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Story and photos by Dustin A. Woods
There are times when evaluating a motorcycle that you are unable to experience it within the proper context for which it was designed, leaving you unsatisfied and unable to judge its true capabilities. This was certainly not the case with the all-new for 2010 Honda VFR 1200FA DCT, (Dual Clutch Transmission) as I was able to spend a couple days putting it through its paces on the world famous Cabot Trail in beautiful Cape Breton. With Jordan Szoke being all but a shoo-in for the Parts Canada Superbike Championship, Honda invited a few journalist types to check out the final two rounds of racing at the Shubenacadie, close to Halifax, NS, and then experience a few of their bikes first hand.
Riders from all over North America endure miles of mind-numbingly monotonous Interstate in order to get to The Trail, but once there it doesn't disappoint, with numerous tight, technical turns of varying grade, quality and camber - but Deal's Gap it is not. There are plenty of opportunities to stop along the route for sleep, sustenance or to take in the picturesque scenery, and most of the journey is smooth and serene - assuming one tackles the turns at the posted speed limit. Much of the asphalt can be taken at as leisurely a pace as you wish but one should never become complacent as no two turns are alike.
The Cabot Trail loops around the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, NS, and at 298 km it can certainly be ridden in one day. Many people take the time to ride it both clockwise and counter-clockwise as each direction offers its own unique view. The true appeal is scenery of epic proportions, seafood as fresh as it comes and hospitable locals as friendly as your own family, maybe even friendlier.
And if you have the time to invest, I urge you to take the extra time to ride up to Meat Cove at the North end of the island. Pre-planning your fuelling stops would also be a good idea as the options are few and far between. Having the VFR almost exclusively in Sport mode kept the fun quotient high but also the revs up, thus burning fuel at an advanced rate. This lack of foresight combined with spirited riding resulted in having to double a fellow journalist to a gas station after he ran out of fuel on a scarcely populated stretch of road. You've been warned.
While many two-wheeled visitors opt for full-tilt Harleys loaded up with luggage and spouses, I couldn't think of a better mount than the VFR. It was as smooth and serene on the long hauls as it was agile and manageable in the twisty bits. A large part of this is thanks to the liquid-cooled V-4 powerplant, which uses a unique layout that locates the rear cylinders closer together, allowing for a compact design that fits tightly between the legs. The 1,237cc four-banger was also designed to improve the concentration of masses, lower the centre of gravity, and improve balance and agility. In fact, primary balance is so good that the need for a balance shaft was eliminated altogether. Not only is it more compact and better balanced, it is also smaller and lighter than the V-4 engine in the VFR800A.
Over the course of my trip, I managed to share time between the traditional manual and the 6-speed DCT model. I'll admit that I initially approached the DCT with little interest or enthusiasm. I've never purchased a car that didn't have a manual transmission let alone a motorcycle, so needless to say I have always resisted to anything that dilutes the purity of the riding experience.
My opinion on this changed for two reasons that day. Firstly, a fellow journalist who is no spring chicken and has had his fair share of sports and motorcycling injuries, explained that he has recently considered an auto box because the arthritis and tendonitis in his left hand make it uncomfortable to ride for long periods of time. The second reason was that the bike itself immediately calmed any remaining reservations I had. I expected the tranny to whine incessantly as rev rose up and the engine to bog right down during low speed turns - but it was smooth, intuitive and predictable.
In fact, the strangest part of the experience was getting used to not engaging a clutch, as my left hand continued to grab air where a lever normally resides. The rider can select from three different modes of DCT operation: standard or sporty automatic, and manual shifting using the paddle-style shifters on the left grip, to suit a variety of preferences and riding styles.
The new shaft-driven engine's performance is linear with a torque curve focused in the low-end and midrange. The throttle-by-wire system replaces a traditional throttle cable, making it easy to negotiate aggressive turns and power the 278 kg (613 lb) bike's running weight through the bendy bits of The Trail.
Regardless of your stance on the exterior styling of the VFR, the view gets a whole lot better from behind the handlebars and I felt more enamoured with it the longer I rode. I would personally still opt for the manual version, but after a full two days of riding the Candy Red Honda VFR 1200FA DCT, I wouldn't judge or think poorly of anyone who decided to shell out their hard-earned dollars for the DCT version. To each their own.
During an informal presentation prior to our ride, Honda Canada brass Warren Milner explained how Big Red would be altering its business strategy to eliminate aggressive rebates intended to undercut the competition in favour of the bikes selling themselves on their own merit. Milner acknowledged that the Japanese brands in particular are reducing their own profit margins in order to sell bikes, a practice he says, is not sustainable. The current MSRP of the VFR is $19,999, but it is unclear how that will change over the course of its lifecycle given this new initiative. Getting a penny change from 20 G's for the venerable VFR is excellent value.
~ Option of Manual and DCT transmission
~ Multiple DCT modes for various riding styles/conditions
~ Compact, well-balanced powerplant with oodles of torque
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~ Thirsty when riding in Sport mode
~ Exterior styling may not appeal to everyone
~ No clutch lever takes some getting used to