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Honda's new VFR1200FD steals a march on its rivals with a unique electronic transmission

By David Neely

The tourist from Holland turned out to be a biker when he came over to talk to me at a scenic lay by on the Antrim Coast Road.

And he was a sharp cookie too. ‘No clutch’, he observed, and then he noticed that the gear lever was also missing.

“Is this a new model, I haven’t seen this one before”, he told me. His own bike was also a Honda, the Shadow custom styled model and he’d paid more for it second hand that would also have bought him here one and half new machines.

I explained I was testing the new VFR1200FD, the dual clutch version of the VFR1200, and he was finding it hard to get his head around the fact that although it has an automatic, direct drive setting you can also change gear manually with a paddle- type system.

Obviously there was something of a communications gap caused by language but when I showed him the hand brake, that really threw him. As you cannot leave the bike in gear when switched off, the handlebar mounted brake is a necessity.

I wished him a good holiday and he got into his hired car and drove off with his two female companions, still something bewildered. I turned my attention back to the bike, selected the manual setting and rode on.

Initially it felt strange having no clutch lever to pull or gear leave to operate. Your left foot is virtually redundant. I had left Belfast Honda‘s showroom on Price Regent Road, off the Castlereagh Road earlier in the day, feeling slightly apprehensive, I must admit.

I kept the setting on automatic, the controls for this and manual drive are mounted on the right hand bar. The two gear ‘paddles’ – finger pull to go up through the six speed box and thumb push to come down it – are positioned on the left handle bar.

But by the time I had negotiated the Belfast traffic, letting the auto setting take the work out of gear changing, I was starting to feel at home with the system by the time I reached the M2 motorway and heading out of the city.

I remained in automatic for a while, there’s a gear indicator on the instrument console, and it displays no matter what type of mode is selected. Very useful it is too. I decided to switch to manual which can be done while riding.

Simply be pulling on the finger lever on the right bar you change gear and go up through the box. You can hold the bike in whatever gear you choose for as long as you want and that decision is not taken away from the rider. The same applies to making down changes with the thumb switch. There’s a sport setting also.

For me one of the pleasures about riding is changing gear at the right moment; you hold a gear through a corner and then you snick up a cog as you exit a bend. Enormously satisfying. That pleasure is not taken away with this setup.

Honda says its system is not automatic transmission but electronic manual transmission. Whatever. In the manual mode it’s just like riding a conventional machine, none of the fun is removed.

(I’ve haven’t the space here to explain fully how the dual clutch works expect to say it’s an exceptionally clever kit of kit and Honda has produced a special brochure to detail its operation).

Yamaha introduced a semi automatic version on its FJR1300 tourer but it proved not to be a hit with customers. One of its faults was that in the drive position it started off not too smoothly.

This wasn’t a problem on a smooth surface but if you were parked on gravel or somewhere rough, it was something of an unpleasant experience. On a conventional bike you would feather the clutch but this wasn’t possible on the big Yam.

So I pulled into a gravel strewn side road to test the VFT1200FD. No problem whatsoever ever, either in automatic mode or manual settings. Honda’s obviously learnt from its rival’s failing.

So who is going to buy this special version of new 1200 v-four, a machine that Honda has so much resting on. If a rider had a lot of mileage to do in traffic, it’s not hard to see the advantage of the automatic setting. And no doubt there are other customers who will be attracted by the package.

On the debit side it’s about £1,000 more than the standard bike – the VFR1200FD is £13,175, compared to £12,075 – and the fuel consumption will be slightly more, as with automatic cars. The standard gear set up is excellent on the conventional model, so much so that you’re almost inclined to forget that it’s a shaft driven machine.

However, there’s no doubting that Honda is pushing boundaries here, which has always been one of the very attractive qualities of the company. Belfast Honda has a demo and I suggest you try it before you make any judgement about the bike.

While I was in the showroom I noticed that there zero % interest on some models, including the Fireblade and 125cc Varadero; the Translap trailie comes with free luggage and the Deauville tourer has bigger pannier lids as standard.

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