The VFR has undergone various updates and changes over the years. However the one constant is the VFR's owner loyalty.
In the dating world, being labeled a nice guy by a prospective love interest is the kiss of death, instantly relegating the suitor to the dreaded "friend" status.
Honda's VFR800F Interceptor is a nice, ridiculously competent bike. It goes, turns and stops very nicely without a whole lot of fanfare. Could this niceness at the very core of its being turn out to be the kiss of death for this high-tech V-Four sportbike?
That's what I attempted to decipher in a month of test riding this prospective love interest.
Before doing so, a little model history: The Interceptor's progenitor was Honda's original VF750F, unleashed in 1983. As the winning platform for Honda's AMA Superbike Championship from 1984 to '85, it quickly became the king of all superbikes. The next generation VFR750F, introduced in 1986, claimed the AMA Superbike championships from '86 to '88. And through the years--with some melding and mellowing--it's also become a favorite all-purpose, sporty sport-touring bike, winning "Bike of the Year" awards the world over and creating a cult following of dedicated owners. In 1998, pivotless chassis and a batch of RC45 engine parts, including sweet-sounding, gear-driven cams, positioned the VFR closer to a snarling street prowler, like it once was, all the while keeping true to its light-duty sport-touring mission statement.
For 2002, the bike seen here was revamped and has stood the test of time even though it gained 25 pounds, lost its trick (and costly) gear-driven valvetrain and some of its sporting prowess, moving the bike ever closer to the touring end of sport-touring spectrum. These changes have carried on to this 2004 model.
The 781cc V-Four has a pair of Siamesed cylinders set 90 degrees apart, its 16 valves are actuated by a pedestrian cam chain. It's fueled by 12-hole fuel injectors and is wrapped by a pair of slim-line radiators that peek through the fairing's side vents. Finally, the engine boasts iridium-tipped spark plugs, an air-injection system and a three-way catalyst, technology that helped earn the motor a seven-year federal smog certificate, good until the 2008 model year.
The Honda Interceptor makes for a capable sport-touring mount that can still carve up canyons like a sportbike.
Making up for missing technical panache and additional weight in its kinder, gentler, greener transition from 1998 generation to the 2001 model, the Interceptor's valvetrain now wears a version of Honda's sophisticated VTEC system.
Employed in the company's cars for years, this variable valve-timing system only opens half of the 16-valve motor's valves under 7000 rpm and all of them above that, giving the V-Four an almost Jeckyl/Hyde personality. Riding on the theory that gases travel faster if squeezed through a smaller opening, VTEC opens just one intake and one exhaust valve per cylinder under 7000 rpm, effectively speeding up the intake charge so it swirls quicker and burns more efficiently. At higher revs, when the motor needs a larger fuel-air mixture and can burn it with the increased velocity high revs naturally build, the VTEC system hydraulically opens the once-dormant valves, allowing the motor to breathe normally. Burnt gases are expelled by one of the industry's first (remember, it was in 2001), and still prettiest, underseat muffler arrangements.
The Interceptor's valve-train technology produces two different engines: one under 7000 rpm, and another above this VTEC-powered mark. Super-smooth below this threshold, the motor is quiet, reserved and can be ridden all day in this two-valve-per-cylinder mode (up to 105 mph in sixth gear!). Not that all hell breaks loose when the VTEC machinations kick in, but the motor's character definitely changes as the intake growl and exhaust note get more serious and deep-seated (though not annoying), vibration begins in earnest and more forceful forward motion is produced. It's hard to say if this is solely because of the VTEC. The dyno chart from our well-broken-in test bike displays a linear powerband, as the motor built 11.5 more horsepower from 5000 to 6000 rpm, a 14-horse jump between 6G and 7G, illustrated a 12.5-HP jump on the initial 16-valve boost up to 8000 rpm and gained another 13.5 on the way to nine grand, quite linear. Peak power, at 10,600 rpm, is 97.6 pretty ponies.
Note the near vertical rise in horsepower at the 7000-rpm mark when the VTEC system kicks in and lets all four valves per cylinder breathe deeply. Horsepower, at nearly 100, is plenty adequate, though a bit more would be nice.
A little bit shuddery below 3000 rpm, the engine offers near-perfect fuel-injection mapping, a broad spread of tractable power and decent overrev before the limiter kicks in hard at 12,500 rpm. Interestingly, the ECU limits revs and performance until the coolant temperature is above 150 degrees. A super-smooth, six-speed tranny is actuated by a light-pull hydraulic clutch. Strangely enough, we found the VFR to be geared a little too short (to overcome its added weight?) and had a medium-sized gap between first to second gears.
The 'Ceptor recorded a low of 32 mpg during a high-speed desert romp and a best reading of 52 mpg cruising at a leisurely 70 mph without saddlebags. In one not-so-scientific experiment, the bike got 10 mpg less with the saddlebags. 35 mpg was the average while tossing it around the canyons above Malibu in sportbike mode. During the course of the test (with and without bags), the bike averaged 42 mpg, making possible 200-mile sorties between fill-ups of its 5.8-gallon gas tank.
Lane-splitting in heavy, slow traffic on a warm day and blazing across the desert in 120-degree heat put the temp gauge past the 220-degree mark a few times, but the motor never overheated, burped coolant or lost power.
Harnessing the powerplant is the aforementioned pivotless, tuned-flex aluminum chassis, which features a beefy, steel-backboned rear subframe. The single-sided Pro Arm swingarm contributes to the VFR's 57.4-in. wheelbase. A matched pair of Dunlop D204 Sportmax II radials suffice for the rolling stock.
The 'Ceptor's suspension bits are a bit more conventional than its standout V-Four motor. A simple, right-side-up cartridge fork, with preload-only damping adjustment holds up the front end. A preload- and rebound-adjustable shock resides out back.
With a 150-pound body on board, the preload's range was just about perfect, as we measured 32mm of front static sag with one line showing and 37mm of rear sag with the preload wheel at 30 clicks out (of 37) from full-stiff. Front preload mostly affected brake dive, not overall front-end stiffness and the preload adjusters necessitate an extra-large-bladed flat-head screwdriver that is not found in the tool kit. Without such a tool, the soft, aluminum adjusters are easy to damage.
With its VTEC engine, single-sided swingarm, available hard bags and underseat exhaust, the Honda Interceptor is a machine unique to itself. It's able to fulfill just about any mission it is assigned.
Valved a bit stiffer than the last-generation VFR, overall suspension action on the '04 model was terrific: soft, yet compliant and well composed at a seven-tenths pace on a bumpy road. The Interceptor's suspension is great in many respects, but still compromised to appease the masses. Nonetheless, it works admirably on freeways and backroads.
This high-tech chassis and competent legs conspire to let the terms neutral steering and well-mannered best describe the 'Ceptor's handling manners. Copious mass centralization helps the bike feel at least 50 pounds lighter than its measured weight of 507 lbs.
Hauling this mass down from speed, Honda offered up another high-tech solution to a question nobody asked: a linked-brake system, or LBS, in Hondaspeak. Relaxing some of the heavy handedness of the former VFR's linked brakes, the braking chores on this new-generation of LBS have been reshuffled to give a less obvious linked feel. Now, squeezing the front brake lever activates five out of six pistons in its front calipers and one of three pistons in the rear. Stomping on the rear brake pedal works the balance of the rear caliper's pistons and the sole front piston that isn't operated by the front-brake lever.
Due to this methodical meting out of power and a proportion valve in the system, the linked nature of the brakes is nearly invisible in the real world. In all situations, the beefy Nissin calipers' pistons haul this motorcycle down from speed in a strong, smooth and predictable manner. A major bonus of the LBS is the chassis stability a smidge of rear brake adds to many situations. Increased passenger/rider interface is another benefit, as the bike can be more easily slowed without the normal chassis hobbyhorsing knocking passenger into rider under deceleration.
Testers raved about the VFR's whoa power, whether they were a fan of its linked braking system or not. In the highest praise imaginable, some said they didn't recognize that the brakes were linked. This simple hydraulic system works great, is super-powerful, has a progressive feel, is hard to lock up and is invisible to most riders.
An optional ABS system adds $1000 to the price and 11 pounds to the bike's heft (along with a hydraulic rear preload adjuster and gold brake calipers). Unlike the system on older BMW motorcycles and most cars, the VFR's ABS is absolutely transparent. Stomp on the brakes and the LBS-modulated calipers do their thing. The bike stops without shuddering, without weird servo noises and without fuss.
As a soft-core sportbike, the VFR's ergonomics fall on the comfortable side of the equation. While the seat-to-peg relationship is a happy one, the handlebars are still a bit low for the VFR's sport-touring nature, but work well in the twisty bits. The bike has great, adjustable levers; unfortunately, they are attached to bulky master cylinders that look like those attached to my 1991 CBR600F2. The boldly sculpted bodywork endows the VFR with excellent weather and wind protection, including hand coverage. On the downside, the windscreen has a largish equalization vent at its bottom edge that makes it easy for bugs (and worse critters) to get trapped below it on the fairing. While we're picking nits, it should be told that the headlight dims a bit (on hi or low beam) momentarily when clutch is pulled in, leading us to believe that the charging system is a bit overtaxed. On the plus side, the gauges are easy to read at a glance. Also, the dual tripmeters and odometer were simple to toggle through and the air-temp gauge was much appreciated.
Fill up the VFR's large tank, load up the hard bags and head off to your favorite national park, in this case Yosemite.
Leaving one of the bike's best features for last, the VFR is finally available sport-tour ready with the addition of high-quality, Honda-designed and -engineered hard saddlebags ($1000). Installing the black powdercoated bag mounts was relatively straightforward, but required the use of a high-powered drill to bore four holes. In day-to-day use, the 35-liter bags stayed put and proved flawless in their operation. The quick-detach, color-matched bags were big enough to swallow a full-face helmet, stayed watertight and latched easily, even when stuffed to the seams. To be perfect, the mounts would be a bit more integrated, the bags would come with removable liners and their bottoms would be scratch-resistant, so the bags could be set down in a parking lot with damaging their glossy paint. A matching touring trunk ($326) is also available.
Once the VFR went all sport-touring on the sportbike guys, Interceptor owners have lamented the model's lack of hard bags. In hushed tones, crotchety journalists chalked this up to Honda's nervous product-liability lawyers who deemed bag-induced high-speed wobbles as a deciding factor to nix the luggage. On the contrary, we found that the bike tracked straight and true with the bags at triple-digit speeds, in crosswinds and even doing the ton in wildly whipping winds, a true testament to the VFR's stout, pivotless chassis and excellent balance. So, is the Interceptor's overall niceness the kiss of death? After one month and 2500 miles of day-to-day use, sport-touring and canyon-carving on Honda's mid-sized, sporty sport-tourer, the answer to this test's opening question is a resounding "yes" and a just-as-emphatic "no." On the one hand, the Interceptor's very competence (some would call this "soullessness"), its neutral handling, the way its integrated, anti-lock brakes safely haul it down from speed, the pitch of its sewing-machine-sounding motor seamlessly going about its business under 7000 rpm, the bike's tremendous level of fit, finish and ease of operation don't peg the motoexcitement meter. Fortunately, it is these very same qualities that make the 'Ceptor such a tremendous motorcycle.
In this case, nice will suffice. To hell with the kiss of death. Long live the 'Ceptor.
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