First Ride

First ride: Honda Africa Twin CRF1000L review

A real adventure bike

THERE'S no doubting the new CRF1000L Africa Twin is a very big deal to Honda. Already a revered name thanks to the original XRV650 and 750 of the '80s and '90s, the firm helped mythologise the Africa Twin brand further with a long, drawn-out introduction of this new incarnation.

It was first unveiled as the True Adventure Prototype at the back-end of 2014, leading to inevitable speculation that it was in fact the new Africa Twin. Honda confirmed that several months later, sparking fresh headlines all over the bike press.

It was unveiled again at this Autumn's American Expo show and yet again at Eicma in Milan.

Now, finally, it's here, and I've just finished day one of a two-day launch test ride in South Africa.

Since the specs were announced, some readers have dismissed it as too heavy and bulky to be capable off-road.

It's an assertion that is undermined the moment you see a 2016 Africa Twin close up. This is not a bulky machine by big adventure bike standards. It may weigh about the same as base-model R1200GS, at 232kg fuelled to the BMW's 230kg, but it looks more compact. It certainly seems smaller than the R1200GS Adventure, which is 260kg with its bigger 30-litre fuel tank.

At 5'9”, I take it as a given that I'll be on tiptoes on a big adventure bike. On some I'm right up there on the tips. On the Africa Twin, I can almost get both feet flat on the ground. It reminds me more of sitting on a BMW G650GS than an R1200GS.

The seat height is 870mm adjustable to 850mm (my bike was at the higher setting). There are tall and low seat options, one giving an 840/820mm height and the other 900/880mm.

The bike feels narrow between the legs, which also makes reaching the ground easier. It's something Honda boasted about in the presentation, enabled by the parallel-twin engine configuration where the original Africa Twins were V-twins.

At 94hp, that engine is quite a long way down on the big adventure bike competition. As I said in my first impressions report earlier today, the Africa Twin doesn't feel super fast but the power it has is super accessible thanks to a very linear delivery across the range. With a smooth throttle response, really gentle from the off, the 998cc plant feels a bit like a grown up, more powerful and higher-revving version of the parallel-twin from the NC750 range. The Africa Twin's engine is all new, with little in common with the NC one except the 270-degree crank and linear drive that characterises modern Hondas, according the firm. There's definitely some similarity of character between the machines – the same smooth, unsurprising build from a strong bottom-end to a stronger top - although the Africa Twin has a lot more go.

It's significant that the Africa Twin makes 94hp because it means it should be possible to restrict it for A2 licence holders. 

The red line is at just below 8,000rpm, and there isn't the tendency to bump into it that you get with the NC, where it's at just over 6,000.

On twisty roads the Africa Twin has enough low-down drive to stay in a high gear through bends. It's strong enough in the mid-range and revvy enough to then accelerate fairly hard to the next corner without changing gear.

Once, on a fast bend, the Dunlop Trailmax dual-sport tubed tyres momentarily threatened to lose traction, I think at both ends but probably led by the 21-inch front. It was a moment that makes you lift the bike up a bit and think: did it just do that?

The front brake, which is the same as the CRF450 Rally's using radial four-pot Nissin calipers, is sharp but the front tyre sometimes struggled for grip under hard braking, the ABS activating as the bike's mass pitched forward on the long-travel fork.

ABS is part of an electronics package which also includes three-level traction control. Both can be deactivated, the ABS at the rear wheel only.

Changing settings is very simple, with no confusing menus. One button changes the traction control level and you can do it on the fly without closing the throttle. Hold it for three seconds and the TC is off. Another button deactivates rear-wheel ABS, although you have to be stationary for that one to work.

Slightly annoyingly, the settings return to defaults every time you turn the ignition off and even if you flick the kill switch. It means you have change them back to how you want them every time you start it.

There's also a DCT version of the Africa Twin, using Honda's automatic Dual Clutch Transmission, the same system that's available on the NC750 range and VFR1200. It uses two clutches (hence the name) one for even gears, the other odd. As one disengages first, the other immediately engages second, and so on, for ultra smooth changes with almost not interruption of drive.

The first generation of DCT had two automatic modes: 'D' and 'S', for Drive and Sport. Now there are four: D plus three different levels of S. There's also a manual mode, in which you choose gears yourself with button shifters on the left bar. Navigating and selecting the options is as simple as adjusting the traction control, using a button on the right bar.

It's a big improvement on that first generation of the system. Notably on the VFR1200, the difference between D and S was too great. In town, D would have you in fifth gear and S in second, when you wanted third or fourth. The lower of the three S modes now offers a compromise between those two, while the highest S mode is sportier still than the old one. Meanwhile, D now adapts to your riding, so if you hold the throttle open more it knows you probably also favour a lower gear for optimum acceleration.

It's still not perfect though. The highest S mode held on to low gears for too long for me. Shut off and the engine braking provided by the mid-range is denied because you're still in the top end.

The middle or lower S mode seemed better, but sometimes still chose the wrong gear. Overtaking, I'd open the throttle wide and it would immediately shift down to give me the drive I requested. After overtaking, I might back off but it would still hold that low gear. I'd override by shifting up with the button. Then, after a few seconds of constant throttle, the system would take it upon itself to up-shift again, and I'd change back down.

On the NC750 range, DCT is great because it deals with the idiosyncrasies of the machine. It stops you bumping into the red line at the top of the short gears and spices up a flat power curve by giving you the maximum 54hp all the time. The Africa Twin doesn't have these specific idiosyncrasies, with its higher-revving motor and greater power, so I'm unsure of the benefit DCT brings to the experience.

A Honda man pointed out that if we lived in a world where DCT came first, gears would seem inconvenient. It's possibly true, but we don't live in that world, and gears are second nature to most riders.

Day one of the test ride consisted of tarmac and gravel roads. Bigger off-road challenges come on day two. I'll reserve final judgement on the DCT until then. Honda says it detects when you're going up or down hill and holds a low gear appropriately. That's potentially interesting.

On the gravel roads, that broad useable spread of power meant I didn't have to worry too much about changing gear over gentle climbs and descents and sweeping turns. I probably changed gear more than necessary. Easier just to leave it in one and enjoy the scenery. In level one, the traction control lets the back spin and kick up the gravel.

Here the Africa Twin's compact dimensions help too. It's all very well for the off-road elite to jump on a GS and make it look like a lightweight enduro bike. For the more ordinary, like me, a compact machine reduces the intimidation factor on dirt, even if weight is the same. It's psychological but important – it makes it easier to enjoy yourself.

Towards the end of the day we descended a steeper, bumpier, dustier gravel track. Standing on the pegs of the DCT model, the bike felt narow between my knees and the bar-shift buttons proved a slick, easy way to change gear, making my left foot redundant. If you want, there is a conventional gear selector which you can use instead.

The R1200GS is the sales phenomenon of the big adventure bike market and Honda's clearly aiming for some of that dollar. The problem is, the intimidation factor is probably part of the appeal of the GS, and actually going off road may not be for most. Just days ago, A GS-devotee I happen to know commented that he wasn't interested in the Africa Twin because it looked like an off-road bike and he wasn't an off-road rider. Instead he loves the GS for its brilliance on road.

Honda says the 270-degree crank and irregular firing intervals give the engine a characterful 'pulse feeling' – but it doesn't have the rumble of the GS. The Africa Twin makes a good thumping noise at low revs but as it really gets going it again reminds me of an NC750 (hear for yourself in my on-board video).

Like the GS, it would make an excellent long-distance tourer. The seat and riding position are comfortable, the screen about chin-height for me and the engine vibrations barely there.

I don't know if it will take customers from the GS - but after day one of this test I think it would be my choice.


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'