Modern Bikes

Upon my departure from mainstream motorcycle media in 2007, my experiences with modern motorcycles ended. Even then, the context was limited to European brands, mixed with select Japanese-powered Bimotas, and more than a few prototype builds. Ironically, when Moto-Euro magazine was founded in 2001 I had been thrust into the new bike scene after a fifteen year hiatus, meaning I was just beginning to catch up with things before walking away again. To be sure, my passion is centered on the bikes produced in the decades dividing JFK and Regan, but more basic knowledge was needed and some study was applied. That practice has inspired some favorites, three of which I’m sharing here.

Inspired by daydreams during a recent cross country ride, I openly wondered why I’d deemed myself unworthy of the upscale, sophisticated comforts only new motorcycles can offer. Delivering pain like Dominos delivers pizza, my 40-year old Le Mans 1000 had exposed both my age and conditioning, but there’s more to it than that. Back when proddy autos were wheezy (they aren’t anymore) bikes enjoyed the upper hand on power and I miss that, but modern speeds make that competition a dicey one. While some are content to endlessly flap on about the wonders of technology, the reality shows frequent tales of expensive, unresolved issues. Nothing is automatic, but the odds are in your favor. Editorially placing my bets, I’ve sampled and researched all three of these models, and positive results were returned. It is without shame I confess this attraction to the dark side (with matching tinted screen please) and judging by your messages, many others are thinking the same thing

2015 Honda VFR800F

Fully admitting to being a sucker for Honda’s precision fit and quality finishing, there’s really nothing left to say about the VFR line of V4 Interceptors – all brilliant since 1983 and yes, especially this one. Those regularly checking the pulse probably have this six-year old revision way down the pecking order by now, but on the street it’s apples vs. apehangers. Refined, not reinvented, the liquid-cooled, 783cc 4v 90-degree V4 is tuned with more mid range grunt. Fitting high compression 11.8 pistons, digital ignition and Honda’s VTEC (where all four valves open at approx. 6500 rpm) the engine slots over 100-hp through a six-speed transmission, this with optional quick shifter. Looking very strange stripped down, the perimeter frame connects an alloy sub frame, 43mm fork, a single-shock mono swingarm and “fine diecast” wheels. Toss in traction control and ABS, yet at 525-lbs the VFR800 is some fifteen pounds lighter than its predecessor.

Brand new and sprayed in a deep, glowing white, my loaner VFR hummed down the Ray Road ramp onto the I-10 on a cool October evening in 2015, zipping an easy 20-miles before returning to its owner. That was more than enough to learn Honda’s latest V4 would be a no brainer for extended trips. Smooth, fast and ridiculously composed, the dash graphed out our suggested trajectory and range while the Honda’s dual lazers transformed the ‘Ten’s’ blackness into day. Some components being adjustable, the bars, seat and (bliss!) pegs are all placed exactly where I want them. Wailing, the V4 is thrilling to spool, yet offered ample grunt, indicating it would perform well two up. I’d rate the VRF800’s ultra modern angular lines as handsome, with a decent job done to eliminate the hated ‘remote wheel’ syndrome out back. Ranging from $5-to-7000 depending on mileage and condition, there seems to be no inherit warts or issues I could find. Just legions of faithful owners piling up miles.

2017 Triumph Bonneville T120 Black

If there’s a universally loved motorcycle, Triumph’s reborn Bonneville could be it. Hardcore Brit riders might reject Bloor’s outsourcing tactics, but (so far) he’s the sole survivor in the retro name game. Moving the range using its new 1200cc twin, the T120’s brawny, yet compact power train and uprated chassis take the Bonneville to a whole new level of interest…and ability. Some quick specs reveal the liquid-cooled parallel twin connects a 270-degree crank to 10.0 pistons and (cheezy) throttle bodies designed to look like Amal carbs. 70 peak horsepower and ample torque, all fed through a wet clutch six-speed. Holding it together is a steel cradle featuring 41mm KYB forks, and matching dual shocks. Nissin supplies all braking components for the triple disc brakes, these with anti-lock. Traction control and heated grips are but a few of its standard features, including a mainstand. 493-lb.

With plenty of experience on the Bonnie 900, Triumph’s big bore T120 just about erased every excuse I’d made for not owning one. Power arrives in a smooth surge, and the 1200cc twin rolls down freeways with confident composure. With the standard handlebar ergonomics are nearly ideal, adjustable pegs are available and so are a myriad of accessories made to personalize the bike. While fiddling, I’d toss the brown for a black seat, then see about stiffening the T120’s cartridge fork. From there it shoud roll faithfully for years, but research was sparse on owners heaping enormous totals (in excess of 100K) of mileage. Thankfully, the 1200 retains the light, dancing feel that made the 900 so much fun in the twisties, making the T120 an ideal traveller for those traditionalists crossing over from an older bike. Not cheap new, resale rates just below average.

2013 Kawasaki ZZ-R 1400

At the top of my reasons for riding, travelling on a big, open-class sports machine for days on end gives a sense of freedom unlike any other. Still near the top of motorcycling’s list of top end contenders, my attraction to Kawasaki’s 1400 Zed stems from a strong respect for the brand and its enthusiastic following. Shockingly affordable for being among the most impressive production bikes ever, there’s volumes written about it online so I won’t bore you by repeating. Even so, a glance at the big 14’s specs gives reason to pause. Measuring 1441cc the liquid-cooled, 4v inline four uses ultra-high compression 12.3 pistons, but the engine’s digitized fueling and advance automatically optimize. It works. Horsepower was enhanced by special porting, four 44mm Mikuni throttle bodies and extra machining wizardry on the cylinder head. Below, the extra heavy duty crankshaft (40mm mains) fits dual counter-balance shafts to minimize vibration, yet the engine is jam packed with character. 200-hp. Six-speeds and a slipper clutch add to the road holding offered by the Kawasaki’s alloy monocoque perimeter frame, 43mm forks and Uni-Trak swingarm. Simply astounding. 584 wet, 189-mph.

I’ve been poking around the ZX14 far more than the Triumph or Honda, but as a vintage enthusiast and historian, I’m a huge fan of the line. With many important models, every Kawasaki superbike from the H1 on up are motorcycles that remain in active use. All well known and sought after by collectors and riders, value rates tops among the Japanese brands. That type of profound accomplishment simply cannot be ignored, and approaching five decades of refinement, neither can the ZX14R. Yes to the big and fast part. At nearly 600-lb Kawasaki’s MegaZed seemed a little smaller at-the-grips than I envisioned, yet felt heavy dipping through the parking lot. My ideal 14 would start with the all-black version offered in 2012 (pictured, with tag) to which would be added a slightly taller dark screen, a moderate handlebar rise and the ZG14 Concourse seat. Some long term owners report difficulty resisting its horsepower delivery, but marvel at the ZX’s unflappable, unbreakable build. Flexibility and excitement are core values for riding enjoyment, and adding spice are its aggressive, ground-pounding lines and a long, spares friendly production run. At this point I’m wondering why I haven’t bought one already. Like a batter at the plate,  I’m holding out for the right pitch.            

So while there’s plenty to like in these three, it is the uncertainty, or unfamiliarity of the modern electronic systems embedded in each that’s really preventing me from taking the plunge. Once the glowing wrench or service icon shines, owners of late model machines are forced to either schedule service or run the diagnostics in house. Connections help. It’s been decades since a dealer has worked on my stuff, and that isn’t going to change. Perhaps being forced to deal with the technology is the best reason to learn about it, but if you’re anything like me, spending money is in some ways easier than finding the time. Old or new, what hasn’t changed is the question of what fits. To be continued- Nolan Woodbury

Honorable mention


Kawasaki GTR1400 Concours

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