God help me love Honda automatic transmission for motorcycles

The appeal of motorcycles is simplicity. A sleek machine that propels you through wind and inclement weather, there to experience all the joy and agony of high-speed travel rushing against you. Modern automobiles are moving us further and further away from the mechanical acts of driving; a motorbike draws you close.

That’s why I’m so baffled by Honda’s dual-clutch automatic transmission. It’s a technology I should absolutely despise, but I’m totally in love.

Honda has been manufacturing dual-clutch motorcycles since 2010; the company also offers a similar gearbox in its ATVs and side-by-side utility vehicles. And Honda isn’t the only manufacturer to make automatic bikes: Yamaha offers a semi-automatic motorcycle with an automated clutch, and many scooters and scooter-type bikes offer CVTs. (Electric motorcycles are “automatic” in the sense that there is no gear shifting – they have a single speed and no clutch mechanism.)

But until this spring, I had never ridden any form of automatic motorcycle. Then I spent a Sunday visiting my friend Rob Doyle, who oversees the Honda motorcycle fleet for the New York area. For our day of riding, Rob arranged me with a new Africa Twin, the latest iteration of Honda’s legendary off-road adventure bike, with the optional $ 800 dual-clutch transmission.

Honda

The first few minutes on a DCT bike are weird. We must recalibrate to the reactivity of the thing. With any manual transmission vehicle, there is a fraction of a second delay between when you start to engage the clutch and when the vehicle begins to roll. With a little practice, you learn to anticipate this microscopic delay, so that you can drive smoothly without running out of gaps in traffic or honking your horn when the light turns green.

In some double-clutch cars, this delay is particularly pronounced. The latest generation automotive DCTs are much better, but at first it could seem like an eternity from when you hit the accelerator until the computer realized you needed the clutch engaged for the car is moving.

On the Africa Twin, I had the opposite problem. The bike starts to move at the nanosecond you turn the handle. There is no noticeable delay; the bike’s computer seamlessly engages the clutch with the smallest breath of throttle, without the burst of revs or clutch slippage to the pungent smell of some less refined DCTs. The first few times I pulled away from a stop, I jumped myself, the bike going just half a time ahead of schedule. It takes a minute to get used to riding without having to play the clutch-throttle balance game. It’s a bit like driving an electric car, where there is no delay for the clutches to engage or a torque converter to wind up. After three stop signs, I familiarized myself with the immediacy of the Africa Twin; from there it became a delight, making the bike super responsive and sharp.

The Africa Twin’s six-speed DCT offers four modes: Drive, Sport 1, Sport 2 and Sport 3. Left in Drive mode, the bike rises obsessively, maintaining revs well below 3000 in calm cruising. The big 1084cc parallel-twin has no trouble motivating the bike at those low revs, but it’s certainly not the liveliest way to ride. I found Sport 2 to be the sweet spot, with higher waypoints that mimicked the way I would pick gears quite closely. The engine sounds good, throaty and muscular, and kept around 4000 rpm, it’s nice and lively.

2020 Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin Adventure Sports SE
Left handle. Note the downshift toggle at the bottom. The gear change lever is located under your index finger.

Honda

2020 Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin Adventure Sports SE
Right grip, with buttons for automatic / manual mode, neutral and driving mode selection.

Honda

Of course, you can manually move the DCT. Honda automatic bikes do not have a clutch lever or foot control; instead, you get toggles on the left grip, moving up with your index finger and downshifting with your thumb. At first I played with the seesaws pretty much endlessly, just like I did the first few times I drove a dual-clutch sports car when this technology was new. Instant gear changes and uninterrupted power are a fun new addition to conventional clutch and shifter bikes. Honda’s motorcycle brochure says, “Have you ever hit a helmet with your passenger when changing gears? That won’t happen with a DCT.” I only rode the Africa Twin solo, but every shift went smoothly. And with the Africa Twin intended for off-road adventure, the dual clutch does the trick: imagine how much easier it would be to navigate difficult, technical terrain at low speeds without having to worry about slipping too much. clutch or ride. back on a climb.

But after a few minutes I let the DCT move. It made driving easier, more enjoyable. Thanks to the outsourcing of gear selection, I was able to focus more on the fundamentals of driving: keeping my eyes open, looking through the curves, trusting my peripheral vision and staying alert and focused on everything. that surrounds me. I am still a relatively new rider, having taken up the hobby in my 30s. Gliding, fully focused on my speed and my line through the winding curves of a beautiful country road, it was easier to enter what sports psychologists call “the state of flux”, that feeling of being completely immersed in a task, energized by focus and the reward of doing a task well. This feeling is the reason we ride. DCT helped me get there and stay there.

2020 Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin Adventure Sports SE
The Africa Twin looks especially good in this red, white and blue livery with gold wheels.

Honda

I don’t think I’ll be buying an automatic motorcycle any time soon. On the one hand, the Africa Twin I has rolled stickers over $ 15,000; a fully optional model with DCT can be at a distance of $ 18,000. Honda offers the dual clutch on a handful of models, ranging from the NC750X at $ 8,900 at Premium Gold Wing that orders over $ 32,000. As a percentage of overall Honda bike sales, DCTs are a small subset, but as a mouthpiece told our sister post Autoweek Last year, more than half of Goldwing buyers choose the automatic, as well as a third of Africa Twin buyers.

For my own money and my driving habits, I’ll stick with a clutch lever and a foot shifter, at least for now. The mechanical purity, the feeling of connection with the machine, that’s why I ride. Modern automobiles are quickly moving away from the old standards we love – naturally aspirated engines and manual transmissions – and are replacing them with layer upon layer of insulation, filtration, and electronic safety nets. Raw mechanical purity endures in motorcycles. It is possible that the latest new manual transmission internal combustion vehicle will be a motorcycle, and that we will see it live and die in our lifetime.

But I’m thankful that motorcycle technology hasn’t become stagnant. Let the designers and engineers working on the next generation of two-wheeled transport not just dwell on the past. Honda’s dual-clutch motorcycle drivetrain is a wonderful achievement, that rare example of technological advancement that brings you closer to the sheer joy of motorcycling. If loving is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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About Todd Wurtsbach

Todd Wurtsbach

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