Honda’s Automatic DN-01
Lurking somewhere deep within the typically serene Honda psyche is a desire to startle, and the Honda DN-01 is the latest unexpected eruption from the most remote corners of the Honda corporate mind. It is the kind of bike that elicits a predictable question from motorcyclists and non-riders alike, "What is it?"
Much like the Indian parable of six blind men describing an elephant, the essence and purpose of the Honda DN-01 is highly dependent upon the experiences and expectations of those riding it. A sport bike rider will look at the floorboards, pulled back bars, and feet-forward position, and dub the Honda DN-01 a cruiser. With a large shark-faced fairing and 17-inch sport tires, those who like to cruise will see the sporting potential of the bike, but they are unlikely to affix the cruiser designation.
Calling the Honda DN-01 a "Crossover" and placing it in a category-of-one, Honda says, "Its styling and seating position alone set it completely apart, showing influence from the world of our sportbikes, sport touring machines, and cruisers." Honda’s desire to promote the Honda DN-01 as a sport/cruiser hybrid neglects to mention that there is also an undeniable scooter influence, and Honda conspicuously avoids any mention of the word "scooter" in its literature, except when the subject of the transmission comes up.
The fully automatic, constantly variable transmission in the Honda DN-01 is quite the technological tour de force. With roots in Honda’s rare 1962 Juno scooter and the more recent Rubicon 4×4 ATV, the beltless computer-controlled, hydro-mechanical wonder relies on something just this side of voodoo. Very basically, the transmission utilizes oil pumps to transfer the power from the crankshaft to the drive shaft, with the action of these pumps determining the engine-speed-to-velocity ratio.
Dubbed the HFT (Human Friendly Transmission), it allows the rider to twist the throttle from a stop to top speed seamlessly and silently. Honda has included a clutch-less thumb-shift option that orients the HFT to six preset ratios; however, the magic of the transmission is in its transparency of operation, not its ability to mimic a gearbox. More useful are the Drive and Sport modes for the 680cc liquid-cooled V-twin motor, which allow the rider to tailor acceleration to his needs.
In the Drive mode, the Honda DN-01 is a casual cruising machine. While throttle input has instant results, the rate of acceleration is moderate-it matches the feel of the bike nicely. This works great for most in-town riding, as the bike is still easily capable of pulling away from automobiles from a standing start.
When switched to Sport, the bike accelerates decidedly more rapidly-but just as smoothly-running higher in the rev range. In fact, it is deceptively quick, as you do not get the traditional indicators of shifting and engine speed increase that signal a quickening velocity. The motor is not scooter-sized, and the HFT is highly efficient, so the straight-line performance is more impressive than one might expect. Once up to speed on the freeway-and the Honda DN-01 easily exceeds the speed limit-comfort is enhanced by switching on-the-fly to the Drive mode, as it virtually banishes the already minimal vibration. On the downside, despite the fairing, the wind pushes the rider back, making it a bit tiring to hold onto the bars for long straight-line stretches.
Out in the country, the cruiser aspect of the Honda DN-01 reveals itself, as does some of its sporting character. The relaxed riding position is such that, if you manage to block the large tank and fairing from your mind, you do feel like you are on a cruiser, albeit one that is unnaturally quiet and smooth. It is effortless to glide around back roads-you aren’t shifting, so it feels like you have a powerband as wide as an interstate.
If your mind turns to sport riding, the 17-inch Z-rated radial Bridgestone Battlax tires and linked triple disc ABS combination provide more than enough performance, in both a straight line and when cornering. Likewise, the suspension is excellent, both in its ability to soak up unexpected road irregularities, and keep the bike stable in turns of all types.
The Honda DN-01 turns in confidently-much better than its seating position and length would foretell. Unfortunately, the reclined seating position does not encourage aggressive riding, and limited ground clearance of the feelers on the spring-loaded floorboards seals the deal-it is sporty for a cruiser or a scooter, but it will not convince any sport rider that it is a sport bike.
With the seat height of just over 27 inches (two inches lower than a Suzuki Burgman 650), it is certainly a superb city bike. It looks long, but the Honda DN-01’s wheelbase is only a half-inch longer than the Burgman’s. However, there is one unforgivable deficiency that compromises the Honda DN-01’s urban effectiveness-a lack of storage. There are no scooter-style compartments, and the shape of the tank and hindquarters makes the addition of bags impractical.
So, we are left with a sporty, cruising, scooter-influenced motorcycle that will confound devotees of any single discipline. Certainly, the technological advances of the transmission (we would love to see it on a Gold Wing) are remarkable, and the Crossover concept is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we like to see from Honda. Undoubtedly, there will be riders who find its unique combination of attributes irresistible. But, for the rest of us, the Honda DN-01 is more intriguing as a glimpse into the future of motorcycle transmissions and fascinating technology.