2009 Aprilia Mana 850
Road Test Review
If you judge this book by its cover, it is clearly a winner. Red, Italian and stylish, with a rumbling V-twin engine. Factor in the comfortable, upright riding position, optional side cases and one of the coolest features I’ve ever seen on a motorcycle-a spacious, locking storage area under the “tank”-and you’ve got what appears to be a well-mixed cocktail of flair, fun and practicality.
But the 2009 Mana 850 stands apart from the motorcycling crowd by virtue of its Sportgear transmission. It is a continuously variable transmission (CVT), just like on a scooter. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for Aprilia, which is owned by Piaggio, the Italian conglomerate best known for its Vespa scooters. When introducing a model aimed at new riders and ease of use, dispensing with a clutch lever makes sense. Following the U.S. unveiling in Monterey during MotoGP in July 2008, Rider was among the first to receive a Mana for in-depth evaluation.
Perhaps wanting to appeal to experienced motorcyclists, the Mana’s Sportgear transmission can be switched from Autodrive to sequential mode. Firmly, but briefly, press the gear mode button on the right side of the handlebar and it will toggle through each of three engine mappings (Touring, Sport and Rain) in automatic mode. Hold the gear mode button a few moments longer and it will switch into sequential mode, with “Sport Gear” and a large numeric gear position displayed on the LED screen.
Like a scooter, in Autodrive mode the Mana’s CVT shifts gears smoothly without the need to roll off the throttle. Same goes for sequential mode, where clutchless pushbutton or foot-shift gear changes can be made with the throttle wide open. Gear change buttons are on the left side of the handlebar, near the hand grip. Use your index finger to downshift and your thumb to upshift, similar to a mountain bike. Be careful, though, as it is easy to accidentally tap the sensitive buttons or shift lever and change gears. Or, when you intend to shift, you’re likely to honk the horn instead (sorry!).
Oh, and two more things. Remember to NOT blip the throttle at stoplights, or else you could end up plowing into the car in front of you. Twist the throttle and it’s game on! And when you park the Mana, get in the habit of setting the parking brake lever on the left side of the engine. At a stop, the CVT is always in neutral so it rolls easily on hills.
Yamaha’s FJR1300AE, which debuted in 2006, offers electric clutchless shifting via push buttons or a traditional foot lever. What makes the Mana unique among motorcycles (though not among scooters) is the option to shift into fully automatic Autodrive mode. Manual downshifts can be done in Autodrive mode, but not upshifts, which is called Semi-Autodrive mode. And when decelerating in sequential mode, if you don’t downshift, the CVT will do it for you to avoid the unpleasantness (stall) of engine speed falling below a threshold.
Recently I’ve been riding a modern mountain bike, which, with disc brakes and fully adjustable suspension front and rear, is a lot more like a motorcycle than what I used to ride in high school. And the click shifting is much slicker than it used to be, too.
On the left handlebar I can easily click levers to change the front gearing, with similar levers on the right for the rear. With 27 gears on my mountain bike, hopping on the Mana and manually shifting through only seven gears was cake.
It’s amazing what you can get used to with a little practice. At first, the fingers on my left hand wiggled in the breeze in search of the clutch lever. Within a few days, I had completely forgotten about the clutch and was happily toe or finger tapping my way through the gears like a semi-auto pro. Then I went through a phase for a few hundred miles where I just left it in the automatic Sport mode. If you don’t have to go through the trouble of shifting, why bother?
Don’t make the same mistake I did and think that the Mana 850’s engine is a bigger version of the 90-degree V-twin from the Shiver 750 we recently tested (Rider, December 2008). The Shiver’s highly oversquare engine (92mm bore x 56.4mm stroke, 749.9cc) has dual overhead cams, an 11:1 compression ratio and, according to the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno, cranks out 75.8 horsepower and 46.2 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheel. In contrast, the Mana’s engine is less oversquare (88mm bore x 69mm stroke, 839.3cc), has a single overhead cam, 10:1 compression ratio and spun the drum to a tune of 56.5 horsepower and 40.9 lb-ft of torque. With less power pushing a heavier bike-the Mana’s wet weight is 538 pounds vs. 486 for the Shiver-the riding experience is less exciting. As if to underscore the apples-to-oranges nature of this comparison, our Mana test bike is Passion Red (also available in Lead Gray) and our Shiver was orange.
What belies comparison are mappings on both the Shiver and Mana that share the same names: Touring (efficient fuel consumption), Sport (performance and acceleration) and Rain (soft throttle response for slippery situations). These are ride-by-wire throttle control modes on the Shiver, but the Mana does not have the same throttle technology. On the Mana, the mappings are available only when in Autodrive mode (in sequential mode, the Sport mapping is used). Unlike the Shiver, they are accessible via separate gear mode button rather than the starter button, and you can switch between mappings (and gear mode) with the throttle open rather than closed.
When we ran the Mana on the dyno, it was in sequential mode in fourth gear (OEMs typically optimize power in fourth because it is the most commonly used gear). Aprilia claims that the horsepower and torque curves are the same in Sport and Touring modes. Shifting from Touring to Sport, the revs noticeably increase even when throttle position is unchanged, much like switching out of overdrive. Indeed, the Sportgear transmission drops to a lower ratio to optimize engine speed for economy. In Rain mode, timing and fueling are altered to reduce power and soften throttle response.
The Sportgear transmission is nicely engineered and works very well. It shifts very smoothly, if lazily. Missed shifts are nonexistent. The transmission won’t let you over-rev the engine when downshifting, nor will you experience rear wheel hop. But, by the very nature of a CVT, the Sportgear transmission makes the Mana feel less powerful than it actually is. This perception results from a combination of smoothness and engine speed optimization. When an engine runs at peak efficiency, emissions and fuel consumption decline. But when you roll on the Mana’s throttle the engine doesn’t rev up as quickly as on other motorcycles, which makes it feel sleepy. It’s moving, but the feeling is vague. High-rpm buzziness in the rubber-covered footpegs provided some unwelcome stimulation, whereas the well-placed mirrors remained clear at all times.
The dyno chart tells the story of butter-smooth power delivery with almost no quirks. After climbing out of a small dip just above 3,000 rpm, horsepower increases along a straight line, peaking at 56.5 just before redline. Torque remains close to 40 lb-ft over most of the rev range. Since the Mana does not have a tachometer, in sequential mode you’ll have to shift by feel. When cranking hard on the throttle, a sequence of three orange shift lights illuminate as you approach redline. When a fourth red light comes on, you’re banging into the rev limiter. Although the Mana’s engine rumbles more than any scooter, by V-twin motorcycle standards it is muted, especially compared to the addictive exhaust note of the Shiver.
While I kept the Mana’s throttle pinned to the stop much of the time, most buyers probably won’t emulate my aggressive riding style. Like its scooter brethren, the Mana is designed primarily for usability and efficiency, not performance. As a commuter or a lightweight touring bike, the Mana excels. Don’t expect it to be something it isn’t and you won’t be disappointed.
Although heavy, the Mana is not a large motorcycle, with a 57.6-inch wheelbase and 31.5-inch seat height. With my knees tucked in around the nicely sculpted “tank” and a comfortable reach to the upright handlebars, my 6-foot, 2-inch frame is a net fit. The wide, flat seat allows plenty of movement, which comes in handy since its firmness takes a toll after about an hour. Passenger accommodations are adequate and comfortable, though the grab rails are replaced by mounting brackets when the optional side cases are installed (our test passenger held onto the handles of the side cases instead). For cornering clearance those cases sit up high, which requires dexterity and a high kick to mount and dismount the bike.
With 24 degrees of rake and 4.1 inches of trail, the Mana has quick steering geometry. The wide, upright handlebars provide good leverage in turns. Riding the Mana solo on tight canyon roads is good, wholesome fun. Steering is predictable, brakes are strong and easy to modulate, and the limited power keeps you out of trouble. Fill the side cases with gear and/or add a passenger and the lack of power becomes more problematic, especially when you need it for passing or keeping pace on steep inclines. You’ll need to be more judicious and plan ahead rather than expect a sudden burst of roll-on power.
While the radial-mounted, four-piston front calipers provide excellent stopping power and feel, ably assisted by the single-piston rear caliper, the Mana’s weak link is its suspension. The 43mm male-slider fork, which offers 4.7 inches of travel, is nonadjustable. For around-town riding and casual touring, it works fine. But wick up the pace and it dives too easily under hard braking and feels too soft. With preload set and rebound on its firmest setting, the rear shock-a linkage-less unit that connects directly to the swingarm and allows 4.9 inches of travel-still wallows around. Hitting a few dips while leaned over at speed in tight curves resulted in scraping noises and sparks from the kickstand (which touches down before the peg feelers on the left side) as the back of the bike bounced around like Tigger on his tail.
The Mana is a very capable all-rounder. With modern styling, comfortable ergonomics, excellent brakes and a smooth, fuel-efficient engine, there is much to praise. Having a built-in, locking storage compartment under the “tank” is incredibly convenient. It ended up being a catch-all space like the glove compartment in my truck. Whereas I struggled to close the lid with a medium-sized full-face helmet inside, a six-pack fits easily! It even includes a 12V socket and cell-phone pocket. I wouldn’t be without the optional Monokey side cases, which are spacious and easy to open, close, install and remove. Needing to lift the pillion seat to access the fuel filler is troublesome when carrying gear or a passenger (fuel is stored under the rider for better mass centralization).
My wish list is fairly standard: more power, less weight and better suspension. These improvements will surely be made as the Mana is refined over time. For now, this is a solid effort for a new model. With the convenience and fuel efficiency of a CVT, the cache of Italian design and enough storage capacity for a trip to the grocery store or another state, the Mana delivers the goods.