Julian Challis travels to Sardinia for the launch of the latest generation of the Honda Africa twin.
As I crest the hill, the track drops down and into a sweeping left hander. I twist the throttle and the big twin engine blasts me down into the turn, the tyres scrabbling for grip as I cut to the inside line. Once through, it’s back on the gas again, and as the exhaust note builds to a delicious howl, the back tyre steps out sending a spray of stones machine-gunning into the gnarled and dusty bushes that line the track. In the distance, the blades of a vast wind turbine turn lazily in the midday sun, and as I rip along the trail on the all-new Africa Twin, I can think of nothing I would rather be doing at this precise moment, and to be honest, any other bike I’d rather be doing it on.
When Cyril Neveu won the Dakar rally back in 1986 on an NXR650, neither he nor Honda could have dreamed that the win would lead to the development of the most successful Japanese adventure bike ever. The first three incarnations of the Africa Twin were produced from 1988 to 2001 and sold more than 73,000 units, gaining both an incredible reputation and legions of fans across the globe. So much so, that even with a lay off for 15 long years, the 2016 Africa Twin was able to quickly return to the head of the sales figures almost as if it had never left. Since the relaunch, Honda has sold over 86,000 bikes from China to California, outstripping every other manufacturer except BMW and establishing the model as an unstoppable force within the motorcycle market yet again.
So, for the launch of the next generation of the iconic brand, the expectation was definitely on Honda to deliver something special to continue the legacy. But aside from the ‘unofficial leaks’ that the bike was going to get a capacity hike to take it to 1100, advance pictures seemed to show little more than a cosmetic makeover and a wider profile. This did not seem like progress.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the bikes looking quite similar to the 2018 incarnation, the all new Africa Twin has undergone a total redesign with virtually every single component being either redesigned, reinforced, replaced, lightened or improved by a team of obsessive and dedicated designers and engineers in a process that has more than a hint of ‘Trigger’s Broom’ about it. Save for the brakes and a few nuts and bolts, everything on this bike is new. The 2020 Africa Twin is more powerful, more agile, lighter and more technically advanced than ever before. Honda’s best, apparently just got a whole lot better.
To show off the fruits of its labours, Honda chose the idyllic island of Sardinia, taking over a beautiful spa resort to the south of Olbia as their base for the launch of the new bike. The whole development team were on site, backed up by a detailed and comprehensive presentation, as a line of immaculately prepared machines sat sparkling in the glare of the autumn sun.
Now we say new bike, but in fact there are now six different versions of the Africa Twin. There’s the standard bike, which is available without DCT, the Adventure Sports option with or without DCT, and the new kid on the block is the Adventure Sports with EERA (Showa’s Electronically Equipped Ride Adjustment) again available with or without DCT.
Our first ride of the new bikes came bright and early the next morning, and we were straight in with the big hitter, the Adventure Sports with electronic suspension. This is effectively the bells and whistles version that is pitched against the likes of the BMW GSA and the Ducati Multistrada Enduro. There are two colour options available and, although ABR Editor Bryn goes all gooey over the tri-colour option, I’m much more taken with the sinister and brooding black version. Either way, the new bikes look absolutely stunning and I can’t wait to get them out on the roads and trails.
Slinging my leg over the Adventure Sports, the first and most welcome thing to notice is that you no longer need to be an NBA athlete to touch the ground. Honda have sliced down the seat height by a massive 50mm to a much more sensible 850mm on the lowest setting, or 870mm on the higher setting. But don’t worry, if you actually are a basketball player or indeed a jockey, there are high and low seat options in the accessory catalogue.
The changes to the seat height are thanks to a totally redesigned frame which is a full 1.8 kg lighter than on the 2018 bike, with slimmer and straighter frame rails and the removal of the front support tube. There’s also a new subframe, the previous welded steel one being ditched in favour of a motocross style bolt-on aluminium version which allows greater flexibility and makes the rear of the bike much slimmer. Honda have also taken inspiration from their open class motocross bike for the swingarm, the long and light design contributing to better traction and feel both on and off the tarmac.
And then there’s the dashboard. Honda are playing catch-up with the other brands in bringing a TFT dashboard to the Africa Twin, but they’ve come in strong with a detailed yet unfussy design and layout to replace the LED display on the 1000L. Turn the key (no keyless tech here) and the 6.5-inch TFT screen goes into its opening sequence with a series of swooshes and graphics that take an embarrassingly long time to finish. You have to tap the screen to accept the disclaimer and the full display comes up. If you can’t be bothered to wait for all this, Honda have also included a secondary digital display below the TFT that carries basic information meaning that if you are in a rush you can just hit the starter and go. The new Africa Twin is set up for Apple Car play through a Bluetooth connection. More importantly, this means you can run your navigation and entertainment apps on the TFT screen while still seeing how fast you are going and what gear you are in – clever stuff.
The screen is touch sensitive too, so you can navigate through the myriad of new options with your fingers. Buyers might worry as to whether you can still do this with winter gloves on, but we are happy to confirm that a) you can as the screen is pressure sensitive rather than conductive, and b) it’s relatively academic as you can’t use the touch-screen once the bike is moving. For that you have to take on the left switchgear, which is a whole different conversation.
With enough time spent drooling over tech and frame dimensions, we head out onto the deliciously deserted roads of Sardinia and the bike immediately has that familiar Africa Twin feel. The wide bars, the tall riding position and the commanding view of the road are all staples of the brand and Honda have not messed with a winning formula. Of course, this being the Adventure Sports version, it’s a bit chunkier than the standard bike, notably from the big new tank that holds nearly 25 litres and will take you a claimed 310 miles between fuel stops. On such a tiny island, we’re not going to need such an massive range, but as we whizz along the sinuous roads towards Olbia, we can at least appreciate the improved protection of the new fairing and five position adjustable screen, even if you can’t adjust the bloody thing unless stationary as it needs both hands.
Once away from the town, we head west to the interior of the island, and as the roads begin to open up, the balance and poise of the new frame starts to show. Despite the bigger tank, the bike feels noticeably narrower and lighter, and allows you to drop effortlessly into the turns and power out the other side with the smallest of effort. Picking up the road towards Berchidda, it’s easy to make very fast progress on the new bike. As we hurtle past the dense gorse bushes and towering Prickly Pear cacti, it’s comforting to find that the brakes are as good as the new chassis.
In fact, the brakes on the new Africa Twin are the only elements that managed to survive from the previous model, it’s easy to see why. At the front, the twin 310 mm wave discs and radial mounted four-pot calipers manage to combine massive stopping power with delicate control and, when combined with the semi active suspension, ABS and Bridgestone Battlecross AX41T hoops, will allow you to haul the bike up from silly speeds to standstill without a murmur. At the rear, there’s an equally responsive single pot caliper and 256mm disc, and with roads lined with those cacti, that’s a massive plus.
Our route takes a hard left and heads in the direction of Monti, the roads narrowing and becoming much more involving, the fast straights interspersed with deep hairpins and long climbs. We’ve got the bike in ‘Tour’ mode as the default road setting. It’s like it was made for the route, the thrum of the twin cylinders below making the perfect soundtrack as we scythe through the landscape, blasting past the tall pines and twisted cork trees. It’s on roads like this that all the work on the motor becomes evident. Honda have managed to maintain the distinctive feel and sound from the parallel twin, 270-degree, SOHC lump and yet take everything up a notch and even be Euro 5 compliant in the process. The capacity has been hiked from 998 to 1084cc, but alongside this increase come a raft of additional changes. There’s a new cylinder head, altered valve timing and increased valve lift, new aluminium cylinder sleeves and a longer stoke, and the fuel is now delivered by cavernous 46mm throttle bodies with a straighter and more direct inlet path. The work on the top end of the motor allied with the changes to the gearbox and transmission have shaved an impressive 2.5kg from the motor (2.2kg for the DCT version) but more importantly perhaps gives a 7% increase in power from 93bhp to 101bhp and a 6% increase in torque from 99 to 105 Nm. Combined with the weight loss, all this adds up to a 10% increase in the bike’s power to weight ratio.
Although figures like this are impressive and serve to give the bike an appreciable boost, the Africa Twin is still considerably down on peak power compared to the likes of the BMW, KTM and Ducati, as the keyboard warriors have been all too eager to point out. And while they are indeed correct, the observation misses the point of the Africa Twin. Honda were never trying to match those massive figures with this bike and are doubtless aware that if massive horsepower is your priority, then you probably won’t buy their bike. The beauty and indeed the strength of the Africa Twin has always been the usability and character of the motor, and Honda have not sacrificed that to chase either the figures or the competition.
We climb further into the hills and the roads open up again as we head for our coffee stop, with the straights longer and the corners faster. The bike I’m on has the optional quick shifter so as soon as I hit the straights, I bury the throttle and snick up through the gears without backing off, before tapping down into the corners. As none of my own bikes have this tech, I have to relearn the technique on every single launch – First World problem I know – but I’m slowly beginning to train my brain into properly using the technology.
Of course, while I’m enthusing about the relatively simple technology of the quick shifter, the major tech in the new bike has been keeping a steadying hand on my shoulder for the entire ride, whether carving the corners or smashing the straights. The Africa Twin now has a six axis IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) that controls everything from traction control to engine braking, wheelie control to cornering ABS, and on the EERA model, this is linked into the active control of the suspension. While the technical explanation involves things like pitch, roll and yaw, all the rider needs to know is that the bike’s brain is pretty damn smart and will try to look after you, sometimes despite your best efforts.
After lunch, it’s a short blast on more wonderful roads before we reach the first of the trails and a chance to see how the Africa Twin Adventure Sports and all its new technology copes in the dirt. You can toggle into any of the pre-set riding modes without stopping or even throttling off, and the bike will set the engine and suspension parameters in the blink of an eye. The stock modes are ‘Tour’, ‘Urban’, ‘Gravel’ and ‘Off-road’, with the ‘User 1’ and ‘User 2’ modes the ones that you can customise yourself. You can also alter the traction control, wheelie control and suspension pre-set from one passenger with or without luggage to two passengers with or without luggage, in all modes either through the touch screen when stationary or using the switches if riding.
Selecting ‘Gravel’ mode and a bit more pre-set with the ‘two-passenger’ option, I set off on to the rocky trails that will take us up to Plato Ala. The route flows left and right for mile after mile and from the get-go the Africa Twin is a complete joy to ride. As soon as you stand on the pegs the bike becomes instantly far more like its motocross cousins, the weight and bulk dissolving away and allowing you to get on and enjoy the trails. OK, it’s unwise to ignore the momentum of a 248kg bike and going into a few corners a little hot left me feeling a bit unnerved, but once you find the limits, the Adventure Sports is a complete blast on the dirt. The power is wonderful, the suspension beautifully controlled by the Showa technology, and the new slimline chassis is ridiculously easy to move around with the lightest of pressure on the bars or the pegs. As I tear along the flowing trails between the vast wind turbines in a cloud of dust I couldn’t be happier. The brakes are superb on the loose stuff too, although the back brake is perhaps a little too good, and after a couple of big slides I change to the ‘off-road ABS’ option rather than totally off. The Battlecross tyres might be great all-rounders, but there’s a limit to what any tyre can do on marble-like stones on rock-hard Italian trails.
The HSTC (Honda Selectable Torque Control) selector is another welcome option. It allows you to decide just how much you want to hang out the back. Set it to ‘1’ or even turn it off and you can slide it like a flat-track hero, or reign it in to maximum ‘7’ and the back won’t deviate from the trail one iota. This level of control on a big bike is perfect as you can explore the limits of your riding in a controlled manner, rather than risking a massive high-side on the first corner. Similarly, the wheelie control will do the same for your one-wheel heroics and pretty soon you’ll be in mode three and hoisting a big one! OK, I didn’t do that.
Reluctantly we have to leave the off road for a while, so it’s back to the tarmac and a chance to play with a few more of the new options on the way to lunch. Both the Africa Twin Adventure Sports and the stock Africa Twin now have cruise control as standard, and although there are few very long or straight roads in Sardinia, there are enough to appreciate the ease of use of the new system, thankfully located on the far less cluttered right-hand switchgear. Also, on this side are the controls for the heated grips, but in 25-degree autumn sunshine it wasn’t too much of a problem. Other electronic delights include the self-cancelling indicators, emergency stop signal system that sets the indicators flashing on heavy braking, three stage cornering lights and the uber-cool halo running lights. Oh, and the display on the TFT screen has three different levels of display information. All levels are selectable with a black or white background, with an auto setting that will change over the display if it gets dark or you plunge into an alpine tunnel.
An hour or so later we head for lunch at Nughedu San Nicolo, where the staff provide an Italian feast of delicate cured meats and hard cheeses, followed by exquisite ravioli all chased down with a gorgeous Tiramisu, my favourite desert, and of course more espresso. After such a delicious repast in the hot sun, I could easily go for a sleep under an olive tree, but there’s much more riding to be done.
I swap onto one of the DCT bikes and head out onto the road that drops down and away from the hilltop restaurant, selecting the slightly more conventional paddle-shift mode just to re-accustom myself to the brave new world of DCT. Changing with your finger and thumb takes a bit of concentration to start with, but faced with an unexpectedly winding and fast route back down towards Anela, I have to learn quickly to avoid plummeting to an untimely demise. And within ten minutes or so, I can feel myself getting quicker into and out of the bends and enjoying the whole paddle shift experience, even if the occasional scream or chug from the motor indicates the bike is not enjoying it as much! Honda have sold over 100,000 DCT models since the technology was introduced back in 2009, and now an impressive 43% of all Africa Twin sales are from DCT models.
Of course, if you want the full DCT experience, there are two fully auto modes, ‘D’ for more relaxed and urban riding, ‘S’ for more spirited progress. I try both in the course of the afternoon but on these roads and in this landscape, the quick shifting and more aggressive ‘S’ mode is by far the best, even if the whole idea of a ‘1100cc Twist and Go’ is anathema for some.
As the sun slips gently into the distant Mediterranean, we finally arrive back at the hotel. While the Africa Twin’s saddle is beautifully comfortable, after 177 miles on some of the most wonderful roads and the best trails that Sardinia can offer, it’s time for a cool beer by the pool.
The following morning, we get to try the Adventure Sports bikes with the standard suspension rather than the EERA technology. The forks are still the same Showa 45mm USD units with 230mm of travel, but the adjustment for preload and damping is via conventional dials rather than electronic trickery. At the rear there’s still a Showa shock connected to a Pro Link system but with a turn-wheel preload adjuster and conventional adjusters for rebound damping that matches the 220 mm travel of the electronically assisted bikes.
Our guide heads us back to Olbia and then out onto the twisty roads to the wonderfully picturesque north of the island. There’s little to complain about with the suspension or the way it works with the new chassis and motor, whether you are sweeping through fast corners or braking hard into a tight bend, the bike sticking to the tarmac like a toffee to a blanket and giving precise feedback and handling.
Yet having tried out the EERA equipped bike the day before, it’s difficult not to feel that the harder and longer you ride this bike, the more the sophistication of the electronic control comes into its own. It will respond to heavy braking by stiffening up almost instantaneously, it will make adjustments if the road is particularly bumpy and uneven and it will, with the toggle of a switch, go from off-road to road, two passenger to one passenger, soft to hard in the blink of an eye. Against this, the standard suspension can easily seem a tad old-school within the big adventure bike market, even if the additional £1,800 you’ll need may make your eyes water a tad.
So, for the final part of the day we got to ride the standard bike, and after the barrage of technology and superlatives of the four Africa Twin Adventure Sports bikes, it’s good to be downsizing to the standard bike and more familiar territory. As a base model, the CRF1100L is altogether smaller, slimmer and lighter than its continent munching Adventure Sports siblings, and it’s the one that you really should choose for serious off -roading. The bike has compact rally-style bodywork, a much smaller 18.8-litre fuel tank, a smaller, lighter bash plate, a narrower seat, more compact handguards and, to top it all off , a lovely shorty screen that could have come from a Yamaha TDR250.
All this adds up to a pretty impressive package for off -road fun and to demonstrate the bike’s abilities, the team have laid out an incredibly beautiful off -road route, taking in around 20 miles of wonderful trails that cut through the rugged hills and deep valleys around Casagliana. And, as soon as I set out, all the changes to the bike add up. The revised dimensions of the new Africa Twin make it easier to move around on the bike and get the best out of the motor and the chassis. With the bike in ‘Gravel’ or ‘Off -road’ mode with a tad of traction control, the Africa Twin is a blast. It might make only 101 bhp, but that’s plenty enough to have fun on this bike, and if you opt for the increased adjustability within the ‘User’ mode, you can fine tune the off -road manners of this bike like it’s a Steinway Grand piano. Armed with a set of chunky Continental TKC 80s, the punchy motor, tweaked Showa suspension and uber powerful brakes, the bike skips along the trails and through the gnarled olive trees like an enthusiastic mountain goat, and I’m loving it. From rocky climbs to technical descents, flat-out straights to sweeping bends, the Africa Twin devours the landscape in a shower of roost, and I don’t want the day to end.
With the off -road fun ticked off , we drop down from the hills and reluctantly head back the 20 or so miles towards Olbia in the fading afternoon sun. With the bike still on off -road rubber, it feels a bit risky to hustle along, yet despite the big blocks on the Continentals, the bike is uncannily planted and stable and can be ridden with almost as much enthusiasm as with the Bridgestones. When we arrive back at the hotel, there’s a grin on every single face.
So, the question has to be, does the next generation of the CRF1100L do justice to the brand? Is it still an Africa Twin? In a word – yes. The new bike has the DNA of the original bike running through it like a stick of rock, and the team of engineers have kept the spirit of the Africa Twin alive. OK, so of the two variations the standard bike is perhaps truer to the original bike, but the Adventure Sports is just the natural progression of the bike within today’s adventure bike market. The new technology makes the Africa Twin bang up to date, offers buyers a genuine reason to upgrade and perhaps more importantly, has improved what was already a very good package. The legend lives on.
As a commuter
If you were to choose either of these bikes as a commuter, the sleeker and lighter standard bike would make the best choice and will slice through the traffic with ease. The Adventure Sports would still do the job, but to invest in a bike like this and sentence it to eternal commuter duties would be truly criminal.
As a weekend tourer
Now we’re talking. Whichever of the six versions of the new Africa Twin you choose, they all would make excellent weekend weapons, although arguably if you are talking scorching round the A roads dragging the pegs, the lighter stock bike will do it a tad better. As for the sound track, we’re thinking some classics from The Killers.
As an off-roader
OK, so this risks looking like an early whitewash for the stock bike, but for sure you are going to enjoy getting down and dirty on the lighter and slimmer option than the Adventure Sports, unless maybe you are Chris Birch. With great power and suspension backed up by sensible tech and equipment, this is where the Africa Twin should and does excel.
As a continental road tourer
Now the pendulum swings over to the milemunching Africa Twin Adventure Sports, as although both bikes are eminently suitable for loading on the hard luggage and taking on the continent, the Adventure Sports’ longer range, better weather protection and more generous dimensions gives it the edge for taking on big trips. But Hell, prove us wrong.
As an RTW overlander
Now it’s a score draw between the Africa Twin and the Africa Twin Adventure Sports as both are up to the job of taking on the planet and getting the job done. The Adventure Sports will go further on its bigger tank, but those larger dimensions will make it harder work if you stray away from decent roads or trails. But on either bike, whether you can get that fly-by wire throttle fixed in rural Kazakhstan is another matter.
As a pillion carrier
Your passenger will love you for the comfort and riding position on the back of an Africa Twin no matter which one you buy, and a happy passenger makes for a happy rider. After a while, they’ll probably ask for a top box with a pad to lean on, and then it’s a slippery slope towards matching riding kit and intercom systems.