1998 Honda VFR800FI Interceptor

Back to the Future

story by MO Staff , Photograph by American Honda & Motorcycle Online Staff, Created Dec. 20, 1997
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The future is becoming clearer. Through a smokey haze of exhaust fumes, road grime, safety flares and emergency vehicle flashers, a sportbike planet of ridiculous power-to-weight ratios and sheer-speed widowmakers is seen. Blame it all on the almost unprecedented success of the Yamaha YZF-R1: 445-pounds wet, 130 bhp at the rear wheel and a waiting list.

When was the last time you heard of a waiting list for a Japanese motorcycle? For 1999 the power-to-weight wars will most likely turn into top-speed skirmishes. Suzuki is rumored to be introducing a big-bore replacement for the GSX-R1100 with projected top speeds of over 200 mph and claimed horsepower output close to 170 bhp. Even once-beens are jumping into the fray.

The Family Tree Actually, Honda can not claim clean hands in all this superbike madness

The legendary but extinct Norton marque has been resurrected with help of March Motors International and plans to produce a V-8 powered superbike, aptly named the Nemesis, that punches out 225 bhp and 225 mph top speeds.Excuse us for a minute, but we heard something coming from across the Pond, a long groan and a yelp followed by an ecstatic sigh. Oops! That must be the collective orgasm of the entire English sportbike press.

Shhh! We heard something else: Muted laughter and something that sounds like a cash register. Oh yeah, that's coming from the actuaries and underwriters at America's insurance companies. Cha-ching.

"Yes your honor, I admit I was going 85 mph in a 45 mph zone, but I was only in second gear!"

"Aiming to reinstate the VFR as the premier all-purpose sportbike, Honda looked to its own racing heritage and Interceptor name."

Amidst all this single-minded testosterone production, Honda has gone back to the future in order to fight the future.

While other manufacturers concentrate on two-wheeled adrenaline fixes and penile enhancements, Honda reached back into their own, proud racing heritage to build what might be -- hell, why hedge? -- what is the most versatile, best-balanced sportbike ever made: The all-new 1998 VFR800FI Interceptor. In 1983 Honda introduced the original VF750F Interceptor.

An excellent street bike, the original Interceptor also posted eight AMA Superbike victories, including the Daytona 200, and finished second in the series. Three years later, Honda gave the Interceptor a complete make-over. First, they added an "R" to the "VF." Next, they redesigned the V-4 engine with a geared cam-drive, offering more peak power. Then they mounted the engine to an aluminum racing frame, covered it with a full fairing and lopped off almost 45 pounds in the process. Finally, in superbike trim, Fred Merkel won the AMA Superbike Title and Wayne Rainey finished second. Above all else, the all-new VFR750F retained its street-wise comfort and balance.

Fred Merkel on his way to his third consecutive AMA Superbike title

In 1990 Honda's 750cc V-4 line split as they introduced the race-track focused RC30 and the street-oriented VFR750F simultaneously. In 1994 the split was further magnified with the debut of the street-legal-in-theory-only RC45 and the friendly, forgiving, comfortable, stylish and red-red '94 VFR750F, a motorcycle that would grab a stranglehold on the enthusiast press Best 750 Street Bike awards, the kind of which would make Saddam Hussein jealous.

Still, despite it's popularity in Europe, the U.S. sales of the 1990 and 1994 VFR incarnations were not overwhelming. Bikes in the 600cc category offered better acceleration and handling for almost $2000 less, and both the 1996 GSX-R750 and new, liter-class sportbikes offered superior power-to-weight ratios for the same price. Never intended as a pure sportbike, the VFR750F had not only lost ground to the more narrowly focused GSX-R750, but also to two of Honda's VTR1000F Super Hawk.

Honda's own: the CBR1100XX as a fast sports-tourer and the VTR1000 as a rider-friendly street-sportbike.

Aiming to reinstate the VFR as the premier all-purpose sportbike, Honda looked to its own racing heritage and Interceptor name. More than that, Honda gave its V-4 street-sportbike more than a make-over; they designed, from the ground up, a completely new motorcycle incorporating successful technology from other models.

Performance is inspired by the RC45 superbike, and the chassis by the VTR1000F. Add a new fuel-injection system, improved suspension and the 800 Interceptor is faster, quicker and more responsive. Redesigned ergonomics and improved wind protection make the Interceptor even more comfortable than the already cushy VFR750.

Fit and Finish

Essentially, what Honda did with the new 800 is remarkable: they improved everything without losing any of the other characteristics that made the 750 such a well-regarded, if not top-selling motorcycle. It is still a forgiving, confidence-inspiring bike. Walk onto a showroom floor and at first glance you might have difficulty distinguishing the new VFR800 from the 750. First of all, it's still an eye-catching blood-red red, and it still retains the same seamless attention to detail and sexy, stylish lines. But look closer and you'll find significant differences. The lines are sleeker, more modern. The new 800's dual headlight has a cat's eye, Anime quality and looks like something you might see in a Speed Racer episode. The fairings are more aerodynamic.

The fuel tank knee-grip area is narrower, though not as narrow than the VTR's.

Despite the fact that the riding position is actually a little more upright than the 750's -- the handlebars are slightly higher -- Honda The Interceptor (foreground) cuts a sleek profile and Honda claims that the drag coefficient is 9 percent lower, due to venting under the windscreen that raises the height of the air stream hitting the rider at highway speeds. Wind and weather protection is better than the 750 and certainly better than the half-faired VTR.

A detachable rear cowling hides the rear passenger seat.

Everyone who rode the 800 remarked about how much less wind resistance they felt at highway speeds and how much more comfortable the riding position is -- improvements not often associated with enhancing the sport riding aspects of a motorcycle -- yet they noticed that the 800 still feels sleeker, slimmer and sportier than its predecessor. "Cool, check this out," said Associate Editor Billy Bartels late last year after receiving Honda's 1998 new product press releases. "The new VFR has this cool race-like single-piece tail end with a cool tail light ..." It's the most obvious stylistic departure from the 750 and one of the first things noticed. Sleek and aggressive, the tail light lens is cleanly integrated into the single-piece tail end. Not only does it look more modern, Honda claims it provides better visibility.

Although the 750 got a bigger thumbs up from our pillion passenger because it was sprung softer, there were no complaints about 800's comfort or the rear-passenger riding position. The seat itself is, well, a competent stock seat, meaning it's not exactly a Corbin seat, but then neither does it suck. It's hard to get excited about it either way.

The new RC45-inspired V-4 engine shares the same basic fundamental design as the 750's, a 90-degree, liquid-cooled DOHC powerplant with a right side-mounted gear-driven cam train. Displacement has been increased to 782cc's due to a 2mm larger bore than the 750 and a 2mm longer stroke than the RC45 (750 bore x stroke -- 70.0mm x 48.6mm; RC45 -- 72mm x 46mm; 800 -- 72mm x 48mm).

New, redesigned pistons coated with a solid lubricant and all-new, aluminum composite cylinder sleeves combine to create a slightly higher compression ratio (800 -- 11.6:1, 750 -- 11.0:1). The new engine is lighter and 15mm slimmer than the 750's. For better mid-range punch the crankshaft remains 180 degrees as compared to the RC45 superbike's 360-degree crank. As for the 750's highly regarded, smooth-shifting tranny, the 800 is just as smooth.

Like the RC45, the new 800 is fuel injected, but, believe it or not, the 800 boasts the next step in its development. The 800's EFI system is smaller and more compact than the RC45's (800's fuel injectors are 65.1mm long, RC45's are 74.0mm) and at least two-pounds lighter. Each cylinder is digitally mapped to help provide precise fuel delivery and spark control.

Exhausts exit through a four-into-two-into-one exhaust system that features a huge, heavy, 6.4-liter stainless-steel can. For those interested in reducing weight, replacing the stock muffler with an aftermarket silencer can take as much as four to five pounds off.

"We feel that this was one of the smoothest, most refined fuel injection systems we've tested."

Although the 800 feels a tad flatter than the 750 on the bottom, throttle response, particularly after 3200 rpm, is crisp and immediate. Power is delivered evenly. There is no lean surge as found on BMW's, no noticeable flat spots like those found on stock T-series Triumphs, and it lacks the mapping flaws that plague the TL1000S.

As with any fuel-injected motorcycle, smooth throttle control is important, particularly mid-corner. At the VRF800 intro, a relatively heavy-handed member of the press, to the bemusement to the Honda engineers who believed they had gotten this one right, complained that the fuel-injection was too precise, too crisp, too immediate, saying he preferred the carbureted VFR750.

True, the fuel-injected 800 demands more vigilance and more refined inputs than the 750. While neither motor approaches open-class power, where you might downshift twice on the 750 to pass, you can usually get away with only one downshift on the 800, if any at all, and with the throttle response being what it is, you'll certainly jet off quicker once the throttle is twisted. This is a motorcycle that can easily be ridden in one gear.

Although the VTR is torquier and produces more top-end horsepower and the 800's horsepower and torque gains over the 750 are modest, the 800, in part because of its excellent fuel-injection system, feels fast and powerful, yet smooth. The 800 reaches peak torque quickly, though not as fast as the twin-cylindered VTR, and holds it for over 3000 rpms, from 6000 to 9000 rpm.

The 800 also reaches the upper limits of its horsepower quicker (though the 750 does reach peak horsepower at 9750 rpm compared to the 800's 10250 rpm) and holds it longer than the 750 (Dyno Charts are here). That is the advantage of progress. Basically, ham-fisted riders will have to teach their right hands better habits. Simply put, we feel that this was one of the smoothest, most refined fuel injection systems we've tested.

On any road under any condition the 800 will easily pull away from the 750, and only on the very tight, twisting mountains roads of Malibu did the VTR truly pull away from the 800. It is there (along with wheelies) where the VTR shows it's only real advantage over the 800. However, as a sport-touring ride, the 800 slaps the VTR around.

The Super Hawk has a horrendous cruising range, about 120 miles from a five gallon fuel capacity (4.2 gallon tank with a .9 gallon reserve) while the 800 posted 200-mile intervals between fill-ups. The 800 is also a more confidence-inspiring ride, meaning that it's easier to ride on unfamiliar roads and corners. Of course, the fact that it is more comfortable over longer distances and offers far superior wind and weather protection goes without saying.

Similar to the VTR1000F, the 800 Interceptor features side-mounted twin radiators. Honda claims that cooling efficiency is improved by taking advantage of the difference in air pressure between the higher-pressure air cavity and the lower pressure outer fairing surface, drawing air through the radiator at highway speeds. The side-mounted radiators also allowed the wheelbase to be reduced 1.2 inches and the engine to be mounted closer to the front wheel for improved weight bias and a lower center of gravity. The result is a better handling and lighter, neutral turning motorcycle.

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Another refinement the 800 inherited from the VTR is the pivotless frame that uses the engine as a stressed member. The aluminum, triple-box, dual-spar frame anchors the steering head directly to the engine and also provides a solid mount for the top of the rear shock. The single-sided aluminum swingarm pivots in specially designed castings in the back of the engine.

Overall, this set-up allows for a 7.7-pound weight savings from the 750's frame as well as more torsional stiffness. Riding the 800 Interceptor, the most noticeable improvement we felt was in the suspension department. Picture tightening the skin of a drum, then imagine the motorcycling equivalent of that picture and apply it to the 800's suspension.

The 750 has a marvelous suspension for riding around town, long-distance highway jaunts and moderate sporting rides, although the soft compression allows the bike to wallow in sweeping corners. In other words, the 750 was the perfect do-it-all bike for folks who don't worship speed above all other gods.

The 800 is a different motorcycle. The suspension is decidedly more taut. The guts of the 41mm conventional front forks have been reworked and the fork tubes are 12mm farther apart for increased torsional rigidity. The fully adjustable rear shock features 4.7 inches of travel, down from the 750's 5.1 inches. New aluminum wheels are lighter and the rear wheel is 5.5 inches wide and able to sport a larger, lower profile tire.

"Honda developed an LBS that offers more feedback for the aggressive, experienced sport rider while providing the less-skilled rider with a safe harbor during panic situations."

The suspension damping characteristics on this motorcycle are excellent. It provides much more feedback to the rider without significantly sacrificing the bikes famous forgiveness. Bumps on the road are felt, but just that, providing important feedback yet so much as to spoil a very comfortable ride. The corresponding increase in rider feedback means that handling in the twisties is significantly better.

The 750 is a more user-friendly machine, but you need to coax the machine before engaging in any serious sporting maneuvers. The 800, in contrast, screams to be flogged. This is an expert-friendly machine. Where the 750 will obediently and deliberately follow your instructions, the 800 will instantly obey your commands. Push this bike hard, dare to go where no VFR has previously gone before, and you will be rewarded.

At the 800 Interceptor's press intro, audible groans were heard when Honda announced that the new 800 came equipped with their infamous linked braking system (LBS). Journalists remembered the LBS of the late CBR1000F that, in their opinion, helped hasten the demise of that flawed motorcycle. Improvements were made for the CBR1100XX, but journalists and expert riders were still unimpressed. However, for the 800 Honda developed an LBS that offers more feedback for the aggressive, experienced sport rider while providing the less-skilled rider with a safe harbor during panic situations.

VFR 750 VFR 1000 VFR 800

At the top is the VFR750, with its traditional twin-spar frame, followed by the Super Hawk (middle) and its pivotless trellis frame, the best of both worlds appears to be pivotless twin-spar frame of the Interceptor (right).

Basically, the LBS works this way: The VFR800 is equipped with dual, 296mm floating discs with three-piston calipers up front and a 256mm rear disc with a three-piston caliper.When the front brake is squeezed, the two outer pistons of the front brake are activated and via a second master cylinder and a PCV valve the middle caliper of the rear brake engages. Apply the rear brake and the two outside rear caliper pistons the middle pistons of the front calipers engage.

The 750 has nice, medium-effort brakes, which are independently controlled on the front and rear. However, grabbing a handful of brake will lock the front tire more easily than you might expect. The sensation of stopping the 800 is quite different. Squeeze the front lever and rather than compressing the forks and transferring weight onto the front contact patch of the bike, you will find the bike scrubbing speed and squatting at the same time.

The sensation is like feeling the rear brake drag, which, in fact, it is. Stomp on the brake pedal and rather than locking up the rear wheel without slowing significantly, and the bike will sit back a little and slow a lot.

"The VFR is equipped with a centerstand, which make the bike easy to garage, maintain, and park on uneven surfaces."

Unless you really go for it, locking the rear tire is not easy. Using the pedal and lever in tandem will stop the bike quickly and without fuss. The bad news for independent control freaks is that disconnecting the system is pretty much a lost cause without major, intrusive surgery or replacing the whole braking system. Squids will be happy to note that, unlike previous versions of LBS, stoppies are difficult, but possible.

The jury is out on which system is better. What we will say about this generation LBS is that it is significantly better than the other versions. Initially, there were no complaints from many of MO's testers, that is, until they were told that this bike was equipped with LBS. After learning about this they tended to nit-pick, which goes to show that the LBS's reputation precedes it.

Sometimes we feel that racers feel the same way about ABS and LBS as many Harley riders feel about helmet laws. They resent the fact that someone, somewhere, is dictating the terms of their riding styles.Criticism often boils down to a question of one's manhood. Still, this version should help mute some of the detractors. Beyond that, Doug Chandler's ZX-7 superbike now has a racing version of Linked Braking on it. When you try it for yourself, report back in and we'll have a verdict.

The instrument panel cluster is lighter and thinner, although some us believe the 750's speedo and tachometer dials are more attractive. The LCD gas and water temperature gauges, odometer, dual tripmeters, outside air temperature gauge, and clock are a nice touch. Nylon passenger grab rails are less sensitive to temperature fluctuations than the steel units of the 750. Underneath the seat Honda has furnished a U-lock and a tool kit. Even though it adds weight, the VFR is equipped with a centerstand, which make the bike easy to garage, maintain, and park on uneven surfaces.

According to American Honda, U.S. sales of the VFR800 are very good, more than double the sales rate of the VFR750 at this time last year. This is heartening because it shows the the American market will support a quality "tweener" bike in what is generally a niche-specific market. Some have complained that the 800 is just too comfortable to be considered a real sportbike, with one British magazine dismissing the VFR outright for top sportbike awards because it feels like a "sofa." Obviously there are few Gold Wings in England.

On the left side of the Pond some American wags have complained that the VFR should have come with hardbags. Ick. Even though it doesn't produce 120 hp at the rear wheel and you don't have to make monthly visits to a chiropractor if you ride one regularly, this is still, first and foremost, a sportbike, and a carefully designed, well-balanced and attractive sportbike, at that.

Hardbags will add weight, and most likely upset the well-thought-out aerodynamics, handling and performance characteristics. And hardbags will look ugly. Besides, we don't find anything wrong with a tank bag and a good set of softbags. Sure, softbags aren't as "secure", but soft bags don't use keys that can be lost and they don't break.

We like this bike. We like it a lot. It's more than a sportbike for the "real world." Though it may not be competitive at local club races, it will blow any sport-tourer sold clear out of the water, it will keep up with any 600 bike and it will more than hold its own in any street riding environment under any conditions against all but the best-ridden open-class bikes. The biggest knock against the 750 was it's price. However with the new design and all the corresponding improvements, the new-generation VFR800FI Interceptor is well worth it's $9499.00 (USD) price tag.

Specifications:

Manufacturer: Honda
Model: 1998 VFR800FI Interceptor
Price: $9499.00
Engine: Liquid cooled 90 degree DOHC
four valve/cylinder V-4
Compression ratio: 11.6:1
Bore and Stroke: 72mm x 48mm
Displacement: 781cc
Carburetion: Electronic fuel injection
with 36mm bores
Transmission: Six speed
Tires/Front: 120/70 ZR17 radial
Tires/Rear: 180/55 ZR17 radial
Rake: 25.5 degrees
Trail: 3.94 in (100mm)
Wheelbase: 56.7 in (1440mm)
Seat Height: 31.7 in (805mm)
Fuel Capacity: 5.5 gal (20.8L)
Claimed Dry Weight: 458.9 lbs (208.2kg)

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