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The Honda DN-01: automatic + motorcycle = smooter?

April 3, 2009 |  5:31 pm

To drivers, we motorcyclists seem like a unified group. We’re death-wishing two-wheelers, splitting lanes, cutting to the fronts of lines and otherwise conspiring to make their daily commutes miserable. But those of us who are actually on those two wheels know differently. We’re one of the most segregated communities around.

Cruiser. Sport bike. Scooter. The bikes we choose to ride are often shorthand for the sorts of people we actually are (or at least believe we are), which is why the Honda DN-01 is such an interesting machine. Billed as a "crossover," it blurs the lines between the biggest categories in two wheels, and it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like an abomination or identity crisis.

New to the U.S. for 2009, the automatic transmission DN-01 may look like a blenderized version of Honda’s entire motorcycle catalog, but it is, truly, its own thing. Lacking a design or market corollary, the only clues the DN-01 offers about its rider is that she (or he) is open-minded enough to try something different, is either bored (or scared) of shifting and probably has a job. Priced at $14,599, the DN-01 isn’t exactly cheap.

But you get a lot for that money. The biggest news about the DN-01 is, of course, its groundbreaking transmission. Employing fluids to push a series of swash plates back and forth, its hydro-mechanical, aka human-friendly, transmission, or HFT, is the first of its kind on a street bike. First engineered for Honda’s off-road products, the HFT can be operated in two modes -- fully automatic and manual.

Both operate flawlessly, offering different versions of the same sort of fun. In fully automatic mode, the DN-01 is a no-brainer. You just fire it up, twist the grip and go. Moving through the six gears is almost magical, i.e. you don’t feel the gears shifting. At all.

For the marginally more involving experience of the bike’s so-called manual mode, you simply press a switch on the right grip and rip through the gears with buttons that appear to have been designed for both non-English-speakers and the intellectually unendowed. Press "+" to shift up, and "–" to shift down. No need to roll off the throttle; the butter-soft HFT smooths out the gear shifts on your behalf.

Despite its billing, the manual mode is actually semi-automatic. The bike will downshift for you if it senses you’re too low in gear for the level at which the engine is revving. It won’t do you the same favor on the upshift, however. Redline it at 8,700 rpm, and the tach will flash and honk while the bike itself will shimmy.

Powered with a liquid-cooled, 680 cc V-twin, the DN-01 offers a lot more grunt on takeoff than even the maxi-est of scooters. Its top end is also likely to satisfy anyone with even a moderate need for speed. But anyone who comes to the DN-01 from a manual-transmission motorcycle will likely miss the immediacy and responsiveness of a rider-operated clutch-throttle system. The DN-01’s throttle is more responsive than any of the scooters I’ve ridden, but it isn’t quite as reactionary as a traditional motorcycle.

It is, nevertheless, impressive -- and not only for its performance. Stylistically, it breaks the mold of what has ever before come to market. Depending on the vantage point, the DN-01 could be mistaken for any of the three types of bike it draws from. Looking at it from the front, its aerodynamic nose, mirror-embedded turn signals and 17-inch hoops are sporty enough to elicit knowing waves from Gixxers. From the side, its long and low profile, flip-up floorboards and V-twin motor say cruiser. And its rounded rear with the wraparound rear lights are pure scooter.

Strange? Yes. Even stranger: It’s a combination that actually works. The more I looked at the DN-01, the less it seemed like a freak show. Its bodywork effortlessly flowed from one style to the next, with one exception -- its 2-into-1 pipe, whose triangular ugliness was trumped only by its large size and chrome sheen.

For a bike with such an unusual look, I was expecting a lot more eyeballs on the DN-01 than I  got while riding it. Maybe people are just preoccupied these days. Maybe I just like attention. I don't know.

It's the way a bike actually rides that really matters -- right? -- and in that area, the DN-01 was also an anomaly. At high speeds and at low speeds, scraping pegs in the corners or cruising fast and straight, the DN-01 does everything its component parts suggest the bike would do, and it does them all exceptionally well. Now, if only Honda could bring down the price.

2009 Honda DN-01
Base price: $14,599
Powertrain: Liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, 52-degree V-twin, SOHC, four valves per cylinder, shaft drive, hydromechanical two-mode automatic transmission with six-speed manual mode, anti-lock brakes
Displacement: 680 cc
Seat height: 27.2 inches
Curb weight: 595 pounds
Road test MPG: 48 (based on 356 miles traveled)

-- Susan Carpenter

Video: Los Angeles Times