Thursday, 23 July 2015

What I Want: Honda Africa Twin

I've admitted this before: I'm a sucker for good marketing. And the campaign leading up to the imminent return of Honda's legendary Africa Twin motorcycle has been exceptionally good.

Honda clearly, almost overtly, intends to take the crown away from BMW in the adventure-touring category, feeling its Africa Twin has rightful claim to the throne. Certainly the old Dakar-winning XRV-750 was unmatched through much of the 1990s, when it had little competition. But with almost every major manufacturer now offering some sort of adventure variant -- and BMW and KTM having upped the game to exceptional levels (1) -- Honda has a big mountain to climb.

I think they've gone about tackling that mountain the right way, though: slowly, slowly, slowly whetting our appetites over the past year. First, through the unveiling of the mud-covered True Adventure concept, then through a series of sleek, inspiring True Adventure videos on YouTube.

A few stylized photos were released back in May as part of Honda's official confirmation of the Africa Twin's return, but up until this week Honda hasn't offered a full glimpse of the machine. As I say, it's clever marketing -- piquing our interest but always leaving us wanting more. This is the way you go about building a cult following, similar to that enjoyed by the BMW R1200GS.

And I have to admit that it pretty much has me hooked.

Which is a bit surprising to me. I certainly didn't imagine myself wanting the thing back when I saw it in person at Motorcycle Live 2014. I didn't even bother to take a picture of it. But owning a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 has led to a change of heart. Adventure bikes are ugly, but by Gawd, are they useful. 

For example, take my recent trip down to Tuscany (I'll be writing a lot about that trip soon). I can think of no other class of bike that could have handled as well all the challenges I faced: narrow and unpaved roads, psychotically twisty mountain passes, 125-mph autobahns, urban madness, and everything in between.

The Africa Twin is being billed as a true do-all rugged beast and I am very much looking forward to getting the chance to see if the bike lives up to its billing. Having previously owned a Honda, I have a soft spot for their utter reliability and ease of use.

I have very few qualms with the Strom at the moment, so it will be a few years before I turn a serious eye to the Africa Twin, but I really can see it becoming my next bike.

According to Honda, the Africa Twin is a relatively light machine, and it appears not to be as stupid-wide as many ADV offerings, such as those from BMW, KTM and Moto Guzzi. I'm looking forward to seeing a specs sheet, but on appearance it seems right to suit my needs.

There appears also to be plenty of room for a passenger and I have no doubt it will come equipped with many of the bells and whistles we've come to expect from this class, such as traction control and riding modes. The luggage, too, speaks to me.

The standard luggage on my V-Strom is my greatest complaint about the bike. It would be nice to have panniers that can actually hold stuff like helmets or laptops.

It's very hard to tell from the video that's been recently released, but it appears the Africa Twin is equipped to overcome my other complaint about the V-Strom, which is its lack of an adequate place to put a GPS. 

(Although, I have to admit that I've grown pretty fond of my redneck fix to that problem. The stupid blue bar across the dash makes the bike surprisingly easy to spot from a distance and therefore easier to find in a parking lot.)

I have no doubt that the bike's 1,000-cc parallel twin engine will have plenty of grunt and plenty of go. And I'll admit to being very intrigued by Honda's desire to equip this bike with its DCT automatic transmission. 

There are a lot of British riders of the Frank Melling mindset who carry active disdain toward electronic tiddly bits, so I can't imagine DCT-equipped Africa Twins will sell like hotcakes over here (2), but I'm not British. And I'm man enough to admit that some urban European riding can be very mentally taxing due to all the things you have to pay attention to. I suspect that eliminating the (albeit slight) mental drain that comes from operating my left hand and left foot would allow greater ability to concentrate in particularly hairy situations, such as multi-lane roundabouts.

I am also man enough to admit that it's likely DCT can do a better job of controlling the transmission than I can. In the same way that ABS can do a better job of emergency braking than I can. Electronic aids do just that: aid. They aid in the enjoyment of the motorcycling experience and help make it more accessible to everyone, which is ultimately of benefit to motorcycling as a whole.

I think my only concern in owning a motorcycle with automatic transmission would be fear of losing touch with my skill to operate one with manual transmission. After all, there are a lot of manufacturers who seem pretty dedicated to The Old Ways, and I wouldn't want to miss out on any of their fun.

Perhaps the solution to that dilemma is to just own several bikes. You know, because I'm so damned rich.

Indeed, the real selling point to an adventure motorcycle is the fact that it's several bikes wrapped into one. And this one looks great.

So, we'll see. Maybe I'll want a manual transmission Africa Twin, maybe I'll want one with DCT. All I really know is that I want one. I have a few years to work out which one; I don't expect to be bike shopping again until at least 2017 (and that's being pretty optimistic). 

I'll stick to just daydreaming for the timebeing.

UPDATE: I just found a specs sheet online that suggests the Africa Twin will have just slightly less power and torque than my V-Strom, whilst weighing 6 kg more and having 1.2 litres less fuel capacity. To me, this means that the techno do-dads Honda chooses to add and make as standard become incredibly important in determining whether I'll actually end up getting one.


(1) I don't actually know how exceptional or otherwise BMW or KTM bikes may be; I've not yet had the chance to ride one. However, every conversation I have with owners sees them swooning over its abilities, And when you read some moto-journalists' reports of the bikes you suspect they needed several changes of underwear during their test ride -- so ebullient is their praise.

(2) Or, perhaps they will, since Britons don't tend to eat hotcakes or even know what they are.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Ride Review: Indian Chief Vintage

The Indian Chief Vintage is an interesting bike in the sense that it is simultaneously amazing and awful. The good news is that this awful can be fixed with a pair of scissors. The better news is that the awful of which I speak is completely subjective; you may, in fact, love it.

What I'm talking about is leather fringe. It is a prominent feature of the Chief Vintage and I hate it. Apart from one of those Babes Ride Out girls who would do so ironically, I cannot imagine the sort of person who would desire leather fringe on a motorcycle.

I mean, fringe. Leather fringe, for Pete's sake. Fringe.

What weird, fetishist pack of Minnesotans did Indian dig up for a test marketing group that the motorcycle company came away with the belief that bedecking one of their bikes in leather fringe was a good idea?

I don't even...

I think the reason I get so annoyed by the Chief Vintage's fringe is that it is otherwise a pretty fantastic bike. After all, the Chief Vintage is nothing more than the Chief Classic with a few bits of the Indian accessory catalogue thrown at it.

When I rode the Classic back in November I declared it to be the best motorcycle I had ever ridden. By and large, I still stand by that statement. (Though, having now also ridden the Indian Chieftain [review coming soon] I might be inclined to give that bike the top slot if something could be done about its screen.)

But back to the Chief Vintage. There is nothing subtle about this motorcycle. Dripping with chrome, it is oversized in every way. The handlebars are massive, the headlight fixture is the size of a Shetland pony skull, That famous valanced fender and war bonnet pull the eye, especially when accompanied by a two-tone paint scheme.

Stock pipes offer a pleasing sound reminiscent of family cars from the early 1960s, whereas the accessory Thunder Stroke Stage 1 exhausts offer a deeply satisfying but not-too-dickish rumble. Either way, however, it is not the sort of bike you want to ride if you are the shy, retiring type. Anyone riding an Indian should accept that every single stop will take three times as long because people will want to talk to you about it.

Weighing in at just shy of 380 kg, the Chief Vintage is a beast of a machine, but at anything above 3 mph it moves with a lightness that somewhat boggles the mind. It corners decently, as well; attempts to drag the pegs at sane speeds and cornering angles were unsuccessful.

Were you to be racing up Pike's Peak on the thing I'm sure all kinds of dragging would occur, but ride according to or near the speed limit and I doubt you'll ever hear scraping. And as more and more of the world becomes subject to the tyranny of speed cameras, I suppose having a bike that can tear through mountain passes at triple digits becomes less and less desirable.

Even within the limits of the law, however, the Chief Vintage is a lot of fun. Twisting the throttle produces oodles of smoothly delivered torque. Getting up to highway speed is effortless, and staying there is equally trouble-free. The bike's real oomph tapers somewhat above 90 mph, but there's still plenty of power left in the Thunder Stroke 111 to get your license revoked.

Not that you'll want to spend much time at that speed, however. At least, not if you're me. The actual motorcycle is steady enough at high speeds but the screen on the Chief Vintage makes it hell. I'm 6-foot-1, so I suspect those of shorter leg wouldn't mind so much.

I'm pretty sure the standard screen on the Chief Vintage is the tallest one offered by Indian, so it's a good thing the screen is easy to remove. In fact, I'd say it's a little too easy to remove. If you know what you're doing it will only take about 6 seconds.

To that end, if I were looking to get one of these bikes, I might choose instead to go for the cheaper Chief Classic and wait for an opportunity to steal a screen from someone's Chief Vintage. The Chief Classic starts at £18,500 in Her Majesty's United Kingdom, whereas the least you'll pay for a Chief Vintage is £19,700.

Admittedly, it's not just the screen you'd be missing out on with the Classic. You'd also have to live without the leather panniers that come standard on the Vintage. But in my opinion those bags aren't worth it. They are not wide enough to hold a full-face helmet, they don't lock, I suspect they are not waterproof, and they've got that damned leather fringe.

Indeed, when you think about it, the Chief Classic is the far better choice; it's cheaper and fringe-free.

So, with all that said:

The three questions

1) Does it fit my current needs/lifestyle?
Nope and nope. The bike in and of itself is a hoot but it is too big and too expensive to exist within my current situation. The presence of fringe, meanwhile, means that it is also ruled out of any lifestyle to which I might aspire.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Uhm. The bike itself does, yes. Getting beat up by the buffeting from the screen didn't make me smile, nor did the idea of riding around on a motorcycle with leather fringe. I talk a lot about the importance of aesthetics on a bike, how that aspect can vastly affect your psychology and how you interact with the bike. I would honestly have preferred to be seen on a bike covered with images of Disney princesses. Give me a Chief Classic, or even the fringe-free Anna & Elsa Edition and I'd be laughing in my helmet. The Chief Vintage, however; no lo quiero.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
Only in resale value. By the numbers, a V-Strom 1000 is lighter, faster, more powerful, more fuel-efficient, more nimble, has more features and better luggage, and is easier to maintain. Where it falls flat against cruisers is in aesthetics. Something like the Chief Classic or Victory Gunner or even Harley-Davidson Sportster will beat a Strom in the sexy game all day long. But fringe... By dressing up the Chief Vintage like a Dennis Hopper tribute act, Indian loses its trump card with this bike.