Travel | ON THE ROAD

Honda makes more than a scooter, with not enough scoot

With gasoline prices skyrocketing, car drivers are increasingly turning to two wheels to lower their fuel bills. New riders often start out on scooters because, unlike motorcycles, they have automatic transmissions, making them a cinch to operate. The DN-01 is a bold attempt by Honda to bridge the gap between the two genres, blending the convenience of an automatic transmission with the full-size wheels and long suspension of a motorcycle.

To describe DN-01’s design as “fresh” would be like calling Mount Fuji a hill. There’s absolutely nothing on the road like it. Viewed from the front, the long-nosed cowl housing dual projector headlights has the ominous glare of a mako shark. From the side, the DN-01’s sweeping lines, 10-spoke wheels and single-side swing arm makes it look like it’s breaking the national speed limit even at a standstill. Filling out the back is a massive 190-m tire like those found on supersport bikes.

But while the DN-01 may resemble a shark, it has the heart of a herring. The 680cc liquid-cooled, fuel-injected V-twin engine puts out a tidy 60 hp/6.5 kg-m torque, but it has the Herculean task of powering a bike weighing a porky 269 kg.

Looking at the DN-01, it’s difficult to see where all those kilograms come from; it lacks weighty features such as a large fairing and integrated luggage; the Honda NT700V Deauville, which donated its motor and shaft drive to the DN-01, weighs 10 kg less despite its bigger fuel tank, panniers and expansive front cowl.

One likely culprit is the DN-01’s robust but heavy steel frame. Another factor could be the Human Friendly Transmission (HFT), the technological star of the DN-01. Honda says the all-new infinitely variable hydraulic mechanical transmission is light, but it still looks bulkier than a regular manual gearbox. Whatever the cause, the result is fairly sluggish performance, especially from a standstill. A Honda Forza 250 scooter nearly beat the DN-01 away from a stoplight in one impromptu contest before the bigger bike finally pulled away.

The HFT features two automatic modes, drive and sport, but choosing the latter seems to make little difference in performance. To get the best out of the V-twin you need to select the six-speed manual option. Working the thumb shifter, you can keep the motor spinning at the upper end of the rev range, where it has the most oomph and allows fairly rapid progress.

But while Honda’s engineers are perfectly happy to let you wind out the V-twin in any gear till it bounces off the rev limiter at 8,000 rpm, they’ve set extremely conservative restrictions on downshifting that thwart efforts to ride the DN-01 in a sporty manner. If you’re coming out of a really tight corner and try to downshift from 2nd to 1st at a lowly 2,000 rpm, the bike’s computerized nanny says no, forcing you to endure sluggish acceleration till the revs pick up. Ditto for when you want to downshift quickly before entering a corner to ensure maximum thrust on the way out.

Honda claims the HFT provides strong acceleration normally associated with solid gear-on-gear manual transmissions, but it won’t come close to matching the performance of a traditional gearbox until its restrictions on downshifting are eased.

The DN-01’s linked ABS brakes are progressive and powerful, and ground clearance is surprisingly good considering the bike’s long and low design. It’s capable of cornering quite fast without scraping its floorboards, and the standard-size 17-inch wheels impart rock- solid stability. It would benefit from more suspension travel, though, as bumpy roads and expansion joints deliver jarring blows to the buttocks that are amplified by the feet-forward riding position.

I might be less critical if Honda hadn’t raised expectations by claiming that the DN-01 “offers totally new sensations in sports riding unheard of in conventional sports models” and calling it the “Sports Tourer of the Future.” Unfortunately, the DN-01 gets middling marks on the sports side of the equation and doesn’t fare much better as a tourer.

Honda’s designers were apparently so keen on maintaining the originality of the DN-01’s appearance that they forgot about practicality. Although the windscreen provides minimal wind protection, it obscures the dashboard instruments if you’re above average height. The floorboards are set quite close to the rider, requiring a fair bend at the knees, but try to stretch out your legs on long highway hauls and you’ll find the large brake pedal on the right gets in the way. Don’t bother looking for a center stand or even anchor points to secure your luggage, because they don’t exist. And forget using a tank bag — the swept-back handlebar shape won’t allow it.

Instrumentation is also rather barebones for a motorcycle that costs ¥1.34 million out the door — an extraordinary amount for a 680cc motorcycle — omitting items that are now standard in this price class such as an ambient-air-temperature gauge and a distance-to-empty fuel readout. There isn’t even a power outlet to charge your cell phone.

If the DN-01 had practical features, it would be easier to overlook its lack of power. And if it were powerful, it would be easier to overlook its dearth of practicality. But as it stands, all it really offers are radical looks at a steep price. It’s undeniably an eye-catcher, though, drawing constant stares. That together with its nice build quality will be enough to convince some folks to sign on the dotted line.

However flawed the execution, Honda deserves kudos for having the guts to offer such a radical motorcycle. One has only to look at the utter domination of automatics in the car market to see the growth prospects for automatic motorcycles with performance similar to their traditional counterparts. I hope Honda continues to refine the DN-01, allowing it to realize its full potential. If I had a vote to cast at Honda’s design meetings, I’d campaign for a bigger motor, such as the 1,000cc V-twin that powers the Honda Varadero sports tourer. The world would be a better place with a 100-hp DN-02.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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