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Honda’s V twin and V four compared – SP1 vs VTEC VFR800

I’ve recently had a spin on two very different Hondas with a V configuration; a VTR1000SP1 (sometimes known as an RC51) and a VFR800VTEC.

Let’s start with the VFR800 first. I’ve caught a lot of flak over the years for being honest online and saying that I didn’t like the original non-VTEC incarnation of the 800 which I last rode the best part of a decade ago.

I felt the motor lacked any real urge. With a very flat and unexciting power delivery, there was a distinct lack of the bottom end torque the model supposedly had – the low revs thrust was achieved simply by keeping the gearing low in the bottom gears – and it barely matched the same year’s ZX6R which I rode back to back with the VFR in the midrange, whilst at the top end it got blown away.

At the same time, the steering was vague and imprecise; the ZX6R was a scalpel compared with the VFR’s blunt hacksaw.

It was competent but lacked any sense of fun. At the time I wrote something like “you get on, you ride it, you arrive; end of experience”.

So I had no great enthusiasm to throw a leg over the VTEC incarnation of the Viffer that first appeared in 2002, even though a riding buddy has had a late model one couple of years now.

I finally did get to ride it over the Chilterns a few weeks back and I have to admit when I handed it back an hour or so later, I was much more favourably impressed than I expected.

The main innovation of this particular bike is the VTEC system. The motor switches between opening two of the four valves per cylinder at lower engine speeds whilst all four valves open at higher revs.

The early models came in for some stick for the abruptness of power transition when the extra valve opened, so Honda lowered the de-activation rpm threshold with the 2006-on models, which is the version I rode. The idea seems to be that the point on the rev band at which it cuts in and out is not the same, presumably so it doesn’t hunt between the two on a steady throttle.

It seems to have worked because the transition from two to four valves is noticable if you’re looking for it but hardly anything to worry about. In fact, I’d say the benefits of the latest VTEC system over the earlier non-VTEC bike is that it gives the machine a much keener feel as you accelerate hard.

The steering is also better than on the original 800. It’s a bit slow steering compared with a full-on sports bike but it’s a lot more precise than it used to be, although the front tyre fitted tended to make the bike fall into a turn rather more than I personally am happy with.

The suspension gives an easy ride, handling bumps well, but the weight is noticable – 480lbs is not light and with a full tank sitting perched on top, you do feel it when changing direction or at a standstill; my 600 Hornet feels like a pushbike reversing it out of the garage by comparison.

The linked brakes just get on with doing the job, although again I wasn’t entirely convinced by the pad compound fitted – there was a little moment when nothing happened before the brakes bit hard.

Arguably, the standard screen is far too low, but the bar and footpeg arrangement is a gently relaxed forward lean, but the clutch was rather heavier than I was expecting, although once on the move the rev range of the motor allows you to pick a mid-range gear and pretty much ride it on the revs.

The rest of the bike is typical Honda, though I have seen the odd reports of corrosion that’s afflicted many recent Hondas.

But where the original 800 was soulless, this VFR does manage to achieve a level of character and has enough sporty nature to be fun to ride. I’m going to say it – I liked riding the VTEC VFR.

But would I buy one? Nope, probably not – the servicing costs would put me right off. The fuel consumption isn’t too good either, with fuel guzzled in the mid-30s at higher speeds. Run side by side with my Hornet in Wales, the VFR was using around 20% more fuel to do exactly the same day-long journey.

Whilst the VFR is arguably the ultimate consumer motorcycle, the SP1 I rode a couple of days later was pretty much a homologation special with lights built for World Superbike, as anyone who remembers watching Colin Edwards win the title in 2000 and 2002 will recall. It was based very loosely on the original VTR1000 road bike.

Although this SP1 was eight years old, it still felt like a new bike under the bodywork.

All the various controls worked fine. I was expecting a heavy clutch but it’s perfectly usable, which is good as it needs a little slipping round tight turns.

There’s plenty of ‘thudding’ from the big V twin engine when you open the throttle hard but little real vibration – it just charges off for the horizon. The motor also had reasonably flexible rev range and would pull not far off idle. With a smaller front sprocket mod to lower the tall first gear, it had plenty of flexibility on the road. The brakes were positive and quite powerful enough for the road.

The riding position is fairly tall but not quite as extreme as I expected even though it seems quite compact and very forward and over the front wheel compared with my even older GSXR-WN. The bars are low but not uncomfortably so, given the track pedigree.

I have no idea what had been done to the suspension, but it wasn’t the butt-pummelling I was expecting given that I had picked a whole series of bumpy B roads to ride the bike over.

I got the impression the SP1 wouldn’t suffer fools gladly. It very noticably wanted to run wide when (deliberately!) throttling off into turns and was even worse under braking, but get the entry speed right and turn in on the throttle and it felt like the back tyre was digging a trench it had so much grip and stability.

If you’re used to a forgiving 600 supersports bike, the SP1 will be a challenge to ride well. The main problem was that it seemed to start really coming together at speeds the wrong side of the legal limit, which would limit the SP1’s usefulness on the kind of roads I enjoy riding, but I definitely liked it. If I had time and money to do trackdays or even room in the garage for yet another fair-weather bike, it’s the kind of bike I’d be tempted by.

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