Two Unlikely Bedfellows

Inline-four vs V-four Sport Touring

Torrance, California, 14 June 2001
Some people have all the luck. They get to have a motorcycle for every occasion that suits their mood.

Feel like a track day? No problem. Just roll out the sporty bike and lets go. How about an overnighter with the missus? Once again, it's no problem -- roll out the tourer and see how many time zones you can cross. You get the idea. For the rest of us though, one bike will have to do the job of many. So what happens when your primary criteria for this bike fall under the do-it-all topic of sport-touring with an emphasis on the sport, please?

You could get a "proper" sport-touring bike we suppose, but then you'd have to deal with dragging parts and hand-me-down engine and chassis designs. Your other option is to simply purchase a race-replica and deal with an on-the-edge riding style and a lack of luggage options. There has to be a better way, no? To find the answer to this most daunting of life's questions we chose Kawasaki's ZX-6R and Honda's VFR 800.

An unlikely comparo indeed, but one that demonstrates that the differences between motorcycles, no matter how great they may seem, can sometimes be minute. These two machines also seem to nicely fit the unorthodox sport-tourer niche we're looking to fill here.

On one hand you have the VFR, a V-4 with traces of Bubba Shobert's and Freddie Spencer's Interceptor superbikes running through its blood lines. On the other hand, you have the ZX-6R, an inline-four supersport that has comfortable ergonomics mated with enough performance that it won our earlier 600 Shootouts. It's also Eric Bostrom's ride of choice, placing him comfortably in the AMA Supersport points lead.

It was 11:00 AM and already over the century mark outside. Despite the heat, neither bike missed a beat powering through the desert.

"The true test of any motorcycle is in its ultimate functionality." "If the bike don't fit, you must acquit," or some such nonsense. In order to truly run'em through the wringer the MO staff declared a jaunt through Kennedy Meadows in Kern County would be the only way to decide how efficacious these machines would be.

Our route took us up Highway 14 into the little mining town of Randsburg. From there we hopped on the 395 and rode into Ridgecrest for our first gas stop. Due to the supersport nature of the 6R, gas mileage was limited to approximately 145 miles until we hit reserve -- this was with pure high-speed highway riding. By comparison, the VFR will routinely see 180 miles until the warning light activates. Gas stop completed, and sweltering in the 107 degree heat (it was over 90-degrees before 10:00 AM and over 100-degrees by 11:00 AM), we continued along the 395 through Pearsonville and hooked up with Highway 341 West. The 341 is a mix of goat trail and roads that would make Carlos Sainz drool. The steep grade allowed us to see how efficacious (there's that word again) the two different engine configurations were. After all, not only are the cylinder layouts different, the fuel delivery system is different as well.

The Kawasaki has decent low-to-mid power, but screams up top. The motor's smooth and has a better tranny than the VFR, but requires more work to ride fast.

While the carbureted 6R had the upper hand in the upper regions of the rev range, particularly in the lower altitudes, the VFR would trounce it off the line. After looking at the dyno chart, it would seem that the VFR would best the Kawi's inline-four motor just about anywhere you decided to whack open the throttle -- but you would be wrong. Consider this for a moment, if you will: The VFR only out-powers the ZX-6R by 1.1 horses at their respective peaks. Then realize that the Kawi not only has ram-air helping it along as speeds increase (dyno figures are static), but the VFR lugs around 86 more pounds than the green bike.

Assuming the standard assumption of 10-pounds per horsepower, the green bike has a theoretical real-world advantage of about seven horsepower up top -- worst case scenario, all else being equal, caveat emptor, e-pluribis unum and what-not.

"What we're trying to say here is that the ZX-6R will pull away from the VFR on an open stretch of road if the pilot allows the throttle slides to remain open. Dyno charts be damned."

Sitting upright or tucked in, the Honda will chase the setting sun at the end of the highway in complete comfort.

Back in the real-world again, the fuel-injected VFR does have advantages. Thanks to its metered fuel-injection, the Honda maintained its composure as the altitude increased. At Sherman Pass (a little under 10,000 feet) the 6R was noticeably down on power, feeling like the entire power curve was completely out of whack. In fact, unless the engine was revved to 8,000 rpm, rapid forward locomotion was extremely hard to come by. The VFR, on the other hand, felt as if its entire power curve was in tact, simply dropped by a few horsepower. One area where the VFR is at a distinct disadvantage is in the braking department. The linked braking of the VFR just cannot match the six-piston binders found on the Ninja. At altitude in the twisties, the race-bred system prevailed over the fade-prone units found on the VFR. "If there's one thing that the VFR really needs, it's better brakes. And that linked stuff has to go -- touring or not," quipped Minime.

An increase in the shock's preload is all it takes to keep the Honda from falling behind the Kawasaki in the twisties.

"All along the route, the handling prowess of both machines were frequently exploitedThe VFR's supple suspension was ideal during the times when absolute speed was not the end goal, while the ZX-6R had the advantage during high speed stuff where we were charging rather hard. During the tight switch-backs that make up most of Caliente Creek Road, both machines fared well. However, thanks to its grunt and our own caution (there are cows and shadows that hide things, don't 'cha know?) the edge goes to the VFR.

The taller bars and conservative foot peg placement allow the VFR rider to throw the bike into a corner instead of pushing it down like on the 6R. Some things that work well on a track where the outer edges of a bike's performance envelope can be felt out just don't work as well in less than ideal conditions. Alas, the VFR did not fare any better during high speed maneuvers. Its compliant suspension lacked the feedback that the 6R possessed and preferred to wallow through the longer corners despite an increase in shock preload.

Only when pushing the bikes past the 90-percent mark do you start to notice each bike's handling quirks. Compared to the VFR, the 6R is razor sharp, but it takes more effort from the rider in order to accomplish these higher speeds.

"I think the Kawi is the business for aggressive riding," said Minime. "It's got decent low-to-mid power, but screams up top. The motor's smooth and it's got a better tranny than the VFR," he explained. He also felt inclined to comment on the difference in wind protection between the two bikes, noting that they were, "very close." It's also worth noting that both bikes are very comfortable places to spend some miles, with the obvious touring edge going to the VFR.

However, a constant complaint of the VFR was its awkward tool access scheme. In order to access the tools you must remove the seat. In order to remove the seat, you must remove the good-looking cowl. To remove the cowl, you need tools. "Maybe some Dzus fasteners are in order here."

"You can take the Kawi to the track and rail...The VFR can do track days, but you'll be circulating at a reduced pace..."

The Honda, resting after being flogged up to the 10,000 foot peak of Sherman Pass.

"Of course, the VFR has instrumentation that's better suited to traveling, what with its ambient temp info and nice fuel gauge instead of the Kawi's petcock," All good points indeed, Minime.

He continues, "Bottom line: VFR is a sporty sport tourer. With the Kawi you can easily (in complete comfort) do 600 mile days on the bike, just like on the VFR. But you can take the Kawi to the track and rail, should you decide to. The VFR can do track days, but you'll be circulating at a reduced pace -- if that's important to you. So, if you want a bike you can cover some distance on but don't want to give up the sportiness of a supersport ride, the Kawi rules. Personally, I dig the VFR since I like dragging things and traveling in cognito."

For a bike that's currently in the AMA Supersport points lead, the ZX-6R does a remarkably fine job of sport-touring. Six-hundred mile days come just as easily as podium finishes.

After the climax of the above route, we merged onto the 223 and rode through the farming town of Arvin. Passing through Weed Patch, we headed south towards the 5 and eventually, home. The ride back really demonstrated that these two machines are more than capable of doing anything that is desired of the rider. The 6R is used in Supersport racing and the VFR is used by one prominent track school as an instructor's bike. Track credentials aside, most of the consumers of these machines are street riders. As such, both machines excel where their brethren fail, each being able to combine sportiness with comfort.  If you prefer more sport than comfort, the ZX-6R is for you. If making slight (and these are very slight) real-world performance sacrifices is acceptable in exchange for a bit more comfort, the VFR800 will serve the rider nicely.

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