2020 Honda Africa Twin review: is it a good off-road bike for beginners?

1w ago

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They say you always remember your first. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about lovers, Five Guys or supercars – there’s something in our minds that files our first encounters in the ‘forever’ section of our memory banks.

So it was for me, when I took the new Honda Africa Twin down to the Honda Adventure Centre, run by three-time Motocross World Champion Dave Thorpe. Dave and his gang of patient coaches put me through a condensed version of their two-day off-road motorcycle school – which was good, because in 11 years of biking, I’ve never (intentionally) left the Tarmac.

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It was time to pop my off-road cherry. And what a bike to do it on

If you keep up with bike news, you’ll know that adventure bikes are where the money is for manufacturers right now – just like SUVs are the cash cows in car land. While Ducati, KTM and – to a lesser extent, BMW – are off chasing power figures (160hp is normal in an adventure bike), Honda’s gone its own way. The Africa Twin may be up from 1000cc to 1100 in this new-for-2020 model, but it only puts out 100hp.

That’s because – cleverly – Honda’s designed this bike to work as an on-road adventure bike, but also to be the most adept of the big-boy adventure bikes when you head off the public road into the unknown.

So what was it like when the going got tough?

Clearly I’m about as much an authority on off-road riding as Gandhi was on bare-knuckle badger boxing, but if you’re heading off-road for the first time on a 215kg+ road bike then you’ll want it to be an Africa Twin. The fact it uses a parallel twin engine layout means it feels super slim between your feet, and it’s a doddle to balance even at incredible slow speeds stood up on the pegs. Your balance isn’t upset when you blip the throttle, as it is on BMW’s all-conquering R1250 GS with its wobbly horizontally opposed twin.

Water by Somerset, awkward posture: model's own

Water by Somerset, awkward posture: model's own

The bikes at the Honda Adventure Centre were kitted out with Bridgestone’s AX41’s off-road tyres. Combined with the Africa Twin’s giant 21-inch front wheel (useful for cutting through mud rather than following ruts), the tyres gave me pretty decent confidence once I was used to the whole ‘bike sliding at both ends pretty much constantly’ thing. We ended up tackling steep muddy slopes that would’ve been totally impassable on regular road-biased adventure tyres, and the grip the Africa Twin found in the sloppiest pools of mud was deeply impressive.

However, it wasn’t the tyres that gave me the brain space to start learning the basics of off-road riding. It was the gearbox.

Don’t diss the DCT

The DCT box adds 10kg to whichever Africa Twin variant you pick – and 50% of AT buyers go auto

The DCT box adds 10kg to whichever Africa Twin variant you pick – and 50% of AT buyers go auto

Yup, you can get the Africa Twin with Honda’s six-speed dual-clutch auto ‘box. And it felt second nature after spending about 10 minutes getting used to the lack of a clutch lever under my left paw and a gear lever under my left hoof. It turns the Africa Twin into a 100hp twist-and-go scooter, albeit one with six proper ratios and no annoying CVT gearbox. Honda’s four-wheeled auto ‘box department could certainly learn a thing or two from it.

I found the regular Africa Twin (shown here) far easier to manage than the bigger Adventure Sport model

I found the regular Africa Twin (shown here) far easier to manage than the bigger Adventure Sport model

Getting moving on a DCT-equipped Honda is a simple case of starting the engine (it’s always in neutral once you’ve turned the ignition off – you use a handbrake to stop it rolling), and then you prod it into D. For off-road use, I pushed the manual button on the right-hand button cluster, then used the shift paddles under my left thumb and index finger to force it to stay in first, second or – when I was feeling brave on the faster stuff – third.

The beauty of DCT is that you can’t stall the bike, which – as we got to the point of crossing a fast-flowing, foot-deep stream, proved a bonus. My fellow novice riders stalled more than once as their brains struggled to focus on clutch control as well as all the other things you need to do to stop a bike smearing you into the mud. Not me – I felt like a (slightly lazy) hero as I could happily gun it away up slopes, through streams and on to glory. It felt like cheating, but I’d always opt for an auto ‘box when off-roading, simply because it gives you more brain space.

With a relatively slim tank and engine, it's a comfy bike to stand up on all day long

With a relatively slim tank and engine, it's a comfy bike to stand up on all day long

The only real downside of the DCT was highlighted when, early on in the day, we were instructed to dismount our (still running) bikes and walk along with them over a few kerb stones. Think of it as taking a dog for a walk, except your dog is in gear, has a clutch and you can control its speed while leaning it into your hip. Oh yeah, and it’s a 236kg Great Dane with a cracking bark.

Anyway, with the DCT it’s a little harder to control the bike’s speed at walking pace than it is on a manual bike – simply because you can slip a clutch more gradually than you can open a throttle. DCT adds 10kg to the bike’s weight, taking it up to 248kg on the red-blue-and-white Adventure Sport model, and 236kg on the more off-road biased standard bike, shown here in red and black.

But still, half of UK buyers opt for the auto ‘box on their Africa Twins and it’s easy to see why.

Skids for days

By the end of the day, my off-road confidence had come on massively and I was getting comfortable steering the bike using my feet on the pegs while standing up. It turns out the key to successful off-roading is not to use the handlebars as much as you would on-road, because an angled front tyre is more likely to dig into the gravel and wash out, sending you to ground. So you weight the pegs to drop the bike sideways underneath you.

It turns out the unwritten rule of off-road riding is to gas it whenever you feel like you're about to crash

It turns out the unwritten rule of off-road riding is to gas it whenever you feel like you're about to crash

Come the afternoon I was knackered – my legs were on fire from constant ski squatting and my natural tension from doing something very unusual (to me) on a bike. But I was loving it. By home time I’d lowered the Africa Twin’s traction control to the lowest-but-one setting (of eight), meaning I could enjoy skidding and drifting around corners like a loon, but with a safety net should I get too enthusiastic. I quickly learnt that whenever the bike felt like it was going to slip away and dump me on the floor, a fistful of throttle would sort it. A sport where gassing it is the answer to running out of talent? It was mega.

What’s it like on the road?

As the day drew to a close I had a fairly punishing three-hour sodden ride back home on another Africa Twin, this time with road tyres on. For such a supposedly underpowered bike it fell into a natural cruise just shy of three figure speeds – while the screen did a good job of protecting my 6’3” frame from the wind, rain and general misery. Honda’s finally brought out some properly toasty heated grips as well, which nigh-on scald your palms when set to level five. They’re great.

Probably hit that a bit too fast. Water went up my trouser leg and down inside my boots

Probably hit that a bit too fast. Water went up my trouser leg and down inside my boots

It handles like a charm too. Honda’s managed to dial out any wobbliness that you usually get with a 21-inch front wheel, leaving you with a bike that feels seriously agile, and a hoot to chuck into roundabouts.

The downsides? Well, it takes a while to get used to the pebble-dashing of buttons on the left-hand switchgear cluster, and the dash is confusing until you’ve played with it for a day or two – but it is a touchscreen, which simplifies things when you can’t remember which physical button changes what. The Apple CarPlay integration is neat – but you need to have a Bluetooth headset paired to the bike in order to use it – you can’t just plug your iPhone in. Small niggles, and they’re all easily overcome.

Did I expect to fall in love with the Africa Twin?

You can see the size different between the more off-roady 'base' Africa Twin in black and the more on-road focussed Adventure Sports model, in white, red and blue. The shorter screen is better for not removing your chin on bigger bumps

You can see the size different between the more off-roady 'base' Africa Twin in black and the more on-road focussed Adventure Sports model, in white, red and blue. The shorter screen is better for not removing your chin on bigger bumps

Not really. My memories of the 2015-on model were tainted by a halting and clumsy DCT gearbox and a wheezy engine that never really impressed. A larger engine now provides exactly the right amount of satisfying wallop, and the auto ‘box is now clever enough to not shift when you’re leaning over, or going up or down hill. It’s nigh-on seamless.

As a package, it’s a fantastic do-it-all bike for those who are actually going to hit the trails on the way home from work. And if it can make me feel like a hero off-road, it can probably work for you too.

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