From the tall, Dakar-style windshield and furrowed brow to the steeply angled exhaust jutting skyward on the right side, Honda’s new CRF1100L seems pretty similar to the outgoing Africa Twin we’ve come to know over the past five years. Well it is, and it isn’t.
A closer look at the spec sheet shows the model has dived headlong into the era of technology — a full-color dash with touchscreen capability, cruise control, Apple CarPlay, and a six-axis IMU for starters. There’s even a second dash sitting below the first one. That’s a first, as far as I can remember.
Aside from the electro-stuff, the frame has been redesigned to be narrower and offer superior longitudinal rigidity but more lateral flex when the bike is leaned over, plus it utilizes a detachable aluminum subframe. In the end, the Africa Twin’s skeleton shed four pounds. The engine has gained 6.5 mm of stroke, raising displacement to 1,084 cc, as well as bigger throttle bodies and more aggressive cam lift, all while losing 5.5 pounds (claimed power for Euro models is 100 horsepower and 77 foot-pounds of torque). Overall, Honda claims a six percent increase in power and a 10 percent gain in power-to-weight ratio. A fairly comprehensive update, then, from structure to powerplant to features.
Those updates summarize the changes made to create the CRF1100L platform, and therefore the base-model Africa Twin. Most of my time for this test was aboard the Adventure Sports model, which was introduced in the 2018 model year as an expanded (larger fuel tank, longer suspension, more features) version of the Africa Twin. With the new 1100 model, the Adventure Sports trim leans into features that accent a sport-touring bent. The seat isn’t as high as the previous Adventure Sports and the suspension no longer has more travel than the base bike. It still uses a larger fuel tank (now 6.5 instead of five gallons on the base model) but adds many layers of creature comforts. There’s a taller, five-way-adjustable windscreen, tubeless spoke wheels, three-stage cornering lights, heated grips, a wider fairing, a rear rack, and a larger skid plate. Arguably, the fanciest upgrade is the Electronically Equipped Ride Adjustment (EERA) suspension from Showa, to match European competitors with push-button adjustability for damping characteristics and shock-spring preload.
And then there’s controlling all of this new stuff, via the aforementioned dash and enough buttons to make an elevator blush. More specifically, 10 additional buttons on top of the starter button, horn, blinker controls, hazards, and dimmer switch. Plus two more if you get the DCT model. Below is a portion of a video provided by Honda that shows the control buttons and some of the basic functions.
The menus are deep and the options are vast, especially on the Adventure Sports where the suspension settings are woven into the interface. Very basically, there are four ride modes (Tour, Urban, Gravel, and Off-Road) that arrange throttle map and engine braking settings to preset combinations, as well as two User modes that are customizable by the rider and selectable on the fly. Within any of the modes you can also adjust wheelie control and Honda Selectable Torque Control (Honda-speak for traction control) independently of whichever ride mode is selected.
On the Adventure Sports model, the rider can adjust spring preload in the shock in addition to damping characteristics for the suspension as a whole. The system goes so far as to offer an option to adjust how stiff or soft you would like each preload preset (rider, rider with luggage, rider with passenger, rider with passenger and luggage), so that when it’s selected on the main screen it falls into your predetermined setting. Damping characteristics are adjustable individually for the fork and shock, as well as an overall setting for the chassis. It’s a lot. This edited video from Honda shows some of the more advanced functions.
The bottom line is that having the bike for a long period of time is the only way a rider will truly be able to take advantage of all of the options. Good news for owners, bad news for someone who rides motorbikes for a living and never did well on standardized tests.
Riding the Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports
Despite all of the changes across the Africa Twin’s many systems, listening to it fire up is nearly identical — two, 540 cc cylinders firing 270 degrees apart creates the same lovely thump as always. Climbing aboard the tall seat is familiar, too. The tank rises up quickly in front of the saddle and the wide handlebar sets the rider in a commanding but relaxed position. One thing that’s decidedly different is the 6.5-inch color dash gleaming in the cockpit, but that’s a whole section unto itself. Before I tell you how easy the Africa Twin is to ride, it’s only fair to mention that I had a 2016 model as a long-term test bike when it came out and logged around 10,000 miles on that machine. Even so, in my opinion this new Africa Twin is nearly as approachable as any other Honda. The transmission slips into each gear with a satisfying click, the clutch is direct, and all of the switches and controls have a high-quality feel.
One thing keeping the CRF1100L from being truly welcoming to any and all is the sheer size of it. The seat in the low position is 33.7 inches high which, while being pretty reasonable for a bike with 10 inches of ground clearance, is still intimidating. Plus, it’s just big. I am six feet, two inches tall, and standing next to the bike the hand grips are at about the same height as the bottom of my ribcage, and on the Adventure Sports that means a full tank of nearly 40 pounds of gas is just below. It’s not fair to call out the Africa Twin 1100 as the only full-size ADV that’s big ‘n' tall, but it was the first thing I noticed when I climbed on and I thought about it every time I pushed it out of my garage.
The more surprising gripe to aim at the new Africa Twin is throttle response. The first generation of the new Africa Twin had no adjustability in ride modes and, in my opinion, it didn’t need any. Now there are four options to choose from. Oddly, mode 1 is the sharpest and 4 is the mildest. Maximum output for all of the modes is essentially unchanged, the maps simply change how aggressively the power is delivered. After trying mode 1 for my first stint on the bike, I adjusted to mode 4, to test the delta between the two and hopefully find the smooth and predictable throttle response that defined the Africa Twin before ride-by-wire was introduced. No such luck. Mode 4 is the most gentle and therefore best of the maps, in my opinion, but lacks truly intuitive pickup from off throttle.
Truth be told, most new bikes suffer from some amount of unpleasantness in fueling, and overall the Africa Twin works really well. The engine has plenty of grunt everywhere in the revs, and it’s doled out steadily whether trying to get the rear to spin quickly on a dirt road or simply powering onto the freeway. And there’s a chassis to match. This Africa Twin dances down two-lane roads with a little more poise than the previous model. I found myself sitting in the middle of the seat applying gentle pressure to the helm and dragging the toes of my boots with not a lot of effort. The improvements could be from the adjustments to frame structure, or the electronically tweakable suspenders. Or maybe both. Control at low speed is great, too, with lots of steering lock and good feel in a parking lot or on a technical piece of trail. There’s no avoiding that it’s big, but it has better balance than any big ADV I’ve ridden, with the possible exception of BMW’s R-series GS.
Perhaps above all, this Adventure Sports model is meant to take on long road trips, and that’s another place where it’s amazingly good. First, there’s the fuel range. The 6.5-gallon tank combined with a 53 mpg average meant that my first full tank of gas on the AT logged 337 miles. That’s more than you’ll get out of a Gold Wing, and for that matter just about any other bike on a showroom floor. Even an R 1200 GS with an eight-gallon stash has historically needed a fill-up at around 300 miles.
I can’t promise you’ll be comfortable for 300-plus miles at a time, but Honda took just about every step it could to help. The cruise control can be set anywhere between 30 and 100 mph and has been implemented flawlessly. The seat is a good shape and stiffness and is adjustable to two different heights, which will help accommodate riders of different sizes as well as complement the five-way adjustable windshield to keep your helmet in a clean pocket of air. Last of all, there’s Showa’s EERA suspension, which can change the character of the bike fairly drastically. With the preload cranked up and damping set to “Hard,” the Africa Twin is just about as stiff as you’d want a big ADV with a 21-inch front wheel to be, and for pure comfort in the city it can be made to feel as soggy as an '80s Cadillac. The "Off-Road" suspension mode also does a nifty trick where it ramps up damping as the fork and shock compress, making jump landings less dramatic. The spectrum is wide, as it should be, and being able to do it all with the push of a button is downright luxurious.
What about the automatic transmission?
Speaking of which, for the utmost luxury in the Africa Twin lineup there is still Honda’s Dual-Clutch Transmission system. The DCT system allows automatic shifting by using a clutch for first, third, and fifth gears along with a clutch for second, fourth, and sixth gears to (almost) seamlessly change gears via an electric motor spinning the shift shaft rather than your foot. It adds 23 pounds to whichever spec of the Africa Twin you choose, as well as $800 to the price, but as usual it is awesome technology. It’s intuitive, friendly, and tuneable via four different drive modes, depending on how sporty a mood you’re in on a given ride.
With this generation of Africa Twin, the DCT is now informed by the IMU as well, meaning it will take precautions in shifting if it knows the bike is leaned over or otherwise occupying some aspect of chassis stability. I tried to baffle it by stabbing the manual shift buttons (mounted on the left handgrip) while at steep lean on a freeway on ramp, but the bike was nonplussed. The auto-blip downshifts were smooth and everything stayed on an even keel. It’s remarkably good, and if you think that it’s too heavy or expensive for what it is I just plain disagree.
The DCT system also benefits, in a few ways, from not having any real competitors. First, the option being available to Honda customers is a win for some people and those riders are less and less likely to opt for a different piece of technology to solve for automatic shifting. A less obvious win for Honda here is the interface, which is quite good and also benefits from having been refined slowly over the course of a few generations of models without any other brands working in the space. In other words, maybe this DCT system isn’t perfect, but I struggle to imagine any other company having something simpler, more accessible, and working so well in practice. The flip side of the story is the dash, which offers an immense amount of options through a new user experience that’s, well… new.
Technology and function
There’s no sense in diving into the nitty gritty of each and every one of the many options and settings baked into the new Africa Twin. For the most part, the menus are easy to navigate and with time anyone will learn their way around. Some of the technology, like Apple CarPlay, is undeniably advanced. Plug your iPhone into the USB port and the dash becomes a command center for your apps, all navigable by the myriad buttons in the left switchgear. A lot of the benefits are pretty superfluous, but I’ll admit that seeing live directions from Google Maps on a color screen is cool (this, incidentally, is the reason for the extra dash below the dash, to display pertinent riding info when the color screen is occupied with CarPlay). Even if the system doesn’t have quite the same fluid operation as it does in a car, the presentation of information is much cleaner than any proprietary system I’ve seen on a touring bike.
Being the first foray into comprehensive adventure-touring electronics, there are some teething issues. The combination of preset ride modes with other parameters that can be changed on the fly, as well as fully customizable suspension, is a lot to present and I’m not sure Honda nailed it. Having the dash be touch-screen capable is nifty, but if I can tap to turn wheelie control up or down why can’t I just tap on the suspension setting and have it take me to those options, rather than navigating a dozen clicks through the menu system? It’s also odd that depending on the display mode HSTC settings are shown in two different places, one that’s adjustable and one that isn’t. Now that I think about it that’s probably because there are three different display modes, to suit how much information you’d like to be shown. It’s all customizable, so no one way of accessing settings or seeing information is mandatory, and maybe for that reason I found myself a little overwhelmed.
An afternoon on the non-Adventure-Sport base bike helped clear my head. The giant dash is still there, as is the CarPlay functionality, but no electronic suspension meant a simpler set of options to wrap my head around — find the right throttle map and enjoy the ride. Going off road? Turn down the TC. Trotting down the highway? Engage the cruise. It also feels lighter and narrower on account of the five-gallon fuel tank and tidier bodywork. It’s a little more purposeful, and reminded me more of the outgoing model that I came to enjoy and respect so much.
The end of the road
All of this isn’t to say that Honda missed the mark with the new Africa Twin. It simply added all of the things that people wanted, and made the split between the two models more definitive. It all makes sense, and it’s understandable that the base prices climbed along with the sophistication. The base Africa Twin 1100 has an MSRP of $14,400, about $800 up from last year. For context, that’s a little more than a bare-bones base model BMW F 850 GS. The Africa Twin Adventure Sports rings in at $17,200, a couple thousand dollars more than the previous generation Adventure Sports (and a few hundred bucks more than a fully loaded F 850 GS, for what it’s worth). That’s due in large part to Honda’s new electronic suspension, which offers excellent versatility but also adds a lot of cost and complexity.
I feel like a crotchety old fan of rock and roll, spewing a trope about a sellout band that used to be good when it was the original members and they recorded in a garage. Yes, the “True Adventure” concept that debuted at EICMA in 2014 was beautifully simple, and so was the Africa Twin that followed, which is probably why Honda has sold 87,000 of them in a handful of years. In some ways the technological advancements laid into this bike were inevitable. It has become a flagship for the brand and, frankly, the ADV segment in general. And at the end of the day, as much as the simpler, smaller base model reminded me of the purity of the previous generation Africa Twin, there’s no denying that the Adventure Sports is the pinnacle of the lineup. Try to take away from this article what I did from riding the bike — loving how pure the Africa Twin was shouldn’t take away from how excellent it continues to be.
|2020 Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports|
|Engine||1,084 cc, liquid-cooled, eight-valve, parallel twin|
|Claimed horsepower||100.6 @ 7,500 rpm (European model)|
|Claimed torque||77 foot-pounds @ 6,250 rpm (European model)|
|Frame||Steel-tube split cradle|
|Front suspension||Showa EERA 45 mm fork, electronically adjustable compression and rebound damping; 9.1 inches of travel|
|Rear suspension||Showa EERA shock, electronically adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 9.4 inches of travel|
|Front brake||Nissin four-piston calipers, 310 mm discs with ABS|
|Rear brake||Nissin single-piston caliper, 256 mm disc with ABS|
|Rake, trail||27 degrees, 4.4 inches|
|Seat height||34.3 / 33.7 inches|
|Fuel capacity||6.5 gallons|
|Tires||Bridgestone Battlax AX41T, 90/90R21 front, 150/70R18 rear|
|Claimed weight||530 pounds|
|Warranty||12 months, unlimited miles|