Ride Review: Honda Dual-Clutch Transmission (DCT)

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Perhaps bigger news than the bike itself is the Honda VFR1200F’s much-anticipated dual-clutch transmission (DCT) model. What Honda has developed for the sport bike world is an automatic shifting technology to enhance the rider’s experience. Automatic transmissions are a rare breed in motorcycling, and we have no doubt that some of you out there may be asking: Isn’t part of being on the road and on the bike, about feeling personal freedom? Or mastering your machine with skill and control? As kids in high school didn’t we make fun of our friend that couldn’t drive a stick? Is DCT an upgrade or a substitution? Well folks, that was the other reason Asphalt & Rubber got to test ride the new VFR1200F, and we put the DCT through its paces.

At first glance, the noticeable differences between the DCT and the standard manual transmission are of course the absence of a clutch lever and gearshift toe control. Unnecessary for our purposes, they have now become phantom controls that, in the beginning, you are constantly trying to reach for, but to no avail. An oddity for motorcyclists, the DCT also has the addition of a parking brake, which is to hold the bike in position when turned off.

DCT is not your typical automatic transmission; there is no torque converter. Instead what you are left with is a two clutch, two input shaft design, which is electronically controlled to give you seamless quick shifts just like a racecar. The first clutch engages gears 1-3-5 and the second clutch is for gears 2-4-6, this allows the bike to engage one clutch while disengaging the other when shifting gears. The experience for the rider is almost a complete absence of lurching while shifting, which can only be experienced by actually riding the DCT equipped VFR1200F.

There are three shifting styles that exist on the new VFR, “D” or ”Drive” mode, which is intended for regular operation and maximizes your fuel economy by shifting early and downshifting less. “S” mode is the “Sport” mode, no this does not deploy a fancy spoiler or change the exhaust note, or even stiffen the suspension; rather it lets the revs reach a little higher and is more prone to engine braking and downshifting in an effort to keep the bike’s momentum up for more spirited riding. Lastly is the “M” mode, or the “Why didn’t I just buy a Manual” mode. There is in-fact a slight difference from “M” mode and a truly manual transmission: in “M” mode the VFR1200F will still downshift into first gear if you come to a complete stop, or it will downshift the bike if stalling is eminent. In addition to these drive modes, you can place the new VFR in “N” or neutral, which is best used as a safety precaution if no one is on the bike while its running. We await the inevitable YouTube videos that will come from riders who forget this.

When first mounting the Honda VFR1200F and turning the bike on you have to put the bike in “D” to get going, which seems scary at first. Your mind is telling you the bike is going to lurch when you shift into “D”, and thus it tells you that you need a death grip on the brake. This is not the case though; once you have selected “D”, the bike still sits at the ready, waiting for you to turn you brain off and just ride the bike. In drive, the bike wants to shift up all the time and if your not use to it, it does become annoying in traffic.

Most of the riders including myself switched to “Sport” in traffic just to hold the revs longer, as we would on a normal motorcycle. The “D” experience is very clunky from stoplight to stoplight. The transmission made several questionable noises trying to shift to soon and then back down that we can only assume are normal, but not confidence inspiring.

Once out on the road, the DCT shifts almost seem transparently…when you’re not gunning the engine. It is amazing how quiet and easy the bike is to get around the inner city of Santa Barbara. Riding the VFR you constantly have to remind yourself that you are riding a 1237cc motorcycle and not a scooter; because without having to commit your mind to shifting, the VFR is a snap to ride. Should you want to manually operate the shifting, it’s as easy as going to the left-side handlebar controls where the shift up is a quick finger pull and shift down is a thumb press. Don’t be surprised if you hit the horn by accident the first couple times. To re-engage into an automatic mode it’s a quick right hand finger pull.

For little stints we were able to try the VFR in ”Sport” mode versus ”Manual” mode at a more aggressive pace. This was actually a pleasurable experience, and the bike becomes predictable in its automatic shifting. And as far as we could tell, we never hit too low a gear for a mid-corner scare. In fact the bike would shift in mid-corner at a lean and due to the fact the bike shifts so smoothly and quickly we barely even noticed. You experience a ”did that just happen?” moment, knowing fully that you would have thought twice about doing that on a manual transmission without proper clutch control.

Gunning the bike in drive is a lackluster event, it almost seems that the VFR chooses whether or not to shift down depending on if the machine felt like it or not. This leaves you hoping that whatever you are trying to get around the VFR can torque down appropriately for. When in “Sport” mode the bike would readily down shift gear by gear until you were satisfied or redlining to speed; much more how the typical rider would like it. And as you would imagine in “Manual” mode it shifts quickly to your demands…in a split second no less. We believe that most people would just leave the VFR in “Sport” mode, and every once in awhile manage a downshift for extra engine braking, or for pure amusement in almost all riding situations.

Bang for the buck, is the DCT worth the extra $1500? The DCT had a wow factor as we rode it, both in the technological feat and we didn’t feel like anything was taken away from our riding enjoyment. We began thinking of how would this option be best used.

The dual-clutch transmission would definitely be a great way for handicapped riders who want to be on the road, but are tired of modifying bikes to fit their lifestyles. DCT also gives the ability for riders who don’t want to deal with clutch control but still want to ride a real motorcycle in a spirited and controlled manner, which as anyone who has sat in L.A. traffic will tell you, stop-and-go traffic on a manual transmission is a slow death by hand fatigue. At $1500 the option seems like a value it if these are your criteria.

Should the DCT become a cross-platform option is another interesting dynamic, especially in performance-oriented machines. Due to the current weight DCT adds to the bike you would be essentially adding some pounds to the motorcycle in exchange for a feature that could instead be achieved with a quick shift kit. Plus, with so many riders having a different style of shift points and engine-braking needs, the DCT would have to have a dynamic number of options to run a track in any mode other than “Manual”.

Yet again it’s a pragmatic decision: would A&R rather throw its leg around the DCT or the manual VFR1200F permanently? To us it’s not the toughest call, while we saw the benefits of the DCT and thoroughly enjoyed riding it; we still come back to the purity of riding a manual. We see the DCT as more of a novelty, an option for those who want to try a new technology. Those who don’t want to use the clutch. At A&R we don’t’ see the benefit of having the DCT for us yet. That doesn’t mean at some point we might gripe that we didn’t go for DCT option, or succumb to the fact that we’ll have to adapt because it is a future of motorcycling, but that day isn’t today for us.