As my thumb hovered over the Drive button I contemplated the worst: an uncontrollable forward launch into the brick wall ahead of me. Three decades of riding had deeply ingrained the need for a clutch lever to ride a motorcycle, but even though the Honda VFR1200FA DCT that I was about to ride had two clutches, it lacked the requisite lever with which to control them.
My needless trepidation reflected the rarity of automatic transmissions in motorcycles. Despite their widespread use in cars and the highest levels of auto racing, they still remain a novelty act for motorcyclists. That counterintuitive moment on the VFR1200FA DCT ended in anticlimax; when I finally pressed the button to engage its transmission,
a slight shudder was all that could be felt from the motionless bike.
For over 25 years Honda’s venerable VFR has served as a showcase for the company’s engineering achievements, however, some of those technological firsts haven’t been without controversy. The 2002 introduction of VTEC in a motorcycle engine had its share of criticism – even after it was refined for 2006. It’s fitting then that Honda’s newest VFR would debut their new Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) which is touted as the first ever such transmission to be used in a large-displacement motorcycle. Unsure as to the reaction that hardcore traditionalists will have to the new technology, Honda also offers the new VFR with a standard manual transmission fitted with a slipper clutch.
Common to both models and a steadfast component of every VFR ever built is the V-4 engine nestled at the core of its four-piece aluminum twin-spar frame. Honda boasts that the 1,237 cc liquid-cooled, 76 degree power plant was derived from its MotoGP program and that it produces 170 horsepower (127 kW) and 95 pound-feet (129 Nm) of torque – 90 percent of which is available from 4,000 rpm.
Characteristic of a V-4, the VFR1200FA excelled when the engine was kept in its mid-range; from 3,500 rpm right up to its 10,250 rpm rev limiter the engine provided vigorous acceleration, however, opening the throttle fully from lower than 3,000 rpm caused the engine to shudder in protest until the revs began to build up. Another hallmark of the powerful V-4 engine proved to be its smooth operation. By using a crankshaft with a 28 degree crankpin offset to minimize primary engine vibration, Honda eliminated the need for a balance shaft and gave the VFR1200FA a power delivery that felt extremely refined. And by sandwiching the rear cylinders between the front pair, Honda gave the VFR1200FA a svelte midriff at the rider’s seat to ease the reach to the ground. Remarkably, Honda claims the new V-4 is more compact than the one used in the VFR800.
Fuel delivery through the 44mm throttle bodies at every engine speed was consistent, free of flat spots and very responsive. Another first for Honda, the VFR1200FA uses a Throttle by Wire (TBW) system that is said to be more compact, lighter, and more accurate than a conventional cable-operated throttle system. Using the motorcycle’s Electronic Control Unit (ECU), TBW analyses the rider’s throttle demands along with engine speed, vehicle speed, gear position, manifold pressure, coolant temperature and air intake temperature to provide a more precise fuel control.
While it was easy to throw a leg over the manual model and be immediately entertained, the DCT version took a little getting used to. The VFR1200FA DCT can be ridden in one of two fully automatic modes or a pseudo manual mode – all three of which can be switched back and forth while on the fly.
Automatic D-mode provided a sedate riding experience and was ideal for heavy traffic situations. At low city speeds the conservative shift patterns made the bike feel like it had an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. With a well-baffled exhaust and not a hint of vibration, this stealth mode was the only time I found my fingers reaching for a non-existent clutch lever; at such low revs there was very little engine braking and I instinctively wanted to be in a lower gear when approaching stops. Under moderate throttle openings D-mode would short-shift its way through the gears, but open the throttle fully and it would drop one, sometimes two gears to generate an immediate burst of speed.
S-mode raised the ante and gave the bike a more aggressive character by moving the shift points during normal throttle openings up to 5,000 rpm. Understanding my need for speed when I was in a sporting mood, DCT would also allow the tach to sweep all the way to redline before shifting into the next gear whenever I cracked the throttle fully open. And unlike in D-mode, downshifts now provided decent engine braking to aid stopping.
Manual mode gave me full control over the six-speed transmission through the use of paddle-type shift buttons similar to those found in cars. After having ridden in automatic mode for quite a while I initially found myself forgetting to shift, but no matter what I did it was impossible to trip-up the system and get myself into trouble. A forgotten downshift when coming to a stop resulted in the DCT automatically down gearing for me. For those with a phobia of automatic transmissions, the VFR1200FA DCT’s manual mode provided a near identical experience to a riding a standard motorcycle. An unexpected benefit of the DCT system was extremely smooth shifts that were less likely to upset the balance of the bike’s chassis during extreme handling or while riding on marginal road surfaces compared to ham-fisted shifts performed with a manual transmission.
Despite some of the complaints I’ve heard from fellow journalists, I found there was always an appropriate DCT mode for every riding condition. DCT synchronizes the engagement of one gear just as another gear is being released by using two alternating and independent clutches (one for 1st, 3rd, and 5th gear and the other for 2nd, 4th, and 6th). With this method, the next gear, whether if it’s higher or lower, is always ready for use. And to minimize space and weight DCT utilises an in-line clutch design that utilizes two concentric input shafts with one shaft running inside the other.
A small blemish on the DCT’s otherwise stellar performance was the noise it made while I was trundling around town. Gear shifts at low speeds sounded like someone had forgotten a wrench inside the transmission when it was being built; the mechanical clunking was not only disconcerting but also became a source of embarrassment when riding in the proximity of other motorcycles.
A departure from the VFR800A’s chain final drive, the VFR1200FA incorporates a maintenance-friendly shaft drive in its single-sided swingarm which uses an offset pivot point to improve its strength and rigidity. To compensate for the rear wheel’s varying distance from the engine as it moves through its arc of travel, a sliding constant-velocity joint was used and is said to augment handling. Even while on the track the shaft drive worked well to absorb throttle changes that normally would cause shaft-jacking and upset traction.
I was also impressed with the VFR1200FA’s ABS equipped Combined Braking System (CBS); just the weight of a single finger would shave off considerable speed with excellent feedback. For riders without the skill of pro racers who are comfortable having the limits of a tire’s traction directly tethered to their fingertips, the VFR1200FA’s linked brakes provide a safer method of achieving maximum braking force. Imperceptible in operation, this version of CBS compresses all six pistons in the right-front brake caliper but only four of the six in the left-front caliper whenever the front brake lever is squeezed. Although the remaining two pistons are coupled to the rear brake pedal, balance in the braking forces between the front two calipers is maintained by the asymmetrically sized pistons in the left-front unit. Another peculiarity of the VFR1200FA DCT is the parking brake lever attached to its left handlebar. Since the DCT system defaults to neutral when the bike isn’t running, the parking brake has to be manually engaged to prevent the bike from rolling away when parked.
Ride comfort on both models was very good over road conditions that varied between washboard-riddled dirt roads and pot-holed city streets. Normally the default suspension settings on Japanese machines are overwhelmed by my 200-plus pounds, but off-the-rack the VFR1200’s suspension provided a well-balanced ride, that was compliant enough to round the edge off sharp bumps yet taught enough to provide good handling during spirited riding. Tilted onto its pegs, the bike remained stable and tracked an unbiased line through every turn. Its 43mm inverted cartridge fork is only adjustable for preload while damping duties at the rear are handled by a rebound adjustable gas-charged shock with a remote preload adjuster.
With an exterior design that is equal parts organic and origami, there’s no question that the VFR1200FA makes a bold design statement. Most striking is its layer-concept fairing which is another nod to Honda’s race bred technologies and was designed to improve air management. The massive funnel-shaped openings on either side of the headlight are meant to increase the speed of the air used to cool the engine and also aid the bike’s handling at higher speeds.
Everything about the VFR1200FA’s ergonomics is conducive to covering great distances, quickly. A pure sport-touring machine, it felt so good at speed that it was difficult to ride it slowly. The moderately high pegs and handlebars put the rider in a sporting posture without folding the body uncomfortably in half; its supportive seat remained comfortable even after many hours of riding. Ample wind protection meant sustained high-speed runs weren’t fatiguing even though the windscreen did deflect a noticeable blast of air onto my upper arms (Honda offers optional Side Deflectors for $250 that conceivably alleviates this problem).
The VFR1200FA DCT that I tested came with colour-matched hard panniers, a pricey $1,368.99 option. Each of these quick-detach cases has a modest 29 litre capacity – suitably large for a weekend getaway on a sport-tourer. Longer trips would necessitate a tail pack that can be easily mounted using the bike’s oversized grab handles, or you can opt for a Honda colour and key-matched top box that will set you back another $993.
Detractors of the new VFR are quick to complain about the bike’s weight and size, and also claim that Honda blunted the sporting disposition of previous versions – of course most of those complaining have never ridden one. Having lapped a VFR1200FA and VFR800A back-to-back at the track there is no doubt that the newer version far outperforms the older one. And while it’s true that at 268 kilograms fully-fuelled (278 kg for the VFR1200F DCT) the VFR1200FA isn’t a light bike, but it carries its weight well, in part because of a smaller tank (18.5 litres versus 22 litres for the VFR800A) that holds less fuel up high.
Pricing for the 2011 VFRs weren’t available at the conclusion of this test; however, a 2010 VFR1200FA retails for $18,299 while the DCT version costs an additional $1,700. But is the trick automatic worth the extra money? Absolutely – especially when you consider it’s comparably priced to Kawasaki’s Concours 14 ABS and Yamaha’s FJR1300.
Honda believes the technology behind the DCT system represents the future of motorcycles. Its use could become commonplace as DCT’s light and compact design lends itself to being mated with existing engines without the need for substantial modifications. And since it uses conventional transmission gears, DCT is promised to be as durable as a manual transmission. Ultimately, it will only succeed if conventionally-minded motorcyclists can be convinced that an automatic transmission doesn’t represent an affront to the joy of riding. Less clear is what effect DCT’s twist-and-go simplicity will have in attracting new riders to motorcycling – potential riders that might have been dissuaded at the thought of operating a manual transmission.
My overall impression of both VFRs was that they are refined, sophisticated and smooth. By my estimation, the VFR1200FA DCT should be flying out of showrooms – in reality it’s probably ahead of its time and Honda will need to have patience as it gains acceptance. If they can do that, they might very well have come out with a transmission that will end up revolutionizing the motorcycle industry.
2010 Honda VFR1200FA SPECIFICATIONS
Price/As Tested: VFR1200FA: $18,299/$18,299; VFR1200FA DCT: $19,999/$21,637.99
Model: VFR1200F / VFR1200F with Dual Clutch Automatic Transmission
Engine Type: 1237cc liquid-cooled 76° V-4
Bore and Stroke: 81mm x 60mm
Compression ratio: 12.0:1
Valve Train: SOHC; four valves per cylinder
Induction: PGM-FI with automatic enrichment circuit, 44mm throttle bodies and 12-hole injectors
Ignition: Digital transistorized with electronic advance
Transmission: Six-speed (VFR1200F) / Six-speed automatic with two modes and manual mode (VFR1200F with Dual Clutch Automatic Transmission)
Final Drive: Shaft
Front: 43mm cartridge fork with spring preload adjustability; 4.7 inches travel
Rear: Pro Arm single-side swingarm with Pro-Link® single gas-charged shock with remote spring preload adjustability and rebound damping adjustability; 5.1 inches travel
Front: Dual full-floating 320mm discs with CBS six-piston calipers with ABS
Rear: Single 276mm disc with CBS two-piston caliper with ABS
Front: 120/70 ZR17 radial
Rear: 190/55 ZR17 radial
Wheelbase: 60.8 inches (1545mm)
Rake (Caster angle): 25°30’
Trail: 101.0mm (4.0 inches)
Seat Height: 32.1 inches (815mm)
Fuel Capacity: 4.9 gallons
Colour: Candy Red
Curb Weight*: 591 pounds (VFR1200F) / 613 pounds (VFR1200F with Dual Clutch Automatic Transmission)
* Includes all standard equipment, required fluids and full tank of fuel-ready to ride.
Specifications subject to change.