When Honda introduced the long-awaited 2011 VFR1200F its reception was nothing if not controversial. Rumors ran abound about what the new bike would be, but not many were expecting a radical machine built to shred miles in comfort - miles that preferably come by way of the road less traveled, the one filled with twists and turns. On the technology front, the new VFR comes loaded with the kind of tech we've come to expect from Honda. We've covered many of these features in past issues, starting with Associate Editor Siahaan's first ride impressions from the bike's introduction in Japan in the March issue ("Paradigm Shift") and El Jefe's full test of the standard transmission model in the May issue ("The Other Half"), but to rehash some key points, despite the 1237cc V4 engine, the rider's legs aren't spread across the fuel tank thanks to the VFR's rear cylinders set inward of the front. Honda's latest linked braking system finds its way to this bike with ABS also coming to join the party. A first for Honda, the new VFR utilizes ride-by-wire throttle technology. The main reason for this is to work in conjunction with the most important feature of this bike: the dual clutch transmission. Similar to the systems seen in many high-end sports cars, the DCT allows true push-button shifting. The Geek covers the details of Honda's dual clutch transmission and the added challenge of packaging it for motorcycle use in the following sidebar. Troy was gushing about the bike after its introduction in Japan and all of us were impressed with the standard transmission model we rode a few months ago. But we've been waiting anxiously to get the DCT model stateside to put it through the SR gauntlet.
Redefining the Rules
So what, exactly, is the new VFR? Sport bike? Sport tourer? If Honda could write the rules it would say both. But let's be real; judging by the optional saddlebags and top case fitted to our test unit, it would seem that eating up the open road was always going to be this bike's destiny. In essence, this model's basic architecture is not much different than the standard model we rode earlier this year, save for a few items from Honda's accessories catalog such as the hard luggage. Other bits include the reshaped saddle that lowers seat height by 0.8 inch. While it may not seem like much, that was the difference between tip-toeing and flat-footing for our 30-something inseams. The cockpit area remains largely the same as the standard model also, with large tachometer taking center stage and digital speedometer off to the left. The obvious difference being the right switchgrip toggles for the DCT's different drive modes and the left grip's two buttons; one for upshifts, the other for downshifts.
By now you've seen the scuttlebutt on Internet forums regarding the VFR and the dual clutch transmission. And you've no doubt noticed that public reaction has been negative - heck, you may even be one of the critics yourself. If Psychology 101 taught us anything, it's that people generally think negatively of that which they don't understand. Honda is seemingly facing the same problem with the VFR. It doesn't help that other motorcycles with automatic or semi-automatic transmissions have all flopped. Fear not reader; while the DCT on this machine does feature an automatic mode, for once the riding experience is enhanced with the omission of the clutch lever.
Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover
Since we've covered the VFR at some length in the past, we won't bore you with information you already know. Instead we'll focus on how this bike is different than the rest and why this technology will be important for the future. Throwing a leg over the bike with the lowered seat, the seating position is now even more relaxed and comfortable. High bars and low pegs combine with the lower seat to make an economical rider triangle. Turn it on and the 1237cc V-4 slowly gurgles to life, requiring a few moments to warm up. Interestingly, the transmission needs a short few seconds to warm up as well - this indicated by a small dash mark in the gauge cluster. When it disappears the DCT is ready.
Siahaan wasn't overly impressed with Drive mode during the bike's introduction at the Sugo circuit in Japan as it places fuel economy as its priority over performance, but after living with the bike for some time Drive mode starts to make more sense. For the general jaunt around town or for a weekend getaway Drive mode is perfect for general cruising. Gears are selected early and often (usually a gear higher than normal for a given road speed) in order to keep the rpm as low as possible. At slower speeds, an audible clunk is heard between the first and second gear change. However, when a situation calls for shifts to be postponed (say, during hard acceleration) the throttle position sensor recognizes this and will shift later to maximize power. Once road speed and throttle position returns to a steady pace, gear selection will again be optimized for mileage. While great for fuel economy, some testers complained that not being to shift their own gears around town made the ride rather dull.
Tap the lever once more and Sport mode kicks in. As the name implies, in Sport mode the ECU throws mileage out the window in order to keep the engine speed optimized for spirited riding. And as much as we hate having a computer think for us, we were pleasantly surprised with the system during our jaunts to the twisties. Upshifts are handled near redline, downshifts are met with perfect throttle blips, and it's virtually impossible to fool the system into upshifting like you would in an automatic car with a torque converter.
Using the left hand and tapping one of the shift paddles instantly switches the VFR into full-manual mode (this can also be done by tapping a switch on the right switchgrip). Under normal and even moderately spirited riding the DCT delivers little in the way of surprises. But it seems as though our test unit and the ones we rode in Japan and during the U.S. introduction in Santa Barbara, CA are slightly different. Some testers reported what feels like faint clutch slippage between shifts on our current test unit - something we didn't notice before. Our best suspicion revolves around the condition of the hydraulic oil used in the DCT as it's a separate system to the engine oil. Above third gear this wasn't an issue.
The differences between the standard transmission and the DCT model are even more pronounced when pushing the limits of what the bike is meant for. Because the "dual" in dual clutch transmission is really two halves of a single clutch (which is explained further in the accompanying sidebar), their overall strength is reduced. In order to quell the 142 horsepower and 81.4 ft-lb of torque during hard launches, the ECU will pull back power so as to not destroy the clutch. Full power is then restored once road and engine speed are deemed to be at a level the clutch can handle. This is readily apparent in the quarter-mile times between the standard and DCT models. The latter's 11.67 seconds corrected time compared to the 10.23 seconds for the former illustrate the disparity.
While the quarter-mile time is slightly surprising, we didn't think the roll-on numbers would be much different than the standard model since the clutches wouldn't receive the same stress. Again, the disparity was noticeable. A 0.5 second slower 60-80mph time (3.61 vs. 3.14) and a 0.7 second slower 80-100mph (4.27 vs. 3.50) were both larger gaps than we expected. For reasons we can't explain, Honda chose to gear the DCT model differently than the standard model. Overall gearing is slightly shorter, while internally the first three gears are also tweaked.
These numbers may be a little strange, but in the grand picture, neither transmission option on the VFR detracts from the riding experience. But there's more to the VFR than just the transmission. It's actually quite the overall performer as well. Forget the fact that it's intended as a sport-touring rig, the bike handles surprisingly well despite its rather simplistic Showa fork and shock, both adjustable only for preload and rebound. Stopping duties are by way of six-piston Nissin calipers and 320mm discs in the front, with a single 276mm disc in the rear and a twin-piston caliper. Honda's linked ABS (whereby only one set of pistons in one front caliper is activated when the rear brake is applied) is standard and works seamlessly without the usual pulsing on other ABS systems. Without having to worry about rev matching during downshifts, the DCT actually allows the rider to focus on other aspects of riding while the downshifts are perfectly executed each time. Unfortunately, one will also have to focus on where the next fuel station is; we averaged about 35 mpg of combined city and highway driving, and the 4.9 gallon tank doesn't provide much in terms of range.
What about slow speed maneuvers you ask? No problem. Unlike other clutchless motorcycles, the VFR can in fact execute a normal U-turn. With some slight rear brake modulation, outside peg weighting and gentle throttle application (similar to fanning the clutch on a regular motorcycle) the bike will turn around just like anything else.
|TEST NOTES 2010 HONDA VFR1200FD|
|+||DCT is the real deal|
|+||Great handling and linear power|
|–||A tad on the heavy side|
|–||Optional saddlebags lack capacity|
|–||Fuel mileage isn't flattering, either|
|x||Sports car technology is finally here|
Polarizing By Definition
Honda is well aware that this machine won't appeal to everyone, and the dyed-in-the-wool purists surely won't like it no matter what's written here. But sport-touring is about enjoying the open road and taking the path less traveled. Typically these riders don't fit in with the norm. It's these very people that would benefit from giving the DCT a shot. And after living with it for some time we hardly missed the clutch lever. Aside from the small fuel tank, we actually applaud Honda for daring to push technology further, despite the Internet critics.
2010 Honda VFR1200FD
MSRP: $17,499/$20,648 (as tested)
Type: Liquid-cooled, SOHC, 4-stroke 76-degree V-four
Bore x stroke: 81 x 60mm
Compression ratio: 12.0:1
Induction: PGM-FI, 44mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.
Transmission: 2-plate, automatic constant mesh 6-speed
Rear suspension: Single rear shock absorber, 5.1 in. travel; adjustments for spring preload, rebound damping
Front brake: 2 radial-mount/six-piston calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: Two-piston caliper, 276mm disc
Front wheel: 3.50 x 17in., cast aluminum alloy
Rear wheel: 6.00 x 17in., cast aluminum alloy
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart CQ K
Rear tire: 190/50ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart K
Rake/trail: 25.5 deg./4.0 in. (101mm)
Wheelbase: 60.8 in. (1545mm)
Seat height: 32.1 in. (815mm)/31.3 in. as tested (795mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.9 gal. (18.5L)
Weight: 657 lb. (298 kg) wet; 627 lb. (284 kg) dry
Instruments: Analog tachometer, LCD panels for digital speedometer, fuel gauge, gear indicator, drive mode indicator. clock, ambient air temp, odometer, dual tripmeters, warning lights for EFI malfunction, turn signals, high beam, neutral, coolant temp, oil pressure
Quarter-mile: 11.67 sec. @ 130.4 mph (corrected)
Top speed: NA
Roll-ons: 60-80 mph/3.61 sec.; 80-100 mph/4.27 sec.
Fuel consumption: 24-41 mpg, 36 mpg avg.
I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical before I had the chance to ride the VFR DCT model. I couldn't see how it could possibly enhance the riding experience, as I was definitely underwhelmed by previous auto-clutch/transmission motorcycles. But true to form, Honda has put a lot of R&D; into the DCT (although it is an adaptation of the similar DCT fitted to the firm's Fourtrax Rancher AT all-terrain four-wheeler that debuted last year) to make it as refined as possible, so that-while not necessarily enhancing the riding experience in my opinion-it doesn't intrude upon it, either. Once you get used to not subconsciously lunging for a clutch or shift lever every time you slow for a corner (as well as the slight lack of engine braking) and leave everything to the VFR's ECU, the rest of the Honda's polished sophistication really shines.
That said, I also have to admit that the shine started to lose its luster after a while. On a sport-touring bike at anything less than a 7/10ths pace, you're not that occupied with controlling the motorcycle anyway, and removing the physical act of gearshifting started to make the rides...well, boring. It was different story in the canyons in Sport mode, where the transmission definitely was fun to work with.
Nonetheless, I have to tip my hat to Honda for advancing technology in motorcycling. And we may be seeing a more refined (lighter, smaller) version on its sportbikes in the future.
I'll just come right out and say it - I'm a big fan of this VFR, especially with the DCT. This is the kind of motorcycle I could ride everyday and practically everywhere. I was genuinely puzzled when I attended the international press launch for this bike at the Sugo circuit in Japan-a track machine this definitely is not-but after coming away thoroughly impressed by what it could do outside of its element, I couldn't wait to try it in the right context. Fully loaded and with the better half on the back, both rider and passenger embarked on our weekend journey in total comfort. Even in Drive mode the flat torque curve of the V-4 didn't skip a beat and motored right along. Time will tell if this bike is a success for Honda, as I'm sure the tooling costs for this machine surely aren't cheap. Maybe, just maybe, Honda will develop this technology further and possibly into a package suitable for a sportbike application. That would be one way to amortize the cost. But for now we have the VFR and, I can't believe I'm saying this, it's a machine I'd actually like to keep in my garage.
Inside the VFR1200F Dual Clutch Transmission
While dual clutch transmissions have been in use in the automotive world for many years - and currently available on several production models - the VFR1200F is the first production motorcycle application. To fit in a motorcycle's relatively confined space, the Honda's transmission differs from the typical automotive DCT in several ways and the company has applied for more than 100 related patents.
In a conventional motorcycle transmission, the actual teeth of each gearset are always engaged and dogs on one of the gears mate with slots in a neighboring gear to engage or disengage that particular gearset. The various gears must slide along their shafts, and for that to happen power must be removed from the input shaft so that its speed can match that of the output shaft and the dogs can properly mesh. A good rider can complete the process fairly smoothly in a few tenths of a second; with a quickshifer mechanism, this can be reduced to about a tenth of a second.
A dual clutch transmission has two input shafts and two clutches, one each for the even-numbered gears and one each for the odd-numbered gears. When you are in first gear, for example, the even-numbered clutch and input shaft are engaged and operating, while the other clutch and input shaft are disengaged. Because power is not being applied to the even-numbered gears, second gear can be activated at any time while first gear is still engaged and powering the motorcycle - the even-numbered clutch and shaft are still disengaged. Transferring power from first to second gear is then a matter of disengaging the odd-numbered clutch and then engaging the even-numbered clutch, a simple matter that can be accomplished in milliseconds. Now that power is being transmitted through second gear and not the odd-numbered gears, first gear can be disengaged and third gear engaged, all at a relatively leisurely pace, in preparation for the next shift.
In most automobile applications, the two input shafts are separate, adding considerable size to the transmission. In the VFR's case, Honda made the two shafts co-axial, with the odd-numbered input shaft passing through the even-numbered shaft. Ironically, most standard-transmission automobiles have a single-plate clutch, requiring significant changes for a dual clutch model; The VFR's DCT splits what is almost a standard clutch in half, with one clutch behind the other and stacked on the input shafts. Making all this happen requires hydraulics and servomotors activated by computer, and the rest of the VFR's package is just as innovative in this respect. A servomotor rotates the shift shaft directly, while the clutches are controlled hydraulically with solenoids mounted on the engine's sidecover; there are two separate controllers, one for each clutch.
Once some computing power is brought into the equation, more benefits can be realized. In addition to completing a shift much quicker than the rider could, the DCT is much smoother as the machine can disengage and engage the clutches quickly but gradually. An ECU-controlled ride-by-wire throttle can be blipped so that revs are matched exactly on each downshift, further smoothing the process. And various automatic modes can be added for fuel economy or performance, as Honda has done with the VFR. -AT