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Automatic motorcycle types explained

honda xadv - Automatic motorcycle types explained

In the car world, you can forgive an automatic gearbox but for us bikers, we want to be able to change gear manually, right? Well, kinda.

Automatic gearboxes used to be the preserve of old grannies in the car world, but did you know, only a quarter of new cars sold in the UK in 2016 are manual? When it comes to cars, auto and semi-auto gearboxes rule.

You might think that automatic motorcycles will never catch on but they’re becoming increasingly prolific in dealer showrooms across the country. As the technology improves and the biking population gets older, the demand for automatic gearboxes increases. While it used to only scooters that wore the ‘automatic motorcycle’ badge, automatic motorcycles are here and they’re here to stay.

While some bikers fight the march of progress, claiming that an automatic gearbox ruins the involvement and joy of riding, others are ditching their clutch levers and embracing the change. An automatic gearbox is a good option for urban and city bikers who want a simpler ride.

Honda is prolific in the world of automatic motorcycles. Sometimes referred to as manumatic because they can be automatic or you can override them.

Automatic History

Various manufacturers have tried automatic gearboxes in their motorcycles over the years. Hondamatic was launched in the 70s, and Moto Guzzi quickly followed with their own version. More recently, in 2007, Aprilia launched the Mana 850 Auto and Yamaha offered a semi-automatic FJR1300.

It’s fair to say, none were well received and you could argue they added more weight to the ‘motorcycles should never be automatic’ argument. That was until Honda launched their DCT gearbox in 2010.

Dual Clutch Transmission

Honda’s (Dual Clutch Transmission) DCT gearboxes can change gear all on their own or you can override the system and change gear using buttons on your handlebar. Those years you’ve spent refining your clutch control only for the fingers on your left hand to sit idle. Damn you, technology!

Dual Clutch Transmission uses two clutches: one of those clutches is used for the initial off-the-line acceleration and also 1st, 3rd and 5th gears, The second clutch is used for 2nd, 4th and 6th gears. Honda’s DCT offers AT (Automatic) mode and MT (Manual) mode but the gears are shifted using buttons on the switchgear not with your left foot.

The world’s first DCT motorcycle was Honda’s VFR1200, launched in 2010. We were lucky enough to ride it on the launch and it was super-smooth, the gear changes were not in any way clunky. The only thing we couldn’t do better on the DCT bike compared to a manual bike is U-turns.

Technology for DCT has come on leaps-and-bounds since 2010 and now Honda’s range boasts a large array of bikes in all sectors, all available with DCT automatic gearboxes.

What types of automatic gearboxes are available?

There are three main types of automatic gearboxes

Centrifugal Clutches

These are used predominantly on field bikes and aren’t ‘true’ automatics. There’s no handlebar mounted clutch lever and you shift with your foot. Applying pressure to the gear lever disengages the clutch enough for you to slip in another gear. They’re clunky, slightly cumbersome and are mainly found on things like Honda’s C50/C70/C90 Cub. They’re popular on the Asian markets.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

These are found mainly in scooters. The clutch uses centrifugal force and once it starts spinning, it slips a bit then fully engages. Your scooter has just one gear, no clutch lever you just… twist and go!

Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT)

DCT is the current pinnacle of automatic motorcycle gearbox design. Using two clutches, DCT takes care of the shifting for you but if you switch to MT (Manual) mode, you can shift using paddles on the handlebars. DCT is so good now, it changes are slicker than most can manage on a manual gearbox, their fuel economy is excellent and they won’t stall. Don’t be surprised if Honda launch a Fireblade DCT within the next few years.

The Best Automatic Motorcycles

We’ve written a guide to the best automatic motorcycles you can buy in the UK. At the moment the auto-world is dominated by Honda but with the rise of electric motorbikes, there are more and more offerings on the market. It also goes without saying; as bikers get older (and older), more manufacturers are likely to introduce automatic versions of their most popular models. Automatic BMW GS or R1250RT Auto? Watch this space.