2009 Honda DN-01

Road Test Reviews

If you find it difficult to imagine a motorcycle that combines some character of a sportbike with the lowness of a cruiser and the user-friendliness of a scooter, just look at the photos on these pages. Honda has attempted to create a new category with its DN-01 (from its 2005 unveiling in Tokyo, “Dream New-Concept 1”) it calls Crossover, and I can tell you from the miles I have put on the bike that it has succeeded in many ways. With its automatic twist-n-go transmission, 27.2-inch seat height, 17-inch sport radials and triple disc brakes, the DN-01 is fun, easily managed at stops and quick…like a scooter, a cruiser and a sportbike.

Whether or not our typically niche-driven market secretly desires a “comfortable sports cruiser” compromise like this remains to be seen, and it’s a pity that sales of the exotic-looking DN-01 itself probably won’t provide the answer, as it’s priced nearly twice what you’d expect at $15,599. That’s even $94 higher than a Honda Civic sedan, and the DN-01 offers less built-in cargo capacity than the car’s cup holder. OK, I get it—unlike most motorcycles here’s a low sales volume bike with an exotic transmission that is expensive to build. But lacking the $7,000-$9,000 pricing of a scooter or motorcycle in the 700cc class and the dual-watermelon-sized underseat storage of the typical scooter, who would buy a DN-01 instead of one of Honda’s (or any OE’s) many more functional or cheaper choices? ST1300? Silver Wing? It’s as if Honda pulled the pin on a hand grenade labeled “Lesseewahappens” and tossed it into dealer showrooms.

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. How about that new Fury? Remember the Rune? Pacific Coast? CX500 Turbo? CBX? Sometimes Honda just likes to stir the pot to see what rises to the surface. These often poor-selling but attention-getting bikes usually have a central styling or technological theme—in this case it’s the DN-01’s automatic HFT transmission, which stood for Human Friendly Transmission in the bike’s concept and 2008 European introductory phases. For the United States in 2009 it’s just HFT, please, perhaps hoping the acronym alone will suggest something a bit less scooterish and more whiz-bang. The DN-01 is first a motorcycle, Honda insists (realizing, no doubt, that no one shopping for a scooter would ever pay this much for one), and as a motorcycle the DN-01 excels in many ways. Enough that an enthusiast who likes its crossover look and doesn’t care or know about its shortcomings just might pony up.

If they do, they will enjoy a liquid-cooled, fuel-injected 680cc V-twin with a charming, burbling personality, which made about the same power and torque at the rear wheel on the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno as the BMW G 650 GS single we tested in May 2009. At 598 pounds fully fueled the DN-01 rider won’t experience arm-straightening acceleration, um, ever, but will find enough power on tap riding solo and the power delivery so efficient that making brisk passes and climbing hills are a snap. Starting is instantaneous with automatic enrichment, and there’s no clutch lever by the left hand grip at all, just a toggle button for Up or Down shifting and Drive or Sport modes.

Unlike a typical continuously variable transmission, which uses V-belts and pulleys or cones, the DN-01’s hydromechanical unit has evolved from Honda’s R&D with hydrostatic ATV transmissions and uses swash plates and pistons to continuously vary the transmission ratios. Pound-for-pound the HFT can handle a little more torque than a V-belt CVT, isn’t much bigger than a manual transmission and offers similar performance and efficiency—with no scheduled maintenance. It shares the engine oil like a regular unit engine and transmission, too, and the combo has normal oil change intervals.

Another benefit of the HFT is that it retains engine compression braking, which gives the DN-01 the same feel riding down hills or coasting to a stop as a motorcycle with a manual transmission. Unlike a scooter, it also has a starting clutch, so the bike is started in neutral and then switched into Drive with a button push, and can be manually switched into neutral like a motorcycle so it can be pushed around. As on some big scooters the HFT has a normal automatic Drive mode; a Sport mode that raises rpm at a given speed for more spirited but still fully automatic riding; and Manual mode that allows shifting into six pre-determined ratios or speeds, and holds that ratio until you shift or the bike slows enough that it automatically drops into first.

As the normal Drive mode offers compression braking and seamless automatic up- and downshifting, I haven’t yet found a lot of use for the Sport or Manual modes except splitting lanes in California freeway traffic. This requires a lot of speeding up and slowing down within short distances, and less braking is needed if the transmission holds second or third gear in Manual mode. Sure, it’s fun to shift manually on a twisting road, too, as you don’t have to change throttle position and it won’t shift at an inappropriate road-vs.-engine speed, but the HFT works so well in Drive that after a while I just let it do the work.

Ergonomically the DN-01 is cruiserish with its feet-forward riding position, flip-up floorboards and pullback, almost tillerlike handlebar. The seat itself is low enough at 27 inches that it rivals all but the lowest cruisers, and almost everyone can flat-foot the bike at stops. Taller riders will find the rider’s seat back confining, however, and even with my 29-inch inseam I could only scoot back onto the hump, rather than slide forward, in order to shift position on the too-softly padded seat. The passenger throne is high, large, better-padded and offers huge grabrails, though the passenger footpegs are also somewhat high. The small windscreen obscures the view of the instruments and offers little or no protection for either rider, so at highway speed most pilots will be pulling on the bar to stay upright against the wind, or sitting on the hump in order to lean forward a little. Keep it under 75 mph and short rides are no problem, and the engine settles into a sweet spot right about 72 mph.

The DN-01’s single shock in back is harsh over bumps and potholes, and with all of your weight on the seat makes for some unpleasant jarring at times. The front suspension, on the other hand, is tautly compliant and helps give the DN-01 some pretty nice handling. The bike is long and low with floorboards that stick out and has less cornering clearance than a standard or sportbike, though it still hustles around a corner faster than the average cruiser or scooter and is very stable on the highway, too. Honda has blessed the DN-01 with sportbike-level triple-disc braking and ABS, which also incorporates its Combined Braking System (CBS) so that you get braking at both wheels even if just the front lever (which is adjustable) or rear pedal is applied. Combined with sticky sport radials and its low center of gravity the bike stops hard and smooth, with little jerkiness when the ABS is engaged.

Creature comforts include good, wide mirrors, a bright headlight, a fuel gauge, a clock and dual tripmeters, though it’s a long reach to reset the latter two from the rider’s seat. Strangely the bike is lacking a centerstand and self-canceling turn signals. Honda offers a passenger backrest and few other accessories, and Givi (www.giviusa.com) has a set of hard luggage, a tankbag and a taller windscreen, although the bike’s load capacity is already paltry at just 343 pounds.

Around town the DN-01’s attention-getting looks and scooter and cruiser qualities make it fun and easy, and its handling in the canyons provides some spirited excitement. Even at half the cost, though, most scooter seekers would opt for something with some storage. And for $15 large-plus any motorcyclist reading this is going to want more power, maybe an electric windscreen and at least self-canceling turn signals. Honda’s not dumb—there must be a plan here, something to do with a future for the HFT motorcycle. But it’s not telling and we sure don’t know….