t just a 750, it was a whole range of bikes ranging from 400 to 1100cc. A 400 came next, in 1983 (see below) with a range of three 1000s the following year. But the best, and Honda’s new V4 flagship, was the VF1000R, as initially launched in Europe in March 1984. 

The R was intended to be the ultimate, showcasing all Honda’s latest technology as a successor to the CB1100R. Where the other 1000s (and 750s) had chain-driven cams, the R had a sophisticated gear-driven arrangement. 

It also had anti-dive forks, GP-alike Comstar wheels, a box-section frame, twin radiators and race-style bodywork comprising a full-fairing, removable seat hump and twin endurance style headlights, a year before Suzuki’s new GSX-R750. 

High compression heads helped produce 122bhp and drive the VF onto 150mph, making it the fastest bike of the day (until Kawasaki’s new GPz900R shortly after). Unfortunately, all that tech and gear-driven cams also made the R quite heavy – not to mention ridiculously expensive: £5489 in 1984 – so it wasn’t a sales success. 

In fact, until recently, the R was overlooked and could be snapped up for as little as £2500. Now, however, prices are on the rise.

8 - Honda VF400/500F [1983-1987]

At the other end of the spectrum from the VF1000 of those original, early 1980s Honda V4s was, first the VF400 in 1983 then, from 1984, the even better VF500F and F2, and, to most intents and purposes, these ‘small-block’ bikes were the best early V4s of all. 

The first 16v 400 was a breath of fresh air: compact, with novel inboard disc brakes and bikini fairings and, in producing an impressive 55bhp with a heady 12,500rpm redline, almost enough to beat Yamaha’s 59bhp two-stroke RD350YPVS. At least it might have been had it not been £200 more expensive. The enlarged 1984 VF500F, and, particularly, the Europe-only, fully faired F2, was better yet. 

With conventional disc brakes, 70bhp, sweet handling and build quality the 500 was not only a decent performer it had also moved on from those early cam problems. 

Unfortunately, it was still quite pricey and public opinion hadn’t recovered. Instead Honda had to wait until the first CBR600F of 1987 to deliver the market-leading middleweight it craved. 

7 - Honda VFR1200F [2009-2017]

After the success of Honda’s 750/800 VFR V4s between 1987 and the mid-1990s, a bigger, better successor was long overdue. It finally came in 2009 after prolonged teases and delays and, although capable and impressive in many ways, it was ultimately a disappointment resulting in its withdrawal from sale after just eight years. 

The all-new 1237cc V4 engine was actually decent: producing 170bhp, bags of flexible midrange and character and featuring shaft-drive and, from 2010, Honda’s optional, clever, semi-automatic ‘DCT’ gearbox. 

What was questionable was nearly everything else: it was too heavy; the ‘sports-tourer’ concept was by then outdated; its styling was disliked; its fuel tank was too small and its spec, with an old school dash and no electronic rider aids, was outclassed by cheaper bikes such as Kawasaki’s Z1000SX.

It was a good bike, yes, but nowhere near the great one its hype had suggested. Subtle improvements such as a bigger tank came but, again, it was too little, too late. On the plus side, however, it did act as the launch pad for DCT and its lovely powertrain lived on in the VFR1200X Crosstourer adventure bike and even Ariel’s Ace. But it could, and perhaps should, have been so much better…

6 - Honda RVF750R (RC45) [1994-1999]

Another high tech Honda V4 that, although brilliant, failed to live up to its hype. The WorldSBK-targeted homologation special RVF was launched in 1994 as a long-awaited and much anticipated successor to Honda’s first all-conquering V4 superbike, the RC30. 

Although closely-related to the RC30 in being a 90º V4 with gear-driven cams in an aluminium twin spar frame featuring a single-sided swing arm, it was actually all-new and co-developed by Honda’s racing division, HRC, and Honda R&D. Differences included a shorter stroke, more compact design and fuel-injection. 

However, although a reasonable success on track, particularly at the TT and in world endurance, it was considered too big and bulky and only won one WSB crown. While on the road, although sublimely refined, its high first gear was intrusive, its road legal 120bhp was nothing special (decent track horsepower required an ECU tweak and different exhaust) and, at around £18,000, it was twice the price of a Fireblade and 50% more than a Ducati 916. 

The RC45 may never have quite been the race success Honda hoped, but it remains one of the ultimate sports V4s.

5 - Honda RC213V-S [2015-2016]

If the RC45 was never quite the ‘ultimate V4’ Honda had promised, then that mantle, nostalgia for the RC30 put to one side, is surely claimed by the 2015 RC213V-S. Conceived as a road-going replica of the then RC213V MotoGP machine, it’s as close to that bike as was possible and practical with little concern given to cost. 

Around 250 were built in total, hand-made by small teams of hand-picked engineers. And although road regulations limited performance to 159bhp, its chassis boasted the best of everything including Ohlins TTX25 gas forks, forged magnesium wheels and a slimline full-colour TFT dash while, with the optional Sports Kit fitted, intended for track use which includes a revised ECU and exhaust together unleashing 215bhp, it’s as close to the full works V4 MotoGP experience mere mortals can buy. 

Which is as it should be, considering the £137,000 price. The RC213V-S may not be the most practical, sensible or affordable Honda road V4 – and in road trim, even a Fireblade is faster – but it’s certainly a brilliant one.

4 - Honda NC30/RVF400R [1989-96]

Why is a ‘itty-bitty’ 400 so high up our V4 ranking? Simply because the NC30 and RVF400R, the jewel-like little brothers to the RC30 and RVF750R respectively, were so good, so much fun and so much more affordable and accessible to the man in the street compared to their bigger brothers, that in many ways they were better bikes. Few, after all, have ridden an RC30 on the street – even less to the max. But thousands have thrashed – and loved – the NC30. 

Both were produced in parallel to their 750 siblings although, as mass market bikes, had lesser spec, fewer exotic materials and weren’t hand-built. Both were also the result of a then-prevailing Japanese licensing law that favoured 400cc machines. 

Built primarily for the home market, unofficial or ‘grey’ imports of unwanted used versions began arriving in the UK and, with superbike spec for near-commuter money, they and others from Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki became hugely popular with something of a ‘grey import 400’ cult developing into the mid-1990s. 

The NC30 was definitely among the best: effectively a ‘slightly smaller RC30’ with sublime handling and an impressively flexible V4 producing 59bhp. For B-road sunny Sunday scratching, little was better. 

Until, that is, the even more exotic and mouth-watering (and shorter-lived) RVF in 1994. Sub-500cc sportsbikes don’t get any more exotic. Exotic V4s don’t get any more accessible.

3. Honda NR750 [1992]

In many ways the NR750 was not only the ultimate Honda V4, it was the most exotic motorcycle of all – ever. 

Most of us know the story – it being a short-run, hand-built, no expense-spared road-going ‘celebration’ bike to mark the end of Honda’s brilliant but flawed, oval-piston V4 racing project. 

Honda had first proposed the NR500 racer in 1978: a four-stroke V4 GP bike but with oval pistons with twin con rods and eight valves per cylinder to create the power of a V8 and so compensate for the twin power pulse advantage of rival V4 two-strokes. 

Achieving that was an immense engineering challenge, which Honda almost, but not quite, pulled it off. After switching successfully to two-stroke power for its GP campaign in 1982, Honda then continued to develop its NR as a 750cc endurance racer and, again, very nearly succeeded. 

Finally, to prove it could be done, the NR750 road bike was produced in 1992. In truth, performance-wise, with ‘just’ 125bhp and too much weight, the NR’s nothing special. But its gorgeous styling (with pioneering underseat pipes later copied by Ducati’s 916), fabulous spec (carbon fibre, single-sided swing arm, titanium con rods, inverted forks and more) and sheer exclusivity (just 200 were built with a new price of £38,000 each) put it far ahead of any other V4.

2 - Honda VFR750/800 [1987-2013]

If the NR750 makes the ‘business end’ of this list with just 200 examples built, the VFR750, which reigned as supreme sports-tourer between 1987 and 1997 in 750 form, then still impressed as an 800 up to 2013 with many tens of thousand built, surely ranks higher still. 

Over-engineered to a fastidious degree by Honda to finally quell the flaws of the original VF750s, the VFR was, and arguably remains, not just one of the best Honda V4s but one of the best motorcycles, period. Three different generations were built, each with their fans, but the sublime, flexible, characterful and practical V4 remained at its heart.

Comfort was always excellent, as was build quality, handling and equipment, so much so that, especially with the latter version, the VFR gained a reputation as the classiest motorcycle you could buy. And even though the succeeding 800 wasn’t as universally admired and the subsequent V-TEC version from 2002 was particularly controversial, the VFR was still the bike that proved the V4 had finally come of age. 

Honda may have since revived the VFR800 in face-lifted form along with the Crossrunner, both of which are decent, but those ‘80s and ‘90s VFR750s can still claim to being the greatest V4s of all.

1 - Honda VFR750R/RC30 [1987-1990]

While we were sorely tempted to place the sports-tourer VFR750F, particularly in its latter 1994-1997 guise, at the top of this tree, there was ultimately no denying the obvious truth: the ‘RC30’ remains the best Honda V4 ever built.

Perfectly-timed to promote Honda’s new VFR V4s, conceived to exploit the new World Superbike and world endurance racing regulations (based on 750cc production machines) and developed with no expense-spared by HRC, the RC30, certainly in the context of its times, can rightfully lay claim to being not best Honda V4 of all.

Considering what it set out to achieve, that claim’s hard to argue with. As a homologation special racer it won straight out of the crate – not just in WSB (becoming the first champion in 1988), but in endurance, F1 and at the TT. 

As a successful design it was both enduring and timeless, succeeding well into the ‘90s and remaining an icon ever since. And as modern classic there are none better and few more valuable. Yes, the RC30’s 118bhp, twin spar frame, single sided swing arm are nothing special by today’s standard. 

Back then they were groundbreaking and set the standard for everything that was to follow. There simply is no better Honda V4.
 

 

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