2009 Aprilia Mana 850 | Review

Automatic Mana 850

There is a constant tension in the world between Futurists and Luddites. Some of us are early adopters-never waiting for new technology to be proven, we are willing beta testers. Others are content to wait until all the bugs have been exterminated and the mature product is ready for safe consumption. Enter the 2009 Aprilia Mana 850.

Automatic transmissions have suffered from false starts in the past-few look back on the Hondamatics of the 1980s with fondness-as well as the entrenched perception that eschewing clutches and shifting is inexpert or, heaven forbid, feminine. Yamaha’s auto-clutch system on the otherwise-excellent FJR1300 left us unconvinced, and Honda is trying again with its self-described "crossover" DN-01.

Aprilia, however, is tackling the automatic transmission conundrum a bit differently. The 2009 Aprilia Mana 850 takes a scooter-style belt-and-pulley transmission, albeit with advanced technology, and mates it to a high-performance motorcycle engine and chassis. The result is beguiling.

Once a motorcyclist realizes the Mana sports an automatic transmission, eyebrows are raised and the dreaded S-word is invoked. Despite its trellis frame, radial front discs, and racy, angular styling, they cannot get away from thinking "scooter" due to its constantly variable automatic transmission. That is, of course, until they ride it.

To be sure, riding the Mana is unlike piloting its cousin, the highly regarded Shiver 750. It does share a similar chassis-though the Shiver’s suspension is certainly sportier-and the well-received choice of power mappings (sport, touring and rain). Still, it is that lack of left hand lever that changes everything.

Unlike a scooter, which uses springs and weights to mechanically control the belt-and-pulley transmission as it constantly adjusts to load and rider demand, the Aprilia Mana’s CVT (constantly variable transmission) is actuated by an electric motor-a significant leap forward. The presence of electronics also gives the rider the choice to turn the automatic into a pseudo seven-speed tranny-actually, just seven preset locations on the CVT-which can be shifted with your left foot, or a dance of your left thumb (upshift) and index finger (downshift).

But, let’s get the Mana’s seemingly appealing auto-clutch, seven-speed option out of the way first, as it is something of a gimmick. Far from a traditional gear and manual clutch transmission, the manual-shift option only allows you to prevent upshifting past the selected ratio, or downshift a little bit more quickly (though the automatic clutch negates most engine compression braking). The catch is that the servo will not let you upshift or downshift too soon. That is quite all right-if you want a motorcycle with gears and a manual clutch, the Shiver is sitting right next to the Mana on the Aprilia showroom floor.

Appraised on its own terms, which is how any motorcycle should be evaluated, the Aprilia Mana 850 is nothing short of revolutionary. The execution of the automatic transmission-called Auto Drive by Aprilia-is virtually flawless, though it does require some input from the rider. Most critical is pushing a button to select the proper engine performance mode for the task at hand.

For all-around riding, the Aprilia Mana 850 Tour mode is the most versatile. It allows for rushing around town as the 850cc V-twin has plenty of power and the transmission delivers it effectively. Acceleration from a stop will be unfamiliar if you have never ridden a scooter. Twist the throttle and the revs rise to a specific engine speed, then the Mana’s velocity increases, though the rpm remains constant. Because the tranny does not rely on springs and weights, CVT lag is eliminated, so the motor feels unusually connected to the rear wheel-it is truly twist-and-go.

Only once in countless hours of testing was I able to extract an error from the transmission. In that single unrepeatable instance, I went from trailing throttle to wide open, with an unexpected lag resulting. Otherwise, the performance was flawless.

What looks like a fuel tank is, instead, a large carrying compartment, making the Mana a superb commuter bike. If a scooter had crossed your mind as a good way to get to work, but you had issues with styling and performance, the Mana is the reconciliation of your quandary. Optional side bags add the storage needed for local touring, but they are not tucked in enough for braving the narrow confines of city traffic. In fact, the transmission would be a perfect touring platform, as it induces no fatigue.

The Aprilia Mana 850 Sport mode causes the engine to settle in at a higher rpm-making use of the horsepower peak, rather than the torque peak. Off-the-line acceleration is almost startlingly rapid, and there is no interruption for clutching and shifting.

As you would expect, the Sport mode is the choice for canyon carving. However, riding the Aprilia Mana 850 quickly requires adopting the proper mindset. Your riding must be as unrelentingly smooth as the transmission.

While the radial brakes are strong, engine compression braking is minimal. Keep your entry speed up, and exploit the fact that the Mana’s chassis is never disrupted by gear changes, so you can gain speed in unexpected circumstances. The plush suspension cannot fairly be described as soft, but it is not the firm suspension of pure sport bikes, so smooth trumps abrupt. Unquestionably, the Mana is not as sport-capable as the Shiver, but a rider who makes the effort to learn the system can make good time in the canyons.

On the downside, the Sport mode is unsuited to freeway cruising. The Mana becomes buzzy and the transmission incessantly hunts, making for a distracting ride. Switch to the appropriate Tour mode and the misbehavior vanishes. If precipitation hits the road, make a prudent switch to the traction-enhancing Rain mode. Ready or not, time marches on, and the Aprilia Mana 850 is a welcome part of the future of motorcycling. We probably will not see clutch-free sport bikes accepted until MotoGP riders start winning with them-just as F1 drivers are doing-but we will see a day when a manual clutch is viewed as a quaint, obsolete implement.

2009 Aprilia Mana 850: Riding Style
Helmet: Arai RX-7 Corsair
Jacket and gloves: Dainese
Pants: Hein Gericke Speedy
Boots: TCX Airtech XCR Gore-Tex

Photography by Don Williams