Smart Bikes: Honda VFR1200F & Ducati Multistrada 1200 S

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Ducati Multistrada 1200 S & Honda VFR1200F DCT

Story by Arthur Coldwells & Don Williams

While much attention has been given to electric motorcycles, the real-world revolution is happening to machines still powered by the good old internal combustion engine.

Honda’s VFR1200F DCT and Ducati’s Multistrada 1200 S are leading the charge with sophisticated electronics packages that turn them into something new: Smart Bikes.

Honda has chosen to focus on the transmission. A company that has long been fascinated with alternative methods of transmitting power from the crankshaft to the road, its fully automatic six-speed Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) eliminates the conventional hand- and foot-levers, and saves the rider the effort of operating them.

Ducati has gone in a different direction with the Multistrada 1200 S. Although mechanically it is relatively conventional, the bike uses electronics to maximize the capabilities of the motor and suspension, no matter what the prevailing conditions.

We took both of these motorcycles out on extensive rides, learning far more from them in tandem than we ever could have individually. What they had to tell us was quite insightful. Smart Bikes, indeed.

2012 Ducati Multistrada 1200 S

Ducati’s “four-bikes-in-one” claim for the Multistrada 1200 is certainly an audacious one. To make it a reality, Ducati equipped the Multistrada S (both the Sport and Touring versions) with some dazzling electronic wizardry that changes the Superbike-derived motor’s power output and delivery, manages traction control (DTC: Ducati Traction Control) and ABS, as well as adjusts the Öhlins suspension (DES: Ducati Electronic Suspension) to change the ride and handling.

Ducati has done an excellent job with the stock settings and the Sport, Touring, Urban, and Enduro presets take a hugely powerful, lightweight bike with a tall chassis and upright seating position, and allows you to exploit it in a virtually unlimited variety of riding conditions.

In addition to the presets, the Multistrada owner can go deeper and personalize those modes precisely to his own requirements. You can also easily alter the suspension pre-load (on-the-fly with your left thumb) by choosing one- or two-riders, and luggage or luggage-free.

While not a sport bike ergonomically, in Sport mode the Multistrada S will hang in there impressively on fast rides. It feels and reacts like a sport bike; if it wasn’t for the upright ergonomic layout, it could probably show a clean pair of heels to Ducati’s own 848 EVO Superbike.

The suspension is firm, and the torquey 1198cc Testastretta 11˚ motor pulls hard and revs eagerly to redline. The Sport throttle response is so cracking that wheelies are enticingly easy, as the DTC is set to a relatively non-intrusive mid-level 4. Because the Pirelli Scorpion Trail tires are a compromise for the street, it is not difficult to slide the rear on aggressive corner exits, so the traction control is welcome.

When not trying to leave rubber on the road, the Touring preset still gives you access to the 150 horses it does in sport, albeit with a softer initial delivery. The DTC becomes a little more intrusive at Level 5, and the suspension gets softer, though not quite plush. When you ride smoothly, Touring mode is sporting enough that you can still enjoy some comfort on spirited mountain rides without a significant handling sacrifice.

In town, Urban mode lives up to expectations. Maximum horsepower is tamped down to a still considerable 100, with a modest delivery. Softening the suspension and moving the DTC up to Level 6 allows you to be aggressive with the throttle and ensures that speed bumps, drain covers, and other road obstacles are swallowed up without bucking you off the bike.

We did forget to switch out of Urban for one trip into the canyons. After unexpectedly dragging the pegs hard in a couple of turns, a look at the display reminded us that the Multistrada was in the soft Urban setting. Pushing the turn signal cancel button toggled through the menu, and once returned to Sport mode the dragging immediately ceased.

Though our dirt excursions were limited to unpaved roads and easy trails, the Enduro mode did not disappoint either. Traction control is almost gone at Level 2; the DES lifts the rear end for more ground clearance, while the suspension remains very compliant. As in all modes, the ABS can be switched off.

The choice of four types of riding-and within each type, four load options-should be more than satisfactory for most riders. Of course, in many cases, Ducati riders are not “most riders.” Recognizing that, Ducati gives us access deeper into the DTC and DES settings.

The highly sophisticated DTC takes speed info from both wheels and, when a discrepancy is detected, it firstly retards the timing, and secondly restricts the fuel/air mixture to reduce torque output. Depending on the situation, this happens transparently (much of the first stage) or quite audibly (in the second stage). To make sure you appreciate the DTC, a red circle flashes around the mode display when it is active.

Specially designed in partnership with Ducati, the electronically controlled Öhlins suspension (DES) is an industry first and fully integrated into the riding modes. Servos built into the forks and rear shock fine-tune rebound and compression damping, and also manage the spring preload on the TTX shock.

With all these systems working in harmony, the result is thousands of possible combinations of DTC and DES settings. Only four Modes in total can be saved, and the preset names cannot be changed. Fortunately, if you over-correct the settings and the result is unsatisfactory, Ducati has a reset option that returns everything back to stock.

The Ducati Multistrada S is a smart bike, imbued with the full brain trust of a staff of test riders whose collaboration gives us four well thought out standard modes. It is also a bike that is willing to learn, as those are but a starting point. – Don Williams

Honda VFR1200F DCT

The VFR1200 DCT (Dual Clutch Transmission) is at the zenith of Honda’s technical prowess. Even the new paint process and patented layered fairing are technical tours de force. After a white-knuckle scare on a sand-covered road, I can also confirm that its anti-lock brakes work flawlessly and prevented an expensive and embarrassing tipover.

However, the DCT is a polarizing topic of conversation between riders. Yes, one can easily dismiss the DCT with the “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” argument. Still, from a technical perspective, it is intriguing.

Essentially two gearboxes integrated together, one clutch handles ratios 1, 3, & 5, and the other, ratios 2, 4, & 6. The electronics flip between the two gear clusters, and because the next gear is pre-selected, changes are seamless, smooth and swift.

There’s no torque converter, so the engine is mechanically connected to the rear wheel. Every revolution of the crankshaft equates to incremental movement at the rear wheel, and that translates into feel at the throttle and engine braking into corners. The VFR acts like a normal motorcycle, not an automatic transmission car.

Operation is simple. No foot movement is involved, as a thumb switch on the right side selects and toggles between Drive (D), and Sport (S) as desired. Moving away from a standstill requires no more than careful use of the throttle; the centrifugal-type mechanism engages transparently and super-slow maneuvering can be accomplished with ease. All gear changes are then (by default) automatic, and although first and second clunk a little due to some transmission slop, the process is generally much smoother than a human could achieve.

D mode short-shifts into top as quickly as possible; you will almost find yourself in sixth before leaving the parking lot. Fortunately, the engine is so torquey it doesn’t make much difference to the actual riding experience around town. If you are just pottering around then leave it in D and focus on the driver texting/tweeting/phoning in front of you.

When you need some sudden acceleration, you must grab a big handful of throttle to make the gearbox downshift-it doesn’t notice subtlety and takes its time. That split-second delay prevents you from instantly accessing the hefty 95 ft/lbs of torque the VFR puts out. If you start riding aggressively in D mode, the bike doesn’t necessarily downshift into corners, and the lack of engine braking can be a little disconcerting if you’re hard on the brakes.

S mode is more suited to twisty roads as the lower gears are held longer, and the system downshifts when you brake strongly. For spirited riding it works well, but once you are straight-line cruising, the transmission uses fifth as top gear and so the motor feels a bit busy. At that point, it is easy to switch into D mode or manually select sixth.

You can toggle between Manual and Automatic shifting using the forefinger pull switch on the right handlebar, and the VFR1200 will stay in Manual without defaulting back, even if the motor is held at redline. Manual mode is also selected by using either one of the gear change switches on the left handlebar-thumb button for downshifts, and forefinger switch for upshifts. The switches are light and intuitive to operate. I was surprised how quickly I adapted, although I confess I did mistakenly hit the turn-signal cancel a couple of times.

Fully committed riding requires Manual mode, as Automatic shifting typically chooses ratios one too tall for my taste. So, Manual mode is where the DCT really shines. The VFR changes gears swiftly and with only the tiniest of finger/thumb movement at the handlebar. I found it especially useful through fast left corners when I was leaned over hard and had to change up through the gears. Instead of having to unweight my left foot and hook it under a lever, all I had to do was flick the pull switch.

When you are preoccupied with a road that is rapidly unraveling in front of you, the VFR’s functionality in Manual mode is extraordinarily useful. It is the normal motorcycle we are used to, albeit with a much more efficient, and smooth, method of changing ratios.

Downshifting gives engine braking as normal, and the interaction between the two clutches obviates the need for blipping the throttle; it is uncanny how well this system works. Coming down from high speed into a very slow corner, you cannot thumb down several ratios rapidly as with a conventional gearbox and slipper clutch, but that didn’t bother me on the street.

Your feelings toward the DCT will depend on how you are riding. You can never select the wrong mode, per se, but in an unsuitable one you can find yourself wanting-and waiting-for a different ratio. Typically, this is more irritating than scary.

When you match the mode to your riding, the DCT is awesome. It makes in-town riding a simple no-brainer, and fast canyon riding an easy adventure. If you are fully dedicated to riding hard, then Manual mode helps you focus on the road conditions. It saves on labor without sacrificing any control-that is what we want, isn’t it?

The VFR1200F DCT’s technology is impressive and the transmission is genius, though Honda could add traction control to help contain some of that prodigious torque output. Having lived with it for a while, I began using it as naturally as a conventional transmission, and when I got back on a “normal” bike, I missed the Honda DCT-very much. – Arthur Coldwells

Conclusion

Ever since Monsieur Michaux attached a small steam engine to his velocipede, motorcycle technology has steadily developed-sometimes by leaps and bounds. Pushrod twins in the 1960s were crushed by Honda’s overhead-camshaft four; ’70s-era two-strokes blew away the four-stroke multis; and the ’80s saw the advent of grippy radial tires that opened the door to serious performance.

In recent years, motorcycle development has plateaued somewhat. Sure, every manufacturer points out how this year’s whizz-bang model is so much better than last year’s old nail, yet the truth of the matter is that modern sports motorcycles are, in general, so powerful and so good that only professional roadracers can fully exploit their capabilities.

The power of microprocessors has brought another leap forward, and manufacturers are able to enhance rider safety with the use of electronic aids-fuel maps can be changed to curb horsepower and soften delivery; anti-lock braking systems are often transparent in operation; traction control is so sophisticated that competitors can adjust it incrementally during a race.

Both the Ducati Multistrada 1200 S and the Honda VFR1200F DCT motorcycles are indisputably technologically impressive. In each case, the technical option adds to the price, and a cheaper, simpler version is available should you prefer it. So the big question is: do these technical advancements actually bring something really worthwhile to the rider, or are they just fanciful experiments that only an engineer can appreciate?

Our initial expectation was that we would write off the DCT as the answer to a question no one had asked. Why do we need automatic shifting when the conventional version works so well? We were surprised, shocked even, to discover that not only did we appreciate the DCT the more we lived with it, but eventually-gulp-we preferred it!

We developed the same affection for the Ducati’s multiple riding modes and electronic suspension. Much of the staff grew up in the ’70s where the handling of a bike was changed by how you rode it, and any vagaries were just ignored. So we suspected we would gravitate towards a favorite riding mode and then pretty much forget it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

With varied roads and continually changing traffic conditions, we found ourselves frequently taking advantage of the Ducati’s adaptability. The differences between the modes are obvious and significantly affect the Multistrada’s performance. Confidence increased and, on more than one occasion, we were kept safer as well.

Man actually needs very little beyond food, shelter, and air. Happily, modern society has brought us some astonishing technologies that help make our lives easier, safer, and more comfortable. Although motorcyclists have typically been less than welcoming toward some of the technological advances, if we do not sacrifice control, then we suggest that advancements on motorcycles should be greeted with enthusiasm.

Do we need them? Probably not. Do we want them? Absolutely!

Story from previous issue of Ultimate MotorCycling…to view the digital edition, click here.  

Photography by Don Williams