Honda VFR1200F launch: First riding impressions

Visordown's test rider fires back his first thoughts from Sugo racetrack, Japan

JUST HAD my first on-track session on the new VFR1200F at Sugo race track. The mid Western Japanese circuit nestles amongst spectacular tree-covered mountains with massive gradient changes and a flowing, challenging sequence of corners. It’s as if it was tailor made for a flexible, torquey V4.

Funny that, isn’t it?

Yes, Honda have chosen their race track well for the launch of the VFR1200F. Even if Sugo is owned by rivals Yamaha.

My first lap was a bit of an eye opener. Following ex-GP God Tohru Ukawa for our sighting laps, I was immediately taken by surprise by how quickly the VFR steers and found myself having to correct my line mid-corner to avoid twatting the inside kerb. Despite a fully fluid-filled and oil brimmed kerb weight of 267kgs, it really doesn’t feel it when you’re moving and grooving. Flicking it left/right through chicanes isn’t a major drama either.

The biggest compliment I can pay the new VFR is it feels every inch a Honda. Nothing takes getting used to. Nothing feels unusual or quirky. Nothing takes you by surprise.

And V4 fans will be pleased to know that despite the unusual firing order of the Phase-shift crankshaft it still feels like every other V4 Honda in terms of its low-down and mid-range pull – oddly, though, it doesn’t sound like one.

The engine, exhaust and intake noise is unique to this new VFR. It’s a deep, bassy drone that sounds more like a big capacity parallel twin. Listening to them go round track now, as a group of them pass our press office window, it sounds more like a low-level WW2 Bomber squadron. It’s a cool noise but really not what I expected from what I thought I knew about V4 ‘ondas.

That 1200cc V4 engine is peachy smooth, the power curve linear and – as I said before – free from any surprises. This is best demonstrated by the complete bast’d of a chicane right at the end of the Sugo lap. It’s a really horrible, stop-start, right-left-right flick but the exit is a second gear uphill right-hander that opens out onto the start finish straight.

It must have been a nightmare on a 500cc Grand Prix two-stroke. Even the camber runs the wrong way. If ever a corner had ‘highside’ written on it, this is it.

Following fellow journo Roland Brown and then Tohru San was a better description of how the VFR1200F lays down its power. Second gear through the chicane, kiss the final right hand apex and absolutely nail the throttle to the stop in second. And I mean to the stop.

Letting the bike drift out to the left hand side of the track as you hit third on the limiter the bikes in front transcribed a beautiful black line from their tortured Dunlop RoadSport rear tyres. Thing is, on a 500GP two-stroke you’d be running the risk of imminent hospital food doing this every lap. On the VFR, though, there’s no drama – the fly-by-wire throttle giving instant control and the elastic power delivery of the engine keeping everything safe and predictable. It fuels sweetly too with no detectable peaks or troughs.

In our pre-ride blurb and presentations great fuss was made of the shaft drive system with its clever use of sliding knuckle joints and offset output shaft. Offset from the swingarm pivot that is. I was sceptical, I have to admit. A shaft drive that feels like a chain is a big claim after all.

But you know what? They were right. Do you know how a ‘normal’ shaft drive bike feels when you knock the throttle on and off? That shunting, clunking feeling of all those reciprocating, heavy parts – that rising and falling of the back end? Well there’s none of that on the new VFR1200F and with it no reason to even contemplate a Scottoiler ever again. Or adjusting a pesky chain.

So, it’s super easy to ride – flattering even - but what’s its direct opposition? What’s it most like? Well, I suppose the BMW K1300 is the nearest obvious bedfellow. The VFR1200F is very, very fast but it’s not going to win any races. Like the big Beemer the new VFR is clearly designed to give us road riders the kind of performance that, if we’re all honest, 99% of us need on the road 99% of the time.

The BMW does have noticeably more bottom and mid-range power, or perhaps a more savage fuelling that creates the impression of more instant low-down shove. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I rode the BMW and it’s still fresh in my mind but I’d like to seriously back-to-back the two bikes to see the differences.

In the Honda’s favour though, is huge raft of plus points. Finish being one of them (that candy paint is just amazingly deep and shiny) ease of use the other (BMWs do take some, er, getting used to) and the way the engineers have managed to disguise the weight and make it feel at least 50kgs lighter than it really is. The VFR1200F makes the K1300 feel as long as a top fuel dragster.

As proof of where Honda feel the VFR1200F’s future lies there’s also a massive range of after-market touring accessories on offer, too. Lower, slimmer seats, seats covered in Alcantara, top boxes, integrated panniers, heated grips (there’s the real BMW clue) fairing screen extenders, sat nav. I could carry on but space and time are limited.

Since posting this article, I've been out on the the Dual Clutch Technology (DCT) Honda VFR1200F so click that link to read the review.

Catch you later…got some sushi to deal with.