FIRST RIDE: 2016 HONDA CRF1000L AFRICA TWIN
Fun Fact: Part of this story was written on a smartphone while standing in line at the Cape Town police station, and the remainder was drafted on a rented computer in a hotel room. Long story short, luggage belonging to Senior Road Test Editor Ari Henning and Video Producer Spenser Robert was stolen during their trip to South Africa, leaving them without laptops, clean underwear, and half of their video equipment. But thanks to the help of Honda personnel and lots of caffeine and pizza, the boys were still able to bring you this First Ride report and the forthcoming Africa Twin episode of On Two Wheels.
As comfortably and capably as the competition, but for a lot less!
Americans have been waiting a long time to ride Honda’s all-new Africa Twin adventure bike. Fresh in our memory is the year of announcements and carefully timed info leaks (see Africa Twin Patent Photo Leaks story here), and beyond that there’s the fact that the original XRV650 Africa Twin—first sold in Europe in 1988—was never brought to the US of A. American dual-sport riders were on the outside looking in throughout the ‘90s on up until 2003, when production of the Africa Twin ceased and the last glimmer of hope for a North American model finally faded.
Or so we thought.
But with the recent explosion in interest in adventure bikes Honda saw fit to bring the Africa Twin back, and moreover, they’re bringing their new ADV to America. And after spending two days aboard the new CRF1000L Africa Twin (including the Dual Clutch Transmission variant) on the tip of the continent that gave it its name, we’re here to tell you that it’s been worth the wait.
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We’ve detailed the CRF1000L’s specs and features before (see our First Look here) so we won't rehash that here. Rather, let’s get right to the riding impressions while I still have South African dust behind my ears.
Honda says the CRF1000L dash is derived from racing. It positions a digital bar-graph tach above a large speed readout, with a fuel gauge positioned vertically along the right. The circular T symbol and the bars to the right represent the HSTC setting. A large square button to the right of the dash disables rear ABS. Front ABS can’t be turned off.
One of the things we love about ADV bikes are their roomy ergos, and the Africa Twin fits the mold nicely. The riding position keeps your spine straight and the bike is slim between your knees, so it’s easy to plant your feet on the ground. Honda lists a curb weight of 511 pounds, but the bike feels lighter than that, both when you lift it off the sidestand and while underway. The CRF1000L is certainly a full-size machine with a tall appearance, but it’s not so large that it’s intimidating for someone without pro-level balance and not so tall that it’s unapproachable for shorter riders. Honda lists the basic seat height as 33.5 inches in the lower of two positions, but the Africa Twin doesn’t feel that tall in use.
It doesn’t look like that little windscreen or those radiator shrouds would do much in the way of blocking the wind, but they do. A 45-minute downpour painted a clear picture of the Honda’s aero—despite the steady rain my torso and thighs remained dry, as did my hands behind the stock brush guards.
The Tri-Color Africa Twin has race-inspired red/white/blue graphics and gold wheels, just like the original 1988 model. It’s a stunningly good-looking bike, but sadly, that colorway isn’t coming to the US for 2016. Geez, is it 1988 all over again?! North American dealers will carry the CRF1000L in Rally Red and Digital Metallic White. Of the two, we prefer the red.
While most manufacturers are equipping their ADV bikes with 1,200cc engines (or larger, in the case of KTM’s new 1,301cc Super Adventure), the Africa Twin’s parallel-twin displaces just 998cc. Its listed output of 94 horsepower and 72 pound-feet of torque (that’s for the European model since Honda doesn’t divulge power figures for US bikes) is well below the status quo, but it’s more than enough to get the job done. (In case you’ve forgotten, BMW lists the R1200GS engine at 125 hp and KTM says the 1190 Adventure twins make 150 hp.) Even better, the engine has good character, makes totally linear power, and spins smoothly until just before the rev limiter kicks in above 8,000 rpm. Honda says the bike gets about 50 miles per gallon, which means the 4.9-gallon tank should net a range of over 200 miles.
While all previous Africa Twins were powered by V-twins (first in 647cc and later in 742cc), the new machine is powered by a 998cc parallel-twin engine. Honda chose a parallel-twin design due to the packaging benefits, and a 270-degree crank is employed out of appreciation for the layout’s power characteristics and sound. The engine has a Unicam head design (as seen on the CRF motocrossers) and houses the oil and water pumps within the cases to reduce engine width and shield the components from damage.
Handling is stable (as tested at over 220 kph [138 mph]), but perhaps too stable. The Africa Twin doesn’t display the quick-flick, happy-to-lean characteristics that we’ve come to expect from tall, relatively narrow-tired ADV bikes. It’s a bit slow to lean over, and in tighter turns the front end felt numb enough that I decided to slow my pace. It might be something as simple as tire choice or suspension settings, or it could be the result of using dirt-friendly wheel sizes—the Africa Twin wears a 21-inch front, where most of the big ADVs have 19s. But whatever the case the Honda wasn’t as enjoyable in the twisties as I’d hoped, even though the brakes and motor are definitely up to the task.
Anyone willing to shell out another $600 and deal with an additional 23 pounds can get the Africa Twin with a DCT (Dual Clutch Transmission), which does away with the clutch and shift levers in favor of automatic, computer-controlled shifting based on several selectable parameters. The system works well most of the time—freeing the rider to relax and focus on other things, says Honda—but once the pace picked up on a twisty road the shift timing was off and downshifts were more abrupt than they would have been if I was in control. There are triggers by the left grip that you can use to override the computer, however, and they’re actually pretty fun to play with. DCT might not suit my style of riding (admittedly, I tend to ride quite aggressively), but if it makes motorcycling more accessible and draws more folks into the fold then it’s alright with me.
We rode some graded gravel roads on our first day, and I used the opportunity to assess the bike’s standard ABS and HSTC (Honda Selectable Torque Control, which is Honda speak for traction control). A button on the dash disables rear ABS (you have to be stopped first) and the HSTC has three levels plus off, which are selectable on the fly. The HSTC modes are quite distinct, with Level 1 (the most permissive) allowing a high level of wheelspin. Being able to slide and spin the rear tire while still having front ABS is hugely beneficial, and the Honda system is calibrated to keep you safe but also let you ride hard and have a good time. Annoyingly, both ABS and HSTC reset themselves every time you turn the bike off.
Here’s the left switch cluster on the DTC bike. DTC does away with the shift lever (though a parking-brake lever takes its place, albeit well out of reach while riding), but adds two shift paddles, a mode selection button, Drive/Sport/Neutral toggle, as well as a “G-Mode” button on the dash. The “SEL” switch (for select) allows you to navigate the various dash menus. Just beyond that rocker is the HSTC trigger, which you can pull on the fly to change TC modes.
Switchable ABS and HSTC are both strong indicators that Honda actually wants owners to take the Africa Twin off road, and Honda joins big timers BMW and KTM in offering highly useful off-road electronics. Throughout the press launch Honda personnel reiterated that the Africa Twin is meant to be a do-it-all bike, and that includes legitimate adventure riding. To that end, on the second day of the launch they outfitted the bikes with Continental TKC 80 knobbies and released us on a loop route on a large farmstead.
Once again I was pleased with the Africa’s low seat, high bar, narrow waist, and contoured tank since they let me move around freely, whether seated or standing. The bike’s massive amount of steering lock also became evident off road, and should be a big plus in suburbia as well. Engine power and character are well suited to off-road work—torque is strong right off idle but there’s not so much power that the tire spins up uncontrollably, and big, lurid power slides are a cinch on this bike because the engine is so tractable. I’ll admit, though, that with its modest power it’s not easy to wheelie the Africa Twin with the manual trans, so adventurers will need to seek an alternative route if they encounter a line that requires lifting the front wheel.
Just like the original, the new Africa Twin has dual headlights peering out from a flat, tall fairing. The new bike’s fairing is supported by a lightweight nylon subframe, with a tubular-steel structure bracing the windscreen. Headlights are ultra-bright LED, as are the tail lights. Turn signals will be incandescent on US-market bikes.
The bike’s light and compact feeling transfers to the dirt, and I had a great time sliding, jumping, and generally riding the bike as hard as I felt comfortable considering the distance to the nearest hospital. With 9 inches of fork travel and 8.6 inches of rear-wheel travel the Africa twin tracks true over rough surfaces, so I never felt the need to steer around ruts, sand, or rubble while flying across the desert. And no matter how hard I ran it into rain bars and dips I wasn’t able to bottom the suspension. It’s safe to say that when it comes to off-road riding, the Africa Twin is no poser.
Both front and rear suspension are adjustable for spring preload, compression, and rebound damping. The shock offers a hydraulic-preload knob accessible via the right side of the bike. For off-road riding, we added 4 clicks of rebound damping to the shock to reduce kickback and removed ½ turn of spring preload from the fork to increase small-bump compliance.
After a stint on the standard bike I took a DCT machine out for a lap. I wasn’t thrilled with the technology on the street, but I was surprised by how beneficial it was in the dirt. In fact, I rode faster with the DCT than I did with the standard clutch! For me, the biggest benefit was in tight corners following fast straights, where the automatic transmission made initiating slides (with aggressive downshifts via the shift trigger) effortless. It also made the transition from sliding the rear tire to spinning the rear tire much easier since all you have to do is lift off the rear brake and roll on the throttle. You can’t stall the DCT bike and throttle pickup is very consistent, so slow-speed maneuvers are less stressful as well. However, even in the most aggressive mode the transmission often upshifted earlier than I would have liked, while other times I would spin tire into the rev limiter and the system wouldn’t upshift until I rolled out of the throttle.
If I were buying an Africa Twin though, I would still go for a manual-trans bike simply because I like being engaged with the motorcycle. Even so, I think it’s great that this technology is so helpful off road, even for an experienced rider like myself. And it’s sure to be a benefit to riders just joining the ADV craze who have relatively little off-road experience.
The original 1988 XRV650 was bred from strong stock. It’s predecessor was the works NXR750 racer, which won the gruelling Paris Dakar Rally four times in a row starting in 1986. The street-going XRV650 was watered down not a bit, and proved its mettle by winning the Paris Dakar Production class in 1989.
Speaking of buying an Africa Twin, you’ll be able to pick one up in June. The standard bike is listed at $12,999, while the DCT-equipped bike is $13,699. In case you need some perspective, the next cheapest bike in the big-bore ADV class is Yamaha’s $15,090 Super Ténéré, and that machine isn’t nearly as good off road. (Although it does have cruise control and a center stand standard.) Power figures notwithstanding, this is one of the more capable and well-rounded bikes in the ADV category, and it’s also the most affordable.
Yes, we’ve waited a long time for the Africa Twin, but it’s finally coming to North America, and it’s better than we ever imagined.
Even a cursory review of the Africa Twin tells you it means business. First there are the spoke wheels in traditional 18/21-inch sizes, there there’s that large expanse of space between the ground and a substantial aluminum skid plate. Not visible are the adjustable ABS and TC, both of which are tuned for off-road riding. Some bikes are only meant to look like they’re ready for adventure. This one is actually ready for it.
A worthy successor to the legendary Africa Twin, a terrific motorcycle, on road and off, and a good value on top of all that.