I haven't had experience specifically with the variable speed transmission and auto choke features of this particular mower, but I have used an earlier Honda model, HRT216SDA, with a similar deck and bagging system, and several different mowers with the GCV160 engine.
Their quadra cut system, as they call it, works very well, and the bag on the HRT216 was easy to remove, empty, and put back on the mower.
I've had a 21" push mower with a GCV160 engine since 1999, and I'm still very pleased with the way it starts and runs.
They are nice quality mowers that you cannot go wrong with. The light aluminum deck makes them easy to maneuver or lift into the back of a truck.
I used to work at a John Deere dealer who also sold Honda Power Equipment, so I have some experience with these models and below are some observations that I made on the Variable Drive System on these mowers.
First off it is a nice system, but can take a while to get used to at first. In my opinion the system is something that you will either love or hate. The system has a soft touch so when you first press your palms against the pads, the mower slowly starts to take off without an immediate jump unlike a standard push-bar handle that has more of a tendency to do so. The push pads for the drive have a bit of a "heavy" feel when you first press down but they do not have much resistance (not like a strong springy return feeling). This makes it so that when you're going over bumps and small incriment changes are made in the position of your hands, it does not make the mower jerky and speed up and slow down constantly. Because of this though, I found that when you immediately release your palms off the pads to make the mower come to a stop, there is a short delay until the mower actually does stop. This is from the pads slowly returning back to the "stop" position because again, the handle does not have very much resistance. Hopefully this all makes sense. Another observation that I noticed is that when you wanted the mower to go near or at it's full speed, this ended up putting your wrists and hands in a bit of an awkward or uncomfortable position because the farther you press down on the pads, the more curved your wrists are going to be.
I would highly recommend going to your local Honda Power Equipment dealer and checking out the different models firsthand. This way you can compare the different models and check out out the variable drive system to get an idea if you think you like it or not. Like I said, I think you'll know pretty quickly if you like it or hate it. Infact, the dealer may even let you try out one of the mowers with this system. We used to.
Overall on a quality standpoint, you cannot go wrong with a Honda mower any day. They are super quite, easy to start mowers that are wellbuilt. They are more costly than most, but this is because of the quality. You really get what you pay for.
Thanks guys. Appreciate the info. I've always had Toros, and the last one had "personal pace". The personal pace part lasted about a year. Really hard to mow in 95 degree weather without it. Really looking for a reliable mower.
Like Austen said, talk to your local Honda dealer, they might just set you up with a "test drive", and if your dealer is anything like the one near me, he'll be nothing but honest with you about the pros and cons of their line up.