As a sport motorcycle aficionado I have always believed that a manual transmission is better than an automatic, but that’s because no automatic transmission had given us the control that a superbike needs. Controlling the drive of a powerful motorcycle-especially at the apex of a corner when coming back on to the throttle-requires such precision feel that any tiny, incremental change at the right wrist must be felt at the rear wheel.
In other words, for every revolution of the crankshaft, a corresponding change happens at the tire. So, scooter type transmissions (whether Human Friendly, belt/pulley, or any of the other myriad options) are not an option for sport bike riders. But what if there was a "manual" transmission that shifted automatically? Would you consider it?
Paradoxical that question may be, but unsurprisingly perhaps, the engineers at Honda have provided the answer in their new Honda VFR1200F. I can hear the howls of protest already, but I can tell you that the new VFR’s automatic transmission works so well that I predict it will be offered-and accepted-on their CBR superbike range of motorcycles before long.
But, there is more to the new VFR than simply an automatic transmission. An American and a European complemented the three Japanese members of the new Honda VFR1200F’s design team. Guided by Kishi-san (the man behind Honda’s Blackbird CBR1100XX), the designers were told to imagine waking up on a perfect day and impulsively deciding to ride 300 miles, effortlessly devouring large stretches of highway before carving through some twisty canyon roads, and then riding home again.
The Honda VFR1200F team began sketching their ideas in a remote hotel outside Rome, and then headed back to Tokyo to distill those multiple rough drawings into one; European designer Teofilo Plaza described the six-month process as one of the most intense and passionate efforts of his life. The freethinking execution of the design team has produced something extraordinary, and Honda has some 100 new patents pending to prove it. The new VFR is a sports motorcycle created for the experienced pilot who rides hard, rides far, and rides often.
A technological marvel that comes in two flavors, the VFR1200 is either a standard transmission version with a conventional (slipper) clutch and six-speed gearbox, or a high-tech version with the aforementioned automatic-shifting Dual-Clutch Transmission (DCT) straight out of Formula 1. The VFR1200 is no lightweight, and the comfortable riding position and shaft-drive imply the VFR is a sport-tourer. Conversely, the somewhat small 4.9-gallon gas tank, mildly aggressive riding stance, sport windshield and high footpegs thrust it into the sport side of the segment. Proving the point, the VFR acquitted itself impeccably around the Sugo racetrack in Japan. Make no mistake; the VFR is truly a sporting machine.
In reality, the VFR1200 is a "street sport" motorcycle-if you usually find yourself on one-day rides, sometimes with a passenger, on well-paved roads with some serious twisties, then the VFR is ideal for you. If your adventures occasionally take you further afield, then Honda can perfectly equip the VFR for those rides, too, thanks to optional color-matched hard bags, and a rear trunk with backrest. Additional touring accessories include extra wind deflectors on the screen and fairing sides, dual-element heated grips (so that your fingers get more warmth than your palms), rear tire hugger, and accessory power plug.
At a claimed 591 pounds wet (or 612 pounds for the DCT version) the Honda VFR1200 is around 150 pounds heavier than any typical liter-bike track weapon. However, the Honda’s weight has been so well centralized that its handling feels neutral and graceful when turning into corners. The 43mm male-slider fork is adjustable for both spring preload and rebound damping; the gas-charged rear shock has the same adjustability.
On our brief road test on the streets surrounding Sugo, the VFR1200F suspension felt firm yet compliant. For such a capable sporting motorcycle, I was impressed that on very bumpy roads the motorcycle was comfortable and the suspension coped well. The VFR changed direction quickly and intuitively, and on the track it handled the technical sections with sufficient effortless ease that I found my knee touching down in several corners-no problem at all.
Immediate impressions of the VFR1200 are of a technically sophisticated, premium quality machine built with exacting attention to detail. The futuristic dual layer fairing that melds organically into the gas tank seems a little awkward in pictures. However, up close and personal, I really liked the VFR’s cohesively flowing, high-tech design that is already starting to make other machines look a little dated. Honda’s new paint process, developed at its Kumamoto plant, gives a deeper and more uniform color coating with a luxurious shine that blows away normal production machine standards. Looking at this motorcycle, I found myself thinking Acura, not Honda.
When first astride the VFR, the leaned-into-the-wind riding stance has a relatively high footpeg placement and a firm-yet-comfortable seat that uses a new process to bond the cover to the seat foam. This allows a more precise perch, as well as an attractive sculpted look that integrates well with the rest of the machine. Honda’s accessory department also offers a luxury Alcantara seat cover and a lower, narrower seat for those who need less than the 32-inch standard height.
The bright airy cockpit contains an instrument cluster that is elegant and easy to read, with a large LCD gear position readout that works even in automatic mode on the DCT, and the bars fall naturally to hand. Because the motor is configured with the rear-facing cylinders inboard of the forward-facing pair, the engine is at its narrowest where the rider sits, so the riding position is compact with the gas tank rising up nicely in front of the rider. The old cliché of sitting "in" rather than "on" the bike is very appropriate here.
The VFR feels simultaneously secure and sporting, without the fatiguing crouch that you are forced into on a superbike. Rubber-covered footpegs are positioned high enough for track use; although the peg feelers touched down occasionally, I was surprised it did not happen more often. I like where the footrests are placed, though distance riders may prefer to have a little more compromise built into the foot positioning. Honda does not offer adjustable pegs as an option, so I suspect the aftermarket will produce something to satisfy what will surely be in demand.
The 76-degree 1237cc V-four engine is astonishingly compact, and the 28-degree phased crankshaft eliminates primary vibration entirely. The irregular firing intervals give the motor a pleasantly deep, offbeat growling exhaust note similar to a BMW Boxer twin at low revs, but once the revs climb and the exhaust valve opens up, the V-four takes on a satisfying MotoGP-type howl.
Honda’s CRF motocrossers first used the Unicam valvetrain, which was cleverly designed to reduce size and save space on a relatively low-revving engine. The intake valves are operated directly by a single chain-driven camshaft that also controls the exhaust valves via a forked, low-friction, roller-bearing rocker arm arrangement that enables the narrow V angle. The asymmetrical exhaust lengths between the front and rear cylinders and ride-by-wire fueling contribute to the enormous 95 ft/lbs of torque and 167 peak horsepower (claimed).
No doubt about it, the Honda VFR1200 feels hugely powerful; consider that it produces some 90-percent of that monster torque output at only 4000 rpm, yet the engine redlines at 10,200. So, do not be fooled by the deceptively easy-riding nature of the VFR and its linear power delivery; there are more than enough beans to ensure maximum respect, and I was well aware of potential highsides. Exiting Sugo’s gnarly, slow chicane, I realized I could stay in second gear and simply power up the hill. But on one lap the rear Dunlop Roadsmart tire objected and the rear pushed out; it was nice and predictable as Dunlop tires tend to be, but I was definitely surprised by the amount of low-down power available.
All this grunt reaches the rear wheel via a single-sided swingarm containing a next generation shaft drive. I had to remind myself to mention the final drive here because it is so imperceptible to the rider that it’s easy to forget it is there. An offset shaft with a vertically expanding pivot and sliding CV joint minimize any variations in length during the rear wheel’s arc of travel. Four shaft dampers plus a clutch damper absorb any backlash, making the final drive as transparent to the rider as a chain.
This brings us to the most interesting option in the VFR1200F’s arsenal-Honda’s automatic six-speed Dual Clutch Transmission. This technology is used in several serious sports cars, including BMW’s M3, Nissan’s GT-R, several Porsche and Audi models, and the upcoming Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. Certainly, the technology is well proven, and Honda’s ability to compact the system enough to be suitable for a sport bike is a remarkable accomplishment.
Unlike the usual car slush-box or CVT scooter-type transmission, the Honda DCT’s use of traditional toothed gears between the engine and the final drive means minimal power loss, instant and precise throttle response, and useful engine braking. In other words, it has all the advantages and feel of a traditional drive train-without you having to actually change gears.
As the name implies, two separate clutches are computer synched together. The gearbox is essentially separated into two, with one clutch operating the odd numbered gears (1,3, and 5) and the other clutch operating the even-numbered ratios (2,4, and 6). While one clutch supplies drive to the rear wheel, the other has the next gear pre-selected, ready to seamlessly take over power as soon as the computer (or rider) triggers it. The key for the automation is to time the gear changes perfectly; as any experienced rider knows, it is all about being in the right gear at the right time. Honda claims an actual shift time of less than a half-second, so it is much quicker and smoother than us old schoolers who are still pulling clutch levers and clicking foot shifters.
Naturally, on the DCT there is no handlebar lever and all clutch action is computer controlled. A right side thumb switch toggles between three operating modes: fully automatic D mode for regular operation, S mode for sport riding, and a Manual shift mode. On the left handlebar, an index finger pull switch activates upshifts, and a thumb button handles downshifts. Modes can be changed on the fly, and using any left switch instantly actuates manual mode.
Clutch control is flawless, with none of the low-speed uncertainty that plagues Yamaha’s FJR1300AE. Clicking into D at a standstill gives the familiar clunk identical to engaging first on a conventional transmission. The lack of clutch lever is a little unnerving at first, but opening the throttle a crack simply moves the VFR off the line without drama. There is no disconcerting low-speed disengagement of drive in typical parking lot U-turns where a bit of adroit clutch manipulation is usually needed. I was able to weave and twist the Honda at walking pace-feet up-without a problem.
Moving out of Sugo’s pit lane in D meant the computer had moved the transmission into fifth gear before I had even reached the racing surface. The default mode is set for maximum fuel economy and, although that’s good for the street, it is unsuitable for maximum corner exit speed at the track.
Switching to S (sport) mode, I was impressed-make that astounded-by the ability of the electronics to ensure the correct gear at the right time. It was truly amazing. The throttle can be finessed as usual and accelerating out of slow corners and barreling down Sugo’s back straight felt absolutely normal-except that the ensuing full-throttle upshifts happened so smoothly and quickly, just below redline, that they were all but imperceptible to the rider.
Hard on the Honda ABS brakes for the hairpin at the bottom of the hill, the DCT blipped the throttle slightly with each perfectly timed downshift, with the resultant engine braking helping slow everything down. Then, exiting the hairpin in second gear used the engine’s monster torque for a jet turbine-like exit; not once did the gearbox unexpectedly change down while banked over in a turn.
Perhaps in a racing situation I would have selected one lower gear to be nearer to peak power, but the almost perfect gear ratio selection was, nevertheless, extremely impressive. Because the DCT is so much smoother than any manual transmission, it was a big advantage on long sweepers where hard on-throttle upshifts were accomplished without any chassis upset at all.
The price tag for the conventional transmission on the 2010 Honda VFR1200F is the same as the long-in-the-tooth ST1300 and the newer DN-01, making it appear to be quite a bargain. The DCT version pricing has yet to be announced and Honda will only import a limited number to gauge market reaction. I hope it will be competitive, as the automatic transmission’s behavior is so transparent that it is a credible alternative. The DCT was somewhat of an epiphany for me and has forced me to (reluctantly, I admit) re-evaluate my opinion of automatic motorcycles. Yes, I would buy one.
2010 Honda VFR1200F Specifications – Manual Model MSRP $15,995
|Model:||VFR1200F / VFR1200F with Dual Clutch Automatic Transmission|
|Engine Type:||1237cc liquid-cooled 76° V-4|
|Bore and Stroke:||81mm x 60mm|
|Valve Train:||SOHC; four valves per cylinder|
|Induction:||PGM-FI with automatic enrichment circuit, 44mm throttle bodies
and 12-hole injectors
|Ignition:||Digital transistorized with electronic advance|
|Transmission:||Six-speed (VFR1200F) / Six-speed automatic with two modes and
manual mode (VFR1200F with Dual Clutch Automatic Transmission)
|Suspension:||Front: 43mm cartridge fork with spring preload adjustability;
4.7 inches travel
Rear: Pro Arm single-side swingarm with Pro-Link® single gas-charged
shock with remote spring preload adjustability and rebound damping
adjustability; 5.1 inches travel
|Brakes:||Front: Dual full-floating 320mm discs with CBS six-piston
calipers with ABS
Rear: Single 276mm disc with CBS two-piston caliper with ABS
|Tires||Front: 120/70 ZR17 radial
Rear: 190/55 ZR17 radial
|Wheelbase:||60.8 inches (1545mm)|
|Rake (Caster angle):||25°30’|
|Trail:||101.0mm (4.0 inches)|
|Seat Height:||32.1 inches (815mm)|
|Fuel Capacity:||4.9 gallons|
|Curb Weight*:||591 pounds (VFR1200F) / 613 pounds (VFR1200F with Dual Clutch
*Includes all standard equipment, required fluids and full tank of
fuel–ready to ride.
Meets current CARB and EPA standards.
Specifications subject to change.