Review: Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin DCT

Very few motorcycles have such a legendary ring to them as the Honda Africa Twin. The first model dates from 1988 and was derived from the NXR-750 which took eight Dakar Rally podiums in the 80’s. In 2003 the Africa Twin story came to an end, but on the second-hand market the model remained popular.

In 2014 rumors said the Africa Twin legend would be revived, and the expectations were set high. Maybe too high? Time to find out. Here’s our review of the Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin.

The Africa Twin’s slender built and high nose refer to its famed predecessors. If you pick the tricolor paintjob, the reference is even more highlighted. The classic double round headlights had to make room for a more aggressive design though, quite a bummer.

With its 1000 cc 95 hp engine, it’s clear the Africa Twin doesn’t want to compete against stronger and heavier adventure bikes like the BMW 1200 GS or the KTM 1190 Adventure. The electronics package is also on the light side: as a standard the 2017 model has ABS which can be switched off on the rear wheel. A three-level, disengageable traction control is also standard. And that’s it.

For a bike that appears to be designed as a world traveller, you would at least expect a centerstand and 12v socket. Yet you have to go to the option list for those. Ditto for heated grips. Cruise control is even missing on the option list.

Its manoeuvrability is something that stands out as soon as you start riding the CRF1000L. Honda’s clever placement of the heavier parts enhances the weight distribution, making it simple to get the Africa Twin in the desired lean angle and facilitating difficult off-road sections.

The long saddle offers two heights (33.5 and 34.3 inches) and plenty of room to move around during long journeys. Combined with the well-placed handlebars, this ensures good ergonomics. The standard setting of the suspension is comfortable, although you’ll lack some feedback and stability when riding faster. Luckily it’s fully adjustable.

The high front gives a good protection against wind and weather. Which was much needed during my week’s test in early November: I barely saw a mile of dry asphalt. Too bad that the windshield isn’t adjustable.

The finishing lacks some refinement although the design is well taken care of. Just have a look at the LED direction indicators that also act as daytime running lights, or the anchor points for the optional panniers that are nicely integrated.

Automatic

My testbike was equipped with the (optional) Dual Clutch Transmission, or “automatic” as most humans call it. The Africa Twin is not the first model Honda equips with a DCT. You won’t find a clutch lever nor will your left foot find a gear shift lever. Yet I got used to this very quickly. Only in more difficult situations, for example when emergency braking, my reflexes made me grab for the (absent) clutch to shift down quickly.

With a button on the right side of the handlebars you can set the DCT: N, D or S. N stands for neutral, D is the standard mode and S is the most sporty setting. Let’s be clear: D actually stands for dull. The automatic gearbox shifts up way too early, often already at about 1,700 rpm. Which means that many times you’ll reach the sixth gear before you even ride 40 mph. Yanking the throttle won’t make the DCT shift down quickly. Nope, it shifts down in a very laid-back manner.

The D mode may be economical, still I wonder why Honda decided to make the standard shifting mode so tame. Fortunately, the S mode makes up for it. It has three settings: 1, 2 or 3. The higher the number, the higher you can rev the parallel twin. And the hesitating downshift behaviour is also gone in the S mode. Pffew!

You might think that the S mode is too sporty in heavy rain, but if you pick the S1 mode the throttle response certainly isn’t too aggressive. And with the right level of traction control (three levels to choose from), there isn’t anything to worry about. During heavy showers I chose level 3, which intervenes the fastest. In the course of 400 wet miles the traction control regularly proved to be a necessity to keep the rear wheel from spinning.

So the S mode is the go-to mode? Probably yes, but it isn’t perfect either. It offers a lot more fun than the D mode but the big disadvantage of the DCT is that it lacks a pair of eyes. It won’t anticipate the circumstances in front of you. Are you slowing down for a corner for which normally you’d switch down to enter the corner in the right gear? The DCT will often only switch down when you open the throttle to exit the corner.

On the other hand the DCT offers a lot of comfort when riding a route that demands a lot of gear-shifting. For example in busy city traffic. But it doesn’t see what’s coming and that’s the major downside of this technology. I can imagine you get used to it after a while but for me 400 miles definitely wasn’t enough.

With its 95 hp and 98 Nm you surely need to know the Africa Twin’s sweet spot if you like sporty riding. Low rpm’s provide little excitement. Only from about 6000 rpm the Honda really gets dynamic. The high windshield reduces the feeling of speed but the average adventure rider of course doesn’t buy an Africa Twin to race. In fact the bike comes up with a good compromise between weight and dynamics for the typical adventurer.

The stock exhaust has a nice, raw rolling sound and there’s not much to tell about the brakes: they do what you expect them to do.

Manual

I shouldn’t forget to tell you the left side of the handlebars has a plus and minus button which allows you to shift up and down manually. Which comes in pretty handy, for example when you know the bike won’t switch down for a sharp turn and you prefer to enter it in a lower gear. Just press the minus button and there you go. So although the bike won’t anticipate on a nearing turn, you can intercept manually. The same story as a few paragraphs earlier goes: I can imagine you get used to using the gearbox like this after a while, but for me 400 miles definitely wasn’t enough.

There’s also the possibility to ride fully manually. If you switch the button on the right side of the handlebars from A to M, you must switch gears yourself, using the plus and minus button on the left. Not quite the same as a regular manual gearbox, but on the DCT Africa Twin this is as close as it gets.

No clutch lever doesn’t mean that there is no handle at all on the left end of the handlebars. On the DCT equipped Honda you’ll find a parking brake. Because as soon as you switch off the Africa Twin, the DCT goes into the neutral gear. If you park on a slope, that might be a problem. Hence the parking brake.

The parking brake on the test bike was damaged: the end was bent upwards. Caused by an off-road crash of a previous test rider. Other consequences of that crash were the scratched left hand guard and a broken right hand guard which had been repaired with tape. No biggie to be honest. Those things happen when riding off-road.

However, the wear the bike showed after 7.500 miles is less “no biggie”. The paint on the bar ends was already fading and there was some slack on the right handle bar controls. This might be caused by that off-road crash, but there’s more: during the last 100 miles the set button was blocked. You need that button to scroll through the information on the dashboard. Could this be caused by an hour’s ride through heavy rain? I’m not sure, but what I did find out after a Google search is that I’m not the only one with this issue. Just search for “africa twin sticky button”. These issues raise some serious questions about the reliability of certain parts. Although you shouldn’t forget that this is a completely new model and it’s not easy to avoid teething troubles.

Off-road

The Dunlop Trailsmart tires (stock choice for the Africa Twin) clearly showed their mileage and gave little confidence on wet asphalt. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started looking for some off-road.

Before riding that off-road stretch, I pressed the G-button (with the G of gravel), disengaged the ABS on the rear tire, switched the traction control off, selected the S1 mode and off I went. Standing upright on the footpegs feels natural, although risers would improve the posture.

Despite the street tires, the Africa Twin appeared easily manageable. The maneuverability and the good balance of the bike aided a lot. The Africa Twin felt light and even energetic, which was less noticeable on the asphalt. Off-road u-turns are a bit troublesome with the DCT: the throttle response is sometimes just too slow, which means slow maneuvering might cause the engine to drop nearly dead.

For a heavier off-road test a better suited set of tires would be smart. But since that wasn’t the case I couldn’t test the DCT’s incline detection which ensures more traction when riding uphill and a faster engaging engine brake on downhill. I haven’t bothered to change the suspension’s standard settings. I’ve seen others proving it’s too soft for jumps but I didn’t test it myself.

Before we go to the conclusion, the question that you might ask yourself if you consider the Africa Twin: DCT or not? Personally I’d go for the manual Africa Twin. Firstly because – as you might have noticed – the automatic gearbox couldn’t convince me, and secondly because I’d rather invest the money in options that I find more useful. Such as a centerstand and heated grips. Items that actually should be as standard on a bike that clearly aims for adventurous travelling around the globe. Besides, the automatic gearbox also adds 22 lbs to the weight.

Conclusion

The Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin is pleasing to the eye and makes you dream of distant off-road trips. With its tall windshield, long struts and spoked wheels you’d start a journey from Paris to Dakar without much hesitation. The engine doesn’t really stand out in terms of performance, but it’s good enough if you just want to travel comfortably. The ergonomics are also good, though it is a pity that the standard equipment is rather scanty. The steering behavior and the balance of the bike are excellent, which you’ll surely notice off-road. You can fully adjust the suspension, and that’s a good thing because the default set-up is too soft for heavy use.

Unfortunately, there are also some bigger drawbacks. Particularly the reliability of certain parts raises questions. I also have some doubts about the added value of the DCT. It’s a stunning piece of technology, but the lack of anticipation often throws a spanner in the works. If you ask me an Africa Twin with a manual gearbox is just more fun. And fun, that’s why you started riding a motorcycle in the first place, isn’t it?

Photography: Foto PK

Pros

+ Design
+ Trustworthy traction control
+ Manoeuvrability and balance

Cons

– Some parts not very reliable?
– The DCT reduces the riding experience
– Standard equipment is sparse

Tech specs (DCT version)

Engine

Engine Type: 998cc liquid-cooled Unicam® four-stroke 22.5º parallel-twin
Bore And Stroke: 92mm x 75mm
Clutch: 2-multi-plate wet
Valve Train: SOHC; four valves per cylinder
Compression Ratio: 10.0:1
Induction: PGM-FI electronic fuel injection (Throttle By Wire)
Ignition: Full transistorized ignition
Starter: Electric

Drive train

Transmission: 6-speed Automatic DCT
Final Drive: Chain

Chassis, suspension, brakes

Front Suspension: 45mm inverted telescopic fork; 9.1 in. travel
Rear Suspension: Pro-Link® system w/ single shock; 8.7 in. travel
Front Brakes: Two four-piston hydraulic calipers w/ 310mm disks; ABS
Rear Brake: Single one-piston hydraulic caliper w/ 256mm disk; ABS
Front Tire: 90/90-21
Rear Tire: 150/70R-18

Dimensions

Wheelbase: 62 inches
Seat Height: Standard position 34.3 inches/Low position 33.5 inches
Curb Weight: 530 lbs—Includes all standard equipment, required fluids and full tank of fuel—ready to ride
Fuel Capacity: 4.97 gallons including 1.0-gallon reserve

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