It’s the Wild West right now in the adventure bike world. There’s no law. Anyone can do anything and more or less invent the rules on the fly. Case in point: the new Africa Twin. Honda has changed the game again, and according to these new rules, an adventure bike has to be capable of handling more than smooth dirt roads at low speed. The Africa Twin is a legit off-road motorcycle. It’s just a very big one.
THE BIKE THAT NEVER WAS
Much of Honda’s promotional material refers to a bike that never existed, at least not here in America. The original Africa Twin was a V-twin back in the ’80s and early ’90s that was never imported to the U.S., so don’t feel left out when you read about this being a comeback. Let’s just say it’s a new bike and leave it at that.
Now the Africa Twin is a parallel twin with more emphasis than ever on dirt. By that we mean dirt roads, sand, rocks and everything just short of true singletrack. Honda has the advantage of arriving on the scene after the Yamaha Super Tenere, the BMW R1200GS Adventure and the KTM 1190, which have raised the bar over the last three years. So, the Africa Twin is lighter and narrower than any of those, and it has the most sophisticated traction control yet. The one area where Honda is alone is in its automatic shift technology. The Africa Twin offers the DCT (Dual-Clutch Transmission) as an option. This has already been seen on Honda ATVs and UTVs and on some street bikes, but its application to the off-road world is new. This takes away the clutch lever and shift lever, leaving you with computer-controlled shifting through the six-speed gearbox. In any given gear, one clutch is engaged while the secondary clutch has the next anticipated gear ready. When the computer decides the time is right, the two clutches transfer the power from one set of gears to the other almost seamlessly. There are a total of four “modes” that can be pre-selected to tell the computer how high you want to rev out before each shift, or you can use triggers on the left grip to paddle-shift on your own.
At first we didn’t think we would like having a computer babysit us. It turned out to be awesome. Low speeds are always challenging on big adventure bikes, and not having to worry about the clutch makes life much, much easier. A bonus feature is that the tall first gear that plagues all adventure bikes simply isn’t an issue when you don’t have to work a clutch manually.
Traction control can be tailored with another trigger on the left. In the default position, the bike stumbles and stammers any time the rear wheel breaks loose. That’s only useful on the street. Once you go off-road, you can change to any of three settings or just turn the system off, all on the fly. On flat dirt roads, setting three is workable, but you still can’t use power to slide around a turn. Setting two lets you get away with a little flat-track action, but if you get into sand, you’ll still get stuck. Setting one is the most practical. You can back it into turns, and the computer only intrudes when the wheel is spinning wildly. Sometimes that’s fun, too, and that’s why Honda gives you the option of turning the whole system off. Same is true with the ABS system; a push of a button and it goes away, at least on the rear wheel. The only electronic feature that’s missing in action is suspension control. The shock and fork have normal damping and preload adjusters but nothing you can alter on the fly.
Electronic stuff aside, what we like most about the bike is the layout. It’s narrow, so you feel perfectly at home in the dirt. Standing is natural. The footpegs are in the right place, and after a short stint in the saddle, you’ll swear it’s light. It’s not really light, of course; it’s still a 998cc parallel twin that weighs over 500 pounds. But, if you’re used to another liter-sized adventure bike, the Honda is very compact.
With DOT knobbies like the Conti TKC80s, the Africa Twin is so capable that it invites you to get more and more daring. First you’ll pop the occasional wheelie off a water bar. Then you’ll navigate rock sections with a little more speed. Pretty soon you’ll be crossing rain ruts and ditches without letting off, and that’s where it’s apparent that if you could adjust the suspension from the saddle, you would. It’s great on smooth stuff, but the fork will respond with a hard clunk on hard impacts. If you want to stop and add a few clicks of compression damping, you can, but there’s no electronic solution as on the top-of-the-line KTMs, Yamahas and BMWs.
Of course, it’s crazy fast. The torque is excellent, and the bike revs out to a sick top-end punch. If you’re a dirt rider, you’ll find it hard to believe anything is faster. If you’re an experienced street rider, though, you’re used to extreme power levels. The Honda clearly isn’t as powerful as the big KTM or the BMW, and it might even give up a little to the Yamaha. All of those bikes have around 200cc of displacement advantage, but they pay for it in mass and lack of maneuverability. If you like numbers, horsepower specs from European sources claim 90 for the Suzuki V-Strom 1000, 93 for the Honda, 108 for the Yamaha, 120 for the BMW and 148 for the KTM. But, when it comes to this kind of power, it’s all just bragging rights anyway. The Africa Twin can keep up with freeway traffic in first gear—and it’s got five more that go faster. On our intro ride Johnny Campbell said that he saw 109 mph on the speedometer after a short dirt straight. Reports from others who are braver than we are say top speed is around 130.
We don’t have enough saddle time to say much about fuel range, other than it falls within expected norms for a bike this size. The fuel tank is 5 gallons deep and should be able to go 200 miles. The comfort factor definitely doesn’t limit your range. The seat is just firm enough, and wind protection is okay. The windscreen isn’t adjustable, but the seat height is. Handguards are standard, and the motor has a pleasant pulse. Even the sound of the bike is pleasing on long rides. At low rpm it makes an irregular beat, sort of like a V-twin. When you rev it out, it sounds more like a Trophy Truck.
Right now the Africa Twin is in short supply. The April 16th earthquake in Kumamoto, Japan, damaged the Honda factory, so supplies are limited to one per dealer. MSRP is set at $12,999 for the base model and $13,699 for the DCT version. That puts it closer in price to the Euro 800s from Triumph and BMW, and well behind typical 1200 prices. Our advice: make friends with the guys at your Honda shop.