Honda VFR1200F: Riding Shamu On The Road

Honda VFR1200

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Last Saturday, we took the Honda VFR1200F to the track and were terrified. This week, we put in a bunch of highway miles, some of them two-up. This should be Shamu's ideal environment, right? >

Yesterday, we had to return the 2010 MV Agusta F4 (VS. feature soon, promise) we'd been enjoying the hell out of back to Fast by Ferracci so we rode it and Shamu from New York to Philly and back, a 90-ish mile trip each way, most of it on 95. Two bikes on the way there, so two up on the way back. Before you ask, Grant rode on the back, that's just our relationship dynamic.

A lot of people got very upset when we criticized Shamu for being under damped, equipped with snatchy brakes, unpredictable fueling and precisely the wrong ergonomics for track riding. So, let's start by saying a bunch of nice stuff about the VFR:

1. It's very stable while carrying a passenger. Crank the remote preload adjuster up as far as it'll let you and the bike tracks straight and predictably at highway speeds and is easy to balance while lane splitting at low speeds. Just watch the front end when you throw it into corners and you'll be fine. Grant and I both weigh about 175lbs, so it was carrying a considerably amount of weight.

2. The paint quality is outstanding. Honda applied its car paint process to a bike for the first time and it really paid off. The paint is deep and lustrous.

3. It sounds awesome. Well, once the second exhaust valve opens at 6,000rpm it does. The bucket full of muffled nails turns to a proper V4 drone in an instant, reminding you that the fueling has now ceased to be jerky. This is a really cool solution, delivering excellent engine sound when you're going fast and near silent running when you're not.

4. It shoots really well. Or at least Grant shoots it really well. Doesn't it look hot in these photos?

5. Each visual detail is brilliant when considered individually. The headlight, the layered fairing, the curvy tank, all super sexy.

6. You can see stuff in the mirrors!  They're big, wide and nearly vibration free. Cop car sneaking up behind you? You can tell it apart from a cloud or a truck or your elbow. You can actually identify individual cars by make and model out to a couple hundred yards behind you. Why aren't all bikes like this?

7. The clocks are super easy to read. A big tach in the middle, just like it should be and all the ancillary functions -- temperature, clock, gear position -- are easy to read too.

8. The badges and subtle branding reek of luxury. No giant wings or shell suit colors, just slick cloisonne badges and a couple of subtle "Honda" logos. Fitting for a $15,999 luxury good.

9. It hides its weight almost completely. You'll never guess it weighs 591lbs (wet) until it comes time to push it around in a garage. Even at very low speeds you can trickle along with both feet up just like you would on a scooter.

The problem is, that even cruising on the highway, the sea in which Shamu was built to swim, still reveals some huge shortcomings:

1. It's not comfortable. Sit on the bike in a showroom and it feels incredibly plush. The seat is soft, the bars are relatively high, the pegs are low. Good, right? Not after twenty minutes or more. Both Grant (5' 11") and I (6' 2") complained that the riding position directed shocks straight into our spines, resulting in sore backs. The bars too, are just low enough to put weight on your wrists. Vibes are also a problem, my right hand was numb for most of the ride back. We're not the only ones with this problem.

2. The fairing doesn't do a good job of redirecting airflow. Granted, I'm slightly taller than average, but even at highway speeds I was subject to considerable buffeting. Not something I'd be happy with on a bike intended for distance work.

3. The pillion seat sucks. Grant didn't just insist on riding bitch the whole time because he likes being the big spoon, he didn't think my 34" inseam would be feasible given the peg height. At a 32" inseam, his legs were still very uncomfortable. He also complained of a sore ass and felt like he was going to fall whenever I accelerated. Forgivable on a sportsbike, not on a touring bike.

4. The fueling is still awful. We had to lane split through stationary traffic all the way across Staten Island and up the BQE as far as Carroll Gardens, which is about 15 miles. Traveling at a constant speed in first gear results in unpredictable surging and snappy on/off throttle response. Not good for a passenger's confidence when their knees are clipping wing mirrors. Always cover the clutch.

5. First gear is too tall. You need to use it up to about 25/30mph and you're slipping the clutch up to about 15mph. If the VFR had chain drive we'd simply suggest going down one tooth on the front, but honestly, we aren't sure what you're supposed to do with shaft drive.

6. The brakes are still snatchy. It's simply too easy to plunge the front end accidentally with a whiff too much lever. This is especially evident while splitting, when a hair's breath separates you from certain death.

7. You still aren't going to be cornering hard. This was our biggest complaint on the track, the suspension simply couldn't deal with big lean angles and big speeds. Even on the road, get some g-forces going and things start wobbling. Before you ask, the suspension settings were just off max on everything and no, the shock is not blown.

8. Put all those neat design features together and it looks like a different designer worked on each part of the bike. Why is the swingarm so weedy in comparison to the visual bulk of the fairing? What's going on with that crazy triangular exhaust outlet above an old bit of pipe for the other output? Why do the headers look like spaghetti poking out of random holes in the fairing? Why do the plastic cladding on the tank not meet at the front? Why is the front of the bike red and the rear silver? Why is there so much black plastic covering every conceivable mechanical part that could otherwise be on display? 

There, we said one more nice thing about it than we said nasty things. Everyone happy? Good, because we're about to say one more very negative thing. The Honda VFR1200F in no way justifies its $15,999 price. It's not a good tourer, it's not a good sportsbike, it's not a good all-rounder. It's not even average at most of that. For that price, we'd expect it to be brilliant at something (beyond paint quality) or at least good at everything. Shamu doesn't even have any toys or any luggage. What are you spending that money on? An all-new engine that fuels terribly and develops no power below 6,000rpm? Suspension that can't cope with the weight?

Look, it's not that we hate Honda or something. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Personally, I love Honda. I've always owned Hondas. I'm a sucker for decent build quality, good reliability, peerless engineering and an affordable sticker price. Shamu only has the first two though.

If you want the best all-rounder in the world, buy a current Honda CBR600RR. Seriously. It's comfortable enough that you could hop on and ride it across country, it handles well enough that you could ride in the Advanced group at a trackday on stock equipment and it's cheap and reliable enough that you could commute on it everyday.

If you want the best superbike in the world, buy a current Honda CBR1000RR. It's an amazing combination of exotic performance, intuitive control and an affordable sticker price.

If you want a touring bike, buy a Goldwing. They're ridiculously fun to ride, will hold all your luggage and riding pillion on one is like reclining in your Lay-Z-Boy.

The above three suggestions aren't just the three best Hondas, they're the three best bikes in the entire world. If I didn't get to ride other people's motorcycles all the time, I'd buy a CBR600RR and be happy with it for a long, long time. It's a no brainer, I wouldn't even consider anything else.

This VFR just isn't in the same league, not even close. What the hell happened here, Honda?

Shamu-Road.jpg

Why do we call the VFR1200 Shamu? Believe it or not, the nickname's not supposed to be negative. Last summer, when black and white photos of the bike leaked, before we ever knew it weighed what it does, commenters and forum fan boys started calling the bike "Shamu." Look at this black and white photo and tell us it doesn't look like a Killer Whale with all those organic curves, smooth bulges and contrasting colors. We like nicknames, so it stuck. No harm meant.  

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