To say Honda’s relaunch of their iconic Africa Twin has been a success would be a massive understatement. And we mean massive as in smashing the bike sales charts from the moment it was released despite a particularly inconvenient earthquake delaying production at the Japanese factory. This bike has captured the zeitgeist that is Adventure motorcycling perfectly and launched into a market that is currently riding the crest of a wave.
But for all this you have to wonder – is the Honda yet another incarnation of a model that pretends to have the capabilities to take on the world yet will rarely step outside the confines of tarmac and weekend trips to the countryside. Is it destined to be the saddest of pets – an urban sheepdog?
REVIEWING THE NEW HONDA AFRICA TWIN CRF1000L… COULD IT BE THE BEST ADVENTURE BIKE EVER?
Ride Expeditions went to South Wales and the Honda Adventure Centre to find out and give you a full review of Honda’s new Africa Twin CRF1000L. But first…
LET’S BACK UP A LITTLE BIT…
For the global motorcycling force that Honda undoubtedly is, the company has been totally caught napping in regards to the phenomenon of Adventure bike riding. From the start of the movement that was very much the sole responsibility of Messers McGregor an Boorman and their “Long Way Round” series. OK, so purists are still peeved at the idea that two actors could have dared to hijack ‘their thing’ but make no mistake, the series had an incredible effect. To get motorcycling onto mainstream, prime time TV was an achievement enough, but not even the two intrepid explorers could have predicted that some 12 years later the series could change the face of the bike market.
Of course BMW have been the main beneficiary (click here for our review of the BMW GS Vs Triumph Tiger) and you guess that’s kind of fair as they ran with the project when the pair’s first choice KTM couldn’t see the benefit. We have to wonder whether the guy behind that decision is still on the payroll in Austria…
But the rest of the manufacturers have followed the trend by either inventing completely new models or in the case of many, adapting an existing bike to give it an adventure focus. So while Honda continued to nap, the likes of Triumph, Yamaha, BMW, KTM even Moto Guzzi and Aprilia bought out models to fill the need of the millions of older former sports bike riders that were now making the conversion to the more comfortable yet equally road-competent adventure bikes. Big H did make some half-hearted attempts with uninspiring models like the Cross Tourer, but it wasn’t until the launch of their exquisite CRF450 Rally bike designed for the Dakar that we began to see that maybe somebody in Japan had read a motorcycle magazine and smelt the coffee…
A BRAND NEW AFRICA TWIN?
Of course the Africa Twin is not technically a new model. It’s an relaunch of a bike first released in 1988 that, far from coincidentally, was derived from its four-time Dakar winning NRX750. Back then the event was still in Africa and the pilots used massive machines in the most challenging conditions, and to win four years on the bounce proved the bike had rock solid reliability, even if the production bike used a far saner and less powerful lump. But hey, that didn’t really matter as the owners of the bike weren’t necessarily going to go anywhere near gravel, let alone the endless sand of the Sahara. Nothing changes then.
After a couple of upgrades in ’88 and then 1993 the Africa Twin went largely unchanged and although loved by it’s fans, the model was dropped in 2003, ironically consigned to the back catalogue just one year before Ewan and Charley set out from London…
But it hadn’t died and fresh for 2016 the new Africa Twin has emerged. Although the look might be influenced by the 450cc motocross engined modern Dakar bike and the previous 52-degree V Twin, the new bike is bang on the money with a 1000cc parallel twin motor that pumps out a healthy 93 bhp. Now that’s a massive amount on the soft stuff, but is way, way down on the existing competition. But does that matter? Well, there’s the real story…
THE NEW AFRICA TWIN ON THE BLACK STUFF
As with any adventure bike, the Honda needs to be able to cut the mustard on the road. All the off road capability will mean nothing if those road riders don’t like it on the tarmac. As we pull out of the car park at Honda’s Africa Twin Experience in Merthyr Tydfil, the bike feels beautifully balanced instantly. The wide bars are a comfortable bend and height that makes controlling the bikes considerable weight effortless. In fact it’s almost impossible to detect where exactly the weight goes once the wheels are moving – this bike comes in at twice the weight of our usual KTM EXC250 yet manages to feel super agile straight away. The cockpit is open, the fairing effective but not all encompassing and the seat is ‘all day comfortable’.
The fact that it is so immediately right on the ergos mean that very quickly you start to hustle the Honda along and the AT responds with super secure handling and joyful power. OK so it doesn’t have the 160 bhp of the 1290 KTM but really where are you going to need that kind of output? Another reason that the lower power works better is that in keeping with the Africa Twin’s more off-road focus than say the big KTM, is that the bike runs a 21 inch wheel up front and 18 at the rear, just like that enduro bike we normally ride. This gives a far better option on off-road tyres and far better handling on the softer stuff, but loses out on the black top to the normal 19 / 17 combination that the more road focussed models employ. But hey, it still took sweeping bends at 100 plus so we’re not complaining.
Another thing that we are not complaining about is the lack of clutter and gizmos on the bike. The clocks are clear and have a stripped back simplicity that is refreshing compared to the information overload on bikes like the Super Tenere where just turning on the heated grips seems to require a sequence of 16 button presses. The display shows speed, rpm, gear, traction setting, fuel and that’s about it – perfect.
Now we’ve mentioned it I guess we should cover the traction control. The bike has four settings – 3, 2, 1 and off, all selectable with your right forefinger and on the fly. On the road and in the dry there’s no real reason to have the TC on, but you can see that in heavy traffic or in heavy rain you don’t need the ‘full fat’ option. In the dry, it’s too tempting not to turn it off, as the power from the motor is perfect. The 270-degree setting makes the bike feel like a V and the power is just there and life affirming right up to the 10,000rpm redline.
When reviewing the new Africa Twin, if we were to pick one fly in the KY it would be Honda’s inexplicable decision to swap the position of the horn and the indicator switch. When every junction gets accompanied by a toot, you find yourself wondering – who was the guy that signed this off?
Although tall, the bike corners confidently and the brakes are predictably powerful. Add in a gearbox that is vastly smoother than the Honda Fireblade (that is also in the Ride Expeditions lock up) and the bike ticks every box you’d want. Oh and it looks completely killer.
THE HONDA GETTING DOWN AND DIRTY
So how does all this good news translate to the bike actually being used for real life adventures – you know, on roads that are not billiard table smooth and actually have gradients. Does the new Honda do justice to the off-road heritage that preceeded it? Man, does it!
Part of the instant success of the bike is how it feels from the get go. It says CRF on the graphics and as soon as you stand up it feels just like it’s smaller MX cousins – uncanny. The fact that there’s a fairing and a dashboard doesn’t matter, your brain says “Yep – I got this; it’s a big ‘crosser'”.
What also becomes immediately clear is the marked difference that the four traction control modes make. In mode three, any nailing of the throttle will cause the TC system to limit the power as soon as the bike loses grip. This leads to an almost stuttering delivery as the drive is cut in and out. In mode two the point at which this occurs allows more drive and more again in mode 1. Hold the button in for a second and all traction control is binned and you have the full 1000cc at your wrist and the bike rockets forward with a worrying rapidity. All of a sudden it’s evident just what nearly 100 bhp means in an off road setting – and it’s completely, frighteningly brilliant.
Once you’ve got the hang of what the modes will do, you start to experiment. If you make the mistake of hitting a shale-covered hill in mode three, the bike is unlikely to get up it, as the back breaks free from traction. If you are quick to remember, then you can toggle to setting one and complete the climb. If you are slow the bike computes away the drive and you are going nowhere fast. On a 230kg bike you learn very quickly that anything even remotely steep needs mode 1 or nothing.
Get this dialled and the bike will fly up the scary climbs astonishingly well, the back of the 230kg bike kicking about just like a regular enduro bike yet never feeling scary or out of control. And it’s exactly the same coming down the same climbs. You can slow it with the gearbox on the shallower climbs and on the steeper stuff it’s just a question of feet up, get you weight over the back and balance out the hyper powerful front brakes and the strong rear. The bike we tested was an ABS model, but on the steep downhills we switched it off to drag the rear when needed. OK so if you let off the brakes the weight and momentum became evident, but it was always controllable, rarely scary.
If you do want a bit of scary, you can put it in full power mode and give it a handful and very soon you are approaching motorway speeds on the equivalent of two enduro bikes, yet you can still bang on the anchors, throw it into a berm as you sit down and power out motocross style. Incredible and addictive.
The suspension is just spot on, and even if on the bumpy stuff the back end and chain slap made a lot of noise, it never steeped out. On the front, the guys at Honda had upped the suspension a tad and we added a bit more compression damping to get the feel we were after and after that we never looked back – that is until we blew a fork seal – oops! Guess we were caning it.
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The guys at the Honda Adventure Centre have made a few tweaks to allow the bike to perform to it’s best on the soft stuff. The standard Dunlops are ditched in favour of Metzeller Karoo hoops that interestingly only run one pressure – 36 psi whatever the conditions. The compression settings are wound on two clicks to make the front a tad stiffer and the preload is would fully in to give maximum travel and sit higher than stock. The rear is left as per factory settings and there are seat options for the very tall or very short, either with a different seat or the hydraulic preload or both. Other than that, the rear footpegs are removed to avoid paddling injuries and a set of front crash bars added to protect the front end from the occasional spill, which they do well. This bike goes well and – for a big trailie – crashes quite well too.
AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE
Although Honda have come to the Adventure party way too late they have at least bought something both innovative and, to be frank, rather impressive. The DCT option takes the riding experience somewhere else completely, throwing the gear shifter into the history books and introducing full F1 tech to the genre.
In full auto mode, you just move the right hand toggle to D, select your preferred TC mode and then it’s just twist and go like some huge off-road scooter. In the standard mode the Dual Clutch system short shifts quite noticeably and is soon in top on road or gravel, seamlessly snicking through each gear without shutting off. Conversely on the down changes, it’s a tad slower to go through the box, leaving you going into corners in fourth when you might have wanted second
Switch it over to the sport mode and these traits are reversed as the gears are held for longer and the system drops through the box swifter on deceleration. Clever tech delivered effortlessly.
If you don’t want fully auto, you can select the manual mode an then you get Ferrari style paddle shifting through the same six-speed box. It sounds like it shouldn’t add up on an off road setting but it is actually hugely addictive and fun to use. Your left index finger handles the up changes, and your thumb the down changes, both of which can be done without even slackening off the throttle just like a power-shifter. OK so the system adds a lot of weight to the engine and is probably more suitable to a road bike, yet it still adds up to big grins on the trail.
The Honda Africa Twin delivers all day comfort from a riding focussed stance. Standing up the balance is impeccable, despite those ridiculous footpegs …
Honda build quality is legendary and the Africa Twin is no different.
If it gets off-road, then it may suffer slightly more. What it will be like in ten years is difficult to predict but not impossible – it is a Honda after all.
The big Honda is pitched well below the bigger trailie and that is a smart move – it’s more achievable to the mass market. In fact it’s closer to the mid-size adventure bikes, which may be far from coincidental.
Honda have bought the Africa Twin right up to date with a fresh look that still manages to echo the past. There are three colour options from black, black and red and red, white and blue and all are gorgeous.
BEST ADVENTURE BIKE EVER MADE? HERE’S THE VERDICT…
So has Honda succeeded in its late entry to an already crowded class? Can you really let almost ten years slip and still hit the ground running? Could the new Africa Twin really be the best adventure bike ever?
On sales alone, the answer has to be yes and the dealers can hardly get hold of the bikes fast enough to ship them out. But what Honda have also done is something that is entirely different to the others. They’ve actually focussed on producing an adventure bike that has the skills to back up the off-road dressing. This is a bike with genuine off-road heritage that can handle being ridden in the settings it was intended.
But given the fact that most of the riders of these bikes are not actually using them for actual adventures rather than just a rufty-tufty tourer, the Honda does not have as many bells and whistles as the competition. The dashboard is simple, there are not twenty different suspension options, and there is not nearly two hundred bhp on tap. When you are competing with the world conquering BMW the Honda comes out as decidedly low-tech and simple, but for us, that’s a good thing. We like bikes to be bikes, not two-wheeled cars.
But the tragedy of most of these bikes, and we suspect the Africa Twin included, is that precious few of them will ever get the chance to experience what they can do in the dirt. Is your weekend biker really going to take his twelve grand bike on enduro terrain and risk the horrendous potential of a big off? We think not. And that’s why the bike parks at the bike meets across the world are filled with pristine adventure bikes with not even a splash of mud on their sump guards.
If you do buy a Honda Africa Twin – and we really think you should – don’t be that guy. Put it in full power mode, head to the hills and give it a handful!
So, is it really the best adventure bike ever? Well, of course that is opening up a can of worms… adventure riding in itself is a broad term and different adventure riders have different needs: we all ride in different locations, on different terrain and for different lengths of time – there can never be one single bike that will suit everyone. So, maybe we’ll just say that the Africa Twin is damn good at what it does and if that’s what you want to do, you will love it!
RIDE EXPEDITIONS REVIEW RATING: HONDA AFRICA TWIN CRF1000L
Any review of the new Honda Africa Twin CRF1000L simply can not result in a rating of any less than the full five stars. We were genuinely blown away by the Honda and just how enjoyable it was to ride compared to the almost tank-sized competition like the BMW and Super Tenere. The fact that it can cut it off-road is the icing on the cake – we want one and we want one now. In fact, we want more than one – we’re now contemplating an entire fleet for some of our own adventure motorcycle tours!
SPECIFICATIONS – HONDA AFRICA TWIN CRF1000L
DIMENSIONS & CAPACITIES
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