By Surj Gish, with John Joss
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba & Surj Gish
Rider: Surj Gish
Let’s get the background out of the way. Like John Joss (read on for our resident English gentleman’s opinion on this bike), I’m a former VFR owner. In fact, I’m a multi-VFR guy, and that’s not even getting into how many of Honda’s other V-4-powered bikes I’ve owned. So it’s near impossible for me to think about this latest Interceptor without comparing it to my last, and for me, the gold standard, VFR—my yellow 2000 VFR800FI.
Old Yeller was one of my favorite bikes, not because it was particularly fast or beautiful or comfortable—although it was to some extent all of those things—but because it was such a good all-rounder. Remember, 2000 was before mainstream riders had adopted adventure bikes en masse as the perfect do-it-all bikes, so a gentleman’s sport(y) bike with hard bags and other miscellaneous bolt-on bits was the mutt’s nuts for riding long, fast and hard in reasonable comfort.
I don’t have Old Yeller around to do a back-to-back comparison, and I’m sure my memories of that bike are tinged by the rose-colored glasses of sentimentality, but still—it was a great bike.
Let’s get the usual bike review hooey out of the way right up front. First, whatever whining you may hear about the suspension is most likely not truthful. Sure, it’d be way cooler if the forks were upside down, and yeah, it’s kinda weird the Honda put conventional forks on a bike that used to be something of a flagship. You know what? It doesn’t matter—the lack of acronym-ridden, super-premium suspenders front and back doesn’t hurt the bike. It’s pretty good as delivered. Not the best, but decent.
Second, VTEC is pretty seamless these days, mostly, except for the occasional blip when it “comes on” and some odd behavior if you hang out around the mid-6,000 RPM range too much. We all still wonder, “why bother?” but Honda doesn’t seem to care. VTEC isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s not really a selling point to us or anyone we’ve talked to. Surprisingly, I like the way the thing sounds, bone stock.
Third, the bike is gorgeous. Fit and finish is excellent, and the red Interceptor exudes a sporty, dare I say, elegance, reminiscent of some of Ducati’s finer moments. I’m talking about the 916 here, just so there’s no confusion. Simple, flowing lines, none of the overly complicated, just ‘cuz shapes that are unfortunately all too common on modern motorcycles. It helps that the bike is narrower across the front than previous 800s. Sure, there are a few black plastic bits that mar the overall picture and keep the bike from achieving perfect beauty, but the overall impression is deep, flowingly subtle sexiness.
So what better way to test a sport-touring bike that to hit the road for a long day of non-stop go time? I had a hankering to check out the Black Lighting Motorcycle Café in Eureka CA, so I headed out just after dawn for a nice Sunday ride. After some early freeway miles, I headed over the hills via some of the twistier, less congested roads and made my way up the coast, eventually hitting Eureka just after noon.
My initial thoughts on the bike, while on the bike, were something like this: likes to rev, enjoyable engine (which would bite me in the ass later in the day), excellent seat, surprisingly sporty-ish riding position, mostly in the pegs. Or maybe I’m just getting old. I wasn’t tracking fuel usage real well, but the red Interceptor seemed to get pretty thirsty when being pushed—I certainly didn’t experience the same level of “whoa, I’ve still got range” other members of the crew did.
The Black Lightning turned out to be worth the trip—super cool folks running a super cool little shop with a few uniquely cool bikes inside. The chow was excellent—I opted for German pancakes, and man were they tasty! After wandering the shop for a bit, I zipped back into my gear and hit the road. I didn’t have much of a plan other than head inland to avoid too much time on twisties at night, and at the last minute I decided to take 299 to 3 down to 36.
These are great roads—miles of non-stop high-speed sweepers on 299 give way to gnarlier, tighter, near goaty turns on 3, with the back half of 36 being a mix of both, and everything in between. The Interceptor loved 299, but felt out of its element on 3 and parts of 36. In other words, fast smooth sweepers are great, but it’s not a great bike for the one lane, busted-up pavement stuff. There’s a surprise—it’s not a dual sport!
It was on 3 and 36 that I started to really feel the effects of the somewhat cramped footpegs. They’re not supersport-high, but definitely at the sporty end of the sport/touring continuum, so my legs—which aren’t particularly long, as I’m just 5’10”—were starting to complain somewhat loudly. Old Yeller would not have done this to me! Fortunately, the seat was keeping my hindquarters pretty comfy.
Even with the cramped pegs creating some unhappiness in my legs, I was thoroughly enjoying the bike, until I hit I-5 and lit up the Interceptor to pass a few laggards. Remember how I said it likes to rev? Acceleration in the higher RPMs is strong enough that I found myself well over the legal limit, just as a CHP officer found me. Sure, I can’t blame the bike for my lapse in judgment, but I do want to emphasize that in spite of supposedly lackluster power figures, at least as compared to “real” fast bikes, the VFR can still get down and get you into trouble post haste.
After 700+ miles on this beautiful machine, the conclusion I came to was this: Honda’s 2014 Interceptor, while lovely and excellent in many ways, is sort of a bike without a rider—or at least without a lot of riders. Consider how riders who fall into this “sport touring” group have evolved. Some, in search of more comfort and capacity, have gone to bigger, slightly less sporty bikes like BMW’s RT, Kawasaki’s Concours and Yamaha’s FJR. Others, in search of more comfort and a more rugged, adventure-esque profile (see where I’m going with this?) have found the upright riding position and general do-it-all competence of large adventure bikes to be a better fit. The recent arrival of sportier, more road-oriented pseudo-adventure bikes like Ducati’s Multistrada and Aprilia’s Caponord have made the switch to a tall-rounder even easier for the sportier holdouts.
This leaves precious few riders that might want an 800cc sport-tourer, especially a relatively bare bones bike like the Interceptor. Sure, we were riding the base model, but even the Deluxe version, with ABS and traction control lacks the whiz-bang techno-jazz of more advanced bikes. Self-canceling turn signals? Come on—we need multiple modes, cruise control and angle-sensitive ABS to get impressed now!
So beyond being a bike without a very large audience, the Interceptor has gone from being a technological tour de force to a rather vanilla machine, from NR to Nighthawk. Sure, it’s beautiful and quite rideable—an excellent package overall, and I liked it, quite a bit in fact. But it’s hard to deny the fact that everything the Interceptor does, from sport to tour, there are other bikes that’ll do it better.
Wherein John Joss Writes A Proper Review, Instead Of Complaining About How The New Interceptor Isn’t As Good As The Old One
By John Joss
As the owner of a 1999 VFR800 with 115,000 miles on it, I wanted to see how the updated VFR compared. In 15 years motorcycle technology has progressed dramatically and should be reflected in new, improved offerings.
In context, consider the VFR1200F that superseded the previous VFR800. This big, expensive machine failed to enchant buyers despite its advanced specifications. For VFR800 riders it was too big, too heavy and too technology-driven. And it cost an arm and a leg (riding is difficult, maybe impossible, with only one arm and leg). It belonged in a different riding category.
Honda’s updated 800-cc, 90-degree V-4 has been greeted with good reviews. Its heart remains the established 782-cc V-4, 16-valve engine with identical bore/stroke dimensions and VTEC retained. The gearbox is unchanged.
Honda’s earlier decision to abandon gear-driven cams (from the double 750-cc World Superbike Championship-winning RC30—’88-’89) and install chain drive was a 2002 economy measure, along with under-seat mufflers. Adding VTEC, to blend low-rev economy and torque with upper-RPM power, was and remains controversial. The earlier VTEC machine exhibited abrupt power surge around 7,000 RPM when two-valves-per-cylinder operation transitioned into four and tests showed no significant performance improvement. In the 2014 surge has been tamed—the transition is now audible in a metallic snarl. Revised cams and timing deliver improved low- to mid-range power and torque but VTEC endures and adds significant service costs when the valve gear is serviced every 16,000 miles. Why did Honda do it? Because they can.
Frame, brakes, suspension
The twin-spar frame and suspension geometry remain unchanged but the single-sided swingarm has been redesigned. Gone—to few regrets—are those linked brakes that were complex and hard to retrofit braided-steel lines to for improved braking. The new, radial front brakes work well—smooth, progressive, light finger pressure, carried on handsome new, easier-to-clean wheels (a great leap forward). Settings on the new fork (not upside down) and rear shock are fully adjustable.
The earlier 800 featured twin side radiators, now stacked up front, reducing frontal area. The fairings are ‘refined’ with sexy features like LED-rimmed headlights but retain strong identity with earlier 800s. Solid colors (red, white) avoid the gaudy boy-racer graphics of some sport bikes. One downer is the skinnier tail section—my bike, with excellent two-piece aftermarket Sargent seat (rear half left off), provides a large, useful rear compartment the new bike lacks. Sargent’s CEO Mark Todd says he will await customer feedback before offering a seat for the new VFR. Knowing manufacturers’ cold-hearted skimping on seats specified down to a price, perpetuated in our test bike, one hopes he will. The stock seat is a ‘two-hour’ instrument of torture. Sargent? No pain, 6-8 hours.
On the road
Honda’s earliest Interceptors, in 500/750/800cc incarnations, established a reputation for handling and sporting performance. The new machine perpetuates this reputation and is taut, responsive and confidence-inspiring despite little over-all performance improvement, gauged in informal tests vs. my antique VFR. Indeed, the ‘old’ bike achieved 146 MPH, 15 years ago, whereas the new managed ‘only’ 138 in tests. In sum, the new bike feels quicker because it offers better mid-range power and is 20 pounds lighter, with smaller frontal area. Potential buyers wouldn’t mind 20 more horses, which Honda could provide without breaking a sweat. Fuel economy is satisfactory: ~51 MPG in freeway droning, measured, around 40 pushing it, on a six-hour/420-mile test ride, from the 5.7-gallon tank.
The riding position is semi-sporting, comfortable on long rides, unchanged from the earlier 800. A new, improved ‘office,’ dominated by an analog tachometer, provides clear data but the handy ambient/coolant temperature gauge is AWOL. Taller riders will want the optional higher windshield, not fitted to our test bike. Size counts: the ‘old’ VFR800 stock screen measured 12-3/4” inches above the steering head, the new stock screen 10”, producing serious head buffet even for a shorter rider. Suspension settings were sporting, harsh on poor surfaces for this light (150-lb.) rider—touring-oriented riders might prefer softer, more compliant characteristics. There is no external helmet lock, as on the earlier model—you must now (1) unlock the tail section, (2) extract the tool kit, (3) remove the ‘helmet retention wire,’ (4) stow the tool kit, (5) deploy the wire, across painted bodywork and (5) close the lid. Five seconds becomes two minutes, but they saved $5.
Honda rarely admits error but reverting to the 800 in the eighth generation Interceptor is tacit acceptance of their 1200cc misstep. The new machine should enhance the reputation of the iconic marque. Compromises often deliver the worst of two or more worlds (think: flying/amphibious cars), but the VFR800 provides sport riding and touring pleasure (with optional bags) in equal measure.
This story originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.