Aprilia Mana - Shiftless Shiver

Return Of The Automatic Motorcycle

By Roland Brown, Photography by Milagro

What is the automatic-shifting Mana 850, an overgrown scooter or dumbed-down motorbike? That's the question I set out to answer during a test ride on a rainy afternoon in Italy. Every time a traffic light flashed red, I appreciated the Mana 850's automatic gearbox that made riding in town, especially on damp streets, effortless. And when we finally picked up the pace on some twisty back roads, it's more fun than any scooter. The Mana is, then, a machine that provides the best attributes of both scooters and motorcycles in one package.

The NA850 Mana (the name means "hand" in Italian) joins the SL750 Shiver in Aprilia's middleweight V-twin family. The Mana's 839cc, liquid-cooled, 90-degree V-twin is bolted to a steel trellis frame like the Shiver, with an inverted 43mm fork, 17-inch wheels and radial, four-pot front brake calipers. The aluminum swingarm operates a rear shock that sits diagonally on the left, ahead of the upswept single exhaust silencer.

Styling is slightly more conservative than the Shiver, but the fairly upright riding position, reasonably light weight and low seat all felt familiar. Scooter features begin with the dummy fuel tank lid that hinges up to reveal a storage compartment with room for a full-face helmet, plus a courtesy light, 12-volt charger and space for a cell phone. The passenger seat pivots to reveal the actual fuel tank filler cap.

More scooter evidence is the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), based on tech-nology originally developed by parent company Piaggio's scooter subsidiary, Gilera, which allows scooter-like "twist-and-go" operation. There's no clutch lever; just release the hand brake behind your left knee and you're off with the twist of your wrist. Should you desire more interactivity, there's the option of a seven-speed manual gear change.

The SOHC V-twin is softly tuned, producing a maximum of 76.1 horsepower-fully 20 bhp down on the Shiver's smaller-displacement, DOHC twin. It does, however, provide plenty of low-end grunt. Opening the light-action throttle sends the bike surging forward more urgently any scooter. A button on the right bar allows you to toggle among three power modes (Rain, Sport and Touring) to tailor power delivery in the Auto setting. Rain mode softens response slightly-fine in theory, but Aprilia has programmed it to provide little engine braking. This leaves you using the brakes more than normal-hardly ideal on slippery roads. Compared to the Touring mode, Sport gives some extra zip by revving higher. Ironically, both modes provided more engine braking and seemed better suited to wet roads than the Rain setting.

Out of the city the Mana is more than just an oversized scooter. Pressing and holding the button on the right bar moves the CVT into Manual mode, allowing you to flick up and down through seven ratios Tiptronic-style using thumb- and forefinger-operated buttons on the left bar. The Mana also shifts via the conventional shift lever, which feels strange without a clutch lever.

Manual shifting the Mana is like using a racebike's quick-shifter: Keep the throttle open and click through the gears to keep the motor in its sweet spot and send the Aprilia charging forward at a very respectable rate-quicker than a comparable motor with a conventional gearbox, claims the manufacturer. My only complaint was the way the transmission seemed to disengage at slow speeds, leaving the bike freewheeling into a couple of slippery downhill hairpins. Cornering was otherwise very good. Chassis geometry is a tad sharper than the Shiver, which provided light steering despite a slightly longer wheelbase, and though reasonably soft, the suspension gave a well-controlled ride.

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