2010 Honda VFR1200F world launch test

One of motorcycling’s worst kept secrets - Honda’s top-secret VFR1200F. Visordown were among the chosen few to ride it at the Sugo circuit in Japan

A race circuit seemed like a strange place to launch a 265kg bike with a 1545mm wheelbase but the spec sometimes only tells part of the story.

The VFR1200F feels noticeably smaller than a Pan Euro and fractionally bigger than a VFR800. Its pork is brilliantly hidden, though. Even with a dead engine in pit-lane, paddling the bike around with your feet, you’d swear blind it was 40 kilos lighter than it actually is. The fact you can get your feet on the floor helps here. Even as a professional shortarse, I could get both feet flat on the floor because the seat and waist of the bike are incredibly narrow. Think anorexic wasp.

Bulk and weight have been shaved off the engine too. The V4 is a nifty bit of design. Yes, it’s conventional in the sense that it’s a 90 degree, liquid cooled V4 with single overhead cams. From there on in, convention is tipped out of the window.

Some crafty cylinder spacing is responsible for that skinny waist. While the front cylinder head is as wide as you’d expect, the rear is a masterpiece of technical shrinkology. It’s why Honda went the more compact Unicam route. DOHC might have been better for peak, high revving power but the SOHC method worked particularly well in their motocross CRF’s where space, weight and accessible power are key criteria, so why not on the VFR? Also adding to the torque party is the 1237cc displacement. As they say in the US, you can’t beat cubes.

In terms of global sales it means the compact VFR fits a wider range of riders. It also means less chance of those embarrassing falling-in-over-in-petrol-forecourt incidents. And because the heavily sculpted tank swoops around your knees, when you’re on the bike it really does feel like you’re in it – part of it. Our track and road test ride was dry but you wouldn’t doubt the riding position results in better weather protection too.

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Back in the engine room, there are several other nifty touches worthy of mention. The sealed crankcase system with air scavenge pump is another CRF/RCV innovation that makes a first road bike appearance on the VFR12. If you’ve ever blipped the throttle of a CRF450, you’ll understand the benefits – revs rise and fall so quickly it’s as if there’s no flywheel at all. The air underneath the piston skirt is mechanically sucked out to atmosphere to reduce the power-sapping effects of having to move all that pressure with pistons alone. All the top race teams have been doing this for some time – it’s cheap tuning. On the VFR1200F the net results are more responsive engine characteristics and more power, torque and fuel efficiency. That’s a win, win, win, win situation.

While we’re on throttle response, the fuelling system’s pretty special as well. It’s a full fly-by-wire job and the way it’s set up in conjunction with the fuelling maps makes the VFR easy to control in any number of conditions. Check out the pic on the right for an indicator of the inlet manifold’s straight path. Throttle action is gossamer light. And feel? After two hours on track I was getting cocky enough with the twistgrip to be leaving long black lines out of most of the corners. This tells you all you need to know about how well the fuelling and throttle action gel.

It was just the same on the road – nice and soft at small openings, predictable and responsive at larger ones. It would be a great system on a wet, greasy roundabout in February. No surprises.

The firing order and crankpin layout is unconventional. Honda call it ‘phase-shift crankshaft’ and it’s single-handedly responsible for the gruff, deep bark it produces. Initially, having read much about the ‘soul’ of Honda’s latest V4, I was initially slightly disappointed by the noise it made – more like a group of heavy piston-engined bombers than RC30 or VFR750.

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The crankpin layout (the pairs are offset by 28°) is undoubtedly spot-on for delivering grip and strong mid-range, but it wasn’t until I took out my ear plugs on the road that I started to really appreciate the soundtrack. The induction noise is beautiful – resonant, bass-rich and gruffer than Tom Waits with chronic laryngitis. The staggered pairs of crankpins also deliver near perfect primary and secondary balance which is why the VFR doesn’t need to run power-sapping balance shafts.

The Honda blurb (perfect reading matter for a 12-hour flight) spoke confidently of a ‘shaft drive system that feels like a chain’. ‘Oh aye’ I thought, cynically. The truth? It doesn’t quite feel like a chain but it’s nevertheless a pretty amazing solution. Approaching Sugo’s final chicane you find yourself barrelling into a downhill constant radius right-hander on full throttle in third gear – about 120mph. Practice and familiarity let you hold full throttle later and later, then you slam the throttle shut, sit the bike up and brake hard for the following chicane. It was this vicious slamming shut that threw up the only shaft drive symptom, a faint clunking, a vague reminder of the reciprocating weight in the drive train, like backlash but not so pronounced.

This is, of course, totally irrelevant. You’d never replicate this violence on the road unless you really wanted your passenger to headbutt you – hard. The shaft drive system with its off-set pivot point (from the swingarm’s vertical axis) and clever sliding knuckle joint to compensate for the variations in length through the swingarm’s travel was, in every other application, true to Honda’s promises. Whoever was responsible for designing that shaft drive deserves a few more yen in next month’s pay packet.

The Dunlop Roadsmarts fitted to our test bikes seemed to be doing a pretty good job. They were amazing in the first couple of sessions but the rear was a bit eager to let go in the final session after a proper all-day pasting. Hardly cause for anything but praise, though.

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The circuit also let the VFR1200F deal another ace – its steering. First time out on track I tipped into the downhill left-hander at the back of the pits and nearly hit the concrete kerb at the apex. The speed and accuracy of the steering really took me by surprise. This is pretty impressive bearing in mind stability hasn’t been sacrificed in pursuit of agility. If the BMW K1300S is its nearest competitor – the Beemer’s a barn door on edge by comparison. As you get faster and ask more of the bike, the steering helps you place it with pinpoint accuracy.

Brakes? Fade-free, powerful and plenty of feel with standard-fit ABS. The front six-pot calipers leave two pistons unused, only to be operated by the back brake pedal. Some people think this is a good idea…

I finished our track sessions satisfied and suitably impressed. And on the road, chasing Tady Okada like our pants were both on fire, I was won over. The VFR’s centralised weight and wheelbase keeps it stable even over the most comically severe bumps. Even under full load while making an ambitious direction change, it never became even vaguely unsettled. The elastic power delivery meant you could hold one gear for longer than you’d imagine possible and the comfortably non-extreme riding position meant you could really boss the bike into submission.

It’s a grunter – you’re not chasing revs and messing with the gear lever like a tap dancer on ephedrine. Just roll the throttle on and off, point it the right way and read the road. I didn’t even notice the slipper clutch on track but on the road, it was perfect. There’s a lot of engine braking when all four butterflies are shut. Combine this with iffy, leaf-covered surfaces, gravel and bumps and there are plenty of opportunities to lock a rear wheel up in a braking zone. The slipper clutch works unobtrusively and prevents any chatter when your backshifts are a bit... er, enthusiastic You’ve just gotta pray the cops never get these things because a well-ridden one would be very, very hard to shake off.

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Pillions don’t get forgotten either. Their vacuum formed perch is flat, wide and super-comfy – the sort of seat might actually make your missus want to come with you rather than stay at home. The pillion pegs are at a comfortable, sensible level, the grab rails strong and easy to reach. Depending on the state of any relationship, you can view this either as a plus or a minus.

But, underlying Honda’s foray into hostilities with the Germans (and themselves to a certain extent via the Pan) the high standard of finish on the VFR1200F demands further attention. New paint techniques (we nearly saw these at the Honda factory but a staff tea break allegedly prevented us from witnessing the process) have delivered a deep, rich gloss sheen previously unseen on production bikes. It’s amazing in the flesh, like a custom candy-tinted lacquer. As a rubbish amateur painter I can appreciate the quality of the paint finish purely because I’ve tried and failed to do it properly. And the finish on everything else from shock to clocks is well up to the standard of the paint.

So what after this initial encounter is our verdict? Luckily for Honda, bearing in mind the significance of this new bike, it’s all very positive. For my 200-mile daily commute I can’t think of anything better for that combination of motorway and city riding. For me it’d have to be the DCT version with hard luggage and GPS system. With heated grips, obviously.

Of the assembled nationalities present on the launch, the DCT engineering team were keen to know what everyone thought would be a fair price. The French contingent thought the system warranted a two thousand Euro premium while everyone else thought half that would be more acceptable. In the car world VW charge £1200 for their 7-speed, dry-clutch DSG system. Audi’s S-tronic flappy paddle option costs an extra £1420 so Honda maybe need to take note of that. But one thing is for sure, this is a bike designed for riding, no matter what anyone might choose to make of its design.


Price: £12,075 (DCT - £13,175)
Engine: 1237cc, 16 valves, liquid-cooled, V-four
Bore x stroke: 81mm x 60mm
Compression ratio: 12:1
Power: 175bhp at 10,000rpm
Torque: 95ft-lbs at 8,750rpm
Front suspension: 43 mm telescopic forks
Adjustment: Preload and 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

99% brilliant in 99% of situations
V4 grunt, high quality finish

It really needs a 250-300 mile fuel range

Rating: 5/5