Just about every review you'll read for Honda's new CRF1000L Africa Twin speaks to the bike's surprising usability off road. Honda seems eager to drive that home, to such an extent that the manufacturer had journalists gather in South Africa recently (my invite must have gotten lost in the mail) to spend two days in the dirt.
Despite my own experience (I'll get to that in a moment), I don't doubt the Africa Twin's off-road chops, but it occurs to me the vast majority of the people who pay upward of $13,000 for this 511-lb. motorcycle are not actually going to go skipping off to the Kazakhstan steppe. I mean, if you really want an all-roads world-traveling Honda, surely you'd choose the Rally Raid CB500X instead. It costs and weighs less.
Instead, I think the Africa Twin will fall primarily into that awkward category of heavy adventure bikes that are perfectly capable, but unlikely to be used by the majority of its owners for anything more exotic than a rural dirt road. So, I got in touch with Honda and asked to spend some time with the Africa Twin to assess the bike as a purely on-road tool.
As an owner of a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 –– which has almost identical dimensions, weight, horsepower and torque figures — I wondered whether the Africa Twin was worthy of its larger price tag and all the praise it's received in the motorcycling press. The short answer to that question is: maybe. It really depends on personal taste and how much the Honda badge means to you.
There's no question the Africa Twin beats the 'Strom — and every other bike in its class — in terms of weight distribution. Center of gravity is kept nice and low, so it feels lighter than it actually is. At least, until you have to pick it up (again, I'll get to that in a moment).
Throwing a leg over the one-piece saddle I'm immediately impressed by how nimble this bike feels even at a standstill. At 6-foot-1, I've set the seat to its highest setting (34.2 inches) and have no trouble putting both feet flat on the ground. The seat can be adjusted to suit those with slightly less inseam, and doing so is simple. Really simple. Other manufacturers need to adopt this system.
Honda have given me a model with all the bells and whistles: panniers, top box, touring screen, heated grips, crash bars, fog lights, etc. It's a good-looking package and there's a real feeling of quality — especially the bike itself. On each side an understated, but beautiful, Honda badge makes this feel like a premium product.
The dash is a bit small and so packed with information that, on the go, it can be a little difficult to pick out relevant information. I'm also not a fan of the digital tachometer, but to each his own; I'm certain you'd get used to it after a week.
Handlebars are wide, but not unnecessarily so, and hands fall naturally to the grips. Standard handguards help keep the weather off. In a move that makes sense if you think about it, Honda have done away with the idea of a separate starter button and incorporated it into the kill switch. Press down on the big red switch and the bike fires up with the healthy whirr of a modern machine.
(EDIT: Someone has since pointed out to me that the one-switch system has been around for a while on the Yamaha MT-09; a bike I have ridden. I had forgotten about it.)
Whoever designed the Africa Twin's clever seat and start-up system must have taken the day off when Honda was developing switchgear for the left handlebar. The button for the horn has swapped places with the switch for the bike's indicators. So, EVERY DAMN TIME you try to signal a turn, you end up honking the horn. There is no possible intelligent explanation for Honda having done this and you will never get used to it.
A less significant quibble is the button for Honda's integrated heated grips. It doesn't make a lot of sense; there is no up or down. But, again, it's the sort of thing you'd get used to. Or, you could just install an aftermarket set of heated grips, which would be cheaper and warmer.
I'm riding the manual version of the Africa Twin, and, man, is this transmission slick. Buttery smooth. Here, again, it beats everything in its class. It's definitely the sort of thing you'd appreciate over a multi-day excursion. Clutchless upshifts are effortless. It's rare that I shout, "Damn, you are so sexy!" at a gearbox, but here I'm given occasion to do so.
Would a transmission this smooth be a problem off road? Its light touch difficult to nuance with a heavy off-road boot? I don't know.
The 998cc parallel twin pulls strong from low revs. Power delivery is smooth and linear. On the highway, illegal speeds are found quickly. Above 85 mph the bike starts to run out of puff, and the gentile, tolerable vibration felt at lower speeds turns to a shudder. It's not a frightening shudder — the bike still feels stable — but it's definitely not comfortable, either. A sign the Africa Twin might not be your first choice for the autobahn.
At 70 mph, though, the bike cruises comfortably at 4,000 rpm, which suggests Honda's claimed 60 mpg is achievable with a calm hand. Meanwhile, the feeling of lightness translates well into a decent flickability in corners. Roundabouts, twists and turns are fun on this machine and don't require much effort.
If you're reading this in the United States, the "Where did that car in my blind spot go?" feeling that comes when shooting through roundabouts may not be familiar to you. But it's something that makes one value good mirrors. The Africa Twin's set is OK but not great and I have to readjust frequently. After a few stops I accept the mirrors are not strong enough to hold my helmet.
The Africa Twin's off-road-friendly suspension travel means it can buck a little under hard acceleration or braking but that may be the sort of thing you're only going to discover when trying to find flaws. The same person who is disinclined to off road with this bike will probably also be disinclined to wring its neck through the twisties. Treat it like a tourer, for instance, and you'll never have issues.
And I can very much see this being used for long-distance trips. The seat is comfortable and offers plenty of space to move around. The optional touring screen keeps windflow just over my helmet. Though I would like the screen to be wider; my head is in a nice pocket of still air, but my shoulders are out in the cold.
My biggest qualm with the Africa Twin, especially as pertains to its value as a long-distance road machine, is the fact it has tubed tires. Ostensibly this is because tubed tires are preferable if you've launched your bike off a ridge or something and damaged the rim. For a road-only rider, though, they are a pain in the caboose — considerably more difficult to repair roadside, and, even in this day and age, more likely to blow up.
Honda has confided in me it plans to offer rims that accept tubeless tires in the not-too-distant future, which is a good thing. Hopefully quality road tires will soon be available in the bike's narrow sizes. At the moment, for example, the excellent Michelin Pilot Road 4 tire is not available. The tires with which the Africa Twin comes standard, Dunlop Trailmax, provide a decent amount of grip but can kick on particularly slick surfaces, like raised pavement markers on a wet road.
Honda's adventure-looking panniers look well suited to extended travel, but a goof on my part helps expose a number of flaws. On a mountain road, I stop to take some pictures, steering the bike onto a patch of grass. As I do this, the bike lurches, stalls, and I suddenly find myself lying beneath it.
As stated above, I totally believe everyone else's claims about the Africa Twin's off-road capability. I don't have a great deal of experience off road, so it is entirely possible and indeed likely that this bike is in no way to blame for my dropping it in the exact same photo spot where I have taken half a dozen other bikes without incident — including the 900-pound Victory Vision. I accept that I am a bonehead and any assertions that the Africa Twin is too inclined to stall are nothing more than desperate attempts to comfort my damaged ego.
But hey, I've dropped this thing, so let's talk about that, shall we?
Fortunately, I have dropped it into some good ol' Welsh mud. I am able to slither out from under the Honda with ease. No damage to my person or, it appears, the bike (a). After a 30-second break to scream profanities at the sky, I turn my attention to the task of getting the bike upright.
Now, I cycle almost every day; I also lift weights, and part of my routine involves doing several dozen squats. I'm not Brian Shaw or anything, but I'm strong enough that I've not had difficulty picking up dropped bikes in the past. But Sweet Jeebus is it hard to pick up a 511 lb. motorcycle in the mud. Swearing, spitting, huffing, straining hard. Who would think that off-roading with this thing would be a good idea?!
After a minute of struggling, I get the bike up. And it's at this point I notice the left pannier is missing. The Honda panniers have an aluminum look but are really just plastic, attached via clever integrated mounts. I find the pannier in the mud a few feet away and instinctively look for all the shattered plastic bits that I expect to have come off with it. There aren't any, and to my surprise, I discover — after using the key to unlock its plastic clamping mechanism — the pannier clicks back on with ease.
I can't decide how I feel about this. The pannier has simply popped off, rather than shattering into pieces. I suppose the former scenario is preferable. But it doesn't really fit the rugged Africa Twin adventuring image. These things can be forcibly removed with a swift kick. Clearly, they are only good for road use. Which then begs the question: why aren't they more aerodynamic, like luggage on the V-Strom 1000 or Kawasaki Versys 1000? As is, you have these honking big boxes hanging off your bike, creating all kinds of drag, without the indestructible benefits of say, a pair of Metal Mule cases.
When I take the bike to a nearby jet wash to clean off the mud, I discover another problem with the Honda luggage: it's not entirely waterproof. However, I also discover the Africa Twin is easy to clean. Hit it with a hose and not much else is required. That's certainly an advantage over my V-Strom 1000, which has nooks and crannies that will never be clean unless I remove the fairing.
All in all, then, the Africa Twin is well suited to the sort of road-only use most owners will ask of it. It is solid, nimble, all-day comfortable, easy to live with, and comes with the promise of Honda's famous reliability. It makes sense. This is a bike I would ride cross country. Though I'd personally not buy anything more than the actual bike, and not until tubeless tires are available.
After that, perhaps some Shad cases for luggage, a Givi AirFlow to replace the too-narrow screen, Oxford heated grips, and so on. Because of the expected popularity of the Africa Twin, aftermarket companies are rushing to provide accessories for the bike, allowing you to turn it into your perfect machine.
As to the question of whether I think it's better than my V-Strom 1000, well...I don't. As good, maybe, but not better. However, that's an emotionally driven opinion; if an Africa Twin owner were to contest it, I wouldn't argue. The Africa Twin is a very, very, very good motorcycle. But for the person who has come to love his or her Suzuki V-Strom 1000, Kawasaki Versys 1000, Triumph Tiger 800 XR/C, BMW R800GS, KTM 1190 Adventure, or Yamaha Super Ténéré, it may not be so good as to be worth trading in for. Not on the road, at least.
The Three Questions
So, with all that said, here are the questions I ask of every motorcycle I ride:
1) Does it fit my needs/current lifestyle?
Yup. The Africa Twin is very evenly matched to the Suzuki V-Strom 1000, which is a bike I have really come to appreciate. The Honda is perfectly capable of handling almost anything I would ask of it. Except, as I say, travelling on the German autobahn.
2) Does it put a grin on my face?
A utilitarian grin, yes. It didn't punch me in the chest with joy or any such thing, but it is a very good bike that can take me to all kinds of grin-inducing places and experiences without worry.
3) Is it better than my current bike?
No. A Honda fanatic would disagree, and, as I say, I wouldn't try to tell him or her that he/she is wrong. In road-use terms, the 'Strom and AT are incredibly similar. But for me the 'Strom wins because:
a) It has quicker, more exciting acceleration (I prefer the feeling of a V-twin).
b) It is capable of going faster without feeling unsettled.
c) The engine's snarl when accelerating sounds a lot cooler/meaner.
d) It doesn't stall as easily.
e) It handles better.
f) It is just a teency bit more comfortable.
g) It's cheaper.
h) Its panniers, though smaller, stick out less and are more aerodynamic.
i) The Honda is not actually any tougher than the 'Strom (see footnote below).
It is certain the Africa Twin will have a better resale value, but after returning it to Honda I was happy to be going home on the 'Strom.
(a) When I closely inspected the bike, I saw that the rear fairing had come slightly loose, with a fingernail-sized tab/fairing clip having popped out of its slot. When I attempted to push this tab back into its slot it snapped off. Visually, nothing seemed amiss, however, so I left the tab there on the mountain and spoke not a word of it to Honda.
(Parts of this review were originally published on RideApart)