Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What is the VFR?

The new Honda VFR 1200 has presented some journalists with a problem they encounter occasionally; what category does this bike fall into? Is it a sportbike, a sport-tourer, or something that defies categorization? There is no universally recognized guide for naming motorcycle categories. There may be some consensus among the journalists but it is a shifting sand. The world of sporting motorcycles is so broad that the term sportbike is not very helpful. Do you then call a Yamaha R1 a super sport, a super bike or a hyper sport?

There is a name that has been used in many publications for bikes that fall between pure sport and sport-tour. It is a name long used in the world of sporting automobiles and that name is Grand Touring, or in Italian: Gran Turismo. A Ferrari that makes sacrifices in performance in favor of comfort and luxury is a prime example of a GT automobile. It may have two seats and a stomping 12-cylinder engine but it was never aimed at the race track and does not qualify as a true sports-car. GT cars tend to be a little larger and a little heavier. There are many motorcycles that follow that same formula.

                                                            Ferrari Daytona

As the spectrum of motorcycles became more diverse and specialized during the 70's and 80's, the high-performance end of the spectrum divided into those bikes that were destined to be used as a platform for production-bike road racers and those that were somewhat performance compromised to make them more comfortable and practical as a street bike. One of the early examples that comes to mind is the BMW R90 RS. The RS was one of the first bikes to come standard with an aerodynamic fairing and windscreen. It was built for speed on the Autobahn but not on the race track.

                                                                  BMW R100RS

 The original Honda Interceptor saw action at the top levels of racing but the descendant VFR took a divergent path as Honda went racing with more focused machines like the RC30. Joining bikes like the Yamaha FJ and Ducati Paso, the VFR became a classic GT. Fast, but not the fastest. Light, but not the lightest. Sporty, but not the ultimate weapon for carving up a set of curves. What you got in return was blend of comfort and speed, practicality and excitement.

 The GT motorcycle genre includes far too many bikes to list but came into full maturity in the 1990's with bikes like the Kawasaki ZX11, Suzuki Hayabusa and Honda Blackbird. Still, the VFR remained in the lineup squarely under the GT tent.

That the new VFR should cause some confusion as to how to classify it would seem to deny the historical validity of the GT category. If the VFR is not obviously a sportbike and not obviously a sport-touring bike, then it should very naturally fall into the GT camp. So what if is has a shaft drive? So did the RS. So what if it weighs more than some other 1200s? It has moderately low bars and a narrow waistline. It's not a race bike. It doesn't come with saddle bags. Although it could certainly be used for sport touring, (so could a CBR1000RR) it is not a sport-touring bike in the classic sense. If it came standard with hard bags (as the Triumph Sprint now does) we might be tempted. Some might also be tempted to borrow the non-specific term of "crossover." The new Multistrada crosses over so many categories that it merits much more confusion than the relatively straightforward VFR. What it is should be fairly obvious. It's fast, nimble, practical and comfortable. It's a GT.

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