Aprilia Mana: Automatic for the people
Motorcycles with automatic transmissions have never caught on, but then again, they’ve not had a chance to. The last automatic bikes were the Honda CB400A that debuted in 1979 and Moto Guzzi’s V1000 Convert from 1975, which both offered worse fuel consumption and performance than their manual-gear counterparts at a price premium, so neither did well. Yamaha’s current FJR1300 comes with a semi-automatic option but for the extra £1,000 it costs you get lurchiness when pulling away and few benefits.
Realistically, if you want twist-and-go controls, you have no choice but a scooter. Until now. Aprilia has merged a scooter’s belt-drive transmission with its new middleweight V-twin motor, packaged in the conventional motorcycle manner. A V-belt runs between a pair of pulleys, each with conical faces, one of which slides axially. Control of the drive pulley is electronic instead of mechanical however, which opens up a whole range of possibilities.
In automatic mode you can select between touring, sport and rain settings, the last of which also changes the engine management to soften the power delivery. Sport raises the rpm range that the transmission allows the engine to operate at, so power is increased, although top speed is the same.
There is a manual option where the rider changes between seven gears with his left hand, still with automatic clutch control. These are virtual gears, predetermined positions for the drive pulley that remain unchanged unless the rider pushes the up or down button. This allows the engine to go through its rev range like a conventional machine instead of the steady auto drone.
This time the extent of the motorcycle market’s latent desire for an auto is going to be tested effectively, because the Mana works very well as a motorcycle despite, regardless of and sometimes because of, its transmission.
The bike is designed as a middleweight all-rounder to compete in the do-everything sector populated by such machines as the Suzuki SV and Bandit 650s, Honda Hornet, Ducati Monster 695 etc – and the Mana is fresh and modern, so its looks won’t be clouding its sales statistics.
More important, there’s very little the rider has to do on a Mana which is any different or more demanding than on a conventional bike: Yamaha’s FJR, for example, asks that you concentrate on precise throttle control when pulling away, adding effort rather than reducing it.
My main concern before riding the Mana was that it would be similar, as this is an issue on quite a few scooters, too. Doing U-turns on some is far too difficult thanks to a delay in the transmission taking up drive after you’ve opened the throttle, and a sudden pick-up.
This aspect of the bike is perfect, however. Start the motor (front brake applied first) and it settles into a mellow V-twin beat. Twist the grip and the drive is taken up confidently, precisely and immediately, offering control accurate enough to cope with tight parking manoeuvres, U-turns and delicate traffic trickling.
Acceleration from then on is strong, especially at lower revs. Fast getaways are easier – just open the throttle and you get maximum acceleration, no danger of clumsy clutch control causing inadvertent wheelies.
The only trait you must adapt to is the engine braking disappearing as you slow below about 12mph. It’s possible, however, to increase the engine braking as you slow by pressing the downchange button. Because of the manual option (there’s even a foot-change lever as an alternative to the left bar buttons), a rev counter would be useful.
You do get a series of lights that switch on as you approach the rev limit but these aren’t obvious.
While the transmission inevitably dominates discussion of the Mana, the rest of the machine matters too if it’s to succeed. Mostly, it’s very good, with easy steering and secure handling. It tends to stand up sharply if you brake while leaned over though, and releasing the brake as you go into a turn has the bike dropping down further into the corner – you have to compensate with the bars, which makes smooth cornering difficult.
This could be a function of the very soft front suspension.
The engine vibration at high revs is annoying, too. At times I switched from sport to touring mode solely to lower the revs and cut the vibes. The seat is not especially comfortable either. Against that, moving the fuel from its usual position has allowed Aprilia to include a large, lockable storage bin where the tank would be.
The fuel capacity is 3.5 gallons and Aprilia says it’s good for 185 miles. If it’s so, that’s just about sufficient for touring, and there’s an optional screen and hard luggage to encourage this.
Importantly, the Mana is fun. I was expecting a mushy, dull machine but found a lively, sharp motorcycle. Many riders will be offended at the idea they need an auto, but you’ll discover a bike that offers a different riding experience which is no less valid than a conventional one, and with its own unique options. The basic motorcycle values are undiluted, at times it’s much easier than a normal bike and you don’t need to apologise for anything or make an effort to adapt.
Aprilia Mana [tech/spec]
Price/availability: £6,100 approx on the road. On sale December 2007. Contact: Aprilia UK, 0161 475 1800, www.aprilia.com
Engine/transmission: 839cc, V-twin four-stroke with eight valves; 75bhp at 8,000rpm, 54lb ft of torque at 5,000rpm. Automatic pulley and belt, chain final drive.
Performance: top speed, 120mph est, average fuel consumption n/a
We like: Torque, style, transmission, versatility
We don’t like: High-rev vibes, brake effect on handling, seat
Alternatives: BMW F800S, £6,295. Ducati M695 Monster, £4,995. Honda CB600F Hornet, £5,795 Kawasaki ER-6n, £4,595. Suzuki SV650, £4,349. Suzuki GSR600, £5,199.
Yamaha FZ6, £4,699.
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