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2010 Honda VFR1200 European launch road test

Honda has a lot riding on this one. With dwindling 1000cc supersports sales and an increase in the sports-tourer market, the VFR1200F is arguably the company’s most important new bike for a decade

And don’t they know it? It’s four years since Honda revealed that a new VFR was in the pipeline. This isn’t just any new bike: it’s a new Honda VFR.

It’s more than 20 years since the company’s original VFR750 first hit our showrooms in 1987. The 100bhp, 230kg machine was created to salvage Honda’s dire V4 reliability record, after it almost shipwrecked itself with the disastrously unreliable VF750. The all-new motor, with gear-driven-camshafts, reinstated the brand, setting new standards for engine reliability and performance.

Rain pain in Spain

So, here we are in not-so-sunny Southern Spain for the European launch of the VFR1200F. Honda has planned a 200-mile route for us to test the new machine: 60 miles of motorway, around 80 miles of fast A-roads, a healthy dose of rush-hour traffic and a potentially orgasmic blast along the ‘Ronda road’ – a 70-mile stretch of some of the most awesome motorcycling tarmac in Europe. Pity the weather’s not on our side.

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Honda Launch HQ

08:30 Honda Launch HQ

Kitted up and ready to go. First impressions of the V4 are all positive. Having uploaded a pile of pictures of the new 1200 from the press pack onto visordown.com, I was gagging to see the bike in the flesh. I wasn’t disappointed. The VFR oozes five-star quality from tip to toe: deep, lustrous paint, perfectly fitting panels, quality aluminium castings and, thank God, decent bolts and fasteners. It’s what you’d expect from BMW but sadly don’t get.

Climb aboard the V4 and you’re welcomed by a slender, firm saddle that’s refreshingly feet-flat-on-the-floor low for a 5ft 8” shortarse, like me. The new riding position is similar to the existing VFR800, compact but not cramped. Some said the new V4 felt bulky; the reach to the bars too long and the footpegs too far forward, but I’m having none of that. Okay, it’s not as upright a riding position as, say, an ST1300, but the VFR isn’t badged as a fully-fledged tourer. Compared to a Pan European, BMW K1300GT or any other big capacity long distance carpet-muncher, the new VFR looks and feels much more manageable and far less intimidating. Good news for Ronnie Corbett types.

Compared to many of the latest machines, the Honda’s instrument layout seems surprisingly bland: LCD screens flank a centrally-mounted analogue rev counter. The left displays speed (in KMH or MPH) and fuel to reserve (more of that later), while the right informs the rider of time, gear, engine temperature and also houses two trip meters, with the usual array of fairy-style warning lights sprinkled across the top. On any other £12,000 flagship bike the set-up would look insultingly basic, but the minimalist approach suits the VFR’s unique appearance.

Thumb the starter and the V4 motor booms into life. I’ve ridden plenty of Honda V4s in my time and this, with the exception of an RC30 fitted with a carbon can, sounds best of the lot. The blunderbuss-style exhaust has a deep, bassy drone, while the engine revs with a purposeful snarl each time the throttle’s blipped. It’s a much sexiersounding motor than any of Honda’s current V4s. Time to get going…

As we wobble our way out of the hotel car park the weather takes a turn for the worst. Drizzle and fog descend to dampen the roads and restrict vision. Time to find out if Honda’s decision to omit traction control from the new VFR is a wise one …

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Honda Launch HQ - 2

Our first stretch takes us onto a series of busy, wet motorways, where the VFR feels impressively stable at speed. The bike’s designers say the new multi-layer slab-sided fairing plays a huge part in the VFR’s aerodynamic stability, and it shows. The 1200’s solidity is also partly thanks to the VFR’s mass (267kg fully gassed) and quality suspension set-up, which irons out all but the largest of Spain’s motorway potholes.

The VFR remains rock solid through the high-speed blast. It probably rates as the most stable bike I’ve ever ridden.

Tearing along the fast lane at three-figure speeds, the screen, which looks way too low at first glance, deflects windblast clean over the rider’s head. The bike’s mirrors are clear and vibration-free but don’t give the same crystal-clear view as the items on Honda’s ST1300 Pan European. Don’t get me wrong, they’re good, just not that good. A glance at the clocks tells me: speed, revs, gear, fuel but a mileage-to-reserve indicator would be a little more reassuring.

The real star of the show is the water-cooled 1237cc engine. It makes power in a smooth, linear fashion from tickover upwards, with a noticeable urgency chiming in at 6000rpm. From a standstill, even in the wet, the VFR will hit 100mph in around 5 seconds and go on to a top speed in excess of 160mph. Midrange and top gear roll-on performance are equally impressive. Ever tried a fast two-up overtake on a VFR800 and wished for more power? You’ll be wanting one of these then, sir.

Sadly, the 1200’s no match for a Blackbird, ZZR1400 or any of the other hyper-speed missiles, as it lacks the punch acceleration junkies find so alluring. In short, the VFR’s performance is impressive not breathtaking.

Any bad points? The indicator/horn arrangement has been turned on its head, so every time the rider goes to signal for an overtake they invariably end up tooting the horn and vice versa. Just what was Honda thinking when they agreed on that one?

Distance covered: 78 miles

Tester’s notes:

  • Low seat 
  • Light clutch
  • Good mirrors
  • Simple dash
  • What an engine!

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Honda on da Ronda

12:00 Honda on da Ronda

After getting lost from the main group a couple of times in Southern Spain’s murky, wet weather, I rejoin the pack just in time to tackle a 70-mile stretch of road that’s hallowed ground for local bike nuts. If someone was to create the perfect stretch of tarmac for a corner-loving motorcyclist then the A397, which connects seaside Marbella to the mountain village of Ronda, would be it.

Despite the rubbish weather, the VFR offers decent feedback through the Dunlop RoadSport tyres, but the damp roads are curtailing the kind of peg-scraping shenanigans that should be taking place. Even so, the VFR steers with little effort as we carve our way to higher altitude along the twisting mountain road.

But it’s not an easy ride: small rivers of water are streaming across the road at points all along the twisting mountain pass. Several butt-clenching, bend-entering moments give me a newfound love of ABS, fitted as standard on the new VFR, but a lack of grip on the exit still leaves me wondering why traction control has been left off the 1200’s spec sheet.

As you’d expect, the new Honda steers with ease, no matter what the situation. On 100mph sweepers or undulating mountain roads, the V4 heads exactly where you point it, sticking to a line better than Frank Bough in the Grandstand green room.

Sure, it won’t flick on its ear like many modern superbikes, but that’s not what this baby’s about. As a road-sports-tourer, the VFR handles as good as you’ll ever need.

Any concerns? The size of the fuel tank is, for a sports-tourer, abysmally small. Some riders were managing less than 150 miles to dry. Thankfully, the warning light on my bike stayed firmly off. Expect to coax a maximum of around 200 miles from the 18.5-litre tank.

Distance covered: 168 miles

Tester’s notes:

  • Easy handling
  • Holds a line
  • ABS a Godsend!
  • Very stable
  • Poor tank range

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Back to Honda HQ

15:45 Back to Honda HQ

Won’t be long before it’s dark. We need to get a lick on for the final stint back to the hotel, which takes us along some fast, wide, single carriageway roads. What’s more there’s sod all traffic. The weather’s perked up a little and the pace has too. The increase in speed, and bravado, results in some fruity overtaking manoeuvres. Nothing dangerous and all well planned, but it gives the riders the chance to sample the V4’s almighty midrange poke. The VFR1200’s a bloody fast A to B machine. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Honda bigged up their revolutionary shaft drive system in the warm-up to the event, claiming the shaft could transmit the bike’s claimed 172bhp and 95ft-lbs of torque as smoothly as a regular chain. While there’s no doubting there’s still a marked difference between the two, Honda’s new system has none of the pogo effect felt on some shafties when the rider speeds up and slows down. Is it good? Very. Would I miss a chain? No.

Final thoughts as we get back to Honda HQ: backside now numb. No end of shifting and squirming over the last hour has relieved the discomfort. Aftermarket saddle manufacturers take note.

On the whole I’m feeling upbeat about the new VFR: it’s beautifully made, questionably stylish, undoubtedly fast, easy to ride and sounds a treat. Trouble is, I’m not left drooling and that’s a worrying sign after riding a bike costing the thick end of £12,000. Maybe I was expecting more after all the hype that’s surrounded the new VFR. It’s left me feeling unmoved.

I walk away without looking back at the Honda for a final glance. Call me a romantic, but that doesn’t feel like love to me.

Distance covered: 208 miles

Tester’s notes:

  • Arse in tatters
  • Impressive shaft (nothing to do with above )
  • Great midrange
  • Good wind protection
  • Crap weather

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Verdict

Verdict

So is it a yes or a no then? There’s no doubt the new VFR1200 is a blindingly good machine. It’s almost sportsbike fast, immensely stable and with top class build quality. It may not have electronic suspension, or an electric screen or even TC but it’s a package that simply works.

But has Honda shot itself in the foot? After all the hype perhaps everyone was expecting a raft of bleeding-edge technology in this bike? BMW were arming their bikes with electronic suspension back in 2005. Let’s hope the dual-clutch model impresses when it arrives later this year.

And the new Honda sits uncomfortably in its own little niche in the market. Want fast? Buy a ZZR1400. Want to tour? Then go for BMW’s K1300GT. Too expensive? Buy a Triumph Sprint ST. It’s difficult to see who’ll splash out £12,000 on a bike that, in reality, should have replaced the VFR800, which retails for £2,000 less five years ago.

There’s one thing, one tiny thing that would transform the VFR1200 from a fantastic bike to an incredible one. It’s something so vital yet at the same time so insignificant that you’d have to squint hard to see it. Without doubt, the VFR1200F would be my ‘Bike of the Year’ if the date of this magazine was ‘January 2005’. It’s a little bit too expensive, but most of all, it’s a lot too late.

How it all stacks up

Suspension

The VFR may not have the electronic gadgetry of the BMW K1300S/GT, or the 2010 Multistrada, but does it really need it? For us the VFR’s suspension was spot on. Granted, it may prove a pain if the rider needs to make rear preload adjustments to cater for a pillion or luggage, but we were impressed by the Honda’s overall ride quality.

Performance

While the VFR doesn’t have the outright poke of Honda’s Blackbird and lacks the bottom-end shove of BMW’s K1300 series, it is still impressively fast. The 1237cc V4 delivers strong, tractable urgency from less than 3,000rpm in top, and it’ll pull all the way to the 10,000rpm redline, if needed. Just don’t expect it to frazzle your brain.

Equipment

Honda has kept to a simple approach to the new V4 rather than stepping into a techno war with the bike’s main rivals. The bike’s simple LCD dash is devoid of an electronic multi-function trip computer, seen on many of today’s sports-tourers. Honda elected to skip offering electronic suspension, too. Mistake? Time will tell.

Specifications

Price: £11,596
Engine: 1237cc, 16 valves, liquid-cooled, V-four
Bore & stroke: 81mm x 60mm
Compression ratio: 12:1
Power: 175bhp @ 10,000rpm
Torque: 95ft-lbs @ 8,750rpm
Front suspension: 43 mm telescopic forks
Adjustment: Preload & rebound damping
Rear suspension: Pro-Link monoshock
Adjustment: Preload and rebound
Front brakes: Six-piston Nissin calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: Twin-piston Nissin caliper, 276mm disc
Wet weight: 267kg (588lbs)
Seat height: 815mm
Fuel capacity: 18.5 litres
Colour options: Silver/Black, White/Black, Red/Black

Rating: 5/5