First Ride: Honda Crosstourer review

Built for comfort

The Japanese are big on manners. It’s in their genes. So during the Crosstourer presentation when Honda alluded to the fact that this was the bike their customers had been asking for, we knew what they meant, even if they didn’t say it.

Today’s biker - yes, us - are getting older, balder, greyer and – with that – our perceptions of what a motorbike should be are changing. So rather than saying ‘you’re all decrepit and doddering old farts with failing senses, weakening bladder control and balding heads’ Honda chose to label this differently.

They told us that a great many riders are looking for things other than outright on-paper performance, race-inspired, neck-cramping riding positions and MotoGP inspired styling.

See? Told you they were polite.

So for our generation of arthritic, myopic pile-sufferers (thankfully not me, just yet) we need something different. A Crossover - road orientated, off-road styled street bike. Clearly, BMW knew this some time ago.

But the ubiquitous BMW is a twin, with its cylinders pointing into the breeze, East, West. The Yamaha Super Ten’ is a twin, too just like Ducati’s Multistrada – all sales successes in their own way but twins ain’t for everybody are they?

Which is where Honda’s V4 comes into the market, as an exotic luxury soft roader – a bit like comparing a V8 Range Rover Sport against a four-cylinder Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Honda have used the VFR1200 engine and frame lock-stock and four smoking barrels for this new bike with some fairly significant tweaks. The alloy beam frame stays as is but the engine gets some crucial mods to add twin cylinder punch to its low-down delivery. It’s a bit like anti-tuning in a way but it certainly works.

Whilst the Unicam heads stay untouched apart from different, softer camshaft profiling, by restricting both the intake and exhaust Honda have managed to push lots and lots of torque into the lower areas of the rev range. The stainless steel header pipes are 10mm smaller (in diameter) than the VFR1200s at 28mm ID and the L-shaped intake trumpets are 40mm longer and 4mm smaller diameter. These breathing restrictions, different cam timing and ECU modifications to the fuelling make a massive difference to the feel and behaviour of this engine and the results are so impressive it makes you wonder why they didn’t do it before. The pull from tickover now is BANG-instant. Stand up on the pegs and tweak the throttle open and you can barely hold on, it’s so strong from 1, 2, 3,000RPM. Just the job.

The other modifications to the base-model VFR1200 are a little more obvious. Longer travel suspension, new bodywork and styling, a bigger fuel tank (21L) and wide, high handlebars and a flat, soft seat give the VFR a new, quasi off-road appearance. Wide, spoked alloy wheel rims look great and allow the use of tubeless tyres because of their edge-spoked design. Don’t be fooled though. At 265kgs dry the VFR1200 is as much an off-roader as a Range Rover Sport wearing 22in rims. No, it’s a road bike – a ridiculously comfy one, at that.

So what’s it like to ride? I rode the manual version first that was fitted with the optional top box and panniers. The top box features a VW Pop-Top Camper-style zip open canvas compartment to accommodate an XL full-face lid. 

Like any hard, square and un-aerodynamic luggage it does affect the handling negatively. At speed (above 100mph) it doesn’t induce a weave or shimmy but it always feels like it wants to. For this reason the top speed is electronically limited to 210kmh. Well, I suppose it’s cheaper than a law suit.

Away from long motorway corners and high speeds the effect of the luggage is less noticeable (apart from the startling width) and despite the high kerb weight you don’t really notice it (the weight) when you’re threading corners together, accelerating or braking, particularly if you keep your riding style smooth. The harder you push and the nearer the edges of grip you get, yes, it does start to feel heavy but, trust me on this, you’re travelling at the sort of speeds that involve prison food, to take it out of its comfort zone. The soft, long travel suspension does a great job at smoothing out bad road surfaces and potholes.

But what does smack you right between the eyes is the torque. There’s some real punch on tap without having to get jiggy with the gear lever and chase revs like a maniac. Through much of our 180km road route I barely touched the gear lever. Just rolling on and off the power in third gear was perfectly adequate to thread ten miles of corners together quickly, smoothly and enjoyably. When you’ve got massive low-down torque like this on tap it really does change the way you ride. Effortless. Smooth. Peak revs is at 9,500rpm so each gear gets a wide spectrum of usability, especially as the power is still very strong in the mid and upper reaches of the rev range.

The riding position helps too, especially when you’re attacking an unseen road and chasing someone who’s pushing hard. You can peer over walls, hedgerows, cars and in long sweeping corners, it’s really easy to crane your neck for an early view of the corner exit because you’re sat so upright. 

The seat is a revelation. Where the VFR1200 would tip you forward onto your perineum the Crossrunner, DAMN - I keep calling it that - CROSSTOURER, places both your butt cheeks flat on the squidgey seat base – arms outstretched to the high, wide bars. The view in the mirrors is elbow (and arm) free, the footrests much further forward. Pampered.

A new digital LCD dash gives the normal information plus gear position, fuel remaining, distance to empty and average and actual MPG. Riding it like I stole it I managed 36mpg according to the trip computer. I’d say 50mpg is much more likely if you rode it like you’d paid your own money for it. The tank is 21.5 litres, addressing all the gripes about the VFR1200.

Crosstourer uses a fly-by-wire thottle and so does the VFR1200 for 2012. By using a couple of wheel speed sensors this has allowed Honda to build a remarkably simple but incredible effective traction control system. The system senses when there’s a 25% discrepancy between front and rear wheel speeds and first shuts the throttle butterfly accordingly and then limits the fuel injection if needed. I tried it (brutally) on salt covered tarmac roads and on gravel. It’s effective and totally unobtrusive in its adoption but once it’s cut in and done its job it does take a few seconds to hitch its knickers back up and get going normally. In reverse, the system also works as anti-wheelie. Don't want it? Fine. One button switches it all off.

The fuel injection system and fly-by-wire throttle will also allow the future use of cruise control. I asked 'Large Project Leader' Hasegawa-san about this on behalf of a forum member who wanted to know. To a certain extent it’s already fitted with a form of cruise control in that if you hold it flat-out at 210kmh it will self-regulate the throttle inputs to maintain that speed up and down hills. So, in answer to that question, no the Crosstourer is currently not fitted with cruise control but will be in the future.

Other electrickery? There’s also Honda’s well proven combined ABS as standard equipment. The last thing I wanted to be doing was putting this to the test so I didn’t try it on tarmac but did try it on gravel. It works. But I know it works because it was fitted to the Fireblade I ran last year and it’s both neat and effective.

So make of it what you will but I liked it. Even though I liked the VFR1200 (it suited the way I ride on the road) the Crosstourer will have much wider appeal. It’s one of the comfiest bikes around, has massive luggage potential and that engine is a grunt-laden, turbine-smooth, growly peach. Yes, it’ll be too heavy for some people’s idea of ideal but to those people I’d say ‘try one’. It may be heavier than a BMW GS on paper but in practice (particularly doing slow U-turns and paddling around at walking pace) it certainly doesn’t feel it.

It's available in four colour-ways - Red, Silver, Black and White and comes with a feast of optional extras including, er, a centrestand. And to all those aftermarket screen manufacturers you might like to take note. Whist the Crosstrourer has a two-position screen as standard, it's still not tall enough even when it's on max.

Think I’ve just found the bike I want to run for the year but, having said that,  I am 46. Now where’s my copper arthritis bracelet and that crossword book gone…?