dimanche 29 novembre 2015

Essai Afrique du Sud - premier compte-rendu


I have just returned for the international launch of the new Honda Africa Twin, appropriately held in Africa and not somewhere like Spain where many of Honda’s launches are held. Just 80 journalists from 20 countries were invited, which means there are a lot of publications that will have to rely on press releases and press images to get their story. Some of the publications not in attendance are understandably furious for not being invited. I, on the other hand, am quite grateful – and I hope my editor is too (a formal and far better written review with proper specs can be found in an upcoming edition of go! magazine).

Before the trip
The venue for the launch was to be held a little over 100 km from my home and so I declined a lift in the media shuttle. Instead I asked a friend if I could borrow his KTM 950S. I could have gone on my own bike but I reasoned that the KTM 990 was probably the closest to the Africa Twin I was about to test.

It is my opinion that the last honest big trailie was the 990 and before that the 1150GS Adventure. Taking a 950S could lead to a lopsided comparison considering the old school carburetors and primitive build quality, but hey, Honda claimed that the new Africa Twin was going to a simple off-road machine. This is why I chose the 950 as my benchmark.

I’ll cut to the chase and not elaborate on the event. Here are my thoughts on the new Honda CRF 1000L Africa Twin:

Build quality and finish
The build quality rivals that of BMW in that all the panels and decals align perfectly. It is certainly light-years ahead of the aged 950 I had arrived on. Even the latest 1190 can’t compete against the Africa Twin when it comes to the tactile feel of the materials and the precise gaps where metal, plastic, and glass meet.

The paintwork is glorious and the decals look like they were screen printed rather than applied vinyl which they actually are.

There are unfortunately small signs that certain plastic parts appeared to have been snapped from injection moulding sprues (those plastic frames that are left over after you have assembled a scale model spitfire)

The frame is not a thing of beauty, but rather a more practical element of the bike. Honda claims it is substantially stronger than that of the old XRV750 Africa Twin. It certainly looks stronger. A cross section reveals that the 30 mm x 40 mm square tube frame is now replaced by a 32.7 mm x 60 mm oval tube frame.

During the evenings around campfires and dinner tables I made a point of chatting to Maurizio Carbonara, the lead designer of the new Africa Twin.

Maurizio told me that he initially argued for a stylized and lightweight aluminium frame, but that Honda’s project leaders insisted on a practical steel frame.

Maurizion relented but insisted that a detachable subframe could be made of steel, but that the  cradle could surely be made from aluminium. The answer was still no from the Honda bosses. They explained to him that despite their best intentions to build a strong motorcycle, metals do break when you travel around the world – they wanted adventurers to pull into a backwater workshop anywhere between Kinshasa and Krasnoyarsk and have it welded by a local with a gas welding torch.

Even when stripped down to naked mechanics the Africa Twins looks good. All the tubing and wiring are carefully routed and placement of all the components was carefully considered. The object was obviously to get as much of the weight to the lowest part of the bike, yet make the engine easy to work on during maintenance and repair.

When compared to the tangled mess and recklessly exposed wires and tubes on a Yamaha Super Tenere, the Honda is like a shot of sensibility. Even a GS, with all the plastic panels removed, looks lamentably chaotic.

I’m not mechanically inclined, much to my father’s dismay, but I do know a crankshaft from a driveshaft. Honda says their balancer shaft which smoothes out most of the engine’s vibrations also drive the oil and water pumps.

That’s about all I know about the engine, sorry. I can say that it is a beautiful thing to behold. My imagination tells me that it was smithed by the dwarves of Belegost. I want to take it out of the frame and put it in a display case.

Gearbox – manual
This six-speed gearbox uses a gear shift cam and a slipper clutch. CRF250R and 450R owners will already be familiar with this device. It works well enough; most of the other journalists liked it a lot but had a few false neutrals which spoiled it for me.
Since I was the only one to complain, it appears that the fault is mine. On second thought; I’m going to blame the hinges of my Sidi Crossfire MX-boots.

Changing up or down with the clutch was never a problem. The gearbox is more accurate than any KTM or BMW that I have ridden.
There are no loud clunks and every shift slots a gear into the right place (if you use the clutch just like my pappy taught me to)

Gearbox – Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT)
I did not look forward to this abhorrent technology at all. The DCT gearbox in the first generation Honda Crosstourer didn’t appeal to me at all, but owners of the NC700X had no complaints and seem to love their DCT gearboxes. What I took from the latter was that it may be acceptable to clueless commuters, but seasoned rider are better off without it.
And when Honda decided to put it in their Africa Twin I decided in advance that I wasn’t going to approve of it.
But then I tried it… and I liked it.
Yes, it’s a little weird not to have a clutch lever. In its place is a parking brake – what the hell? I would grow to like it very much despite preparing in advance to dismiss it. I’ll elaborate on the characteristics later in the article.

The unique DCT version features the standard manual mode – which allows one to shift gears through triggers on the left handlebar, or by tapping a gear lever with the foot if you prefer old school shifts.
There are two automatic modes: D mode offers fully automated gear shifts just like in a car. Honda claims this allows optimum fuel economy and comfort.
While it may be true, I thought the drive was a bit mediocre in this mode. The other is S mode which gives higher levels of performance, with three different shift patterns to choose from. I liked S1 the best. It stayed in gear the longest when shifting upward through the gears while shifting down quickly and smartly when I decelerated or braked. Perfect for off-roading.
S3 shifted too often for my liking unless you pinned the throttle. The DCT gearbox seemed to anticipate my intentions so cleverly it bordered on spooky.

Next to the ABS button is a button simply marked G (for gravel). Pushing the G button in any riding mode apparently modifies the control of the clutch system to give a more direct drive. I tried it but I didn’t notice a big difference.
I suspect it’s like the turbo button on the front of my old 386DX computer. My games never actually ran faster but I’d’ve been damned if I didn’t press it each time I wanted my computer to do something double time.

I’m an avid button-presser and a bit of a switch snob. Sadly I feel that the Africa Twin’s switches are boring and uninspiring.
They don’t beckon me to press them.

The buttons on the switch assemblies and the buttons in the instrument cluster appear to have been made by two different subcontractors – both of them getting the contract because they put in the lowest bid.
They are certainly sturdy and click fine when you press them, but they don’t satisfy my toggle fetish.

Quickly moving on… (perhaps you should ignore the above statements)
The display features a negative LCD screen. This may be fine for night driving but I found it hard to read during the day.
I suggested to the attending engineers that a switch or an ambient light sensor  to flip it from negative to positive would be a nice idea. I don't know if they'll pay attention to a local yokel like me, but hey, I tried.

The ride – aka the important bit.

Tar: Our bikes on the first day of testing were shod in road biased Dunlop TrailMax’s. Dispite the large 21” front the bikes handled every mountain pass with aplomb.
It’s been a long while since I have felt as safe on a dual sport bike as I did on the Africa Twin.
It turned easily without being twitchy; the bike always felt stable and solid without being a stubborn pig.


At the end of the day none of the bikes had chicken strips on the edges of their tyres, which is pretty remarkable considering the trail bike suspension and relative narrow tyres.

The first bike I tested had a manual gearbox and it was a peach.

We blasted over Gydo Pass, Michells Pass and Bainskloof Pass and I had to keep my toes on the pegs to avoid my foots from grinding down in the turns. It’s a wonderful feeling when a trial bike allows you to ride so aggressively – and be so forgiving when you miscalculate a sharp turn.

I mounted a DTC version on the return journey and I immediately became concerned about doing the passes with no clutch and no real control over the gears. Bainskloof Pass came first and I just couldn’t get in the zone. I felt like a wobbly amateur.
It was only after I cycled through all the modes and engine management maps that I found the sweet spot: Traction control level two, Sport mode 1, and the preload two clicks down from max.

With the DTC finally grasped I could focus on playing and finding the perfect line and letting the computer do the shifts for me – and it did a bloody good job. I only had to thumb the downshifter a couple of times when I entered the turn slightly too fast. I don’t fault the gearbox for this though, after all, it doesn’t have eyes to see that we are hurtling toward a compound curve on the edge of an abyss.

After the day’s riding I discovered that I liked the DTC very much, more than I wanted to. But I still believed that it wasn’t a substitute for common sense and skilled riding. I basically believed that it was a brilliant tool for a talentless rider.

On paper the power to weight ratio looks dreadful and when compared to its competitors the Africa Twin appears decidedly weak. Somehow in reality it just isn’t so. It had more than enough power and could easily outperform my KTM 950S.
The latest 1200cc behemoths will naturally obliterate it in a straight-out race but racing isn’t why you’d buy an Africa Twin.

We saw roughly 225km/h on the clocks. None of us remembered to bring our GPS devices, so we can’t say for certain how fast the Honda is.

Gravel: On day one we drove a few kilometres of good gravel roads and the bike felt completely controllable and stable. It was basically a non-event and we hoped that Honda had something tougher in store for us on day two.
And so on the second day we were given fresh bikes shod with Continental TKC80’s. That’s more like it! The bikes looked so much better in knobbly tyres.
The gravel roads we explored were a worrisome array of shallow but very loose sand, rock marbles, shale, sharp turns and boulders the size of large dogs.

The bike that I received on Day 2 was equipped with the DTC gearbox. By now I didn’t hate it, but I assumed that it would remain a nice-to-have but ultimately an unnecessary tool.
With photographers dotted along the technical trail I naturally wanted to look my best. Every straight was a drag strip, every turn an opportunity to get the back out, every washaway needed a long drag mark as the rear wheel locked up followed by a front wheel popping in the air to dramatically clear the rut. Stupid immature stuff really, but lots of fun and I like to think that I looked glorious on magnificent vehicle.
I could do this without ever bothering with the gears, the DTC box did it all for me.

When I returned to the bivouac I swapped the bike for one with a regular manual gearbox.  It went okay at first and I managed to have lots of fun, but it was hard work.
I had to plan better, shift gears all the time and eventually found myself running out of talent whenever I approached a waiting photographer.

So, in a shocking conclusion: The automatic gearbox is better that a manual gearbox when it comes to technical terrain. I didn’t expect this at all.

All in all we spent roughly six hours in the saddle on the first day (mostly tarred roads) and about half that during the second day (all of it on technical terrain). My backside and spine never gave me issues. The seat is infinitely more comfortable than the 950S I rode in on, but I don’t think it’s quite as comfy as the two 1200GS’ I owned back-to-back not so long ago.

Top box – very ugly
Panniers – good looking
Smoked screen – zef
High touring screen – good for touring, crap for off-roading
Upper and lower wind deflectors – ugh, are you kidding me?
Rubber pillion step – whatevs
DCT foot shifter – this should have standard, guys.
Heated grips – sure, why not?
12V socket – this should have standard, guys.
Fog lamps including cowl bar – you can’t stop the bling
Wheel stripes – zef
Alarm system – I guess, this is South Africa after all

Final thoughts
The engineers at Honda really put a lot of thought and effort into this bike. The same engineer who developed the original Africa Twin for the Paris/Dakar (then a young and eager engineer) was the project manager for this new Africa Twin.
I almost thought I saw a tear in his eye when he climbed on a mint condition AT that belongs to a South African man from Cape Town.
He was obviously also proud of this newest AT.

This bike is definitely off-road focussed rather than a road bike with allusions of being an adventure bike. And yet it feels equally at home on tar than on dirt.

They wanted an honest bike just like the original Africa Twin. That’s why the bike has almost zero gadgets except the ones needed for the DCT box. The manual model has very little buttons and is as simple a bike as you can get nowadays.

I like the slogan the engineers had painted on the wall in their studio. It read: “Unbreakable lightness”

Shorter but higher than the original XRV750
Italian styling and Japanese engineering.
Power delivery is linear, not mad like a V-twin (this is also a dislike)
Excellent turning circle – 2.6m!
Just the right amount of power to play in the dirt.

The readout display uses negative LCD (black background, light lettering) which is sometimes hard to read during daylight.
The throttle is a little too sensitive on the manual model – not a problem on the DCT.
Power delivery is linear, not mad like a V-twin (this is also a like)
The stepped seat is annoying when you ride technical terrain. Honda isn't planning to sell a straight bench unless customers demand it. Companies like Touratech will probably provide one at a premium price.
Here is a side-by-side comparison between the AT and the 950S. Remember that the 950S is the raised mode. a Little higher off the ground than a regular 950.

Final, final thought: If you are concerned about the weight, eat less cheese burgers

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