Ride Review: Assessing Honda's Africa Twin On the Road
Just about every review you'll read for Honda's new CRF1000L Africa Twin speaks to the bike's surprising usability off road. Honda seems eager to drive that home, to such an extent that the manufacturer had journalists gather in South Africa recently (our invite must have gotten lost in the mail) to spend two days in the dirt.
Despite my own experience (I'll get to that in a moment), I don't doubt the Africa Twin's off-road chops, but it occurs to me the vast majority of the people who pay upward of $13,000 for this 511 lb. motorcycle are not actually going to go skipping off to the Kazakhstan steppe. I mean, if you really want an all-roads world-traveling Honda, surely you'd choose the Rally Raid CB500X instead. It costs and weighs less.
Instead, I think the Africa Twin will fall primarily into that awkward category of heavy adventure bikes that are perfectly capable, but unlikely to be used by the majority of its owners for anything more exotic than a rural dirt road.
So, I got in touch with Honda and asked to spend some time with the Africa Twin to assess the bike as a purely on-road tool.
As an owner of a Suzuki V-Strom 1000—which has almost identical dimensions, weight, horsepower and torque figures—I wondered whether the Africa Twin was worthy of its larger price tag and all the praise it's received in the motorcycling press.
The short answer to that question is: maybe. It really depends on personal taste and how much the Honda badge means to you.
There's no question the Africa Twin beats the 'Strom—and every other bike in its class—in terms of weight distribution. Center of gravity is kept nice and low, so it feels lighter than it actually is. At least, until you have to pick it up (again, I'll get to that in a moment).
Throwing a leg over the one-piece saddle I'm immediately impressed by how nimble this bike feels even at a standstill. At 6-foot-1, I've set the seat to its highest setting (34.2 inches) and have no trouble putting both feet flat on the ground. The seat can be adjusted to suit those with slightly less inseam, and doing so is simple. Really simple. Other manufacturers need to adopt this system.
Honda have given me a model with all the bells and whistles: panniers, top box, touring screen, heated grips, crash bars, fog lights, etc. It's a good-looking package and there's a real feeling of quality—especially the bike itself. On each side an understated, but beautiful, Honda badge makes this feel like a premium product.
The dash is a bit small and so packed with information that, on the go, it can be a little difficult to pick out relevant information. I'm also not a fan of the digital tachometer, but to each his own; I'm certain you'd get used to it after a week.
Handlebars are wide, but not unnecessarily so, and hands fall naturally to the grips. Standard handguards help keep the weather off. In a move that makes sense if you think about it, Honda have done away with the idea of a separate starter button and incorporated it into the kill switch. Press down on the big red switch and the bike fires up with the healthy whirr of a modern machine.
Whoever designed the Africa Twin's clever seat and start-up system must have taken the day off when Honda was developing switchgear for the left handlebar. The button for the horn has swapped places with the switch for the bike's indicators. So, EVERY DAMN TIME you try to signal a turn, you end up honking the horn. There is no possible intelligent explanation for Honda having done this and you will never get used to it.
A less significant quibble is the button for Honda's integrated heated grips. It doesn't make a lot of sense; there is no up or down. But, again, it's the sort of thing you'd get used to. Or, you could just install an aftermarket set of heated grips, which would be cheaper and warmer.
I'm riding the manual version of the Africa Twin, and, man, is this transmission slick. Buttery smooth. Here, again, it beats everything in its class. It's definitely the sort of thing you'd appreciate over a multi-day excursion. Clutchless upshifts are effortless. It's rare that I shout, "Damn, you are so sexy!" at a gearbox, but here I'm given occasion to do so.
Would a transmission this smooth be a problem off road? Its light touch difficult to nuance with a heavy off-road boot? I don't know.
The 998cc parallel twin pulls strong from low revs. Power delivery is smooth and linear. On the highway, illegal speeds are found quickly. Above 85 mph the bike starts to run out of puff, and the gentile, tolerable vibration felt at lower speeds turns to a shudder. It's not a frightening shudder—the bike still feels stable—but it's not comfortable, either. A sign the Africa Twin might not be your first choice for the autobahn.
At 70 mph, the bike cruises comfortably at 4,000 rpm, which suggests Honda's claimed 60 mpg is achievable with a calm hand.
The feeling of lightness translates well into a decent flickability in corners. Roundabouts, twists and turns are fun on this machine and don't require much effort.
If you're reading this in the United States, the "Where did that car in my blind spot go?" feeling that comes when shooting through roundabouts may not be familiar to you. But it's something that makes one value good mirrors. The Africa Twin's set is OK but not great and I have to readjust frequently. After a few stops I accept the mirrors are not strong enough to hold my helmet.
The Africa Twin's off-road-friendly suspension travel means it can buck a little under hard acceleration or braking but that may be the sort of thing you're only going to discover when trying to find flaws. The same person who is disinclined to off road with this bike will probably also be disinclined to wring its neck through the twisties. Treat it like a tourer, for instance, and you'll never have issues.