Saturday, January 12, 2013

everyday superheros

As much as I enjoyed the 996, there's no way I could use something like that everyday. If my weekly grocery shopping consisted of a single apricot, then maybe. My chief complaint with the ZR7 is no onboard storage or available hard bag mounts. My heart wants a sportbike but my head wants a bike I can ride everyday. While making a wish list, I ought to add better passenger accommodations  I'd like to enjoy the NC countryside with someone, so I should remedy that.

Good thing Ducati went ahead and took the 916 (and later 996) mill and put it in a sport tourer. A damn good one. It's a bit white bread in the looks department but the performance is there. Fully adjustable sport suspension (Ohlins on the 996-powered version) and big Brembos. The ST4, as it's called, will even hike up it's skirt if you want: take the bags off and you can swivel the exhaust pipes up for more lean. Cool. 

I was able to find one locally to test out. It was a little scruffy with stickers covering strategic scratches and cracks. It had a few touring bits and looked like it had been well-used. The pricey belt service was done, with improved belts, so it was looked after where it counted. The bike fit me far better than the 996 and better than my Kawasaki. The owner lowered the pegs a bit, which worked great for me. 

The bike had all the Ducati show: booming motor, rattling clutch, and exposed trellis. It didn't have the raucous bark that the 996 I sampled had; this one had stock pipes. That said, the motor felt smoother possibly because it was quieter. Even so, slip-ons were needed ASAP. The handling was great. It was very capable and turn in was way easier than the superbike. It was less scary and I rode it faster because of that. It never felt heavy, though the front brakes seemed tired. Perhaps some new pads would wake the Brembos up. The 996 is lighter with more power but this ST4 was really fast. It felt great bouncing back and forth between 60 and 90. I can't imagine the ST4S feels that much different. The Ohlins would be nice but remember that the superbikes typically used the same fully adjustable Showa stuff that this ST4 has. The riding position was very roomy and the bags were spacious (but the latches fiddly).

I loved it. It was perfect. There couldn't be a more perfect option out there.

But what is there was? Something else with a motorsport engine dropped into sensible clothing. Maybe something well-regarded as the best example of the best real-world motorcycle of all time?

Honda's VFR800 Interceptor is loaded with engineering candy: single-sided swingarm, pivotless aluminum frame, and outrageous gear-driven cams. I walked into a local Ducati shop hoping to find another ST or used Multistrada to try and saw a beautiful VFR sitting there. After hemming and hawing for a bit, I asked to test ride it.

So glad I did. Just like Honda's NSX surpassed the Ferrari 348 as a real-world supercar, Honda's VFR was better than the ST4 (not that Honda was copying the ST, quite the opposite). The bike was really, really good. No wonder it was bike of the year and all that. Quite surprising after riding the Duc just the day before, the Honda motor steals the show. That V4 induction noise. Those gears, that whine. It's ever-present and just shrieks at higher engine speeds. It's just great and makes you want to run up and down the rev range for the hell of it. It felt more powerful and torquier than the ST4 even though the math says otherwise. It's boomy down low, just brilliant in the middle, and true-racebike urgent up top. Triple digits came up faster on the VFR than on the ST4 but I can't tell if it's the power or the sound urging you on.

The handling was more sportbike than the ST4. The Honda is lighter and felt so. Probably just due to fresher pads, the brakes had more bite. I didn't work it hard enough to tell how the linked braking system worked but it didn't seem obtrusive. The bike I tried didn't have saddlebags, which is a problem. I'm thinking the way to go is a topcase with backrest for passenger comfort. Tandem bicycle touring has taught me that an unhappy stoker/passenger makes for a miserable trip. Much better to have double the comfort on longer trips.

I was so very suprised by the Honda. I was expecting it to be cold and clinical compared to the Ducati but it wasn't. I had the same perma-grin after riding the VFR that I did after the 996 (but without the shoulder pain). It's such a fun bike. I love machines with great voices. I bought my M5 pretty much for the S38 sound. The VFR is on that level. Kudos to Honda for doing it from the factory, too; no aftermarket can needed. The best song comes from the induction, right under your nose. Good thing, too, as things like Ferraris give their best performance for bystanders. Motorcycles are supposed to be fun and that VFR was serious, serious fun.

So, anyone want to buy a really clean ZR7 with low miles? I need to get back on that VFR and make a racket.

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