With the rumor mill suggesting Honda's next Gold Wing will have DCT, we take a look at what it's like to ride a bike with an automatic transmission.
Big Red likely to add Dual Clutch Transmission to upcoming Gold Wing
You down with DCT? Yeah, you know me. And with Honda hinting strongly that the feature will be added to a new Gold Wing variant soon, clearly Big Red is hoping I’m not the only one.
DCT, of course, stands for Dual Clutch Transmission; it’s the “automatic” transmission feature that Honda has been slowly adding to more and more bikes in recent years. I put the word “automatic” in quotes there because engineering boffins will tell you it’s not really the same thing as an automatic transmission in a car.
DCT “utilizes a computerized electro-hydraulic control system to switch between the gears of a conventional six-speed transmission,” according to Honda. “It is equipped with two clutch packs… one for odd numbered gears – 1, 3 and 5 – and one for even numbered gears – 2, 4 and 6. In the minute interval before actual gear shifting operation begins, the system automatically prepares itself for the transfer of drive power between gears by starting up the rotation of the gear to be changed to. Its two independently actuated clutches then smoothly transfer rotation speed from one gear to the next without zeroing out the drive force transmitted to the rear wheel.”
Technical explanations always bore me. If you’re a dunderhead like me, for all intents and purposes, DCT is an automatic transmission. That’s how it works: you just twist the throttle and go. Similar to a number of higher-end cars these days (and the Can-Am Spyder), there are paddles on the left grip that allow you to choose your gear if so desired.
Honda will point out it’s been flirting with automatic transmissions for nigh 60 years now, stretching all the way back to its 1958 C100 Super Cub, which was equipped with an automatic centrifugal clutch. But the DCT technology is relatively new, as its application for two-wheelers other than scooters. First introduced as an option for the VFR1200F back in 2009, DCT is now in its third generation and available on 10 Honda models, depending on which part of the world you live in: CTX700, CTX700N, NC750S (700 in the US), NC750X (700 in the US), NC750D (Integra), X-ADV, NM4 (Vultus), Africa Twin (CRF1000L), VFR1200F, and VFR1200X. Despite these many iterations, until earlier this year I had never ridden a bike with DCT.
Eager to correct that oversight, I got in touch with the very good folks at Honda* and asked if I could spend a few weeks with a DCT-equipped vehicle. I wanted to see for myself what it was about. Too often when I read reviews of bikes with DCT the journalist will adopt a “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” attitude toward the technology. I wanted to spend some time with a bike and get into the mindset of understanding why a person would really want and prefer DCT, rather than simply dismissing it as OK for someone else.
The team at Honda UK had me come pick up an NC750X, saying they felt it best demonstrated the DCT experience. No complaints from me; the NC750X (or, well, the NC700X, which is effectively the same bike – I don’t know why Europe gets 50 cc more) is a bike that we here at RideApart have been fans of for a very long time. A do-all machine that is insanely affordable when put into perspective, the bike has quietly become one of Honda’s most popular in Europe.
What it’s Like to Ride a Bike with DCT
My first challenge came in trying to mentally separate the transmission experience from the overall experience of the bike. The NC750X is a good motorcycle, but I’ll admit it’s not one of my favorites. The engine is rougher than it needs to be, and if I were to own one I’d probably end up sinking so much money into accessories that I’d be better off just buying the Africa Twin that I’d be trying to transform this thing into.
That said, the NC750X has a blank slate quality to it, so compartmentalizing its elements is perhaps easier than, say, on a VFR1200F, where I might be getting lost in irrelevant aspects like handling, power, suspension, etc.
With most DCT systems Honda offers a number of different riding modes, which determine how the transmission performs. The NC750X, for example, is equipped with Drive and Sport modes. The former aims to shift gear in such a way that you achieve maximum fuel economy. This means it’ll be reaching for fifth gear at 30 mph. Sport, meanwhile, will hold gears a little longer, allowing you to nudge closer to the redline.
If you feel the bike has chosen incorrectly, you can always knock it up or down a gear using the paddle shifter. (On a side note, I had worried that I might accidentally hit these gear-change buttons when signaling a turn, but that never happened.) As far as I’m aware, the DCT system will never fully take a backseat, though, so it will eventually try to return to whatever gear you took it out of.
In urban environments, filtering through traffic and navigating roundabouts, I was happy to leave the bike in Drive and let it make the call as to which gear was best. Shifting is generally as smooth as my own, and in many cases – though it hurts my pride to admit it – better. Importantly, the system doesn’t ever get tired or distracted, which means there aren’t any of the sloppy/jerky starts that can sometimes show up in my riding at the end of a long day. Gear choice isn’t always what I’d go with, but obviously the bike never puts itself in a situation where it’s going to stall itself out with too high a gear or lurch by going too low.
In this environment, not having to pay attention to gear changes frees up a surprising amount of mental space. I mean, a really surprising amount. After the initial few instances of grabbing for a non-existent clutch lever I found myself being more observant and more confident as I navigated through heavy traffic. It felt like a low-level superpower, as as if I’d been bitten by a radioactive owl and suddenly gifted a 20-percent boost in awareness. I was better able to read and anticipate situations, and felt more relaxed as a result.
It was a system that inherently encouraged me to ride more in the city because it made riding all that much easier. After a few days with the bike, I was finding all kinds of excuses to run errands.
I was less enthusiastic about DCT, however, on twisty back roads. Keeping the bike in Sport mode meant it held onto gears longer but not long enough for my liking. Too often it wanted to upshift while I was in the middle of a corner. That creates an unhappy situation where you suddenly feel cut loose in a bend.
Some of this was a me thing, of course. I have a tendency to rely on engine braking a lot, having done a fair bit of riding with British cops who are obsessed with never showing their brake lights. As a result, I do have a habit of putting strain on a transmission. And it's worth noting that not too long ago I had a conversation with a fellow mo-jo who is a better rider than myself and he raved about the DCT on the Africa Twin.
By and large, I really liked riding a bike with DCT. Whether I'd personally choose to own a bike with the feature would depend on whether it came on a bike that I really wanted. To that end, I figure I should put on my Pretty Please pants and try to get hold of a DCT-equipped VFR1200F. Tantalizingly, in the United Kingdom Honda is currently offering the DCT-equipped Africa Twin at 0-percent interest. Combined with a no-money-down offer, that's almost enough to make me reconsider my quibbles about the Africa Twin.
The strengths of DCT are pretty obvious. It frees up mental bandwidth for other things, be it navigating traffic or simply appreciating the scenery. And in so doing it makes for a more relaxed, “natural” experience. If you imagine motorcycling as an activity that is an extension of your physical self, it makes sense that there wouldn’t be gears involved. After all, you don’t switch gears when you run or swim; you just go faster when you want to go faster.
I realize that some people feel more connected to a machine when kicking through gears, but arguably the trade off here is that DCT allows for greater connection to the surrounding environment. Indeed, the lasting memories of my three weeks with the NC750X are not of the bike but corners in roads, the smell of the air as I rode past a river, and suddenly realizing there was an ice cream shop on a road I travel almost every week. Meanwhile, for commuting, DCT makes a ridiculous amount of sense. Why wouldn’t you want to be more alert in traffic?
Additionally, of course, DCT removes one of the barriers to motorcycling. My best friend once told me that the reason he wouldn’t get his motorcycle license was uncertainty about his ability to operate a manual transmission while maintaining balance and so on. With DCT that excuse disappears (Sort of. You still have to pass your test, and in the United Kingdom, at least, that requires knowledge of a manual transmission). I suspect that anyone making that excuse will find a different one, but you can’t help but love Honda for trying to make motorcycling more accessible.
Primarily the disadvantages of DCT are personal and psychological. If you tell yourself you don’t like it, you won’t. That’s a you thing. It has nothing to do with DCT. True, I personally wasn’t a fan of how the transmission behaved through corners but with more time and some light mental retraining I’ll bet I could adjust. And with a more exciting motorcycle (eg, VFR1200F), I’d feel an incentive to put in the effort. So, it’s good that Honda is committed to the DCT format, making it available in several “flavors” to be able to suit different tastes. I think it will be particularly fitting if added to the Gold Wing.
Beyond that the only other disadvantage comes from a possibly irrational fear of the unknown. Specifically: what’s to stop it from all going horribly wrong?
When I was a young boy, my family were all in the car when the cruise control feature got locked and would not shut off. My father jammed the brakes, but to no avail; the car wanted to go 60 mph regardless of the traffic ahead. Ultimately he managed to pull it out of gear, but still the car’s engine screamed in an effort to hurtle us to our deaths.
What’s to stop that sort of thing happening with DCT? If the bike is making the decisions, what prevents it from getting locked in first gear? What happens if the engine suddenly cuts out while you're riding down the highway? There’s no clutch lever to grab, no gear pedal to kick at: no means of manually disengaging the transmission. I thought about this a lot while I rode around on the NC750X. What the hell would I do? Jam the brakes and pray, I guess. Look forward to writing another article about crashing.
Obviously I was being paranoid, and unfairly so. I mean, I’ll get into a car with an automatic transmission without those sorts of worries. Why should I think riding a motorcycle with an automatic transmission would turn into some sort of Rise of the Machines nightmare? Still, it was a thought that hung in the back of my mind.
And therein lies what is probably the greatest challenge for Honda as it continues to expand the DCT format: getting people to overcome their silly fears and preconceptions. Because ultimately the feature is damned useful, creates a different level of motorcycling enjoyment, and has the potential to expand the appeal of motorcycling. And that’s definitely a good thing.
*This is kind of an inside baseball thing, but as a moto-journalist I am always grateful for how easy it is to work with Honda. Thanks, guys!