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Saturday, April 17, 2010

First Ride

I waited 6 months for this ride. I scoured the web for any morsel, read every magazine article, lurked on every message board. I wanted this motorcycle in a bad, bad way. Did I set myself up for disappointment? Was it worth the wait?

Motor: This is the really important part... the root word of motorcycle. A big reason of mine for wanting the VFR was its unique motor. An unconventional, powerful V4 that looked or sounded like nothing before it. What surprised me is that the VFR came with 2 motors. There's the quiet docile smooth but mostly unexciting motor that provides propulsion under 5500RPM and there's the howling fighter plane motor that takes over after that.

The sound is unusual. It actually sounds like 2 motors running simultaneously. The crankshaft layout and firing order are said to make the motor behave as 2 parallel twins, and it even sounds that way. It's quiet and unassuming below 5500RPM but above that the noise is just awesome. I've heard it likened to an old radial-engined warbird... I think that's a good comparison.

The VFR is powerful but like other fast Hondas, it's "deceptively fast" which is to say that the speed sneaks up and catches you by surprise. And it's torquey. If not for the gear indicator I would have been completely clueless as to what gear I was in. It's smooth and powerful at all speeds, and was hitting the rev limiter well before my senses were programmed to expect it. It isn't an exciting motor, it's just a really good one with lots of power all the time but never intimidating or overwhelming.... and it makes cool noises. Walk softly and carry a big stick.

I've been defending the VFR from all of the critics, cynics and haters, and one of the biggest criticisms is the limited range. Well, as much as I love the bike, this criticism is deserved. On my first ride, I stopped for fuel with 2 bars (out of 7) showing on the fuel gauge and 160Km showing on the odometer. It took 12.3 Litres to fill. Later, on the way home, the bottom bar started flashing. I got stuck in a traffic jam, but made it to a gas station near my house with 215Km showing on the trip odometer which I had reset when I filled up. It took 16.5 Litres of fuel. If my calculations are right, I was getting just under 31MPG (US Gallons). That's a range of 150 miles out of an 18.5L tank. That's shit. Now to be fair, I wanted to break the VFR's engine in using the "motoman" style... which is to say, I rode the bag off it. It spent much of its first day at full throttle, often over 120MPH for extended stretches. It will get better mileage under "normal" riding and I'm sure the motor will "loosen up" as it breaks in but I'm still disappointed. Yes, I defended it and I drank the Kool-Aid but Honda, you fucked up. The VFR1200 should have a bigger tank.

Gearbox / Drivetrain: The gearbox is perfect, though it will take me a while to get used to the ratios. My last bike was designed with racing in mind and had gear ratios that worked on a racetrack. The VFR is purely a road bike and has ratios that work on the road. The biggest difference for me was a short first gear. I unintentionally tested the slipper clutch twice when I clicked down to first prematurely. (worked great BTW) The shift quality is perfect. I recall a Motorcyclist magazine test where they complained of it being notchy or clunky but I don't know what the hell they could have possibly been referring to. Changing gears on the VFR requires almost no effort at all, just a really light tap on the shifter. No clunks, barely even a click. Clutchless upshifts are a cinch. I hit a false neutral 1 or 2 times but only because I'd gotten so used to just lightly breathing on the shifter to make a change.

Shaft drive? Didn't notice. It didn't jack, snatch, lurch, shudder or any of it. I did notice that the final drive assembly gets quite hot... after some fast riding it is almost too hot to touch. The service manual recommends changing the final drive fluid every 24000 miles.

Brakes: Perfect. Firm, great feel, easy to modulate, and very powerful. It seemed strange to me that Honda didn't include their new C-ABS on this bike but I think I know now. They worked really hard to make these brakes feel perfect, and no matter how good the technology is, you couldn't simulate "feel" this good. I haven't had the pleasure of testing the ABS yet. I stomped on the brake pedal a couple of times at low speeds to see if I could get it to lock up but it wouldn't. The back brake is linked to the front and actually slows the bike pretty effectively. I'm still trying to train myself to use the back brake... I never touched it on my racebike.

Ride / Handling / Comfort: My first ride on the VFR happened to be my first ride on a streetbike in close to a year, so I was a bit rusty and apprehensive. The very first sweeping turn that I took on the VFR immediately had me at ease. It bends into turns and transitions effortlessly. And it's incredibly stable when leaned over and holds even a bad line with zero effort. A few times I found myself drifting inwards mid-turn, as I was giving it more effort than neccessary for the required amount of lean. This was easily remedied by adding throttle. Throttle adjustments are no trouble at all mid-turn. It's so smooth that even the biggest ham fists couldn't screw it up. The fact that I felt so at ease so quickly on this bike says a lot for it. Especially considering the off-season rust that my brain and body had accumulated. The handling has a feel of quality that lets the rider know that a lot of people spent a lot of time getting it right. It is really really really good. I expected it to be good but I'm still impressed.

Low speed handling is a laugh. Though the bike is heavy and a lot of work to push around the garage, once you're moving it feels extremely nimble and stable. Feet-up u-turns are a breeze. Parking lots are a piece of cake.

Air management is excellent... The layered fairing does its job very well. It provides a nice pocket of still air from the feet to the shoulders... no turbulence, no buffeting. I get a calm steady flow of air into my helmet. When I tuck my head down to the tank, I can pinpoint the exact perimeter of the "bubble" as I go inside it. It feels like when you're driving your car down the highway and you roll up the open window. Lots of wind, lots of noise which slows a bit then stops suddenly when the window fully closes. And then instant serenity. Cool air is directed through the layers to the rider's legs... which is important, because the rear headers are next to your right leg. At low speeds the heat is very noticeable, but once you get rolling you can feel the fairing doing its job. The way the VFR manages air is very clever.

The VFR isn't as comfortable as I imagined it. Maybe I'm just too short. (5'9" with a 32" inseam)The seat is great... with a wide flat area at the back, a nice "berm" to hold you in place under heavy acceleration, and a narrow part at the front which allows me to hug the chassis with my knees and stand flat-flooted at a stop. For me the problem is a long reach to the bars. I end up sitting on the narrow part of the seat, which creates pressure points. I have to either straighten my arms out in front of me or bend my waist at an acute angle to sit on the wide comforrtable part of the seat. Maybe I'll get used to it? Still, it's a typical VFR riding position that compromises sport and touring very effectively. The mirrors are excellent; good wide field of vision and no vibration.

Appearance / Quality / Fit & Finish: Can I say anything about the paint that hasn't been said? It's fucking exquisite. The fairings fit together immaculately, all of the materials are high-quality. Every surface has a quality texture. The instruments are clear and easy to read. The controls are excellent. Higher-grade switches are used. They are accurate, with no slop. The click-on-click-off 4-way flasher switch is excellent. The horn button is big and has a good feel. The buttons even have a deep metal-flake finish. The attention to detail here is unbelievable.

Not all of the fit and finish was perfect. There are a couple rough spots: The taillight cowl is flimsy, and the front covers on the mirror stalks have a bit of an ugly big gap. Other than those 2 things.... wow.

Style is subjective but I just love the look of this bike. Every time I look at it I find something new that I never noticed before. Particularly beautiful to me is the way the tank cover flows into the fairing. It looks great from head-on, from behind, and from front or rear 3/4 views. Initially I wasn't sure about the slim tail attached to the girthy "core" but it just works. Strangely, when looked at 2-dimensionally directly from the side the design seems a little incoherent, maybe awkward. But the VFR is very much a 3-dimensional design, and needs to be seen and felt in person to be appreciated. I think it's beautiful.

My overall impression is that I bought a motorcycle that a lot of people put a lot of thought into. The more I ride it the more I appreciate it. It seems the designers agonized over the details, then they agonized to make them all work together. They nailed it. On paper it might not blow anyone's mind, but the attention to detail won't reveal itself in a spec sheet or brochure.

This is a fantastic motorcycle, and I look forward to many years and many miles with it.

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