Day two: off road
I WITHDRAW my reservations about Honda's DCT system on the new Africa Twin. Yesterday in part one of this review, after a day's riding on tarmac and easy gravel roads, I said I wasn't sure of the benefit. Today, after 40 miles of more difficult off-road terrain on the second and final day of the launch in South Africa, I am.
The Africa Twins were fitted with knobbly Continental Twinduro tyres for this part of the test, which raised the seat a few millimetres, giving it a more typical adventure bike height. The route consisted of rutted, dusty, rocky, trails, with deep sand in places and a mild hill climb. I couldn't quite believe the automatic DCT would select the right gears to get me to the top. I was doubtful enough to seek clarification from a Honda rider. I could rely on it, he said. So I did, and he was correct.
In the least aggressive of the three Sport modes, it kept me in the right gear. My speed changed with the gradient and surface but the system made the necessary shifts to keep me in drive and momentum. I only felt the need to shift for myself once or twice, for a bit more acceleration approaching a steeper section or a bit more engine braking on the way back down. The system can't see what lies ahead, after all.
When you do want to override the DCT with a gear choice of your own, the button shifters on the left bar make it improbably easy. The up-shift button is on the front of the bar and the down-shift on the back, so your thumb and forefinger fall on them naturally from a standing position.
On a second run up the hill, I selected the highest traction control level, the one that intervenes most readily, to see if it would allow me enough traction to reach the top. I also chose the DCT Drive mode, which favours higher gears than Sport. Now the DCT kept selecting a gear higher than I wanted. I'd shift down and it would change back up. The traction control cut drive as the tyre slipped over the rocks, and there was a moment when I thought I might be losing too much momentum - but I chugged to the top.
The system would be of huge benefit to beginner off-roaders. The bar switches will remove the initial awkwardness of shifting gear while standing up, while the level-three traction control could help them get up a gradient steadily and surely, or pull away on loose earth without accidentally going sideways.
But I also think it gives an advantage to the mildly experienced off-roader. For the trails, I was back in Sport mode and traction control level one, which let the rear drift a satisfying and flattering amount. Again I found the need to make few shifts for myself. With less attention occupied by gear selection, more was free to focus on other demands, like staying on the gas as the front and back wheels took different routes through deep sand.
Because DCT is designed to make gear shifts as seamless as possible, there's also a 'G' mode which makes them more abrupt to provide more instant traction on dirt. Press a button on the dash (with a 'G' on it) and it's on.
I said after day one that I wasn't convinced the DCT Africa Twin was more convenient than the manual one, since gears are second nature to most riders. But as I swapped DCT for a manual Africa Twin off road, I did feel inconvenienced. I had to start using my left foot and making gear decisions again.
So far I'd been riding the DCT version all morning, but the transmission system couldn't take all the credit for the good time I'd been having. Doubters will probably continue to argue that the Africa Twin's 232kg weight means it can never be very useful off road (until they try it at least). Of course it's more of a handful than a lightweight single, but it doesn't feel like a big adventure bike either.
The problem with a really big bike off road is that for many riders it eats away at confidence, which makes them go too slowly, which makes them fall off or get stuck or both. The Africa Twin feels more like a middleweight. The skinny profile gives you space to move, to shift your weight forward while standing on the pegs and still feel the narrowness between your knees.
But 94hp is not middleweight power. With its strong spread of torque, rapid acceleration is only ever a few rpm away. And the Africa Twin does have the capacity of a big adventure bike to limit the impression of speed off road. The smoothness of the engine, weight of the machine and competence of the suspension mean you can find yourself at 60mph before you know it.
I found myself getting faster as the day went on, accelerating through ruts, not backing off for bumps or holes, not worrying too much about the changing surface but just pointing the Africa Twin where I wanted it to go, keeping on the gas and keeping the faith.
At the first showing last year, Honda called it the True Adventure Prototype. I'm calling this production version a real adventure bike. A 232kg machine that really can go anywhere, be it on tarmac with luggage and a pillion or on dusty South African trails. A big bike that's actually useful off road, and not just in the hands of an advanced off-road rider but for the more ordinary of us too.
Model tested: Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin
Price: £10,499 (£11,299 with DCT)
Engine: 998cc liquid-cooled parallel-twin
Power: 94hp @ 7,500rpm
Torque: 72lbft @ 6,000rpm
Kerb weight: 232kg (non-DCT model)
Frame: Steel semi-double cradle
Suspension: 45mm fully adjustable USD fork with 230mm of travel. Fully adjustable shock with 220mm of travel
Brakes: Front 310mm wave floating discs, two-piece radial-mounted four-piston calipers. Rear 256mm wave disc.
Wheels: Wire-spoked 21" x 2.15" front and 18" x 4" rear
Tyres: Dunlop Trailmax 90/90-21 front and 15/70-18 rear, tubed
Seat height: 870mm (low position 850mm)
Fuel capacity: 18.8 litres
Claimed fuel economy: 61.2mpg (61.5mpg for DCT model in Drive mode)
Colours: black, silver, 'Victory Red' or 'Tricolour'
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