It's a good thing the folks at Honda enjoy a challenge, because this next feat will be one of their most challenging: convincing the motorcycling public that automatics aren't evil. You see, Honda's new VFR1200F is a technological tour de force. One in which we'll cover in more detail shortly, but the single most polarizing feature of the new Honda VFR1200F lies in three little letters: D-C-T, or Dual Clutch Transmission, in which shifting of the VFR can be performed via paddles on the left handlebar or completely automatically.
And therein lies the challenge. The most taboo word in all of motorcycling, "automatic" instantly conjures up negativity from the motorcycling purists who cry for less technology. So much so that in their haste the critics sometimes revert back to primate-like tendencies, flinging certain unmentionables towards their nearest Honda dealer.
It almost seems fitting that this comes from a company like Honda, already famous for introducing technological wonders in the past that ultimately turned into sales disasters. It's important to mention, however, that the VFR also comes with a standard six-speed gearbox for all the purists out there.
With that in mind it was only natural for me to have my doubts about all this new techno-stuff when invited to attend this first ride at the Sugo circuit in Japan (which, ironically enough, is owned by Yamaha). But believe me when I tell you that this one is different. You might ask why a sport-touring bike like this is being introduced at a racetrack. The answer is simple; because we were there as part of a larger press junket in which we would tour all things Honda, including one of the factories (see sidebar) we had to stay within Japan. Not to mention the language barrier and the fact that the Japanese drive on the other side of the road meant that, in the interest of safety, us Yanks would have to play on the track (don't worry, we'll have a domestic street ride evaluation in the months to come).
A Look Into The Future
Despite being a sport-touring...
Despite being a sport-touring machine, the VFR handled the racetrack surprisingly well. The low ground clearance meant footpeg feelers were scraping the ground sooner than we'd like, however.
We've mentioned many of the technical details of the bike the last two issues ("New Bikes 2010!, Dec. '09, "Late Braking, Jan. '10), but we've since learned even more about not only the engine and transmission, but the rest of the parts as well. To refresh, at its heart is a 1237cc, 76-degree V-four with a rather oversquare 81mm x 60mm bore and stroke. Its unique cylinder layout has the rearward cylinders innermost on the crankshaft and the forward cylinders on each end of the crankshaft. This narrows the space for the rider's legs and gives the bike a more compact feel. Borrowing from its off-road side, Unicam valve actuation uses a single camshaft to operate both intake and exhaust valves, thus making for a much more compact cylinder head. A first for Honda, the new VFR adopts fly-by-wire throttle actuation, enabling the use of the Drive, Sport and Automatic drive modes used by the DCT model.
Speaking of the DCT, a quick breakdown reveals that, in its most basic form, it's just two clutches (one for odd numbered gears and the other for even) utilizing two main shafts.
Because of the lack of space on a motorcycle, the Honda system maintains the use of a rotating shift drum (like on conventional transmissions) to change gears, with the hydraulic circuits and solenoid valves hiding behind the right engine cover. When it's time to shift a computer tells valves and circuits to rotate the single shift drum between gears. The computer then signals the shift action to pre-select the next gear. When the clutch controlling the current gear disengages, the next gear is immediately engaged since the second clutch had already pre-selected it. This makes for seamless transitions and no interruption of power to the wheel. Total time for all this magic to happen: half a second.
More Than Meets The Eye
We'll come back to the heart of the bike later, but let's not forget all of the supporting players. Suspension duties are handled by Showa, with forks adjustable for rebound and preload, while the rear shock is also only two-way adjustable. While the racetrack might be a little harsh for sport-touring suspension, these standard units performed rather well at taming the 600-pound motorcycle, even though its obvious plush setting is geared more toward the long haul rather than hauling ass. Two 320mm discs out front are clamped by two six-piston, radially-mounted calipers, while a single 276mm disc is mated to a two-pot caliper in the rear. Linked braking sees its way onto the new VFR, but it's less intrusive than before. Get on the rear brake only and one piston in one front caliper will also engage. And in case you didn't get it by now, yes, ABS comes standard. On the track the VFR's weight was most felt when on the binders, as all the pressure on the front caused the ABS to activate frequently, but its actuation was hardly noticeable. Using both front and rear brakes slows the bike down drastically, and since they're linked, the front end doesn't dive. Instead the whole bike seems to compress equally through the suspension's travel.
Being a sport-touring bike, there's a whole laundry list of options and features including, but not limited to; a 29-liter pannier kit, 33-liter top box, an adjustable add-on windscreen and heated grips with more circuits to heat the fingers.
Back To Business
Bring the V-four to life and the muffled exhaust note hides a throaty sound that, when barking loudly, faintly resembles an RC212V. Honda decided to start us off on base versions of the VFR with standard six-speed transmissions, and really, the only niggle was a hesitant shifter that required hefty swings from my left foot when clutchless upshifting. We think that'll remedy itself with more miles. Otherwise we focused our attention on the DCT model. Right off the bat a few things are clear: the engine produces ample torque, the seating position is comfortable with a hint of sporty aggression, and the ground clearance is the first limiting factor when searching for speed. Having the rearward cylinders innermost on the crankshaft makes for a cockpit that gives the bike an overall smaller feeling than what it really is, though its 32-inch seat height might intimidate shorter riders.
Dual six-piston calipers grip...
Dual six-piston calipers grip 320mm discs via Honda's linked ABS system. Lever feel was progressive, even on track, with modulation easy to manage. Slowing a heavy bike isn't easy on the binders and the ABS on the VFR goes about its business almost unnoticed.
On this standard transmission...
On this standard transmission model you can clearly see the single-sided swingarm with Honda's impressive shaft drive that greatly reduces shaft-jacking motion on acceleration. Standard Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart tires provided incredible grip and weren't phased by the racetrack environment. Note also the ABS wheel speed sensor which is one of four used during full automatic mode on DCT equipped models to determine when to shift.
Seating position is comfortable...
Seating position is comfortable with the handlebars high and footpegs low. The V4's narrow midsection makes the bike feel smaller than it really is. Wind protection channels a large portion of air up and over the rider's helmet.
Honda's first try at fly-by-wire throttles was worth the wait as it's almost impossible to notice any amount of lag. We first tried the standard "D" mode with the bike on fully automatic, but that didn't last very long as it absolutely neuters an otherwise lively machine in the name of fuel economy. It's as though the bike is constantly two gears higher than it should to keep the engine spinning as slowly as possible without stalling. In Sport mode the characteristic is completely changed with shifts optimized for track or aggressive riding. The V-four powerband starts from as low as 3000 revolutions and tapers off just shy of the 10,000 mark, with upshifts clicking off just as the power starts to dip. Engine speed is matched perfectly during each downshift and the computer is smart enough not to backshift while leaned over-all without the use of a bank angle sensor. Instead, the VFR uses four sensors: front and rear wheel speed (piggybacking off the ABS), throttle position and crank to determine what scenario the bike is in and when to shift. Trust us, we hate it when a machine does the thinking for us, too, but when it's right more often than not it's hard to ignore.
Flick the switch on the right bar to MT (Manual Transmission) and the riding experience transforms similar to the system on high-end performance cars. Riding the DCT version takes some getting used to for seasoned veterans as you instinctively want to grab the clutch lever, but achieving perfect gear changes at just the push of a button-instantly-frees you to focus on other parts of riding. Make no mistake; this isn't a CVT like that on the Aprilia Mana and several scooters, but is in fact a true dual clutch transmission. Gear changes are made only when the buttons are pressed and only revert back to first gear when the bike is at a complete stop, meaning tight maneuvers that would normally require slippage of the clutch are still possible-unlike the Yamaha FJR1300AE. Downshifts, again, are done perfectly every time with just the right amount of rev-matching.
Revolution or Evolution?
Flat out, Honda's VFR1200F just plain works. Instead of taking away from the experience of manual shifting, now perfect shifts are at your fingertips every time. It's rare that we come back from a new model introduction with something groundbreaking to write about, but this is one of those times. Is this technology something we could see on future CBR models? Probably, but unfortunately, there's going to be a large mountain to climb to get public opinion to differ on automatics. Then again, Honda likes challenges.
2010 Honda VFR1200F
Type: Liquid-cooled, four-stroke SOHC 76-degree V-four
Bore x stroke: 81 x 60mm
Compression Ratio: 12:1
Induction: PGM-FI, 44mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart
Rake/trail: 25.5 deg./4.0 in. (101.0mm)
Wheelbase: 60.8 in. (1545mm)
Seat height: 32.1 in. (815mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.9 gal. (18.5 L)
Claimed wet weight (including all fluids, ready to ride): 613 lb. (278 kg.)
Where All The Magic Happens
We take a tour inside Honda's Kumamoto factory
A domestic model VTR250 begins...
A domestic model VTR250 begins its life as a bare frame.
Spanning the size equivalent to 36 major league baseball fields, Honda's Kumamoto factory is the largest of its kind within the company. Here, a majority of Honda's two-wheeled machines are built for worldwide (and domestic) distribution. In fact, one motorcycle rolls off the line every 90 seconds. And the plant is only working at 50-percent capacity. Along with the production buildings, test tracks for both on-and-off-road machines are incorporated within its walls.
When designing the factory in Kumamoto that same concern for the environment it shares with its vehicles was taken into consideration-the plant was built with as little digging into the foundation as possible to limit waste. Deep below is a natural bed of cold water that creates a pocket of cool air between it and the factory. Honda then vents this cool air into its welcome room to save energy. There are a whole host of measures the company takes to save energy and reduce waste, including a closed system to treat its industrial water supply, a rainwater usage facility and the implementation of 1008 solar panels.
Once the engine and drivetrain...
Once the engine and drivetrain are intact, ancillaries are then installed. Note the moving shelves behind the workers that follow each motorcycle and contain each piece the bike needs for completion.
A finished VTR250 then moves...
A finished VTR250 then moves to the scratch test, where a highly-experienced worker examines the entire motorcycle for any scratches or imperfections during the build.
Once a model passes the scratch...
Once a model passes the scratch test, it then gets tested to ensure mechanical and electrical components are functioning properly.
Inside the plant the work area is spotless. To aid the workers, each production line track has the ability to change height at different stages to reduce the amount each worker has to bend at the waist. Unlike other manufacturers, however, each line is dedicated to one model-you won't find a CBR600RR on the production line behind a Gold Wing. Further, a change in the production line requires at least a month's notice in order to notify suppliers.
During our visit, Honda staff were eager to show off the new paint facility it uses on "fun" vehicles (mainly motorcycles 125cc and above that are exported to Europe and North America) like the VFR1200F. While we weren't able to extract the secret behind the new painting process, a display was set up with black fuel tanks from Harley Davidson, who Honda views as the benchmark of paint quality, along with tanks using a less expensive painting method. When viewed side-by-side the difference is clear: the lower quality tanks were less reflective than the Harley with a hazy tint and waves within the paint's finish. But when the new VFR fuel tank was put beside the Harley unit, suddenly the American tank was put to shame-the Honda's was void of virtually every defect and reflected a mirror-like finish. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed.