2020 Honda Africa Twin review: is it now a worthy GS rival?
No it's not a GS, but that could be a good thing…
No mugs those Honda bike people. They know their new Africa Twin adventure bikes (there are six to choose from in total, derived from two base models) are going to be some of, if not THE, most important bikes in the 2020 Honda range. They’re arguably as significant as the new, hugely anticipated Fireblade sportsbike, due early next year. As a result they’ve created a virtually all-new bike.
Not that long ago, an adventure bike having anywhere near the same clout as a ‘Blade would have been utterly unthinkable. But here we are in an age when going far, going easily, going comfortably, and even going off-road, are all key factors to a bike buyer. Get all of those virtues wrapped up neatly in a single package and, just as the massive seller, the BMW GS, proves, you’ll have a winner.
Honda had a different take on adventure bikes back in 2016 when the first Africa Twin of the modern era was launched. Very good though it was, its engine only made around 94bhp (a fair chunk less than some of its rivals) and didn’t feature anywhere near the level of the competition’s clever electronics. For this year, the AT has caught up. Not fully perhaps, but as our test in the lovely environs of Sardinia proves, it’s closer than ever before.
The bigger engine is more relaxing
We sampled the highest spec version first, and the Adventure Sports model with its electronically adjustable suspension immediately won favour. Not as tall or wide as the previous version (and, like all the models, with two-position seat adjustment), getting aboard is far easier. A tug on the throttle shows the Africa Twin can accelerate with less effort too. Even though it meets the new Euro 5 emissions regulations, the fully revised parallel twin motor has 7% more power and 6% more torque throughout its rev range. Coming primarily from its increased 1084cc capacity (up by 86cc), derived from a 10mm longer stroke, a revised cylinder head, bigger throttle bodies, and a freer flowing exhaust (complete with new noise control valve), there’s a noticeably keener and stronger throttle response overall.
The top-spec Adventure Sport version is worth it for the sexy paint job alone
No doubt it’ll send the Honda off the line more speedily if you want, but more importantly it means upping the pace can be achieved with less effort. Obligations like changing down a gear to get the required extra acceleration aren’t as necessary as they once would have been. Making just over 100bhp means it’s still well down on power compared to some other adventure models, but altogether it’s a more flexible, usable and enjoyable engine than before.
It might have been easy fun swapping cogs via the bike’s excellent quickshifter, but it was hardly what you’d deem crucial for the vast majority of the ride. The motor’s calm character makes life aboard seem all the more relaxed. A real benefit on a longer run.
It’s more agile
Just as noticeable as the improved engine performance is the Honda’s improved agility. It is, just as all these big-bore adventure bikes are, a fairly big old bus, and hardly what you call sportsbike-flickable. Even so, you can still chuck the five-kilo lighter 1100 around with surprisingly little muscle power.
Making heady progress needs a bit of care for sure. But get your head in gear and you can whizz along winding routes pretty damned sharpish. If I’m honest, I didn’t think I could hurry the Honda at the spirited pace I managed quite as easily and confidently. The Bridgestone AX41 tyres are designed to deal with both road and off-road routes, and do move around a bit when you play at being Marquez.
Probably a better infotainment system than in any of Honda's cars
But the combination of that flex (or possibly the claimed flex in the bike’s new frame) and the excellent suspension, provides dream levels of feed and feedback.
The front end feels especially sorted, with the 21” front wheel not exhibiting any of the typical vagueness associated with wheels of this diameter. Great feel and power from the brakes plays a big part in the confidence too. Knowing precisely where you stand when you’re pushing on enthusiastically really suppresses worry and boosts faith. I might have asked more of the Africa Twin than a typical owner, but it didn’t protest once. The forks might have felt a bit soft at times under very heavy braking, but it was never a real concern.
The new Africa Twin comes with a very clever electronics package. Via its easily-navigable switchgear, you can select your preferred mode from the four ‘preset’ options (tour, urban, gravel, off-road – all of which you can fine tune to some degree), or completely customise your setup from either of the two custom options. It’s a super clever, super-fast-reacting system that uses a six-axis IMU (Inertial Movement Unit) to precisely calculate and control the bike’s throttle response, cornering ABS, traction control, engine braking and wheelie control dependent on factors like lean angle, acceleration and deceleration rates.
While most of the electronics are felt and not seen, the Apple CarPlay-compatible touchscreen's instantly obvious
It’s like having the best riding assistant there is on board, allowing you to learn the realistic limits of the bike, or saving you the moment you look like overstepping them. It won’t prevent a crash, of course, but it’ll sure as hell reduce the chances of having one.
On this particular version of the Africa Twin, info from the IMU, dedicated SCU (suspension control unit), and ECU is also used to instantly and perceptively alter the control of the semi-active Showa suspension, tuneable via the bar-mounted switchgear. In short you can have, and adjust to, any sort of set up to suit your riding style or sort of route you’re on. The electronics package is an absolutely bloody brilliant package. And one of the main reasons the new model costs more than the current one.
The bad bits
Now before I go any further I’ll have a quick moan about a couple of things I wouldn’t expect on a bike costing £17,349. That fancy looking TFT touchscreen dash (though touching it is only effective at standstill) might give you tons of info on bike settings, who’s calling your mobile, or which Zeppelin track’s playing. But it takes a whole 15 seconds to become live after turning on the ignition – though you can ride off instantly.
That doesn’t bother me too much, but one thing that does irritate me a bit, especially when trying to get a more serious move on, is the screen. Big enough to let my head stay completely still at a recorded 137mph (in 5th gear), the plastic distorts the view fractionally enough to have me want to look over, or round it, to check the view ahead more perfectly. When Sardinia’s insect life was swatted by it, the observation became a little trickier.
If you do most of your riding on the road you'll want the Adventure Sports version. It handles superbly
If it was electrically adjustable (as it bloody well should be at this price), I’d have no criticism. You can tailor its height by hand with a choice of five settings, but you can’t really adjust it while riding and it wouldn’t drop down quite low enough for me.
In saying all that, the Honda did convince me I could ride it off to Mongolia and have no concerns about physical welfare along the way. This feels like a bike capable of very serious mile-eating.
How is it off-road?
It’s also not a bad off-road tool. Actually, hang on, let me qualify that. On the fairly easy to navigate gravel roads Honda picked for day one of the test, the Adventure Sports model can cope admirably well.
Made even more manageable by the clever electronics – you really need to recalibrate your mind to believe how astonishingly effective the front cornering ABS is – you can make very confident and speedy progress on loose surfaces.
It’s not enduro bike, and it would feel out of its depth on a muddy Welsh trail in winter. But along the bone-dry, hard-packed routes in Sardinia, I did feel at home on the Honda the vast majority of the time.
Honda’s special guest, former three-time world motocross champion Dave Thorpe looked like he was comfortable all of the time, whizzing along at a pace the rest of us could only dream of. He’ll have the new ATs at his Honda Adventure Centre in Somerset next year if you fancy giving them a try.
Mossy rates the new Africa Twin off-road
Day one came to close happily, with a thumbs up for the new higher-spec top of the range Africa Twin coming from everyone who’d ridden it.
Some could argue it might need more power to be a more favourable match for the BMW R1250GS’s 135bhp, or KTM’s 160bhp Super Adventure S, but I’d suggest Honda never wanted to have a motor like that.
They see the adventure bike market differently and wanted a very usable, rider-friendly package. Besides, you can hardly call the Africa Twin weedy.
Now for the automatic version
Day two saw us try the Adventure Sport model again, but this time with the standard suspension arrangement, and DCT (Dual Clutch Transmission). The forks and shock are adjustable, but can’t of course hope to match the speed and convenience of the button-adjustable setup of the higher-spec bike.
Look - no clutch! The semi-automatic DCT gearbox is easier to get used to than you'd think
Nevertheless the balance of support, control and feedback was still very impressive, and the £1400 saving may be seen as an adequate compensation. Whether the 10-kilo weightier, £1200 more costly, semi-auto gearbox DCT model suits you is another debate. I personally like the system a hell of a lot, having sampled many Hondas equipped with the extremely clever system in recent years.
Changes generally feel super slick and seamless and the options of Drive, 3-stage Sport, or fully Manual, give you the chance to alter the arrangement to suit your preferred needs more exactly. IMU-influenced, it also fine tunes the gearchange to suit off-road gradients, and on-road cornering.
It did take me a while to appreciate just how effective and beneficial it can be when I first tried it a few years back, and I still prefer a clutch for riding off-road these days. But it’s good to have the choice, and for the few hours I tried it on road, I had no complaints.
What about the standard version?
Neither did I have any moans about the standard version of the Africa Twin we got to ride largely off-road for the majority of the time later in the afternoon. Again without ‘lecky suspension, the 12-kilo lighter bike felt more suited to life on the slightly more testing dirt roads than those we’d ridden earlier on the Adventure Sports model. Having a smaller tank, and much lower screen helped the overall impression of greater manageability I’m sure, and on the whole the standard AT just feels a bit more at ease on the muck.
If you're doing lots of off-road then the standard AT is the one you want
I’d have liked to have tried it with the electronic semi-active suspension, alas there is no option in the range. I find that a little odd, because the standard version is the one Honda’s saying is the model to go for if you want to divert from the Tarmac more. Also a mystery is its tubed tyre fitment. The Adventure Sports machine’s tubeless arrangement is another off-road advantage oddly not shared by this, the cheaper model.
Still, at least it’s fully equipped, as are all six models, with cruise control, heated grips, USB port, 12v socket, handguards, hard braking lights, Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay connectivity. Engine and chassis are the same in all ATs.
If the Hondas can’t quite match your needs in standard trim then there’s a host of official accessories to choose from including hard luggage, taller and lower seats, engine protectors, fog lights, and centre stands.
So should you buy one?
The new Africa is a faster, more usable and much better equipped adventure bike.
You have to pay more for the improvements, but it’s debatable riders have been willing to hand over the extra money since the bike first appeared in 2016. It’s a super versatile bit of kit, capable of going round the world as well as going round the block.
One of the most stylish adventure bikes on the market, the new Hondas ride as well as they look. Perhaps their biggest plus point is that they’re not a GS. The BMW might well be a superb bike and worthy of all the massive praise it gets. But its popularity means it’s an all too common sight on UK roads, so can’t match the appeal of the more exclusive Africa Twin in that respect. The Hondas will be in the shops around mid to late November.