The manual transmission is well on its slide into obsolescence within the automotive world. Meanwhile, every major motorcycle manufacturer is developing fresh bikes to appeal to a new generation of riders, with a renewed focus on looking at ways to lower inhibitions of entry-level riders.
Case in point, this trio of motorcycles, none of which is equipped with a clutch lever.
This shootout was originally slated to have only two bikes, the Aprilia Mana 850 GT ABS and the Honda NC700X DCT ABS, since they represent the two clutch-leverless strategies employed on full-sized motorcycles currently available. Without a manually operated clutch to manipulate, both will likely charm new riders or re-entry riders with their terrific ease of use. They also feature similar riding positions and decently sized storage bins where you’d normally find fuel tanks.
To complicate matters a little, we decided to see if BMW’s C600 Sport could compete in this class. We really enjoyed our time with the C600’s more luxurious brother, the C650GT, during our Uber Scooter Shootout, so it seemed the sportier maxi scooter might be able to hang with its non-scooter rivals. We wanted to see if the gap between big-bore scooters and motorcycles was insurmountable.
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Because these bikes are mostly directed at less experienced riders, we decided to bring a re-entry rider into the testing mix. Joe Magro is a rider who has spent a few years off of motorcycles and is interested in getting back on two wheels. So, we asked him to dust off his motorcycle riding endorsement, put on some borrowed riding gear, and join us in riding these bikes on urban streets, rural highways and interstates.
No Shift, No Worries
To be honest, only the CVT-equipped bikes are shift-free. The Mana and the C600 Sport both use belt-driven CVTs, which means there are no gearing changes but rather variable ratio changes. These are accomplished by varying the diameter of the cone-shaped drive and driven pulleys to alter the drive ratio. Conversely, the NC700X has a physical gearbox with actual cogs inside of it, so changing gears instantly alters the ratios in six fixed spacings that are familiar to anyone who’s ridden on or in a vehicle with a manual gearbox. The DCT (Dual Clutch Transmission) hands off the next gear to the other and also feeds in a clutch automatically when accelerating from a stop.
Once you’ve started the engines and set the drive mode (on the Mana and NC700X), getting all three bikes underway is as simple as rolling on the throttle and allowing the electronics to handle all the particulars. How quickly the bikes launch is in direct proportion to how hard we cranked on the throttle. All three bikes left the line confidently whether in cautious newbie or hooligan modes. Our experience of the bikes’ relative power tracks directly with their differing displacements.
When moving with traffic in an urban environment, the CVTs in the Aprilia and BMW exhibited the same basic feel, as their belt-driven trannies selected the proper ratio for the given speed. From there, the BMW, with no modes to alter performance, behaved in predictably scooter-like fashion to throttle inputs. The Aprilia, on the other hand, had two quite different characters, depending on which drive mode was selected.
Being performance-focused folks, we naturally gravitated to the Mana’s Sport mode and were surprised by the results. Said our Features Editor Troy Siahaan, “With the biggest engine here, I expected it to be the power king of the bunch. It was, but the penalty you pay (at least in Sport mode) is excessive buzzing that starts at the pegs and works its way up your legs. It’s bizarre.”
The Mana’s designers tuned the CVT to keep the engine’s rpms in the meat of the powerband for more immediate acceleration – which was on tap at a twist. However, cruising around town at a neutral throttle, the effect is that the engine feels like it is going 70 mph, while the bike is only at 35 mph. Switching to Touring mode eliminated the vibration, but the result was, as Troy put it, ”a neutering effect on the engine.” So, he opted to use Sport mode around town, while I elected to enjoy the smoother ride offered in Touring mode.
The choice of power modes also affected the NC700X, in a similar though slightly different way. Placing the Honda in Drive softened the power delivered by the 670cc liquid-cooled parallel-Twin, making it quite tame around town. It’s hard to explain the disconnect felt when looking at the instruments to discover that you’re in sixth gear at 40 mph. Since Honda has positioned the NC as a fuel-efficient motorcycle (a fact borne out by its 59.7 mpg), this choice makes sense. Switching to Sport mode does get the transmission to hold a lower gear longer, but it never allows the rpm to climb to the point of excessive vibration.
“I appreciate the fact the engine feels the most like a motorcycle,” Siahaan notes. “With actual gears instead of a CVT, that mechanical connection just feels more pure, even if it is all just in my head.”
While something can be said about the familiarity of a mechanical gearbox, the same feeling of familiarity is true of the BMW C600 Sport’s power delivery. Riding it was essentially the same as on the C650GT that won our scooter shootout. Despite the name, the C600’s engine is the exact same 647cc Twin as in the GT. Additionally, BMW feels that “we don’t need no stinkin’ riding modes,” leaving power delivery to a simple, what you twist is what you get, approach to the throttle. This is a longwinded way of saying the C600 delivers power exactly like you would expect from a scooter, a fact that wasn’t overlooked by reentry rider Magro who called it ”the best vehicle in the city.” He also summed up his feelings about the Sport with “this is by FAR the best scooter I have ridden.”
As the riding environment changed, so did our perceptions of the bikes. While still present, the vibration in the Mana was less of an issue when the road narrowed and undulated. Here, instant throttle response and predictable engine braking is more noticeable than the nuisance of buzzing feet. Also, switching the Aprilia to Manual mode gave the rider complete control of engine speed. Manual shifting via either the handlebar mounted buttons or the traditional shift lever allows the 839cc 90° V-Twin engine to show off the displacement advantage it has. However, we’d be negligent if we didn’t note that Aprilia has the shifting paddles backwards with upshifts handled by pressing forward with your thumb and downshift with index finger. Although the Mana had seven “gears,” shifting it was more seamless than a transmission with fixed gear sets. Since the virtual gears were still achieved by the CVT changing its ratios, the upshifts and downshifts were supernaturally smooth – even smoother than the Honda’s DCT.
The NC700X’s ability to temporarily override the automatic mode was a best-of-both-worlds situation, leaving gear management to the ECU while allowing the rider to make final choice if necessary. The Honda garnered compliments from all riders about its full manual mode, with our returning rider stating, “When shifting with the paddles, it was MUCH more fun to ride and I didn’t need to worry about what gear I was in when slowing down or if I had to suddenly stop.”
Siahaan’s experience had him imagining what the DCT holds for the future of motorcycling: “Full manual mode is obviously the most fun in the twisty stuff, banging upshifts with a tap of my index finger feels cool to me. Almost futuristic. I like using my foot to change gears and all, but the DCT will shift faster than my foot ever can, and more consistently, too. Plus, as DCT technology evolves and gets more refined, those shift times will continue to drop. Hmm, imagine the next CBR1000RR with a DCT so advanced it can bang upshifts faster than any human, without a single false neutral, and pop downshifts just as quickly, with perfect rev matching every time.”
Middleweight Multi-Tool Shootout: 2012 Honda NC700X Vs. Kawasaki Versys – Video
Getting back to the current state of DCT, the 700X has one annoying issue that rears its head on downshifting near redline. Namely, it won’t until the revs have dropped a ways down the tachometer. Surmises Siahaan, “When braking hard for a corner, you have to wait a moment before thumbing the downshift button takes any effect. Because the NC700’s rev ceiling is so low, this must be a safety measure to prevent excessive overrun.”
For our less-experienced and, therefore, less aggressive rider, Magro stated, ”Out of the three, the NC was the best ride for me in the twisty roads.”
In the mountains, the BMW’s single power mode made engine braking a lesser resource for controlling speed. This was one of the places where the full-sized bikes simply outclassed the scooter. On the highway, however, the BMW’s engine shined. Said Siahaan, “I’m impressed with the engine and CVT combo. It seems refined in this particular application, and I routinely saw myself looking down and seeing 80-plus mph on the freeway.” The other two competitors handled freeway droning just as capably, but the Mana was much less busy in Touring mode. In fact, Magro gave the Mana his nod for interstate riding.
Lean on Me
Handling is another place where the dividing line between full-sized motorcycles and scooters is quite pronounced. This is not a fault of the BMW, which handles wonderfully for a scooter, but is more a consequence of the design parameters that separate scooters from motorcycles. The C600 Sport is long, carrying its weight quite low with the rider in an upright, feet-forward riding position. Although the Beemer’s 15-inch wheels are remarkably stable at elevated speeds (even approaching triple digits), they don’t offer the same planted feel of the 17-inch wheels on the others.
“The C600 Sport offers considerable ground clearance,” said Siahaan, “but not as much confidence to truly rail. Against its scooter counterparts it shines. Against actual motorcycles, not so much.”
Magro concurred, “It’s the next best riding experience to a motorcycle, but it’s still a scooter.”
When it comes to working your way through your favorite section of twisting tarmac, the Aprilia and the Honda are well matched, with neither doing anything wrong but each having slightly different strengths. The NC700X was easier to initiate turn-in thanks to its slightly wider bar offering the rider increased leverage and a narrower rear tire. Some of the Mana’s slower turn-in could, however, be attributed to the fact that it has more rotational mass in the front wheel thanks to its dual disc brakes. So, the result is slightly more effort being required to initiate turns or make side-to-side transitions.
Since the bikes’ suspensions are set up for utility in more urban- and freeway-oriented environments that reward plushness, we were pleasantly surprised when the Aprilia and Honda proved to be able backroad companions. The Mana gets around quite amiably while exhibiting a bit of top heaviness and the aforementioned steering effort.
The Honda, with its lower price point, performs better than might be expected. As Siahaan noted, “It held up quite well and provided firm and positive feedback.” The Honda doesn’t feel like a bargain bike at all. Still, the suspension lets the chassis move around a bit when pushed hard. Our reentry rider – who is closer to the target audience than either Siahaan or myself – felt the NC offered the “best overall experience in all riding situations.” People with more aggressive tendencies might want to upgrade the NC’s suspenders or take a look at the slightly more sporting Aprilia.
When it comes to brakes, all three bikes utilize ABS. The BMW’s are operated by levers on the grips, delivering decent feel. The NC700X uses Honda’s combined brakes that applies one of the front caliper’s pistons when the rear brake is applied, which addresses less-experienced riders’ tendency to overuse the rear brake. The Honda’s stopping ability was good, though it did require a bit of effort from the rider. The Mana’s four-piston radial calipers squeeze two 320mm discs for increased power and feel, giving the Aprilia the nod in the speed-attenuation department.
The Human Element
When considering rider accommodations of this trio, you probably won’t be surprised to learn the C600 Sport offers the best weather protection. With its sit-down-inside-the-bike riding position placing the pilot almost completely behind the fairing and having the tallest, widest windshield, the BMW coddles the rider even further with the $605 factory option heated grips and seat. Unfortunately, the windshield’s height is only manually adjustable over three positions which limits the rider’s ability to fine tune helmet level wind turbulence. The seat is wide but tall, and the foot room is slightly less than the C650 GT that inspired us to include the BMW in this shootout.
The Aprilia follows next with a half-fairing that delivers a modest level of wind protection for the rider while directing noise-creating turbulence away from the helmet of riders over 5’10”. The tank shape also offers a bit of wind protection. The rider triangle has the helmsman in a mostly upright position with an easy reach to the grips. The pegs, though slightly higher than the Honda’s, are well placed for the Mana’s utilitarian role.
The NC700X offers the least wind protection of the bunch. Riders who have long freeway commutes will be better served by an accessory or aftermarket windshield. “Overall, the ergos are rather comfy,” noted Siahaan, “There was plenty of legroom for my stubby sticks, I sat rather upright with a comfortable reach to the bars.” The wideness of the bar was popular with our riders, too.
All three of the bikes offered ample storage. The Aprilia and the Honda utilized the location formerly known as the gas tank to swallow a reasonable amount of gear thanks to their mass centralizing under seat fuel cells. The Mana’s storage compartment wins bonus points for its electric lock, compartment light and 12V power port. While some full-face helmets will fit, many will not. The Honda comes next with a similar, though slightly smaller volume and no electric amenities. The storage is quite functional, though.
The Beemer’s storage is the biggest of the bunch. However, at maximum capacity, the bike can’t be ridden. The designers included a clever expandable base to the compartment that creates extra room for an XL helmet when parked – a feature that proved remarkably usable. While the space in the LED-lit, underseat storage is lessened when on the road, the shape of the space allows riders to carry longer objects that won’t fit in the other bikes.
All three of our contestants have distinctive looks. The Mana, with its Italian heritage, wins in the sex appeal department. Its style fits its European origin – and price. The NC700X looks better in three dimensions than it does in photos, and it is one of the few bikes that have been through my garage in recent years that my wife has gone out of her way to tell me that she thought was quite attractive. The Honda’s fit and finish are surprisingly nice for a bargain-priced motorcycle. The BMW’s styling is sporty and adds to the scooter’s perceived value. The titanium color of our 2013 tester is not offered in the functionally equivalent 2014 model.
The Envelope, Please
Third Place: BMW C600 Sport
This should come as no surprise. After being so impressed with the C600’s sibling, we erred by including the Sport in this grouping. We all felt, as Siahaan stated, “While the C600 is a fine scooter, it’s still no motorcycle.” While the fit and finish are typical of BMW and the styling is top notch, the C600 falls short in every category but rider comfort and storage capacity. With its $9,590 base price ($10,195 as tested) being only $1000 less than the most expensive bike here, the BMW comes up last on our scorecard, garnering a 80.36% total.
Second Place: Aprilia Mana 850 GT ABS
The Mana exudes that elusive quality of Italian sexiness that attracts the eye and quickens the pulse. Magro’s statement that “the design and appearance of the bike is the best out of the group” was echoed in all the riders’ notes. However, the irksome vibration in Sport mode and the backwards paddle-shifting buttons didn’t help the Aprilia’s cause. While the Aprilia actually scored better than the Honda in five categories, its $11,199 price ($2400 more than the Honda) dug a hole in the scorecard that it could not claw its way out of. So, the Mana winds up with a score of 83.42% for a solid second place.
First Place: Honda NC700X DCT ABS
Honda managed to finesse the delicate balance between price, performance and perceived value to create a surprisingly balanced and usable motorcycle in the NC700X. All the testers pointed out how the NC’s paint and use of finish textures belied its bargain price. While there is nothing functionally wrong with CVT power delivery, Magro summed up our feelings about the DCT by saying, “Even when the NC shifted automatically, it felt like a real motorcycle moving through the gears.” Added Siahaan, “Overall, it’s hard to go wrong with the NC700X. It’s a remarkable package for a new or returning rider more interested in practicality than outright performance. And it comes in at a great price point to boot.”
The best way to consider a tool’s success is to look at the task it was designed to perform. In this area, the NC700X shines. The engine and transmission offer functional and cool technology combined with non-intimidating power delivery that lowers the learning curve for new or returning riders – a fact that was not missed by our reentry test rider. That Honda was able to do this without making the bike feel dumbed down – and then deliver it for $8,799 – is a testament to Big Red’s design acumen.
We’ll let Magro have the last word on the NC700X DCT, since he represents one of the targeted customers: “Out of the three bikes, I would and have strongly considered purchasing an NC700 for myself, especially at this price point.”
No Shift Shootout Scorecard
|Category||Aprilia Mana||BMW C600 Sport||Honda NC700X DCT|