The latest generation VFR, ST4 and Sprint are so sporting it's almost a shame to take them touring...
Honda VFR800 v Ducati ST4 v Triumph Sprint ST
"You own a VFR Danny, that makes you illegible." Oh, yes, anybody who knows me will atestify to my dyslexia, not to mention my distractia or even my distemper.
But first things first. I had to check out the customary wheelie ability of the VFR. Double caution here because Honda saw fit to end us one of the limited edition 50th anniversary numbers, (looks more like a red VFR that's been pranged with a temporary silver fairing fitted to me) so not only did I get the usual in-one-ear-and-out-the-other-sentiment from Chief, but an additional "do not comeback if you so much as get fly shit on that," from Honda. As it happens, the VFR800fi is unfeasibly controllable when lofted. Much more so than my old bag of nails. In fact, it would have been rude not to have turned the bars from lock to lock whilst in the air to demonstrate to Shakey what other distractions were available once up there. All right, all right, not everyone wants to pull antics like that everywhere, but in case you do, I'm telling you it's quite safe to do so.
The 800 is basically a homologated version of the RC45, nee RC30 engine and is not, as was originally expected, a big bore of the standard VFR. That means you can not, for those proles sad enough to attempt it, sling the 800 engine into your 750 frame. Now that Nangermann's on the dole. The VFR punts out a more wholesome 106 bhp instead of the original 100bhp, and weighs in at 208 kilos. Piss poor in terms of power to weight ratios, but let's not get confused, this is sport tourer territory and this machines follows a long and well-proven formula in that department.
As far as handling goes, nothing has changed for the worse, including the installation of the larger 180 section tyre. My FL model gives me more feel through the front end, but that's due to the fact that's it's a bit heavier than the current bun. Actually, because the front is so heavy, my tyres have to be in optimum condition, otherwise it gets to feel like Chief's bent up GPZ900 (now on despatch duty) and that is a serious dog. In fact, even his dog's not such a serious dog. Back to the 800. With your jacksie a good inch higher in the air, shaving another milimetre off your knee slider becomes a pinch more tricky. Why does it go round right handers faster than lefts ? 'Cos they're roundabouts and I've had more practice at them, probably. Whatever the reason, the sound from the unique, "V" four, gear driven cam engine tells you that solidly and dependably things are happening down below. Whisking the bike up to irresponsible speeds is deceptively rapid, deceptively because the VFR is so damn smooth. I wonder why all Honda's gear boxes aren't based around the RC45, it's got to be the best of the lot.
Time for my gripe, and yes, I do have one. Much as I still adore the VFR, I simply can’t condone what some right angle obsessed anus has done to the overall look of the bike. Blessed is he that sees the need for change and does something about it; but not this cock sucker. Even the front protrusions that they pass off for indicators look like some Dalek fixture. I’m convinced Honda have, and still are, losing market share due to the styling alone. Let us hope that the millennium bike looks more like the Triumph Sprint, the bike that copied the VFR, that the VFR should copy. Who am I to be slagging off the VFR? Well, like I said, its biggest fan actually. And an owner, before Honda slag off me.
Ah luvverly! The Triumph Sprint. Having made the odd, unscheduled blast down to St Tropez on the 955i, nee T595, when I missed the night train as it happens, I’m no stranger to the delights of the 950cc injected triple. But, what have we here? A departure from the twisted metal framed T595 in the shape of an aluminium box sectioned new-for-99 Sprint. The new frame allows the multi point, fuel injected and retuned 955i engine to be mounted an inch higher off the ground. In turn, this allows the exhaust system to be lifted away from the road giving more ground clearance. Shame in some respects. I enjoyed getting the fireworks going on the Sprint and T595.
What a stonking engine. Like the Honda with its ‘V' four, the Sprint has no rivals with its unique, triple cylinder engine configuration. Suzuki and Kawasaki had a dabble with triples in the seventies, but they were two strokes. Now that four stroke technology has caught up, Triumph are exploiting the development like no-one else before, and it shows. I just can’t get enough of that cracking rasping noise from the round exhaust end can. And it’s true, with the peak power at 108 bhp you have the benefit of low down rorquey grunt without losing the same linearity of a multi. Both functions are achieved without compromise, too. I was at Brunters proving ground the other day with the VFR but not the Triumph. Makes no difference, though; the Triumph would have done the Honda with ease. The emphasis is on sport rather than tour on the ST, but is equally at home doing both. It stomps in and out of bends, twisties and curves with equal enthusiasm, steering neutrally as every Hinkley triple before it, suspending equally in perfect damping harmony. With Shakey bollox on my tail, I needed a bike that was precise and forgiving at the same time - good job I was on the Triumph, then. At one time challenging a VFR to combat on a Triumph would have been a recipe for humiliation. But not any longer. Not only does the bike get top marks for its all round usability, but it is, without being over engineered, the best looking sports tourer I’ve seen to date. Our tester was finished in black and looked the bomb, almost like some alien craft with alien eyes from the front. The dash has been heavily influenced by the VFR750, as has much of the look of the bike. Instrumentation will always look classier with the use of dials, much better looking and easier to read than that digital crap. I mean, the VFR reads 20mph one second and then 90 the next. Did I pass through some kind of time vortex then? The bodywork is beautifully sleek and rounded off. This is the VFR that Honda should had built. PS. Thanks to the guys from Triumph who took the bike off me at Bruntingrhorpe after I snapped the clutch trying to out-ming the Medway massive. Should have known better. And so should Honda. The Sprint is more comfortable, better looking and is going to give the VFR a right good spanking
There must be a hell of a big market for sport tourers for Ducati to be interested. The more faithful readership out there will already know that I’m not a big fan of Ducati, unlike my hedonistic colleagues here. However, I have been riding the 996SPS recently and I too find myself coming round, and, if they’re prepared to continue to develop their ST2, then I’m ready with my open mind to give them the benefit of the doubt. The ST4 by contrast, uses the detuned lump of the 916 and makes 105bhp, which oddly enough makes more sense than the power of the other two here. If you want to go half way round the world on one tank of gas, then you need to lower the out and out oomph of the power out put. Of Course, you then lose the fun part of a sports tourer and there are now enough petrol stations across the continent to satisfy the heaviest handed use of the throttle.
Ironically, though possibly the least purpose built, the ST4 actually has the most dedicated sports/touring riding position of the three, and ergonomically is thus the most accommodating. The ‘V' twin lump doesn’t come any smoother than this and the vibes are kept to a minimum thanks to the precision counter balance with an increase mass flywheel. Let’s face it, you can’t be expected to ride five hundred miles and have hands feeling like two pounds of kneaded dough at the end of it. The final drive still feels a bit notchy and a bit direct, though. With the like for like power delivery of a ‘real’ 916 the ST4 pulls from out of nowhere and just keeps on building. In fact, the engine feels so good in the ST4 that it’s kinda made the allegedly sporting SS feel a bit like an old man’s bike, and along with the cutest box built in Italy, provides a thoroughbred powerplant. The ST4 with its higher bars and more rearward saddle is probably the easiest bike in the world to wheelie (how many times have we said that) and it’s a measure of the bike’s impeccable weight distribution, that even on one wheel it can hover on the balance point for an eternity. Though apparently more powerful than either the Sprint or the VFR, it doesn’t seem to have such a seam of acceleration, but the name of the game on this bike is endless, flawless drive.
The bike is slow in responding to input from the rider when tipping it in, but this is compensated by the basic, but none the less, superb suspension. Contrary to popular rumours, the frame is in fact stiffer than either of the ali box section of the other two and this manifests itself in the stable cornering ability of the bike. Perhaps it’s almost too stiff for some of the hairpins, and as far as changes of direction go the VFR and the Sprint would do it for breakfast. But you have not sampled mid-corner poise until you’ve ridden an ST4 and if any thing is the Ducati equivalent of the Super Blackbird, the ST4 is it. It gives you so much feedback you really can’t believe it’s a Ducati. Perhaps price is the ST’s only real glitch because with a twenty litre fuel tank and only two cylinders with four desmodromic valves beating down below, it will return a higher mileage and tank range than the VFR and Sprint.
If the bikes were being judged on a real definition of the term, sports tourer, the ST4 would have to take the title, purely on the basis of its riding position, pillion provisions, tank range, mirrors and general luggage-friendly accommodation. But these days, Sports-tourer has more generally come to mean, softer option, all-rounder, not-so-balls-out-sportster, rather than a bike with mixed credentials per se, because after all, the VFR never possessed any of the crucial qualities like tank range, riding position etc that make a true continent blaster. But even on this, the VFR's self-appointed criteria, there is one very clear winner and it ain't the VFR. Triumph has simply taken this unique recipe and bettered it in every performance respect and most importantly, managed to produce a bike that is not only more evocative but more stylish. It is Triumph's first genuine number one.