2016 Honda Africa Twin first ride review

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The hail ricocheted off our helmets with a series of sharp “pings,” stinging our skin through our gear. The road ahead turned first to gravel, then mud, as the temperature plummeted. By the time we finally pulled over, our path was blocked by snow and ice. Our guide, Chris Jonnum, dismounted his fully outfitted Africa Twin and removed his helmet.

“Looks like we may have made a wrong turn back there,” he said looking back in the direction we had just come.

As it turned out, we made a wrong turn way back there and ended up much further off-road than the Africa Twin’s stock Dunlop Trailmax tires were ever intended to go.

Welcome to the “on-road” portion of Honda’s U.S. launch of the Africa Twin.

Spurgeon Dunbar Honda Africa Twin

Day one: On the road

In fairness, Chris and the rest of the crew over at Honda did a fantastic job of providing a perfect route through Moab, Utah. And seeing that the Africa Twin is Honda’s all-new premier adventure bike, getting lost in the mud was a fitting start to the day. Once Chris got us turned around, the rest of the street portion seemed tame by comparison to our early morning adventure.

We hit the asphalt shortly after sunrise, chasing the Colorado River through the mountains. Turning onto La Sal Loop Road, our route began a steady climb following the battered road along the western face of Mt. Wass. 

Honda Africa Twin

Honda has provided very little information about the specific numbers the Africa Twin is dishing out, but if European sources are to be trusted, claimed output is somewhere around 90 horsepower and 70 foot-pounds of torque. Consider for a second that if those numbers are accurate, that’s about 20 percent more torque than BMW’s F 800 GS and a nearly 25 percent increase over the Triumph Tiger 800. In addition, it’s pretty much matching the Tiger’s peak horsepower toe-to-toe. 

The urgency with which the power struck impressed me the most. From my perch behind the handlebars, power seemed to pull as soon as I released the clutch. Popping the clutch was like unleashing a hungry hell-hound with the smell of blood in the air. Keep in mind this is coming from a Tiger XCx owner who is used to spinning up power from Triumph’s triple.

Honda Africa Twin

The road soon turned rough and wet and we got a chance to initiate Honda’s four-stage traction control, or, as they call it, Honda Selectable Torque Control (HSTC, for short). Riders can choose between three levels of interference or can turn the system off completely. Level one offers the least amount of interruption while level three engaged quite easily on Utah’s wet, gravel-laden, mountain roads. What impressed me most about the system was that it could be adjusted on the fly, with the bike in motion, via a trigger located on the lefthand control. This allowed me to toggle up to level two or three as the going got rough and then back it down when our path cleared. 

Honda Africa Twin

I read some riders talking about how they were unimpressed with the Africa Twin’s suspension performance on the street, but I disagree. Knowing that Honda’s engineers needed the bike to handle well on-road as well as off, I think they found a remarkably nice balance with the 45 mm Showa inverted fork up front and shock in the rear. The rear shock is mounted using Honda's Pro-link system which Honda says helps to maintain spring and damping rates over a variety of riding conditions. Both units are completely adjustable for preload, compression, and rebound damping and offer 9 inches of travel in the front and 8.7 inches of travel in the rear.

Listen, no one is going to confuse this suspension with sport-bike-level street performance, but that’s not the point of this bike. If you are looking for sport-bike level power and suspension, Honda has a CBR with your name on it. As the Africa Twin officially carries the “CRF” prefix, there is no confusing that this bike is sharing a distinct lineage to Honda’s line of CRF dirt bikes.  

Day two: Off the road

In order to prove that the Africa Twin has the dirt chops that its CRF designation implies, Honda introduced us to Johnny Campbell, who joined us for the dirt portion of the ride.

Honda Africa Twin Johnny Campbell

For those of you who are not familiar, Mr. Campbell has won the Baja 1000 11 times, including nine in a row from 1997 through 2005. Now we would be following him through the red dirt of Moab. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that didn’t really sink in until it was over. In the moment, I just kept thinking, “God, how am I going to keep up with him?!”

The Africa Twin, as it turns out, is an extremely approachable off-road machine once outfitted with a set of Continental TKC80s, instead of the stock rubber. While it didn’t instantly bestow upon me Johnny Campbell-like abilities (regardless of what Honda’s promotional videos would have you believe), I found that I appreciated the bike even more off-road than on.

Honda places a lot of trust in the ability of their customers, as this bike comes with no stock crash protection other than a skid plate. That's right. They tossed us each a set of keys to these brand-new bikes and told us to chase Mr. Campbell around the desert with no safety net. If this was my personal bike, there is no way I would have agreed to this without installing some crash protection. I recently talked with Jeremy LeBreton over at AltRider and it sounds like they have two Africa Twins in their shop right now and are currently developing a whole line of protection for these bikes. I'll be excited to see what they come up with. 

Spurgeon Dunbar Honda Africa Twin

The overall design of the seat and bodywork make it an extremely manageable machine to wrestle around. The 4.9-gallon gas tank is cut in a way that makes it easy to stand upright or shift your body weight back and forth while off-roading the Africa Twin. The standard seat can be adjusted to offer either a 34.3- or 33.5-inch seat height, making for a long reach to the ground. At six feet, three inches tall, with a 33-inch inseam, I sometimes forget how tall these ADV bikes really are. For riders who would like an easier reach to the ground, a lower seat is available with adjustments varying between 33.1 and 32.3 inches.

The engine was designed to reduce weight while maintaining a low center of gravity. The top end of the engine utilizes the same UniCam head design found in Honda's competition-oriented CRF250 and 450 dirt bikes. Running one camshaft to actuate the eight valves (four per cylinder) cut weight up top and the two counter-balancers cancel vibration as well as rotate both the oil and water pump. By utilizing this shared functionality, Honda was able to design an engine with fewer parts further trimming the fat. Honda claims that even the six brackets mounting the engine to the steel semi-double cradle frame (apparently it's very similar to the frame found in the CFR450R Rally bike) aid in the overall balance of the Africa Twin's weight. 

Honda Africa Twin

So the question becomes, does it actually make a difference for a bike tipping the scales at over 500 pounds? Despite its rather hefty wet weight of 511 pounds (534 pounds for the DCT version), the bike feels compact and nimble off-road. My Tiger XCx, by comparison, feels quite porky, despite a lower weight of 487 pounds.  

Honda Africa Twin

During the street portion of the ride, I had been unimpressed with the dual, radial-mounted four-pot Nissin brake setup. Honda is still using hoses instead of steel braided lines and the overall feel was just a bit mushy, if not numb. Once in the dirt, however, the bite felt adequate without being overly aggressive. I was able to easily lock up the rear brake to slide it around on the manual version (the DCT version had a tendency to fight me from time to time and I ended up laying it over in front of a group of Honda executives).

More advanced riders who want to be able to slide the rear off-road can disable ABS at the rear wheel via a switch located on the dash, but ABS remains active at the front wheel. Most riders will be fine with only being able to disable ABS at the rear wheel, however, it would have been nice to have the option to completely disable ABS altogether off-road. 

My biggest gripe with the Africa Twin is the dance you have to go through to get your electronic settings the way you want them. Every time you shut off the bike, you have to remember to reset your traction control and ABS settings. If you are on the DCT version, you have to go even further and reset your “G” button (more on that below) and switch back into “manual” mode, if you’re not using the auto feature. By the end of a long day of riding off-road, this became increasingly frustrating. 

I would like to see Honda create a programmable preset so instead of having to go through three or four different cycles every time I restart the bike I can just hit one button. At the very least, set it up so I can hit the kill switch, without toggling the key to "off," and leave the settings intact for short stops. 

Honda Africa Twin

As long as I am asking for things from Honda, I need a better dash. I like the overall layout. It’s just that I can’t see it. In the desert sun, the whole dash was washed out and impossible to read. Perhaps there is a way to add brightness or contrast to make this more usable for the rider. This is especially needed on the DCT version, with all of the additional readouts the rider needs to be aware of.

The DCT version

It is impossible to discuss the new Africa Twin without diving into Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission, or DCT, for short. It would be too easy to write off DCT as an “automatic” transmission, but it’s far more complex than that.

While both the manual and the DCT share a six-speed gearbox, the DCT bike loses the slipper clutch found on the manual version of this motorcycle in favor of a varying shiftless drive system.

Honda Africa Twin

On the lefthand control, riders will find a lever that looks very much like a clutch lever but is actually a parking brake that actuates a secondary caliper on the rear wheel. Honda sets it far from the handlebar to prevent riders from instinctively grabbing it, mistaking it for a clutch. (Note: Don’t accidentally mistake this for the clutch.) You’ll also notice a paddle shifter with two separate buttons for up and down shifting if you opt to manually override the system.

Honda Africa Twin

On the righthand control you’ll find a button that reads “R/M.” This button allows the rider to select between “Ride” (which really should be an “A” for “Automatic”) and “Manual.” When the manual mode is selected, the rider is in complete control of shifts using those paddle shifters at your left hand. If ride mode is selected, it allows riders to select from varying degrees of automatically initiated shift points.

Sitting just below the kill switch you’ll notice a button that reads “D-S/N.” With this, the rider can select “Drive” (which should really be a “R” for “Ride”), “Sport” and “Neutral.” Drive is the perfect selection if you want to ride like grandma on her way to Sunday school. It short-shifts so quickly I can’t imagine ever actually using this particular mode. Sport mode allows riders to select from three varying degrees of shift points. Level one shifts almost as mildly as drive mode while level three allows the engine to carry speed almost to the redline before shifting.

All modes can be automatically overridden using the shift paddles on the lefthand control. However, the transmission will automatically revert to automatic mode if it senses you’re no longer shifting. To avoid the computer from taking over, you have to be in Manual mode. There is also a “G” button that when engaged disables the adaptive-clutch feature (similar to feathering the clutch) and offers riders a more direct feel to the rear wheel. Honda recommended using this feature when riding off-road and it allowed for a bit more noticeable bite.

Spurgeon Dunbar Honda Africa Twin

Here is the deal. This technology is damn cool and ever changing. The varying Sport modes are new for 2016, as is the new “incline detection” feature, which allows the DCT system to know if you are ascending or descending a hill while simultaneously making the appropriate changes to gearing.

With that being said, I’m not sure the DCT bike is for me. Muscle memory had me reaching for the clutch in situations where I would normally want to slide the rear wheel, come to a stop, or simply loft that front wheel. Overall, there are so many controls and buttons on the handlebars of the DCT bike that it almost feels overwhelming. I did come to appreciate the DCT system during the off-road portion of the ride more than I did during the on-road portion, as it allowed me to bang through the gears without a second thought.

I felt most limited by DCT in low-speed situations. The DCT system, regardless of how far it has come and how advanced it is, could not mimic my normal clutch engagement at low speeds. I am interested to see Honda continue to further develop and fine tune this technology as I do believe it will help get new riders into the market. If I had the DCT bike to play with a bit longer, I would want to spend time practicing basic, low-speed maneuvers to gain a better feel for the transmission's characteristics.

Spurgeon Dunbar Honda Africa Twin

Cleaning up

Honda has clearly been paying attention to what BMW and Triumph have been up to in the world of middleweight adventure bikes. The Africa Twin comes in leaning toward the dirt side of the mix and looking to give the established European ADV bikes a run for their money. Personally, I would love to get the three of them side by side in the Pine Barrens for a weekend of abuse. At $12,999 for the manual version and $13,699 for the DCT version, the Africa Twin falls right in line with the other bikes in this category.

Honda hasn’t had an ADV bike in the U.S. market since the disappearance of the Transalp, more than 25 years ago. Not only is Big Red finally ready to reenter the adventure market, they’re ready to jump into the ring swinging. The Africa Twin comes across as a spirited, competent, well thought out machine, completely worthy of the pedigree associated with its name. 

If only we could get the HRC color scheme.

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