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Motorcycles are making shift to automatic transmission

Honda aims to attract riders to its DN-01 by getting rid of the clutch and foot-shifting. But its $14,599 price tag won't help.

April 01, 2009|Susan Carpenter

With few exceptions in modern motorbiking, the two-wheeled world has broken down something like this: Manual transmission equals motorcycle (and macho). Automatic transmission equals scooter (and sissy).

But in the last year, the most caveman of two-wheeled categorizations has begun to evolve: Motorcycles are beginning to incorporate automatic transmissions.

The Honda DN-01, which is rolling into U.S. dealerships this week, lets riders do away with hand-squeezing a clutch and foot-shifting through gears when they're also trying to stay balanced, navigate traffic and coordinate accelerating and braking.

The DN, which stands for "Dream New," is angling for two seemingly opposite ends of the market: New riders who want to feel the wind in their hair without a clutch in their hands; and seasoned riders who want to be the Joneses with whom everyone else aspires to keep pace.

It's an experiment, though. And priced at $14,599 in a down economy, it's probably more of an experiment than Honda was intending.

"I applaud Honda for doing the DN-01 because in recent years there's been some criticism of the motorcycle industry that it's kind of stuck in a rut," said Paul Dean, senior editor of Cycle World magazine. "There are markets and demographics into which motorcycling could and very well may expand, and I think having an automatic transmission technology will help that happen."

Autos have made the transition almost completely. According to WardsAuto.com, an industry data website, 93% of the 2008 model year cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. used automatic transmissions, compared with 79% in 1990.

Two-wheelers are starting to head in that direction to attract a broader audience. Sales of scooters, which use automatic transmissions, were higher than they had ever been in 2008; 1 in 4 on-road two-wheelers sold last year was a scooter.

"Five years from now, you'd be amazed how many automatic and semiautomatics you're going to see in the two-wheeled world," said Jon Seidel, assistant manager of motorcycle press for American Honda in Torrance.

Honda isn't the first to try innovative transmissions that involve riders less. Oklahoma City start-up Ridley Motorcycles has sold 4,000 of its V-twin "Auto-glide" automatic motorcycles in the last 10 years. Yamaha -- the first major motorcycle manufacturer to introduce a clutchless motorcycle for the street -- saw a 13% increase in sales of its FJR1300AE from March 2008 to February, a time during which total motorcycle sales, both on- and off-road, were down 9%.

On the market since 2006, the semi-manual version of Yamaha's popular sport-touring model allows riders to press a button or a lever to shift gears rather than coordinate their left extremities to simultaneously squeeze a clutch with one hand and press a shifter with a foot. The clutchless AE, available for an $1,800 premium over the manual transmission version, accounts for 25% of FJR1300 sales.

Yamaha is "patiently watching" to see if the smaller displacement, fully and semiautomatic models that have come on the market in the last year "make any inroads," said Kevin Foley, Yamaha's media relations manager for street motorcycles.

So far, they appear to be.

The Aprilia Mana, on the market since last summer, now accounts for 14% of the company's sales. Since the stylish Italian model came on the market with Autodrive, a transmission that allows riders to speed through town in automatic mode (using only their wits and a throttle instead of a clutch) or semiautomatic mode (moving through the bike's seven gears with the touch of a button), the $9,899, 850 cc V-twin has become one of Aprilia's bestsellers out of 19 available models.

One of the brands owned by Vespa manufacturer Piaggio Group, Aprilia has since unveiled a touring version of the Mana called a GT, though production details on that model have not yet been released.

With the introduction of its DN-01, Honda is poised to draft on other manufacturers' success with a bike that takes the automatic motorcycle concept and introduces new design and engineering.

The Mana's Autodrive transmission is a direct descendant of the pulley-driven CVT, or continuously variable transmissions, in use on most scooters. Yamaha's FJR1300AE is a manual transmission with a computer-controlled clutch.

But the Honda DN-01 employs an entirely new technology. Its hydromechanical transmission, or HFT, uses fluids to push a series of swash plates back and forth for seamless and buttery movement between the gears.

Like the Aprilia Mana, the DN-01 can be operated in fully automatic and semiautomatic modes. Unlike the Mana, the DN-01 lacks a proven design corollary. Sportbike, cruiser, scooter: The DN-01 looks like all three depending on the vantage point.

It was first unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2005 and has been for sale in Japan and Europe for about a year.

In some ways, the Dream New is a modern take on an old Japanese reverie -- the automatic CB750A and CM400A "Hondamatics" that came on the market just as the craze for motorcycles was declining. Introduced in 1976 and 1979, respectively, each model lived for three years before being pulled from Honda's lineup.

Whether anything will be different 30 years later remains to be seen.

Seidel declined to say how many DN-01s were being imported to the U.S. except to say that "dealer orders were much stronger than we anticipated."

"We're excited about this product, but will it be successful in the market? It's hard to say," he said. "We know it's going to be a niche product. Would we love to sell 10,000? Well, sure, but that's not going to be the reality."

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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