November in the Lake District may not seem everyone’s cup of tea. The place has its own climate, with weather that changes around every corner. But that’s just what Gore-Tex was invented for – and there are lots of compensations.
First, the Lakes have only just opened for business after foot and mouth, so there’s hardly anyone here. Second, the roads are fantastic. They cut through valleys, soar over bridges and swing around lakes, taking some radical twists and turns to negotiate the rugged backdrop.
The roads aren’t necessarily fast – some aren’t that well-surfaced and the local wildlife, namely sheep, has a habit of being unpredictable. But the variety of the landscape makes this probably one of the best places in the country to test the latest sports tourers.
Which is why we’ve come here to pit the new V4 V-TEC Honda VFR against the more powerful Triumph Sprint ST 955i triple and the V-twin RSV Mille-powered Aprilia Futura – the Italian bike that gave the VFR a bloody nose by having a punchy motor, better handling and even more comfort.
They’re all bikes that need to do a bit of everything. They have to be fast and handle well to earn the " sports " component of their description, but they also have to pootle around back roads, sit on motorways happily protecting you from the wind and seat a pillion comfortably while you work out what you’re going to be today – whether you’re head-down, leathered-up Mr Sports or you want to kick back and go for a more mellow day as Mr Tour.
These three bikes are all at the service of Mr Sports and Mr Tour. But there’s one that treats both like a lord. It only takes a few miles to realise it, and as the miles pound on it seems to get better and better. The new VFR is the daddy in this group.
The V-TEC motor is a gem, reasonably strong at the bottom with a sports bike-style bark at the top end. It’s sharper than the old one in the bends, is great for a pillion and luggage and feels like it has been put together by a group of NASA scientists, everything works so beautifully.
The styling doesn’t work for everyone, though. Both our postbag and the motorcyclenews.com talk boards have shown mixed opinions since the 2002 bike was unveiled in MCN a couple of months ago. Some like the fact that it has aggressive, sharpened lines, but is still obviously a VFR, while others reckon it follows the Futura’s style a little too closely.
Whatever you think, the more time you spend with it the more it grows on you. And when Honda launches a version of one of the most competent bikes in the world, with a new frame, suspension, brakes, and engine, even if you don’t like its looks, it’s hardly going to be a dog.
On the M6 on the way up to the Lakes, the VFR proves it can sit happily at speed. It’s cruising comfortably at 70mph and can carry on doing so well over the speed limit without any hardship.
The riding position is a bit more crouched than the Aprilia and more sporty than the spacious, big Triumph, but not so extreme that you feel like a Tour de France cyclist pedalling down an Alp with your backside higher than your shoulders. The little wind blast is directed at your shoulders and supports you at speed.
The Aprilia is also an amazing motorway bike – though that fantastic, taut chassis is somewhat wasted if you’re just going in a straight line. The large screen provides better wind protection than the Honda, and the only real problem is that the V-twin vibes make your fingers tingle a bit when you’re racking up the miles.
The Triumph is physically the biggest bike here. Like the others, it will sit happily at 100mph with just a slight bit of buffeting from the screen if you’re tall. The pegs are higher than the others, which can cause cramp after a while, but dropping them would reduce the amount of ground clearance when you finish the motorway section of your journey and start getting sporty.
We don’t often mention headlights, but if you’re buying a bike to ride in all conditions, they’re vital. They can make the difference between feeling your way down the autoroute like a myopic mole or sweeping majestically through the night towards your destination. The Aprilia’s wide, powerful beam is the best, the Triumph’s can barely light the way to the pub, while the Honda’s beam cuts through the gloom beautifully, but isn’t quite as far-reaching on dip as the Aprilia’s.
And we need every watt on an arduous journey up the M6 in freezing conditions, at night, with a bit of fog thrown in. After arriving at our Penrith base shortly after dawn, we fuel up again and head down to the edges of Lake Ullswater, where we park up to admire the view.
The break also gives us time to stand back and notice how different the bikes are. The VFR has those sharp lines, with black five-spoke wheels and creamy red colours. The Aprilia looks like its lost Italian cousin, but it led the way for this kind of styling and a year on looks just as fresh. The Triumph takes a slightly different route. It’s much more rounded and less futuristic, but still quite tidy with its smooth lines and twin, blunted-triangle headlights.
Like the Honda and Aprilia, the ST has a single-sided swingarm, but the big silencer hides the cute silver three-spoke rear wheel. The other two have high-mounted exhausts, the VFR with four Gatling gun-style holes in its twin units, the Aprilia boasting a single triangular silencer with a Chunnel-sized exit.
The back roads of the Lake District beckon and it’s time to have a proper look around. The VFR has already impressed me on the motorway and I can’t wait to see what it’s like on more tempting Tarmac.
The tiny roads twisting away downhill make it easy to see what’s coming. They’re way too narrow to get a real head of steam up, but they do give you the chance to get a real feel for the bike. Unfortunately, the black stuff is damp in places, but the Bridgestone BT020s feel like they’re doing exactly what they should. A good job, too, because this thing has some guts.
It’s the engine that makes you fall in love with the VFR first. It doesn’t have as much oomph at the very bottom as the torquey Triumph and the punchy V-twin Aprilia, but watch out when you hoist the rev needle higher, because there’s a real Jeckyl and Hyde thing going on here.
At low revs, the VFR warbles along at a happy pace that won’t give bobble-hatted Lake District ramblers a fright. But hit 7000rpm and the thing starts shouting at you. As the V-TEC system steps up its game, the revs climb twice as fast and the mellow warble turns into a harsh yell. It’s so exhilarating you start giving it more gas between bends just to feel that rush and hear the on-again, off-again engine noise.
Though the engine is gorgeous, it’s not the only thing that makes the VFR a great bike. Everything is an almost perfect compromise that makes it extremely easy to ride. It’s as friendly as a pet labrador, but don’t think it will roll over and let rivals tickle its tummy – it has plenty of bark, too.
The CBS linked braking system has been updated, with more bias towards the brakes you’re actually applying, whether front or rear. Racers hate CBS, but on a sports tourer, and in this new guise, the system gives you real confidence to abuse the brakes, knowing the back is taking some of the load when you’re hard on the front. When you first pull on the lever you don’t get nearly as much feel as you do on the Triumph or Aprilia, but you always feel you can rely on the VFR’s set-up.
There’s a Futura with an awesome rider on my tail and it’s time to get it on a bit. The Aprilia has the drive out of slower bends and it’s close on power, but the VFR just has the edge, with quicker steering and more punch once it gets to that magical 7000rpm. The suspension is firmer than on the previous model, which lets you get away with a lot more on fast bends where the old version seemed to get a bit light at the front.
After a cup of tea and a few stories of what not to do in Penrith on a Wednesday night, we swop bikes. MCN tester Kev Smith really likes the Futura, though not as much as the VFR, while senior designer Mark Tucker, who’s been riding a GoldWing all year, likes the safe dependability of the heavier Triumph.
The ST looks the biggest and is the bulkiest to muscle around, but it’s comfortable and the new engine is a lovely, liquid-smooth lump, with new internals, a slicker gearshift and, most importantly, more power and torque.
It’s the most powerful bike on test by 5bhp and the torque it makes at the bottom blows the VFR away, while just edging ahead of the Futura’s low-down V-twin punch. Apart from the excessive throttle freeplay on this particular bike which we can’t seem to completely dial out, there’s a lovely response from the engine. And though the noise can’t match the Honda’s gruffness at high revs, it’s still wonderful.
And though the ST is bigger and heavier, it turns nicely and is very easy to get on with. It takes a bit more effort, the gearchange isn’t as smooth and you have to concentrate more, but it’s bloody fast. If the VFR’s not in the powerband it will smoke it out of bends, and it feels much more free-revving than older Sprints. If you edge towards touring, it’s a brilliant choice, while if you like it a bit sportier and fancy a Triumph, there’s always the Sprint RS.
The Futura sits in the middle. The first thing you notice after the low-seated Triumph is how tall it feels. The second thing is how high-tech the dash looks. Triumph might as well have set the ST’s white-faced tacho, LED odometer, fuel gauge, temperature gauge and clock in walnut veneer and surrounded it with Connolly hide.
The Futura, like the VFR, goes the digital way. On the VFR the tacho sits right in the middle, with LCD readouts for everything else spread out on either side. The Aprilia’s dash has funky pie-chart-style gauges for the air and engine temperatures, with a conventional rev-counter and a conventional speedo.
The Futura’s clutch feels heavy and the motor is vibey and raw after the smooth triple and four, but it pulls hard right from the bottom of the barrel.
It also fits any body size. The tank feels like it’s gripping you, the highish bars are somewhere between the Triumph and the Honda and the pegs are in just the right place.
Being a V-twin, it doesn’t feel as exciting as the other two, which make a bit more noise, but it’s every bit as quick. You don’t even have to rev it much – just keep it in the mid-range and watch the next mountain head towards you. Even wobbling around slowly it feels good. It instantly lets you get the power down hard and goes light at the front under heavy acceleration.
In a corner it holds a line as well as the best, but it’s not as easy to steer as the Honda. Funny how things have changed in a year. The suspension gives proper feedback that far beats the old VFR, but is just overtaken by the new one.
Generally, it’s a bit clumsier than the VFR, but no worse for it. Though the VFR makes that great noise and now handles just as well, with better steering, the Futura has much better brakes and is in some ways just as much of a personality. It just doesn’t shout it out so much.
With the mist coming down into the mountains we pull into a small village and hit the tea rooms for a cuppa and a scone. If you’d pulled up on a GSX-R with a loud pipe and lairy one-piece leathers you wouldn’t feel quite so comfortable sitting among the ramblers and twitchers. But we just whip our Gore-Tex off and join the chunky jumpers.
The VFR is the acceptable face of sports bikes – until you unleash the V-TEC and it shows that its preferred sport is extreme abseiling rather than meandering around country lanes with a walking stick.
n Thanks to P&D Wakefield Honda for the loan of the VFR.