Julian Challis travels to Spain for the press launch of Honda’s new touring bike that’s based on an Africa Twin
I’m sat in a hotel bar with a guy called Masatsugu Tanaka, chatting about the bikes in our garages back home. Having recounted my own collection of machines, Masatsugu reels off his own fleet starting with his Africa Twin and an Africa Twin Adventure Sports.
Then there’s his VFR1200F and VFR800, a Monkey bike and, perhaps the joker in the pack, an Aprilia RS250.
It’s an impressive list that would score well in any game of Top Trumps. But of course, you would expect that because Tanaka San is a test project leader at Honda, a company he has worked for since joining the research and development team way back in 1997.
In that time, he’s worked on everything from the Hornet 250 to the CBR1000RR Fireblade with the firm’s performance and aerodynamics team, before becoming a test project leader on the VFR range in 2010. In 2015, he moved onto the Crossrunner followed by the Crosstourer a year later. And then, in 2018 the NC750 and the quirky off-road scooter, the X-ADV.
But for ABR readers it’s his more recent work that you may be more familiar with. Because since 2018, Masatsugu has been the test project leader for the Africa Twin. He has taken the bike through the transition from the original 1000cc machine that marked the return of the legendary motorcycle in 2016, into the 2020 iteration, the truly exceptional CRF1100L and its siblings, the Africa Twin Adventure Sports.
So why is this important? Well, firstly it’s to quantify the depth of experience of Masatsugu and his team of engineers and project leaders at Honda, and secondly to understand why the new NT1100 exists at all. Because while working on the next generation machine back in 2018, the Africa Twin Team realised the potential of the platform beyond the adventure bike market. If you had already created a beautifully tractable and enjoyable motor, if you had already designed a superbly balanced and agile frame, then why stop there? Little surprise that Tanaka San’s next project was the NT1100.
So, for the bike’s launch, Honda headed to Spain, doubtless counting on the late autumn sunshine to provide a suitably evocative canvas for its new machine. Spain clearly had not got the memo, rewarding the UK contingent of the European press with distinctly grey and brooding skies on the morning of our test ride, a bitter irony considering the fine weather we had left behind back in Blighty.
Displayed in perfect formation on the esplanade outside the hotel, a small fleet of NT1100s are waiting for us, resplendent in the three colour options of Graphite Black, Matt Iridium Gray, and Pearl Glare White. I’ve been allocated a white one, and to be honest, I’m a bit disappointed as it’s my least favourite compared to the sexy grey and black versions. My bike’s white flanks and fairing looking a bit more CHiPS than I’m entirely happy with.
Close up the bike is everything you’d hope for in a Honda. Immaculate detailing, smooth lines, and seamless engineering make the bike feel every bit the high-end sports tourer. The look of the front of the fairing is likely to divide opinion however, the pointy nose and slit headlights being quite a bold design in what can be quite a conservative sector.
In fact, the NT’s face is almost identical to the X-ADV, a fact that seems curious until you find out that the funky adventure scooter is one of Honda’s best-selling machines, and that both bikes share the same designer.
The NT1100 has a large screen as you would expect for a bike intended to cover big distances, but what is less welcome and a bit awkward is the fact that two hands are needed to adjust it.
The rest of the bike’s bodywork is sleek and well-proportioned. The rear of the machine has been made to look bulkier than a naked machine thanks to the generously dimensioned, detachable, and colour matched panniers that come as standard on the bike. It’s great that Honda has included proper luggage in the price of the NT1100 rather than expecting new owners to reach for the accessories catalogue, and we’d love to see other manufacturers doing the same.
With the cosmetics suitably judged, it’s time to see how the bike feels from the rider’s perspective and straightaway it’s a happy place to be. At its most basic, the NT1100 is an Africa Twin with 17” wheels at both ends, and that’s pretty much what it feels like. The seat and rear of the 20l tank are narrow in profile thanks to that slimline Africa Twin frame.
The reach to the wide-set, rubber-mounted bars feels very natural, and the seating position is canted forwards by some 10 degrees compared to the Africa Twin to aid control. And the seat? Well, there’s a full 74mm of padding in there. And with an 820mm seat height, the bike is a long way from the basketball player dimensions needed to flat foot the early Adventure Sports models.
As for the rest of the cockpit, then it’s a case of same-same with the NT1100 as it is for its adventurous brother. There’s a 6.6” TFT screen sitting above a secondary smaller LCD display that indicates speed and gear, with three different levels of information selectable.
This takes us to the one area that we would gladly not have seen carried over from the Africa Twin, the left-hand switchgear which is arguably the most cluttered in the motorcycle world. The 15 or so buttons and knobs compete for your attention even when you are just trying to indicate. As an owner, you would get used to it, but as an occasional rider, I’m not a fan of Honda’s left bar controls layout.
Leaving exploring the myriad of options available on-screen for later on, it’s time to set off for a day’s riding, and a prod of the starter brings the familiar thrum of that 1084cc, eight-valve, twin engine. The motor is almost identical to that on the Africa Twin save for a lengthened air intake and slight changes to the fuel injection which give the bike a smoother ride, and what Honda refers to as a ‘relaxed engine note’ from the NT’s redesigned end can.
The changes add up nicely and, as we cut through the morning traffic in Calafell, the bike is every bit as enjoyable as an Africa Twin as I flick through the small streets with the minimum of effort.
The bikes we’re riding are all DCT models, reflecting both Honda’s confidence in their automatic/semi-automatic gearing system and the fact that, on models that have the option, around half of buyers choose a DCT bike over a manual machine. There’s £1,000 difference between the two versions and although I’d have liked the option to try both, Honda decided not to put that on the table today.
Our route takes us swiftly out of town and up towards a motorway heading west, and with the gearbox in the somewhat relaxed Drive mode, I’m soon in top gear and accelerating up to speed with the commuters. The bike’s effortless but relatively modest 100bhp and 104Nm of torque is a joy to use, the 270-degree crank giving that familiar feel that Africa Twin owners will know well.
If you do want some more urgency in your ride, changing the DCT system into Sport mode holds the gears for longer between changes on the way up and changes down earlier on the way down. Or you can just flip to manual mode, with gear changes then controlled by the paddle shifts on the left side, using you thumb to change up or index finger to change down. Jeez, are you following all this? Give me a gear lever any day.
Leaving the gearbox to itself, I get on with enjoying the bike for the next 20 miles. The seat is unfeasibly comfortable, the riding position wonderfully neutral, and with the screen at its tallest, I’m cosseted in a calm bubble as the NT1100 propels me through the Spanish landscape.
The little wind deflectors do a great job of taking the cool morning blast away from my hands, although somewhat distractingly, the day running lights of the LED indicators reflect off them to give two constant orange glows in your peripheral vision. If I owned this bike, I’d be tempted to spray them matt black on day one.
After half an hour, we turn right off the highway, passing through the village of Les Borges del Camp, and head north on smaller twisty roads towards the Prades Mountains. Although the bike shares much of its hardware with the Africa Twin, when it comes to the tech, Honda has kept to a less is more approach with the NT1100.
The new sport tourer has no Bosch IMU unit to monitor just about every aspect of progress, meaning there’s no cornering ABS, no cornering traction control, and a whole lot less to adjust as you ride.
What you do have is three riding modes: Tour, Urban and Rain. Each has decreasing amounts of power and increasing levels of engine braking to cope with varying road conditions.
There’s also three levels of traction control and wheelie control. Although, if you really want to hang out the back out in corners, you may well have chosen the wrong bike.
The additions that are likely to be of more interest to buyers are the host of touring friendly options. So that would be the five-stage heated grips, cruise control, the piercing LED headlight, and the day running lights that automatically switch to low beam in low light situations like Alpine tunnels or British rainstorms.
Or maybe the self-cancelling indicators, or the emergency braking technology that repeatedly flashes the indicators if you do have to reach for the anchors at short notice. And then there’s the centre stand, the USB and accessory socket, the iPhone or Android connectivity, the list goes on. When all these come as standard, the NT1100 really adds up to a great touring offering.
After a relaxing stop for coffee in the beautiful and peaceful village of La Morera de Montsant, we continue north as we climb higher, the roads getting more and more challenging with a glorious combination of sinuous climbs interspersed with short fast straights.
The NT is lapping it up. With a combination of the punchy twin motor and the lightweight double-cradle frame with its bolt-on aluminium subframe, the bike rises to the challenge whatever the enthusiasm of the rider. If you do want to get a wiggle on, it does feel much easier to swap to manual mode, the DCT system’s sometimes unexpected gearchanges are prone to catch you out far more than selecting gears yourself.
In terms of stability, the swap to those 17” alloy wheels at both ends rather than the 21/18 combination of the Africa Twin means that the NT1100 feels positively glued to the road, the Metzeler Roadtec tyres refusing to give even a hint of indecision even on wet roads high in the mountains.
Similarly, the dual 310mm discs and four-pot Nissin radially mounted front callipers up front, and the single 256mm rear disc and single-piston have the braking locked down, and the remainder of the morning passes quickly on the deserted mountain roads.
Following lunch, it’s time to head back to the coast on faster and more flowing roads. And now, having decided I much prefer the paddle shift option, I’m having a blast. The lively yet predictable handling is making the Honda a pleasure to ride. Of course, one criticism the bike will face is the relatively unsophisticated suspension set up.
The NT runs 43mm USD forks adjustable for preload, whereas at the rear there’s a centrally mounted, Showa shock absorber with a hydraulic preload adjuster. And OK, it’s far removed from the electronic systems of some top-end adventure bikes, but the simple fact is that, in a whole day of riding, I didn’t once feel the suspension needed to be any more than it is. I have no desire to endlessly adjust the suspension on my own bikes, and I didn’t on the NT. It was just right from the off.
As we sweep our way back towards our hotel, I’m left with the overwhelming impression of just how accomplished the NT1100 is as an all-round package. Yes, in terms of other sport-tourers, it’s not the most powerful but yet neither is the Africa Twin in the adventure market and that has done little to dampen its popularity.
And OK, it doesn’t have shaft drive or fancy electronic suspension, but if it did, it would be far more expensive and, perhaps more importantly, lack the charm and joy of the bike from which it is derived. If you prefer your adventures on the blacktop and you want a bike that covers huge distances effortlessly from morning to night, then the NT1100 ticks all those boxes and more.
Well done Tanaka San.
Update 2/9/22: Watch the Adventure Bike Rider Honda NT1100 Video Review
After Julian attended the launch of the Honda NT1100 in Barcelona, ABR were given one of the bikes as a long-term loaner to see how we get on with it over the course of a year. This video review will give you a great idea of whether the NT1100 is the bike for you.