2016 Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin – ROAD TEST
Adventure-bike fans who also like Japanese motorcycles have had it a little tough over the past decade. While there have been some very fine offerings in the form of the well-balanced but more street-oriented Yamaha Super Ténéré, street-focused Suzuki V-Stroms, and bullet-proof-but-basic Kawasaki KLR650, Japan has lacked a hard-core, liter-class, go-anywhere adventure bike.
During that time, the adventure-touring class exploded, matured, and joined the electronic revolution, and the Europeans were the ones kicking butt and taking names…and market share.
The CRF1000L Africa Twin is Honda’s long-awaited entry into the class. It enters an ADV market that has largely evolved into big-bore touring machines that are surprisingly good off the asphalt but which are also undeniably large and heavy. The flagship bikes from BMW, Ducati, KTM, Triumph, and Yamaha all displace right around 1,200cc, and most have claimed weights closer to 600 pounds (except for the 500-pound-dry KTM), while Honda has opted for a 999cc twin and hit a CW-measured dry weight of 485 pounds. On paper, that implies that the Africa Twin might be a pretty good dance partner.
The bike has a narrow waist and positions the rider down in the bike instead of perched on top of it.
And it is. One of the first impressions after throwing a leg over the Africa Twin is that it feels more akin to middleweight ADVs like the BMW F800GS or Triumph Tiger 800 XCx. The bike has a narrow waist and positions the rider down in the bike instead of perched on top of it. The saddle provides good comfort with plenty of support but also nice padding for long riding days. In its standard position, seat height is 34.3 inches, but it can be lowered to 33.5 by simply sliding the saddle into different mounting slots. The tall tapered handlebar provides good comfort on road and is also well positioned for standing when riding off highway. The footpegs come with removable rubber inserts, which flex enough that when standing off road our boots made okay contact with the peg’s teeth, but we’d remove them in rainy or wet conditions. Wind protection is good but not excellent from the nonadjustable screen; there is a tiny bit of buffeting at times with billed ADV-style helmets but nothing too annoying.
One of the strongest impressions made by the Africa Twin is the chassis’ stability, both on road and off. On-road steering definitely requires a bit more effort at the bars than some other bikes in the class, but the Honda’s midcorner behavior is totally trustworthy. Add in an uncanny poise while trail braking into corners and you end up with a very confidence-inspiring back-road partner. Get in a little hot, give the brakes a gentle squeeze, and the front end is completely unfazed by the input, holding its line and refusing to stand up or do anything unexpected.
Plush suspension offers a very comfortable road ride, sucking up imperfections easily and yet resisting bottoming even when hucking it off asphalt waterbars. For pure street duty, firming up the fully adjustable suspension damping is well worth the added control. Off road, a plusher setup was actually quite nice for fast fire roads that were pockmarked with ruts, potholes, and square-edged bumps. It’s here that the bike’s stiff front end and super-stable chassis are appreciated. Hitting an unseen obstacle in the road doesn’t cause the Africa Twin to get bounced out of shape; it just tracks along on your intended path. We set the suspension in the middle of the range so that it would feel good both on and off road.Chassis stability benefits extend to the bike’s reaction to on-throttle dirt slides (with TC off). The Honda smoothly hangs out its rear end without ever surprising you, allowing the rider to steer with the rear in a most effective manner. It isn’t as lively and quick to change direction as, say, KTM’s 1190 Adventure, which is a far easier bike to get sideways and on full lock, but the predictability of the Honda will be appreciated by most riders. Of course, the super-tractable engine helps in this regard too, offering excellent power delivery from anywhere in the rev range without any dips or spikes in the torque curve.
Although the 999cc parallel twin didn’t punish our dyno’s drum with raw anger, the Africa Twin’s measured 82.5 hp and 67 pound-feet of peak torque are delivered in a perfectly linear manner. From just past 2,000 rpm, the twin makes 50 pound-feet and stays above that threshold until the rev limiter ends the party just past 8,000 rpm. Flick the throttle wide open in a tall gear below 2,000 rpm and the engine cleanly chugs on up to higher revs with little drama. The engine’s tractable power combined with excellent fueling makes it very easy to ride off road and helps the rider to avoid abusing the light-pull clutch.Like the engine, the six-speed manual gearbox (DCT is an option, see sidebar) is tight and precise. Gearing was optimal for fire-road exploring, with first gear only necessary to get rolling or when navigating rocks and roots at low speeds. On road at cruising speed, the engine is smooth, its twin balancer shafts doing a great job of keeping vibes to a minimum with just a bit felt through the handlebar and footpegs.Unlike the competition from BMW, Ducati, KTM, and Triumph, the Honda has fewer electronic rider aids and a far simpler interface than the typical huge menus supplied by other manufacturers. The four-level Honda Selectable Torque Control (HSTC)—traction control to you and me—is excellent. It has three levels of intervention and an Off setting, of which all four settings can be toggled through on the fly (even KTM doesn’t allow its TC to be adjusted on the trot) with your left index finger on a trigger on the front of the switch pod. On road, we left it in a fairly conservative setting as the ADV-oriented tires aren’t exactly gumball sticky. But off road, we preferred to shut if off completely or set to a minimum to keep it from cutting power (and therefore drive) too aggressively. Although for this test we stuck with the stock Dunlop Trailmax tires, a set of knobby ADV tires would do this bike wonders off road.Another area where Honda kept it simple is the ABS system. Want to shut off ABS to the rear wheel? Simply hold the giant button on the dash for a few seconds and you are good to go. No navigating menus and clicking through double fail-safes. Thank you, Honda! Braking performance was quite good on road and off, with the twin radial-mount four-piston calipers and 310mm front discs providing short stopping distances on the asphalt, while the ABS worked quite well to help get the bike stopped on loose surfaces with no drama.Every manufacturer in the adventure-bike market works within the range of compromise that a liter-plus, long-travel, long-distance motorcycle can present. Many bike makers have erred on the side of big, comfortable 1,200cc-class machines with a lot of power and loaded with features. What the Africa Twin does is hit a very specific sweet spot on the ADV spectrum that, in a very technically proficient and thoughtfully restrained Honda manner, has a very strong focus on balance and providing just enough to result in a broadly capable machine that will make it easy and enjoyable for a wide spectrum of riders to truly venture farther off the beaten path—and make it back again. Honda has built a machine that is worthy of the Africa Twin name, done so at a sensible price, and built it with the refinement, fit, and finish that we expect from the company. Welcome back to the ADV world, Honda. We’ve been waiting for you to show up again!