V4s Head-to-Head: Honda V65 Sabre or Yamaha Vmax?

Side-by-side V4s—The Honda VF1100S (L) with the optional frame mount fairing and the Yamaha VMX1200 with aftermarket drag bars—the same only different?
Side-by-side V4s—The Honda VF1100S (L) with the optional frame mount fairing and the Yamaha VMX1200 with aftermarket drag bars—the same only different?

Which brings it all together? The best depends on how you define “best.”

If you had told me back in 1974 when I bought my first motorcycle there would come a day when I would own not one but two motorcycles with liquid-cooled V4 engines that each put out over 100 corrected rear-wheel horsepower, I’d have said you were nuts.

Back then, even factory racing bikes were hard-pressed to put out that kind of power and last the length of a road race—let alone have daily rider reliability!

Things have come a long way since I had my little Honda CL200, that’s for sure.

Fast forward to 2021. I’ve now owned a 1984 Honda V65 Sabre since 2011 and a 2002 Yamaha Vmax since 2019—long enough to get quite a few miles in the saddle on each. Given that they were in direct competition when the original models were introduced—the V65 in 1984 and the Vmax in 1985, it seems only natural to have a look at how they compare. The V65 is bone stock, the Vmax has some mods.

It is ironic that despite the general similarities and common target market, the differences between these two powerhouses outnumber the similarities.

Head-to-head V4s—a 2002 Yamaha Carbon Fiber Vmax or VMX 1200 (L) and 1984 Honda V65 Sabre or VF1100S. About the only real similarity is plenty of V4 power.
Head-to-head V4s—a 2002 Yamaha Carbon Fiber Vmax or VMX 1200 (L) and 1984 Honda V65 Sabre or VF1100S. About the only real similarity is plenty of V4 power.

That said, the similarities are worth noting. First and foremost is the fact that each came with a liquid-cooled, double-overhead-cam four-stroke V4 mill.

The significance of that is in the fact that the motorcycle industry was moving beyond the in-line, air-cooled, SOHC, and DOHC UJM machines that came to dominate the import motorcycle marketplace in the 1970s.

More compact, smoother, and more powerful, the V4 configuration emerged in multiple brands and displacements.

Honda rolled out the 1,098cc four in two configurations in 1984—the Magna, which targeted the power cruiser market, and the Sabre, which had a more conventional configuration.

With the optional frame-mounted fairing (which originally included lowers), matching hard luggage bags and the Sabre became a heavy-duty sport-touring bike. The 500cc, 700cc, and 750cc versions were available in Magna and Interceptor (with fairing sport-bike configuration) versions.

The Vmax engine is pure industrial art. With the engine’s mass carried low in the frame and the four-gallon gas tank under the seat, the VMax achieves a lower center of gravity than the Sabre has—and the effect is noticeable in handling. The black twin bar across the engine is one of the Morley frame stiffeners.
The Vmax engine is pure industrial art. With the engine’s mass carried low in the frame and the four-gallon gas tank under the seat, the VMax achieves a lower center of gravity than the Sabre has—and the effect is noticeable in handling. The black twin bar across the engine is one of the Morley frame stiffeners.

The Vmax has always impressed me as a sort of hybrid street fighter and conventional configuration. Yamaha, looking to one-up the Honda’s powerplant developed the Vmax to displace about 100cc more at 1,198cc.

Cycle magazine’s 1984 road test of the VF1100S included a dyno test that showed 101.98 corrected rear wheel horsepower. Its actual output these days is probably down from that number, but at least in the neighborhood. The Motorcycle Performance dyno in Madison, Wisc., showed that this V-Max put out 118.11 corrected rear-wheel horsepower a few years back.

The two bikes trade punches on technical features apart from horsepower. For example, the Honda has an included angle between the cylinder banks of 90°, which facilitates excellent primary engine balance without the need for a counterbalancer. The Yamaha engine, on the other hand, has an included angle of 70°, which facilitates a more compact engine package but requires a counterbalancer to tamp down the vibration.

The Vmax came with fewer amenities than the Sabre. For example, the Sabre came with an LED display that includes a gear position indicator, taillight/brake light burnout indicator, adjustable handlebars, and a long, deep, smooth saddle.

This Vmax has also undergone a number of alterations that affect the character of the bike from stock—mostly for the better.

For example, LED tail/stop lights and integral turn signals, drag bars, Morley frame braces, a UFO fork brace, UFO four-into-two tuned exhaust, a deeply scooped custom seat, bar-end mirrors and it was recently re-shod with Michelin Commander II tires.

Specifications 1984 Honda VF1100S and 2002 Yamaha VMX1200
1984 Honda VF1100S2002 Yamaha VMX1200Comment
Displacement1,098cc1,198ccEach is four-stroke V4
Valve trainDOHC 4 valves/cylDOHC 4 valves/cyl
CoolingLiquidLiquid
Bore x Stroke79.5 x 55.3mm76 X 66mm
Compression Ratio10.5:110.5:1
Included angle90°70°Vmax has gear-driven counterbalancer
Carburetion(4) Keihin 36mm CV(4) 35mm Mikuni downdraft-type w/V-Boost
Exhaust systemOriginal four-into-twoUFO tuned four-into-two
Fuel Capacity5.8 gal. Top frame tank with locking cap4.0 gal. Under seat locking cap
Corrected Rear-wheel Horsepower101.98 @ 9500 rpm (Cycle period road test)118.11 @ 8,000 RPM (Motorcycle Performance)
ChassisStock double-cradleDouble-cradle with Morley frame braces
Current ave. MPG42-4435-37Normal riding conditions
Ignition Inductive, magnetically triggeredCDI
Transmission6-speed w/hydraulically activated, constant mesh, wet clutch5-speed w/hydraulically activated diaphragm-type clutch
Final DriveShaftShaft
Weight 603 lbs.582 lbs.
Wheelbase 62.6″62.6″
Seat Height 33.4”30.1″ stock, 28” nowLowered seat on VMax
Brakes FrontDual front discs with twin-piston calipersDual front discs with four-piston calipers
Brakes RearSingle rear disc brakesSingle rear disc brakes
Suspension Front41mm leading axle, front fork 5.7″ of travel w/air-adjustment, adjustable damping, anti-dive40mm front fork features 5.5″ of travel w/air-assist, equipped with UFO fork brace
Suspension RearAir-adjustable mono-shock, adjustable rebound damping, 4.7” travelDual rear shocks 4-position rebound damping, spring preload adjustment
Special featuresFuel gauge, frame-mounted fairing, gear position indicators, taillight burnout warning lightCarbon fiber bodywork, fenders

 

I wasn’t sure the drag bars were going to cut it when I got the Vmax. I’d never been on a bike that had them that sat right for me. But these work surprisingly well and I think now I know why—instead of forward controls like some of the other bikes I’ve tried, the Vmax retained its midships footpegs.

For me, that works better—and the lowered saddle makes this Vmax perfect for stumpy-legged me. Taken together, the bars, seat, and pegs work so well, day-long road trips on it are no problem.

This view of the 2002 Yamaha Carbon Fiber VMX1200 Vmax captures its dual nature. It has the aggressive stance of a quarter-mile drag bike, but fitted out with a Nelson-Rigg tail bag, it is excellent on a day-trip in the splendor of southern Wisconsin’s farm country where the blacktop roads weave and soar from fertile river valleys into rolling high country.
This view of the 2002 Yamaha Carbon Fiber VMX1200 Vmax captures its dual nature. It has the aggressive stance of a quarter-mile drag bike, but fitted out with a Nelson-Rigg tail bag, it is excellent on a day-trip in the splendor of southern Wisconsin’s farm country where the blacktop roads weave and soar from fertile river valleys into rolling high country.

Having read umpteen road tests on various iterations of the Vmax, frame and fork flex seem to always have bedeviled high-speed handling. Straight-line speed, great—just don’t think you can fly through the corners.

I lay no claim to be a hot-shot in the corners, but I have let myself push the Vmax harder than I usually do in some fairly technical twisties (on smooth blacktop) and found this machine corners with stability and precision. No wobble, drift, or oscillation—just quick, nimble, rock-solid changes of direction. If that sounds like a big improvement over stock bike performance, I’d have to attribute it to the UFO fork brace and Morley frame stiffeners.

Handling, vibration-free power, all-day comfort, and Interstate-capable performance is what the V65 was built to be all about. Though the V65 looks longer than the VMX1200, according to the specification sheet, the two have the same wheelbase at 62.6 inches. While neither bike is necessarily what one might call “quick-handling,” the Vmax is decidedly more nimble in tight corners and more “flickable” in the esses.

A result, most likely, of the low center of gravity achieved by having the fuel tank under the seat, having the engine ride low in the frame and, in the case of this Vmax, a lower, deeply scooped aftermarket saddle that decreases unladen seat height from 30.1” for the stock saddle to 28.0.”

That underseat fuel tank is a real attention-getter when stopping for fuel. To access the lockable fuel filler cap, you have to simultaneously push a lever forward under each side of the seat. That causes the middle section of the seat to pop up and forward. Then, you reach down into the recess beneath the seat to unlock the gas cap with the ignition key. The whole operation looks a bit unnatural.

This Vmax consistently does only about 36 mpg, so with 4 gallons on board, the maximum range before hitchhiking starts is only about 144 miles. The V65, meanwhile can cruise by and continue on to a range of about 249 miles, owing to its average (actual) fuel economy of 43 mpg.

The V65, in contrast, carries that huge 5.8-gallon (US) fuel tank way up on top of the frame in the traditional location. Throw in the weight of the optional frame-mounted fairing and the Honda is much more top-heavy. Add the Sabre’s 33.4-inch unladen seat height (with the rear monoshock properly aired up) and my short inseam and the Sabre wins the award for most awkward to handle into parking spots, at gas pumps, or any other manual movement.

This view of the 1984 Honda V65 Sabre explains the bike. It looks like a long-legged, long-range luxury liner with plenty of motor—and it is.
This view of the 1984 Honda V65 Sabre explains the bike. It looks like a long-legged, long-range luxury liner with plenty of motor—and it is.

All that is not a problem once underway. At highway speed, particularly on the interstate, the Sabre shines; smooth, quiet with its original equipment stock exhaust system and very comfortable. The engine is loafing along at about 3,400 RPM at 60 mph in sixth gear.

With a 10,000 RPM redline, Cycle magazine calculated the Sabre’s top speed in 6th gear at the redline to be 177 mph! They also reported an 11.2 sec. quarter mile with terminal speed of 121.69 mph, and zero to sixty in 3.04 sec. My seat-of-the-pants thrill-o-meter tells me that even with the fairing and saddlebag-laden, though the 37-year-old Sabre ain’t what she used to be, it still is no slouch.

That said, in raw twist-the-grip-and-hang-on performance, the Vmax is it. Early Yamaha power claims ranged up to 145 hp, box stock. Talk to most tuners who have actually had access to dyno numbers for the stock 1200cc version and a figure around 110 corrected rear-wheel hp is more like it. So, with the re-tuning that was done on the intake side and the addition of the UFO four-into-two tuned exhaust system, the 118.11 corrected rear-wheel hp is realistic.

On the subject of the UFO system, the sound of it is rowdy, to say the least. A buddy of mine who is into sports car racing having heard me approaching from a distance said “that thing sounds like an SCCA race car!” ‘Nough said on that.

The Yamaha’s intake side is where the real whiz-bang engineering took place, considering the 2002 came with carburetors, not fuel injectors. When the key is turned on, a strange, whirring, and clicking sound is heard. That is the V-boost valve servo kicking in and priming the carbs—a nice touch since there is no choke.

In V-boost, a servo moves a butterfly flap that effectively links up the pairs of carburetors on each side of the engine. In the stock setup, at 6,000 RPM, the servos open a valve that allows each firing cylinder to be fed by two carbs instead of one. As the engine speed increases the degree of opening of the valve increases until at 8,000 RPM, the valve is wide open. Interestingly, in the case of this Vmax, the V-boost system has been re-calibrated to allow V-boost valve-opening to begin at 4,750 RPM, providing earlier boost delivery—with noticeable effect.

It’s surprising to see some period reviews claim the brakes on each of these bikes are sub-par; particularly on the Vmax. While I don’t constantly race from corner to corner and have to hit my preset brake points or end up in the woods, I do at times find myself needing to scrub off quite a bit of speed with these bikes. I haven’t really found the brakes that deficient on either one.

The V65 engine/six speed transmission unit is big and complicated. Working inside that thing is not for the uninitiated, but on the other hand, most routine maintenance like changing the plugs isn’t all that bad.
The V65 engine/six speed transmission unit is big and complicated. Working inside that thing is not for the uninitiated, but on the other hand, most routine maintenance like changing the plugs isn’t all that bad.

In that area, the Honda has an edge since it has the TRAC anti-dive front suspension system. While it doesn’t assure completely level posture under heavy braking, it does appear to keep the rear tire firmly planted when entering a corner under hard braking, which was the intent.

Maintenance for each has some quirks. Most routine stuff is not a problem, apart from my own lack of discipline on scheduling.

Notable exceptions are changing the air filter on the Sabre. It is not a five-minute project as we disclosed here.

Conversely, changing or servicing the air filter on the Vmax is a piece of cake.

Changing the battery on the V65 is easy, changing the battery on the Vmax is, well, not so much.

Changing the oil on the Vmax doesn’t have major complications, but on the V65, you have to remember to drain the oil from the second oil drain plug. Wait-what? Second drain plug? Yep—don’t forget to open the small drain plug on the forward-most head or you’ll be leaving about a cup of old oil in the engine!

Street rod or long-legged limo—that is the question!

It turns out, which bike is the best fit for the ride depends on what the ride is. Here’s how I see the two bikes.

If you want a fun, fast bike for commuter distances and day trips, the Vmax is a great machine, even with the mods done to the one in my shed. For solo day trips and very small group rides on the twisty town and county roads of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, the Uplands, and the Ocooch Mountains of Wisconsin, the Vmax is the choice of the two.

But, if I planned to ride from Wisconsin to California and back, the choice would be the Honda V65 Sabre. Despite its size that makes it a bit of a brute to manhandle, its upright seating position, comfy seat, fairing to tuck down behind, an abundance of smooth power, and comparative fuel economy and range would make it an easy choice for long-range riding. To be sure, the Vmax could do it, but probably not with as many advantages.

In terms of raw quarter-mile low E.T. and quickness to top speed performance, it’s the Vmax, but in terms of absolute top speed, it appears the Sabre could have the edge with its six-speed. But that’s one metric this ol’ boy will never test.

In the end, the V65 and Vmax are similar but very different. It took a long time to end up with an example of each in my shed, but I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to finally have them both.

Side-by-side V4s—The Honda VF1100S (L) with the optional frame mount fairing and the Yamaha VMX1200 with aftermarket drag bars—the same only different?
Side-by-side V4s—The Honda VF1100S (L) with the optional frame mount fairing and the Yamaha VMX1200 with aftermarket drag bars—the same only different?

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