Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin

It was a broad spectrum of bikes Honda brought to the CRF1000L Africa Twin in early April. Apparent from the assembled lineup the emphasis was going to be on the off pavement capability of all, but specifically the big new adventure bike which is arguably the most significant Honda model in the past 15 years. Big Red reaffirmed the company’s place in the gravel by showcasing the other models that cover the spectrum from small to large as Honda has been under represented in this segment, particularly the larger end, for many years. The lone constant through the decades, the XR650L, was available for a ride but it also served to illustrate the advances the dualsport/adventure segment has made since that bike debuted many years ago. The NC750X, CB500X and CRF250L were also brought to the press event.

While all enlisted for this variation of a Red Riders event were experienced riders there were different levels of off-road experience in the group and for that Honda had off-road riding instructor Clinton Smout present to put journalists through their paces and ensure to Honda’s satisfaction that the Africa Twin was put through its paces to a point beyond the comfort level of 90 percent of the AT’s eventual owners. 

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Ride ‘em hard, but don’t break ‘em. The two silver (and one red) bikes were at the time the only three Africa Twins in North America and there was more than one reminder that another wave of journalists was coming to ride the bikes which would be followed by various other events where unbent Africa Twins would be exceedingly welcome. Fortunately several of the few spots in which the Africa Twin would come to rest (a deep water crossing, a very compact motocross course and a boggy berm) contained a lot of mud so for the most part that wish was met as all vied for some saddle time on the CRF1000Ls amid Honda’s sometimes challenging obstacles. Honda went the opposite direction to the competition in the segment by emphasizing the off-road in the AT’s development and they weren’t going to let that development go untested. 

If you have been on a big ADV bike you will feel at home on the Africa Twin with the riding “in” the bike feel of the wide tapered bars, screen and tall 18.8-litre tank. The seat is broad enough to be comfortable and yet wasp waisted comes to mind as neither the engine, seat, or bodywork impede the rider’s footing from the 863mm (34-inch) saddle. Standing on the pegs is natural with an easy reach to the bars and terrain in which standing comfortably would be crucial is right there in the bike’s mission statement. At 231 kg (511 lbs) for the model with the manual transmission model and 242 kg (534 lbs) for the DCT version, the bikes are at the lower range for comparable models. The mass of the Africa Twin is carried low and forward providing excellent balance and maneuverability.  

The compact Unicam engine borrows design elements from Honda’s motocross machines and with its 95 horsepower it is exactly what you want it for a solo rider. Docile isn’t the right word but manageable might be. Or perhaps—because the bike is a Honda—sensible is appropriate. 

For the experienced rider the engine isn’t going to surprise when you don’t wish to be surprised. Just as a 200-hp sportbike provides numerical bragging rights but little real world applicability for 99.5 percent of riders so does a 150-hp ADV machine. What can you do with 150 hp in the gravel that you cannot do with 95? In most applications a bike with knobby tires and a 21 -inch front wheel doesn’t need that kind of power even with traction control. 

Honda wanted the AT to be true to its ideal as a go-anywhere bike. The power of the torquey parallel twin complements that strategy with the meat of the torque curve delivered very low in the rev range where it works best in the gravel while providing good acceleration on the street. 

The difference between its power and character to the NC750X is immediately apparent and much more so than the difference between the CB500X and the 750X. Honda designed sound and feel into the engine making it louder and more visceral than the other machines. The power question can best be illustrated by the rally from which this machine derived its name. 

The displacement allowance for motorcycles in the Dakar Rally (when it was still staged in Northern Africa) was dropped to the current limit of 450cc for the best off-road riders in the world. There is only so much power you can harness in an off-pavement environment that is littered with endless variables. The Africa Twin never feels underpowered—but fill the larger saddlebags that will come as an option, and add a topcase and passenger and that may change. But due to the off-road nature of the bike a passenger is less likely than other bike options in the ADV category.

Slipper clutch, torque control, riding modes, endless info through a crowded instrument panel; the Africa Twin is stacked with rider aids and one of the best is a great big button for the ABS. No scrolling, no frantic searching just the push of a button—exactly the way it should be when you need the ABS off in a hurry. The adaptive system allows for the rear ABS on the 256mm two-piston caliper to be turned off for steep gravel downhills while the front ABS remains on the dual 310 mm four-piston calipers to facilitate steering. 

Honda is expecting great things from the Dual Clutch Transmission that is available on the Africa Twin along with the traditional six-speed manual. DCT accounts for more than half the sales of Honda products on which the system is available in Europe. This seems counter-intuitive because Europe is a holdout for manual transmissions in automobiles whereas in North America the death knell for the stick has long tolled as fewer vehicles come with the driver interactive appendage. But the outlier to that in the car world is the sportscar market. Sports cars come with manual transmissions because it is a more direct connection between the driver and the vehicle. The engine is doing exactly what the driver wants it to do and the decision doesn’t involve a third party parsing binary code. If your objective is simply to mash the accelerator and go as fast as you can in a straight line, an automatic transmission will often get you there sooner but finessing an engine through the curves is more enjoyable with a traditional standard transmission. Motorcycles above all else are enthusiast vehicles and especially when they sport a modern, compact eight-valve 998cc twin. 

Both versions of the bike (DCT and standard) were available at the press launch. The manual was the more intuitive but was that because this is what we are use to? If you don’t “get it” you don’t like it? The DCT can be shifted manually via buttons, or it can be switched between a straightforward drive mode or manual; sport settings and to off-road settings (G) that apply in both manual shifting and D modes. The DCT bike even has incline sensors to adjust shifting depending on an uphill or downhill surface. The sport modes change the shift patterns to a more aggressive riding style. Often the bike didn’t seem to be in the gear I wanted. The sport mode shifted more aggressively but once the 100-kmh mark was reached, the bike would be in sixth gear and the engine felt like it was lugging. The binary code was telling the bike that sixth gear equated to fuel economy but I felt that the revs were too low. The rider in this situation could punch the button and shift to a lower gear but if I could do that then why the DCT when a traditional manual shift would have been exactly where I wanted? 

There are all sorts of arguments as to the benefits of DCT and the technology is prodigious. If you are a new rider and don’t want to shift it might be fantastic. Most of the next generation of riders will come from cars without clutch pedals and stick shifts—it is what they know. I wasn’t ready to embrace that future but with all those settings and options perhaps there is a sweet spot for everyone. My shift pattern might be wrong but it is the one I wanted.

There is a caveat to this lack of enthusiasm: off-road. Removing the clutch lever and shifting from the equation frees the mind and leaves throttle, brakes and balance as the deciding factors to success. Stalling is a thing of the past. 

The DCT works well in these situations allowing for smooth momentum over obstacles and difficult terrain and slowly crawling though mud. Unless you are six-foot-six with legs like tree trunks you aren’t often going to be bashing your 242-kg Africa Twin through single track, over 12-inch logs and 18-inch drops as we were asked to do by Honda. Still, it is good to know it can be done with eight inches of suspension travel front and rear and almost 10 inches of ground clearance—and optional engine and tank guards.

Honda differentiates the Africa Twin with a big 21-inch front tires and an 18 inch rear tire available only with wire spoked rims. Part of the weight saving comes from the chain drive which will require more maintenance than the shaft variety especially if long adventures are in your future.

Is the new Africa Twin worthy of the title? Yes. It is a more competent off-road machine than the first consumer iterations of the iconic name. Is it exactly what the true diehard Africa Twin fan might have wished for? Perhaps not—an even lighter and more compact package would have made them happier. But for the majority, Honda has set the CRF1000L down in a very sweet spot where it’s bigger than the middleweights but smaller than the 1200cc-class ADV bikes and with a decidedly more off-road bent. 

Is the Africa Twin in the CRF1000L guise the end of the story? The current Honda Dakar entry is the 450 Rally, which has made an appearance as a consumer prototype and would again fill a sweet spot not served by the competition. 

When Honda brought along a number of smaller bikes to accompany the Africa Twin to the launch it illustrated the gap that exists between purpose-built machinery for the dualsport segment. 

The CRF250 was a lot of fun in the spots that the Twin was not really intended but its displacement limited its pavement prowess. 

The NC750 is a street bike in off-road colours worthy of gentle dualsport riding. The CB500X? That is an interesting one (read more later). Smaller is better when the going gets really rough and the market for smaller modern adventure touring bikes is almost wide open. Perhaps the Africa Twin represents a trickle down start to smaller machines.

What absolutely cannot be quibbled with is the price of the new Africa Twin. At $13,999 for the standard transmission model the Africa Twin approaches bargain territory within this segment and in dollars per off-road credit it is the clear leader in the market. If you want to pony up another $1,000 you can get the DCT but have a reason and understanding for wanting that particular choice. 

The DCT requires a longer learning curve and more real world riding to appreciate its many options and capability—longer than a test ride can provide.

Big enough, comfortable, powerful and competent: there is little compromise in the on and off-road ability of the Africa Twin. Honda found a gap and filled it with a machine that is unlike just about anything else around it. The new motorcycle is destined to be around longer than its original namesakes.