Honda VFR1200X: The (very) big easy
Soichiro Honda was as much a social as a mechanical engineer; he insisted that machines bearing his name had to be all things to all riders, and that ethos still permeates the world's largest motorcycle company.
Honda-san would never have lent his name to the KH500 two-stroke triple, for instance, that accelerated like an Exocet missile but was good for nothing else, and the company he founded has yet to mass-produce a seriously nasty supermotard.
And so it proved with the VFR1200X Crosstourer, the 'dual-purpose' version of Honda's hugely muscular 1237cc sports-tourer. Poorly executed, it could have been about as wieldy as a 12-gauge on a butterfly hunt, but the maker's characteristic attention to detail has made it an astonishingly rideable big bike with a laid-back, easygoing persona that breeds confidence.
Its big V-four engine has been significantly detuned to a quoted 95kW at 7750rpm and 126Nm at 6500 - which, in the real world, translates to huge dollops of accessible, usable power anywhere above 2500rpm (that's 60km/h in fourth or 80 in sixth) and no discernable power band.
The bike just keeps on running stronger the harder you rev it, right up to about 8000rpm, although some irritating secondary vibration above 6500rpm reminds you that you are playing power games with a very big, very tall and very heavy piece of machinery.
(VERY) COOL RUNNINGS
Let loose on our six-kilometre test straight, it very quickly ran up to its 209km true top speed, with 227 showing on the digital speedometer and a little less than 7500 on the difficult-to-read bar-graph rev-counter - a speedo error of 8.6 percent, which is acceptable if not commendable.
What is commendable is its stability at terminal velocity; I was able to hold it there for a long time (about 10 seconds) on a crisp (12 degrees!) wind-still winter morning without so much as a twitch, despite the bike's height (850mm to the saddle and 1335 to the top of the screen on the lower of its two settings) and supple, long-travel suspension.
The rear suspension is noticeably stiffer than the front, as it needs to be to cope with the extra unsprung mass of the shaft final drive, but both ends are pleasantly cushy, soaking up the worst that our bumpy test section could throw at them as we went through it at an average 85 km/h, where 80 is good for a street-bike.
The chassis coped equally well with our ride and handling section, settling down well in the long sweeps without undue choreography from either end, and turning in smartly (thanks to well-centralised masses wide handlebars) in the tight stuff.
The Crosstourer is not an off-roader - it weighs 275kg ready to go - but it's at ease and reassuringly sure-footed on decent gravel roads. I suspect that the limiting factor here may be the road-specific Bridgestone Battlewing tyres, which become very squirrelly at the first hint of mud or sand.
The gearbox is superb for a shaft-driven bike, slick and crisp, with very little 'clonk' from the final drive, although injudicious movements of the 'fly-by-wire' throttle in first gear will still startle unwary pedestrians.
Other than the noisy first-second change, clutchless upshifts soon became the norm although, in deference to the big V-four's strong engine braking, I always used the clutch for downshifts.
The first time I rode the VFR1200 I was intimidated by the sheer size and weight of the bike but, once I got used to swinging my leg over a carrier that's almost a metre high at its tallest point, I discovered that it is in fact very, very comfortable.
The rear section of the 21.6-litre fuel tank is neatly tapered and the rider's seat is wide, deeply and luxuriously padded, supporting the undersides of the thighs as well as the gluteus maximus, spreading the weight and delaying the onset of the dreaded Numb Bum Syndrome to the point where the bike will almost always want to stop before you do.
The foot-pegs are perfectly positioned directly under the lowest point of the saddle and the reach to the 'bars tilts the upper body forward just enough to take advantage of the protection afforded by the neat and solidly mounted screen, while the neat black-plastic hand-guards look like an affectation until you arrive at work at 6am on a seriously chilly winter morning and discover that you put your summer gloves on by mistake but your fingers aren't frozen.
The bike is loaded with all sorts of active safety systems but none of them interfere with your enjoyment of the bike, as is so often the case.
Honda's once terrifyingly complex combined braking system has now been simplified to the point where the front brake lever operates all but one of the front brake pistons and does not operate the rear brake at all, while the rear brake lever operates only the rear brake and the centre piston on the left front brake.
The net effect is to settle the bike down and reduce front-end squirm under heavy braking, always a consideration on a bike weighing more than a quarter of a tonne - but you won't notice it happening.
The antilock braking set-up seamlessly reduces brake pressure to the affected wheel whenever one wheel starts turning significantly slower than the other, preventing lock-up without upsetting the bike's balance, and the traction control does exactly the opposite, gently backing off the power whenever the rear wheel begins to turn faster than the front.
The traction control is also the only safety system that can be switched off, just in case you feel the need to pull some serious rooster-tails on the nearest gravel road. I didn't.
The instrument pod is all-liquid-crystal, displaying speed, time, distance (plus two trip-meters) fuel level, fuel-consumption (average, instantaneous or range to empty - your choice), and engine and ambient temperatures, which is how I knew how cold it was on our top end runs.
Above it there's a second liquid-crystal screen for a bar-graph rev-counter which is vague and difficult to read in any light; it stands out because it's the only thing on the Crosstourer that doesn't work properly.
The Honda VFR1200X is a superb long-hauler; it has torque to spare, a refined chassis and its well-nigh perfect ergonomics (always Honda's strong suit) put many full-dress tourers to shame. Its only weak point is its 7.63 litres per 100km thirst, restricting its range to a theoretical 280km/h, even with one of the biggest fuel tanks in its class.
By comparison, the Triumph Tiger Explorer recorded 6.3 litres per 100km, the Yamaha Super Tenere 6.1, the BMW K1600 six-cylinder cruise liner 6.6 and even Honda's own gynormous 1832cc Gold Wing got by on 7.4 over the same mix of commuting, cruising and performance testing.
Where the Honda outscores everything else is in user-friendliness. It is so well-balanced that it can trickle through the Friday-evening gridlock like a scooter (albeit a very large one - the VFR is 915mm wide across the hand-guards!) and grab every gap like a supermotard.
It's superbly comfortable and its enormously muscular right-here-and-now throttle response is nothing short of addictive. After a week I felt as if I had been riding the Crosstourer for years - and everybody I've spoken to who has ridden one has said the same thing.
Soichiro-san would have been proud.
Price: R149 900.
Bike from: Honda Southern Africa.
Engine: 1237cc liquid-cooled 76-degree V-four.
Bore x stroke: 77 x 56mm.
Compression ratio: 11.8:1.
Valvegear: SOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 95kW at 7750rpm.
Torque: 126Nm at 6500rpm.
Induction: PGM-DSFI electronic fuel-injection with “fly-by-wire” and four 44mm Keihin throttle bodies.
Ignition: Computer-controlled digital transistorised with electronic advance.
Clutch: Hydraulically actuated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by shaft.
Front Suspension: 43mm inverted cartridge forks.
Rear Suspension: Pro-link with gas-charged monoshock adjustable for preload.
Front brakes: Dual 310mm floating disks with Nissin three-piston floating callipers and ABS.
Rear brake: 250mm disc with dual-piston floating calliper and ABS.
Front tyre: 110/80 - 19 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 150/70 - 17 tubeless.
Seat height: 850mm.
Kerb weight: 275kg.
Fuel tank: 21.5 litres.
Top speed (measured): 209km/h.
Fuel consumption (measured): 7.63 litres per 100km.
Service intervals: 12 000km
Price: R149 900.
Bike from: Honda Southern Africa.