2020 Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin Adventure Sports ES long term review

 

Part 1 - First Impressions

Part 2 - Putting the fun into functional

Part 3 - Blinking back into the sunlight

 

Part 1 - First Impressions

The sensible option would have been to take the car. Actually, the sensible option, with weather warning blaring out from the telly about Storm Ciara, would have been to stay home. But I love my job, enjoy the BikeSocial office atmosphere and, with the M11 closed the traffic was going to be horrendous.

Three hours later a combination of Honda’s 2020 Africa Twin’s poise and stability, plus semi-scientific faith in the physics behind a 21-inch front wheel, wide handlebars and that any bike designed for crossing the Sahara should be able to cope with a bit of wind see me and this very capable motorcycle pull up outside the office, safe, smiling and relaxed. Wow.

Three years ago I inherited BikeSocial’s previous Africa Twin long term test bike in January and spent the cold and windy bits of early 2017 cruising round the UK at balloon height with an equally daft grin, a reminder of how good Honda’s DCT gearbox is and surprisingly cold fingers for a bike with factory heated grips. Honda’s ‘we’ll do it our way, thank you’ not quite a middleweight, not quite a monster adventure bike worked better for me on the cold, slippery, salty roads than it had the previous summer when I first rode one.

Maybe it’s just me but there’s something about the phrase ‘adventure bike’ that puts me off. Partly because every bike is an adventure bike - because every single ride on a motorbike ever has been an adventure for me – but mostly because these high-rise motorised pogo-sticks are much better than that. Ironically, as just demonstrated in Storm Ciara, the best of them have a knack of taking the drama out of potentially scary situations.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara

This is the fantasy, as yet unfulfilled. Maybe next week

 

I understand the need for proven off-road ability because, the ‘I could if I wanted to’ adventure fantasy is as vital on two wheels as it is to the 4x4 ‘of course I need a snorkel’ brigade. And while I don’t doubt that you can take this 238kg (before adding crash bars, extra lights and luggage) touring bike off road if you want to, you’ll definitely find things easier on a CRF450L. I can only see it as a road bike

The reason these bikes have taken over our motorcycling in the last ten years is simply because they do what so many of us now want a bike to do so flipping well. Comfy, fast, credible and as enjoyable in their own way as any sports bike. I’m not sure that ‘tall-rounder’ is as evocative or emotional, but for me, it describes what they do much more readily. Tall-rounders come without the expectations of wheelies, knee-down and all that nonsense that we used to think important. Plus, it’s ok to be an ageing, weather-beaten, wily adventurer and, in most cases it’s alright to put a pillion on the back too because they won’t affect the handling and can share the enormous costs of buying and accessorising one.

BMW’s GS aside, it’s taken the other manufacturers a while to find their own particular tall-rounder mojos. Honda, having been one of the first in the game with the Transalp and original Africa Twin, then took a 22-year nap before launching the ‘look guys, we’re serious’ 2016 CRF1000 Africa Twin.

That was a very good bike and (helped by some cracking finance deals) sold a lot of units. This one, the 2020 CRF1100 Africa Twin is much better.

Honda’s new Africa Twin marks a significant change for a company that traditionally prefers solid, well-executed engineering to flashing lights and snazzy functions. Aside from 45 years of Gold Wings, the 2020 Africa Twin is the first time I can remember that Honda went for the ‘full Amstrad’. Except, being a Honda, that should probably be the ‘full Sony’, because, aside from a few niggles, this is a classy piece of kit.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara

If you were never allowed a 1970s synthesizer, this is the bike for you. Thankfully, it’s relatively simple to learn and the TFT screen is touch sensitive (even with gloves on) for night-time use

 

Those electronics are, according to the riders at the bike’s press launch, extremely effective at helping non-expert off-road riders stay sunny side up on dirt, despite a fully fuelled Africa Twin, with luggage, rider and kit weighing almost 350kg.

Most of us will never ride one off road because we have a medical condition called ‘sanity’ that prevents us driving our cars underwater, jumping off a cliff while flapping our arms or ignoring a carefully constructed, easy-to-navigate road system in favour of charging through a field full of mud on a 238kg motorcycle.

For us, the Honda’s clever electronics are something we’ll fiddle with for a while, find a setting we like and then rarely touch again. The most important question in my mind when I went to collect the bike was ‘Will Honda’s heated grips finally be warm enough for winter?’

The answer to that one is yes and so far, in a little over 700 miles I’ve learned three more things. Firstly, you can lower a bike’s seat by 50mm (almost two inches) and it still be challenging to get your leg over. Secondly, that, the new engine feels stronger and punchier everywhere and sounds surprisingly bark-y for a road legal Euro-5 ready unit and, thirdly that the latest semi-active suspension really does react fast enough to smooth out bumpy roads.

Our bike had 20 miles on the clock when I collected it. The manual says avoid full throttle acceleration, be careful to bed the brakes in and avoid excessive anything for the first 300 miles. The first service is at 600 miles.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara

Lowest setting is an acceptable 850mm, given that it is also narrow. It’s also extremely comfy over distance.

 

Let’s talk about that seat height because it dominates the early experience of AT ownership. The 2020 Adventure Sport version is 50mm lower than the old one but is still a challenge to swing a 32-in inside leg over. The sidestand leans the bike a long way over, which helps the first bit – getting the leg actually over – but hinders the next part – lifting the bike off the stand with only your left foot on the floor. It’s a knack and so long as I don’t park on a slippery camber, I’m comfortable with it, but it took a few days to find the technique.

I’ve got the seat in the lowest position which exaggerates the tallness of the very effective-and-easily-adjustable screen, even in its lowest position. In daylight we naturally look a lot further into the distance and so the screen height isn’t an issue. But riding at night where your gaze comes back to the arc of the bike’s headlights, I find that most of that pool of light falls in front of the (usually filthy because it’s winter) screen. Looking over it, far into the distance doesn’t work because…it’s dark. So, I find myself looking around the side of the screen into the pool of light, which is actually very bright and effective, if only I could see it.

Raising the seat would solve the problem and once, winter passes and I’m wearing less layers I will hopefully be able to swing my leg over the taller seat. For now, the solution is to either peer around it or stand on the pegs like a proper adventurer.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara

RHS switchgear is simple and clutter-free. DCT bikes have the controller in the middle of this.

 

The Honda’s ignition still requires a key (how quaint). Tap the starter once and the motor keeps turning till it fires without the need to keep pressing. The lovely TFT screen takes a few seconds to boot-up and won’t let you in without pressing OK to the message from your mother reminding you how everyone would prefer it if you bought a nice little car. KTM’s invitation on their start-up screen of ‘Ready to race’ suggests they didn’t get the memo. Maybe it’s the off-road thing. I’ve never seen any road bike electronically absolve itself of responsibility of what might be about to happen before.

The new engine feels strong at low revs. Smooth too, revving quickly and cleanly. There’s plenty of punch and while running-in I’ve self-imposed a 5000rpm redline (just under 90mph in top).

One thing I wasn’t ready for was the comfort. The new seat is narrower than before and doesn’t look like it’d be comfy for three hours in the saddle. But it is, helped by a riding position that puts arms, legs and curvature of the spine in exactly the right places.

Clutch and gearchange (ours is a manual bike, not the DCT) are a bit clunky, but still bedding-in and the fly-by-wire throttle is taking a bit of getting used to. Specifically, the engine braking characteristics, which are adjustable and programmable. There are times when I shut the throttle and it feels like there is almost no engine braking. But other times, especially when filtering on an almost closed-throttle, the AT sort-of lurches in an exaggerated way that most big twins no-longer do. The upside of this is that, being programmable I can tune it out. But I want to wait till after the first service because all bikes take a while to bed in.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara

TFT screen is clear and easy to navigate. Lower LCD displays essential info if the TFT is being used for navigation or Netflix (probably)

 

Likewise, the fuel consumption is getting better with every tankful. Ridden like a man who is half an hour late for something important I just got 54mpg from my fourth tankful, which is the same as I got riding like a nun with short arms on the first one. I’m confident that sensible riding will get 60mpg, which means an easy 300 miles from the 25-litre tank. 

The accessible 12v socket makes plugging my heated kit in easy and the USB socket on the other side of the dash will do the same for keeping my phone charged once I choose one of the many reasons (music, navigation, phone and Apple Car-play – whatever that is) to connect it.

So far, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this bike can do and it feels that the range of programmability and adjustability should make the 2020 AT a genuine tall-rounder.

Now it’s run-in the fun can start… so long as Mother’s not looking.

 

New engine is much stronger, exhaust collector routing adds ground clearance, manual gearbox is 10kg lighter than DCT.

 

Three things I really like about the 2020 Honda Africa Twin adventure Sports ES

  • The long-distance comfort
  • On-road confidence
  • Power exactly where you want it

 

Three things I’m not so sure about

  • Does it need to be this tall?
  • Whether I need this much adjustability
  • Complex switchgear needs to be lit to be useful at night

 

Part 2 - March 2020; Putting the fun into functional

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin is proving as good at the functional as it is at the freedom adventure fantasy

 

The miles are coming thick and fast. Just over 2000 in three and a half weeks riding and we’re only just into March. And that’s the point for me. If you’re going to spend this much money on a bike, you want to be using it at every opportunity. For those of us who see bikes putting the ‘fun’ in functional grinding-out-the-miles in March is as important as the big adventure in summer.

This is the time you get to know the bike – what it does well and how to make the most of the tech. Three things I learned last night:

1. Having the cruise control on the throttle-side switchgear makes it tricky to set without either opening or closing the throttle. So, while the intention was to do 50mph through the speed cameras in the roadworks, I actually set it at 41mph and then 65mph before working out that using my left hand made life much easier.

2. Taking your hands off the bars at 50mph with the cruise control set has the handlebars starting to wag from side to side. It doesn’t develop into anything more serious and doesn’t happen at all at higher speeds. I have no idea what’s causing it other than maybe a top box, perched four-or-more feet above the ground full of laptops and locks, acting as a giant crowbar on the front tyre.

3. Sticking to the speed limit on long motorway journeys takes the fuel consumption to seriously impressive levels. 65.3mpg average over 157 miles with a 60mph average speed despite 34 miles of speed-restricted roadworks, rush hour on the M25 and some challenging high-speed filtering on the M11.

Nothing about any of the above bear any resemblance to the sand-tinted, rooster-spraying, escapist adventure-fantasy. In fact, nothing about the M11 inspires anything other than frustration at trucks and whichever road planners decided that two lanes is sufficient for the major commercial freight route connecting the south east to the midlands. Navigating my way through that lot on a Tuesday evening in rush hour is as much of an adventure as the brochure’s desert fantasy.

 

The Woolwich Ferry. Possibly the most adventurous thing in…Woolwich

 

This is a bloody good bike when what you need is functional, efficient transport. And it encourages you to find some humdrum, urban adventures. Last month, riding to the London Motorcycle Show, I swapped the M25 for a ride through south London, crossing the river on the Woolwich Ferry instead of the tunnels. Not the quickest route, but the view down the Thames through the barrier of the City is lovely and the experience (it’s free and takes about 20 minutes including waiting to get on and off) is something a bit different.

I haven’t pushed the tank range beyond 250 miles yet, but I’m pretty sure I can get another 50 if I need to. Likewise, I haven’t been flat out on it either – can’t see the need when it covers ground from point-to-point so quickly. The armchair pundits will criticise Honda for ‘only’ giving the Africa Twin 100bhp, but when you ride it you never notice and the easy, soft usability is more important for 90 per cent of the time.

The handling through greasy roundabouts and semi-flooded, ready-salted February backroads has been as composed and confident as I hoped it would be and the now-bedded-in electronic suspension makes stupidly light work of the pock-marked craters that pass for a road surface these days.

Honda sent a link to this Africa Twin Control Simulator which helps explain the options and set-up a little more clearly, but I still haven’t even looked at the manual or begun to explore the possibilities for setting-up the electronics, Bluetooth and media. I’ll save that for the really long journeys.

 

Two journeys, one fast and frantic, the other calm and measured. 3mph more average speed requires £3.50 more fuel to do ten miles less

 

 Now the bike’s run in most of the initial stiffness in the gearchange has gone, the throttle response is clean and sharp, like you’d expect from a 21st Century Honda and (just-about) everything is lovely.

There are just three niggles. Firstly, the seat height. I shouldn’t complain because anyone who buys one has already made the decision to either live with it or fix it. At six-foot-nothing I struggle to get my leg over the bike in winter kit. That’s crazy and it’d be worse after your fifth fall in an hour riding off road where you might not be able to get the stand down to assist.

 

2020 Honda CRF1100 Africa Twin ES

So tall it blots out the sun

 

The other night at the end of a very long couple of days at work - knackered, soaked, windswept and very weary, I stopped for petrol 30 miles from home and couldn’t get my right leg over the seat to get off the bike. In the end I had to stand on the pegs, swing my leg over and climb off the bike.

The flip side of this is of course that the Africa twin, in these colours especially, looks absolutely right in every sense. The road presence is very welcome when filtering and the mirrors are the right height to avoid car wing mirrors and most trucks too. It’s the most beautiful adventure bike (not a hard challenge, admittedly) on sale by miles and every time I look at it I want to ride it. When Honda gets this stuff right, no one else comes close. The proportions are perfect, if only it was 25 per cent smaller. Maybe I just need some platform-soled 1970s-tribute adventure boots, but I’ secretly hoping that there’s an NC750-based Barnsley Twin (now that would be an adventure) coming along next year.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin is proving as good at the functional as it is at the freedom adventure fantasy

Lower chain guard prevents paddock stand use meaning chain lubing is a two-person job. Optional main stand is on order and costs £200

 

The second niggle is chain adjustment and lubing. A centre stand is a £200 option (on a bike already costing £16k), but the lower chain guide prevents the use of a paddock stand meaning the only way to lube the chain is to either find a friend to do it while you lift the back wheel off the ground on the sidestand or lube a small section, move the bike forward, do another section and repeat until the whole chain is lubed, by which time you will have travelled so far it’ll be time to adjust the chain again.

Big twins ask a lot of their chains and regular maintenance is essential. I’ve been adjusting mine every two weeks (1200 miles), which is still too long – even on a new chain getting a relatively easy ride - and lubing it every 500 miles. If I were buying an Africa Twin I’d negotiate to get a mainstand thrown in with the deal.

Finally, and this is more about getting used to the bike than a fault, braking hard, like every other old-school trail bike results in half a second of suspension travel before the actual braking. BMW’s GS has a trump card here in Telelever front suspension that works independently of the brakes. I’m hoping to improve the Honda’s performance by dialling in some extra engine braking – I’ll let you know if it works.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin is proving as good at the functional as it is at the freedom adventure fantasy

Honda’s top box is huge and very spacious, but sits high up and care should be taken not to overload.

 

Three things I really like about the 2020 Honda Africa Twin adventure Sports ES

  • Commutes as confidently as it tours
  • 65mpg at 60mph average speed.
  • Whatever electronic function you need, it’s got it covered

 

Three things I’m (still) not so sure about

  • Does it need to be this tall?
  • Centre stand should be standard
  • Complex switchgear needs to be lit to be useful at night

 

May 2020. Part three, blinking back into the sunlight

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara.

You’ll never see roads like this on a sports bike

 

There’s a moment in motorcycling that matters. It doesn’t happen when you drive a car or ride a push bike. Somewhere inbetween opening the garage door and pressing the starter, there’s a silent appreciation of what is about to happen; that you and this inanimate object are about to become involved. I can’t think of another machine I use where the outcome is so dependent on the input from so many different parts of me. Forgive my pathetic over-emotional comparisons, but there’s a sense of reliance – of interdependence, like I romantically imagine a Spitfire pilot felt before climbing aboard. You look after me and I’ll see you right with some fresh oil and a splash of 98 RON. Except I’m not going into battle; a quick lap of The South Downs doesn’t quite qualify for the William Walton soundtrack.

36 years after I started riding, I still get this feeling. Nine weeks after Covid lockdown and it’s stronger than ever. This is a weird moment. When I put the bike away the clocks hadn’t gone forward, I’d just ridden 160 miles in the dark and was still wearing my heated kit. It feels odd to be switching on the ignition in spectacular May sunshine. This is the longest I’ve gone without riding since 1984.

The first mile is slow, cautious and distracting. Hands and feet are working, but eyes and brain are a long way behind. I’m looking 20 yards, not 200 into the distance. My spatial awareness is shot to pieces, I’m riding based on what I can actually see and not on the peripheral stuff that usually keeps me safe. This feels like hard work.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara.

You can’t imagine how lovely this riding is

 

Plan B is to slow right down and head for the lanes. One of the few enjoyable things about the last nine weeks has been exploring this new part of the world that we moved to last winter. Bimbling about on push bikes, exploring the single-track c-roads revealed a hidden world of Sussex loveliness I never knew existed. The tracks are tarmac, but pot-holed and covered in mud and gravel. Perfect then for a tractable, softly-sprung adventure bike.

It takes an hour to do less than 30 miles – that’s how tricky some of these roads are. But by the end of it I’m riding better. When the surfaces are unpredictable you have to look up and look ahead. You also need to think hard about your bike control, especially gears, clutch and throttle. At these lower-than-walking speeds the Honda’s big twin-cylinder motor still fuels well but is uncertain whether first, second or third gear is best. This is where Honda’s DCT gearbox would excel; slickly swapping cogs instead of my crunching, clutching and lurching.

It’s hot. I’m hot. The Honda is barely bothered. Time to hit the faster stuff.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara.

Fresh air, full tank of fuel and a well-earned respite from lockdown 2020

 

With cool air flowing through my jacket I feel a lot better. I’m looking further ahead, anticipating the traffic better and feel like I’m in control of the bike again.

This is my last week with the Africa Twin. It’s new owner – Bennetts’ brand manager Luke, is a more accomplished off-road rider who can use it properly. He’s also curious enough about all the Honda’s  tech to use it because he wants to and not because he feels it is necessary as part of the test. He’s riding my Fazer 1000 down from its Peterborough lockdown shed, we’ve agreed to meet at Thurrock services 

The ride to Thurrock is relaxed, fuss-free and a reminder after all these weeks of why bikes should be on the top of every minister’s agenda. As the M25 becomes surprisingly busy, the Honda darts effortlessly through the snarl-ups and queues. I’m not taking risks, not pushing the lean angles, riding like a grown-up. Somehow it feels utterly inappropriate to do anything silly – motorcycling has a chance to impress and inspire the rest of the world. Steve Rose…an ambassador? Pass me the bowl of over-priced foil-covered chocolates.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara.

Comfy, economical, easy to ride and packed with some very smart tech. If you’re tall enough, this might be your perfect all-round motorcycle.

 

Final thoughts on the Africa Twin as functional transport? It works really well. I rode this bike hundreds of miles each day through 60mph winter storms, pelting it down with cold, stinging rain. And I loved it. Comfy, easy, re-assuring, dependable and always, always enjoyable.

The screen and bodywork keep the worst of the weather off. The electronic suspension is subtle in its actions, but very effective. Low speed balance when filtering is superb for a bike weighing 35kg more than my Fazer. Heated grips are a big improvement on the previous model and it cleans up like new every time.

I love the way it looks – easily the prettiest of all the adventure bikes – but I haven’t fallen in love with it. Apart from a soft-spot for the big BMW GS, plus-size adventure bikes don’t feature in my motorcycling dreams. This is a purely functional relationship and, function is something that no one does better in biking than Honda.

That’s not a complaint or a sneer by the way. Motorcycles are a functional thing for me and something as good at the job as the Africa Twin would be easy to justify, even at £16k, as a viable year-round alternative to any other form of daily transport.

For those like me, who don’t ride off road, there’s a lot of competition. Triumph’s new Tiger 900, KTM’s 790 Adventure and Suzuki’s revamped V-Strom are all very capable, as is BMW’s F850GS. They are all considerably cheaper too. Honda’s pricing sets the Africa Twin against BMW’s ubiquitous R1250GS and that’s a bold move. The big GS lacks the Africa Twin’s striking visual appeal, is more road-biased and closer to a proper tourer with shaft-drive.

 

Honda’s updated Africa Twin has more power, improved electronics, electronic suspension and better handling. It’s about to take on Storm Ciara.

3000 miles down, time to pass it on to someone who can properly test it off road

 

If I were buying one (and if you do like big adventure bikes you should definitely consider it), I’d opt for a centrestand – because a perfectly adjusted and well-lubed chain makes a huge difference to smoothness – and a top box before I fitted the full luggage system. The top box is enormous. And I’d hold out for one in these colours, because, apart from Honda’s 2020 Fireblade I don’t think there’s a bike on sale right now that looks as striking as this one.  

 

Three things I really like about the 2020 Honda Africa Twin adventure Sports ES

  • Long distance comfort
  • 60mpg at motorway speeds.
  • Electronic suspension is superb

 

Three things I’m not so sure about

  • Lacks the personality of BMW’s R1250GS (which might be a good thing to some)
  • Centre stand should be standard
  • Complex switchgear needs to be lit to be useful at night

 

 

2020 Honda Africa Twin adventure Sports ES Spec

New Price

From £16,049 (CRF1100L Adventure Sports ES model)

Capacity

1084cc

Bore x Stroke

92.0mm x 81.5mm

Engine layout

parallel twin

Engine details

8v sohc, l/c

Power

100.6bhp @ 7500rpm

Torque

77.4 lb.ft @ 6250rpm

Top speed

135mph (est)

Average fuel consumption

54mpg

Tank size

24.8 litres (18.8 litres)

Max range to empty

294 miles

Rider aids

Cornering TC, ABS and headlights. Anti-wheelie, cruise control, four rider modes plus two programmable ones, Bluetooth and USB connectivity

Frame

steel double cradle

Front suspension

45mm Showa usd forks

Front suspension adjustment

fully adjustable (semi-active option)

Rear suspension

Showa monoshock

Rear suspension adjustment

adj. preload and rebound (semi-active option)

Front brake

2 x 310mm discs, four-pot radial calipers, cornering ABS

Rear brake

256mm disc, one-pot caliper, cornering ABS

Front tyre

90/90-R21

Rear tyre

150/70-R18

Rake/Trail

27.5°/113mm

Wheelbase

1575mm

Seat height

850-875mm

Kerb weight

240kg

Warranty

unlimited miles/2 years

Website

www.honda.co.uk

 

Looking for motorcycle insurance? Get a quote for this motorbike with Bennetts bike insurance

 

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