A Gold Wing for dirt roads
Some members of the international bike press appear to have short memories, for they've accused the new Honda VFR1200X Crosstourer of showing up late at an adventure touring party kicked off by the BMW R-GS models.
So what were Honda's previous adventure touring models: the Transalp, Dominator 650, Africa Twin and Varadero? Chopped liver?
As for BMW's much-hyped Paris-Dakar rally heritage, which is constantly referred to when discussing the GS bikes, a Honda has won the motorcycle class of the rally five times, only one less than the Bavarian-branded bike-maker's tally of six wins.
Like Yamaha, Honda has been an active participant in the adventure touring scene from the start; it just hasn't built an entire brand image around it.
That quieter corporate persona also describes that of the VFR1200X, for this is a hulking gentle giant of a bike. It eschews the lighter design of the three twin-cylinder Honda adventure tourers that preceded it, opting instead for a kitchen sink approach that includes a massive V4 engine and a shaft final drive that appears to be engineered to withstand the Apocalypse.
I'm betting that the wearable components of this shaft-drive system will have a service life far in excess of the 80,000km most BMW R1200GS owners can expect from theirs. Like the rest of the Crosstourer, they're built to travel vast distances while elevating refinement standards to the top of the adventure touring class. For this is no direct BMW R-GS rival but is a bike that creates an entirely new niche for itself within that same adventure touring sphere. Consider it a Gold Wing super-tourer that is also targeted at dirt roads.
Just placing the VFR1200X on a set of scales reveals how different it is to the BMW that it is destined to be constantly compared with. At 286kg, fully fuelled and fitted with an optional topbox ($1691.72) and extended windscreen ($351.60), the Honda is a significant 60kg heavier than the definitive Bavarian. Add the trick 10kg-heavier dual-clutch six-speed gearbox for push-button manual shifts or fully automatic service (tbc), and the expensive but oh-so-desirable optional panniers ($3192.23), and you're staring at a 300kg behemoth. And that's before you add the missus.
With a lot of this mass carried high, the prospect of riding the VFR1200X is a little daunting at first for those not of prop forward size. Manoeuvring the bike out of the garage can be a bit of a grunt, and gusty wind conditions will cause fear at times, especially when balancing the top-heavy bike on tip toes while stopped at lights. Yet it only takes a little forward momentum to transform the riding of this bike from a sweat-inducing stressful experience into something sublime. At any speed above 1kmh, the Crosstourer makes its handler aware that it is perhaps the best choice of any bike for a long extended tour of this country.
Now I know that I wrote something similar recently about Triumph's excellent Tiger 800 X/C, but faster and smoother are desirable upgrades. Honda has done a wonderful job in tailoring the potent 170-bhp (127kW) V4 engine of the VFR1200F sports-tourer to this new adventure touring application. They've reduced the top-end delivery to 127bhp (95kW) to pump up the torque at lower revs and the result is increased access to lots of stump-pulling grunt. The Crosstourer easily motivates its considerable mass; you can use idling speed to take off in either of the first two gears and the engine will staunchly refuse to stall.
This ability to constantly maintain forward progress without fear of stalling increases rider confidence when riding away from sealed roads, as does the Crosstourer's well-calibrated traction control, which allows a little easily managed rear wheelspin in the interests of keeping the bike trucking along. If you'd told me that I was going to really enjoy riding this bike on gravel backroads before I did so, I'd have accused you of dreaming. However, the plush long-travel suspension of the VFR1200X, the dirt-ready tyre and wheel package, and one of the most tractable and refined power deliveries in the adventure touring class have made me a believer. It doesn't just tour dirt roads, it savours them.
Sporty riding on tar is another matter however, and lighter all-surface tourers like the GS and Tiger X/C still have the handling edge here. All the Honda's weight balances on the narrow tyres required to complete its wide-ranging touring duties, and it gets a little squirmy and unsettled when the pace is raised above seven-tenths level.
The Crosstourer is still far more enjoyable to chuck around than a Gold Wing though, and is just as capable of delivering fatigue-delaying long distance comfort. At $27,995 sans accessories, it is roughly $18,000 less than the fully equipped Wing yet offers a more complete portfolio of dynamic abilities. However, the Wing isn't the bike most will compare this tourer with. Instead it will be weighed up against BMW's most successful model, which costs $4500 more. I can confirm that the lesser amount of money buys more bike.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 1237cc liquid-cooled dohc V4, stoked by electronic fuel injection to develop 95kW (127bhp) at 7750rpm and 126Nm at 6500rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed sequential gearbox, shaft final drive.
Frame: Cast alloy twin-spar frame and cast alloy rear swingarm; 45mm inverted fully- adjustable front forks with 220mm of wheel travel, fully- adjustable rear monoshock with 215mm of travel.
Hot: Takes the already-fine VFR1200F sports-tourer and turns it into a more adventurous ride for all New Zealand, most refined bike in its segment.
Not: Top heavy mass makes its weight felt during parking manoeuvres; all-purpose tyres get squirrelly during sports riding on tar.