First Ride! 2009 Aprilia Mana 850

. By Gabe Ets-Hokin
Don’t call it cute.

By Gabe Ets-Hokin

So, expecting to read a straightforward review of the swanky new Aprilia Mana 850, are you? Well you’ll get a lot of basic info about the bike as well as my riding impressions, but you’re also going to read about my existential struggle during the six weeks and the 1000 or so miles I rode it.

Yes, existential. Riding Mana – equipped with a fully automatic CVT transmission – brings up all sorts of questions about motorcycling. Does eliminating shifting and working a clutch take away from the experience? If you can go as fast on an automatic, and it’s easier to ride, isn’t having a clutch and gearbox just some kind of anachronistic vanity?

Before you get all indignant and say, “Heidegger, please,” let me tell you more about the motorcycle. Mana (Aprilia’s people like to refer to the bike by calling it just “Mana,” with no article in front) is built around the Gilera (unavailable in North America) GP800’s powerplant, a jumbo-tron of a scooter with a liquid-cooled, 839.3cc 90-degree four-valve V-Twin motor that delivers about 76 crank horsepower to a robust continuously variable transmission (CVT). That means a system of belts, pulleys and weights, controlled by servomotors and a computer always provide an ideal gear ratio, keeping the motor at the correct RPM for whatever it’s doing, be it accelerating, cruising or slowing. The motor, like the Shiver’s smaller (and unrelated) unit, is built in-house unlike the RSV Mille’s Rotax.

The chassis is a tube-steel trellis similar to the Aprilia Shiver’s item, but without the cast aluminum cradle that joins the motor to the swingarm. An inverted, non-adjusting 43mm fork handles front suspension work, and a side-mounted rear shock, preload and rebound-damping adjustable, is bolted directly to the cast-aluminum swingarm. No linkage for you! The Dunlop Qualifier tires, a 120/70-17 front and a 180/55-17 rear, sit on their contact patches 57.5” apart. The four-piston radial-mount Brembo look-alike brake calipers grab twin 320mm floating discs. A single-piston caliper and 260mm disc slow the back end. Dry weight is a claimed 440 pounds, which means the bike, with the 4.2-gallon tank filled up, is probably close to 500 pounds, about what you’d expect from a big standard.

What isn’t standard is where you put the gas. The passenger seat flips up to reveal the filler cap, and the tank is under the wide, comfy seat. So what’s under the thing-that-looks-like-a-tank? I’m glad you asked. A handlebar-mounted solenoid opens a large, carpeted, lighted compartment (complete with a 12v plug for cell-phone charging) just big enough to fit most full-face helmets.

This alone is enough to blow the minds of your fellow riders when you show off the bike. That’s when you flip up the seat and show the gas cap, and then you point out the lack of a clutch lever. You can then move on to the manual-shift buttons on the left switchpod, leaving your audience oohing, aahing and arguing amongst themselves like a minyan of 14th-century rabbis. It’s good for hours of entertainment.

Riding Mana is also an entertaining, if not familiar riding experience. Hefting the bike off its stand (you can safely warm the bike on its stand, as the motor will stall if you try to rev it past idle on the sidestand. A parking brake keeps the bike from rolling away) reveals a little top-heaviness, and those used to riding scooters will feel at home when they give it gas, with the bike shuddering, vibrating and then smoothly rolling forward. Twisting the throttle open is what’s really weird, though. Instead of the front wheel coming up and the motor howling, like you’d expect from a big-bore V-Twin sportbike, the motor’s note just gets a little deeper and the bike digs in and starts going fast. Really fast.

Once up to speed, the fun doesn’t end. Coming out of a turn? No need to worry about gear position or where the motor is in the powerband. Just roll on that throttle (carefully, though: there’s no traction control) and the perfect amount of motive force is applied to the wheel, getting full use out of the claimed 76 hp.

Bored with just rolling on and off the throttle?

The right switchpod has a “gear mode” switch to change the bike to a 7-speed manual, and you can shift with either the gear lever by your left foot or two switches on the left switchpod.

Snapping downshifts has the same effect as with a manual shifter, slowing the bike in a realistic way with satisfying vroom sounds coming from the tailpipe. This happens even when you’re not in the manual shift mode.

The electronics are idiot-proofed to keep you from damaging the engine or highsiding by messing up a shift. And I suppose a clever person could figure out how to wheelie this thing by snap-shifting it, but I am not that clever. There’s also an automatic Sport mode, which gets the bike accelerating quicker, in addition to a more-sedate but more-economical Touring mode. A Rain mode damps acceleration and is welcome when the road is wet or otherwise traction-challenged. And it’s all changeable by a flick of that “gear mode” switch.

I’m happy to report that the bike’s cornering capabilities are mostly what you’d expect from an sporty Italian Twin. Aprilia’s engineers picked good spring rates for a light to middleweight rider, and although you can feel the crude effect of the linkageless rear shock, the chassis and suspension are more than adequate for a brisk pace on a twisty road, and the pegs allow plenty of room to lean. The brakes may not be real Brembos, but they work, with fine feel and lots of power. I did notice a slight mushy feel from the rubber-mounted handlebar, and the weight of the bike kept me honest on backroads as well; it’s easy to steer what with those wide, tall bars, but with a tail full of gas and all that bulk it never felt as flickable or planted as the lighter Shiver or its angry cousin, the Dorsoduro.

On the open road, or on the long-distance commute, Mana shows its strengths. That seat is great for long days in the saddle, fuel economy is superlative for such a weighty bike (it was easy to get 50 mpg, thanks to the efficient nature of the CVT), and the storage compartment is life-changing: throw away those tankbags, ladies! Aprilia offers an adjustable windscreen and hard luggage that could turn it into the ultimate light tourer or commuter. On the down side, Mana’s buzzy nature at high RPM (ameliorated by using the Touring mode), lack of wind protection mixed with the bolt-upright seating position, make high-speed travel tiring.

Still, if you want twist-n-go ease combined with big-bike handling, brakes and feel, and the look of a real motorcycle, Mana is the best deal in town, albeit the only one if you don’t include the equally unique Honda DN-O1 thingee.

Okay, ready for more existential angst? Mana rides like a motorcycle, if a motorcycle that feels slightly heavy in back, as if you’re always carrying a passenger. It’s dripping with convenience features and really makes sense if you’re commuting or spending a lot of time riding around town. It can even hang in the twisties with those on more-sporting bikes, aided by the CVT, which allows you to focus more mental energy on your cornering lines and throttle control by ensuring the motor is always in the sweet spot.

My main beef with Mana is twofold. First, the engine - though it feels fast and has plenty of character - feels like an Amtrak-sized scooter engine, with a distinctive CVT whirr, shake and whine. There’s something very…"sanitary" about scooters and that (for me at least) kind of saps the fun of the motorcycling experience. I don’t like being excluded from the operation of my motorcycle - I want it to need me.

Sure, you can use the manual shift function, and it’s kind of fun, but I felt like the bike was pretending to be a motorcycle, sort of like a discount by-the-hour dominatrix in Las Vegas. “Grovel for my favor, worm! Lick my boots! Oh, wait a sec, I’ve got to take this call.”

My other problem is kind of subtextual. This is a big, heavy, powerful bike with 53 ft.-lbs. of torque and a 130 mph top-speed potential. It’s not for beginners, but I fear there are a lot of potential motorcycle buyers (maybe one of you dropped in from Google, how do you do!) who would never consider a conventional motorcycle because they are intimidated by the idea of learning how to use a clutch and shift gears. But here’s the thing: the most dangerous and difficult aspects of motorcycling have nothing to do with operating the clutch and gearbox. Just because you can hop aboard a scooter or a bike like Mana and ride it around without stalling doesn’t mean you have the skills and mentality to safely ride in the uncaring maelstrom of the urban riding environment.

Piaggio implies in its press materials that Mana’s purpose is to provide comfort and ease-of-use to experienced riders while not taking anything away from the motorcycling experience. Mission accomplished, mostly. But I worry this bike and others like it will attract folks who won’t commit to a 15-hour riding school or who lack the coordination to work a clutch lever. Call me names, but folks like that should take up kayaking or bocce ball: they have no business riding. And while Piaggio (Aprilia’s parent company) doesn’t want you to ride without proper licensing, training and protective gear, it’s not like your friendly neighborhood Aprilia dealer will refuse your money if you have the $9899 to buy one of these.

Mana is a great piece of engineering and a great product for experienced motorcyclists who want something different, or for various reasons can’t or don’t want to work a clutch anymore. It’s also a very good motorcycle, but it’s definitely not a "cute little scooter".

Story: Gabe Ets-Hokin
Photos: Bob Stokstad

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