Dual Clutch vs. Manual Transmission: Which Should Be in Your Next Motorcycle?


I’ve begun noticing that there’s nothing more controversial in the world of new motorcycles right now than the growing number of different “automatic” transmissions being rolled out to consumers by manufacturers.

If you’re in the dark about what I’m referring to as an automatic, let me clarify. Motorcycle automatic transmissions are different than the ones found in the world of cars. They don’t have torque converters, anywhere near the bulk and weight and in reality are a whole different ball of wax.

There are Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVT) which have made the leap from the world of scooters to regular motorcycles on machines like Aprilia’s Mana GT.

There are electric motorcycles from companies like Zero which have no actual transmission to speak of, but an electric motor instead.

Then there are Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmissions (DCT) which are a cut above the rest… including regular manual transmissions when it comes to overall performance.

Why are DCTs are better? They perform faster and allow the rider to concentrate on more important things than shifting, like cornering, braking, dodging obstacles, other drivers or just enjoying the view of insects slamming into the windshield.

Not only are they better and safer as such, they’re not going away and likely are going to drag all of us kicking and screaming into the future of motorcycle transmissions.

DCT bikes are superior to the electrics because they don’t suffer from limited range before needing a recharge and don’t need a drive belt like in the CVT system. Dual Clutch vs. Manual Transmission

DCT is more correctly described as a semi-automatic in reality. There aren’t any deliberate shifts in gear ratios in the aforementioned true automatics while conversely there are 6 or 7 different ratios found in the DCT and two clutches used for shifting between them.

How Honda’s DCT Transmissions Work

The technology has been perfected from extensive testing and development in the world of auto racing. If you want to shift gears seamlessly up or down, faster and smoother than any human can using a clutch pedal (or even paddle shifters on a steering wheel), then you want DCT automatic mode.

Look at the image below to see the layout of the system and how it works. You can also see Honda’s explanation of how this setup works.

  • There are two main shafts used to transmit power from the engine through the transmission using two separate clutches. The different gear combinations are selected by a computerized control unit using a shift motor.
  • The odd numbered gears are splined to the mainshaft connected to the start up clutch.
  • The even numbered gears are found on the second mainshaft controlled by a second shift clutch pack.
  • The shift clutch mainshaft is hollow allowing it to ride on the outside of the start up clutch mainshaft.

This design makes the DCT compact enough to live in a motorcycle frame while only being about 10 lbs heavier than a conventional bike transmission.

How Honda’s DCT Transmissions Work

The Ride

When the rider pushes the “N/D” button to the “D” side on the handlebar switch, the control unit engages first gear by moving a shift motor via solenoid instead of the rider stomping on a foot lever.

When the rider twists the throttle, pressurized oil is instantly sent to the start up clutch to engage it and so power flows out to the rear wheel.

This is done so fast that there’s no noticeable throttle lag and the bike takes off in a way to match the input from the rider’s wrist. Whack the throttle open and you’ll launch with authority. Keep it civilized and the computer reciprocates in kind.

As the bike hurtles down the road the computer monitors front and rear wheel speed and selects second gear before it’s needed in preparation for an impending upshift.  It holds off engaging the second (shift) clutch until a preset rpm and wheel speed is reached.

Once there it swaps power from the start up clutch to the shift clutch and a faint “Tick” sound can be heard.

This makes the shifts basically seamless compared to the massive drop off in power experienced when a manual clutch lever is pulled in and your left foot makes the gear shift.

So it continues from there either pre-selecting the next higher gear as revs rise or going to the next lower speed if the revs and wheel speed drop off. Seeing as there are two clutches to work with it can instantly go up or down in the blink of an eye according to the rider’s needs before they even realize they need to shift.

The DCT Mentalist

I don’t want to compare the DCT to The Amazing Kreskin or Derren Brown but the system anticipates what the rider needs from it in a way that is silky smooth and optimizes fuel efficiency. If it wasn’t so helpful it might even be a bit unsettling. How can the bike be smarter than I am?

You can select a more dynamic shift pattern to match a sportier riding style if you want the computer to hold off longer before shifting to let the revs go higher.

At any time while in the automatic mode a rider can hit a plus or minus button on the left handlebar to override the system and make a shift. The system will take over again a few seconds afterwards though.

There is an optional manual mode using the aforementioned plus/minus switches to do all the shifting yourself if you prefer.

I found the DCT was in sync on road with my shifting needs about 99% of the time.

I’m not a professional racer admittedly and so I imagine more talented riders might instead opt to tickle the shifting buttons themselves for aggressive riding on road.

Off Road Winning

The DCT equipped CRF1000 Africa Twin is quite at home off the asphalt and is a good case sample to look at of how the system performs there.

Johnny Campbell is an 11 time Baja 1000 Champion and in this video compares riding over really rocky terrain with a DCT vs manual transmission.  It really cuts through the fat nicely.

To me it sounds like a match made in heaven because when I ride over really rowdy terrain the constant shifting and need to slip the clutch going up hills can be a real workout for my hands.

Lots of enduro riders install Rekluse clutch kits on their dirt bikes to free themselves from the manual clutch, so why not go one better with a DCT?

In deep mud and muskeg riding I find the build up on my boots can negatively affect my ability to find the shift lever with my foot as well. Not an issue with a DCT… there is no foot lever!

You can’t stall the engine while in automatic mode which would be extremely useful and welcomed when hill climbing. Especially true when you only get halfway up the first try.

The system uses an inclinometer to detect a hill climb and pick the correct gear for it. Similarly it can choose a gear to implement engine braking when going downhill.

These are clear cut positives for DCT off roading.

Off Road Limitations?

Having said that, some experienced off road riders’ feedback about DCT isn’t all positive but even they recognize the potential of putting the DCT on a 250 lb dirt bike should Honda do that in the future instead of just on the 500+ lb Africa Twin.

The ones who like DCT use the manual mode more often over the automatic while in the rough stuff to get the shifts exactly how and when they want them without issue. It’s not a hard transition to make if you’re open minded.

The ones who don’t favour it complain that they prefer pulling in a manual clutch lever when entering a sharp turn to tackle the initial entry unloaded. Being able to dump it once pointed the way they want to go then powering through and out of the turn is what they want to do.

With a DCT you have to brake and then downshift to make the same move, so it’s not quite the same.

You can alternately do controlled powerslides with a DCT Africa Twin through a corner if you have the traction control set on the lowest setting.

Off Road Limitations

Another example where the DCT is described by some as less capable comes when a rider encounters a large diameter log fallen across the trail they need to get over. You can’t pull in the clutch, rev the engine up and pop the front high up and over the log quite the way you can with a manual… or so they claim.

The riders who don’t have a problem with this on the DCT bike say it’s fine as it is with the stock sprockets while others choose to swap out the rear for a one tooth smaller design to be able to raise the front end easier.

The smaller sprocket did drop their top speed in exchange for the added torque, but not to the point they couldn’t go faster than well over 100 mph.

Still Not Sold On DCT Reliability? Too Fancy?

“Fuggettabout it”.

Honda first put DCT on the VFR1200 in the 2010 model year so this isn’t a new thing at all. They’ve already improved the first generation DCT system to make the shifts even faster while ironing out any bugs with it.

In speaking with the Honda techs at my local dealership they tell me virtually zero DCT problems have come their way with the second generation system other than a few minor oil leaks here and there.

From a maintenance perspective there is an extra filter to be replaced compared to the manual clutch system and a little more oil, but that’s it. No special extra work required.

***In addition to the VFR1200 and Africa Twin, these transmissions can be found on the Honda NC700X, NC750X and CTX700 (in the US only) along with the new for 2018 Gold Wing DCT.

I did find a couple of instances online from owners of first production year Africa Twins (2016) where after plowing through a lot of deep water while out off roading some moisture must have gotten into the handlebar switch housing and caused their bike some significant shifting problems.

Water and electronics don’t mix obviously and after replacing the switches the problems didn’t return.

http://www.africatwinforum.com/forum/393-africa-twin-trail-tales-ride-reports/4617-warning-dct-riders-do-not-ride-if-you-have-sticky-left-switchgear.html

One other notable issue I heard from an owner was about DCT overheating when the bike got stuck in deep mud and the rider sat spinning the rear wheel for a time before they got out. I can see how that could be a legitimate concern, but no permanent damage was done to the transmission when they were allowed to cool before continuing to get unstuck.

Several owners now have in excess of 30,000 miles on their DCT bikes over varied terrain reporting no issues with them. Au contraire, they are pleased as punch.

Honda for its part claims you’ll get the same life out of a DCT as a manual clutch transmission. That’s the kind of promise Honda usually keeps if you look at their track record.

This isn’t their first rodeo, so to speak.

“I Just Don’t Like It”

This is what’s really at the heart of the resistance to DCT and other automatics from what I can tell: habit and distrust of change.

Yes it’s true that you can’t pull in the clutch lever at a red light and “blip” the throttle to listen to your exhaust note or signal your riding buddies… well actually you can, but you have to remember to first flick the N/D button into N.

Forgetting to do that will result in your bike launching forward abruptly into the car in front of you or deep into the “tulies” if you’re off road.

I understand your trepidation and concerns.

Motorcycling has been built up in our minds as an art and skillset we all pride ourselves on having mastered. Us “two-wheeled Picassos” feel deep satisfaction when it comes to executing a perfect launch or shift.

We’ve all worked hard to hone our skills to the point of being an unconscious reflex over the years. Starting out fresh again and re-learning our craft on a DCT could be uncomfortable at first.

Letting go of personal pride and embracing this new technology could even be troubling as one might feel like they’re abandoning their motorcycle heritage in a way.

Some may even worry about not having the same amount of control over the bike at first.

Nah… you’ll catch on much faster than you think, I promise.

Allowing sentimentality to get in the way of the performance enhancement DCT offers is a bit silly when you stop and think about it rationally.

Bikes these days are LOADED with dazzling electronics and techno-whizz-bangery that really does make us better and safer if accepted and utilized correctly.

Give It A Chance

In short, we’re actually missing out not having DCT on our bikes.

I realized this when I took a 2017 Africa Twin out for a test drive back in August.

At first it was awkward when I reached for the phantom clutch lever a few times, but after 20 minutes of city riding I was totally sold on it. No cramped hands from riding in heavy traffic. It was even dare it say it… almost relaxing!

Owners tell me that it takes about 250 miles of riding to really fall in love with it.

One claimed that upon initially leaving the dealership he felt a strong urge to return the bike in exchange for a manual clutch model.

Gradually that sense of panic faded with each passing mile and after enough saddle time it all came into focus for him along with a clear epiphany: it’s actually more fun on a DCT.

If you haven’t tried one out for yourself don’t hesitate any longer.

I’m definitely looking forward to trying out a new 2018 Gold Wing DCT as soon as I can.

18 Comments

  1. oldschool
    December 13, 2017
    Reply

    Another reason why not every africa is a DCT is the price.
    Here, in France, it’s 1000€ more….

    • Jim Pruner
      January 3, 2018
      Reply

      Yes you’re right it does cost more money, unless you wait to buy one that’s last year’s model and get it on special.

  2. “Sideshow” Bob Houston
    January 2, 2018
    Reply

    It seems that the bike manufacturers have followed the lead of truck builders. They are going to the dual clutch tranny’s as well. One reason is that drivers no less Nyerere know how to properly shift a manual (recent survey found that only 25% could shift properly). I personally am waiting for BMW’s version (my ride), I’m sure it will be good. My only concern with this new technology is that we will be raising a generation of riders that will be incapable of handling a clutch properly.

    • Jim Pruner
      January 3, 2018
      Reply

      BMW certainly has some great DCTs on their cars and so they’re a great bet to be the next bike builder to put it on their two wheeled offerings.

      Yes this tech could lead to a new generation of riders that don’t know how to use a clutch, but I think the trade off is positive. Shifting manually scares off a fair number of beginners and completely stonewalls disabled riders who have limited or zero ability to use their left hand or foot to shift. DCT may end up being a net gain as such.

      • Ralf Merboth
        May 31, 2018
        Reply

        Very nice article, Jim! I absolutely recommend DCT: precise, more comfort, impressive economical, high performance.

        4 Years ago after 8 years with a Vespa 250 GTS ie i began searching a real motorbike for my desires: city cruising, torque, acceleration if needed, easy handling, efficiently, classic look, a statement. I went for a test ride with the Victory Octane, BWM R nine T, Ducati Scrambler – all wonderful bikes. But they all left an imprint on my crafted chelsea boots (left foot only, i prefer riding the italian style with suit and tie or shorts and Tod’s….).
        In online Magazines i heard about the Honda NM4 Vultus. They talked about batmobile and so on. I coudn’t testride this bike (because it was only one in Hamburg, limited quantity for the german market) so i tried a rather ordinary NC 750 with DCT. Returning ist the vendor saw my smile, pushed the NM4 Vultus out of the hall and i could ride it in the Honda yard. All fits perfectly for me. And the Story behind the Vultus: it’s Manga Design inspirated what assured me.

        Today after 2 Years and 13.000 kilometers every morning i use my Vultus i am happy and excited from the smooth function. And not just a few bikers are puzzled of the Vultus performance when the traffic lights turns green…

        If i have a wish, please build me a Ducati xDiavel or BMW R nine T with DCT, an Indian Scout Bobber or a Triumph Thunderbird Storm with CVT, …

        PS: Come on boys, you all use smartphones without keys, say goobye to the left lever.
        PPS: If i like to ride racy i use my racing bicycles with two throttle pedals…

        • Jim Pruner
          June 1, 2018
          Reply

          Thank you Ralf! You’re the first NM4 owner I’ve ever heard from so it’s great to hear about your experience.

          One last question about it: how long before you change your name to Bruce Wayne and start fighting injustice?

  3. January 4, 2018
    Reply

    Manual all the way.

    • Jim Pruner
      January 6, 2018
      Reply

      Not convinced yet? Have you test driven a DCT yet? Give it a try Wade!
      DCT all the way!

  4. Dan S.
    January 13, 2018
    Reply

    Yamaha’s YCCS is another option where the computer does the clutch action. Either toe shift or left handlebar paddle shift up or down. Seamless.
    Available in the states for a few years on the FJR1300, low sales forced them to only offer it in other markets now.
    Drag strip or city driving, I was quite happy with the system.

    • Jim Pruner
      January 14, 2018
      Reply

      Right! I forgot about the FJR and should have mentioned it. Sad that it didn’t catch on, eh?
      Honda has been pushing automatics since the 70s on and off. Maybe this time it’ll stick.

  5. fxk
    February 21, 2018
    Reply

    Well, I’ve been riding for 40 years. I went on a test drive, and, to cut to the chase, wrecked the demo. I may have the dubious honor of the first person to wreck a 2018 Goldwing DCT.

    The ride was an out and back on a nice road I’ve been on before. We originally set it to tour mode, and at the speeds were driving, the ups and downs of an older road, I was always at the transition between on and off throttle. I found it to feel like there was a bunch of driveline snatch. Disconcerting. Also more engine braking than expected. I realized I needed to change how I manipulate the throttle, never backing off completely, always having to keep just a tiny bit of throttle on.

    We turned around in a church parking lot – almost dropped it, again I was caught out by the bike slowing more than expected, and trying to feed the throttle in with no way to feather the power.

    We changed it from “Tour” to “econ”, and most of that throttle issue went away. I also tried “sport” mode, and found that very well tuned, much like “Econ”. No problems, and no complaints. Pulling out on a highway, acceleration is amazing – not just for a big bike, but amazing.

    So I switch back to “econ” as we’re coming to the dealer turnoff. I slow, turn in, and at the apex, and try to feed it some throttle to help pick the bike up out of the turn. At that point, I’m still fuzzey as to what happened. I believe I got caught out with a combination of the bike slowing more than expected, which magnified the weight of the bike falling over. Feeding the throttle in, the driveline snatch also contributed to the fiasco. “The bike took off” (I know something I did) from the apex straight for the curb, a shallow drain swale, and a small rise out of the swale. I hit the curb square, through the wet muddy swale and more or less drove it into the soft ground rising from the swale. Fortunately it was on the dealership property, so no tows, no trees. Plenty of witnesses, though. The slightly bloodied nose was nothing compared to the damage of my confidence and ego.
    They’re still estimating, but at least two rims and tires.

    As I said, I’ve been riding 40 years. Been through ERC, and the Lee Parks Total Control courses. I have 60K on this bike. I’ve had a couple accidents on my first bike, but nothing since 2016 when I hit a deer.

    The weight of the bike disappears very quickly, and is a very smooth handler. U turns and slow 90degree left turns – the weight comes back as fast as it went away. it did not fit my style. Maybe my clutch is my crutch. Riding home on my bike I was really paying attention to my hands. Any tight, slow 90 degree corner the clutch stays in after my downshifting and braking. Just before apex I feather the clutch in as I roll throttle on.

    When test riding a DCT, don’t worry about the clutch (or lack of). Pay close attention to slow corners, how the bike gets heavy fast a it slows, and how the throttle feeds in to an always fully locked driveline. I was rattled after the near drop in the parking lot. After wrecking a $34K bike, well lets just say the hours after were different than expected.

  6. Jim Pruner
    February 22, 2018
    Reply

    Wow! Firstly let me say how happy I am to hear you weren’t seriously hurt. Bikes can be repaired, but not so easily are the riders.
    I was at a Harley Demo even last year when a rider crashed a brand new $40k Road Glide. He was injured and taken to hospital which shook everyone up in attendance and ended the demo day.
    Thank you for sharing with us despite the blow to your ego.
    There’s tons of fantastic information you gathered in that ride. I’m still looking forward to trying the new Gold Wing and have read about 50 reviews on it to this point. The vast majority have been overwhelmingly positive and none have mentioned a big problem with the engine braking you experienced. It might be a mechanical problem, not sure.
    Some reviewers mentioned sensitive throttle issues with sport mode and downshifting being rough on the bike. Perhaps that’s along the lines of what you experienced? The Africa Twin DCT I rode is a completely different animal to be sure, but I found it very manageable at slow speeds, but again we’re comparing apples and oranges.
    I’m very surprised to hear the bike felt heavy at slow speeds since it’s shed a ton of weight (90lbs) from the previous year model. Very interesting…
    I’ll definitely be looking for this symptom in Economy setting when I get the chance to swing a leg over a new Wing.
    I really appreciate the review and insight!

  7. fxk
    February 23, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks. I again was a lucky boy. I don’t think it would be fair to fault the bike. This one has been out on many test rides without issue. It *has* to be my improper reaction to something. My riding buddy test drove the same bike before my ride, and there were no issues. He’s been on the list only days after the bike was announced. He is picking his up this week.

    And yes, despite my crash, I would heartily recommend taking one out for a test drive. Everyone I’ve seen bring one back had a grin, ear to ear. Two guys had the DCTs out for a test ride in the rain the other day, and they were wet, but smiling.
    Though the bike lost 90 lbs, it is still over 500lbs, wet. Still a big bike by any standard. I’ve had a test ride on a Wing in 2010 in Taos, and I don’t remember any of the heaviness in the slow turns. One could feel the bike was big, but not terribly heavy. Light? no. Once rolling, the weight went away and stayed away. I believe the DCT may have felt heavy due to lack of speed. One thinks one will be going one speed, initiate the turn, realize you’re going slower than you had set up for, and the bike wants to drop. Only throttle will pick it up. Imagine being in the middle of a corner and shutting the throttle. Even a light bike gets heavy fast in that situation.
    With the DCT, I noticed when I pulled out of the dealer’s lot to wait for an opening in traffic, I planned to coast and brake to hit my marks after being under power 100yds at the most, I tried to coast up to where I could see – and came up 10-20′ short. Took a second try to get to where I could see. Additional engine braking/short coast was noticeable to me – may not to other folks, or they adapted better.
    It was the Tour mode that bothered me the most – I did not try the rain mode. Econ, and the bike is gentle, and gets to high gear quickly as expected. Sport mode I found to have accurate but not overly aggressive response to the throttle, but hang on. The driveline felt tight – no slop. No snatch. Both these modes seemed much better in the up’n’down county roads – did not feel the driveline snatch. I’ve been riding shaft-driven bikes since the late 90s, and know a thing or two about driveline snatch. Where’s that slipper clutch when you need it?
    Honda has done amazing things with this GoldWing. Worth a test drive. As a big touring machine, it’ll gobble up the miles. It’ll carve through the canyons with the best of them. As more DCT bikes hit the streets, It’ll be interesting to see how and what the riders notice.

    On the other hand, I would like to see the Wing on a Lee Parks parking lot course – or the BRC turn in the box test. Even before I test drove it, I’m not sure I’d want to try either course with the bike. Six speed? Yes. DCT? No. Either test situation on the DCT would require a far better rider than I. It would be fun to see what adjustments the rider would have to make.
    Just because my situation was not ideal (to say the least), do not let my experience dissuade anyone from trying one out.

    • Tim Walker
      June 14, 2018
      Reply

      Regarding Fxk’s issues in slow turns, where he misses having a slipper clutch option to keep RPMs up and finish a slow-speed turn.

      I just got back from a two-week motorcycle trip tooling around some European mountains, and I certainly had my fair share of very slow turns on 180 hairpin turns, uphill and downhill.

      Especially in the uphill hairpins, I was very slow (1st gear, of course), revving the engine, leaning hard, and slipping the clutch to get just the right amount of power to the rear wheel without lurching across the center line, but equally important, not letting the clutch out too much so the engine would stall and I’d flop over.

      I’m extremely nervous, as is Fxk, about trusting a DCT-equipped motorcycle to successfully manage the hairpin situations that I’ve described.

      Anyone want to weigh in on this, and hopefully ease my concerns (because I really, really, want to buy an Africa Twin).

  8. Jim Pruner
    February 24, 2018
    Reply

    You know as I mentally replay my test drive back in August I think I’m starting to recall noticing the pronounced engine braking you’re describing too.
    It was just more manageable on a lighter bike like the AT.
    You’re really making me envious that you’re able to go test ride in February. Here in Alberta there’s still about a foot of snow covering everything with below freezing temps and Spring is still a couple of months away at best.
    I’ll have to ride vicariously through you guys for now. Your write up really was great and I almost felt like I was in your shoes while reading it.

  9. Steven Comisso
    June 4, 2018
    Reply

    I sold my Piaggio MP3-400ie last year and picked up a used 2016 NC 750 XD and love it. Some convenience has been lost for trips in the city but it is still relatively quick on and off. My buddies who ride F850GS look at me jealously when in the city or stuck in highway traffic jams – “look boys no shifting!” On the open road and in turns it is really great and I find it more stable than the MP3 with its two front wheels – the center of gravity is very low. With respect to the manual shifting – you get over it especially when in any of the 3 sport modes (“D” is a bit laboured). There is no way I can shift better than this thing ! If I want or need to shift, I can rent a dirt bike and tool around in the forest or go into M-mode. As for reliability – no problems so far. Honda has a gazillion of these DCTs in motos and atvs – I think they have it figured out.
    Some people are really only interested in certain types of experiences – awesome – have at it. However – I like new technology as well as variety. Having ridden a Vespa 250GTS I can tell you YOU WILL HAVE FUN on that baby. Same is true for a KTM 400 – a total blast. Same is true for the DCTs. But they are all different. I am pretty sure that the DCT will bring new riders to touring, to offroad (AT) and to sportbiking just as the cvt did to scooters.

    • Jim Pruner
      June 9, 2018
      Reply

      I’m with you Steve DCT is a hoot.
      I recently got a bike with quick shift on it and that’s almost as good, but not in stop and go traffic.

  10. Steven Comisso
    June 10, 2018
    Reply

    To be honest I did not know quick shift existed. Then last week I weed I was at a local Husquvarna dealership and they had the Viltpilen 701 and was told about quick shift. That bike is from the future! Certainly a technology I would be interested in trying even if it is not great in the city.

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