2003 VTEC VFR – Down on Credit

2003 Honda VFR Lounging AboutIn 2002 Honda updated its venerable all-rounder, the VFR, and brought it into its sixth generation. The previous VFR was getting Maybe it was boredom from consistently winning British motorcycle magazine sport-tourer shootouts, but Honda seems to have fixed a bike that may not have been truly broken.  The sixth generation of VFR came to market and among the Viffer-lovers it was controversial: edgy new a bit long in the tooth, so expectations for the updated VRF were high.  styling, under-tail pipes and, most controversial of all, VTEC.

A lot has been written about the VTEC engine so lets skip a complete rehash. Honda redesigned the existing VFR power plant, adding variably applied valving and removing the distinctive sounding gear driven cams.  This created a brand new engine. Except for one thing, it had almost the exact same torque and power properties as the old one. If copying is a form of flattery, this might be a bit self-indulgent. On the bright side, the new engine is a bit of an improvement if you are a tree in California, as it meets that state’s upcoming emission standards.  The other plus is the new lump is a bit lighter.

Unfortunately there is also a catalytic converter and twin pipes; they weigh down the new VFR and in the end probably use more fuel, effectively undoing all the fabulous technical feats of VTEC in the first place.  Enough said; it’s worth simply shrugging and moving on. And you can, because despite the technical irony of having a power plant that is functionally identical to its parent, this engine is really brilliant!

The VTEC V-4 is free revving and has enough torque for good fun, without threatening to loft the front wheel skyward at the slightest twitch of the loud handle, though the longish wheelbase has a bit to do with that too.  It enjoys near inline-four smoothness and has a great twin “light” sound (even with stock pipes). Then you hit 7000rpm and the sound gets even better – the VTEC has just kicked in!

The VTEC wasn’t as intrusive as several reviews I’ve read implied. It’s not subtle, but as the extra two valves per cylinder kick in there is a freeing-up of power and the pipes just growl. It’s an artificial power-band and it just leaves you giggling, though it’s nothing the rest of the bike can’t handle.

You’d have to be doing something pretty catastrophic in a corner for the VTEC to upset the dynamic of the bike’s suspension. Indeed, the suspension on the Viffer felt solid and surefooted on the road; this includes in the wet (as the first road test was in true cow-floating rain on fresh Bridgestone BT-020s). Actually, the VFR’s suspension felt a lot better than that of the Blackbird, much more planted and yet more flickable. Take the corners only with counter-steer and it’s happy.  Hang-off in the corners and it’s happy too, just a faster happy.  Hit the binders and Honda’s anti-dive does it’s thing and the bike is happy.  Happy, happy, happy. This bike is just user friendly.

Honda has done something very fun here; through the technology of VTEC they have given an otherwise solid, stayed and conservative bike a personality disorder, or a bit of soul, depending on your point of view. Below 7000 RPM this bike is a hardly-vibrating tourer; give the free-turning throttle a tug and the VFR becomes just a little bit of a hooligan. Not much of one, a hooligan on Prozak or with a cold maybe, but it is willing to play. It was entertaining. I found myself playing with the VTEC throughout the test ride and up to about 150kph where I called it good.

Speed on the Viffer is fun; it feels like you’re moving. At 150 the VFR feels fast, at 150 the Blackbird feels like well… yawn.

So is this the all-rounder of all-rounders? Maybe. It has well integrated bags, ABS (for those who like it), linked braking, cutting-edge technology, good weather protection (ok, a taller wind screen would be nice), comfortable ergos, stomping handling by sport-touring standards, and a bit of artificially installed personality courtesy of the VTEC. So why isn’t my credit card on the counter? One reason… 1980’s Mustangs.

In the 80’s Ford redesigned the Mustang; it was squared off, angular, it was edgy… it had design appeal that lasted about a week. Honda must have been thinking “younger, edgier, a redesign that appeals to a sportier market” and it got a design that after 2 years is feeling a little like a 45 year old at a rave. It’s almost instantly dated. They’ve done the same thing to the VFR; for a bike built with an engine noted for lasting 200,000 km, a design with more classic cues would probably serve it better as the years go by. Especially given Honda’s propensity to leave the Viffer for 5 years between updates. Other than that this bike is a frontrunner for me.

Authors note:  In the end I did put my credit card on the counter.  The looks do grow on you, once you get rid of the “edgy and hip” VFR stickers.

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