2009 Aprilia Mana Review
To shift or not to shift
Get the Flash Player to see this player.There’s a good chance a few folks out there have heard little or next to nothing about the Aprilia Mana 850, introduced in July 2008. The Mana is something of a revolutionary motorcycle, and like all revolutions, there is, or will be, those for and those against the cause.
The old guard in motorcycling, upon hearing of this new machine for a new age, may scoff and sneer, saying, “It’s not really a motorcycle!” And a fresh generation of riders embracing two wheels for the first time will retort with, “It is so a motorcycle, old man!” Indeed, those shouting “old man” might just be old men themselves, as many re-entry riders comprise a portion of today’s motorcycling masses.
What is it about this new Aprilia that might create such a dust-up? The Mana 850 is a fully automatic transmission motorcycle.
“What’s so revolutionary? You’ve forgotten about the Hondamatics from the ‘70s!” you might correctly scold.
Indeed, the Mana 850 isn’t the first bike to employ a continuously variable transmission (CVT), but it is the first bike to add the feature of an electronically controlled semi-manual 7-speed sequential transmission, and a choice of three engine mappings, all made accessible at the push of a few buttons. But what might really generate the brouhaha is the fact that the 839cc liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, eight valve, single overhead cam, twin sparkplug per-cylinder, 90-degree V-Twin powering the Mana is sourced virtually unchanged from a scooter.
Aprilia, for those that may not know, is a property of Piaggio, the scooter and small-displacement motorcycle manufacturing giant based in Italy. Of the seven or so two-wheel brands under the Piaggio Group umbrella, Gilera is one of five brands that carry scooters, and it’s the Gilera GP800 from which the Mana gets its powerplant.
The engine specification sheets of the GP800 (also an 839cc) and Mana 850 are nigh copies of one another. About the only notable difference is that in scooter trim the mill makes a claimed 65.5 hp at 7,250 rpm and in the Mana claimed horsepower is 76.1 at 8,000 rpm. According to those same tech specs, the Gilera scooter actually makes about 2 ft-lbs more than the Mana (56 ft-lbs at 5750 rpm vs. 54 ft-lbs at 5000 rpm).
Where the Aprilia leaves scooterdom behind is in just about every aspect other than the powertrain. The Twin hangs from a steel-tube trellis frame coupled to a traditional but stylish swingarm. Front suspension is a non-adjustable 43mm male-slider fork. The Sach’s linkage-less shock provides easy spring preload changes courtesy of its location – just below the seat and in-line with the frame’s main tube – and a ramp-style adjuster; shock rebound damping is also available.
The auto bike rolls along on traditional sportbike size rubber of 120/70 x 17 up front and 180/55 x 17 in the back. Wheelbase length of 57.5 inches adds some stability in handling while the reasonably sporty 24.0-degree rake and 4.05 inches of trail keeps steering response light and quick. By comparison, the Mana has rake and trail dimensions nearly identical to those on Kawasaki’s ultra-sporty ZX-6R, winner of our 2009 Supersport Shootout. Like many motorcycles the Mana uses a chain final drive; claimed dry weight is 440 lbs.
Though I’ve never ridden the Gilera GP800 (and likely never will since the brand isn’t sold in the U.S.), I had my doubts that a “motorcycle” powered by a scooter engine could tickle my fancy. Oh, how the mighty have fallen…
“4…3…2…1… Earth below us, drifting, falling…”
Swinging a leg over plants your bottom in a wide, comfortable saddle sitting a humane 31.4 inches off the ground; distance to the thick rubber covered footpegs is roomy. Aprilia managed to carve the seat from the perfect foam density: neither too soft nor too firm. Furthermore, the step created as result of the separation between rider and passenger portion makes a nice support for the rider to slide back into. Reach to the one-piece handlebar is easy, complementing the open, neutral rider triangle.
Start-up procedure on the tech-laden Mana is normal save for the fact you don’t need to pull in the clutch lever as part of a safety routine to prevent accidental movement if the bike is in gear, ‘cause there ain’t no clutch lever. Recall that with CVT transmissions there aren’t any gears in the traditional sense; ergo a clutch lever isn’t necessary. However, applying the front brake is required as part of a safe start-up routine. If the bike is parked on an incline of any degree you might’ve set the manual parking brake (one more time, no gears!) located just in front of your left knee, so don’t forget to release it.
Your next task is to choose from one of the three engine mappings, Rain, Touring or Sport; mappings are selectable on-the-fly. Mapping selection happens via the round Gear Mode button located just above the Start button with integrated engine Stop switch. Your engine map selection will display across the easily read LCD.
Holding the Gear button for a couple of seconds, then releasing, scrolls through the map settings; holding it a little longer will bring the transmission into Sport Gear. This setting allows you to “shift gears” like a traditional bike transmission.
Let’s suppose you’ve opted for Sport Gear over full-auto Drive mode. You can shift with either the traditional foot-operated shift lever – with handy adjustable eccentric toe peg – or by the Plus and Minus finger paddles – very similar to shift levers on contemporary mountain bicycles – located on the left switchgear. Thumbing the Plus button up-shifts, tapping the Minus button with your index finger will down-shift. There are seven “gears;” a gear indicator is on the LCD.
One quick caution: don’t get confused by the large Mode toggle switch on the left switch gear housing. This switch has nothing to do with engine mappings or transmission modes, as it’s used to control the various functions of the robust LCD.
Whichever shifting method you choose, toe shifter or finger paddles, I suggest sticking with one. I found going back and forth between them a little too much busy work to concentrate on, especially when dicing up curvy bits of road.
Earlier, I referred to the transmission as a semi-manual sequential system. Wringing the life out of the throttle will cause a series of shift lights to progressively illuminate on the dash, at which point you’ll hit the rev limiter if you don’t up-shift. In this way, the system mimics a standard manual tranny. However, if the system is in any gear above first while at a stop it’ll automatically downshift to first gear.
If you’ve ever used car transmissions similar to BMW’s Steptronic or Porsche’s Triptronic, you’ll recognize this ultimate override by the ECU as way to compensate for faulty human memory. Sequential means that gear selection can only happen in order, lowest to highest, and vice versa. In other words, you can’t skip from, say, second to fourth in one move as you might on a reg’lr bike.
Aprilia did a pretty good job of emulating the shifting experience: shift pattern is one down, six up and the ratios change with a bit of a thunk. Sport Gear mode also does a better job of providing some sense of engine braking, something which isn’t as noticeable in automatic Drive mode. The limited engine braking may take some getting used to if you’re coming off a manual transmission motorcycle.
After numerous attempts, I couldn’t perceive any worthwhile advantage in using Sport Gear over the Sport mapping in automatic Drive mode. If there are any real benefits to Sport Gear, they’re far too subtle to notice, which leads me to conclude the option of shifting this automatic is really just there to make a lot of us feel more comfortable. Something of an electronic security blanket.
Scootercycle! A new breed?
If you’ve chosen automatic Drive mode, you can forget about all that stuff above, and just twist ‘n’ go. This is when the Mana becomes what I’ve dubbed a scootercycle. Once you get used to that naked feeling at your clutch lever-less left hand and get over no longer needing to blip the throttle for smooth shifts, the next point of adjustment will be acclimating to what could be some of the most linear power delivery you’ve ever experienced on a bike.
From a dead stop the CVT needs a second or two to spool up and synch with engine speed, but once underway, throttle response from the single 38mm throttle body with Weber-Marelli EFI is akin to an electric motor. No steps in torque development or abrupt peaks in power, just an ultra-flat power delivery.
If you’re a scooter rider graduating to the motorbike-like Mana, you’ll be in your element; few, if any, of the sensations described above should feel foreign.
Riding in various environments (cityscapes, canyon roads, freeway, etc), I discovered Touring mode to be the best compromise of sufficient power and limited engine vibes. Rain mode proved to be a skosh too muted in power delivery for my preference, and Sport, although allowing full power, generated too much engine buzz. Regardless of the mapping selection, the Mana easily attains cruising speeds of 80 mph, 90 mph or more.
In most instances the basic suspension performs well, but the shock and fork’s springs were too softly sprung, leading to noticeable chassis pitch and general wallowieness during rapid-fire transitions between corners. There’s a shock adjustment guide in the form of a display on the shock body to help determine which settings are best based upon: single rider, rider and passenger or rider and passenger with luggage.
Our test unit arrived with the shock set-up for a solo rider: the bottom detent on the ramp adjuster for least amount of preload.
After the first ride I adjusted for three additional detents toward max preload, as recommended for two riders. Stability during canyon carving improved but I felt more preload was necessary. Ultimately, preload position 6 out of a possible 7 (hardest) is where I landed (a significant amount of preload considering I weigh just 155 lbs).
Chassis response had improved markedly, but harshness over bumps had increased as well, and the sidestand’s propensity to drag during aggressive cornering hadn’t altogether disappeared despite raising ride height as a result of the aforementioned increase to preload. Such are some of the potential drawbacks when using budget-minded suspension.
What the Mana 850 may lack in suspension performance, it more than makes up for in braking brilliance from the potent pair of Aprilia-branded radial-mount 4-piston calipers. The binders have heaps of power to crush the 320mm rotors, and their performance would be flawless if it weren’t for what I perceived as a minor amount of numbness exacerbated by the long-ish reach to the lever. Despite being 4-way adjustable, distances between positions on the lever are still too far apart. Even our photog Fonzie, with his size Large glove, noted the relatively long reach. This may seem nit-picky, but considering many women or short-stature riders may be attracted to the Mana for its overall ease-of-use, we figured we’d point out this minor issue.
Finally, in one more effort to rail against conventional motorcycle design, the Mana has another secret to reveal. What looks like the fuel tank is actually a storage compartment, replete with light and 12-volt power socket, that’s capable of holding one full-face helmet. The storage lid can be opened electronically – interestingly, irrespective of engine or road speed – by way of a switch on the front left switch gear, or manually by a latch hidden under the passenger seat, located next to… the gas cap!
Locating most of the fuel under the rider, according to Aprilia materials, improves handling by helping keep a low CofG. We can see by the recent unveiling of details of Aprilia’s all-new RSV4 Factory superbike that the company is committed to this philosophy, as the superbike employs a similar location for much of its fuel.
Speaking of fuel, observed economy saw an average 40 mpg, much better than the 33.1 mpg average the LCD indicated as part of its deep repertoire of data on display. Cruising range from the 4.2 gal tank on most of my trips was at least 130 miles, with low fuel warning indicating around the 132-mile mark.
The Future of Motorcycles?
For the lion’s share of my more than 15 years of riding, I did virtually all maintenance, and the occasional ground-up overhaul, to all of my bikes. Through smashed knuckles, greasy fingers and entire weekends lost to the most “basic” repairs I came to genuinely enjoy the mechanical-ness inherent in motorcycles. Part of that enjoyment for me is found in finessing throttle, clutch, brake and transmission into a harmonious mechanical symphony that keeps the bike moving in precisely the direction I point it and in the manner I choose.
Some of that experience is lost in the Mana 850. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean this seamless amalgam of motorcycle and scooter is somehow unworthy of consideration as a viable and legitimate two-wheeler. Apart from a slightly unusual shape on the left side of the engine, most riders probably couldn’t tell from a distance the Mana was anything but a traditional motorcycle.
It’s not unreasonable to think that a lot of riders would be put off by the CVT, or the distinctly scooter-like drone of the exhaust note. On the other hand, there’ll likely be a segment of motorcyclists that find this machine highly attractive.
I have to admit: over time the sheer simplicity of doing nothing more than twisting the throttle made the Mana more enticing to ride, especially in stop-and-go congestion-burdened Los Angeles. On a few occasions the fact that I didn’t have to continually manipulate the clutch lever as punishment for being trapped behind slow-moving cagers during a technical downhill decent actually made the ride more enjoyable.
The Mana 850 will probably make sense to a lot of folks. And when we consider the amount of technology on tap, its great brakes, comfortable riding position, excellent fit and finish and the $9,899 MSRP, its value really starts to come into view. All the more so in light of the $5,700 savings over Honda’s similarly functioning DN-01 scootercycle.