Tuesday, January 09, 2007

More on my VFR

And then came the VFR. It belonged to my mate Gary, whom I bugged for two solid years to sell it to me. He eventually gave it to me for a ride up to Langebaan on it. This is an unpublished review.
Doing it all with finesse and on a budget
Buying and running an older Honda VFR800Fi

Are you in the market for another bike? Do you want the comfort and touring ability, combined with the commuting competence that a focussed race-rep cannot provide, yet still get the adrenaline flowing. There is a class of bike called sports-tourer to do just that with. These include the modern, purposefully designed BMW R1100S, Truimph Sprint ST and the subject of this review, Honda’s timeless VFR800.

What if you are on a budget? If you cannot afford the later VTEC model, there are the earlier 750’s and 800’s. The first 800cc is the best of the older VFRs, it had loads of character and class, came with fuel injection and a racing inspired engine.

A VFR was never made for this! I had the throttle open to the end. It couldn’t go any further. The road was a slim, focused line of clarity in the middle, flanked by a blur on each side. How fast was I? I dared not look down at the clocks. My chest was pounding. Yet I was oddly relaxed and in control. My mind was racing to absorb the road ahead. I had to be ready for any eventually. Road-signs. Bends. Cars. The back-side of a van flew up to me. No slowing down. Not today. Leant to the right and the van was gone.

The road was remarkebly free of traffic. How long could I maintain this? I can’t hear the trademark V-four drone, as the wind-noise is too excessive. But I don’t mind, the speed is thrilling enough. A long right-hander up ahead. Moved body-weight slightly. The VFR obliged. It is so light and delectable. Still no backing off. Yet I felt in serene, quiet control. Time has slowed down. I saw cars a kilometre ahead in front of me. I flew up to the back of them in seconds, but I had all the time in the world to look, see if it is safe to pass, and urge ahead. My progress was hardly halted. I just came off the throttle ever so slightly, to be ready to brake or swerve. But most of the cars saw me coming and polity made way. Sublime!

The bike felt stable but a bit vague. But feedback was hardly a concern since it is not a racetrack, and my focus was on avoiding other traffic, not shaving milli-seconds of my time.

Then it was time to back off. While my guardian angel was still awake. Braking firmly highlights the odd dual-braking system that a lot of riders hate. It is called CBS or Combined Braking System in Honda-speak. It applies both front and rear brakes no matter which is used seperately. In normal riding this is not very noticeable, but I worry about my habit of balancing and correcting my line into sharp corners, squeezing the rear brake. Under hard braking the front might lock up under load. And this bike does not have ABS. But I have never heard of VFRs spitting of riders, so maybe I am paranoid.

VFRs are sports-tourers, right? And they were always more sporty then toury. But I think I have discovered its naughty side. They can be anti-social hooligans. Who said they are for grey men in pipes and slippers only?

Honda has a corporate philosophy of building “ultimate control” for the rider into its bikes. In street-talk that means its bikes are always easy to ride, never mind how powerful and fast. Unfortunately this often leaves them feeling bland and characterless in comparison to the competition.

So I thought the Honda VFR800Fi would be like that. However, my biking experience is all about dispelling myths and preconceptions about bikes, as informed by the theory in magazines and pub-talk. My experience with a bike has often proved to be different from what I thought I’d learned through reading and listening. I now never conclude that I know something about a bike until I ride it. So the VFR had the benefit of the doubt in its favour.

Of course, I also thought I knew everything there is to know about the VFR. It has always been the benchmark for all-round perfection. A bike to cover long distances with, two-up in comfort with luggage, yet enjoying cutting through the twisty bits of the journey with a lot of fun. In spite of its comfort, it has the brakes and suspension for serious cornering work. Track days? No problem. Mountain passes? Bring it on. Commuting? Check. Touring? Of course.

Honda’s VFRs has a cult following. It is easy to see why. Never before has a bike asked to do such a range of things, and deliver so brilliantly. A jack of all trades is master of none, right? Not the VFR. It does all things brilliantly.

What I didn’t expect was how it would feel. What I love about some of the bikes from Honda’s competitors, is how involving the riding experience is that they provide. That is the point of biking. Otherwise get a car. And Honda does built good cars. Apparently.

Churning the V-four into live was a revelation. It felt light and eager to please. The idle has a muscular, baritone burble, yet it is not slow-revving with a heavy, sledge-hammer feel as I expected. The rev-needle sprang up at the lightest twist of the wrist. It is every bit as racy as an inline four. In the upper revs the deep, bass engine note has a shriek edge to it that is spine-chilling.

I was always a fan of Honda’s V-four. Mainly for that sound. It is hard to mistake it for any other bike on the road; a rumbling, hollow, haunting howl that is part booming Nascar V8, part screaming formula one.

But for it to feel so charismatic is unlike what I expected of Honda. Make no mistake though, it is still as sophisticated as anything to be expected of the marque, but with a lot more presence. Even with the original, quiet exhaust.

The bike is surprisingly light and small. Perhaps dissappointingly so, as I prefer a big and heavy mass to muscle around. It makes me feel safe. The bike is a bit tall, and I had to manouvre it on my toes. Clucth out and a bit of throttle. Gear-action is smooth and quiet. Drive take-up has no scary neck-snapping power surge.

The way the engine revs is very relaxed, without the highly-strung feel of a race-rep, yet it covers ground very fast. The engine has no weak spots and it never runs out of breath. There is a lot of bottom-end grunt, and the mid-range, where it counts, is a tidal wave of unflustered torque.

I settled in and warmed to the bike very quickly. Before long, it enveloped my being. We were one.

It was far from the remote, insulated experience I expected. The machine is gutteral in its mechanical workings; all the moving parts became an extension of myself. I could feel the gear-train turning right inside my crop, sense the pistons whisking up and down, and the oil warming my veins. I didn’t hear the engine; I experienced it.

The VFR reminded me why I love motorcycles. It reminded me why I love riding them.

But while the engine is the focal point of experiencing the bike, it does not dominate it. The VFR is very balanced, and the sum of its total in a real-world sense.

The bike is an engineering master-piece with an exotic sense to it, mainly because of its unique V-four engine with its gear-driven camshaft and valves. It is expensive to service, and would be even more costly if something breaks. But nothing breaks on a VFR; it is part of the bike’s appeal, and reliability is something Honda is rather good at in general.

Known areas of weakness are brake disks that warp or crack, while calipers corrode. The condition of the exhaust down-pipes and collector box is important, as they are also expensive to replace. The type of rider a bike like the VFR attract also means there is less of a chance that the bike is abused and neglected. Or even ridden hard. A VFR rider is not concerned with wheelies, burnouts, track-times, and fast accellartion. They are also less concerned with modifying their bikes; aftermarket exhausts to free that deep V-four bass drone are about as much as most owners will bother.

The earlier, 1998 examples retails for an average of R50 000, increasing to R65 000 for the last, 2002 model. Mileage and condition is less of a concern, as is actually finding one for sale. Owners hold on to them, which says everything there is to know about the bike! They hardly turn up at dealers, so best search-and-find mission will be in newspaper classifieds.

The 21litre tank’s range is 180 miles, but can stretch a journey to 200 miles with the revs kept below 8000rpm. Pillion are quite impressed with the comfy seat and low foot-pegs, while wind-blast is never a problem. Pillion comfort is aided by a removable grab-rail. Two-up also has no noticeable drop in acceleration or performance, while handling remains confidence inspiring. Long journeys does not cause excessive fatigue.

While the NR-inspired (Honda’s expensive, oval-piston exotic) styling of the last VFR750 was postively attractive, the looks of the 800 was inoffensive when new. Some would even call it bland. Today it hardly looks dated, helped by the single-tone paint schemes (apart from a red-and-silver tone that was produced). Most VFR’s are a deep, classy red, although they do come in other colours. The single-sided swing-arm is another VFR trademark, and adds to the sense of exotica, although its effect is obscured by the big exhaust silencer.

The mystique of the VFR is enhanced by the long racing heritage of Honda’s V-fours in endurance, superbike and GP racing. The RC30 is perhaps surpassed only by Ducati’s 916 lineage in myth, legend and desirability. Then there are the troublesome 80’s when Honda nearly took the troublsome V-four VF750F models of the market because of the many warrenty claims. The engines were destroying their camshafts due to an engineering problem. The subsequent VFR750 featured cams driven by a complicated gear-sytem instaed of chains, to win customers back. Legend has it that the system was so expensive to ensure reliabilty, Honda made a loss on every VFR750 sold initially.

The true brilliance of the VFR is that it does what the rider wants, instead of the rider having to adopt to the nature of the bike. And while the chassis has a conservative geometry, it has an agility to it that belies the bike’s user-friendliness; the bike is no soft, sleepy labrador. If its sounds like a bike of contradictions, it is not. These seemingly different qualities merge into a blended, whole machine.

In a biking world where the craze for power and speed is never-ending, the VFR800 is an island of sense and serenity. Yet, as I have proven, it can get mad when you feel like it. A sharp race-rep never lets you take it easy. It is an insult to the design and purpose of such a bike. It demands commited riding all the time. Not so with the VFR. It truly straddles both spheres with consummate ease, and since its birth in 1986 as the over-engineered VFR750, was the only bike worth consider for this role.

It became the 800 in 1998, sporting fuel-injection and trick-looking side-mounted radiators. The engine produced a 110bhp, a full 12bhp more than the 750. Suspension was sportier and it had a shorter wheelbase with the swing-arm is mounted directly to the back of the engine’s crankcasing to keep weight down. The 90 degree V-four itself is derived from the RC45 (successor to the RC30) world superbike racer. If the 750 was ever a bit bland, it could no longer be claimed of the 800. The new engine meant faster and higher revs, and along with the capacity increase, a wider spread in power and torque.

The VFR800 VTEC, launched in 2002, has lost some ground to its competitors. Styling was no longer safe and pleasing to everyone, while Honda returned to chain-driven valves - something VFR enthusiasts bemoan. But the biggest devision of opinion is the VTEC system that uses hydraulics to shut of half of the 16 valves under 7 000rpm. This allows it the higher torque, refinement and silent running of a two-valve per cylinder engine at lower revs, and the power of a 16 valve hiher up. But the system can be hesitant at low revs, while the pronounced and abrupt kick at 7000rpm makes power delivery less seamless. Depending on the rider, this can be exciting however. The engine also needs to be warmed up before the system works properly.

Fans desperatly awaits a non-VTEC 1000cc VFR!

No comments: