Glynn Williams is a highly experienced biker and he gives us a great insight into the often misunderstood Honda VFR1200 with his Real Rider Review:
Vilified By the Press
Vilified by the press on its launch for being too sporty, lardy, thirsty, technically underwhelming, expensive, unsuitable for touring with no storage pockets, small panniers; the list went on….and on. Some of course was justified. The VFR is heavy in comparison to a sports bike. It is some 67kg heavier than a CBR1000RR for example. Yet compared with a BMW k1300s, a more direct comparison, there is only 9kg in it: A couple of bags of sugar in the even smaller BMW panniers, or a more lardy pilot and all is equal. Compare it with a ZZR1400 and the Honda is supermodel slim at almost 50kg less. An extra bonus the VFR boasting 20 horses extra too. This is the problem with comparisons and expectations and of course the power. The mainstream bike press. They are notoriously fickle and it can prejudice you. The disparaging magazine articles eat away at your ability to make a decision on your own rationale, makes you doubt your own ability to know what it is you want from a bike.
So is it a touring bike?
Mine example is red that rich, cherry red that looks as good now as it probably did in the showroom back in 2010. The hint of metal flake making it shine on even the worst of British days. It’s fitted with Honda panniers and topbox (more of which later) and Honda heated grips, well one Honda one Oxford these days! The odometer shows 35k now and I have been responsible for 18k of those in my 2 years of ownership. Mostly commuting and ‘headspace’ rides in all weathers, although not intentionally. I hate riding on snow or in icy weather, but I’ve been caught a couple of times and the Honda was fine.
Most things in life are relative; if you like big comfy touring bikes and do the miles you’ll notice how well the VFR hides it’s weight. In fact it will probably feel like a sports bike to you. You probably won’t like the sporty riding position of the Honda though: The weight is on your wrists but this lessens as the speed increases and the smallish screen does a magical job manipulating physics so that the weight disappears. Don’t ask me how I don’t get it, especially as the sporty little fairing does such a great job of keeping you relatively dry. The rain does get through somewhere as I always end up with a wetter groin area than I expect! You will also hate, I mean hate beyond belief the lack of miles you can do before stopping to give tiny fuel tank a drink. Less 4 gallons…come on Honda! If you manage 160 miles you’re a better person than me. Honda quote 44mpg and I get around this figure. On a fun the range can be alarmingly less. In fact 120 miles and it is time to fill it up. That is pitiful for a touring bike but the VFR isn’t a touring bike is it?
Or is it a Sports Bike?
If it’s a sports bike you are comparing it with you may be even more disappointed, the weight will be apparent: The comparative slowness, almost reluctance to turn. The lack of gizmos to fiddle with. There is no electronic suspension gubbins, no anti wheelie, no launch control. There is little more than a decent suspension package and anti-lock brakes. You won’t miss out any power though. Whilst the paper figures may make 160bhp seem low it isn’t. Especially when combined with the massive 95ft lb of torque and a plenty good enough 165mph top end. In Germany only of course! The only bikes passing you on the road will be ones you are letting pass or the very occasional nut job that just has to pass what’s in front. This is a quick bike, far quicker than I expected only losing out on top end but be honest. How often do you do big numbers on the Queen’s highway? And that brings it back to apples being compared with pears: Both fruit but one is a different shape to the other, the VFR is a motorbike but a shape all of its own.
Ride one without any pre-conceptions and this bike makes so much sense. Well it does for me. I like a powerful bike. Big tick, I like a tractable bike. Another tick. Versatile, comfy, decent handling and great looking. Tick, tick, tick, tick and tick again.
Go into the VFR with an open mind
How would this bike fare without pre-conceptions and prejudices? Let’s imagine I’ve never ridden a motorcycle but I know how to though by some magical gene pool brilliance: So here I am standing in front of something without a single preconception or bias. It’s good looking this motorcycle, it appears quite small until you walk towards it and it somehow stands tall on its accessory list centre stand and winks at you as the Welsh sunshine glints off the thick luscious paint almost showing a cheeky side, the dart along the tank blending seamlessly with the sculptured fairing and the non-stock seat with the VFR monogram. Yes a most handsome machine. This example has full luggage that I fiddle with. The panniers come off and go back on easily, no training required. Same with the top box. I notice it wiggles a bit and (due to my acquired motorcycle knowledge) reckon it is to do with the manner air passes over the bike and stability. Well that makes sense to me. So I lift it off the centre stand, well I do second time I didn’t expect it to be quite so heavy and lean it on the side stand and cock my leg over, turn the key and stab the button. Now I notice the aftermarket Akrapovic exhaust rumbling somewhat menacingly, promising more from this thing than I anticipated. There is nothing to learn before I go, indicators, horn and that’s about it, the dash is smart led, big central old fashioned rev counter, un-cluttered and modern so I stand it up, pop it in first and go.
A Sublime ride
The 1200 rides sublimely on these sultry curvy A roads. It feels quite long soaking up the bumps and yet it’s taught somehow. No wallowing, it doesn’t wriggle or buck it just stays on its line and moves on to the next bend. The VFR joining them together almost effortlessly. Like the Honda is reading my mind, without any hint of drama at speeds the police may find interesting. It just does flows. However the VFR is not such a magic carpet on poor B roads: The front end feeling unconnected and the back end firm going on hard. I really want a little more damping as it all feels a bit frenetic and too ‘sporty’.
There is a reluctance to turn in that wasn’t there on the smoother roads, I’ve got to shake the bar to make it drop and lift my shoulder to drag it upright again- it still holds it line though, faultlessly. The seating position is a bit strange too on these sort of roads: My relaxed and spacious top end feeling vulnerable and at odds with the slightly cramped foot-knee-hip sporty position. However as I relax the right wrist and bring the speed down to legal it all makes perfect sense once more. Still fun and probably just as many miles covered in a similar time as when I was pushing the thing out of its comfort zone hauling on the brakes and giving the long travel throttle big twists. Nope, it’s not a sports bike.
There is some vibration though; if you’re lucky enough to be on a stretch where you can maintain higher speeds you will notice it. It’s not nasty, it’s just ‘their’ and it’s only a small band. Ride around the motorway limit or over 90 (where allowed) and it’s gone. It is for me a perfect gear change indicator though when you’re riding normally or pushing on a bit as it comes a touch higher up the rev band halfway to the 10k red at around 5k. Feel the buzz and change up, there really is no benefit in thrashing the thing, just keep moving and use the massive torque. Actually that’s not entirely true, the visceral experience as the exhaust note changes from ‘growl’ to ‘Banshee’ above 6500 is exquisite! Especially from the Akrapovic, the noise bouncing back at me from the mountains goading me; more, more, more. A very un-tourer like attitude for sure!
It even stops!
The brakes work fine they are linked and have anti-lock and are plenty sharp enough for panic stops when the inevitable driver pulls out into your path but they lack any finesse when being ‘sporty’. They are a little ‘all or nothing’ but ‘woolly’ too and just don’t do the sporty side of this bike justice. You’ll get used to them pretty quickly, well I did and they don’t compromise the bike or spoil the ride; they just don’t flatter it.
I’ve done 145 miles and the yellow fuel light is shouting it’s warning at me so I stop at the next highway robbery station and throw some fuel in. The light obviously comes on early as I only need 15litres so it’s done around 40mpg in old money. I get back on and toddle back on my merry way, road signs telling me Cardiff is only 50 miles away so I head on down and head for the bay. It’s a few miles on that I realise I’m still comfortable, my wrists that ached through town and the 30mph limits aren’t sore at all, neither is my back, neck or knees, I’m young again!
I go for a walk around Cardiff bay, have a coffee and a light lunch, hop back on and go for a wander. I find myself back at the same petrol station after subconsciously heading for home, this time I put 13 litres in for the 135 miles I’ve done at normal speeds this equates roughly as 48 to the gallon; not bad.
Keeping the fly boys honest
The weather is holding but I head for home via roads I know, I’m planning on trying to make 50mpg but after just a few miles the sporty side of this fully panniered and top boxed beauty is whispering in my ear. I play with two lads on the sportier Fireblade and I find that the VFR quite is capable of overtaking at almost any time in this 15 or so miles. But I don’t want to shame them as they bang up and down the gears; so I give up and let them go. They are getting more and more ropey, panic braking, ragged lines, accidents waiting to happen, I’m too old for this so I turn left and leave them to calm down.
I’m nearly home after around 9 hours in the saddle and reflect on the day, it’s been a good one. The red Honda has done everything I asked of it. If I did have nothing to compare the VFR to I would be swept away by its all-round brilliance. However I do have comparisons. It’s not as roomy as a specialist tourer: I’ve had the Mrs on the back, she’s not the most willing pillion but was happy enough, not as happy as she was on the BMW K1600 I used to run, but far happier than when she was perched on my Ducati.
It doesn’t go far on a tank full of fuel which is a nuisance. The small tank is a pain in the normal day to day commute, I have to fill up 3 times a week as compared to once a week on the big Beemer. It’s more of a nuisance if you were touring as you don’t need to stop that early as this is a comfortable motorbike capable of a good 3, possibly 4 hours in the saddle. The cramped leg position and awkward weight forward on your wrists riding position is only really apparent after several slow miles of pot-hole Britain. You probably wouldn’t suffer the same on decent smooth roads so you would be far happier keeping going for more than a couple of hours.
Weight isn’t an issue
The weight everyone talks about really isn’t an issue or indeed relevant, I easily touch the floor at the lights, it’s reasonably easy to paddle around whilst on the bike, or if you move the bike around off it, there isn’t a problem either. The panniers are quite small but packing for a few nights away isn’t a problem and they don’t get in the way when filtering- which is a big plus, all the same I leave them off unless I know I need them. The lack of cubby holes is a niggle though as is the lack of charging for your phone or sat nav if you use them. The mirrors are brilliant, rock steady and out of the way of elbows so you always know what the scenery behind looks like.
Is it reliable?
So what has broken in my two years? Very little. One heated grip failed. I replaced this with an Oxford item as my local motorcycle workshop just happened to have a single grip lying around. He’d just done my tyre changes so there was a deal to be had.
As an aside I would say that if you are lucky enough to have a local workshop support it as best you can, don’t be a tight arse trying to save a tenner on a pair of tyres. Build a rapport, they may not be able to do every job you want on your bike, especially if it’s a modern beastie but they’ll save you a fortune on routine stuff. Use ‘em or lose ‘em.
My braking system went awry, binding and freeing up and binding again despite a meticulous strip and clean at home it just kept doing it. Intermittent faults are the worst. Eventually I gave up and passed it to A1 Motorcycles . A full brake overhaul, new seals and a couple of new discs and it’s been fine.
There is a rattle, shortly after starting. This alarmed me but apparently: ‘they all do it’ said the salesman. Anyhow I took it as I had little to lose as it had a 3 month warranty. If it broke it was going back. It’s never broken. It still does it though. Start it, 30secs later it starts to rattle 90seconds later it’s gone. Strange but true.
The battery gave up the ghost. Amazing isn’t it how these things never happen at home? I’d gone to work as normal, no lazy start or indication of a poor battery. Went to it at the end of the day and nothing. As dead as a dead thing. Got a jump start but as soon as I took the leads off it conked out again- flatter than a witches t*t!
Just routine maintenance
That’s it. Nothing else. It gets an extra oil and filter change but that is it. Washed once in a blue moon and polished less but when I do wash and polish it the results are remarkable. Hats off to Honda the paint and finishes are exemplary.
So there you have it the Honda VFR1200f. Neither a sports bike nor a touring bike. It’s a bike all of its own, sporty-ish and tourer-ish. If you don’t do an awful lot of either but do a lot of ‘in between’, with an occasional weekend away or hooligan thrash you should love this anomaly of a motorcycle, I know I do.
Words and Pictures: Glyn Williams
Another V4 Honda: