2010 Honda VFR1200F DCT first ride review

Face it – automatic bikes don’t have a great reputation. Has Dual Clutch Technology changed all that? Shall we find out?

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There are some things that even nostalgia can’t fix: double-denim, the mullet, Hondamatic. No matter which way you look at it, there was no excuse for any of them.

Honda’s semi-automatic gearbox technology was designed for cars but introduced for bikes in 1976 with the CB750A and it was a disaster, paving the way for a universal loathing of automatic gearboxes that lasts to this day.

The Hondamatic gearbox featured two gears, so progress was at best, sluggish even with a 750cc engine. There was no clutch lever, but there was a gear lever so you’d still select the gear with your left boot; the action was much like that of a Honda C90.

Automatic gear changing questioned your masculinity. The Hondamatic failed to appeal to rough tough ’70s bikers who liked their gearboxes full of gears, their gear changes manual and their clutch levers present and correct.

Hondamatic fizzled out in 1983, after Honda launched a series of smaller capacity machines using a parallel-twin 400cc engine. The technology was the same and they were never accepted.

It wasn’t until 2006 that a mainstream manufacturer made another attempt to bring automatic to the people. Yamaha’s flagship sports tourer, the FJR1300AE featured semi-automatic transmission based around a manual gearbox. It was called Yamaha Chip Controlled Shift (YCC-S). A computer controlled clutch and push-button gearshift replaced the clutch lever.

The trouble with the FJR1300AE is that it took off where Hondamatic left and didn’t introduce enough technology to make people stop and take notice.

It was technology for technology’s sake and was never well received by the press. The FJR1300AE was crucified for hampering low speed control. Like the Hondamatic, it’s semi-automatic gear shifting solved a problem that no-one had. We still liked changing gear ourselves. We may not have been as smooth as a computer microchip, but it added to the involvement. The FJR1300AE appealed to a minority but left most first-time riders feeling cold.

Sometimes we’re guilty of just not liking change but other times change is met with the right amount of cynicism. Over 30 years after introducing Hondamatic, Honda hasn’t just dipped its toe back in the murky pool of automated gear changing, they’ve dived in at the deep end. And had to – Honda started it.

Despite Honda claiming its new VFR1200F with Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) is electronic manual transmission, it’s an automatic.

Honda only has itself to blame for the negative thoughts that spring to mind with that one word, automatic. That’s a shame because this new technology really is worth your attention and definitely worth trying out.

Dual Clutch Transmissions are used in the world of cars, first developed by Porsche’s racing division in the ’80s, it was first used on a production car in ’03 on the Golf R32 MkIV.

DCT uses an independent clutch for odd and even gears. The first clutch manages gears 1, 3 and 5, while the second clutch manages gears 2,4 and 6. In first gear the engine’s torque is applied through the first clutch, 2nd gear is pre-selected but not yet engaged. The engine’s torque is applied to 2nd gear via the second clutch as the first gear is disengaged and so this continues through the gearbox. This allows the engine to maintain revs and therefore the same output, allowing seamless gear changes with minimal interruption to the drivetrain.

What’s so impressive about this technology is its size. For a system developed in cars where space is abundant, Honda’s DCT is light and compact  – only adding 10kg to the overall weight of a stock VFR1200F. Not a bad effort at all.

The DCT works in three modes, Drive, Sport and Manual. Drive and Sport are fully-automatic and Manual isn’t quite the fully-manual you’re used to. Instead, you change gear with your thumb and finger on the left handlebar. After all, with no clutch lever, you’ve got to give your left hand something to do.

When you first start out on the DCT VFR, everything feels alien. There’s no clutch lever to pull in when you fire the bike up, no dropping the bike into gear with your left foot. You have to release the rear ‘handbrake’ on the left handlebar, rev the bike slightly and it drops into 1st gear with a familiar clunk.

In Drive mode, think of that ’90s Mercedes taxi that ferried you from the Greek airport on your holidays and you’d be close. The DCT changes up with remarkable pace even before you’ve reached half revs. It’s mission is to keep it calm, keep things smooth. Relax, you’re not in a hurry. By 40mph you’re in top gear, which is a strange feeling but the torquey 1200 motor handles it well.

But Drive mode isn’t the best test of this DCT, Sport mode is. Pulling away in Sport mode, the motor drives all the way to the redline, then like a magician’s card trick, it deals you 2nd gear, then moments later, 3rd. This is progress. Rapid progress. Meanwhile your left leg’s feeling inadequate and left out.

Cruising on the motorway in Sport mode at around 80mph, the DCT’s selected 4th gear, normally by this time I’d have gone straight into top. But Honda knows best and it clings onto 4th for a good few hundred metres before it quickly grabs 5th then 6th. Right on the moment it selects 6th gear, I crack open the throttle trying to catch the DCT out, but it hops down to 4th as quick as I could, and the motor piles on the revs, building speed through 4th, then wringing every last drop out of 5th before slotting 6th in at around 120mph. It’s impressive.

As good as the automatic mode is, it’s hard not to feel claustrophobic on the DCT VFR. There are times when it selects a gear you’d rather not be in and to get around this can you select Manual mode. In this mode you change up and down the box using your left thumb and forefinger. It’s remarkably easy, proper Playstation stuff. You can bang gears in at the twitch of a finger and when shifting down, the engine blips to match the revs. It won’t hand you a gear on the way down unless the engine can cope with it, so you can’t go from 6th to 2nd at 140mph on the motorway.

The £1000 additional cost of DCT is an absolute bargain when you consider the technology involved, but if you’re perfectly happy with what you’re used to, it doesn’t make any sense to plump for DCT. It’s for the technology must-haves, those first with the flatscreen, the ice-making fridge and obviously those without a left leg.

Everyone’s got a different opinion of DCT, this really is a bike you need to ride to form your own. But forget Hondamatic, it’s not even close.

2010 Honda VFR1200F DCT Specifications

Price £12,596
Engine 1237cc, 16 valves, liquid-cooled, V-four
Bore & stroke 81mm x 60mm Compression ratio 12:1
Power 175bhp at 10,000rpm Torque 95ft/lbs at 8,750rpm
Front suspension 43 mm telescopic forks Adjustment Preload & rebound damping 
Rear suspension Pro-Link monoshock Adjustment Preload and rebound
Front brakes Six-piston Nissin calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake Twin-piston Nissin caliper, 276mm disc
Wet weight 267kg (588lbs) Seat height 815mm Fuel capacity 18.5-litres
Colour options Silver/Black, White/Black, Red/Black