Gimmick or godsend?
We Kiwis generally embrace the things that make our lives more convenient. We love using our automatic garage door openers, electricity-guzzling dishwashers, and cars that shift their own gears. However, motorcycles with automatic gearboxes appear to be totally off our radar. There have been several attempts to bring auto- shift bikes to market here, and the response of bike buyers has always been the same: near-total indifference.
Right now, there is just the one automatic motorcycle on the New Zealand market: the $15,990 Aprilia Mana 850. It looks just like the more conventional Aprilia Shiver GT; a sweetly-drawn Latin streetbike with sporty handling characteristics and a soulful V-twin engine. For the same money as the Shiver, the Mana gives its buyers an extra 100cc of engine capacity, a belt-driven CVT gearbox with seven manual-shift presets, and a handy lockable storage area where most motorcycles have their fuel tanks. Yet the Mana seems to have the same appeal as garlic-flavoured icecream in New Zealand. Its chances of repeating the sales success that the model has enjoyed in Europe appear to be doomed.
"Our dealers comfortably sell three Shiver GTs for every Mana they sell," says Aprilia distributor, Mark Mullins.
Back in a 2010 review of the Mana, I opined that an automatic powertrain might suit the cruiser segment more than the streetbike sector, the seamless acceleration seemingly more suitable to laid- back riding than sportier applications. Aprilia, as a sports- oriented brand, was never going to put the Mana's engine and gearbox in a cruiser, preferring to leave that territory to its Piaggios other motorcycle brand, Moto Guzzi. However Honda did dip its toe in automatic-shift cruiser territory when it released the futuristic, category-busting DN-01 here in 2009. It looked like it had escaped from the pages of a Judge Dredd comic, and came powered by a 680cc V-twin engine hooked up to another CVT transmission. When Honda's marketing corps hailed the DN-01's CVT as the motorcycling world's first "Human-Friendly Transmission" it only added to the impression that it had arrived in our showrooms from another planet.
Essentially a cruiser with a powertrain lifted from the Silver Wing super-scooter, the DN-01 bombed in just about every market in the world. Although Honda's as quirky and capable of delivering the same "shock of the new" as any car designed by Andre Citroen, no-one, it seems could see where it was coming from with the DN-01. That the bike had a comfy seat for two, yet was often deemed overloaded by the conservative 147kg maximum load capacity when carting a pillion only highlighted the fact that Honda hadn't fully grasped the design needs of its product.
The DN-01 was a weird-looking oddity that got the market reception it probably deserved, but that hasn't stopped Honda from committing more of its resources towards making credible auto-shifting motorcycles.
It's been a holy grail for the winged brand ever since the 1970s, when the CB750A and CB400A automatic motorcycles were released briefly in the US, and quickly sank without trace. Overseas bike test reports suggest that they've finally got the formula for an auto-shifting bike right with the new dual-clutch transmission of the VFR1200D sports-tourer.
Dual-clutch transmissions, as made popular by various German car makers, are essentially manual gearboxes that act like automatics if required. They use one clutch to drive the vehicle while the other is pre-selecting the next ratio, and when a shift is required it arrives with the same speed and efficiency as the flick of a switch. Contrast the more direct drive of a dual-clutch gearbox with all the slippage of a CVT, and you can quickly see why this form of automatic gearbox might have more appeal to motorcyclists.
It also makes more sense to introduce such a gearbox to a high-performance sports tourer rather than a more urban-focused lightweight product like the Mana. Bikes like the VFR1200D are often ridden two-up over long periods, and the seamless acceleration that the dual-clutch transmission reportedly produces limits the potential for jerkiness and prevents the rider from receiving unintended head-butts from the pillion. As a relatively heavy and powerful shaft-drive sports-tourer, the D version of the VFR1200 is also more capable of disguising the effects of the extra mass of the dual-clutch transmission than lighter bikes.
Honda faced some huge challenges when down-sizing a dual-clutch transmission for a motorcycle application, and now holds more than 100 new patents from the engineering exercise. Meanwhile, the jury's still out on whether the VFR1200D really is the bike that finally cracks the code for a successful auto-shifting motorcycle here. For New Zealand distributor, Blue Wing Honda, has yet to decide whether to release the self-shifting VFR here.