This is a review based on my thoughts from a bit under two years ago, just after a test ride on a 2010 VFR. The original draft circulated among a few discussion boards on the web, under the title “60+ miles on the VFR1200”. It has been revised and cleaned up a bit since then, in anticipation of publishing it on my own web page. It was never originally meant to be more than a quick summary of the bike for internet discussion, so some of the photos of the bike are more recent, replacing the more hastily-snapped smartphone shots. I felt then that the VFR1200 was an ironic victim of Honda’s own marketing missteps – a beautifully written bike, devoid of any readers. Designed for the way Americans in general do not ride, and marketed as a game-changer to a crowd that was never really watching the game in the first place. “Honda has lost the plot”. “What’s the point?”. “An answer to a question nobody was asking”. These were common remarks that met the VFR1200 upon introduction.
Instantly tattooed as being too fat and heavy for the sport bike crowd, too cramped and sporty for the touring set, and too ugly for them all by a hungry public expecting a lithe, nimble, light and more powerful VFR1000, it left a multitude of fans of earlier VFR’s feeling forgotten. But the tragedy among the ashes is that the VFR1200 is a brilliant motorcycle. After the review was written, I went on to purchase the bike, which I still own. After 18000 miles aboard the big Honda, my feelings are still very much the same as they were after the test ride.
Having recently, against my better judgement, kicked a gorgeous German stalwart out of my garage, sadly in exchange for nothing but cold, lifeless cash, I’ve found myself bikeless for the first time in more than 20 years. My BMW K1300S was to be a keeper, but unforeseen family expenses are more important, even for a fanatic like me. While I miss the K bike, I’m not one to dally too long in the past. There are bikes to be ridden, if not owned. In an attempt to use my days as a single man (bike-wise) wisely, I thought I’d fill the void by having a go aboard a few bikes that had piqued my curiosity.
In that spirit, I stopped by my local dealer to peruse the inventory, as I do on a regular basis, and saw a VFR1200F on the floor. Having never so much as sat on one before, I ambled over for a look. It was a 2010, bought new on a whim by the previous owner, as a change of pace from a long string of cruisers. He put 2801 miles on it, and traded it back in on another cruiser; A short-lived and expensive exercise in futility. You probably haven’t been riding long if you haven’t experienced the same thing in pursuit of the “One”.
My impression was much different than I thought it might be. Photos, and passing glances at the very few new VFR’s I’ve ever seen in the wild did nothing for me, but I should probably just get it out of the way now: I’ve had a history of being a European bike snob. As a sometime reviewer of bikes, I’m usually adept at suppressing my biases in the interest of objectivity. But we all have them, and mine are toward the unusual. Not because I want to be seen on any certain bike – I’m an introverted sort by nature. Instead, its because part of motorcycling, for me, is the connection with the machine. The lingering look back at Italian exhausts and the precisely engineered subtleties in shift levers- the quirks that provide ‘character’ in one form or another. The little things that make a bike, well, sort of…not Japanese.
But the silver lining of not owning a bike – for me, anyway – is that there are, as of now, no lingering looks back. My lens is still colored by what I’ve loved and not loved in my history on two wheels, but there’s nothing in my garage with a motor and two wheels at the moment, and truthfully, I’ve ridden just a very few bikes in my life about which I liked nothing. I’ve tried my best to call this one as I saw it.
Build quality on the VFR1200F is phenomenal. There’s just no way around that. It’s beautifully finished, and flawlessly executed. The paint is much-talked about for it’s mirror-like smoothness, and it should be. The paint is gorgeous. The red has a heavy metal flake, which is really beautiful in the sun, and understated depth indoors and in the shade.
I’ve never been much for the styling of the VFR’s I’ve seen in pictures. Actually that’s probably a soft description of my feelings. I hated the styling of this bike initially. I never ran to puke in the bushes when I saw one in print, but I did feel the bile rising in the back of my throat. Sales-to-date indicate I share that feeling with the majority of American riders. That’s one reason this thing is rare on the road, and why used examples like this sit in dealer showrooms for 10 months.
But I’ll have to admit, it was MUCH better looking in person. I’m still a bit stylistically-offended by the headlight and the nose fairing, but more on that later. The gauges are extremely easy to read – even in the bright sun – and are well laid out. They’re larger in person than they appear in pics.
Ergos are eerily similar to the K1300S, which are in turn quite close to the VFR800. The Cycle-Ergo website shows a tad less reach to the bars, and higher pegs, with almost exactly the same seat height, resulting in less legroom. I’ll agree with the former, although it felt like the seat/bar distance is very close; the shape of the Honda clip-ons are angled just a hair more inward, and maybe a few millimeters higher, but overall width of the bars is roughly the same.
The legroom had me puzzled a bit. It felt very much the same as the K/S in terms of seat-to-peg distance, but the overall rider’s triangle felt more relaxed than the sum of its parts. I would liken the feel to a K12/13 with about 10mm lower pegs, and maybe 20mm higher bars. But the numbers don’t lie, and they say the bikes are awfully close to the same. The windshield is similar in size, but wrapped a bit more around the cockpit, and seemingly angled upward at a steeper rake than other hypersports. And I think the windshield, coupled with the tach arrangement placed fairly high – at the very base of the windshield in easy view – added to the illusion of a bit more room.
The tank was slim at the waist, and was much less bulbous – much more organically-shaped and flowing – than it appears in pictures.
The factory exhaust, in shape and size, is a monstrosity of the sort found on most new offerings of the sportier variety from Japan. If it were my bike, I would change it. But not because it’s so ugly. Actually, in person, it just kinda works somehow, balancing front and rear of a front-weighted profile, while keeping the single-sided swingarm in full view. Instead, I would change it because it’s quiet. Really quiet. The V4 does sound nice, though, even through the factory can. Deeper undertones than the wedge inline 4 of the K1300S – and a bit more vibration, too: At idle, the rear plate-hanger shook noticeably.
I hate to make the comparison, because its actually a deeper, more aggressive sounding note, but the engine sounds much like a Boxer at idle: in cadence, if not in exact tone.
Underway, the vibes are still there, but heavily muted, and not noticeable at all above 3000 RPM. Again, not unlike a Boxer. If the vibes on an R-bike bother you, those from the VFR mill would, too. They could be felt more through the pegs than the bars, but I didn’t find them obtrusive or uncomfortable. More a throbbing pulse – an awareness of a big engine down there – than a tingly, high-frequency annoyance.
From a stop, the bike launched easily, with relatively light clutch action – aided, probably, by very long control levers. Not much clutch slippage was needed for a smooth getaway, as off-idle torque and gearing conspired for an uneventful takeoff.
Steering is light. The bike has a bit steeper rake than the K, and felt it. Power is immense, but wasn’t delivered in the manic style of the K at higher revs (which I loved about the 13). Just very linear and very tractable up to about 6000 RPM, when the fury and the sound are unleashed. Fantastically fast, and probably very similar to the K on paper. But I never felt the ‘hand-of-God’, face-melting surge of the BMW to which I’ve become so accustomed. This probably says more about a flat torque curve and a smooth feel than any real differences. Looking at the speedo, the numbers seemed to climb just as quickly, but the overall feeling was a bit more subdued.
Over typical highways, sweepers, and city riding, handling is superb. The bike felt much lighter than it is, and the input required to initiate a turn was very slight. Make no mistake, on tight curves, carrying much speed on this bike would be work: It’s no CBR1000. Transitions from one tight curve to another required some conscious effort. Mid-turn bumps didn’t seem to upset the chassis much, and the bike stayed on line. Overall, the steering felt more airy than the K1300S. Stability is also very similar in sweepers. The Honda had that rail-like feeling many have come to appreciate on longish-wheelbase bikes, with maybe a slight bit less side-to-side stability than a K1300S over rough pavement and in cross winds, no doubt due to the tighter geometry and the lack of a steering damper, which comes standard on the K/S. But the differences in stability were very, very slight.
Much was published about first and second-gear fueling problems on the ’10’s and ’11’s that were rectified in the 2012 VFR. I felt no such thing in first, but second gear has some flaws. Under engine braking, second gear on-off throttle transitions were extremely snatchy. Throttle pickup was abrupt enough to upset the chassis considerably. Once I discovered the trait, I did everything I could with the throttle to ride around it. Even the slightest movement back onto the gas caused a big jump in power delivery. It can be managed with gear selection on a bike with this much power, but the method took some experimentation to find, and some forethought to execute. Staying in third under engine braking, shifting into second – simultaneously adding a bit of throttle – results in relatively smooth transitions. The revs need to match the gears on this bike precisely in the lower 2 or 3, apparently. But if your riding is done in tighter, more technical terrain, a solution requiring conscious thought would get annoying in a hurry.
Suspension was decent. That’s it. Decent. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, really. There are some nasty stretches of highway on state road 63 in Indiana, and I aimed for as many as I could. The bike wasn’t upset by the roughness, but it felt more firm than a K with the electronic suspension in ‘sport’ mode. A bit harsh, actually. Front and rear are manually adjustable, and in fairness, I adjusted neither preload nor damping. But whether they could be dialed in to feel as planted as the K, without going to the aftermarket, is a question I’ll have to leave unanswered for another day.
View from the mirrors is adequate. If you happen to have experience on the BMW K12 or 13, and have become familiar with a certain part of your shoulder in the mirror, you’ll see that same part of your shoulder on the VFR. There is a little vibration at some RPMs in the mirrors, exacerbated by the slightly-lumpier engine of the Viffer. Nothing that would bother me, and nothing more than most other bikes I’ve owned, but it is there.
Braking was fantastic. Excellent feel from the front, and very progressive. I tested the ABS intentionally a couple of times, and it is very smooth. Like the K/S, there was more of a ‘sound’ than a ‘feel’ upon activation.
Shifting was impressive. As in, totally positive, totally quiet, totally effortless, impressive. Up and down, skipping gears, finding neutral with a few revs still on the clock, I couldn’t find a flaw. It was that good.
The shaft drive seemed excellent. I didn’t notice it, and didn’t think about it. That’s probably the highest compliment I could pay to a shaft-driven final. (EDIT: After 18000 miles on the bike, the shaft drive still works superbly, with no noticeable lash in the driveline. At parking lot speeds, it clunks like a hammer in a steel bucket. All riders I’ve spoken with say the same. It’s apparently nothing to worry about, but it’s noticeable).
The seat was wide in the seating area, and waspy-thin at the tank junction. I didn’t hang off on the test ride, but doing so wouldn’t be inhibited by the seat. And it is very flat. Wooden plank flat. And the foam was hard. At only 60 miles ridden on the test ride, with a stop at the halfway point to snap a few phone pics, I’m not qualified to pass judgement on long-term comfort. But the seat wasn’t uncomfortable in the least, despite my description. The hardness came from the seating materials, rather than from settling through some overly-soft foam to the pan. It seemed supportive. (EDIT: the seat, long-term, is slick and uncomfortable. Solved with an Airhawk cushion).
Wind management was really, really good for the type. Here’s where I address that front-end I mentioned earlier…
The windshield has a 3\4-or-so inch gap at the base, maybe six or seven inches wide, ostensibly to prevent the “convertible effect” of the vacuum behind windscreens. And it seems to work amazingly well. There was NO turbulence at any speed for my 6′ 2″ frame. None. Just smooth, quiet air.
And that’s why I wanted to address the front end in a bit more detail. When you experience the wind protection firsthand, and then look again at the fairing after the ride, it’s…still ugly. But it begins to make some sense, too. Honda did extensive aerodynamic design on this bike, and it’s apparent. The flat-silver of the mirror stalks complete with huge turn signal lenses, and the tendrils of the upper part of the headlight lens angling up-and-out from the main bulb, give a “shiny” look to the front. In fact, after looking at some print reviews of the bike, (but not looking closely-enough) I was critical of the use of chrome on a bike of this type. But there isn’t any. It’s the combination of flat silver paint, and a large mass of reflective lenses in the oversize lighting that give it that feel.
I didn’t expect to be impressed by this bike. With many pardons begged of any long-term Honda fans, Hondas, to me, are the Toyota Camrys of motorcycling. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But with the perfect, automotive-like paint and finish, and the jetson’s-like, futuristic styling of the bike, anyone could be excused for feeling the same about this Honda. The styling isn’t for everybody. In fact, to the chagrin of Honda, so far it’s seemingly for hardly anybody.
But this is no Camry. It’s a decently throaty-sounding beast of a bike, with impressive power, surprisingly-quick handling, a staggeringly good transmission…and some de-facto character as a result, though 60 miles are nowhere near enough to expose livability flaws, for sure.
Would I buy it over a K1300S? Apples-to-apples, no, I wouldn’t. But I learned a bit more about myself and my euro-centric snobbery…because I prefer the K13, but not for any reasons of competency of the K over this bike. The VFR was not great compared with (fill in the blank). It was a great motorcycle, period. I preferred the K simply because it has the intangible mix of character and German-ness (and all the good and bad that brings), and the combination of civility and incivility that is the BMW. The VFR I rode was basic – no luggage, no heated grips. Electronic suspension and traction control weren’t available in 2010 (although TC was standard in ’12 and ’13). Because so much technology went in to the development of this motorcycle, it’s hard to call it ‘spartan’. But in rider-interface electronics and options, compared with a spec’d-out BMW, it most definitely is.
But if price were factored in, would I buy it? Yes. Hell yes. This bike could be bought somewhere in the $8-9K range. Didn’t buy it (yet), but I was sorely tempted. Which is saying a lot. I was no more a fan of the styling of the VFR12 than I am of kidney stones. But after riding it, it’s much easier to come to terms with the looks, because it just works so damn well. Honda’s failure to price this bike option-for-option with the competition, and the massive letdown felt by the VFR 750 and 800 owners when the light-yet-powerful new world-beater never materialized….along with that over-the-top styling, all compounded the fact that this is a wonderful bike at the wrong time, in a world where many are switching to Adventure bikes. An epic marketing fail for Honda now results in what has to be one of the best sport-touring used buys in the motorcycling world at the moment….if you can get past that face – and the fact that it’s a Honda. Some of us still aren’t ready to be one of the “nicest people”.