Buying used: Honda VFR800
With the introduction of the new and very advanced VFR1200, Honda has once again shown the world that, despite some new and excellent V-fours from the competition, when it comes to the VFR concept, no-one does it quite like Honda.
The VFR has long been Honda’s flagship sportstourer. Back in 1986, the 90-degree V-four VFR was the most exotic and sophisticated horse in the stable. Featuring straight-cut gear-driven cams, the previous nightmares with the VF750 were finally dispatched. Back then the VFR was more sports than tourer, and in fact the term ‘sportstourer’ hadn’t even entered the lexicon. In the hands of high-calibre racers like Malcolm Campbell and Joey Dunlop, the VFR enjoyed a fair bit of success before spawning the legendary RC30.
Following huge success and a series of tweaks and updates, by 1990 the VFR750 was sporting a sharper set of clothes and the twin mufflers had disappeared to be replaced by a four-into-two-into-one system. From that point on, future changes were more about updating the looks rather than changing what was fundamentally a brilliant design. Although the VFR750 seems to be disappearing from our roads, to many purists the RC36 , or the VFR750R of 1994 to 1997, is the best of the VFR750 breed.
Which brings us to 1998 and the VFR800FiW – a machine that, despite looking even more lardy and conservative than its predecessor, should perhaps be considered as the last real VFR. Why? Because this one has an engine based on the world superbike-winning RC45 – and it has gear-driven cams.
Boosted to a capacity of 781cc, the 16-valve DOHC V-four made about 73kW (98hp), weighed 208kg (dry) and had once again undergone a restyle. Everything about the 800 was civilised but potent – what’s more the pedigree should have ensured heart palpitations for any red-blooded rider.
After all, here was a motorcycle that was still undeniably VFR. There was the new ‘pivotless’ frame coupled to the now trademark single-sided swinging arm, the new electronic fuel injection (again, derived from the RC45), plus a host of new and improved features designed to appeal to every man, woman and anything in between.
Ironically it was the VFR800 that spelt the end for the RC45, as the dies that produced the VFR were the same ones as the RC45 but altered slightly for VFR production. Regardless, the VFR800 soldiered on until receiving a huge update in 2002, when VTEC arrived.
Looking slimmer, sharper and sportier, the new VFR800VTEC saw a return to the chain-driven cams of old, with its 16-valve, 782cc engine now sporting variable valve timing. Only it’s not so much variable – something that implies a linear operation – but rather involves a stepped progression from the point where half the valves have been working in the low to mid range, to the point at just below 7000rpm where all 16 valves start working.
Without doubt it’s odd that Honda would bother given the VFR’s legendary flexibility, but to many it’s the thing that brings the VFR to life, by introducing a hint of villain into what is a worthy but yawn-inducing mix.
As with the earlier model, the VTEC also comes with Honda’s Dual Combined Braking System attached to twin 296mm discs, and an excellent package it is, too. The engine is flanked by two sideways facing radiators similar to the VTR1000 and there are two underseat exhausts, which to me is another perversity considering how the benefits of a low centre of gravity had already been known for some time. Still, there’s no accounting for fashion, I suppose.
Once again the chassis is a beautiful piece of alloy engineering festooned with top-quality components, ensuring the VFR is still visually beautiful. Up front there is a sturdy but unsophisticated preload-adjustable 43mm fork, supported by an equally workmanlike rising-rate monoshock adjustable for preload and rebound. Weight tips the scales at about 218kg and the fuel tank holds a sensible 22lt.
ON THE ROAD
Back to back the two bikes feel astonishingly different but still manage to share many of the same attributes. Both are just as you would expect – ridiculously easy to ride in that typically Honda way that identifies all its products – although the VTEC model has a noticeably more sporting riding position that tips the rider forward onto the handlebars and tucks the feet slightly more rearward.
Both fire up immediately and settle into the familiar VFR burble of contentment, before engaging first with the again typically Honda ‘clack’. Clutch take-up is vice free and unsurprisingly, providing you change up before 7000rpm, the oldie still feels as bold and lively as the VTEC version.
They’re both revvy in nature, but above 7000rpm, which happens to be around 160km/h in top, the VTEC gets the assistance of the extra valves, the exhaust note hardens and there’s a noticeable surge in power, although whether or not there’s a quantifiable difference I don’t know.
On the downside, both bikes exhibit some degree of snatchiness in the fuel delivery, especially from a fully closed throttle, where it feels like the ECU is cutting off the supply of fuel completely before returning to supply mode as you twist that right grip.
But it’s in the handling that the real difference is felt, a sensation added to by the two ride positions. The VTEC machine definitely handles better, even though both machines feel beautifully planted at any speed. Having said that, the VTEC model seems to have a better balance and neutrality at the handlebars. Look, push and lean simply requires less push to get the mass rolling over on the tyres and the pointy snout turned in. From there, shifting your weight slightly to the inside while the plush-o-rama suspension does its job maybe an affectation on the road, but it seems to work better with the VTEC than the oldie. Not that the oldie’s bad of course, and ridden in isolation there’s no doubt that there’s enough of everything for just about everyone.
In terms of comfort, it has to be said that the oldie scores considerably better than the VTEC – in my opinion, of course. The ‘bars feel higher and the seat feels softer and better shaped. What’s more, the fairing works better, as the lower VTEC version delivers more wind pressure than is truly comfortable. Having spoken to a couple of people who have covered some big distances on the back of both models, it would appear that even the pillion passenger gets a better deal on the older machine.
As for equipment, both bikes are exceptionally well appointed. Lights are excellent with good spread and power and the mirrors on each model are clear.
Despite some early issues with cam chains on the VTEC version, mechanically nothing goes wrong. That’s not to say there haven’t been a few electrical flies in the early Veefer’s ointment. Regulator/rectifiers have a habit of getting too hot and then packing up, leaving the rider far from home with a discharged battery. The regulator units aren’t the problem; more the wiring seems to produce excessive heat that can fry it. There are simple and cheap fixes that comprehensively address the problem.
Another occasional fault is the temperature sender, which is located in the ‘V’ of the cylinders. In all fairness this is a pretty rare occurrence and you could justifiably feel unlucky. A cheap and relatively small component that should be easy to get to, you’d think. No – expect to spend some fairly heated energy trying to get to it, removing the old one and replacing it with the new.
While we’re into the electrical stuff, the circuit board for the electronic dash on early models has been known to cause a couple of problems, although these seem to have been weeded out by now. Apart from those few items the VFR is trouble free and an owner can expect to have a long and happy relationship with their machine.
Service costs for any VFR are what you’d expect. A minor service every 6000km will cost around $240 inclusive of parts, and a major at every 24,000km, which includes valve shims and all other parts, will cost $450.
WHICH MODEL TO BUY?
This is hard, simply because both machines are so good. Personally I’ll trade performance for comfort any day if I’m looking for a do-it-all machine, so I guess it’s the earlier version for me, especially as I’m told the earlier version is easier on the unleaded. Not only that but in my books it has the right engine, too. Maybe then the earlier machine is a better bet for the tourer and the VTEC version more suited to the sports rider.
Regardless, no matter which version you choose, you’ll know you’re getting one of the all time greatest motorcycles ever, and in all honesty a motorcycle that can be described as a Honda icon. Pretty though the tri-colour VTEC is, I’ll take the yellow fella, thanks.
Type: Liquid-cooled, 16-valve V-four
Bore x stroke: 72 x 48mm
Compression ratio: 11.6:1
Fuel system: EFI
Final drive: Chain
CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR
Frame type: Twin-spar alloy
Front suspension: 41mm telescopic fork, adjustable for preload
Rear suspension: Monoshock, adjustable for preload and rebound
Front brake: Twin 296mm discs with three-piston calipers (VTEC ABS option)
Rear brake: Single 256mm disc with three-piston caliper
DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES
Dry weight: 208/213kg
Seat height: 805mm
Fuel capacity: 21/22 litres
Max power: 73kW (98hp)/80kW (107hp) at 10,500rpm
Max torque: 8.4 kg-m at 8500rpm/8.2kg-m at 8750rpm