Review: Honda VFR800X Crossrunner

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Every now and again I’m reminded that the Crossrunner exists. Overlooked, it didn’t sell very well in it’s previous incarnation, being little more than a jacked-up VFR800, suffering from oddball styling and many of the same problems that plagued the 14-year-old design of its sport-touring cousin. But shortly after the VFR itself was overhauled, the Crossrunner too was redesigned making it sleeker, lighter, and generally more modern. Time to have a look then!

Anything that promises to offer the same functionality as my V-Strom while potentially solving some of it’s issues is guaranteed to catch my eye, and on paper the Honda certainly delivers. More power, better brakes, neatly-integrated hard luggage, all with that legendary Honda build quality that Suzuki unfortunately lacks.

Honda VFR800X Crossrunner

Tokiko radial calipers, breaking from the Nissin tradition offer good bite, but lack outright power.

The adventure-bike market is currently splitting down the middle, dividing contestants into those who have sacrificed on-road performance in favour of some semblance of off-road capability, and those who realised that what most ADV buyers really like about the style is the fact that they are essentially practical, upright sports-tourers, minus all the plastic fairing.

Honda has chosen the latter route for the Crossrunner, sticking with the donor VFR’s 17″ sportsbike-sized wheels and tyres, eschewing fashionable spokes for lightweight alloy, and semi-knobbly tyres for Pirelli road rubber. No bash plates or ammo-box panniers in sight, with colour-matched plastic luggage and top box instead.

Honda VFR800X Crossrunner

Photographs barely do it justice; that metallic red paint is beautiful, and every piece of plastic and metal oozes quality.

Initial impressions certainly live up to expectations; the Crossrunner looks gorgeous, the deep red paint looking like it would survive a sandblasting without a scratch. In the showroom the matching luggage shares the paint, and the latching and locking mechanisms remind me of BMW’s bespoke, unburstable panniers and top boxes. No rebranded Givi or Hepco & Becker here!

The example I was given to ride included a very nice-looking Akrapovic silencer which growled to life when the starter was pressed, instantly settling down to a deliciously V8-like burble. Anyone within earshot immediately looks around for the phantom muscle car. Blipping the throttle reveals the first signs of concern, however, with the whine of the engine rapidly drowning out the exhaust.

Honda VFR800X Crossrunner

Akrapovic silencer sounds great at idle, but is rapidly drowned out by engine and wind noise

Pulling away reveals a nice, taught ride, devoid of much of the wallow and pitch that frequently plagues long-travel suspension. You can feel it tracking the surface of the road through the fully-adjustable forks, but without pitching and bucking under braking or over potholes. When I need to stop again the brakes reveal an excellent initial bite, with no squishiness from the rubber hoses or dive from the forks, but squeezing harder reveals little left in reserve.

The rear brake doesn’t help much here either, with no feel and no power, barely appropriate for slow speed maneuvers, never mind assisting with an emergency stop. At either end I feel that more aggressive pads might be an essential early upgrade.

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Remote preload adjusters should be considered a minimum requirement for these bikes; Honda doesn’t disappoint

As speeds increase the suspension starts to get a little bit choppy, with confidence draining rapidly. Even accelerating in a straight line gives the impression that the rear-end is preparing to break loose at any moment, and adjusting a line mid-corner results in the front-end feeling like a lowside is inevitable.

I might be prepared to give the VFR the benefit of the doubt here. My ride was conducted on cold, wet roads, and the feel and response are exactly what I used to get from my Street Triple before I had the suspension correctly set up. It’s quite likely that a few hundred pounds with a specialist would have a new owner scraping pegs in any weather, but my short time with the bike left me with no chances to experiment.

Honda VFR800X Crossrunner

White-on-black dashboard may look modern, but with all that info it’s very difficult to read at a glance, and menus are tricky to use

There are lots of nice little touches, and lots of unfortunate blemishes with this bike. You can leave your spare bulb kit at home on your next tour with the Crossrunner, because even the headlights are full LED. I didn’t have a chance to try them out at night, but expectations are high. The indicators are even self-cancelling, using the two wheel-speed sensors to figure out when you’ve finished a turn and stood the bike upright again. Unfortunately I found that they often don’t work; weird how Harley Davidson are the tech leaders here.

The windshield is sadly an example of form over function. It looks good, but directs the maximum amount of buffeting right at head height. Ducking down or standing up results in blissful silence, but I’m staggered that the current configuration made it past testing. Budget for a Givi Airflow or similar replacement windshield right away.

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That windshield looks good, and keeps your torso protected by directing everything right at your head

But the biggest niggle, frustratingly, is the engine. I loved my VFR750, it sounded great, responded to revs while providing plenty of mid-range overtaking power, and was an absolute joy to use. This was my first chance riding something with the the VTEC-equipped, 800cc fuel-injected replacement, and I had the highest of expectations for this venerable powerplant.

Early versions a decade or so ago received criticism for the way the variable-valve system worked, switching abruptly from 8-valve to 16-valve operation at around 6,500RPM, sometimes while owners were leant over mid-corner. The sudden jump in power could be a nasty surprise, but I’m pleased to report that while the changeover is still noticeable, it’s no longer disruptive. I deliberately provoked it mid-corner on several occasions with no ill-effects.

Honda VFR800X Crossrunner

Believe it or not, that engine is more than 14 years old; unfortunately, it feels it

This time, all crossing 6,500 RPM gives you is a sudden change in induction noise from relaxed American muscle car to screaming Italian exotic. The closest thing I can compare it to is a Ferrari 458 Italia. The noise is epic. One downside of that glorious sound is servicing; intervals are a reasonable 8,000 miles, but at every 16,000-mile valve check the engine has to come apart twice for the VTEC-checking equipment to be installed and then removed again. This takes all day, and will run you £800 at today’s workshop rates. Ouch.

And despite all this trouble and expense, noise is sadly all you get. Cranking the throttle in a high gear results in almost no increase in speed at all, and dropping a couple of gears to put the engine higher up the rev range results in an increase in velocity that is only really noticeable by checking the speedometer. You definitely get up to speed, but it certainly doesn’t feel like 100 horsepower pushing you relentlessly towards triple digits.

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Big grab rail, comfy seat, cleverly hidden hooks for tightly-integrated factory hard luggage

At first I thought it was me; was I just too used to the low-down torque of big twins, and needed to keep the engine revving more freely? No, keeping the V4 spinning doesn’t seem to result in any noticeable increase in available power; the torque curve for this engine feels completely flat. Instead I checked the spec sheet and revealed a complete surprise.

The Honda VFR800X Crossrunner weighs a whopping 242kg. It doesn’t feel it when pushing it around, or when holding it up at a stop, or even when going around corners. But that much mass blunts acceleration, and also explains why the brakes seem to feel a little weak. It’s a real blow, and an unfortunate side effect of an engine and frame design that hasn’t benefited from any of the modern weight-reduction techniques that allow  a 125bhp, 1200cc BMW GS to beat the Honda on the scales.

Honda VFR800X Crossrunner

Svelte design hides the sheer mass of that 14-year-old engine and frame

It’s crazy because the bike doesn’t look or feel big, but it does rather spoil the experience. That and the other niggles could maybe be modified or adapted to; I’m sure long-term ownership would allow a rider to learn how to make best use of that V4, the exhaust could be swapped out for something more sonorous, and the brakes and suspension could be breathed on. The screen could be swapped out, hand guards installed to assist the (excellent) heated grips in cold weather, and purchasing a set of matching panniers could complete an excellent touring bike.

But even if we accept all of these shortcomings and budget for the required upgrades and modifications (and let’s be honest, I upgrade everything on every bike I buy, so I always do) we’re left with the fact that even under Honda’s current “free top box and exhaust” promotion you’re paying £10,299 for a motorcycle that, with all it’s little niggles, feels more like an £8,000 motorcycle.

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Switchgear, like everything else on the bike, has a real air of quality and durability; Traction control switch is a bit of an afterthought

For that same £10k you could buy a BMW F800GT with every possible accessory, upgrade and luggage option. It’d have 10bhp less power on paper, but the 30kg weight deficit certainly makes up for that on the road. It would feel faster, with suspension and brakes that worked better out of the box, and the dashboard wouldn’t drive you nuts trying to reset the trip computer.

Ridden in isolation, and with a few minor upgrades the VFR800X Crossrunner would probably give years of enjoyment and reliable service. Find an independant mechanic who knows his way around the VTEC valvetrain (it’s an older system, so there are plenty who do) and you could run one of these cheaply and reliably. Fuel economy is blunted a little by the weight, but I still managed 50bhp during a relaxed ride which isn’t too bad.

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A good motorcycle, but a flawed one, badly in need of a ground-up engine and frame redesign

In the end, there are motorcycles that wow me, whose performance surpasses expectations, belies their specifications and truly earn my recommendation. In contrast, the Crossrunner left me a little disappointed. There’s so much that’s great about it, and on paper it should be brilliant. I love how everything feels high quality, and respect that Honda is alone in the industry offering an anti-corrosion guarantee on their bikes.

But Honda needs to retire that engine and frame, just as Triumph needs to retire their 1050cc triple. They were good in their day, but if you tried to sell a new car with a 14-year-old engine you’d get laughed at; it drags the whole bike down, making it heavier and thirstier than it needs to be, blunting acceleration, and braking, and hurting suspension tuning. At £2k cheaper, it might be a different story. But at the current price point competition is just too steep.

Please, Honda. We love your V4’s. Make us another one.

 

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