Trying to push a new idea in engine or chassis design on the buying public can be a risky proposition. If the idea is a hit, great-the motorcycle sells like gangbusters, and both customers and manufacturer are happy. If the concept bombs, however, it can be an expensive mistake for the factory, especially if a particular model is built around that idea. All the development and tooling costs, plus unsold units languishing in a warehouse, can really put the financial hurt on a manufacturer. Just ask Bimota about the Vdue.
But if you were to tack those ideas onto a tried and true model with a loyal following, that risk is lessened considerably. Especially a bike whose fans aren't averse to those new systems adding a little weight and cost, even in an era of ever-lighter supersport machines competing in a marketplace so fierce that price is nearly as important as performance.
Honda's Interceptor-previously known as the VFR-is one of those enduring machines that continues to sell well. Since its ground-breaking debut in 1983 as a cutting-edge sportbike, the Interceptor has been steadily softened and rounded in subsequent generations from its original hard-core premise, while other Honda models took up the all-out performance corporate sword. Although the Interceptor's V4 motor was the basic platform for Honda's superbike racing efforts up until the introduction of the RC51 two years ago, the VFR/Interceptor continued to evolve away from the flashy, testosterone-addled persona into a more gentlemanly, utilitarian sportbike. During that time, the Interceptor continued to build a riding clientele that didn't mind paying a little extra for a sporting machine boasting a little performance technology behind its extremely hospitable manners.
The new 2002 model Interceptor, however, features a substantial makeover from the previous generations in several major design areas. The V4 engine has received a couple of updates, most notable of which is Honda's patented VTEC variable valve induction technology. By only actuating two of the four valves in the combustion chamber at lower rpms for improved torque and fuel economy-while using all four at high rpms for top-end power-the VTEC system is designed to offer the best of both worlds (see "Hyper-VTEC or Economy VTEC" sidebar, page 32).
The chassis also gained a few mods aimed at improving backroad handling, and the Interceptor's overall styling was radically altered. While its new angular, four-headlight front end offers an air of aggressiveness, the real news centers around the twin mufflers jutting out from underneath the sharper, more oblique seat/tail section, a la Ducati 916.
So where is the new Interceptor headed? Is it getting sportier? Or is the last Honda V4 sportbike still the user-friendly, do-it-all machine that its loyal fans have grown to know and love?
DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE
The Interceptor has been a "broad range" motorcycling icon in Honda's lineup for over a decade, so it would seem foolish of the company to tamper with that successful formula by leaning toward either end of the sportbike spectrum. Thus, in the typical Honda manner, they decided to expand on both sides-performance and long range comfort.
The basic architecture of the 781cc, V4 motor is unchanged, but there are plenty of minor modifications. Fitting the VTEC system inevitably added weight and cost, so Honda looked to trim the same elsewhere. Camshafts are 300 grams lighter, but more importantly, the cam drive has been changed from gear to chain drive. The new silent-type cam chain eliminates the gear whine that endeared the Interceptor to many, but it also is cheaper to manufacture, and drops 6.2 pounds. However, the engine cases were beefed up for rigidity purposes to complement the stouter chassis and swingarm (more on that later), which gained back 2.5 pounds. Nevertheless, the new Interceptor powerplant scales in 3.4 pounds less than before.
The combustion chamber's included valve angle is slightly narrower at 23 degrees (vs. the previous 26 degrees), but valve sizes and compression ratio remain the same. The more compact combustion chamber works with new 12-hole injectors (vs. the old four-hole type, for finer fuel atomization) and a three-way catalytic converter in the exhaust to run so efficiently that the Interceptor meets the ultra-stringent 2008 emissions standards. All this exhales through the two aforementioned stainless steel under-seat mufflers (that incidentally are 4.2 pounds heavier).
Gearing was also juggled on the new Honda. The final drive is lower courtesy of a one-tooth-smaller countershaft sprocket, but the internal transmission ratios were altered too. First and second gear end up being lower for better acceleration from a stop, but third through sixth gears are slightly wider and taller for more a relaxed touring rpm. The fuel tank capacity was increased from 5.5 to 5.8 gallons for more range.
While most of this sounds like the Interceptor is being refined into a boring tourer, chassis updates were aimed at bolstering its backroad prowess. The main frame's aluminum spars are made from thicker material, increasing overall rigidity by 23.8 percent. The characteristic single-sided swingarm (pivoting in the engine cases, hence the need for their aforementioned strengthening) is 20mm longer, as well as being 12.1 percent stiffer; the lower frame bracket now runs underneath, connecting the two swingarm pivots instead of being simply a mount for the footpeg hangers.
The conventional HMAS (Honda Multi-Action System) cartridge fork has been beefed up from 41mm to 43mm stanchion tubes, with stiffer, linear-rate springs and a touch more compression damping. The rear shock also received a bit more compression damping, plus more rebound. One more touring aspect deserves mention, though. Finally, after all these years, Honda has acquiesced to everyone's biggest gripe with the Interceptor: hard luggage is now offered as an option. Unfortunately, Honda didn't have any available for us to test; in fact, we didn't even get any photos of the luggage, which are slated to be made by Givi. This ensures that the quality will be up to Honda's high standards; but it also means that they'll be a bit expensive (which is probably why they're offered as an option instead of coming standard with the bike). In order to support the added weight of the bags (with cargo), passenger and the underseat exhausts, the Interceptor's rear subframe is now a huge steel backbone unit; no wimpy little aluminum racer-style subframe here. Of course, this contributes to the new Interceptor's added heft of 508 pounds-a full 25 pounds heavier than the 2001 version.
GIVIN' IT THE WHIP
As usual with Honda's PGM fuel injection, cold morning startups are a simple affair: turn the ignition key on and hit the starter button. You can ride off immediately, with nary a hiccup or cough in fuel delivery. The exhaust note at idle and low rpms is so quiet, you wonder if the engine is even running; in keeping with the Interceptor's now-gentlemanly status, this is probably a good thing.
Die-hard Interceptor fans will be glad to know that the ergonomics remain unchanged. Only the seat has been altered, with a wider perch and slightly firmer foam; reactions to how comfortable it was was were mixed, with heavier pilots preferring it. The 10mm taller windscreen is effective in keeping the windblast off your chest and helmet, the mirrors are adequate, and the new dash with digital speedo is much easier to read.
So how does the VTEC feel? If you're expecting a cammy rush of power, you'll be disappointed. Honda massaged the fuel delivery and ignition timing maps to ensure that the transition to four-valve breathing at 7000 rpm is as smooth as possible. The motor does seem to accelerate and rev more freely than before, but that acceleration depends on the gearing.
In the city, acceleration from a stop is decidedly brisk, due to the shorter first and second gears. You can dispatch traffic with ease, and the Honda's nimble handling belies its somewhat hefty weight. For the most part, the Linked Braking System functions well in the city, although we still are not fans of the system. Even though this latest version is less "linked" than before, it still requires heavy effort at the lever for serious stopping power unless you use the rear brake pedal simultaneously. Feel and modulation are pretty numb, and the braking power is extremely progressive; there's not much at the beginning, then it increases drastically. Nothing bad, mind you, and for the average rider the brakes are perfectly adequate; we would rather have a choice of which brake and how much, however. (We also had a chance to briefly try the ABS version during wet weather, and can report that its performance was excellent. Quick, controlled stops with no wheel lockup whatsoever.)
Our initial concerns about the increased compression damping at both ends were dispelled when we encountered rough pavement. The suspension soaks up most of the big hits pretty well without transferring the shock loads to the chassis or rider. This is due to the bike's added weight, which gives the damping more inertia to work against. Frost heaves on the highway were more noticeable, but nothing excessive.
The highway is where we found the Interceptor's taller gearing tended to offset any power gains attained by the VTEC. Sixth gear is now more of an overdrive cog, so unless you are doing at least 75 mph (which puts you at 5000 rpm), brisk passing still requires a couple of downshifts. A pretty big flatspot between 4000 and 5000 rpm has the motor working hard to overcome the tall sixth gear, and even a downshift to fifth (which is 2.3 percent taller than before) sometimes isn't enough.
Our fuel mileage-mixing in a few canyon sorties in addition to regular commuting-hovered around the 36 mpg mark, which means that around 200 miles a tankful is possible; the reserve warning begins flashing with about a gallon left. The new headlights are good, with the high beams especially effective at lighting up pavement 500 feet in front of you.
Once into twisty pavement, however, the Interceptor really displays where the changes prove effective. While the old version was no slouch, the new Interceptor's chassis and suspension improvements give it a higher level of stability and control when the pace picks up. Aggressive cornering moves and rough pavement that would get the old model wallowing and chattering are now handled with nary a whimper, with decent ground clearance keeping hard parts off the deck (really aggressive cornering will cause the centerstand and collector pipes on the right side to touch down, but you should be riding a different bike at that point). The suspension rates are a good compromise between long-haul comfort and sporting control.
We found that even while riding aggressively in the tighter canyons, the VTEC's transition to four-valve power was smooth enough to prevent upsetting the chassis or tires while leaned over. Incidentally, the Dunlop D204 Sportmax tires (uh...they still make those?) stuck well, with quick and neutral steering habits; their wear rates were a little excessive, however. Acceleration when constantly accessing the above-7000 rpm powerband feels livelier than the older model, but even when momentarily dropping below 7000 rpm, you never have to be wary of when the VTEC chimes in. A change in intake honk is the only real notice that the system has engaged. Power begins to drop off around the 10,750 rpm mark, so there's no reason to rev it any farther before shifting.
While the VTEC's improvements to engine performance may be less than stellar, it imbues a modicum of personality to the Interceptor, and there are some tangible gains in the tighter canyons. Once into the faster stuff, however, the motor doesn't matter-the improved chassis and suspension take over from there, allowing the new Honda to really strut its stuff. The aggressive new styling will win over many; we received many positive comments, from both enthusiasts and non-motorcycle folk. And the fact that there is finally factory-fitted hard luggage-albeit an option-is a godsend.
Will the extra $500 matter to the Interceptor's intended audience? We doubt it. The exclusivity of its technology-plus the improved handling-will be worth it.
I should really be partial to the VFR, as my first streetbike was the original 750 Interceptor. And in my Geek personality, I should love it because of all the new technology. But the truth is, I'm a simple kind of guy, and I have trouble with gadgets and gizmos. Sheesh, I'm still getting used to the idea of fuel injection, let alone VTEC and gear driven cams-oh wait, those are out of fashion now, I guess.
I liked the old Interceptor, and I'm glad the new VFR has a more touring-oriented focus without sacrificing its sporting side-it really needs that to compete with the Italian twins. Unfortunately, Honda has taken away what I liked (the gear noise and great exhaust note) and not fixed what I didn't (nonadjustable controls and suspension).
I've never really been a big fan of the VFR/Interceptor. Part of this prejudice is due to the bike's positioning; a motorcycle boasting as much performance technology as the Interceptor has all these years shouldn't be relegated to soft-core sportbike status. However, the fact that the Interceptor has de-evolved from a ground-breaking sportbike into a technical ego exercise probably begs the question: If this technology is so good, why isn't it being used on the frontline sportbikes? And while the bike surely serves its intended purpose well, I can't get that enthused about a bike that has steadily gained a lot of weight over the years.
I'm not a big fan of the LBS system, either. While I'm sure that it can help riders of average ability or lower in panic braking situations, shouldn't the rider be adapting to the bike, rather than the other way round? The brakes' highly progressive nature, coupled with their merely adequate feel and modulation, rob me of the ability to finesse the brakes-and may enforce some bad habits in novice-ability riders.
Don't get me wrong, the new Interceptor is a great bike, especially with its retuned suspenders. But there's a little too much flash and not enough substance for my money.
_-Kent Kunitsugu _
2002 Honda Interceptor Specifications
Suggested retail price: $9999 ($10,999 for ABS version)
Type: Liquid-cooled, 90-degree, V4
Valve arrangement: DOHC, 4 valves/cyl. shim-under-bucket/replaceable bucket adjustment
Bore x stroke: 72.0 x 48mm
Compression ratio: 11.6:1
Carburetion: Electronic fuel injection, 36mm throttle bodies
Front suspension: 43mm conventional cartridge fork, 4.3 in. travel; adjustment for spring preload only
Rear suspension: Single shock, 4.7 in. travel; adjustments for spring preload and rebound damping
Front brake: 2, three-piston calipers with Linked Braking System, 296mm discs
Rear brake: 3-piston caliper with Linked Braking System, 256mm disc
Front wheel: 3.50 x 17 in.; cast-aluminum
Rear wheel: 5.50 x 17 in.; cast aluminum
Front tire: 120/70 ZR-17 Dunlop D204 Sportmax radial
Rear tire: 180/55 ZR-17 Dunlop D204 Sportmax radial
Rake/trail: 25.5 deg./3.7 in. (95mm)
Wheelbase: 57.4 in. (1458mm)
Seat height: 31.7 in. (805mm)
Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal. (22L)
Weight: 534 lb. (246kg) wet; 508 lb. (230kg dry)
Instruments: Digital LCD speedometer, tachometer, readout for coolant temp, outside ambient temp, fuel level, clock, odometer, dual tripmeter, lights for neutral, high beam, turn signal, low oil pressure, fuel injection problem
Fuel consumption: 34 to 43 mpg, 36 mpg avg.
Top speed: N/A
Quarter-mile: 11.22 sec. @ 119.80 mph
Roll-ons, 6th gear: 60-80mph/5.26 sec., 80-100mph/5.82 sec.
This story originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Sport Rider.