This is the so-called fifth generation of the VFR—and it was essentially a new machine. The most obvious change was the slightly bigger V4 engine, enlarged from the 750’s 748cc to 781.7cc, just to be precise, and called the 800. The 750 figures were a bore of 70mm, stroke, 48.6mm, while the 800 had a 72mm bore and was mildly destroked to 48mm. No great change, really, with the shorter-stroke version spinning the dyno with 95 rear-wheel horsepower at 10,000 rpm. Nice torque, though not much in the lower revs, some 54 lb-ft coming on at 8,500.
As most of us have heard many times, Honda had high hopes for this V4 engine when it was first introduced back in 1982. Soichiro Honda was not noted for his modesty, although he was very polite, and was rightfully proud of his 1969 CB750 with its in-line four engine that set the example for the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. And though he had officially retired in 1973, he thought the company could do it again with this new engine, which was appreciably narrower than the in-line four—all the better for cornering purposes.
The initial V4, the 1983 VF750F V45 Interceptor, had serious engine problems, and Honda chose to regenerate customer confidence in the design by completely redoing the machine from the wheels up, coming out with the first VFR in 1986. Minor changes were made over the next dozen years (2nd, 3rd and 4th generations), and then the marketing boys decided that rather than promote this bike as a quasi race-ready machine, they should sell it as a superb sport-touring (emphasis on the sport) bike. Which it was, and instead of merely glitzing up the previous model, this revamp would be an expensive proposition—appropriate for celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Honda Motor Corporation.
For 1998 the other three of the Big Four all had serious 750 sport models, none of which could be ridden for more than a couple of hours before pain set in, due to ergonomics designed for going very fast rather than being comfortable. Honda understood well the narrow confines of combining a truly sporty motorcycle with a seating position that would allow for long trips. Of course, the ragged-edge kind of rider could spend money for a semi-street-legal RC45…which cost a whopping $27,000 in 1994, the only year it was on the American market. Many of the VFR800’s improvements came from the RC45.
The basic design of the wet-sump 800 engine stayed pretty much the same as the 750’s, with a 90-degree V4 having a 180-degree crankshaft. However, it followed the RC45 design by having the drive gears for the two overhead camshafts running up the right side of the engine, operating the 16 valves, which had a rather narrow included angle of 28 degrees. Valve adjustment was effected by shims in the time-consuming under-bucket system, but adjustment intervals were now at 16,000 miles. Brand-new was the fuel injection, with the control unit having eight feeds for very precise metering…controlling fuel delivery and ignition on each cylinder. This went through 36mm throats, injecting gas into redesigned combustion chambers with a compression ratio of 11.6:1. And a redline raised to a whopping 11,750 rpm…on a street bike! Apparently no journalist could find fault with the engine, as all the road tests were highly laudatory.
The chassis was all new for the VFR, but much was borrowed from the VTR1000F, the V-twin that had won all sorts of plaudits in 1997. The trick on the VTR was the swingarm pivoted from the back end of the crankcases, not the frame. The engine, a stressed member in the large aluminum box-section dual-spar frame, enjoyed “variable stiffness” motor mounts, all this serving to increase the rigidity of the chassis. Honda could not resist calling this a “pivotless chassis” with “Tuned Flex,” and its cornering abilities did impress all the riders; no mean feat.
The Showa Corporation supplied the suspension units. Up front was a 41mm cartridge-type fork with adjustable preload, 25.5 degrees of rake and 3.9 inches of trail. At the back a Showa shock absorber, on a single-sided swingarm called Pro Arm, used Pro Link mounting and had adjustable rebound damping and preload. Travel at both ends was a little less than five inches. Wheels were 17-inchers, with a 120/70 tire at the front, a fat 180/55 at the back, and disc brakes all around…using a new Linked Braking System. The LBS is way too complicated to explain here, but even hardened pros who felt they could out-think any such device came to appreciate the system’s effectiveness.
Another little bit of ingenuity were the two small radiators, one on each side of the engine, which allowed it to be pushed forward for a little more weight up front and a wheelbase of 56.7 inches. With half a tank of gas in the 5.5-gallon reservoir the bike tipped the scale at 500 pounds. The look was good, with racy bodywork, but the ergonomics somewhat relaxed with slightly raised bars and a saddle suitable for long distances. Italian Red was the color for the first two years, followed by Pearl Shining Yellow for one year, and back to Italian Red for the final iteration.
The $9,500 price was right between the aforementioned VTR twin at $9,000, and the in-line four CBR900RR at $10,000, Honda covering all three engine designs, and the VFR800Fi’s price did not change in its four-year run. Then the sixth generation came along in 2002, with VTEC (Variable Valve Timing & Electronic Control) and tagged at $10,000. Honda was trying to keep a lid on prices, although a modest recession and immodest inflation were not helping.