Why you need Honda’s dual clutch transmission

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Honda’s dual clutch transmission (DCT), as fitted to this VFR1200, ditches the clutch and gearshift levers in favor of “+” and “-” paddles and the option of fully-automatic operation. That’s a neat bit of technology, but why do you need it? Well, it makes burnouts super easy — just grab some front brake and roll open the throttle — but it’s going to have real advantages for driving in congested cities and in stop/start traffic too.

Photos: Grant Ray

The thing that makes this transmission so brilliant is that it actually, honestly, really improves control over the bike at low speed. Yes, some hydraulic pumps, two clutches and an electronic brain are better than my left hand at smoothly, predictably modulating power. Tight u-turns become a cinch, barely requiring your concentration. Pulling away at a crawl is as easy as twisting your right wrist. Coming to a halt, you just stop, the transmission simply cuts the power unobtrusively and instantly. If you regularly ride through heavy traffic at low speed, your aching clutch hand will thank you and because there’s now no need to focus at all on modulating power, your entire brain becomes free to concentrate on whatever the moron car driver in front of you is doing with their latte and cell phone.

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Dual clutch transmissions get their name because they have two clutches. One operates 2nd, 4th and 6th gears, the other 1st, 3rd and 5th. Shift from neutral into 1st and 2nd gear is pre-selected, making its engagement seamless and instant. All you feel is a slight clink from the transmission, just like bikes that require you to shift gears yourself. Acceleration between gears is seamless. The transmission adds 22lbs of weight and a couple inches of width to the VFR’s V4, while the hydraullic pumps which operate the transmission sap a little bit of power. Honda hasn’t said how much. All that’s largely insignificant on a bike which already weighs 591lbs (wet) and makes 172bhp. You can’t detect the extra weight or tiny power loss, but you will see the price. DCT adds $1,500 to the VFR’s already lofty $15,999 sticker.

Operating the transmission is totally intuitive. If you didn’t know it was there you’d look down wondering why you foot was missing the gear lever, shrug, twist the throttle and ride off. Standard auto mode is good for cruising and low-speed work, but it’s eager to select a higher gear to boost fuel economy. Select Sport and gears are held to close to the redline and downshifts become more eager. It’s not until you’re in manual mode (selectable on the right handlebar or by clicking the paddles on the left) that you’re going to have complete control over shift points though. Manual also returns engine braking. It’s not that the transmission creeps like the torque converter auto in a car, but that above a crawling pace the rear wheel is connected to the engine as it runs.

Once you’re flying along at reasonable speeds, DCT doesn’t really offer much advantage over a bike’s already slick sequential gearbox. Sure, full-auto is nice if you’re being lazy, but you’ll be in manual mode if you’re actually trying to ride. The thing is, there’s no disadvantages. The bike is just as engaging with DCT and you gain the ability to relax and let it shift gears for you.

No, the main advantage is while lane splitting or creeping around at a walking pace where faultless fueling and utterly linear throttle response deliver control that’s astoundingly better than what you could achieve yourself, even when you’re really trying hard to be smooth. It’s this ability that’s going to be super relevant to legions of commuters and city riders. Riding a fast bike in traffic is a nerve-wracking experience. I’m not ashamed to admit that crawling along trying to modulate a heavy clutch often wears out my left hand. The constant need to focus on that rather than on avoiding an unintentional game of bumper cars can wear you out. You don’t realize how much mental energy you’re expending until you ride the VFR1200 DCT and are free to think about such things.

Attempting a drag-style start is going to be a little disappointing, but super easy. Just whack the throttle wide open and the bike gets going. Acceleration is initially less than you’d achieve by holding the revs high and modulating the clutch to achieve a clean launch, but it’s not all that far behind. This is a sport tourer, not a race bike.

The VFR isn’t the first bike to go without a clutch lever or gear lever or both. Notably, Yamaha’s FJR1300AE attempts something similar. But where that bike jerks and clunks along at a walking pace, the Honda is beautifully smooth.

If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I am. Hopping back on a bike I’ve stated I don’t like didn’t exactly have my expectations soaring. Not only was I surprised to discover how well the technology works, but that I’d actually enjoy riding a bike with it. The need for masculine chest thumping aside, Honda DCT could really add something to the kind of riding I find myself doing the most. Really, DCT is awesome.

  • dan

    Welcome to the club. I commute on an Aprilia Mana 850 that does just as well, if not, better than the Honda. It is great in the city. I don’t miss the manual clutch that I have on my other bikes. This is the future, just like it was in the automobile market years ago. You can’t beat a computer in choosing the right gear. The only obstacle is prejudice from long-time bikers. But this will open up the market to those who never learned to use a manual shift on a motorcycle. The way I see it, the freedom from having to engage the clutch is one less thing to worry about while we are watching the multitude of other factors that can hurt or kill us.

    • Uncle Fluffy

      I’ve had my eye on the Mana for a while now… seems like the ultimate commuter. I’m fairly certain I’ll be on one before the end of the year.

      • dan

        here’s a link to all us Manaiacs to get some feedback.

        http://www.apriliaforum.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=68

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

          Well the Mana is a Continuously Variable Transmission, which is a bulkier, heavier solution. It’s more of an evolutionary dead end even if the current application is reasonably good.

          • dan

            There are different applications for different reasons. Cost, amount of power. The DCT is more expensive. The Mana is priced where it is – but I am not saying that Aprilia is doing a good job marketing the bike. I know you’ve written about the Mana before. My comments were because I thought the story (correctly) was pointing to the evolution in general – sans manual clutch, rather than the Honda itself. And in that vein, there will be many roads to get to the same place as I suspect Honda’s DCT will not be the end all either.

      • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

        Just be warned that you will drag race everyone at stoplights. The paddle shifter w/o having to let off the throttle is insanely addictive.

        • Devin

          That sounds like a selling feature more than a disclaimer.

          • tomwito

            Agreed!

  • Glenngineer

    It’ll go really well on the new Goldwing. Word is the info/leaks will start on that one on Monday…

  • Ken D

    I’ve really come around to automatics on cars. Right foot on the throttle, left foot on the brake. It enables you to drive it like you ride a bike, using throttle and brake at the same time. Transitions are smoother and the vehicle is less upset during changes of direction or velocity.

    It’s made me wonder if a right-hand-throttle/left-hand-brake strategy could work on a bike. All you’d need to do is relearn, which doesn’t take long.

    • Miles Prower

      I think the ultimate city motorbike would be a lightweight electric that can hit 50 mph in 4 sec — with right-hand throttle and left-hand front brake — and no shifting required. Without foot controls, you could remain standing with butt off the saddle while accelerating up staircases or wheelying a whole block.

      Oh wait, you’ve got me rambling off topic now.

      Yes, I wish my Multistrada had a dual-clutch. It’s a bear to ride in traffic two-up, especially after a long day touring.

  • 2ndderivative

    You know what’s even easier for city riding? A scooter.

    There’s a reason my car is still a stick-shift. And yes, I regularly commute in heavy traffic by motorcycle, car, and on occasion bicycle.

    • dan

      But some of us do inter city riding. I have Vespas and bikes. I have a different mind sets on all of them. But sometimes you want something bigger.

  • Ducky

    Grant, what interests me is that you said that the fueling is faultless and the throttle response is really linear- yet on an earlier review, Wes said that the VFR suffered from really bad fueling both on track and on the road. Is it just a function of the DCT smoothing these traits over, or does the VFR just behave completely different in slow traffic conditions?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Two different bikes. The vfr we rode last summer had awful fueling. This one was perfect

      • Ducky

        Thanks for the reply. So did Honda make some changes mid-run, or is it possible that your review bikes from last year were simply really crappily put together? How do you guys feel about the rest of the bike?

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

          I’m not a fan of the bike in general, but I’m trying to focus on the transmission technology here. It’s likely that setup differences between the two bikes as well as the different transmissions played a role. Fueling wasn’t our only issue when we rode the bike last summer.

  • andy727

    For some reason, I don’t like this idea. I like shifting, rev-matching on downshifts, heel/toe in a car…the control and feeling that it gives me. All my cars are standard too. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Maybe I am getting old-school like that.

    • tomwito

      People were saying that about the auto rev match offered in the new 370Z until they drove it. After driving it they thought it was the greatest thing ever.

      • Kirill

        Going to second this, the auto-rev match in the 370Z is amazing. I love shifting my own gears and the control as well, but nothing in the book of purism says that you can’t have a computer help you out here and there.

        That said, I’ll take a true manual in a car over one any day, but on a bike…eh…sure, why not. There’s already so much going on that having one less thing to worry about is a great bonus.

  • Nick

    I’ve had 2 VW GTI mk5′s with dual clutch transmissions, and a GLI mk5 with a regular 6 speed. I’d take the dual clutch any day. Shifts way faster than a bag of flesh ever could, I don’t care if you’re Lewis Hamilton. Also the noise it makes when it shifts is pretty cool. Death to the clutch! Long live the dual clutch!

    • Steve

      I have a mk5 GTI with the manual, my wife has a Boxster with the twin clutch auto. After a lot of seat time in both I think she made the better choice of transmission. I have the GTI because someone has to carry home the groceries and the occasional Costco run.

  • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate BeastIncarnate

    Great article and good on you for writing it in spite of the prior comments on this bike. Once all the details were out on the VFR1200, the DCT was the only part of the equation that still interested me. It still does. Sounds like the implementation really is an all around win.

    Curious, though, how do you think a motorcycle DCT compares for reliability and service cost?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Hey, no problem, we always endeavor to be open minded and fair.

      It’s a Honda, DCT’s not going to break down all the time. Having said that, in the very long term the hydraulic pumps add two potential failure points and service items. I guess we’ll find out about added cost and reliability when owners start reporting back after 50,000+ miles.

    • Scott-jay

      Vintage SOHC 750 Hondas and 450′s w/ automatics are popping up on CL. Different tech, but typical Honda.

  • tomwito

    Once Honda makes a VFR1000RR to challenge the RSV4R and they use this gear box, every doubter will change their mind.

  • tomwito

    RSV4*

  • Ed

    Welcome to the lazy lefty club! Okay, so I’m a Hondamatic owner from way back (this is my second 1978 Hawk CB400A.) It’s like a big scooter — just a little more motorcycley. You got two gears that you shift with your toe and it’s not afraid of a long ride in the country. It is a great bike for low speed stop and go city driving. Seems like Honda has been trying to get this right for a long time and is finally hitting it.

  • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

    Obviously this tech debuted on their Halo bike, but if they simplify it, work out any bugs, and shrink the overall package (not sure how they do that, 22 lbs is pretty damn impressive), their next step should be filtering it down to their other bikes.

    When people can by a $5k CBR250 with a DCT and ABS, Honda wins.

    • aristurtle

      I dunno if more weight is what the CBR250 needs; it already has trouble maintaining highway speeds.

  • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

    Maybe it’s just me, but as a bicyclist and motorcyclist I always feel a bit of a mind-fuck when I reach for the front brake and it’s on the opposite hand from where it was on the vehicle I was last riding. Yes? No?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Yeah, I switch the brakes to motorcycle style on all my bicycles

      • Ceolwulf

        Same here. I like my front brake to be my front brake regardless of what’s providing the power.

    • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

      … the hell? Where are you getting your bicycles from? Every single bicycle I’ve had the front brake was on the right hand side. Sounds like someone’s putting them together wrong. Or maybe that’s just because everything is backwards below the equator.

  • Charles

    Yep. Bicycles have it wrong, I think. It’s easy to switch them on a bicycle, just tell anyone else who rides it before they go over the bars

  • Justin

    I imagine I’d feel about this the way I feel about automatic cars. They’re nice and convenient when I drive in a lot of heavy traffic, which unfortunately, is quite a bit, but eventually I always wish I’d bought the manual transmission.

  • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

    Damn it! I hate when technology does things better than I can! I commute on a Gixxer 1000, have done for a couple of years but you’re right – left hand get’s really worn out in heavy stop-start traffic. I was just thinking “man up and get some grippers to increase your hand strength” but then I realized oops – that’s why I bought an XR400 so I can commute on a much cooler running bike. I’ve always found that smaller capacity and less sporting bikes are so much easier to ride around the city, alot less concentration needed. If DCT on the VFR1200 gives the same type of feeling – that’s pretty impressive to have a big bike that is so mentally ‘easy’ do drive around through traffic.

    I used to be against traction control and ABS, thinking that it wasn’t a real “riders bike” with them. But how inexperienced I was… now I have added the Bazzaz kit to my Gixxer so I have TC. Would probably do the same with ABS if possible.

    So basically the VFR1200 is a great bike if you want to go slow? They’ve found it’s niche! Haha :P

  • DoctorNine

    I’ve ridden for so many years now, that the clutch and the throttle are my private Zen meditation. This is why I ride. I’m sure there are many logical reasons to improve any technology. Indoor plumbing is great. I love it at home. But there is also a reason why some people like to stay in a mountain cabin with no running water.