Going back to Africa. Twin.
Here’s a trivia question for you. Who makes…
Electric crotch-rockets that’ll rip the arms off wannabe boy-racers.
Run-of-the-mill lawnmowers (or should I say, “garden variety”?)
A robot dude.
Totally awesome private passenger jets.
Did you guess “Honda”? I bet you did.
But, who creates all that…plus a time machine?
Yep: Honda again.
They call it the 2017 CRF1000L Africa Twin.
Set the dial to 1986…
In 1986, Honda developed the NXR750 Africa Twin and kicked ASS in the Paris-Dakar for four years. Then they pumped out thousands of units of two successive production models between 1988 and 2003. And Soichiro Honda nodded, and proclaimed it good.
But production halted, and then the people did lament. In response, Honda produced the XR650L…and then the people did lament. To be honest, they lamented pretty loudly.
Enter the XR650R, multiple Baja champion. Joy returned to the people, but Honda forgot the electric start and the street registration. Still the people were joyful. But Honda inexplicably halted production in 2008.
It was a crisis of Biblical proportions…so Honda built a time machine: the CRF1000L Africa Twin.
And they’ve been preaching to the adventure crowd for a couple years already, proclaiming this bike the second coming of the legendary twin-cylinder competitor from last century. Honda has high hopes for this bike: it’s the iconic, “halo” product for their underwhelming adventure range. (Oops…did I say “underwhelming” out loud?)
So I rode one.
The DCT version I saddled up boasts a pair of electronically-controlled clutches. That means it can shift gears automatically – but it’s not actually an automatic. It just doesn’t need any help from your clutch hand or your left foot.
One clutch operates 1, 3rd and 5th gears; the other manages 2nd, 4th and 6th. When first gear is spinning your wheel, second is actually spinning as well – but its clutch is disengaged. When you let the bike shift – or when you choose the Manual option and flick the finger paddle on the left handlebar pod – the second clutch engages, clicking the bike into second gear in a fraction of the time you could do the same. It also spins up third gear, ready to go for the next upshift. It’s pretty slick. And pretty darn smooth.
The redundant clutch lever on the left handlebar now serves as a parking brake – wisely set too far forward for your instinctive clutch-grab. The left foot peg is lonely: there’s nothing there for your toe to do – although mine kept spontaneously twitching every time a gear shift was in order. Surprisingly, my left hand made no errant grasping motions, although I thought it well-trained to do so with every gear change.
In the “automatic” Drive mode, a Sport switch toggles three settings, which simply change the RPMs at which a shift will be triggered. The most aggressive setting delayed shifts until the litre-displacement twin was into a pretty meaty band of power. In any setting, however, Manual, Drive, Sport 1, 2 or 3, the engine is linear and smooth. Power delivery was predictable and controllable — a critical attribute for a 94 horsepower motorcycle on a loose surface.
But since, you know…computers, you can also fire up the Traction Control. Similar to the Sport toggle, TC has three levels. With the babysitter on duty, the blocky Continental TCK80 out back refused to spin at all, even on the dry hard-pack and loose gravel of the fire road I was riding. A stuttering engine note, precisely like that of a rev limiter on a manual transmission car, alerts the rider to what’s happening back there.
Of course, “the rider” would rather have control of what’s happening back there, so I switched TC off. Ahh, that’s more like it! With the engine’s silky twin character, breaking the rear loose under throttle was easy and controllable, sending the pleasantly agile chassis into a power slide and a composed corner exit.
There’s also a vaguely-defined button on the dash, labelled “G” for “gravel.” It apparently shifts with less slippage and offers a more cohesive “feeling.” Yeah: I just stayed away from that button….
ABS is pretty much standard on everything these days except a Chinese knock-off of a Japanese copy of a Vespa. Thankfully, whoever decided to kill the XR650R wasn’t in charge of the Africa Twin design brief, so you can at least shut off the rear ABS – though the front cannot be disengaged. This electronic nanny was less intrusive, and more welcome, than the Traction Control.
Power is ample – seriously, nobody really needs 100 horsepower from what is ostensibly a dirt-oriented adventure bike. Ironically, it doesn’t feel fast, since the computer-controlled systems are so drama-free. That is, until you look down at the instruments and discover that you’re schlepping along at about twice the speed you thought you were. I guess that’s both good and bad….
Although the elaborate DCT drive system and associated computerized gee-gaws receive the most attention, the chassis is actually where this liter-sized dirt bike shines. Although it weighs a somewhat portly 242 kg (534 pounds) with about 18 litres of fuel onboard, it doesn’t feel like it. (The standard, non-DCT model sheds about 23 pounds.)
The red, white and black “Rally” model I tested carried its weight low and centrally; narrowed significantly at the waist; and dipped low enough at the adjustable seat (33.5 to 34.3 inches) that even a first-time pilot feels quickly confident. Subjectively, braking and suspension perform well; the fork and shock travel don’t quite reach 9 inches, but effectively soaked up most of the ruts and holes I aimed at.
I did, however, dial it up on a rougher section of forest road, and was sadly disappointed for my efforts. Taking some big hits at speeds I normally ride my Husqvarna TE610 resulted in some pretty harsh bottoming of the shock; the fork too, actually, if I failed to torque up the front end with the throttle and a pull on the handlebars.
The suspension is adjustable for spring preload, as well as compression and rebound damping at both ends, but I wasn’t invited to meddle with these settings, so I’m not sure whether I could have found a sweeter-spot for aggressive riding. I’ve heard rumblings that the price a knowledgeable suspension tuner would charge to hand you a real off-road performer would amount to a significant percentage of the bike’s purchase price. I suspect suspension limitations will prove the biggest challenge to Honda’s time machine.
But it’s all relative. If you’ve been riding an uber Adventure bike like the BMW R 1200 GS Adventure (at 263 kg, or 580 pounds, fuelled up, 2017 model), I think you’re going to feel like the Africa Twin is a flickable dirt bike. Coming from a TE610 that weighs in at 141 kg (310 pounds), I found the Africa Twin a bit ponderous, and a bit out of its element under hard throttle in rough conditions.
It’s all a compromise, too, in the world of adventure motorcycles. And the time machine bets its success on occupying a discernible gap in the existing ADV offerings: it’s a bit lighter than most big ADV bikes; a good bit more at ease on the slab than most dual-sports; and a more competent performer off-road than many bikes in either segment.
It’s good. Then again, the original Africa Twin might have been great….
2017 CRF1000L Africa Twin DCT Rally: $16,199 MSRP (CDN)