Living with the VFR
OK, let's start with the obvious. This article is about a VFR.
That means it's a pretty good bike by anyone's definition (except maybe the Highwayman and other selected retards). It also means that you've probably seen one or two (or seven) road tests on it. The particulars are well known, about 100 hp at the crank, 55 or so ft/lbs of torque, fuel injected V-Four, linked brakes, etc.
By the consensus vote of the motorcycle editors on the planet, it's the best all around street bike made, even if it doesn't sell all that well in the US. So if you think I'm going to tell you it sucks, well, you're wrong. But this isn't a road test. Nor is it a long term wrap up by the gilded motorcycling press. You know, the guys who call Honda and whine because they need a new tire and then have the oil changed every 300 miles by their ill-paid pit slaves.
This article is about living with the VFR in the real world, by a guy who changes his own oil, checks his own fluid levels and tire pressure, and has a real wife who sits on the back.
It's about the good and the bad. And yes, even the mighty VFR has a few zits and nits.
I bought my VFR, a 1998, new in 2000. I have bought one and sold two other bikes in the meantime. But the VFR remains, for good reason.
I bought the VFR after reading every review I could find on the machine, since my local Honda dealer wasn't about to give me a test ride (which I thought kinda sucked). I wanted a single bike that could do it all. I wanted it to be sporty enough to enjoy solo jaunts along the spectacular mountain roads of Georgia, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina. (Bet you didn't know that SC has some cool mountain roads.) I wanted it to be able to tote myself and my frau with a week or more of clothes to any destination I wanted. I wanted reliability, since I like to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway underneath a full moon. (If you haven't done this, you really should try it.)
I wanted it to be comfortable. I don't like riding 500 miles only to get off and find that your butt feels like a two by four has been nailed to it. And if you think that your wife is going to smile after 500 miles on an uncomfortable seat, you must be a newlywed.
First Impressions at the Dealership
We have all heard about the excellent fit and finish of Hondas, regardless of the recent problems with some of their units.
Well, this bike exceeds even those standards. Honda has lavished tremendous resources on this bike over fifteen years. It is, more than any other bike I have ever been on, a finished, refined piece of work. When you first get on it, you see the results--controls that fall easily to hand, an easy-to-read instrument layout, and each piece of the fairing and frame tightly fitted together. Regardless of its slight porkiness (436 lbs dead dry), the balance is superb. The riding position is made for the long haul, especially with a tankbag set up to lean against and take some weight off of your arms. I have tried cruisers, and they make my back and tush hurt after about 50 miles. Standards are too upright for me. Focused sport bikes are too extreme. The VFR seating position is between a sport and a standard. It's so comfortable, some disparage the bike as being a "sofa."
Well, I was almost sold. So I asked the sales manager, "Why should I buy this bike?"
"It's easy to ride."
"What does that mean?"
"It means you can get on it and ride it for hours and get off not being tired."
"Hmmm," I sez. And I thought about that. Then we started to dicker about the price. I had cheated and pulled the invoice price off of the net and found that the dealers were also getting an extra $350 to sell older VFRs. That helped. We closed the deal. A few days later I picked her up. (If it sounds like I was already bonding, I was.)
Undoubtedly the heart of this bike is that strange and wonderful engine. Mine doesn't have the VTEC system, and it still has that lovely bevel drive camshaft. Fire it up, use a little enrichener if it's cold. Very soon the engine will settle down to its signature lumpy idle. Vibration is almost non-existent, as you'd expect from a 90 degree V-Four.
If I had to compare the characteristics of this engine to another, I'd pick the Ducati 916 engine. I know that sounds like heresy to the ducatisti, but I have spent more than a few miles on Bologna iron. The Honda V-Four almost has the torque of a twin, mated with nearly as strong a horsepower rush as an in-line four. (I wonder if that's why the Ducati GP bike is a 90 degree V-Four?) Undoubtedly the heart of this bike is that strange and wonderful engine.However, the engine tends to run hot. If you live in a climate that rarely breaks 90 degrees, you're unlikely to notice. If you live in Georgia, the heat can be a problem in the summer. Stop at a light and watch the temperature gauge soar past 212 degrees quickly. Fortunately, the engine is designed to take the heat. But knowing the engine is happy does little for the poor schmuck that's sitting on the bike. And the temperature won't really start to come down until you break 60 MPH and hold it. Stop and go traffic in a Georgia summer can become an exercise in endurance. At the Honda Hoot in 2000, I asked a Honda tech if there was something wrong with my bike.
"No," he said. "They just run hot."
"Well," I said, "I've started running Mobil One 20-50 V-Twin, and it seems to cool it off a few degrees. Is it OK to run that?"
"That's the right oil," he said.
(I'm not really trying to make this a Mobil One commercial, but that's all I've ever put in the VFR. And I have never needed to add oil, even when I go 4,000 miles between changes. In fact, I'm going for 6,000 before I change this time.)
There are no jumps and jerks in the power curve. The fuel injection is spot on.
The VFR engine revs effortlessly.
I don't need to look at the tach, since just a slight roll-on of the throttle gets the engine spinning well enough for a sprightly take off. The engine has good "grunt," again similar to the 916. The VFR builds power linearly. There are no jumps and jerks in the power curve. The fuel injection is spot on. As you pass 7,000 rpm, the previously mild mannered engine starts to growl like a Formula One racer. And things get interesting.
You don't have to wring this engine's neck to get horsepower or torque. Gearing is set for high speed cruising, with sixth being pretty useless below 80 MPH. If you ever have the opportunity of cruising at 90 (not that I would recommend such behavior), the engine is just loping along at that speed. Many of the VFR's characteristics seem to be set for the European market. It has 100 horsepower to meet some European regulations. The motor is certainly capable of far more power. And the gearing is tall for American roads. On the autobahn or the autostrada, it's just right.
The VFR is remarkably settled at any speed above about 15 mph. Up until then, it does feel a little porky. But you don't feel like you're working at any speed between 15 and what I call "stupid fast" on public roads. I can tell you that at about 120 it's so settled and stable that it's hard to believe you're eating up a mile every 30 seconds.
There's been a lot of carping in the press about the suspension on the VFR. Some editors say that it's not up to the standards of a first line sport bikes.
They're right. It's not. But it is damn good. It doesn't handle with the razor precision a GSX-R or any other sport bike. Compared to a Ducati, the front end is vague. (Though that can be said about most bikes on the planet.) All said, the VFR is quite stable and tracks the road well, even on less than perfect pavement. When the suspension is criticized I think that the critics forget that this bike is designed to do long days in comfort. That it achieves, in spades. Bike magazine did a test on the VFR where they highballed it from London to Land's End in a single shot. They finished the ride without a twinge. Yep, that's a VFR.
My only comment on the VFR suspension is that you really need to fuss with the set up to get it right. I had to diddle with the fork preload for a while before I found an optimal setting. Even a quarter turn on the adjuster made a difference to me. The rear is less sensitive. I ride between notch 3 and 4, depending on whether or not I have a passenger.
I can tell you that at about 120 it's so settled and stable that it's hard to believe you're eating up a mile every 30 seconds.
I do have tools in my garage that are as reliable as the VFR. Few of them have moving parts. The bike doesn't use oil, coolant, brakefluid, etc. The chain doesn't stretch much. The tires hold pressure. It's easy to clean. In fact, it's about as close as you can get to a maintenance-free ride. I also stay between 36 and 38 mpg, depending on my enthusiasm.
The tires the factory provided may have something to do with the criticism of the suspension.The stock Dunlop 204s that came on the machine were not what I would call the best of tires. I have replaced them with Metzler Sportec M-1s. That move transformed the handling. The rubber is mucho stickier and gets about the same mileage (about 6,000). The rear tire, as shown, has 3,600 miles on it.
Headlight adjustment on this bike is a true pain in the butt. Trying to get to the little tiny adjusters is hard. They're buried way up inside the fairing on the back of the lights in a position that you can't really see. Fortunately, this is not something you need to do very often. When the wife takes up residence on the rear, I increase the preload on the rear shocks by one click to keep the headlights in line.
The engine always bakes me in hot weather no matter what I do. The heat comes off the pipes and toasts my right foot. It blows out over my legs from the vents. It comes up between the seat and tank and tries to roast my "family jewels".
And I think that the VFR could stand to lose a few pounds. It is a very stable mount, and I am no engineer. There may be solid reasons for the weight. But even with the current weight, strong cross-winds are a problem. I am considering mounting a Two Brothers pipe just for the weight loss and to move the CG of the bike a little forward.
You'll notice I didn't mention the linked brakes. That's 'cause I like 'em. I tend to use only the front brake anyway, and the extra force that comes from the rear is a bonus to me.
I have added a few doodads that I consider essential for my riding.
First is a headlight modulator. I really believe in these things, even if the occassional cage driver gets pissed off. I really like it when they think I'm a cop and get their slow butts out of the left lane. My modulator set up is strange, since I had two single headlight modulators in my tool box and put one on each headlight. Since they are set to two different frequencies, my lights go left-right-left-right-both-both. Funky, but fun.
I'm real big on this light thing,
and I have increased my rear lighting substantially with very little effort. Honda put dual filament bulbs and dual contact bulb holders on the tail turn signals. The low wattage portion of the bulb wasn't used. So I ran a few extra wires and connected the tail lights to the unused filament. Now I have four taillights, two amber, two red. Brake lights and signals were not affected. This was easy to do because of the integrated design for the taillights, brakes, and signals. I wish more bikes were designed like this.
Then I put the 46 liter top case from Givi on the rear.
It does make me a little more susceptible to crosswinds, but generally is no problem. But do not overload the top case! You will find the front end being lighter than you'd like. The case is great for commuting, since you can drop your briefcase, your lunch and everything else you need into its gaping maw. On arrival, remove business tools, insert riding jacket and pants. Lock it up. Handy.
I added a Givi windscreen to raise the airflow a few inches. Whether this will work for you or not depends on your height and how you like your wind. I can tell you it's nicely finished and not too hard to install.
And I put one of those manual throttle lock things on it. When you're hauling from filling station to filling station, it's nice to be able to rest the right hand by locking down the throttle for a few minutes. I don't use it much, just when the road's clear and I can afford to move the right hand away from the throttle and brake lever.
I also had the seat lowered by a custom upholstery shop in Atlanta. The stock seat has close to three inches of foam, and trimming out an inch lowers the seat height while not compromising comfort.
As I said, there are a few niggles. The bike should run cooler. A little less weight would be appreciated, and I think the bike would be better set up for two up touring if the weight distribution were a little more biased toward the front end. Inverted forks would improve the front end feel. And a remote preload adjuster would save my knuckles.
But the riding experience is superb. I commute 80 miles a day. Punching holes in the air on Highway 78 from Athens to Atlanta at 8:30 am on a VFR is the right way to start a morning. Rainy or clear, you feel in complete control as you roll up the miles. Is it better than sex? Nah. But it does last longer.
The bottom line is simple. If you're a street rider and want one bike to do it all, then this is probably the best choice.
True, a better sport bike and a better tourer are available. So if you can afford two bikes that are outstanding at what they do, then you might want to go that way. The VFR, by its nature, is a compromise. But the two bikes you select better be superb, because the VFR doesn't really give that much away to the focused sportbikes, the standards, or the tourers. In my opinion, and in the minds of quite a few others, the VFR is the best all-around street bike on the planet.