WE RIDE: Honda's new VFR1200F
Honda's V-four motorcycles have always been its technology flagwavers from the rasping little 400cc NC30 to the VFR800 sports tourer and the astonishing NR750 with oval pistons, dual con rods and eight valves per cylinder.
But they've also been Honda's contenders in that most difficult category to define, the all-rounder, traditionally described as a sports bike you can ride to work - or all day.
Ever since its introduction in February 2005 the Triumph Sprint ST 1050 has been the class of the class, way ahead of the now discontinued Ducati ST3 and the magnificent but outgunned VFR800.
But now the world's biggest motorcycle manufacturer has struck back with a technical tour de force that borrows the cleverest tricks from Honda's CRF motocrossers and the five-cylinder RC211V MotoGP bike - and adds a few new ones of its own.
Honda SA has unleashed the VFR1200F in South Africa with a 275km launch ride over most the Western Cape's most challenging twisties. All the launch bikes had conventional gearboxes; the groundbreaking dual-clutch automatic transmission will only become available in mid-year.
Nevertheless, the consensus was clear - the Sprint has been knocked off its perch by a new breed of all-rounder with the stomp (and sheer size!) of a muscle bike but agile enough to hustle over Franschhoek Pass like a race replica and (almost) civilised enough to cope with heavy traffic.
It's a 1237cc, narrow-angle (76 degrees) V-four with offset crankpins to smooth out the power impulses enough that Honda felt emboldened to dispense with balance shafts, saving precious weight and crankcase volume.
It also has Honda's first electronic, "fly-by-wire" throttle on a street-bike for precise control and lightning response, and a servo-operated valve in the stainless-steel exhaust system to liberate some remarkably authoritative noises - and a whole lot more performance - above 5500rpm.
It will pull, growling gently, from just above idle and willingly from 3000rpm but as the rev-counter needle moves from five to six the exhaust note deepens and the torque steps up appreciably. Honda says more than 90 percent of its 129Nm is available from 4000rpm.
From there to the red line at 10 250rpm the power builds without any steps or jumps, providing remarkably swift acceleration for effortless overtaking and a top speed way on the naughty side of 250km/h.
Exactly how far we'll tell you when we've had one for review.
But its key feature is also its Achilles' heel; the electronic throttle is over-sensitive at small openings, making it very jerky on and off the power at low speeds. It's almost unrideable in first gear unless loaded for hill-starts or fast take-offs; rather than six speeds it has five gears and an underdrive.
The short first gear also enables spectacular wheelies on demand, very impressive from a 267kg (kerb weight) machine, but requires an educated throttle hand to cope with city traffic, which may compromise the VFR as a commuter. All I did was pop it in second and rumble along at 1500rpm - an amateurish riding technique but effective.
The shaft final drive has an offset pivot to negate any tendency to climb or dive and four in-line dampers to minimise lash, almost (but not quite) silencing the traditional shaft-drive "clonk" on power take-up.
The VFR1200F has a rangy 1545mm wheelbase but, with all its major masses concentrated close to the centre of effort, turns in sharply and accurately, and settles down nicely in mid-corner.
The only time you can feel the bike's weight is on sharp flip-flops and even then some body English and counter-steering will have it changing direction like a much smaller machine.
At the factory's median settings the suspension is firm even by sports-bike standards; the bike is fine for a couple of hours' hooning around but would become tiring on a long tour. Some time on fine-tuning the front and rear preload, and rear rebound settings, would be well spent if you plan on taking your VFR to the other end of the country.
The upside of firm suspension, of course, is limited front-end dive under hard braking - and the bike's linked brakes, with six-pot radial mount callipers in front and a simple twin-piston slider at the rear, deliver plenty of that.
RELAXED SEATING POSITION
There's almost no take-up on the front brake lever; the slightest touch will scrub off speed like running into wet cement. Honda's insanely complex, combined brake system doesn't have a lot of feel at the lever, which can be disconcerting, but its power and initial bite are impressive.
Anti-lock braking is also standard on the VFR, so grabbing an injudicious handful in an emergency won't be the instant disaster it would once have been with such vicious brakes.
The unorthodox cylinder layout (the two rear cylinders are on the two centre crankpins, the front pots in positions one and four) makes the frame very narrow in the middle, improving comfort on long rides and placing the rider in, rather than on the bike.
The seating position is relaxed, leaning slightly forward, the reach to the 'bars moderate. The front seat is generous so you can move back against the pillion pad and get behind the screen for long straights or forward against the 18.5-litre tank for maximum body English on tight stuff.
The instrument panel is straightforward, with an LCD display either side of a central analogue rev-counter. The left screen has a digital speedometer and a fuel gauge, the right a clock, odo/tripmeter, ambient and coolant temperature gauges.
The lines of the fairing are drawn from the distinctive X-shaped headlight through smooth but very complex curves to meld the fuel tank and side panels into one unit with not a single external fastener visible.
IMPECCABLE FIT AND FINISH
The layered body panels accelerate the air flow past the engine for extra cooling and direct the hot air away from the rider's legs. The smoothed-out slipstream also improves high-speed stability, says the maker.
The rest of the bike is however, a little scrappy, ending right behind the pillion pad with the number plate cantilevered a long way out on a minimalist rear mudguard. The dominant features of the rear end are, in fact, a pair of substantial grab handles for the pillion.
Fit and finish are impeccable, as they should be on the flagship model from a maker known for quality detail work. The VFR1200F is available in pearl white, metallic silver and Honda's signature candy apple red, invented for the Honda CB750 Four in 1967.
Somewhat surprisingly for a technological showpiece, the bike does not have variable engine mappings, electronically adjustable suspension or screen, or even a trip data computer.
Honda, however, has not ruled out these features on later variants, referring to this first model as "the purest expression of its new direction in V4 design".
What it does have is discreet fittings for panniers, top box, centre stand, a three-position screen extension and heatable grips, each of which is available for after-sales fitment to your VFR1200F.
PRICE: R159 999
The Honda VFR1200F is not intended for boy racers. Honda describes the target customer as a grown-up, perhaps born-again rider who can only afford one bike due to family commitments but demands all-round competence.
Despite its awe-inspiring mechanical complexity, it's a simple, relaxed ride with huge power on tap anywhere in the rev range, which shows how well the technology works.
Bore x stroke: 81 x 60mm.
Compression ratio: 12.0:1.
Valvegear: SOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 127kW at 10 000rpm.
Torque: 129Nm at 8750.
Induction:PGM-FI electronic fuel-injection with "fly-by-wire" and four throttle bodies.
Ignition: Computer-controlled digital transistorised with electronic advance.
Clutch: Hydraulically actuated multiplate wet slipper clutch.
Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by shaft.
Front: 43mm inverted cartridge forks adjustable for preload.
Rear: Rising-rate linkage with remote-reservoir gas-filled monoshock remotely adjustable for preload and rebound damping.
Front: Dual 320mm discs with Nissin radial-mount six-pot opposed-piston callipers and combined anti-lock braking .
Rear: 276mm disc with Nissin twin-piston floating calliper.
Front: 120/70 - 17 tubeless.
Rear: 190/55 - 17 tubeless.
Seat height: 815mm.
Dry weight: 267kg.
18.5 litres, 6.5 litres/100km (claimed).
Two years unlimited distance warranty.
Triumph Sprint ST 1050 ABS - R124 500
Kawasaki 1400 GTR - R149 995
Suzuki Hayabusa - R151 995
BMW K1300S - R163 140