Aprilia Mana 850 vs. Honda DN-01

Automatics For The People

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing, Motorcyclist Archives

Once you quit reaching for the clutch lever that isn't there, crack the central dash pod's Italian pretzel-logic and get down to business, Aprilia's Sportgear system is as easy as frozen Tiramisu. Twist the throttle and go. Though it can't match the Honda's fluid precision, and engine speed takes longer to catch up with the speedometer pulling away from a light, the computer-controlled, belt-drive CVT does a fine job of turning those 40 lb.-ft. of torque into thrust. More modes inject some confusion at first. Set off in Autodrive and you have your choice of three electronic maps: Touring, Sport and Rain. Sport generates a bit more sporting acceleration while Rain filters all the fun out of it, which makes Touring our pick for shiftless travel. Autodrive allows manual downshifts as long as you're not on the gas. In Manual mode, you move up or down through the seven virtual ratios via a pair of adjacent switches on the left bar or another switch disguised to look like a conventional shift lever. Either way, virtual shifts take longer on the Mana. It's marginally quicker in Manual mode, and there's a bit more engine braking than Autodrive can muster. Otherwise, holding a given ratio longer than the computer would produces more noise and vibration than anything else.

Honda's twin is smoother. On the flip side, it makes the Mana feel more like Max Biaggi's RSV4 World Superbike than a 55-horse commuter twin. Covering a quarter-mile of asphalt in 13.5 seconds, the Mana isn't what we'd call fast, but it is more than a second quicker than the heavier, less powerful Honda. Aside from its less capable brakes, the Mana delivers superior sporting performance regardless of how or where you measure it. Soft springs in the non-adjustable fork allow more chassis pitch than we'd like when you're hard on the brakes, and the sidestand drags prematurely in left-handers. No matter: The Honda's long wheelbase, lazy steering geometry and more limited cornering clearance add up to an unwilling sporting companion. On any stretch of twisty road, the Aprilia is like bringing a GAU-8 Gatling gun to a knife fight: no contest.

On the freeway, conventional ergonomics and a whole lot more legroom make the Mana a better choice for covering a few hundred miles. Fuel stops are 135-165 miles apart if you're careful versus the Honda's 110-135. And after assuming the DN-01's torturous ergonomics for 135 uninterrupted miles, you won't want to do it again. Both bikes are better suited to short hops than the long haul, but the Mana is much more receptive to bags and a small fairing than the Honda, which comes with exactly enough storage space for its owners manual and a pathetic excuse for a tool kit.

Despite differences outnumbering similarities, both bikes are aimed at someone who wants something that goes, stops and turns better than the average scooter, but doesn't want to deal with a conventional motorcycle clutch and gearbox-something of a minority in American showrooms, if our informal polling data is worth the cocktail napkins it's written on. If they pay any attention at all, those who have the clutch thing down will only notice the Mana if it's blocking their view of a Shiver or Dorsoduro.

Sexy? No: The Mana is a practical, versatile motorcycle that just happens to have an automatic transmission, while the DN-01 is an absolutely brilliant automatic transmission trapped in a cryptic design exercise. It's a rare piece, and interesting enough to draw a crowd, even in the technology-soaked gas stations of Southern California. But said crowds evaporate faster than spilled unleaded in July when you mention the Honda's $15,599 price of admission-$5700 more than the Aprilia. Two pumps down, the Mana attracts a different kind of attention: Some guy in a minivan wonders why you're pumping gas under the passenger seat while the H-D Softail lady wants to know how you're getting home without a clutch lever. It's certainly not for everybody, but seen through the right set of eyes, the Mana is almost beautiful.

Off The Record
Brian Catterson, Editor-In-Chief
Age: 47
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 215 lbs.
Inseam: 34 in.

As long as I've worked at motorcycle magazines (21 years now), I've tried to ride each and every testbike. Tough job, I know, but it's not easy when we're conducting multiple comparison tests simultaneously.

When these two automatics showed up, I was embroiled in our August issue's "Summer of Love" chopper comparo. Until late one night, when I'd had enough "chopperflop" negotiating the mean streets of Hell A, I threw a leg over the Mana-and didn't get off it for two weeks.

While I've always appreciated the utilitarian aspect of scooters, there's a stigma attached. Not so the Mana: It's a scooter in disguise. Only keen observers will note the missing clutch lever or the trunk lid that resides where the fuel filler cap would ordinarily be. I'm not saying I'd have one as my one and only, but it's at the top of my list for an inner-city commuter.

The DN-01 is exactly the opposite: It's a scooter masquerading as a motorcycle-and at the absolute bottom of my list. High-tech transmission or not, Soichiro must be rolling over in his grave.

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