Africa Twin legend reborn

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MY telephone rang on a cold, wet and windy winter’s day and someone asked if I rode adventure bikes. My answer being yes, the next question was “Would you like to road test a new Honda Africa Twin?”. `Love to’ was my immediate response!

A couple of days later I rode to the Honda workshop at their HART facility on Melbourne’s northern fringe and was introduced to the 2016 incarnation of the legendary Africa Twin.

First appearing as a 650cc V-twin back in 1988, the Africa Twin quickly developed a reputation as a tough and reliable off road motorcycle due, in part, to the success Honda riders had in the Paris-Dakar on a race version of the motorcycle in the late 1980s. The bike still has a cult following and now the legend lives on.

My first impression of the Africa Twin was that it is a fantastic looking motorcycle. Honda offers the bike in three versions:

  • The standard “no frills” model which is best described by what features it doesn’t have. No ABS, no Traction Control, no Centre Stand, no Hand Guards, no Bash Plate with standard clutch and 6 speed transmission;
  • The next version has all the options that are missing from the base model. ABS, Traction Control, Centre Stand, Hand Guards, Bash Plate and the standard/normal transmission;
  • The third model has all of these features as well as the unique Honda Dual Clutch Transmission known as DCT.

The three models come in different paint schemes and the pricing is very competitive. In July 2016 the recommended retail price for the base model is $15,499, increasing to $16,999 for the standard transmission ABS model with the listed extras, and $17,999 for the DTC model, all plus on-road costs.

Our test bike was the standard transmission with ABS model with the classic red, white and blue livery (Honda describes the colour as White/Pearl Spencer Blue) and she stood tall in the workshop waiting for me. I was planning some rides in the bush, and I knew that the roads would be wet and slippery, so I was pleased to see that “my” bike had been fitted with Continental TKC80 tyres, which are a bit more aggressive than the standard Dunlop Trailmax tyres. The bike has 21 inch front and 18 inch rear spoked wheels with tubed tyres. This is a good combination for an adventure bike although some people question the use of tubed tyres. Personally, I grew up with tubed tyres and I am happy to carry a spare tube and tools but tubeless would probably be better!

I was planning some rides in the bush, and I knew that the roads would be wet and slippery, so I was pleased to see that “my” bike had been fitted with Continental TKC80 tyres, which are a bit more aggressive than the standard Dunlop Trailmax tyres.

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Impressed by first impressions

As I rode away from HART I was immediately impressed by the feel of the Africa Twin with its comfortable upright riding position, the wide bars, its excellent manoeuvrability at low speed, and the sweet motor. The engine is a 998cc parallel vertical twin with a 270-degree phased crankshaft which apparently improves the torque and power delivery and produces an almost vee-twin note from the exhaust. But what really matters is that the bike is very smooth with heaps of low-end torque, so it is very easy to ride in traffic, on the highway and in the bush. Honda claim a kerb weight of 232kg for my bike, but it does not feel that heavy, and I was soon heading north on the highway thinking that I should keep riding until I reached Cape York!

However, those first impressions also highlighted a couple of small things that I felt were missing from the bike, the obvious one being heated grips. It was a very cold morning and it had not occurred to me that heated grips would not be standard equipment, and as I was wearing light gloves, my fingers were freezing. Not happy! I was also surprised that the bike did not have self-cancelling indicators and that Honda has swapped the positions of the indicator and horn buttons on the left- hand switch block. Unfortunately, as I got to know the bike, my cold thumb kept sounding the horn rather than switching the indicators on or off.

These are small issues, I know, but I think from a safety perspective that all modern bikes, and particularly adventure bikes, should have heated grips, ABS, and self-cancelling indicators, and I would also throw cruise control into my standard equipment safety list. Honda does offer heated grips as an option but they should be standard.

Screen options desirable

My only other first impression gripe was the screen height. The screen looks nice, but it is not adjustable and it is exactly the wrong height for me! My head was caught in turbulent air behind the screen and the wind noise was excessive, even with moulded ear-plugs. I stopped and lowered the seat height (which is really easy to do without tools), but the wind and noise situation did not improve. If I stood up, or hunched down behind the screen, I could get out of the turbulence, but I could not ride in this position. After I got home I went for a ride with a different helmet but to no avail; the screen was just not right for me and I think that I am sort of average height at about 178cm. This characteristic was only an issue at speeds above 80 kmh, but it was disappointing and took some of the fun out of riding. The next day I went for a ride using my Bose noise-cancelling headphones with music from my iPod, and the situation changed completely. Fantastic improvement! I often use the Bose unit on long highway trips but they shouldn’t be a necessity! Honda (and other after-market companies) offer optional screens with different heights, and this change would be a must for me if I owned an Africa Twin.

On arriving home I had a chance to have a good look at the big twin. It is fair to say that Honda have not really had much success in the growing adventure bike market in Australia, but they have gone to some effort to capture some market share in this sector, and I think that they have done their homework. Apart from looking good, the test Africa Twin has a lot of good features:

  • Excellent finish and attention to detail as you would expect from Honda;
  • Relatively low seat height with two different settings. (870 and 850mm);
  • 18.8 litre fuel tank which is relatively narrow so the seat height feels lower;
  • Comprehensive dash display and trip computer;
  • Excellent LED head lights;
  • Fully adjustable Showa suspension front and rear;
  • Easy to use side stand;
  • Luggage rack;
  • A small tool kit, although I was amazed to find that the tool kit does not includes a spanner for the axle nuts;
  • Four step traction control that is easily switchable on the move;
  • ABS brakes were the rear ABS, and can be manually switched off, but only when stationary;
  • Solid and easy to use centre stand although this is an optional extra on the base model;
  • 24 months warranty.

As I rode away from HART I was immediately impressed by the feel of the Africa Twin with its comfortable upright riding position, the wide bars, its excellent manoeuvrability at low speed, and the sweet motor.

Time for a ride! After several days of rain and snow when all I could do was look at the bike in my shed, the winter weather finally cleared so I could go for a ride. Back on the bike I immediately felt relaxed and at home. It is fair to say that the Africa Twin hides it weight well. As soon as you are moving it feels like a lightweight, and it is very easy to ride in traffic and on the highway, but the fun really begins in the “twisties”. The bike is easy to flick through the corners, the gear box is light and positive and the brakes are strong and progressive. Coupled with good long-travel suspension the bike soaks up the bumps and is a joy to ride.

In power terms the big twin puts out less power than some other bikes in the sector, but with the smooth motor and the combination of torque and power I did not feel that the bike lacked power in any normal riding. The engine pulls out of corners well, has heaps of roll-on power for passing, and if you use the gear box and higher revs you could lose your licence in Victoria very easily. The speedo is digital, big and easy to read, but the same cannot be said for all of the instrumentation. I consider the bar-graph tachometer to be useless, but you do not really need a tachometer on a bike like this anyway. Of more concern is that the lower parts of the display/trip computer were very difficult to read unless they were in direct sunlight. Two thumb switches are used to scroll and select information on the display and trip computer, but I found them difficult to read and you needed to take your concentration off the road when trying to focus on the display. I have spoken to several Africa Twin owners who share my opinion.

Time to play dirty

But enough of the bitumen riding, I was anxious to see how the Africa twin performed on the dirt. I had the opportunity to ride the Twin on a variety of dirt roads, 4WD tracks, some single track and on some wet grassy paddocks. While the Twin excels off the bitumen, it is fair to say that single track is not really her forte. On the dirt, the low centre of gravity and supple suspension means that the bike feels stable and planted in most conditions. Why most? I did ride on a couple of very slippery tracks where I felt that the front end was vague and lacked feed-back and it was a bit unnerving. I didn’t want to scratch the lovely new bike and fortunately I didn’t!

The rest of the time on the dirt the bike was a hoot. The traction control works very well but the default setting is much too sensitive for riding away from the bitumen. It will cut in on potholes and bumps and that is not what you want. A small lever on the left-hand switch block switches the traction control between 3 active settings, or if you hold the lever in, the traction control is switched off. A flick of the switch and it is on again. All this can be done whilst you are moving or stationary. When you switch off the ignition, the traction control resets to the maximum setting. For most of the time in the dirt I used one of the two low settings which will allow the rear wheel to spin up a bit and allow the rear to step out, but it will not let you “over do it”. This is quite reassuring once you gain confidence in the system. I also took the bike out on wet grass to see what happened with no traction! In this situation the system can be challenged to the point that with excessive wheel spin it is possible to stall the motor. This means if you get bogged, you need to switch the traction control off!

The brakes worked well in the dirt and the ABS on the rear brakes can be switched off, but only when the bike is stationary. I found that the rear ABS was too sensitive on dirt so I rode with it off all the time. The ABS will default to On if the ignition is switched off so you need to remember to switch it off again before you get moving. You need to brake fairly hard to activate the front ABS, even in the dirt, and regardless, the bike pulls up nicely.

The suspension worked well in the dirt and I did not feel the need to make any adjustments, but for different riders the suspension is fully adjustable with preload, compression and rebound damping adjustment on both front and rear. The rear preload is adjustable with a large knob, so making changes for riding with luggage or with a pillion is really easy. On one dirt road I came across a bad section of potholes at what could best be described as excessive speed! I quickly stood up and opened the throttle and the bike skipped across the very rough section of track without a hint of head shake or concern. Very nice.

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The suspension worked well in the dirt and I did not feel the need to make any adjustments, but for different riders the suspension is fully adjustable with preload, compression and rebound damping adjustment on both front and rear.

Not quite perfect pegs

The riding position of the Africa Twin is good for sitting or standing up and there seems to be plenty of room for taller riders. The only negative comment I have to make here is that the foot pegs seem to be very short and small. They have removable rubber inserts, and although I did not have any problem with my boots slipping off the pegs, I would like them to be 20 -30 mm longer. When you stand up on an adventure bike it is often because the track is rough and I like to grip the tank with my knees. The small problem with the Africa Twin is that the relative position of the foot pegs, frame and tank means that your left foot needs to be towards the outside of the foot peg to grip the tank. It would be nice to have more peg under your foot at this point!

I found the fun factor increased in the bush if I upped the revs in lower gears to keep the sweet twin cylinder engine humming. The wide handlebars, light steering, good suspension and great brakes mean that the bike will move quickly enough to get you into trouble if you are unwary. One thing that the Africa Twin will not do easily is to loft the front wheel to get over a small log or deep pothole. Firstly, the traction control setting needs be set at Off, or at least in the Low setting and then a lot of effort needs to go into getting the wheel in the air. It’s better to just slow down a bit and take it easy! But, if you happen to be a wheelie junkie then you will find the bike is well balanced and easy to control when you get the wheel in the air….

Fuel to go the distance

It is good to see that Honda has given the Africa Twin a reasonable capacity fuel tank that holds almost 19 litres. My ride was in varying conditions and road types and I did not get a good feel for fuel economy but I would expect to use between 4 and 5 litres per 100 kms. This will result in a range of over 400 kms which is adequate for most adventure riding areas.

Honda has a range of neat accessories for the Africa Twin, these can be viewed on their dedicated Africa Twin web site. In my opinion, some of these accessories should be standard equipment but that is another story!

The weather was still cold and wet when I returned the Africa Twin to Honda and it was with some reluctance that I handed back the keys. I had really enjoyed riding the Honda and I would love to take the DCT version for a blast, but we will save that for another day. I have spoken to a number of owners of the new Africa Twins and they are all very happy with their bikes and I expect to see some of them out on adventure rides in the future

Many thanks to Peter Baulch (NatCom Motorcycle Liaison), for organising the bike, and to Glyn Griffiths and Greg Snart at Honda for their co-operation and assistance and for letting me have fun on a very nice motorcycle.

FOOTNOTE: A couple of days after handing it back, I was out pedalling my push bike and I thought of four things I should have mentioned in my report on the Africa Twin.

1. It might not have self-cancelling indicators, but it does have really big and easy to see indicator lights on the dash.

2  The centre stand is strong and easy to use and a is "must have" on an Adventure bike. It is optional on the base model and standard on ABS and DTC models.

3 The bike I had has the biggest emergency flasher switch ever!!!  I think that this is where the sexy "G switch" is located on the DTC model.

4 The manual is found in a plastic bag under the seat. This manual can be a bit confusing because it covers all models and it is also fairly basic. For example, it does not really explain what the G switch does if you happen to have a DCT.

Report and photos by Peter Maguire, #9832

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Africa Twin legend reborn

time to read: 12 min