Paradigm Shift: Testing Honda’s Dual Clutch VFR1200F

VFR1BACKGROUND

“Gee, Bones, where are you?”
Killington, Vermont.

“Is that a hotel in the background?”
Indeed it is. This is a plush resort. I’ve been to nicer hotels but not when I’ve arrived on two wheels.

“What’s up with the Honda trailer?”
The Honda trailer is huge, spotless, and has a side tent three times as wide as the trailer itself. It also has a trophy class 750 Interceptor parked behind it. “Gear Driven Cams” for those who recall.

VFR2“Are you going to ride that Interceptor?”
Doubtful, but I will be riding a VFR1200F with the dual clutch transmission.

“How did you end up there?”
American Honda hired the folks who organize Americade to assemble a group of riders from the Northeast with an interest in sport touring for a product launch of the VFR1200F DCT in Killington. A second DCT launch was held for left coasters in Santa Barbara, California. It seems Honda is interested in what members of online motorcycle forums have to say and the organizers contacted our own Mellow to recommend a “very influential motorcyclist in New England” for the event. Joe suggested me. (I’m still chuckling at that label, but I won’t turn it down!) A couple weeks later I was interviewed on the phone by the organizers and a few days later I was notified by email that Honda wanted me to attend. I bet all of you reading would jump at this opportunity, too. Joe, thank you for pointing Honda in my direction.

“So what’s going to happen?”
My fellow testers and I are in the cushy Killington Grand resort for two nights. Honda execs schmoozed us and gave a dog and pony show on the VFR1200F DCT. Dinner tonight included Maine lobster; I had two. There was no pie but I will not let the otherwise exceptional menu affect my objectivity. Tomorrow we get the keys to standard clutch and dual clutch VFRs to flog, um, I mean compare on Vermont twisties.

“Anyone else there we know?”
Probably. I met Ken Condon, who writes “Proficient Motorcycling” in Motorcycle Consumer News and operates “Riding in the Zone.” We live about an hour from each other…who knew? (I didn’t!) There are riding instructors, active and retired racers, tour organizers, moto business owners, and regular motorcycle enthusiasts. Judging by the bikes in the parking lot it’s far from an all-Honda crowd. The Honda staff are great, all motorcycle guys (and a couple girls) like us. One Honda guy bought his ST1300 from Honda corporate, rode it, and then sold it to Shane Smith who rode it to victory in the 2005 Iron Butt Rally. Company people, to be sure, but it’s easy to tell they truly love motorcycles.

“What’s the catch?”
None that I can identify. I’ve been assured that all Honda wants in return from those attending is our opinions. They are genuinely interested to learn what consumers, as opposed to the moto press, have to say about the bike. I expect they’re also counting on us to share our experience with others. If you know me you know that I could not possibly resist doing that with the ST universe, so count on it.

“What about the new ST?”
I can tell you a couple things. (1) Honda employees who divulge information about new products before their official release are fired – boom, you’re gone. (2) When I asked about a new ST I was told that the “technology introduced in the VFR will definitely find its way into other products.” Wink wink, nudge nudge.

“You already rode a VFR1200F, right?”
Yes, I rode a standard clutch model last summer. (That’s me below in high viz…you can’t see the smile on my face!)  I loved the motor, the gearbox, the brakes, the handling, the power, and the design. Fit and finish were top shelf. I didn’t love the riding position (too aggressive), the seat (not kind to my bony backside) and VFR4the small windshield. I can say that the OEM adjustable laminar lip looks like it would ably address the airflow issue. Seats can be adjusted or replaced. Riding position can be addressed to some extent with bar risers, but I’d be happier with a more upright posture.

“Wow, Bones…what an opportunity. Have fun and keep us posted!”
Will do. I’ll take pictures tomorrow. 

MORNING IN KILLINGTON

This plate is on an ST1100 in the parking lot. Awesome! Anyone know who this RIDE belongs to? There was a different group here that started Thursday and leaves this morning, so it could be one of them.VFR3

Other bikes I saw parked here included: Connie 14, FJR, GL1800, Fury, R1200GS, R1150RT, Ducati Monster, Buell Lightning, that early 80’s VFR, and more. One of our participants has 38 bikes and we may be able to go check out his collection if timing allows.

Here’s something to chew on: the Honda guys are a bit flummoxed over the VFR being pitched and evaluated in the media as a sport touring bike. They say that’s not the right category. It’s listed among sport bikes on the USA website, but they tell me that’s not even right. In Europe, where the bike was developed and where they see the largest market potential, there is a category called road sport. That’s where the VFR fits in. Others in the category include the K1300S, which they said is the bike they have their crosshairs on with the VFR.

So, my friends, Honda does not view the VFR1200F as a replacement for the ST1300 and we shouldn’t either. And, for what it’s worth, more than one of the Honda guys has offered me carefully worded statements that technology such as seen on the new VFR and other bar-raising technology will soon find its way onto other models that I am sure to like riding. Wink implied.

One of the Honda guys, Jon, asked me if I was buying a bike available today what would I get? I said one bike on my short list is the Triumph Sprint GT. It has a great triple motor, it’s a lot lighter than an ST, and there’s a good range of factory accessories. Triumph has been getting great reliability reviews. Oh, and it’s WAY cheaper than the VFR, especially if you opt for the VFR’s factory bags (which on the VFR are on the small side but nicely made). Yes, it’s chain drive; no I don’t think that matters.

Jon asked me what I’d like to see in a new ST. Let’s see, I mentioned less weight, better airflow, a seat you can ride on all day without adding a sheepskin or getting it modified or replacing it outright, single sided swing arm to make rear tire changes easier, heated grips with a properly placed switch (not one down low on the left fairing which is hard to feel through gloves let alone see), power ports (two please), and a factory supplied means of attaching RAM mounts and making easy electrical connections for the gadget hounds among us. I like the VFR’s linked brake setup where the lever actuates the front brake only and the pedal controls the rear brake and one pot on the front. I think that would be good for the ST, too. I didn’t mention height adjustable bars, but I think I’ll toss that one out there this morning.

For more proof that American Honda doesn’t consider the VFR a sport touring bike, it has a one year warranty, like Honda’s sport bikes. I expressed my disappointment with that during the group session and heard from the Honda guys that the extended factory warranty “is a good value.” (Ho-hum.)

For the color happy among us, I asked why Honda only gives North American ST customers (and now VFR customers) one color choice a year. The reply, “Low sales volume.” One of my new buddies got the room in stitches when he said, “Maybe you’d sell more if you brought over more colors.”

AFTERNOON WAIT

Just finished lunch. Honda gets points for pie which was served for dessert at lunch today. (I pledge to remain objective, even in the presence of pie.)

The guy with the RIDE license plate is Tom Wright who wrote an informative article in Motorcycle Consumer News (September 2010 issue) on getting pulled over by the police. Read the story if you haven’t. Great guy.

So far I am impressed with how much Honda appears to care about our $.02. Jon and Keith both have sought me out regarding what ST riders look for and how and where we ride together. They asked if I knew about Honda Riders Club and I said yes but we ST people organize our own events across North America and in other countries around the world. “Really?” Apparently Honda lawyers request that Honda employees keep at an arm’s length regarding our site and sites like it because we use their trademarks without permission. The Honda guys here don’t think that makes sense. Keith in particular says Honda should be embracing our community and love of the product, but the lawyers have their say about such matters. They need to justify their salaries, no doubt, and there are likely issues I don’t pretend to know about since I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. (I stayed at the Killington Grand Resort, though, which I recommend on Honda’s dime.)

The early wave of riders has gone out and come back. I haven’t seen any frowns on faces of people who’ve returned, but I’ve been trying to not hang too close to those riders since I want to form my own opinions. The second wave is heading VFR5out now. I’m in the third wave. Looks like two hours and change, with each rider getting a standard clutch for one half and a DCT for one half.

I asked and got a chance to go inside the Honda tractor trailer. It’s one slick rig. They pack 18 bikes into the trailer in two levels. The upper level bikes go up there on a gate lift. The trailer travels across the country with different bikes for different events. Inside the trailer there’s a small shop with tools (the compressor came in handy for the Connie14 rider who got a screw in his back tire and had a flat this morning) as well as an office workstation. Alongside the trailer is a huge tent under which tables and chairs are set up. The floor is all black and red rubber mats. Everything is amazingly clean.

The second wave is rolling back in and my ride slot is next. Time to suit up.

POST-RIDE EVALUATION

I’m back. Had a fun ride, out on a VFR1200F with a standard clutch and back on a VFR1200F DCT with a dual clutch. Weather was just about perfect for my mid-afternoon departure: sunny and low 60s (F), calm wind. Leaves haven’t turned much up here yet, so there weren’t leaf-peepers out clogging the roads. My group of seven (Honda leader, five testers, and Honda sweep) rode out along VT 100 and Tyson Road to VT 106, then reversed course for a total of 70 miles. Ride time was an hour and 40 minutes including a brief stop half way out to switch bikes.

The route was mediocre. We passed roads that are better than Tyson Road which was choppy in sections. It gave us all the opportunity to zig and zag to avoid bumps, but if you’re listening, Honda, next time invest more effort in route selection. The people you invited to evaluate these bikes could have been a tremendous resource for you in identifying roads that would have let us appreciate the machines more than we did. At least there wasn’t much traffic.

The out ride found me on a standard clutch VFR, same as I had test ridden last summer. I found it much the same: fabulously fast, light on its feet, wonderfully refined. Ken Condon, who rode a VFR800 for years, observed that it felt just like an older VFR with a more powerful engine.

The switch gear snicks as it should and everything is where I think it should be, except for the horn and turn signal switch being reversed (the horn is above the turn signal…more on that later). Having a digital gear indicator is handy although as usual I found myself working to be in the right gear for the circumstance irrespective of what number it’s assigned. (“Oh, look…3rd.”) The brakes are phenomenal with good bite and a progressive lever. The linked brake system is setup so the foot pedal actuates the rear brake plus one piston on one caliper in front. With the hand lever you get all front brake.

The dual clutch system works really well. I’m sure there are some purists out there who will dismiss it out of hand. While that’s your prerogative I also think it would be your loss. I had a whole bunch of fun playing with the transmission and riding that bike. It’s very intuitive. When the motor is off the bike is in neutral, so there is a parking brake. A cable linkage actuates a separate brake caliper on the rear rotor. There’s a parking brake lever inboard of the left handlebar switch pod and you just tug it to engage before you get off the bike. It falls to your hand naturally. When you want to move forward you toggle the drive selector with your right thumb and you’re in gear. You can feel the shift. When you’re ready to go, twist the throttle and hang on.

It takes next to no time to master the system. There’s a trigger for your left finger for upshifts and a paddle for your left thumb for downshifts. You don’t have to move your hand along the grip, just move your finger or thumb. I bet on a cold day those digits might get cold if you kept taking them off the heated grip to shift. BTW, the turn signal switch and horn are reversed on this bike so the horn isn’t mistaken for the downshift paddle. Several testers including your humble scribe hit the horn instead of the turn signal switch.

If you want automatic mode, pick either drive (which shifts as soon as the engine can manage the load) or sport (which keeps revs high). One thing that is cool is when you’re in either auto mode, if you don’t like the gear you’re in you just toggle up or down and you change gears and enter manual mode. Easy. If you want to go from auto to manual without changing the gear you’re in, there’s an AT/MT toggle for your right forefinger. So no matter which mode or gear you’re in and which mode or gear you want to be in, it’s simple to get there.

The drive mode would be fine for highway, long stretches of easy two-lane, or when you’re stuck in slow moving traffic. It is smooth and simple. When you come to a stop the bike goes to first gear by itself and idles. Interesting: you cannot rev the engine unless the bike is stopped and in neutral. (Honda, can you please license this technology to Harley-Davidson?)

The sport mode did not impress me as much as I thought it would. If the bike had only manual shift that would be enough and if I was going to pick one automatic mode it would be drive, not sport. Once I decide I feel like getting into the ride I want to pick my own gear. I raised this with the Honda guys and they pointed out that the speeds we were able to achieve on this route (citation territory but not felonious) were not high enough or sustained enough for the sport mode to do its thing as designed. I’m not in a position to disagree since I didn’t ride it in such conditions. The Honda guys said on the route we took they’d have chosen manual shifting as well. Once again, if Honda invested more time in route selection this could have been addressed.

The manual shift mode works like an electronic Valentino Rossi. Pull my finger (um…yeah) to upshift, push my thumb to downshift. That’s it. Yes, there is less mechanical movement of my body to accomplish a shift than with a standard clutch, but I’m not uninvolved. I can’t possibly shift as quickly or smoothly on a standard clutch bike. I like it. YMMV, but don’t decide you don’t like it until you try it because it is well thought out and it works.

There are some things you need to do differently and I figured these out pretty quickly. One is you don’t roll off the throttle when you upshift or blip the throttle when you downshift. Just toggle to the next gear. It’s pretty cool setting up for a turn, up on the balls of your feet, and not having to slide your left foot down to trip the shifter. Just stay up on your feet, press into the turn, toggle down (or not…this motor is a torque monster) and roll on through the turn. The bike rolls off or blips the throttle automatically as needed.

You could argue (and I heard some testers do so) that you don’t have to use certain skills you spent years refining so it makes you less involved in the ride. On the other hand you just can focus on piloting the bike down the road, making perfect gear shifts at will.

Now for the $64,000 question: is a dual clutch necessary? Honestly, I do not think it is. How many riders have you heard ask you for a motorcycle (a sport bike in particular) with automatic shifting? I can count the ones who asked me on exactly zero fingers. If just the shift-it-yourself mode were included, it would make more sense for a sport bike.

One of my fellow testers concluded that Honda is making it because they can. Clever folks at Honda, they’re able to do a lot of neat things. I wonder if it would work better on a Gold Wing. Perhaps Honda decided to bring it to market on a sport bike first (on the VFR in particular which has long been Honda’s technology showcase) because it would be easier to migrate the technology from a sport bike to a touring bike, than to start with a touring bike and migrate to a sport bike. (“I don’t want any touring bike transmission on my sport bike,” said Mr. Testosterone.) After side stands were down for the day, there was some talk around the bar about having a dual clutch tranny on a middle weight bike, like a 599. There was also concern that putting such a tranny on a beginner bike could dumb down the skill set needed to operate a motorcycle well. Interesting banter.

I figured some of you hooligan types would want to know whether you can do a wheelie on a dual clutch VFR. I dropped it down to first doing about 25 and grabbed a ton of throttle – and all it did was launch me forward. (“Go strap yourself in, I’m going to make the jump to light speed.”) When I got back I asked a couple of the Honda guys if the dual clutch bike can wheelie and they said yes, it can.

I have some nits to pick with this VFR. The ergos are aggressive for me. In particular the pegs are high and I’m neither tall nor long of leg. They could be a bit lower without sacrificing lean angle as far as I can tell. The front suspension preload and rebound on the out route (standard clutch bike) were dialed in for someone who weighs a lot more than your 145-pound tester. It was jarring for much of the ride. The suspension was set up much better on the back route (dual clutch bike). I understand that everything was supposed to be at factory settings, so someone heavier than me (which doesn’t narrow it down much) must have played with the suspension settings on the standard clutch bike I rode. Also, some testers thought the throttle was abrupt, but not all agreed. I bet those of us with fuel injected bikes are probably used to it.

Overall, the VFR1200F DCT is a well thought out and well executed machine – a gentleman’s sport bike as opposed to a boy racer sport bike. There is a lot to like and I’d like it even more if I could sit more upright.

If any of you have questions I’ll try to answer them after dinner…filet mignon anyone?

THE MORNING AFTER

I spent much of the ride home thinking about the new VFR. One thing I thought of repeatedly was how much fun it would have been to ride it on roads like the ones I was choosing instead of the ones Honda led us down. I also reminded myself that I’m not a sport bike buyer. Yes, they’re fun to ride but they don’t suit my style of riding or preferred posture on a bike. I wouldn’t buy one as my only bike…maybe as a third or fourth bike, but I’m unlikely to go beyond a two-bike stable any time soon. I would not likely be a VFR1200F buyer.

That said, I genuinely enjoyed the dual clutch system. If Honda offered just manual paddle shifting and did away with the drive and sport auto shift modes that would be fine with me. Shifting is ridiculously fast and smooth – better than me on my best day – but it’s still engaging and fun to shift through gears. My gut feeling is that Honda’s dual clutch transmission is a great system that needs a more appropriate home. I think it would be better suited to a Gold Wing than a VFR. I would even consider buying a DCT-equipped ST. I’d want to ride a model with and one without and then make up my mind. At $1500, it’s a pretty pricey option.

One more thing I learned is Honda knows how to put on an event. We were treated very well, start to finish. Lobster, filet, top-shelf open bar (after bikes were parked for the day), plush resort, interesting people to meet and hang with, and cool bikes to try out. Go have fun and thanks for coming. Honda clearly wants our business, but this event was much more about wanting our opinions. The Honda guys sought me out, asked me about my involvement in riding forums, asked me about the feature articles I write about riding, asked me what my buddies ride, asked me what I’d like to see in the next ST. I gave them an earful every time.

So they didn’t sell me the VFR DCT, but they got me thinking the technology it introduces might end up on a bike I’d buy in the future.


VFR6

Blogger: Scott ‘Bones’ Williams

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Reader Feedback:

I’ve no doubt Honda got a complete earful of things we’d like them to know. Bones is great at ferreting out stuff and talking to everyone, plus he’s an outstanding rider, completely capable of giving an experienced rider’s perspective.

Carl Toboika, Kingston, New York

 

 

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