The sex appeal of the Honda VFR1200F lies in its engineering
There’s been a creeping blandness pervading the design of Honda’s cars and bikes since Mr Honda shuffled off this mortal coil and whether Sōichirō-san would approve of the new VFR’s styling or not, he would be surely be pleased by the engineering behind it. We’ve been speculating about the new VFR for ever and now it’s here, to some eyes it is disappointingly short of wow-factor – until you take a closer look.
The new Viffer has a lot to live up to. The VFR name has been around for a quarter century, longer than some of its riders, and there has really been only one serious upgrade in that time – two if you count the introduction of V-TEC variable valve timing. On its launch in 1986 the VFR750 immediately became the standard by which every bike in the category was judged. It was a comfortable and flexible sport tourer, with the emphasis firmly on “sport”. You will find some creaky old riders out there who still maintain that this was one of the best bikes – and the best VFR – ever built.
The VFR800 made its debut in 1998 with its engine based on the famous RC45 race bike. In 2002 it received an upgraded fuel injection system, the revolutionary and much-debated new V-TEC valve control system and revised brakes. Subsequent minor updates saw the V-TEC made smoother and the styling upgraded.
Enter the VFR1200F. We rode the manual transmission version but there is also one with a dual-clutch automatic transmission, providing manual and automatic modes and a paddle-style shifter. Honda has cleverly kept the new bike’s handlebar/seat/footpegs relationship very much like the old 800’s, except that it’s even more comfortable.
Like the 800 before it, the 1200 gets technology from race bikes - in this case the RC211V from MotoGP donated the sealed crankcase system that reduces the pumping loss created through piston movement and air density. But another, very different, bike supplied something new for the VFR. The CRF motocrosser contributed its single overhead camshaft, cylinder head design. This system has never been used on a road bike before and is supposed to improve both throttle response and fuel consumption.
The V-four feels like two engines in one, thanks mainly to the restrictive exhaust. Below 5600rpm, a flap closes off part of the tailpipe, pretty obviously to meet emissions standards. This also means the exhaust note below 5600rpm is ultra quiet, although with a metallic rasp. Once the flap opens, the great sound of the V-four comes alive.
It’s not just the sound, either. Once the exhaust flap opens up, the 1200 displays massive power and torque. This can be a bit of a double-edged sword through tight 35km/h corners where the bike will either almost be bouncing off the rev limiter in first gear, or in second just on the edge of opening up the flap, which results in a momentary lag until the flap opens wide giving you full power. It’s a bit like the V-TEC system of the 800; it just takes some getting used to.
The new “fly-by-wire” throttle gives a light and precise feel, which in turn makes it easy to maintain constant speed. Without cruise control as standard or as an accessory, this is welcome. For 25 big ones it would have been nice to have cruise control, actually, as well as tyre pressure monitors, an electrically adjustable screen and at least the option of electric suspension. Oh, that price is without panniers, too.
But there is no shortage of new technology such as the symmetrically coupled phase-shift crankshaft (SCPC), which reduces primary vibration and noise. The shaft drive has been designed with an offset pivot point to give a more “chain like” feel. The engine is very compact thanks to a redesigned piston layout, creating a slim bike and making the 1200 manageable for most riders.
Gearing is quite high but the ratios are close together and travelling at a speed-limited 50-70km/h can be hard in anything above third gear. A slipper clutch, similar to the one fitted to the CBR1000RR, gives plenty of feel and keeps the rear wheel turning when braking into corners.
Handling is taken care of by a relatively short wheelbase and a light and rigid aluminium frame, matched to full adjustable inverted forks on the front and fully adjustable rear monoshock. The steering is medium to heavy under 30km/h but once you get up speed in the straight or in corners, the 1200 feels so comfortable and stable that it’s just like a sports bike on a racetrack (without the hard setup). It’s on the public road where the VFR truly comes into its own.
Bumps, dips, rough surfaces and loose gravel were no problem and the amount of feedback from the front end is top of the class. Honda calls it “total control” and that’s spot on. Turn in is precise and changing line mid-corner is a breeze.
Braking consists of a combined system with radial mounted six-piston calipers and large discs up front and a large disc at the rear. Anti-lock braking (ABS) is standard. This adds up to great power and feel.
Most other innovations may not be immediately obvious but they work exceptionally well. The new vacuum moulded seat is perfect, even for the pillion. The small extensions to the fairing that shield the rider’s hand are highly effective and the “double-skin” fairing does a superb job in keeping engine heat away from the rider. The horn and indicator switches have swapped position, Aprilia-style, to make indicating a more natural process for the thumb. It takes a while to get used to this but it works to minimise hand movement.
The new VFR is something pretty rare: a sports bike with race heritage that will allow you to go touring.
Honda VRF1200F - Quickspecs
$24,990 (plus on-road charges)
Two years, unlimited km
127kW @ 10,000rpm
129Nm @ 8,750rpm
Liquid-cooled, four-stroke, V-four, 16-valve, SOHC
Bore x stroke:
81.0 x 60.0mm
Constant mesh, six-speed shaft drive
Wet, multi-plate slipper type
Front, 43mm inverted fork, adjustable preload and rebound, 119.4mm axle travel. Rear, monoshock, adjustable preload and rebound, 129.5mm axle travel.
Seat height 815mm, kerb weight 268.1kg (wet), fuel capacity 18.5 litres, wheelbase 1545mm
Front, 120/70/ZR17. Rear, 190/55/ZR17
Aluminium twin-spar diamond configuration
Front, twin 320mm discs with ABS six-piston monobloc caliper. Rear, 276mm disc with ABS twin-piston caliper.
6.8 litres per 100km, premium unleaded
Candy prominence red, seal silver metallic
Great handling, superb engineering