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Going auto on Honda's VFR1200FD

2011-12-07 12:12

BIRDS OF A FEATHER:The automatic Honda VFR1200FD is hard to distinguish from its manual counterpart - and either is a stunner!

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Johannesburg bikes correspondent DRIES VAN DER WALT hits the road on Honda's new VFR1200 FD - the one with the auto sequential gearbox - and comes home in love. Sort of...

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Honda
Model Honda VFR1200FD
Engine Four-cylinder, fuel-injected, quad-valve, four-stroke displacing 1237cc
Power 127kW @ 10 000rpm
Torque 129Nm @ 8750rpm
Transmission Six-speed auto/manual sequential, dual clutch, shaft drive
Fuel Tank 18.5 litres
Weight 267kg (kerb)
Front Suspension 43mm cartridge-type telescopic fork with stepless preload adjustment, 120mm axle travel
Rear Suspension Pro-link with gas-charged damper, 25-step (stepless remote-controlled hydraulic) preload and stepless rebound damping adjustment, 130mm axle travel
Price R169 999

DRIES VAN DER WALT

After my first experience with Honda’s dual-clutch VFR1200FD during the 'Women in Motorsport' event at Pretoria’s Zwartkops Raceway a friend remarked that automatic bikes may well be the way of the future. When Honda offered me an FD for a full review, I was keen to find out for myself...
 
Honda’s dual-clutch gearbox has, as the name suggests, two independent clutches driven by concentric shafts – one for the odd-numbered gears (1,3,5) and the other for the even-numbered gears (2,4,6). The two clutches operate alternately to effect gear changes. For example, when changing from first to second, the on-board electronics detect the up-shift and engage second, then releases the first-gear clutch while engaging the second-gear clutch to achieve a seamless gear change.

FAR TOO EAGER

The transmission has three operating modes: two full-auto (labelled D and S), and a six-speed manual mode via electronic trigger-shift controls. Like the auto gearboxes of cars the Honda box responds to throttle input, shifting sooner at small throttle openings and later at large ones. The D-mode is the economy programme and it shifts fairly quickly through the gears; S-mode is intended for sporty riding and holds a given gear longer before shifting up.
 
In practice I found D-mode far too eager to get to sixth and, once there, seemed intent on holding it until hell froze over. In town, at sane throttle openings, it would shift up rapidly and engage sixth at around 65km/h, with just over 2000rpm showing. It will shift down again if you suddenly open the throttle wide but this is not something you do a lot with a torquey 1200cc engine in rush-hour traffic.

OBVIOUS SOLUTION

The S-mode, on the other hand, tends to hold third indefinitely at urban speeds, making it also less suited for everyday riding. In both auto modes the bike downshifts as you decelerate to use engine braking, as you would do manually on a conventional bike.
 
The obvious solution is to revert to trigger-shift manual in traffic. It gives you a fair amount of autonomy over gear selection. Fair, but not complete: if you over-rev the bike will upshift unbidden, and if you try to downshift at high revs it will delay complying with your instruction until the engine is spinning slower.

SELECT-A-MATIC: Front button (top right) switches between manual and auto, the rear button (bottom left) toggles between D and S auto.

In all three modes, gearshifts at lower revs (at least up to third) are fairly jarring, but they smooth out considerably at higher revs. The shift from fifth to sixth in the second half of the rev range is virtually imperceptible; only the drop in revs confirms it happened. The trick to smooth changes, I found, was to keep the throttle open during upshifts and closed during downshifts – it may sound obvious, but is in fact not as intuitive as you might think.

THE TRUE TEST...

After my first few days of experimenting I effectively discarded D-mode as useless to me. I spent most of the review period riding in manual mode but I did find myself switching to S on occasion, such as when looking for an address in an unfamiliar area during rush-hour on a rainy day – the ability to switch to auto and have one less thing to worry about was very welcome then.

The true test for S-mode came during an impromptu drag race against a ZX-10. As we pulled off, I opened the throttle to the stopper and allowed the transmission to take care of things. The bike launched without any dramatics and the engine spun to the red line in every gear before upshifting. Although the Kawasaki  pulled away from me, he did so slower than expected – the VFR, even in auto mode, is clearly no slouch.
 
So, are dual-clutch transmissions the way of the future? My guarded opinion is "sort of..". While I didn’t particularly care for the auto modes, I definitely enjoyed the trigger-shift manual. I think a bit of tuning needs to be done to the auto programmes to make them more real-world usable but I would happily swop my own bike’s conventional gear change for a trigger-shift box.

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