2010 Honda VFR1200F - MR. Sophisticated

Honda builds an automatic for the sportbike people

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing

Nothing offends hardcore sport riders more than automatic transmissions. They see something sacred in manipulating clutch and shift levers in perfect synchronicity, demonstrating their mastery over a high-performance machine. At the same time, MotoGP and Superbike racers-the best riders in the world-use quick-shifters to circumvent their clutches, while Formula 1 drivers employ paddle-shifters to the same effect. Clearly, automatic shifting is not just for scooters anymore.

For purists who absolutely can't imagine life sans clutch levers, Honda offers its new VFR1200F with a smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission and an effective slipper clutch. Anyone else will be interested in the VFR's optional Dual Clutch automatic transmission (DCT), which shifts with precision and speed reminiscent of an F1 racecar.

This is not a continuously variable transmission (CVT), or even a hopped-up version of the Human-Friendly Transmission found in Honda's DN-01. It's essentially a six-speed manual gearbox equipped with a pair of synchronized clutches, just like what's used in F1. There is no clutch or shift lever on the DCT bike. The rider chooses between fully automatic shifting (with two available drive modes), or semi-automatic, with trigger-shifting that lets him independently select shift points.

We sampled both manual and automatic versions of the VFR1200F at Japan's Sugo Circuit. We first rode the DCT VFR in full-auto D-mode, programmed to maximize fuel economy. D-mode shifts early and often and was too conservative for even moderate track riding, but it did reveal the DCT transmission's basic characteristics. Shifts in D-mode are announced with a fair amount of mechanical noise, but are otherwise imperceptible. Gear changes happen almost instantaneously (just under .5-second), and with only the slightest sensation of chassis movement.

Pushing a lever on the right switch housing to engage S-mode (drive mode can be changed on the fly) unleashes an entirely different animal. S-mode goes deeper into the rev range before engaging the next gear-how deep depends on throttle position, gear position, engine speed, wheel speed and more. At wide-open throttle, shifts come just shy of the 10,200-rpm redline, at what we assume is the engine's power peak. Increased mechanical inertia makes high-rpm shifts in S-mode smoother, quieter and quicker than D-mode, making the VFR1200F race forward with an urgent-yet-calm character unprecedented in sportbikes.

The third mode, confusingly called Manual, lets the rider select the shift points using triggers on the left switch housing. An index-finger trigger upshifts, while a thumb trigger downshifts. There is no automatic override-forget to upshift and you'll bump the rev-limiter and stay there. Trigger-shifting does provide a more satisfying level of rider interaction, but the system was occasionally clumsy to use. The tiny thumb trigger was easily confused with the horn, though that would probably be less of an issue with more saddle time.

I ultimately preferred the full-auto S-mode, because it worked so incredibly well. Not once all day did the bike shift at an inconvenient moment. Moving up or down the gearbox, at full or part throttle, the DCT was remarkably intuitive and always seemed to detect the right gear. The only discrepancy I detected was on aggressive corner entries. I downshifted earlier on the manual-transmission bike to use more engine braking-though this could say more about my dependence on modern slipper clutches than any deficiency.

The DCT makes an overwhelming impression, but it's not the only noteworthy element of the VFR1200F. The rest of this bike is all-new as well, and represents a radical departure from any earlier-generation VFR. Formerly a middle-displacement, do-it-all sportbike, this latest Viffer benefits from a 50 percent displacement increase (from 781 to 1237cc) and a full redesign that makes it bigger, faster and more comfortable than ever before.

The 76-degree V4 incorporates many MotoGP-inspired innovations to make it more compact and powerful. A carefully calculated firing interval and asymmetrical exhaust system produce a broad power profile perfectly suited to the longer-legged character of the new bike. Honda hasn't yet divulged any numbers, but output feels close enough to power-rich competitors like the BMW K1300S. Low-end thrust is especially abundant (90 percent of peak torque is said to be available at 4000 rpm), while the V4's characteristic high-rev rush is amplified with greater displacement, easily spinning the Dunlop Roadsmart rear tire away from many corners. It sounds healthy, too-even through that galactic megaphone exhaust.

Surprisingly, the new engine is shorter and narrower than the previous 781cc V4, thanks to extreme mass centralization, a unique cylinder configuration and the Unicam valvetrain. The more compact engine is mounted lower and farther forward to make for a roomier cockpit, a narrower midsection and an easier reach to the ground. The sculpted fairing routes airflow well over your shoulders. The saddle-made using a new process that bonds the cover directly to the foam to allow more complex shapes-is very supportive. There's lots of legroom, though this costs cornering clearance as the pegs touched very early at the racetrack.

While the racetrack was the best place to experience the DCT transmission's high-performance prowess, the VFR1200F was somewhat out of its element. With over 60 inches separating its axles and a 613-pound curb weight, you won't confuse it with a CBR. It was a bear to flip through Sugo's wicked-tight chicane, and it didn't respond well to being snapped into corners-problematic, since such a long and low machine demands you square-off the entries.

We left Sugo dreaming of a proper street ride that would let us better appreciate the VFR1200F's newfound strengths-as well as a DCT-equipped CBR1000RR for the racetrack! American Honda officials promised a stateside street ride soon, after which we'll be able to deliver a more adequate assessment of the VFR's aptitude.

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