The adventure-bike market has been growing steadily, even as other segments recede. Year after year, the BMW R1200GS has been the best-selling big bike worldwide. But one company has been notably absent from the fray: Honda. The 2016 CRF1000L Africa Twin is Big Red’s return to that market segment, and it makes a strong statement.

The project started with a two-word design brief: “Go anywhere.” Those words drove decisions throughout the development process. For example, high ground clearance plus reasonable seat height plus mass centralization added up to a parallel twin, since a V-twin would be too long. Continuing that theme, managing the overall size of the bike meant space was at a premium, so the engine uses compact unicam heads like a CRF motocrosser and integrates oil and water pumps with the balance shafts (there are two) inside the engine side covers. Moreover, using a parallel twin gave the bike a narrow waist that makes it easy for the rider to get his feet flat on the ground.

Honda introduced the Africa Twin at a private game reserve in South Africa, where the world’s motorcycling press got the chance to ride for two days—the first primarily on pavement and the second mostly on dirt. Once underway, the bike was immediately easy to ride. The motor is willing and smooth, although with a claimed 94 horsepower and 503-lb. wet weight, acceleration is not fierce. Two-up riders or those who live at high elevation will use everything the Honda has on tap, but otherwise, if this motor won’t get the job done, it’s probably illegal!

Our route followed a mix of meandering sweepers to a tight and technical paved pass, which we happened to ride over during the first rainstorm in months. These mixed conditions—with oil rising up from the pavement—never invited aggressive lean angles. I look forward to someday riding an Africa Twin on clear, dry roads.

As we have come to expect from ADV offerings, the Africa Twin offers ABS and traction control, both of which offer different modes for different conditions. ABS is switchable at the rear wheel only, and while I was at first skeptical, I found the front ABS to be generally unobtrusive on road and off, even over rough ground and loose stones where many ABS systems falter. Traction control has four settings: Off and 1-3. Level 1 is quite sporty, allowing slides and only intervening when things have gotten pretty far along; level 2 will keep the wheels in line but allows some spin; and level 3 is an overprotective nanny. It’s worth noting that both the ABS and TC have physical switches, so there’s no fishing around in electronic menus to select the desired settings.

One feature that stood out is effective air management. The Africa Twin spent a lot of time in a wind tunnel, and for those of us who are accustomed to the buffeting and noisy air of many ADV bikes, that is a blessing. The windscreen provides a nice pocket of still air, to the point that rain drops were collecting on my visor and staying there—I had to stand up and get into moving air for them to disperse.

At the end of the first day we got a chance to ride some dirt roads, and I was immediately impressed by the Honda’s handling. I was struck by how the chassis manages to be stable, thus easy to keep on line, and nimble, ready to turn when desired. Off-road I never experienced headshake or even much tendency to follow ruts, which would seem to indicate slow geometry, but it was also very easy to steer onto a new line. Ordinarily these two qualities are opposed to one another, but the Africa Twin seems to find the best of both worlds.

 

The Africa Twin spent a lot of time in a wind tunnel, and for those of us who are accustomed to the buffeting and noisy air of many ADV bikes, that is a blessing.”

 

Highlighting the importance of this new model, Honda flew in the overall project manager and several key members of the design team to answer questions about the bike. That evening I cornered Tetsuya Kudoh, one of the clearly passionate engineers, to ask about the handling. He explained that there are three critical factors: frame rigidity, geometry, and engine mounting. At slow speeds the biggest force acting on the chassis is the gyroscopic inertia of the engine, so the Africa Twin uses six engine mounts. The geometry (rake, trail, offset, etc.) could therefore be biased toward responsiveness without creating instability, while the steel frame left some flexibility that softens its response to bumps. According to Kudoh-san, a great deal of testing went into this design, and my impression was definitely positive.

 

The next morning we were turned loose on an off-road loop, and while there wasn’t a huge variety of conditions, the bike acquitted itself well. The suspension is adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping both front and rear, and the stock settings were balanced and compliant, without excessive dive or tendency to bottom like other mid-sized ADV bikes. In sand and crossing ruts, it did a great job of absorbing impacts without wallowing. The bike’s narrowness between the rider’s knees makes standing very natural, and another nice feature is ample steering lock (said to be 43 degrees) that allows the bike to navigate tight sections of trail easier. All that said, the bike does not, however, have a racy feel off-road; its weight makes itself apparent, it resists wheelies, and it responds best to smooth inputs.

With the Africa Twin, Honda hasn’t just returned to the adventure-bike class, it has redefined it. Welcome back, Big Red, you’ve been missed!

The 2016 Honda Africa Twin is one of Pete’s Cycle’s hottest new models! Come stop by one of our three locations in Baltimore, Bel Air, and Severna Park, Maryland to have a look!