I’ll admit it, I’ve had a few laughs poking fun at the tightly wound and highly vocal owners of Honda’s VFR series of motorcycles. You know the type. They are a little older, neatly attired, not quite at BMW-owner levels of prissiness, but clean- cut and serious. I’d ridden a few VFRs—mostly the older, 1980s versions or the V-Tech-equipped 2002-2009 Interceptor, and they never impressed me as being that good.
Then I went riding with my friend John Joss. I had a Triumph Sprint GT I was testing, and I wanted his impressions of that bike, so after filling our tanks near Santa Cruz, California, we swapped rides, chasing each other along the winding roads of the Santa Cruz mountains.
I rode John’s well-traveled 1999 VFR800i. I had never ridden the “Fifth Gen,” as the VFR cognoscenti call the ’98-’01. It was introduced in 1997 as a replacement for the fourth-generation 94-97 VFR750. An all-new motorcycle—not just an update—the 800 got a more-torquey (but not much more powerful) fuel-injected engine, a “pivotless” frame that mounted the motor as a stressed member (the tasty single-sided swingarm pivots in the engine case, a la the VTR1000F SuperHawk), 41mm cartridge fork, lighter wheels and curvy new bodywork that still looks fresh 13 years later. Wet weight is a little over 500 pounds, horsepower is around 100 at the wheel, and the new bike would set you back $9899.
In a lot of ways, the fifth-gen is the oldest modern sportbike you can get. It’s got all the stuff a modern moto-pilot needs: fuel injection, cartridge fork, modern styling, comprehensive digital instrumentation (with easy-to-read displays for time, fuel remaining and ambient temperature) and modern tire sizes. In fact, many Viffer-heads argue that the two following bikes—the V-Tech-laden 800 Interceptor and dual-clutch, mega-powered VFR1200 — add nothing useful to the game, just more weight, expense and complexity to an already perfect product.
C’mon: perfect? Only God is perfect, right? That’s how I felt hopping on John’s aged mount, but after a few miles any cynicism about the VFR had melted away. The steering felt a little slow and old-fashioned at first, as if it had old 19-inch bias-plies, but I quickly got used to it. The red bike felt effortlessly fast, stable, easy-to-turn and man is that thing smooth for a four-cylinder. The fueling was exceptionally precise (although I’m guessing John had it carefully tuned for his sweet-looking—and even sweeter-sounding—Staintune exhaust), displaying little of the herky-jerkiness I’d expect from late-’90s fuel-injection. I didn’t even mind the linked brakes. In fact, I didn’t even know it had linked brakes until I started researching the bike. I asked John if he had removed the linking system—but no, aside from the pipe, a higher screen, an Öhlins shock, a custom Sargent’s saddle and white powder-coat on the wheels (they look great but are a “bugger” to clean, says John), his bike is pretty stock. And aside from a couple of valve checks and some electronic-component failures that will not surprise any 90s-era Honda owner, he’s had to do very little to the bike in the 10 years and 87,000 miles he’s been riding it.
“It’ll do 1000-mile days and it’ll do 1:45s at Laguna Seca,” says John. “It’s sporting enough, it’s touring enough, it does everything nicely.” The VFR is a Honda in all the right ways—supremely engineered, comfortable, good performing, easy to ride and reliable as your Uncle Phil’s Dewar’s “sleep aid.” So they probably hold their value pretty well, right?
Well, no. A quick California-wide Craig’s List search turned up a dozen very nice examples, all priced under $4000, with some good ones under the $3000 mark. Kelly Blue Book retail value is $2950 for a ’98. You’re getting a 12-year-old bike, true, but it’s a Honda, and if it was well-maintained—it’s hard not to use the phrase “anal retentive” when you write about VFR owners—you can bet it will probably outlast most bikes on the road, if not you.
That’s why I was surprised when John liked the Triumph Sprint GT so much, saying if he was looking to retire his Viffer, the Trumpet was a bike he’d consider trading to.
John, all due respect, but you’re nuts. Buy another low-mile fifth-gen for $3000, swap out all your bolt-on goodies and sell the high-miler for $2500. Another 80,000 miles of smooth, fast sport-touring for $500? The Triumph is a great value at $13,199, but you can’t even buy a decent bicycle these days for $500. The latest, greatest technology and owning a new bike is swell, but riding that VFR is a fine experience that can’t be bested by a lot of new bikes on the market today.