By Max Klein & Fish
Photos by Angelica Rubalcaba & Fish
Rider: Max Klein
Before I became a regionally famous motorcycle journalist, I worked in marketing. So I always check out what the motorcycle manufacturers want us to believe about their creations at some point in my review process. Context, right?
Honda has a dedicated Adventure section on their website, but so far none of their bikes that we’ve reviewed have had true adventure performance—although we haven’t gotten our hands on the Africa Twin (yet), which promises to be something special in the true adventure department.
The CB500x lacked suspension travel. The NC700X… well, it had a bit more travel out back, but still wasn’t what I’d call “long travel,” and it was still riding on 17” (non-spoked) wheels. With the VFR1200X, Honda seems to be suggesting that a 1237cc, V4-powered beast is worthy of an ADV sticker.
Sure, it looks the part, what with the put-a-beak-on-it styling, but c’mon. At 600+ pounds (before you add your ammo can side cases for true adventure cred), I don’t see very many people using this off the paved path.
Honda didn’t get this far by being stupid, though—although they do get a little weird now and then. They get it. They know that people aren’t going to line up to buy this bike for serious long way down or ‘round or wherever shenanigans. They understand what many people use their adventure bikes for, and made the VFR-X a damn near perfect example.
Adventure bikes have won the hearts and wallets of many former sport-touring riders, and those riders have not changed their habits. Hardcore ST riders would hit a fire trail or other dirt path from time to time for street cred (I know I did/do) and now they don’t even have to—the bike obviously has been off-road, I mean look at the beak! Those wheels! That bike has been places!
All kidding aside, the 1200X is good. Little things like an easy-to-adjust (one-handed, while in motion) windscreen and a power outlet are priceless for day-to-day usability. The power spreads on like creamy peanut butter on warm toast, and does so throughout the gear range. It’s so smooth that you can be up a gear or two and still power out of a corner without a single complaint from the machine. The traction control has three positions for varying wheelie height road conditions, and can be shut off if you want to slide the rear a bit. I only had the traction control light flash me when attempting to show off my wheelie skills for small children, and even then it let me get away with a bit more than a couple other bikes I have tried the same on recently.
Also on the electronics front, the ABS was fairly hard to engage. The dual 310mm discs up front and the 276mm rear disc out back are linked, and before the “OMG linked brakes are the devil” crowd gets out pen and paper for strongly worded letters, stop it. It isn’t like Honda just started playing with this tech—they’ve been using linked brakes on production bikes since the 80s. On pavement you don’t notice any ill effects. The bike stops when you want it to with less effort than you need to anchor most 600-pound bikes, and I never locked the rear in an emergency stop situation. Off-road is another story—if you ask Fish at least—but even then I thought it was predictable.
The suspension is a bit budget-y, allowing for only preload and rebound adjustments, but it was not a total disappointment on the street—while not perfect, it was nowhere near the pogo stick that some other stock boingers have been. Bumps on our top-secret test track (Redwood, Pinehurst, etc) and Highway 4 were noticeable, but absorbed without incident. Throwing this 600-pound machine in and out of the corners of my standard test loop ‘round Lake Berryessa was fairly effortless as well, even with a 19” spoked front shod with less-than-sporty rubber.
VFR fans from the last couple decades know that you don’t buy a VFR for the suspension, you buy it for the motor. The Viffer’s V-4 has been a favorite since the 80s, with the varying displacements developing a cult following (even the VTEC models) and have become the targets of other makers. If you believe the rumors, Triumph built their 1050 triple to take on Honda’s VFR.
I can understand why. The sound is amazing, and unmistakable. It pulls hard down low, continues through the midrange, and does so with minimal vibration. The 1200 motor is available with two transmission options. The standard version that we tested was pretty flawless, but if you would rather have the option of the machine doing the shifting, there’s a DCT version available too. If it works as well as the one in the NC700 it is at least worth a test ride—more about the NC700X’s DCT back on page 11, in case you missed it.
While the displacement on the 1200 is obviously much bigger, Honda claims that the 1237cc motor is no wider than the little guy found in the VFR 800. This wizardry of design was accomplished in part by making the rear cylinders cuddle closer together than the front two. Not only is it narrow, but it is slightly skinnier where it counts… near the footpegs and the back of the tank, for better ergos.
For those of you worried about the reliability of a first-year motor, fret not. First off, this bike has been available across the pond as the Crosstourer for a couple of years now, and prior to that, the motor was in the slightly more hopped up VFR1200F. Secondly, it’s a Honda.
Power for the sorta-new-to-us motor is transferred to the 17” spoked rear wheel via a drive shaft that runs through a sexy, single-sided swingarm—the other long-standing hallmark of the VFR series. This makes maintenance for the already low maintenance machine just a bit more forget about it—perfect for those that really rack up the miles, and also those of us that just plain forget to clean and lube on a regular basis.
So it has shaft drive, a torquey motor, spoked wheels, decent suspension travel, and they put a beak on it? Well, shit. It sure does look the part of an ADV machine, but like I said before, I’m not convinced that Honda ever really intended to send the 1200X to the Arctic Circle, or Baja, or anywhere more extreme than a fire road… that’s what the nearly-100-pounds-lighter Africa Twin is for.
Think of the Twelve-X as the moto equivalent of the four-wheeled soccer mom crossovers out there. They look like they might be not horrible in mild off-road situations, but most will never find out. I refer to the X as an Urban ADV machine. Spoked wheels and decent suspension for potholes, torquey motor for stoplight to stoplight wheelies, shaft drive for laziness, and the beak because, well, it sells bikes these days.
Too Big To Fail, At Least On Pavement
I’ve repeatedly professed my love for the ADV niche. Seriously, what’s not to love? Honda is arguably kinda late to the game, but they’re making up for lost time by adding the X suffix nearly every bike in their lineup. I’m waiting for the CBR1000X with bated breath. Until then, the VFR-X will have to suffice.
I’m fortunate enough to split my time between many jobs, and one of them is co-driving an off-road race truck. The VFR fell into my dirty little hands when was about to head to Fallon, Nevada for the Fallon 250 desert race. A trip over Ebbetts Pass seemed like the right route to get acquainted with this thing, and it was more or less on my way.
I’ll get this out of the way now: the fueling needs help. The throttle is so sensitive that seemingly nearly every bump causes the bike to lurch, and it most certainly does not suffer ham-fisted antics well. It does, however, love to go fast—the upper third of the throttle is smooth as silk, and very rewarding. However, legal levels of acceleration are not as pleasant as other big-bores I’ve ridden lately.
The ergos are nothing short of superb. The VFR’s V-4 places the rear cylinders closer together to make a narrower bike under the seat. It really helps make foot placement and riding position natural.
Wind protection is pretty damn good too. While adjustable windshields are a regular thing on these adventurous bikes, the VFR sets a new standard with its clever, single-hand-operable adjustment mechanism. It’s smooth, quick, and really easy. The shield itself is well designed: not too big, but still does a great job covering my 6-foot tall frame.
The grips fall right to hand, and switchgear is typical Honda—which is to say high quality and solid. I’m ashamed to admit that I was disappointed at the lack of heated grips, but let’s be honest, heated grips ought to be standard equipment on an adventure grande motorcycle.
Filling out the ergo-interface equation is the seat. I can’t say it was amazing, but it was not bad; reasonably supportive and spacious enough for long days in the saddle.
While our tester was lacking the hard luggage that ought to have been hooked into the built-in bag mounts, the Big X does have a substantive, usable luggage rack—making it easy to secure my driving suit, helmet, and duffel with four days of crap using a pair of Rok Straps.
My trip began with the awful part of Highway 4, where I really learned quite a bit about the VFR-X. The bike is simply not happy droning along the highway at 55 mph. While it’s superbly comfortable, the engine is incredibly eager to get up and go, meaning that maintaining reasonable speeds requires a lot of concentration. Cruise control would go a long way here. (I can’t believe I just said that.)
When 4 started bending its way into the Sierras, the big VFR started to make more sense, quickly. The V-4 simply kicks ass on more dynamic roads. Gentle roll-ons are rewarded with surprising levels of thrust, and speed accumulates exponentially.
Eventually, the brakes must come into play, and fortunately, Honda did a great job here. Late braking is encouraged, and aided by the solid chassis.
Ebbetts Pass has a way of exposing a bike’s weaknesses, or in this case, strengths. As the surface got less refined, the VFR seemed to get better. The 19” front wheel has no issues with cracks, potholes, or other irregularities. I was initially quite skeptical of the unassuming suspension, but much to my surprise, I did not encounter any conditions where I felt like more or less damping would have been beneficial. It really was a good package straight out of the box.
If only the trip had ended there…
On the back side of the Sierras, the Nevada leg of my trip finished up on Highway 50, which sucks—the only good aspect of the road being the lack of law enforcement, which did allow me to experiment with finding a comfortable cruising speed.
It doesn’t have one. No matter how fast I went, the big VFR just begged to go faster. While CityBike offers a great benefits package, our legal department is a bit lacking, in both quality and existence. I had no desire to experience one of Nevada’s graybar hotels, so I aborted that mission after an all-too-brief visit to the extreme-ticket, but-not-quite-jail zone.
It really does need cruise control. And I can’t believe I had to say that again.
Since I was on my way to an off-road race aboard an adventure bike, journalistic integrity required that I put the VFR-X through its paces in some unpaved areas.
The first thing that stood out to me was that this bike is, well… heavy. Like, really heavy. That weight goes away when you’re playing Isle of Man racer on your local mountain course, but it becomes potentially-painfully obvious in loose gravel at low speeds.
It’s nothing a little throttle can’t fix, so long as you turn the traction control off. As I attempted to pre-run the Fallon 250 course, the magnitude of my poor decision making skills became very apparent. The aforementioned gravel threw the VFR’s TC into fits—the bike would occasionally continue to reduce power until it actually shut off. Nothing inspires confidence like almost falling over while leaving the starting line.
Luckily the TC off button is large and convenient, so with this riding “aid” disabled I departed. The hard-packed gravel was sketchy at speed, but didn’t feel dangerous. Transitioning into dry lake bed proved a treat and my speed quickly ascended to painful crash levels.
I began to believe that a bike with such awesome road manners could be reasonably dual purpose. Then, sand. All bets were off and the bike promptly sank to the skid plate.
No amount of feathering or coaxing would get the VFR-X through the sand section, and ultimately, my only smart decision of the day was to retire at mile 15 and head back to camp. This meant riding counter-course on a semi-live test day, which counteracted some of my “smart” decision. I attempted to negate some of this danger by getting off the route, only to find the wet part of the “dry” lake bed.
Weight became my enemy and the bike promptly sank to the skid plate, again. It got bad enough that I had to walk alongside the bike while feathering the clutch just to get to hard-pack, and as you may suspect since you’re reading this VF-Article, I did manage to safely return to camp.
I can’t recommend the biggest VFR for the serious off-road enthusiast, but I can recommend it to those in need of a creative new exercise program. Dragging the X sideways from rear wheel-dug hole to hole will give you aches in muscle groups you never knew you had.
So unfortunately, off-road prowess gets a D-minus.
My remaining race days in Nevada saw the VFR placed in pit bike duty. I will allow that it does great flat track-style slides in gravel. Again, the urgency of the engine comes into play, and it turns out to be great for all the things you shouldn’t do with a 600-pound-plus motorcycle.
But remember, I was out in the desert because I was supposed to help a negotiate an 800 horsepower rolling deathtrap 250 miles through a race course. If you are unfamiliar with desert racing, my role may not make sense to you: I sit in the passenger seat of the truck and stare at a 7” TFT display on a GPS system. I have an intercom in my helmet—linked to the driver—and I feed him recommended speeds for corners, information about terrain, and helpful tips on engine parameters. I’m also the one who talks via radio to the pit crew about our predicted arrival time, and any possible damage to the truck.
Co-driving is a less than comfortable job, as I can’t really focus on the terrain, so I rely on my seat belts to hold me in and I have to use a fair amount of energy to stabilize my head while we bounce through the terrain. Point is, at the end of the day I’m sore.
Not “ugh, I worked out too hard” sore. More like “riding in a people-sized clothes dryer set on ludicrous speed” sore. So the thought of a 300-mile motorcycle ride after such activities was not appealing. Much to my surprise, the VFR was more than reasonable for my post-race trip home—comfortable and competent.
I’ll admit, I rode highway 50 home. Fewer curves, reasonable pavement, totally boring. The twitchy throttle was of course still present, but I had conditioned myself to it so the day was uneventful.
So I’m left wondering where this bike fits in the ever-expanding list of use case arguments in my head. It’s more fun than a V-Strom, but less than a Ténéré (shut up until you spend time on one). The rocketship cruising speeds are a blast, but then why not get a Connie or FJR for full-time freeway-fast travel?
Oh yeah, wheelies.
This story originally appeared in our December 2016 issue, which you can read in all its high-res glory here.
Type: 1237cc liquid-cooled 4-stroke Unicam 16-valve 76º V4
Valve Train:Unicam, 16 valve
Bore x Stroke: 81mm x 60mm
Compression Ratio: 12:1
Induction: PGM-FI electronic fuel injection
Transmission: six-speed manual or dual-clutch transmission
Final Drive: Enclosed shaft
Front: 43mm inverted telescopic fork w/ hydraulic damping, preload & rebound damping adjustment
Rear: Pro-Link w/ gas-charged damper, preload & stepless rebound damping adjustment
Front: Dual 310mm discs; combined ABS
Rear: Single 276mm disc; combined ABS
Seat Height: 33.5″
Fuel Capacity: 5.68 gallons
Colors: Pearl Black
Curb Weight: 611 pounds; 633 pounds for the DCT model