We all know about the VFR story: how an icon evolved, peaked and then slid out of favour and fashion – this is the bike most often cited as a victim of its own development. And now it’s back. But is it good enough to rehabilitate brand VFR?
Think VFR and what comes to mind? Gear driven cams? Race pedigree? Legendary reliability? Smooth, snarling V4? One size fits all? Impeccable, predictable handling? Or linked brakes, V-Tec, questionable styling and a constant battle with excess weight? The story is briefly told. There were some great incarnations of the Viffer – the earliest and lightest, 86-89; the last of the 750s (94 – 97) with sublime handling, looks and and a diet; the first 800 (98 – 01) – last of the gear driven cam models and lightest since the first generation.
The problem for Honda was that pretty much from then on the bike was saddled with dubious technology: linked brakes and ABS arrived with the first of the 800s, with problematic V-Tec and the return of cam chains a couple of years later. The bike never regained the esteem in which it was once held.
And now this… Arriving at a point in time where the sports tourer class has morphed into the ‘adventure’ sector, what is the rationale in resuscitating the most iconic ST of them all? It’s maybe more persuasive than one might think. Consider this scenario. Because such a tiny percentage of adventure bike buyers actually go off road, the base model adventure bike itself is becoming less and less adventure orientated – while the truly versatile ones at the top of the range (KTM Adventure 1200R, GS Adventure) cost serious money. The remainder may offer better value without being exactly cheap, but ride them on tarmac (ie their default environment) and compare them to any decent, true roadster or sports tourer, and you will immediately realise the adventure bike’s limitations, especially if you like your road riding to be that bit more front end focussed. Sooner or later buyers will wake up to the fact that they are paying a premium for a compromise. The 2014 Kawasaki Z1000SX is deservedly selling by the shed load, and lest we forget, this is one from the heart of the supposedly moribund sports tourer sector. Viewed in this light, suddenly the new VFR makes more conceptual sense.
And make no mistake – that Kawasaki is the bike the VFR has to take on, as any sane buyer considering the new Honda will measure it up against the green machine – because the latter is not only the cream of a limited crop, it is also nearly £1500 cheaper than its new Honda oppo. It is a long, long while since a VFR could assume its place as sector king by default. What makes the job even harder is that this bike is also aimed at the VFR devotee. These diehards have had a long while to figure out which of the older viffers works for them, and given that many plump for the last 750s (94 – 97) and the first 800 (see pix above), both of which still make formidable opponents and can be found for as little as £1500, Honda may find the new machine has a challenge its hands winning over its own constituency – never mind the SXs of this world.
So is it up to the job? The new bike sheds some 7kg compared with it’s predecessor, meaning weight is comparable to the last of the 750s, but still considerably heavier than the first generation RC24. (A sadly familiar tale, viz the 1200GS etc etc….) In this case the questionable retention of a single sided swinger, enemy of all those who like their unsprung bulk minimised, is partly responsible. We get single sided swingers when mated with the practicality of shaft drive (as is the case with the VFR 1200) – at least you’re getting some practical benefit from the extra tonnage, and the one type of machine which has the most to gain from being shaft driven is the sports tourer. Once the decision is taken to retain a chain, weight can be minimised by the simple expedient of using a conventional swinger, which in this case would have been faithful to the original RC24. The single sided version really should have been consigned to the same historical parts bin hosting the underseat pipes – another pointless trend, adding weight in the wrong place.
The good news is that the new VFR is sweet handling in and out of town. It doesn’t have particularly radical geometry but is beautifully balanced: like VFRs of old this bike would be just as happy doing a track day as cutting through a congested commute. That familiar on rails stability is a welcome ally in faster bends. The faux USDs work really well, and the base set up really does seem to work in practice for different riding styles. In this respect Honda have managed to give the bike the everyman touch – a touch that is worth its weight in sales, and is often seen as being a uniquely Honda trait, the Blackbird being another example of a performance bike anyone could ride anywhere on tarmac.
Unlike other reviewers, Bg is not convinced that the V-Tec issue is solved. Solving it would mean trusting power delivery to be the rider’s right hand by simply ditching the concept. You can still feel the kick when all sixteen valves wake up and although in no way hazardous it is still a distraction. It would be different if the rider could actuate the V-Tec: sometimes you want it to kick in a bit lower down the rev range. Too often the V-Tec came to life about half a second before power had to be rolled off, courtesy of busy roads. Power delivery as a whole is slightly unusual: short shifting is smooth without any feeling of being grunt laden, and revving out felt a bit breathless in lower gears. Hit 5th and roll on through the V-Tec surge and beyond and suddenly things become rapid. It lacks the elastic band smoothness all round of the last carbed bikes but has a sharper top end once those top two cogs are engaged. Linked brakes have gone, and Honda’s ABS is not intrusive on the road – bigger discs and radial calipers combine with smooth damping to do a decent job of bringing things to a halt.
TC is present and simply on or off. Since we’re not talking ride by wire, the system in place isn’t exactly state of the art, but perfectly adequate for road riding – and given UK road surfaces we’re happier that it’s in situ. The digital display has one massive asset – you can read everything in the brightest sunlight. Heated grips and levers have plenty of adjustability, and pannier mounts are ready to accommodate the luggage. The standard exhaust system seems very quiet, almost to the point of concern, even when the motor is in full fat mode. Which is a real shame, as that off beat gargle was one of the great sounds in biking – although Viffer owners always had to find a way of liberating it: the standard bikes have always been a little subdued aurally.
Given that existing VFR owners are target audience for the 2014 version, one question will be uppermost in dealers minds. If you owned a tidy example of one of the last 750s or the first 800 FI, why exactly would you trade up? There would be no performance, weight or ergonomic advantage. The same applies to the early RC24s, arguably even more so, since clean ones are in short supply. Which may explain the lukewarm views we’ve seen from existing owners re trading up. By the same token, anyone looking to buy a VFR outright would have to justify putting down around an extra £8.5k for the new machine over one of the aforementioned.
Although we’ve made a case for the sports tourer concept, and suspect that the sector could well have plenty of life in it (once buyers figure out that there is a superior alternative to adventure machines on the blacktop), it is hard to resist the conclusion that the new VFR sends something of a mixed message to motorcyclists. It is still relatively heavy despite the absence of shaft drive and remains heavier than at least three previous incarnations: 242 kilos all up would at least be acceptable with shaft drive. With V-Tec and excess bulk still in situ this is a qustionable homage to the best VFRs in show. Effectively we’ve ended up with a very capable but slightly bland halfway house. Honda and Suzuki have lagged behind the other Japanese manufacturers in belatedly responding to European design and engineering advances over the last ten years, and this machine is a very conservative take on what a VFR 800 could be. Keeping the original motor was understandable: it is after all a bomb proof legend in its own right. It’s what they’ve done with it that slightly disappoints. That’s always been the problem for the VFR: living up to its own reputation.