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Honda's VFR1200s

 To shift or not to shift...

Now, I don't recall running into the dealership yelling "Let's go flog these Mules !" but my enthusiasm may have preceded me. About the third time it was mentioned to "keep the mileage down" it occurred to me to ask "How many miles exactly?" Honda's new VFR1200s are Sport Touring motorcycles after all. Alas, these being brand new motorcycles (like, zero miles new), I wasn't allowed to rack up the miles they were designed for.

The plan was to get both models, the standard and the new Dual Clutch Transmission model, to the Rally in the Gorge and put them on display. From there Bret Tkacs and myself would use the Maryhill Loops Road - Cornering Clinic as a proving ground. Lacking the ability to ride two motorcycles simultaneously, they were loaded on a trailer and I drove to the motorcycle Rally.

When the new VFR was unveiled at the International Motorcycle Show it received mixed reviews. If you're still riding a chain-drive 750 Intercepter and have nearly worn out your VHS copy of V-Four Victory, this may not be the model for you. But those of us in the 21st Century can appreciate the updated styling and "layered concept fairing". In fact, when parked side by side, the VFR1200 and the older VFR800 share many of the same design lines.

The VFR1200F and the Dual Clutch model share the 1237cc, 76 degree V-Four engine, and having the #2 and #3 cylinders inboard. They both have the same offset drive shaft. Where they differ is in how the power is delivered to that drive shaft, the standard model has traditional clutch and shift levers. The Dual Clutch has... well, two clutches, no clutch lever and no shift lever, and this is where a funny thing happens;

Many riders are... (wait for it)... 'automatically' adverse to the DCT model. But let's think about this; many motorcyclists feel that manipulating the clutch lever, once out of first gear, is somehow an advanced motorcycling skill. If this is true then why do they demand bikes with slipper clutches and electronic quick shifters, thereby negating the need to use the clutch altogether? Someone said that the new DCT was the answer to a question no one asked, but it seems to me motorcyclists have been asking for this for some time now. The VFR1200DCT is not designed for slow speed maneuvers anyway. It's not a "scooter" (it doesn't have a Constant Velocity Transmission, or CVT. it has two clutches, hence the name) and it has a manual mode if you really have a need to control what gear the motorcycle is in.

I figured Bret would want the honor of putting the first miles on the DCT model but I had to try it out. So technically Bret put the first mile on it but I put the first couple hundred feet on it going back and forth in my driveway. The first time you start up the DCT everything seems normal until you put it in first gear. There's a moment of trepidation before pressing the mode button. This is when you start looking for the clutch lever. It's a strange sensation to have the motorcycle just sit there in first gear without stalling and not moving. You have a choice of modes:

  • D - Which I imagine stands for Dual Clutch Transmission (Or Default? You can probably come up with your own). This shifts to the highest gear for any RPM to give the best fuel mileage.

  • S - Sport mode. For me this is the natural choice particularly for riding through the twisties.

  • MT - Manual. Allowing the use of paddle like switches on the left hand grip to select gears.

  • N - Neutral. Handy when having to walk the bike around and yes , even on the "Automatic" you can select a false neutral if you like.

Because the motorcycle is already in gear when you roll on the throttle it simply glides away. Slowing and stopping are all the same as the standard version, both having linked ABS.

At the Rally I was correct in my assumption - on Saturday morning Bret gleefully jumped on the DCT. When he shifted it into gear he started giggling and didn't stop until we reached Maryhill Loops Road. On the way there I had a chance to experiment with the highway qualities of the VFR. The V-Four engine is amazingly smooth with plenty of power for hauling passengers, luggage and passing rolling chicanes. Top gear roll-ons are a breeze even from questionably high cruising speeds (the group thought I lagged behind because I'm slow but didn't question how quickly I caught up ...Hmmm). Anyone familiar with a Honda will find the riding position and control locations right at home. Things like seat comfort and windscreen height are very personal. I find the VFR to be perfect for me ; I don't mind some discomfort and I like being out in the weather. The big side fairings are very aerodynamic in a straight line but with the winds in the Columbia River Gorge they act rather sail like, particularly when exiting tunnels. The mirrors are positioned so you can actually use them and don't suffer from vibration distortion. The bikes are probably heavier than other sport touring models, but once rolling that weight disappears and helps give a balanced, planted feel.

As part of the Rally, Orhun, of www.TurkPhotos.com, was on hand photographing all the riders on Maryhill. He took some exceptional pictures this year of a couple of the bikes and myself.

The VFR is a Sport Touring motorcycle that is more sport than touring, and although they were on different brands of tires each bike performed equally well on the corners of Maryhill. Bret and I switched motorcycles several times during the clinic, but for me riding the DCT, I couldn't come to grips with D-mode. This, to me, is simply for open highway, get-the-most-mileage-in-a-straight-line use. MT-mode was less exciting than I hoped and eventually I grew bored with the task of shifting. In the CLASS riding school Reg Pridmore (former Rally guest) states that the motorcycle doesn't care what gear it's in as long as it's at the proper RPM. Keith Code of the California Superbike School has written several articles about his Fourth Gear, No Brakes Drill and how having one less thing to worry about when cornering allows more concentration to be used for correct technique. In the end I was happy to let the motorcycle select the gear in Sport mode and concentrate on the best speed for the corner.

The suspension worked well over a wide range of rider weight, surface conditions and cornering forces. Could it be better? Could it be more adjustable? Yes, for a price. As standard equipment goes, it's fine.

Overall the VFR1200 is a well rounded package. It's less touring than most of the competition and less sporty than a sportbike but a good compromise - still "the gentlemen's sportbike". The models we rode were base models on loan from South Bound Honda ( www.Hondabike.com). Although we wanted to stay on Maryhill all day ('Duc' hunting), we brought them home just under the mileage limit. Having to forgo the great roads and trailer the bikes back to the dealership felt somehow shameful.

If you're on the fence about buying a new sport touring motorcycle, take a test ride. Be daring and ride the DCT, you'll forget motorcycles come with a clutch lever as soon as you leave the parking lot.

Pete 'the Bookie" Chartrand - photo by Turkphotos.com


Pete Chartrand is a local motorcycle safety instructor and avid reader. You can email him at petechartrand@gmail.com.

Thanks to Vicki Gray and Steve Garbush from South Bound Honda for having faith in the tow vehicle, Chris Barnes at Rack-n-Road for the hitch, the AMA for sponsoring the Cornering Clinic, all the staff and volunteers at Sound RIDER!


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