Honda VFR1200FD thinks for itself
It's all too easy to learn to be lazy. The biggest adjustment involved in spending a week on Honda's no-clutch, no-gear-lever VFR1200FD was remembering to use clutch and gears when I got back aboard my own, conventional bike.
Yes, it's a very easy rider, an astonishing combination of scooter ease of operation and muscle-bike performance, and anybody who can ride a moped can get on it and go - which raises red flags in itself.
That simplicity of operation is also achieved, in typical Honda fashion, at the cost of awe-inspiring mechanical complexity and no, Cyril, Honda hasn't yet got all the bugs out.
We've covered how the gearbox actually works, and its three operating modes - Default, Sport and Manual - in previous articles when the bike was first announced, but the reality of riding the world's first dual-clutch transmission on two wheels is a little different.
Each time you start the bike it slips into Default mode and, when you pull away gently in deference to a cold engine, it short-shifts very early with a huge jerk and a loud clonk, and continues to do that until you find yourself in top gear at about 65km/h with 2300rpm (and not very much torque) in hand.
Any meaningful acceleration requires an unseemly amount of throttle and induces a somewhat uncouth downshift, (or two, or three) - and more revs than you were planning on. Brake gently to a halt, however, and it will pop neatly down through the gears in exactly the right sequence for optimum engine braking.
OK, you say, this is not working out, so you push twice with your right thumb and shove it in Manual mode - only to find that, while the changes themselves are commendably swift, the bike seems to hesitate for a heartbeat (and sometimes considerably longer on downshifts) before actually shifting the cogs, which can be very disconcerting going into a tight downhill corner under braking.
And, even in Manual mode, the bike will overrule you if you let the revs fall too far, changing down unbidden as you negotiate a tight gap in the traffic, with enough of a clonk to scare the box pilot next to you into doing something silly.
Worse still, once it's done that, it's back in Default mode and the next time you roll the throttle on smoothly to power out of a corner on the wave of torque this superb engine generates anywhere above 3200rpm, it'll catch you out with an unexpected downshift and a burst of revs.
It's only when you get out of town and get the revs up that the bike comes into its own; anywhere north of 6000rpm upshifts are slick and crisp, downshifts solidly positive even if the bike still makes you wait a few milliseconds.
It will still catch you out with the occasional unexpected downshift under hard acceleration (even in Manual mode!). I suppose if you teach a motorcycle to think for itself you have to accept that sometimes it will disagree with its rider.
But, generally, the harder you push the VFR1200FD the better it works; the test pilot who tuned this transmission must be one righteous rider.
For the record, the dual-clutch Honda howled up to a true 251km/h at 9400rpm with 267 showing on the big digital speedometer, an error of 6.3 percent - not bad by car standards but a little generous for a bike.
It was also during performance testing that we discovered the VFR1200FD's oddest quirk - its fuel gauge. 124km into our standard test ride the bike had used half its 18.5-litre fuel capacity, averaging 7.4 litres/100km in mixed riding - but only 40km later it went onto reserve, warning lights lit up like the fourth of July.
Yet, at a hasty pit stop, the tank would accept only 13 litres. Either the tank is smaller than Honda says it is, or reserve is a more than the quoted four litres. In either case, caution is advised; maximum range will be a little on the short side of 240km and there are still places in South Africa where there is more than 240km between pumps.
The chassis is identical to the manual-shift VFR1200F we rode at the SA launch in June 2010 and everything we said then holds. The bike is superbly stable at all speeds - even on our notorious bumpy test track - and utterly unaffected by blustery side-winds.
Its steering is pinpoint accurate, handling crisp if a little slow by sports-bike standards - appropriately so for a 267kg sports-tourer - and its suspension on the harsh side of firm. It’s definitely biased towards the sport side of sports-touring, although it's possible to dial in softer settings for long rides at the expense of some cornering crispness.
The seat broad and flat if a little firm, the screen a little too low to hide behind; however, it doesn't induce any vortices so scores higher marks than a full touring screen.
The Honda VFR1200FD is not an all-rounder. It's unwieldy in traffic and compromised as a tourer by its (apparent) short range. It's more a muscle-bike than anything else and great fun to ride when pushed hard.
It is also a ground-breaking technological masterpiece but, sadly, everything it can do the manual-shift VFR1200F can do better. For Americans who've never seen a car with a clutch pedal, it's great; for the rest of us it's a clever answer to a question that didn't need asking.
Price: R169 999
Test bike from: Honda SA
Engine: 1237cc liquid-cooled V-four.
Bore x stroke: 81 x 60mm.
Compression ratio: 12.0:1.
Valvegear: SOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 127kW at 10 000rpm.
Torque: 129Nm at 8750.
Induction: PGM-FI electronic fuel-injection with “fly-by-wire” and four 44mm throttle bodies.
Ignition: Computer-controlled digital transistorised with electronic advance.
Transmission: Semi-automatic six-speed dual-clutch gearbox with final drive by shaft.
Front Suspension: 43mm inverted cartridge forks adjustable for preload.
Rear suspension: Rising-rate linkage with remote-reservoir gas-filled monoshock remotely adjustable for preload and rebound damping.
Front brake: Dual 320mm discs with Nissin radial-mount six-pot opposed-piston callipers and combined anti-lock braking.
Rear brake: 276mm disc with Nissin twin-piston floating calliper.
Front tyre: 120/70 - 17 tubeless. Rear tyre: 190/55 - 17 tubeless.
Fuel capacity: 18.5 litres
Kerb weight: 267kg.
Price: R169 999.
Bike from: Honda SA