Technology is a many splendored thing. Just look at the ways in which technology has shaped our lives: written letters have given way to emails, cell phones have (almost) made landlines a thing of the past, and who needs a map when you've got a GPS? In many ways, technology has made once arduous tasks more convenient.
Yet the internal combustion engine and the method by which it delivers its power to the road has remained largely the same for the past century. A power transfer device of some sort distributes the power from the crankshaft to a set of constant mesh gears which then distributes that forward motion to the driven wheel or wheels (over simplified of course). It's been the same for ages. And as the saying goes; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Right?
Wrong. At least according to Aprilia. There are some drawbacks to the conventional method of forward motion transfer, and borrowing a rather new technology from the four-wheeled spectrum, Aprilia has equipped its new Mana 850 with a CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission. We'll get more in-depth with the CVT later, but let's switch gears (pun intended) and talk about the rest that the Mana has to offer.
Sum Of Its Parts
The Mana isn't exactly a sportbike, but it is an awfully nice tool to tackle the everyday needs of a rider. To start, the Mana's steel trellis frame cradles the 850cc 90-degree V-twin. Like its Shiver stablemate, this engine is also manufactured entirely in-house. On the dyno, the Mana put out a disappointing 55 horsepower and 40 lb-ft. of torque. That torque curve, however, is flat as a board throughout the entire rev range, providing decent acceleration no matter what rpm you're in. Of course, you'll never know how fast the engine is spinning because there is no tachometer on the sparse gauge cluster. The speedometer dominates the gauges, while an LCD screen displays drive mode selection and gear position, assuming you're shifting gears manually. In their infinite wisdom, the folks at Aprilia must have figured that since it can shift itself there's no need for you to know the engine speed. Word to Aprilia: we want the tach back.
Suspension duties are provided by a non-adjustable 43mm inverted fork with 120mm of travel, while an offset shock is mounted directly to the swingarm without the use of linkages. Adjustability is limited to preload and rebound damping. Stopping power in the front is by way of four-piston, radially mounted calipers hugging 320mm disks. Oddly, stopping power by these binders is sub-par from what we've come to expect from Aprilia. The bike will respond to an input at the lever, but that eye-popping bite isn't there. Not to say that the brakes are weak, but the Mana takes a little more effort than we're used to giving for an Aprilia.
The Mana features a wide, flat handlebar that gives it great leverage in the tight stuff and low set footpegs which provide a neutral riding position. Despite the low pegs, the sidestand makes contact with the pavement before your feet. Oddities include a gas tank whose filler tube is located under the passenger seat. Aprilia engineers then placed the tank closer and lower to the C of G for improved handling. We noticed a difference in the responsiveness of the chassis with a full tank and one bordering on empty. The full tank clearly required more effort to turn and wasn't as agile. So what's the deal with the "conventional" gas tank? Well that's now a storage unit. One equipped with a soft, non-scratch lining. There's a small compartment for the toolkit and a cell phone and even a 12 volt A/C outlet to power a phone charger. A full face helmet is claimed to be able to fit, but none of ours did. Nonetheless, this is one of the conveniences of the Mana: a built-in tankbag at no extra charge.
What's This CVT Thingamajig?
Right, the CVT. Like we mentioned earlier, the basic premise behind traditional gearboxes is that power is spread through constant mesh gears with a fixed amount of teeth. The "problem" with this setup is two-fold: first, there are times when the vehicle is hunting between gears (say on an incline) and the ratios between two gears will either cause the engine to spin incredibly high, or so low that it can't put down enough torque to maintain speed. The second issue is the sudden (and albeit very minute) loss of momentum as the gears are changed from one to another.
A continuously variable transmission eliminates those issues by always operating at optimum rpm for a given speed. Simply put, a CVT has three main components: a V-shaped, high strength metal or rubber belt, a cone-shaped driving pulley of varying diameter that's connected to the engine's crankshaft (like a countershaft sprocket), and a cone-shaped driven pulley, also of a varying diameter, that drives the rear wheel (like a final drive sprocket). At slow speeds the driving pulley is large, while the driven pulley is small, to enable the vehicle to accelerate quickly. As speed increases, the two pulley's diameters will start to inverse, effectively creating an infinite amount of gear "ratios." That isn't to say that you'll continue to accelerate forever, as aerodynamics, as well as the physical size of the pulleys, will ultimately determine top speed.
There are other factors at play here, such as electronic aids that play a part in the system. As for the Mana, its seven gears are set at pre-determined ratios which are ultimately decided upon automatically (when in Autodrive) or electronically when in sequential shift mode.
So What's It Like To Ride?
The first adjustment you need to make when riding the Mana is accepting that the clutch lever is gone. You'll instinctually reach for it, but forget it. It's not there. From there the ride experience is much like a scooter--just twist the throttle and you're on your way. A common problem with bikes that do away with clutch levers is slow speed maneuverability, as clutch slippage helps in these situations. Thankfully, the Mana doesn't have that problem. Despite the fact that the CVT disengages at speeds below 20 mph, it immediately transfers power again at the slightest crack of the throttle, giving the same effect as a slipped clutch.
When in Autodrive mode it's near impossible to tell when the CVT is switching gears, it's that seamless. Shifting manually with the hand controls takes some getting used to as well. Thumb for upshifts, pointer for downshifts. Rowing through the gears pressing the button (or using your foot with the traditional foot lever) never offers that sensation that you're really manipulating the motorcycle. Upshifts are still seamless and the engine is automatically rev-matched when downshifting. The feeling is much more akin to riding a large computer. A 516-pound computer, to be exact. In Autodrive, the rider is still able to downshift as long as there is no throttle application. The system will then take over again once it detects the right grip being twisted. The ability to switch between the three power modes: Sport, Touring and Rain is also available while in Autodrive, and while some testers preferred the responsiveness of the Sport mode, others found its high-revving nature a bit annoying and instead preferred the subdued (and quieter) behavior of Touring mode. As on all other bikes we've ridden with power modes, we're still trying to figure out who would really use rain mode. Especially on a bike with only 55 horsepower to begin with.
Convenience. Italian Style
That being said, the Mana is not the motorcycle for the purist. It is, however, the one for the utilitarian. An added side benefit of the CVT is the distance one's able to travel on a single tank of gas. We averaged slightly more than 39 mpg with the riding consisting of everything from long highway stints to runs up the local twisties. Our best mpg figure for a single trip was an impressive 42 mpg, but the riding was long and boring throughout. When you take into consideration that these numbers all came with the Autodrive map set to full sport mode, where power takes precedence over economy, the numbers become that much more staggering. Beyond that, the seating position is comfortable for long distances (even without a windscreen), the bike handles better than expected given it's budget suspension and there's plenty of room for storage.
But then there's the price. For $9899, the Mana 850 suddenly loses its appeal to the utilitarian. It's got some great features and some innovative technology, but for this price we expect more. A detent in the turn indicator switchgear would be a nice start. Little things you might say but hey-we're purists.
'09 Aprilia Mana 850
+ High bars and low pegs are comfy
+ Easy bike to ride--just twist and go
+ The bike for an urban dweller
- Very anemic for an 850
- It feels like a big scooter
- A $10,000 scooter at that
x Aprilia may be ahead of its time with the Mana
Suggested Suspension Settings
|FRONT||Ride height: set fork caps flush with highest part of triple clamp|
|REAR||Spring preload: position 2 from full stiff; Rebound: 12 clicks out from full stiff|
'09 Aprilia Mana 850
Type: Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, 90-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement: SOHC, 4 valves/cyl.
Bore x stroke: 88 x 69mm
Compression ratio: 10.0:1
Induction: Weber/Marelli EFI, 38mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.
Transmission: 7-speed Continuously Variable Transmission with Manual or Automatic mode selectable by user.
Front suspension: 43mm inverted cartridge fork, 4.7 in. travel; non-adjustable
Rear suspension: single shock, 4.9 in. travel; adjustments for spring preload, rebound damping
Front brake: 2 radial-mount/4-piston calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: single piston caliper, 260mm disc
Front wheel: 3.50 x 17 in.; forged aluminum alloy
Rear wheel: 6.00 x 17 in.; forged aluminum alloy
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Qualifier
Rear tire: 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop Qualifier
Rake/trail: 24.0 deg./4.05 in. (102mm)
Wheelbase: 57.5 in. (1460mm)
Seat height: 31.4 in. (797mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gal. (15.9L)
Weight: 516 lbs. (234kg) wet; 490 lbs. (222kg) dry
Instruments: Analog speedometer, LCD panel for digital, engine temperature, clock, multi-function displays for odometer, tripmeter/low-fuel tripmeter, average fuel consumption/mph, running time, etc.; warning lights for neutral, high beam, turn signal, oil pressure, fuel reserve, shift point
Quarter-mile: 13.49 sec. @ 97.72 mph
Top speed: N/A
Roll-ons: 60-80 mph/5.64 sec.; 80-100 mph/9.25 sec.
Fuel consumption: 37-42 mpg, 39 mpg avg.
_OK, now go touch your tongue to that frozen flagpole._
It's hard to form an opinion about the Mana; it's such a bland motorcycle that it's hard to draw any kind of emotion from it. That's not a knock on Aprilia. Not at all. Its very existence is meant to be user friendly and it achieves that goal very well. The storage compartment is extremely convenient and despite the fact that it doesn't have a windscreen it's still a nice ride on moderately long rides. The fact that it practically sips fuel is a plus.
The CVT technology slowly grew on me, too. As much as I enjoy tearing up a racetrack or going for a canyon ride, the majority of my riding is spent sprawling the concrete jungle of Los Angeles. Being able to just stick the Mana in AutoDrive mode and twist the throttle sure is convenient. I'll tell you what didn't grow on me: the price. To pay essentially 10-large for a glorified scooter is a tall order if you ask me. I said earlier I was on the fence about it, but if I have to form an opinion about the Mana it would go like this: neat bike? Yes. Would I buy one? No.
_Oh no, is his tongue really on the flagpole? I can't watch._
When I first heard that Aprilia was introducing a seven-speed automatic transmission with paddle shift capability, I had visions of a multiple clutch pack gearbox similar to the Ferrari F1 or Audi DSG systems delivering lightning-quick upshifts and seamless downshifts at the push of a button. This was going to be cool. A motorcycle manufacturer actually deciding to step outside the box of convention and bring an auto-sequential gearbox to the two-wheel masses.
Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. While the Mana 850 could still be categorized as unconventional, its automatic transmission is really nothing more than scaled down version of the CVT units you find in everyday automobiles. And its effect on the Mana 850 is similar in how it's transformed what could have been a really fun bike into not much more than a sterile mode of transportation. The Mana 850 has all the personality of a glorified scooter (and actually, some of the big scooters are just as quick, have as much or more storage space, and are cheaper).
I'm not so sure the American market is ready for something like this.