When I was offered the opportunity to ride a BMW F800ST and a Honda VFR800 Interceptor from Los Angeles to Monterey, CA to watch the world’s craziest guys race their 800s faster than any of us can ever imagine riding, I of course had to say “When do we go?”
The race was fantastic, probably the most exciting race I’ve ever seen! Rossi and Stoner battling on and off track, elbow to elbow, for 24 laps, before Stoner went wide and ended up laying his Ducati into the gravel then remounting and still finishing in the runner-up position.
However, for me the most fun is always the riding, up to Laguna Seca Raceway on the Monterey peninsula and back to Los Angeles over 900 miles of scenic roads, twisties, fast pavement (of course never above the legal speed limit), and as little freeway as possible.
Let’s look at the 800cc competition.
Honda’s VFR series started its life back in 1983. Its square-tube perimeter frame and 750cc V-Four engine were a revelation. It got an aluminum chassis in a wholesale update in 1986, keeping it competitive with Suzuki’s game-changing new GSX-R750. The Interceptor was transformed into a softer-core sportbike in 1990 after the competition had introduced their lighter new race-replicas. In 1998 Honda debuted the VFR800 with its V-Four engine enlarged to 781cc and an accent toward the mid-size sports-touring class.
In 2002, the sixth-generation VFR was introduced with dual underseat exhaust, optional anti-lock braking system and optional hard luggage, once again with the Interceptor nameplate. The new bike saw the debut of Honda’s VTEC valve-actuation technology in a motorcycle. The VTEC system operates only 2 valves per cylinder at lower revs for improved bottom-end power and fuel efficiency, with all four valves per cylinder opening up for more power. A mild update in ’06 included a revised ECU to smooth the VTEC transition, now engaging at 6400 revs instead of 7000 rpm, and clear turnsignal lenses.
BMW introduced its 800cc middleweight in 2007 as a well-received compromise between its 650s and literbikes. The F800 line features a liquid-cooled parallel-Twin engine, compared to BMW’s typical opposed-cylinder Boxer engines. The ST (sport-touring) is the touring version of the F800S (sport), equipped with a full fairing compared to the S’s half fairing, a taller tubular handlebar compared to the S’s clip-ons, and a taller windshield. It also comes with a large aluminum luggage rack. The wheel design of the ST is borrowed from the K1200ST, and the cast aluminum hoops feature side-mounted valves for easy tire pressure control.
The overall appearance of a motorcycle comes down to individual taste and personal preference. I am a fan of BMWs’ looks, except those odd-looking Boxer-engines, and I am thankful that the F800ST does not have one of those double-sided tumors. For a sport-touring bike, it doesn’t even look bulky and overweight – even its optional saddlebags are pretty cool, not bulky at all. If you look closely, the same design details repeat themselves over and over, from the seat, the tank, the footpegs, to the fairing, and so on. Its sleek forms and proportions are well thought out from top to bottom to make it the “Designer Bike” out of the two contenders. And in a nod to the Honda, here in our discussion of the Beemer, I have to say I love the minimalist look and appearance of a seemingly floating rear wheel of the single-sided swingarm of both bikes.
'Japanese designers know how to translate their proven designs into a more modern version each time they come out with a new model.'
The Honda VFR800 is really well put together, as Hondas typically are. The Japanese designers know how to translate their proven designs into a more modern version each time they come out with a new model. The integrated turnsignal indicators make the whole bike look like it is designed as one piece. Even the dashboard has a sophisticated look. However, the bike does look a little bulky for a middleweight, and even more so with its saddlebags on. Its width reminds me of its big cousin, the ST1300.
The Honda’s instruments layout is very efficient and gives you the basic info with one quick look. Right in the center you have the tachometer with a white ring outside the numbers, which makes it really pop so a rider is able to read it without searching. To its left a digital display indicates speed as well as engine-coolant temperature. On the right side a digital display indicates odometer, tripmeters, fuel level and a clock. Two marked buttons, one on the left and one on the right, are for selection and adjustments. The gauges lack only a handy gear-position indicator like the BMW’s.
The BMW’s dashboard is a little more complicated. The analog speedometer and tachometer are sitting on top of each other, with tiny white numbers on black background. The speedometer ranges not only from 0 to 150 mph, but also 0 to 240 km/h, which makes it a little confusing and hard to read. It might take a second or two to find what you are looking for. On the right is a digital display with clock, odometer, tripmeters, gear indicator, fuel level and engine-coolant temperature. An optional on-board computer ($250) includes info about average fuel consumption, average speed, fuel level, clock, stop watch, as well as ambient temperature. Two unmarked buttons for selection and adjustment are located between the speedometer/tach and the digital display. You better remember which is which, or you’ll end up selecting and adjusting the clock instead of the tripmeter.
The Germans usually do things their own way, and the turnsignal switches on the F800 exemplify this. The BMW has one button for the left turnsignal on the left handlebar, and one button for the right turnsignal. Worse, it has a separate cancel button on the right handlebar that requires an upward movement with your thumb, which is a stretch for small hands to reach without getting off the throttle. Its other cockpit deficiency are mirrors mounted too low, giving a view mostly of your forearms.
The Honda’s switchgear is the same as all Japanese bikes and therefore easy to remember and find.
Let The Sport-Touring Begin!
The starting point was at Alfonse “Fonzie” Palaima’s place in Marina Del Rey. Ed-in-Chief Duke met us there, and we loaded up the bikes and headed toward Ojai for lunch.
The F800ST comes standard with a 33.1-inch seat height, but I was grateful – standing not so tall at 5-foot-5 – to see our test unit was fitted with BMW’s optional lower seat (31.1 inches) and the optional suspension lowering kit. Thus equipped, our bike’s seat height was a modest 29.9 inches, and this motivated Kevin to let me ride it first.
I never thought I could ride any BMW, because they are obviously built for tall Germans. But the reduced height of our lowered F800ST makes it really easy even for shorter people to maneuver around in city traffic, resulting in the 461-pound (wet) BMW feeling light and nimble. It has a tank-empty 80-lb weight advantage over the Honda, which makes a noticeable difference. And the wide, upright handlebar makes it so much fun to flip from side to side.
The freeway ride on the F800ST to Ojai was very comfortable, not only due to the upright seating position, but also because of its cozy butt-shaped seat biased for comfort, not speed. I really wonder how those Germans managed to do that, cut a seat down by more than 2 inches and you still don’t feel any soreness after hours of riding.
The BMW’s upright handlebar is made relatively taller because of the low seat, and this combined with a comfy seat make a long straight ride seem like you just sat down in your sofa and you plan on staying there for a while.
'The freeway ride on the F800ST to Ojai was very comfortable.'
On the other hand, that sharp-edged shape requires you to sit on a ridge when shifting your weight in a turn. Also, the shortened seat-to-peg distance will tightly fold a taller rider’s knees, although it didn’t much bother the 5-foot-8 Duke during his stints.
The VFR’s taller seat height (31.7 inches) and rounded shape allowed me to be somewhat flat-footed at a stop and lets a rider move around however they please. The Honda’s sportier seating position and clip-ons are perfect for fast sweepers but do get a little uncomfortable on the freeway. Also, despite the thicker seat padding, the VFR rider’s butt starts squirming earlier than on the BMW.
The BMW’s optional factory-equipped saddlebags, called Sports Cases have some tricks up their sleeves. They are conveniently expandable and come with removable waterproof inner bags to keep your luggage dry, even when riding in the rain. The bags attach and detach very easily.
Our test bike was also fitted with an accessory tank bag that attaches with bolts to the plastic faux fuel tank and can be removed and reattached with convenient clips. Due to the lower seat and my short torso, the tank bag came up to right under my chin, which actually touched once while tucking in a little in some twisties. The tank bag doesn’t have to be removed when fueling, as the F800’s gas cap is conveniently located on the right side of the seat, behind the rider. And guess what? No more guessing, looking, spilling… this is like fueling a car.
The Beemer’s fairly tall and steep windscreen provides perfect protection and leads the wind right above the rider’s head, even with the upright seating position. Yes, I am shorter than most riders, but I did test it standing up a bit, to have my head higher up. However, tall riders sitting on the bike’s standard seat will feel more wind. The Honda will make riders who are taller than I duck at faster speeds to avoid wind resistance.
After refueling the bikes, as well as ourselves, in Ojai, off we went onto Routes 33 and 58.
Getting back onto four cylinders after the Beemer’s Twin, the Honda VFR definitely let me feel the difference in power. On the long, fast stretches of Highway 33, the 540-pound Honda pulls its weight with ease.
Honda’s VTEC four-cylinder engine has more power than the BMW’s Twin and is my preferred choice for faster, more aggressive riding. The VFR’s sportier riding position, seat and handlebars allow a great amount of fun in the tighter turns of Highway 58, even with two loaded saddlebags and a full rear bag attached.
Highway 58 is one of California’s greatest roads. With its dearth of traffic, excellent pavement and a selection of terrain that ranges from first-gear switchbacks to wide-open straightaways (and even a roller-coaster-like hill section!), it’s a perfect laboratory for testing a bike’s handling capabilities.
Of this duo, differences in wheelbase and trail are within fractions of an inch of each other, but the Viffer’s has an agility aid in the form of a 25.3 degree rake angle that is nearly a whole degree steeper than the F800’s. The BMW gains its agility points by weighing in about 80 pounds lighter.
Heading west, Hwy 58 begins with some open stretches and a moderately curvy layout. At the higher speeds this road demands, both bikes prove to be quite stable. The German machine gets a little mechanical help in the form of a compact steering damper mounted tidily below the lower triple clamp.
The Interceptor’s clip-ons are mounted lower than the 800ST’s tubular handlebar, putting a rider into a forward lean that works best at higher speeds (although the handgrips are still much more comfortably placed than a contemporary race-replica).
As Hwy 58 gets twistier and tighter, the VFR begins to show its considerable weight. Honda, to its credit, has been listing the weight of its bikes in ready-to-ride form, not some fairy-tale “dry weight” figures that don’t have a basis in reality. However, that honesty reveals a 551-lb tank-full weight, which seems to be quite hefty when compared to something like a GSX-R750 that scales in more than 100 lbs lighter. Different missions, to be sure, but still...
BMW states the wet weight of the 800ST as 461 lbs, and its lesser mass equates to a crisper feel during aggressive turn-ins. I was very impressed with the direct feedback offered by the ST, carving sharply and confidently through challenging curves. It’s during these forceful maneuvers that the VFR feels a bit overmatched. Although neither of these bikes is designed for the racetrack, I’m willing to bet that the F800 could post quicker and more consistent lap times around a tight circuit, despite the VFR’s obvious top-end power advantage. The F800’s belt-drive keep drivetrain lash and noise to a minimum.
The VFR is no slouch in a sporting environment, but a fast rider will find it coming up a bit short compared to the Beemer. Its reactions are slower and feedback is muted. I know, Honda, that Freddie Spencer is able to ride an Interceptor around a track during his excellent schools quicker than I could hope to lap a CBR1000RR. But I’m not, nor will I ever be, as gifted a talent as Fast Freddie. Now, please get working on a weight-reduction procedure for your soft-core sportbike similar to what you’ve done to your CBRs.
After enjoying all that Hwy 58 offers, we sliced up Route 229 for more entertainment and some late-light photos. As the sun sank into the Pacific, we pulled in to our waypoint of San Louis Obispo to spend the night. On Friday morning we headed north on the majestic Highway 1 towards Monterey.
Hwy 1 is a beautiful ride, with many stretches of the two-lane road divided with double-yellow lines. So, when we got the chance, we passed as many view-enjoying drivers as possible.
In situations like that the Honda’s VTEC engine comes in handy. When it switches at about 6,400 rpm from 2 to 4 valves per cylinder, you definitely get, after an initial lag, the needed power. Despite Honda’s efforts in ’06 to smooth the transition, the VFR responds with a lurch in power and an audible change in the intake sound. The BMW’s twin-cylinder engine, on the other hand, has a much more linear pull.
The MotoGP bikes we rode up to Laguna to see are limited to a max of 800cc. The VFR, while in a V-Four configuration similar to Nicky Hayden’s RC212V, has a displacement of 781cc. The F800 has a 17cc advantage, but its parallel-Twin architecture doesn’t have the volumetric efficiency of the four-cylinder Honda layout.
As such, it’s no surprise the VFR posts a bigger horsepower number than BMW’s Twin. However, its peak of 89.2 ponies (at 10,900 rpm) is underwhelming for a fuel-injected, DOHC four-cylinder mill of this displacement. Consider that the cheaper and smaller Gixxer 750 produces more than 30 extra horses. The power surge begins to taper off around 9500 rpm, making the run for its 12K-rpm redline less exciting than it could be. On the plus side, the 90-degree V-Four offers unrivalled smoothness and feels expensive. The only non-smooth aspect of the VFR is the transition from two valves to four, as is clearly evident on the dyno chart.
Less smooth and refined is the F800’s Twin. It is comparatively coarse and noisy, and, at 79.3 hp, it would seem to be out-gunned by the revvier Honda. Nevertheless, its spread of torque is very wide and accessible, producing considerable grunt without spinning it up near its 9000-rpm rev limit. Its torque peak of 55.8 ft-lbs arrives at just 6100 rpm, 2400 revs earlier than the VFR’s max of 49.0 ft-lbs. It’s a very effective street powerplant.
While the F800 can’t keep up to the VFR in a throttle-pinned sprint race, it gains points for its excellent fuel mileage. We averaged nearly 48 miles to a premium gallon with ours. Good thing, too, because the Beemer’s tank holds just 4.1 gallons. The Interceptor covered about only 38 miles per gallon, but its capacious 5.8-gallon tank gives it a longer touring range.
Six of one, a half-dozen of another. Both engines impress in their own distinct way.
The BMW has a potent set of binders, with big 320mm rotors getting clamped on by Brembo 4-piston calipers, which react sharply via braided-steel lines. The 2-piston caliper and 264mm disc at the rear was perhaps a bit too aggressive, as it was easy to make the optional ABS kick in and kick back.
It’s strange that a Japanese OEM outdoes a BMW in the category of the unconventional, but that’s what the VFR has with its linked brakes. Called LBS, it uses a trio of 3-piston calipers in which one piston from each is actuated by the lever opposite to what is typical. With 296mm discs up front and a 256mm rear rotor, the LBS actually does a credible job of limiting fork dive under braking, but an experienced rider will question whether he/she might be smarter than the linked system.
The ride along the coast on PCH was great. When it got colder the further north we got, the BMW’s engine heat was very welcome. The Interceptor also throws a fair bit of heat from its side-mounted radiators, which don’t seem to offer the heat-shedding capacity of a traditional single front-mounted rad, especially at low speeds when airflow isn’t as prevalent. This was evident when the Honda’s temperature gauge soared to 256 degrees during a demanding photo shoot in hot conditions the day prior. Even in Monterey in 60-degree temperatures, the VFR showed 220 degrees.
Two fun days at the race track followed, during which we put our pair of 800s through some commuter-type roles.
The BMW is great for moving around town. At low speeds the parallel-Twin engine keeps on purring calmly and just keeps on pulling. It is definitely a great bike for riders who mainly use their motorcycle to get around town and for commuting. Shifting is optional at low speeds – 1st gear, 2nd gear, who cares? The BMW’s engine won’t start stuttering even down below 2000 rpm.
Duke reports the Interceptor also proved to be compliant in a commuter role. “Clutch action is light and with a large friction zone for when slinking through Laguna’s traffic, aided by a suitably short low gear,” he said. “The 90-degree V-Four engine is, as always, liquidy smooth, but it doesn’t respond as thrustily at low speeds as the Beemer.” The VFR’s light-action gearbox never caused us any trouble – smooth shifting all the way, up or down.
On the other hand, the German bike requires a little more assertive shifting than the Japanese bike. Throws are longer and often less precise than the VFR, causing both Duke and I to find a few false neutrals in the gearbox. Also the BMW’s non-adjustable clutch lever engages all the way at the end of its travel, which means I am – with my small hands – clutching during shifts with my middle finger only, resulting in some abrupt gear changes if I’m not careful.
Leaving Monterey down Hwy 1 on a cool Monday morning made us feel lucky that we didn’t run into too much traffic, which allowed us to move past slower traffic pretty quickly to get further south. Kevin led the group at a great pace, giving me on the Honda, the strongest bike, a hard time to keep up.
“The VFR’s peak power advantage isn’t always easy to exploit on the roads,” Duke related, “so I’d actually give the edge to the sharper-steering and torquier BMW on a twisting and diving road like PCH.”
After an exciting ride we stopped for lunch in Cambria, a small, very cute little town by the coast. The perfect spot for a romantic getaway, or just to ride to for a weekend road trip. Even as part of a group of only one woman with three goofy guys, we could appreciate the charming setting.
From there we took Santa Rosa Creek Road, a small, winding road leading us through valleys underneath roofs of leafs and across open fields to Route 46. As pretty and picturesque as SRCR is, it’s bumpy.
Both bikes’ suspensions offer some measure of adjustability, with each having a single rear shock adjustable for rebound damping and a remote preload knob. Both are steered by a traditional 43mm telescopic fork, but the Honda’s fork gets bonus points for its preload-adjustment provisions.
It’s on bumpy roads that the F800ST’s lowered suspension set-up demonstrated its shortcomings. While surprisingly forgiving on smooth roads, the uneven surface of SRCR bounced me out of the seat several times. We suspect the F800’s regular suspension would perform much better in these conditions.
On the other hand, the VFR’s suspension carried my 106 lbs across the torn, broken road as if it were set up for me. And, really, no stock suspension is set up for me. Duke, too, praised the Interceptor’s compliance, calling it an excellent balance between sport and tour.
After taking Highway 101 south to Santa Maria and Route 166, the F800ST once again proved to be very comfortable. The 166 is a long, fast road with big sweepers right through the middle of nowhere. For me, as a European, it is still an amazing view to see no civilization other than the road I am riding on, straight through a desert or winding itself up and down a mountain and through valleys.
Then came 15 miles of road construction where we learned we needed to be more careful when closing the Interceptor’s saddlebags. Duke unwittingly made the mistake of not securing the bag release after opening one, which resulted in a jettisoned and banged-up case. On the plus side, the bag’s latch stayed closed during its tumble.
Route 166 dropped us back onto an open stretch of Highway 33 for a short while before we headed west on Cerro Noroeste through Los Padres National Forest to Frasier Park. The winding road led us through mountain hills and tall forests, making it difficult to keep our eyes on the road. I often wanted to look left and right, and above all to watch some big birds circle above for their prey, and Fonzie kept wanting to stop to take pictures, but we had to keep moving.
Tired but excited (well, I was), we arrived in Frazier Park for a last stop before we made our way south on I-5 to head home for some well-deserved rest.
What Did We Learn?
Our road trip on two 800cc sport-touring bikes to the Laguna Seca MotoGP and back to Los Angeles gave us the opportunity of riding both bikes on freeways, around town, through twisties, as well as long roads with big, fast sweepers. They are both great mid-sized sport-touring bikes, and I loved each for different qualities in different situations on different roads.
If I had to make a decision which one to get for myself, I’d have to think of what kind of riding (besides touring) I’d want to do, and base my decision on that.
If I were to mainly use the bike for commuting and around town, I would definitely go for the stylish BMW F800ST for its handling and great maneuverability at lower speeds.
But if I’d be using a bike for recreational, i.e. sport riding, I would choose the Honda Interceptor for its aggressiveness and power.
Pricing is usually a factor as well. However, both bikes cost almost the same.
The 2008 Honda VFR800 Interceptor is available at a MSRP of $10,799; $11,799 with ABS. Adding the optional hard saddlebags ($999.95) brings the total to $12,798.95.
The 2008 BMW F800ST is available at a MSRP of $10,520. Add an extra $1,095 for its Safety Package that offers ABS as well as tire pressure monitoring (TPM). Throw in another $821.90 for the Sport Case lockable saddlebags, and we’re running neck-and-neck with the Honda. Adding the Beemer’s $495 destination charge puts its cost at $12,931.90, just a few bucks more than the VFR. “That’s near enough to nothing,” Duke noted. Factor in BMW’s three-year warranty compared to the VFR’s 12-month and the waters get cloudier.
But if you want to get pampered, you’ll want the BMW’s Comfort Package that includes heated grips and an on-board computer for $475. It’s more money, but it’s also more than what’s available from Honda. On the other hand, BMW charges an extra $150 for a centerstand that is included as standard equipment on the VFR. Other available BMW options are anti-theft alarm ($395), low suspension ($175), as well as a 31.1-inch low seat (no charge if factory equipped).
Which bike is a better deal? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for.